The die was cast – all these men would perish and Robert Falcon Scott, one of history’s most enigmatic characters was responsible. Barely ten years into the new century and Britain’s Empire was beginning to show the ugly stains of decay. Victoria’s reign was over and her errant son, Edward raised doubtful questions about the monarchy. England needed a hero so it is not surprising that in this Imperialistic turmoil, Scott was looked upon as such. Heroically and tragically he pressed on through an icy wasteland only to meet his fate at the ends of the earth. One of England’s sons remembered for his stoicism and British ‘upper-lip’, not his foolishness.
Peel away the veneer of national pride and below it you will find a bumbling fool. It was an unhealthy mix of British arrogance and stupidity with Scott’s incompetence as a leader that led to this tragedy. I dealt with the choice of polar teams but that is only half the story. Now gentle reader, consider your verdict.
Scott ran his team strictly along Royal Navy lines. That meant a very strict and direct difference between mess-deck (crew) and wardroom (officers). As a result there was little communication and trust between Scott’s men. An extract from a crewman’s diary; “The captain does not possess that magnetic quality which could have made me follow him in all things” Crew Member – Discovery.
By contrast Amundsen quickly established a rapport with his crew and ran things along democratic lines. An extract from his diary; “We have established a little republic on board. After my own experience, I decided to use a system of freedom. Let everyone have a feeling of being independent within his own sphere.” Amundsen. The Norwegian teams trusted one another and worked as a unit.
Clothing may seem trifling – but in extreme conditions it would mean the difference between life and death. Amundsen spent two years before his quest living in the Arctic Circle with Inuit Eskimos learning how to function in extreme conditions. He learned what fur gave the best thermal warmth and under what conditions the clothing worked best. Scott simply used regulation naval clothing, including socks. From diary accounts it used to take them an hour or two to put their socks on so painful it became. Imagine pulling a solidly ice-crusted sock over open wounds every day, and then walking on it for several kilometres.
“Hope you okes like dog” Amundsen told his team. The plan was as simple as it was elegant. From his Inuit experiences he learned what animals functioned best in the cold. Huskies were the answer. They were strong and were built for endurance, so they would drag their tents and equipment to the pole. They were also the best source of protein and fat while on the ice. Transport and food sorted out in one decision.
Scott’s bumbling on this issue was comical as it was catastrophic. He invested in snow tractors that would transport them to the pole. One fell through the ice while unloading it and the rest were rendered useless when the British team discovered that fuel froze at these extreme temperatures. Pity he didn’t try them out first. Still, they had the Siberian Ponies so things seemed secure. Oh yea? Shackleton used Siberian Ponies in his failed earlier attempt and found them a problem. Scott took them anyway and less than a quarter way into the journey they were all dead from the cold.
Try and find anything in Antarctica and it is impossible. It is a big white wasteland. So how are you ever going to find your stuff that you dumped for the return journey? Scott had an answer – put a flag on top. From the diary accounts we know Scott spent a lot of time looking for depots on his return journey simply because they were not well marked. He hardly accounted for the conditions, and paid dearly. Amundsen on the other hand put red flags at regular intervals for at least a mile stretching out from each side of a return depot. He also complained how difficult it was to find depots on his return. The longest it took his team to find one lost depot was half a day, Scott regularly was wandering around for days wasting precious time and resources.
Still, bumbler or not – there is a very human story here of four men and their deaths. The last entry in Scott’s diary speaks of a man defeated in quest and in body – but hardly in spirit.
“Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more…….”
Don’t judge him too harshly.