In May 1913, the Daily Mirror published the photographs taken by Captain Scott at the South Pole for the first time. They were 'the most remarkable, in their tragic interest, which have ever been published', the newspaper reported, recording 'one of the most splendid, the most inspiring tragedies in the world's history'. The special Scott memorial issue became one of the best-selling editions of any daily newspaper published in Britain before the First World War.
The announcement of Scott's death three months earlier had stunned the nation. King George V attended a memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral in an unprecedented gesture towards men who didn't belong to a royal family. The King hadn't been at the cathedral for the service in memory of the victims of the Titanic the year before. Head teachers read an account of the expedition to one-and-a-half million children in elementary schools around the country to coincide with the service.
Winston Churchill described the expedition as 'one of the great achievements of our time', while the Bookseller later declared Scott's story was 'as heart-stirring as any in the whole history of the human race'. So overwhelming was the chorus of praise that the socialist Clarion condemned the 'dire, hysterical, hero-killing press' and its 'journalistic ladlers of fulsome flapdoodle'.
But why did so many Britons hail Captain Scott as a national hero? Not only had he lost the race to the South Pole to the brilliant Norwegian Roald Amundsen, but he had died in the process, along with the four companions who appeared with him in the photographs at the pole.
Scott's old patron, former president of the Royal Geographical Society Clements Markham, loudly proclaimed in the press that the expedition was primarily a scientific enterprise. Scott had never entered a race, and was unconcerned about whether or not he was first to the pole.
It's true that the full extent of Amundsen's challenge became clear only after Scott had landed in Antarctica, when the crew of his ship, Terra Nova, encountered the Norwegian vessel Fram in the Bay of Whales. But Markham's protests were disingenuous. The very first sentence of the British Antarctic Expedition's fundraising prospectus had declared: 'The main object of the Expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of that achievement.' Scott was passionate about the expedition's scientific aims, as his journal reveals, but there can be no doubt he was also desperate to win the race for the pole.
It has become fashionable to argue that British praise for Scott expressed an enduring national preoccupation with gallant losers. Journalists habitually cite Scott when describing the latest heroic exit of a national sports team from an international competition--think of England's semi-final defeat to West Germany at the 1990 World Cup. If only Britons were less sentimental and more single-minded about winning, so the story goes, they would be more successful.
Such explanations miss the point when it comes to explaining 'why Scott became the nation's pre-eminent hero on the eve of the First World War. Victory or defeat in the race to the pole wasn't the decisive factor--what mattered was how Scott had faced death.
The search party that found the snow-covered tent containing the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson brought back not only the photographic plates they had exposed at the South Pole, but also the letters and diaries that told the explorers' story. The remarkable 'Message to the Public' that Scott had written at the back of his journal just before he died became the foundation of his heroic reputation.
The 'message' was partly a case for Scott's defence, claiming 'the disaster was not due to faulty organisation, but to misfortune in all risks which had to be undertaken', and partly an anguished plea for the relatives of the dead to be 'properly provided for'. …