Antarctic Tale of Courage That Shined for Generations

Article excerpt


Why was Scott such a big deal?

That strange, wrongheaded, relentless character died in a tent on Antarctic wastes "sometime between 28 and 31 March (1912)," writes Max Jones in "The Last Great Quest," his fine new book on Capt. Robert Falcon Scott. He and his two remaining companions, Henry Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson, were only 11 miles from a food cache which might have saved them.

Scott's reputation since then has soared and sunk. At its height, he was the idol of every British schoolboy, the toast of many nations, the epitome of English grit and gentlemanly courage. His scribbled final message is deservedly one of the most famous farewells in letters: "Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."

And at the nadir, revisionists painted him as a bully and a failure, whose bad decisions and delusions led to a double debacle. Not only did Scott fail to get to the South Pole ahead of his rival explorer Roald Amundsen, but also he lost his own life and that of four others needlessly.

Yet, as Mr. Jones repeatedly demonstrates, Scott's name continued to resonate through a "steady stream" of books even through the unimaginable human carnage of World War I. "Why," Mr. Jones asks, "did the death of five men cause such a sensation ninety years ago, not only in Britain, but around the world?"

Through a meticulous examination of the origins and the outcomes of the Scott Antarctic expedition, and their place in the context of British society at the turn of the century, Mr. Jones, weaving record, anecdote and example with great skill, comes to some remarkable conclusions: chief among them is his belief that the Scott story continued to shine in the popular mind for generations because of its unique place in time.

Just as the British nation collectively girded for the hideous ordeal of a world war where one out of eight long serving soldiers died, Scott's legend erected a new and brilliant ideal of English character; and then, paradoxically, after nearly six years of slaughter, most of it purposeless, Scott appeared again in a new light, a hero unsullied by the filth and depression of the trenches, a man whose death, unlike those of World War I comrades, meant something.

There was also the enduring magnetism of the companion-story to Scott's journal of hope, suffering and death, the actions of Capt. Lawrence "Titus" Oates. This aristocratic Etonian from a socially top British Regiment, the 6th Iniskilling Dragoons, was one of only two members of the Scott expedition who "bought" his place by contribution of 1,000 pounds pounds, at the time, a large sum. (The other, not insignificantly, was Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a graduate of elite Winchester School and a member of Oxford's socially pre-eminent college, Christ Church). Garrard was to write the expedition's literary monument, the brilliant "Worst Journey in the World" in 1922. Garrard was there at the Scott tent when the bodies of the leaders and the famous notebooks were found. …