Legacy. One Hundred years ago five men died on the ice, they didn’t even achieve their goal of being first to the Pole and yet the interest in their fate remains to this day. Several factors combine to make the story a lasting tale. Attempting to do something no one had ever done before, doing it in harsh conditions, to suffer in a way beyond our imagination and then to pay the ultimate price for failure fascinates us and connects to our curiosity and inadequacy.
Terra Nova reaches land and the news of the deaths spreads quickly. Amundsen is travelling and sharing his story of success while deciding about his own exploration future in the north. Huntford states that ‘as long as Scott appeared to be alive Amundsen’s victory was complete’. Scott is dead and the criticism that Amundsen had previously faced about his secret competitive plans increases. Scott had died because of a broken heart due to Amundsen’s success at reaching the Pole is one particular angle taken. Amundsen is said to have been gravely upset at the news. Amundsen’s victory was no longer complete, it would take up a very different position in the story of the Antarctic, British Failure would trump Norwegian success. Luck continued to be an element wrapped around the story of Scott but now the attention switched to Amundsen, he was only successful because he was lucky. Huntford refers to the introduction of Amundsen’s book in which Nansen wrote, ‘let no one come and prate about luck, Amundsen’s triumph is that of the strong and far seeing’. This matches Amundsen’s own view that luck and misfortune should be designed out of any plan. Some bitter exchanges followed between the British and Norwegian establishment and Nansen was convinced Scott would have survived had he listened to him to take dogs, dogs and more dogs. Amundsen was certain Scott made mistakes and had the wrong resources but he may also have carried a little doubt in his heart, did anything he do impact on Scott and force decisions that would otherwise not have been made. No one will ever know but it opens up a more human element to the expeditions aftermath. The public were heart broken and Smith believes it was one of those events that people remember exactly where they were as the news broke. Friends and relatives of the dead made statements which fired the emotion of an already emotional moment. A memorial service was held at St Pauls at which the King attended, awards were bestowed on the men and their families and Scott’s message to the public was read out in schools up and down the land. Scott’s bravery and sacrifice was held up as the proud and dignified response of the British when times are hard and the outcome bleak. Britain and the world were at the edge of the biggest conflict the planet had yet seen as the year following the news of Scott’s death saw the outbreak of World War One. Scott’s sacrifice would now be required by many thousands.
While the establishment and media went to work in the immediate weeks and months following the news, they could not have been aware that they were laying the foundation of a story that would rumble on for many years to come. Just as the truth was being fought over by the media and establishments it also began to be disputed between those involved. Smith contends that the first doubts were surfaced by Teddy Evans. Evans had concerns over the running of the expedition and wrote to Oates’ mother. When he arrived back in England he went to see her and handed over Oates’ sealed diaries. These diaries, combined with the previous letters she had received, created uncertainty in the mind of Caroline Oates. She began contacting and meeting members of the expedition, a different story to the one portrayed started to emerge. It wasn’t so much in the facts but in the surrounding behaviours and actions and also the absolute certainty that the plan and equipment were all correct and fit for purpose. Smith highlights a particular concern of Teddy Evans, that of the carrying back of the rock samples for science. Evans is concerned that these were given priority over mens lives. Fiennes argues that the 35 pounds of rock would not have made any difference at all, he may well be right but Smith perhaps understands something that means that being right isn’t enough. In two years time Shackleton will stand on the ice after his ship has been crushed and tell the men to throw away all personal belongings, he will personally throw away the coins in his pocket. Shackleton’s gesture was significant, his focus will be on getting his men home safely. A few coins may not have made any difference at all but the moment was a leaders moment and it was powerful. Scott missed the importance of these moments and the dogged determination to keep the rocks is justified with the rationale of science and the benefit of a rest for the men. Perhaps these were facts generated after the event to support the decision and that in reality he was keeping a promise to his friend, Wilson. It is also argued that Scott could have been focussed on the science to ensure his legacy was secured even if the march ended in failure or to be able to minimise the loss to Amundsen with the gain to science. It is hard to be certain of the truth but what is fascinating is that such decisions are examined in detail after the event. Once this exchange between Teddy Evans and Caroline Oates began a small but significant industry began to develop. While Teddy Evans had shared his thoughts with Caroline Oates he produced his book ‘South With Scott’ in which he was loyal and supportive of Scott. The majority of the world saw the expedition through the eyes of Scott as described in his published book of the expedition. The story of Scott was being well managed and the printed version of Scott’s journal had several key omissions. Kathleen Scott had worked on the journal and edited out items which did not support her official view. Sacrifice and hardship were applauded and as the First World War required both from the population challenge to such a story would not have been welcome. After the war and as Empire shrank the other side of the story began to be told. The journals of the other men started to be questioned and when Cherry-Garrard wrote ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ a few previously unpublished snippets emerged. So as statues and plaques were placed around the Empire the industry that protected Scott’s legacy refused to crumble.
As the world lurched from war to depression and back to war the dominant story continued to be that of Scott the hero. Kathleen Scott made it her life long duty to keep the legacy as she wished it to be kept, it could be argued that hiding the flaws around her husband simply created more disbelief and questions not less. Caroline Oates was firmly in the other camp and continued to meet men from the expedition. Cherry-Garrard suffered greatly post the death of Scott, he was criticised for not doing more when he was at One Ton waiting for the polar party. Edgar Evan’s widow and family became upset and confused as his reputation was tarnished in the class system of Edwardian England. Books were produced and in 1948 a film is made which, more or less, sticks to the establishment stance. Although there is a scene in which Nansen tells Scott that he would use dogs not horses.
After World War Two the British withdraw from Empire and in doing so question the role of Imperial power, for good and for bad. The examination disclosed elements of national guilt and pride but nothing is sacred, everything is revisited and that includes its heroes. There had been enough rumours and back story to the Scott trip that it was an easy target for Roland Huntford to write a scathing attack of Scott in the late seventies. An attack which very quickly became established as the other extreme truth. The death of Scott became a subject ready for criticism and humour. While Scott’s published journals didn’t tell the whole truth because of omission Fiennes believes Huntfords book didn’t tell the whole truth because of inaccurate addition. Fiennes goes on to write a book challenging Huntford and within those two publications the extremes of Scott’s story are told.
Currently Scott’s legacy is in the balance, is he the Scott described by Fiennes or by Huntford ? He is probably both and neither but the current debate over Scott offers an opportunity for leaders to explore and learn lessons. For a self-aware and reflective leader there is a stark lesson, who is telling your story ? Consider your own style of leadership and imagine the two books that tell your story. The supportive book that looks at your decisions, actions and behaviours with understanding and from a similar personal experience. This story would have you in difficult circumstances with low resources and with tough decisions to make, you would be certain of your actions and you would have loyal colleagues who support you during the good and the bad times. You accept the loneliness of leadership and the unpopular nature of being the one with the vision and new idea. Ultimately you are a good leader whose detractors don’t really understand the pressure you are under. Then there is the critical book that attacks your decisions as being made without inclusion and without understanding the real nature of the issues you are faced with. Your colleagues and team mates are fickle and have numerous behind the scenes conversations when unhappy with the actions you have taken. Your idea is not visionary or new but misconceived and a folly. You are a poor leader who does not consult, always believes they are right and whose behaviour is poor when stressed. Most leaders could have these two books written about them and those that say they otherwise need to get out more. Your story as a leader is not real, it is only what is held in the perception of others. For most leaders perfection is some distance away and they are a combination of abilities and flaws. Functioning with flaws is the normal operating procedure for leaders now as it was for Scott 100 years ago. It could be argued that great leaders achieve despite their flaws not because of their abilities.