Naval officer and explorer Robert Falcon Scott is commonly known as “Scott of the Antarctic”. Yet for all his successes, the most famous part of his story will always be one of tragic failure.
Born on 6th June 1868 in Devonport, Devon, Robert fell in love with the idea of a life at sea at an early age. He became a naval cadet at 13, and went on to serve on a number of Royal Navy ships throughout the 1880s and 1890s.
Scott’s skill bought him to the notice of the Royal Geographical Society, and led to his appointment as the commander of the famous National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904. With the aim of getting nearer to the South Pole than any team had managed before, Scott and his men, including renowned explorer, Ernest Shackleton, were victorious, becoming national heroes.
Scott had only been home from his first trip for a short time before he began to plan a second expedition, with the aim of becoming the first explorer to reach the South Pole itself. It took years for Scott and his men to raise the money to pay for this expedition, but in June 1910 they finally left in the whaling ship Terra Nova, sailing from Cardiff.
The following October the expedition set off from their base camp equipped with sledges, ponies and dogs. Unfortunately the weather conditions were so appalling that neither the ponies nor the sledges could cope and the team was forced to travel without them.
By mid December the terrain had become so bad that the dog teams had to turn back, leaving the men to ascend the treacherous Beardmore Glacier and the polar plateau without help. By January 1912, only five of the original explorers remained: Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans. On 17th January, they finally reached the South Pole, only to be faced with the disappointment of discovering that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it.
Demoralised and exhausted, the British team began the 1,500 km journey back to base. This second brutal journey would be prove too much for them, however. Evans died in mid-February, and in March, Oates decided that the severe frostbite he was suffering was slowing the others down, walked out into the freezing conditions and was never seen again. The final tragic chapter of their doomed return came on 29th March 1912, only 20km from their supply stop, when Scott, Wilson, and Bowers died of starvation and exposure in their tent.
It took eight months before a search party found their tent, the three bodies and Scott’s diary, which detailed their incredible adventure, with its highs and terrible lows. Scott and his colleagues were buried where they’d been found, with a cairn of ice built up to commemorate their last resting place.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.