Going outside. In ‘South with Scott’ by Teddy Evans today’s event gets one comment, ‘on march 17th, which was Oates’s birthday, he walked out to his death in a noble endeavour to save his three companions beset with hardship’. In all that has happened on the Terra Nova expedition, all the turmoil and suffering this one act will define it far beyond the meager words of one sentence. Huntford creates a scene that no one present recorded and tries to instil drama where none is needed, ‘the tent walls cracked with the noise of canvas whipped by the wind. He struggled out of the worn, damp furs of his sleeping bag, crawled over his companions legs across the tent and, taking hold of the entrance, hanging down like an empty sack, he started to undo it. It was the ordinary and familiar act on many a camp. Three pairs of eyes stared; someone made a half-hearted attempt to stop him. The knot loosened, the sack opened and became a tunnel. Like an animal creeping away to die, Oates limped out into the whirling drift and was seen no more.’ Fiennes believes that if Scott had tried to stop Oates it ‘would have been to engage in torture and commit an inconsiderate action toward Wilson and Bowers’. Fiennes has more to say, Oates hands were in a terrible state and would have found it difficult to take any of the opium tablets and would have found it impossible to undo the knots on the tent door. Someone must have aided Oates. Outside Oates would have stumbled and struggled to make distance from the tent, when did the cold eliminate any suffering and how long it took for him to die no one really knows. So many others have written about this expedition and almost universally Wilson is heralded as a man of great integrity. Fiennes reproduces the letter Wilson wrote to Oates’s mother, ‘This is a sad ending to our undertaking. Your son died a very noble death, God knows. I have never seen or heard of such courage as he showed from first to last with his feet both badly frostbitten – never a word of complaint or of the pain. He was a great example. Dear Mrs Oates, he asked me at the end, to see you and give you this diary of his – You, he told me, are the only woman he has ever loved.’ Two hours after Oates left the tent the men packed up their belongings and marched.
Scott’s Journal 17th March 1912. Scott’s full entry, ‘lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on, he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come. Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not—would not—give up hope to the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning—yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since. I take this opportunity of saying that we have stuck to our sick companions to the last. In case of Edgar Evans, when absolutely out of food and he lay insensible, the safety of the remainder seemed to demand his abandonment, but providence mercifully removed him at this critical moment. He died a natural death, and we did not leave him till two hours after his death. We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far. I can only write at lunch and then only occasionally. The cold is intense, -40° at midday. My companions are unendingly cheerful, but we are all on the verge of serious frostbites, and though we constantly talk of fetching through I don’t think anyone of us believes it in his heart. We are cold on the march now, and at all times except meals. Yesterday we had to lay up for a blizzard and to-day we move dreadfully slowly. We are at No. 14 pony camp, only two pony marches from One Ton Depot. We leave here our theodolite, a camera, and Oates’ sleeping-bags. Diaries, and geological specimens carried at Wilson’s special request, will be found with us or on our sledge.’
Commentary. Today is the day on the expedition which arguably raised failure into a deeply burned piece of history which has been constantly present in a culture for 100 years. Many may not know the details, the name, the date but most know the meaning of this part of the story and are familiar with those famous words. What really went on between these men in those last moments is impossible to say but we have the definitive story of sacrifice and the bravery of personal suffering. Fiennes makes sense when he talks of Oates hands and the help he would have needed, we will never know the overt nature or undeclared intent of this moment but we know its significance. Oates becomes an English hero, a symbol of the expectation of his class, rank, regiment and culture. Of course later years and a different culture will examine every moment of Oates life and there will be flaws, hidden for years, shocking in their meaning, but present. One hundred years ago Oates sacrifice would have appeared as a story that would raise him beyond criticism, but one hundred years ago the world was a very different place. The current culture of perfection in our leaders must be impacting on the quality of leaders we have. There can be nothing in their past that could emerge to taint their present position and they can do nothing in the present that could destroy their future. Modern leaders therefore avoid risk, play safe, court the media and focus on whats keeps them a leader rather than leading. We consistently fail to learn nothing from the history of politics, conflict, culture and leadership. All our past leaders were flawed and therefore it is a safe bet that our modern leaders are flawed. This does not negate the achievement of great things, it may actually be the cause of them. Oates had his flaws but acted in a way that humbles and frightens us, because we know we would struggle to find the courage he did. Oates’ actions this day would make this story live in the minds of generation after generation but what really happened that day will never be known, and that’s OK.