Friday 16 March or
Saturday 17 March, 1912
SCOTT RESTED ON THE SLEDGE, shivering as the last heat generated from the march dissipated into the glittering air. ‘March’ was the euphemism he still used to describe the agonising lift and fall of the feet into the soft crust of the barrier surface that no one had predicted would be so difficult at this time of year. The sledge, a monstrous burden, played sadistically with back, shoulder and stomach muscles, barely moving with each step. They had been literally inching forward for days. Scott imagined both sledge and landscape as those forces or fates that had opposed him for as long as he could remember; he impelled himself forward by a deep, inchoate anger that left him breathless and dizzy with fatigue.
A break from this battle at least gave rest to limbs, but his mind was flogged by monotony. At this lunch, like so many before, all that could be seen from horizon to horizon was the featureless, staring white of the ice barrier that lately made him dream of English country lanes, just as the hard tack biscuit by his side made his mind involuntarily conjure hot scones and jam served in some Devonshire cottage. Such imaginations were both consolation and torture.
Scott dragged himself back to the present. He lifted the biscuit to his mouth and nibbled the slightest crumb from the corner; each morsel had to be savoured, and it would be some time before a mug of weak tea would be produced to wash it down and provide the only warmth felt at all these days. Wilson and Bowers were busy with the primus stove, trying to conserve the little oil and spirit they had left while melting enough snow to make three mugs of tea. They were all so weak and cold that even the simplest operation took an inordinate amount of time and tested the patience of them all. And, of course, the colder it was the longer it took to melt the snow and the more fuel was consumed. Their collective lives on this return journey from the South Pole were a constant calculation of fuel, rations and distance travelled between depots. The further they travelled the more brutal the equation became.
Now, however, Scott had a determined purpose beyond the mathematics of survival. He had to write his diary. Shortage of heat and light in the tent at night made this duty even less palatable then. And he had not made an entry since Wednesday. The intervening time had encapsulated such a mental and physical blizzard that Scott had lost track of the days; they had whirled like the landscape into one seething mass of drift through which no horizons could be seen, and objects only a few feet away were completely obscured. Sky and land became one, so that only within the confines of the tent could any spatial reality be reasserted. But there a claustrophobic nightmare had prevailed. The lines between right and wrong, illusion and reality, hero and villain had become impossible to define, and were only resolved in the end by the finality of action: Oates had walked out into the storm.
On 2 March Oates had revealed his blackened, frostbitten toes, but had staggered on gradually deteriorating and inevitably slowing the whole party down. Scott remembered the furious frustration that he had felt, and how he and his companions had battled to remain civil; how they hid their secret longing for Oates to die so that they could be freed from the burden of nursing him and progress more quickly. And they all wanted to be rid of the spectre of what they might become.
Oates had struggled on, day after day, until both his hands and his feet were frostbitten. It was as if the cold had penetrated him completely, gradually destroying his flesh and his spirit. The sight and smell of him were difficult to bear. Oates’s face was a mass of scabs and pustulant sores; his fingers were black with frostbite; and gangrene had set into the frostbitten feet, filling the tent each night with the intense stink of corruption. Scott had followed this deterioration in his diary, but he had no heart to describe the physical horror. Instead he dwelt on Oates’s courage but couldn’t help noting that the dying man they all knew as ‘Soldier’ or ‘Titus’ was a terrible hindrance.
Now Scott had to tell the final story. On 10 March, Oates asked Bill Wilson, in front of the others, if he had any chance of survival. Wilson said he didn’t know. The others remained silent. Scott wondered if the truth would have been kinder; he knew that Oates was done. But they couldn’t bring themselves to admit this awful reality to their companion. The following day there was another agonising conversation in which Oates asked for advice. Oates ought to have known what needed to be done; it was not for them to prompt him, Scott thought. They urged him to march as long as he could. Scott, after some argument, ordered Wilson to give each man thirty opium tabloids, so that all of them had the means to do the right thing if it were necessary.
But Wilson’s insistence that opium was not the honourable way to die, and his Christian belief that to take one’s own life was sinful, had its effect on Oates, who stumbled on in delirious agony for another four days in which they made only nineteen miles. At lunchtime on the last day he begged to be left in his sleeping bag to die, but the others forced him onwards. Scott couldn’t leave him. The emotional burden of such an action was too great to be borne. And what if they survived to face the interrogation of a bereaved family and a public happy for scandal? No, Oates had to find his own way out of the dilemma; he should not ask others to bear the responsibility.
Scott thought of Oates’s last night in the tent. Of how, before an exhausted unconsciousness fell upon them all, Oates had said that he hoped for all their sakes he would die in the hours that followed. There was nothing any of them could say. This appeared to infuriate Oates, and his voice took on a hoarse vehemence as he demanded why they didn’t say something. A silence followed before he asked, in a tremulous quaver, that if they got through they should remember him to his mother and commend him to his regiment. Scott, Wilson and Bowers all pledged to do as he wished. Wilson muttered a short prayer that Oates would be relieved of his suffering and be taken to the bosom of his maker. As human voices fell to a terrible silence in the tent, they heard the gale howling outside, and before they slept wondered whose turn next it would be to face the darkness.
Scott had spent a night disturbed by dreams and waking dreams, his mind drifting in and out of consciousness, projecting fragments of desire and despair. He would be sitting down to a huge feast under chandeliers at a table replete with delicacies, his plate full, but just as he raised a forkful of succulent duck to his mouth a servant would snatch both fork and plate away, saying he had been too long. Then he was back on his first expedition to Antarctica, trekking with Wilson and Shackleton, hauling the last dying dog on their sledge. There were tears in his eyes as he handed Wilson the pistol with which to dispatch the creature. He could not witness the execution, and felt ashamed and humiliated by this squeamishness. Kathleen entered and told him to buck up and get a move on, that the only thing that mattered in life was joy and dancing. She tried against his will to make him dance on the barrier ice, but he kept falling down, and every time he did so, she laughed dementedly and glided on.
Through such shifts and juxtapositions the night had passed, and he had been aware on waking of hoping that Oates was gone. But something in the soldier would not readily give in. Oates woke again, and the agonising difficulty about what was to be done embarrassed them all. He was in a terrible state; his nose and eyes had bled in the night, leaving his cracked lips and cheeks stained with brown tears. In despair, intimidated by the oppressive silence of his colleagues, Oates took matters into his own hands, and crawled out of the tent. For Scott the following half hour was appalling. The three survivors said little, but went about their camp routine, two remaining in their bags while the third, Bowers, lit the stove and produced a meagre breakfast.
There was a time of awful suspense as they half expected Oates to re-enter the tent, each of them nursing the inarticulate hope that their burden had been lightened, and that now they just might win through.
After half an hour Scott could not bear the waiting any longer. He left the tent only to be confronted by blizzard and drift. He could see nothing, and he knew that to walk even as far as ten yards was to risk disorientation; he was not going to be lost in the snow himself. He returned to his companions and comforted himself with the thought that at least he had supplied ‘Soldier’ with a relatively painless way out; for surely in the end Oates must have swallowed the opium. At the last, Wilson encouraged Bowers and Scott to join him in singing ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’.
Now Scott clamped his aching fingers around the pencil and, pressing hard so that the writing would not shake too much, began to inscribe Oates’s demise into his diary. After every few sentences he had to put back on the large fur outer mitts to prevent his fingers getting frostbitten. Then he’d brace himself again and set himself to composition, with only his woollen half mitts on. The narration had to be brief and to the point, with no emotional indulgence; Scott wished to dwell on Oates’s heroism. Slowly he ground out the message:
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 last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not—would not—give up hope till 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 [sic] 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.
When Scott wrote this diary entry, he and his companions had been marching for four months, two weeks and three days. Their route had taken them from the hut on Ross Island, across the Ross Ice Barrier, up the Beardmore Glacier, on to and across the Polar Plateau to the South Pole. They were now about twenty-five miles from One Ton depot where, as its name implies, there was a considerable cache of supplies. One Ton depot was one hundred and thirty geographical miles from Hut Point and safety.
At the beginning of the outward journey, they had been helped to drag their sledges by ponies and dogs, but this had only lasted until 10 December when the last of the ponies was slaughtered and the supporting dog teams turned back. Since then they had been man-hauling in teams of four, and then five. For fourteen weeks now they had hauled a sledge sometimes weighing as much as 800 pounds and rarely less than 500 a distance of approximately 1475 miles.
By modern nutritional standards, their diet was deficient in both calories and vitamins. Since starting back from the Pole on 18 January, their supplies had been failing further because of the increased time taken between each depot. The climatic conditions and the various surfaces encountered were also formidable. In November and December, for example, crossing the barrier for the first time, the surface was often soft, with the ponies sometimes sinking up to their knees and the men struggling along beside them.
The temperatures steadily increased. On 20 November the temperature at night was −14°F and rose to +4° during the day. But by 5–6 December snow was melting as it fell, the temperature being +31°−33°, and the men were laid up in their wet sleeping bags because of blizzards.
Conditions on the Beardmore Glacier were even worse. On the Polar Plateau, although some of the going was good, the conditions deteriorated as they neared the Pole and Scott records ‘heavy’ and ‘stiff pulling. The snow waves, or sastrugi, which varied in height from eight inches to five feet and over which they had to haul the sledge, were another burden. And there was also the nervous strain of dealing with crevasses, which could hurtle men, animals and stores to oblivion if they were not carefully negotiated. As the return journey began, the temperatures began to drop, and by March, with autumn setting in, they are difficult to imagine. At the lunch break, when Scott wrote his diary entry about Oates, the temperature was an inconceivable —40°F.
Another problem was altitude, which not only made the pulling harder, but also increased dehydration. On the outward journey, they began at sea level, and at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier they were at 170 feet. At the Upper Glacier depot they were at 7151 feet, and from there the Polar Plateau rises to 9862 feet one and a half degrees of latitude from the Pole. The Pole is at 9072 feet.
These stark figures can only suggest the longevity and magnitude of the physical effort and suffering entailed. It is at such extremes that language staggers and fails. It is enough to say that for the four and a half months of the journey the men rarely had a comfortable day and night. When the weather was warm, they hauled in their singlets, but this exposed the skin to sun and wind. Their lips were chapped, they were wind- and sunburnt. At night their clothes, wet with sweat, first froze and then, in their sleeping bags, melted, leaving them lying in wetness—all this less than two months into the journey. After four and a half months they were all suffering from malnutrition—scurvy, berri-berri, pellagra, frostbite and, in Scott’s case, chronic indigestion. They were perpetually thirsty and cold. So why did they do this to themselves? What manner of men were they? What psychology led them to this extraordinary self-flagellation? What hatred of the body motivated them to punish it so much?
A sudden irregular jolt on the harness brought Scott up short. Wilson had stumbled going forward, and Bowers sank to his knees. Wilson struggled to his feet again and said, ‘I’m nearly done.’ Bowers agreed. They were all cold. ‘Just a little further,’ urged Scott. But as they heaved again, he could feel his companions were not willing, and he too felt breathless and exhausted. After a few more paces he cried, ‘Spell-oh!’ and they decided to camp.
This did not mean immediate rest. Pitching the tent was an arduous business, particularly in a strongly gusting wind. First of all, snow blocks had to be cut from the barrier surface in order to weight the thirty-inch valance at the bottom of the tent. It was the turn of Scott and Bowers to perform this excruciating task while Wilson unpacked the tent and tent-poles.
On his knees in the icy gale, hacking into the snow with a pick, Scott’s spirits slumped, and it was all he could do not to let misery overwhelm him. The effort was almost too great. Breathless, dizzy and freezing cold, he felt the impulse to weep. But he continued his exertions as Wilson, his task completed, came over to help. It took the three of them the best part of an hour to cut out the twelve blocks that were necessary to hold the canvas down in such a high wind.
Then, with freezing fingers, the six long bamboo poles had to be slotted into the heavy canvas pole-cap. This was an operation impossible to perform without removing the outer mitts. With trembling fingers, risking frostbite, the poles had to be quickly locked into position. They took two each, and soon the skeletal frame was ready to receive its outer garment.
But this was not easy either. The double skin of the tent had to be placed over the poles and then weighted down with the ice blocks before it blew off again. This was difficult enough to do with four fit men. With three in a state of near exhaustion it was an exercise in refined torment. Scott and Wilson, being the tallest, held the tent to windward and, as the gale billowed into the tent, hauled it over the frame. Bowers then raced around to try to get the ice blocks in place before another huge gust lifted the whole billowing mass of canvas up and off the frame. Then the frame blew down. They had to start again.
By the time they had succeeded in getting the tent up, they were all very cold and nearly beyond further effort. But after a while the idea of some food and a little to drink inspired them, so that slowly they began the routine with ice and cooker which led to some meagre sustenance.
Afterwards they huddled into their sleeping bags to drift and doze, hoping that sleep would nurse them soon and without nightmare.
Scott’s thoughts were of Oates. He was a man, Scott reflected, who epitomised so much of the English upper-classes. Oates’s exaggerated carelessness and eccentricity in matters of dress, his reserve, his unwillingness to enthuse, his contempt for outward show, all spoke of a man with the confidence of high birthright and wealth. Scott had often felt that Oates secretly despised him, but he could hardly tell. Certainly they had had their rows over the ponies, none more so than when on the depot journey Oates had urged him to travel further than One Ton depot and cache the carcasses of pony meat. If he had listened to Oates’s advice, they might even now be basking in the reassurance of renewed food and fuel supplies.
Such thoughts were uncomfortable. Easy to be right in hindsight, Scott thought. Not so easy to make decisions at the time. And it wouldn’t have done to let Oates think he could rule the roost. Scott had been painfully aware of Oates’s superior class and educational background and knew that he had to assert the authority of his military rank so as not to compound this disadvantage. At least I’ve given him a decent epitaph, thought Scott. And as he neared sleep, incongruously he thought of the night in the hut when Oates had given his lecture on horses and ponies. His laconic delivery had brought the house down. At the end, Oates had told a story about a dinner party at which he had been a reluctant guest. One of the young women of the party had been late, so the others had started dinner without her. When she arrived flustered and embarrassed, she attempted to explain. ‘I’m sorry but that horse was the limit,’ she said. ‘Perhaps he was a jibber,’ said the hostess, coming to her aid. ‘No,’ the young woman replied wide-eyed, ‘he was a fucker. I heard the cabby say so several times.’ Only an aristocrat could get away with a story like that. And yet, thought Scott, it was the aristocrat and the working-class Edgar Evans who had failed first. Perhaps there was something to be said for middle-class tenacity and ambition after all.
Oates belonged to Gestingthorpe Manor, which had been in his family since the time of the Domesday Book. He was educated at Eton before joining a cavalry regiment. His predilections were for those horse sports so beloved of his class—polo and the hunt. He was in India with his regiment before volunteering for Scott’s expedition; he paid a thousand pounds for the privilege and was accepted by Scott sight unseen. Writing to his mother, his only surviving relative, about his decision to volunteer for the Antarctic, he says with sardonic understatement that the climate in polar regions is ‘very healthy, though inclined to be cold’.
Given his experience with horses, Scott put Oates in charge of the ponies but not, unfortunately, of their purchase. Oates recognised as soon as he set eyes upon them in New Zealand that they were a poor lot, and in trying to get the best out of them he was led into several wrangles with Scott. During the winter, Oates would repair with his friend ‘Dearie’ Meares to the stables to be near the ponies and to sit and yarn, pipes clenched between teeth, comforted by the warm animal smell and the sweet resonances of tobacco. In this atmosphere of intimacy, they could confide their disappointments with Scott to each other: what a fussy devil he was, a hopeless desk-wallah; how he’d rather consider the sartorial effect of a pair of fox’s puttees than come out and look at the ponies’ feet; how he had a face like an old sea-boot when things were not going right.
On returning to the hut, Oates would retreat to the area known as the tenements, which he shared with four companions: Meares, Atkinson, Bowers, and Cherry-Garrard. Their motto was ‘down with science, sentiment and the fair sex’. Opposite them were the scientists, Griffith-Taylor and Debenham, both Australians, and the Norwegian ski expert Gran. Between these groups there was much banter and rivalry on the political issues of the day, particularly the question of female suffrage, which was vociferously supported by Debenham and Griffith-Taylor (the latter was known in the hut as ‘Keir Hardie’), and equally staunchly opposed by Oates and the others.
Oates was identified as a misogynist early in the expedition. In the wardroom of the Terra Nova en route to Antarctica, a chorus of voices was often raised, taunting ‘Titus’ or the ‘Soldier’ to the tune of ‘Cock Robin’:
Who doesn’t like women?
I, said Captain Oates,
I prefer goats.
The only woman Oates liked was his mother. Otherwise he preferred to see men play the role of women in his life. He referred to his particular friend, Atkinson, as ‘Jane’ and Meares was his ‘Dearie’. In the wardroom Atkinson and Oates were known as ‘Max and Climax’, and at least one of the cabins was named ‘The Abode of Love’.
But physical contact between the men, in public at least, was more about pain than pleasure. Both on board ship and later at winter quarters the mess was very boisterous, and a favourite game was called Furl Try Gallant Sails, which consisted of a fight in which the object was to tear each other’s clothes off. Oates was always in the thick of such ragging. On Christmas Eve 1911, when the ship was stuck in the pack-ice, he and ‘Jane’ entered the mate’s cabin and demanded the return of twenty matches that they claimed had been taken from them. There was a tremendous scrap as they wrestled and rolled on the ground, ripping and grabbing at each other’s clothes often with great success. Within a few moments Campbell was hanging over the ship’s side being sick while, to the astonishment of a few quieter members of the party, the wardroom door burst open and Bill Wilson staggered in completely naked, dragging Oates along on his back.
There is a great deal of frustrated sexual energy about all this. ‘Ragging’ seems to be about the displacement of desire into sado-masochistic competition. The body used as an instrument of power and punishment can be tolerated naked; as an instrument of sexual pleasure it must be subdued, punished and chastened.
Oates was not only physically aggressive to some of his companions but also harboured the prejudices of chauvinism. On the return march from the depot-laying journey in February 1911, Oates said to the young Norwegian, Gran, who was known to his colleagues as ‘Trigger’, ‘I say, Trigger, nothing personal you know, it’s just that I hate all foreigners. All foreigners hate England. Germany leads the way. But you’re all the same. Just waiting to destroy England and the Empire.’
Before the astonished Gran could reply, Bowers intervened. ‘Could be something in what you say, Oates, but all the same I’ll wager what you will that Gran would be with us if England is forced into a war through no fault of her own.’
‘Would you?’ asked Oates.
‘Of course,’ Gran said.
And from then on they became firm friends.
This is more than can be said for Oates’s relations with Scott, which deteriorated further as the expedition went on. Immediately before setting out on the Polar journey, in a letter to his mother, Oates wrote that he ‘disliked Scott intensely’ and would chuck the whole thing in if it was not for the fact that it was a British expedition and the Norwegians had to be beaten. Oates said that Scott had always been very civil to him, and that superficially they got on well. But in Oates’s opinion Scott was ‘not straight’ and put ‘himself first and the rest nowhere’: when Scott had got all he could out of you, it was shift for yourself.
In the normal course of events, it is part of Oates’s code as a ‘gentleman’ not to make such negative feelings known to Scott, but under the pressure of dying, due to mistakes whose responsibility could easily be left at Scott’s door, it is difficult to believe that this code was strong enough to be upheld.
It is something of an irony, then, that Oates’s memory and reputation are embedded in English culture by means of Scott’s account of his death. What the diary does not say, however, is what actually happened. Did Oates remember his mother and his regiment before stepping outside the tent, or before he went to sleep the previous evening? How much conversation was there that morning before Oates walked into the blizzard? And was any overt or covert pressure applied before he did so?
Instead of explanations, Scott’s prose turns the incident into an example of patriotic heroism. The death of Oates, which prefigures Scott’s own, is rendered as a heroic English gentlemanly ideal. Scott allows no trace of rancour or unpleasantness to intrude. There is no dwelling upon Oates’s physical condition. Scott tries to make clear the connection between suffering, sacrifice and manliness by implying that Oates has sacrificed himself to give his colleagues a chance of survival. His bravery is dwelt on, as is the magnitude of his suffering. Here is an example of how to die with the right ‘spirit’. Scott is anxious to assert that he and his surviving companions have acted honourably and stuck to their sick companions to the last. By implication, they too are English gentlemen.
‘Adrian Caesar’s chilling prose transported me right back into the heart of Antarctica. This is a magnificent re-telling of those two fateful expeditions of 1912.’ – Ranulph Fiennes
Mawson decided to turn north … when he was suddenly plummeted downwards with the fearful rush of nightmare. As the rope and harness attaching him to the sledge unravelled, so did his hope. But then he was arrested by a mighty jerk which felt as if it might remove his weakened arms. The rope pulled up, and he was suspended, slowly revolving fourteen feet into a giant grave of ice. He felt the sledge tugged by his weight towards the lid of the crevasse. So this is the end, he thought.
It is 1912, the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Scott’s journey has ended. Mawson’s is just beginning. Adrian Caesar’s stunning stroke of imaginative recreation transports us to the last days of those perilous expeditions in the heart of the white continent.
Sweeping through deaths and disasters with the pace and inevitability of a thriller, The White inexorably lays bare the forces that drove these two adventurers, the values that inspired them, and the remorseless obsession that dominated them.
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Adrian Caesar is an Australian author and poet. Born in the United Kingdom, he emigrated to Australia in 1982. He studied at Reading University and has held appointments at various Australian universities, including the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales at Canberra’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Caesar is the author of several books, including the prize-winning non-fiction novel THE WHITE based on the Antarctic exploration of Robert F. Scott and Douglas Mawson from 1911 …