The British Antarctic Expedition, known as the Terra Nova Expedition after the ship that carried them, was an attempt to become the first expedition to reach the geographic South Pole. Captain Robert Falcon Scott and four other men made the final push to the South Pole, only to find on arrival that they had been beaten by a Norwegian expedition a month earlier. On the return journey, all five men lost their lives in the freezing conditions of the Antarctic.
Robert Falcon Scott was a Captain in the Royal Navy who had previously led the Discovery expedition into Antarctica between 1901 and 1904. During that visit he set a new record for the southern-most point reached at that point, discovering the Antarctic Plateau in the process. Some of the men that took part in the Discovery expedition would go on to become renowned Antarctic explorers, many of them leading figures in what became known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Before Discovery, Antarctic exploration had been limited to three naval voyages by the polar exploration ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. In 1909 Ernest Shackleton, who had taken part in the Discovery expedition, narrowly failed with his Nimrod expedition to reach the South Pole.
Scott led a further expedition to the Antarctic six years later, departing from New Zealand on November 29th 1910. 65 men comprised the ship and shore parties, including seven who had previously taken part in the Discovery expedition. Following a dispute with Shackleton, Scott was determined to reach the pole.
The expedition brought along three different options for transport: ponies, dogs and motor sledges. With little experience on handling horses available to the expedition, the animals purchased were too old and in poor condition, while the motor sledges were unable to navigate the Beardmore Glacier and onto the Antarctic Plateau. Scott had previously been critical of the use of dogs for hauling equipment, but found himself increasingly impressed by them at time went on.
Terra Nova arrived off Antarctica on 4th January 1911, with the shore parties disembarking at Cape Evans, where a camp was established. A few weeks later, a scouting party encountered a Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen. The Norwegians were friendly and accommodating, but Scott was alarmed that another expedition also intended to reach the South Pole.
The expedition spent several months preparing, including establishing a series of depots for equipment along the proposed route of the final push for the South Pole. Scott set out to reach his ultimate objective on 1st November 1911. It took almost two months for them to reach the Beardsmore Glacier, where Scott sent back four members of the expedition with the dogs. He told the party leader, Surgeon Edward Atkinson, to take the dog teams back to CapeEvans, ready to assist the polar party on their return journey. Three more men were sent back on 3rd January 1912, and Scott set out on the final push to the pole with four others: Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Henry Bowers and Edgar Evans.
The group passed the furthest point south that Shackleton had previously reached on the 9th January. Seven days later, around 15 miles from the Pole, they spotted the flag of Amundsen’s expedition and realised that the Norwegians had already beaten them to their objective. Arriving at the pole, Scott found a note from Amundsen in a tent that confirmed the Norwegian expedition had reached the pole on December 14th 1911, nearly a month earlier.
The despondent group set off on the long journey back to Cape Evans. Scott’s diary records that they made good progress, but he become increasingly concerned about the health of his men. Evans was in particularly bad condition with severe frostbite. As the group reached the base of the Beardsmore Glacier, Evans collapsed and died.
The four remaining men reached the point where they expected to meet with the dog teams three days ahead of schedule. However, the dog teams never showed up, and the men struggled with a severe drop in temperature and a shortage of fuel. Given their slow rate of progress, it became clear that they would run out of fuel before reaching safety. Oates developed frostbite in his foot, further slowing their progress. On the evening of March 16th, Oates made the decision to walk to his death in the freezing conditions rather than further slowing down his companions. Famously, he told the other men ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’ before leaving the tent and walking away into the night.
The group were able to move more quickly following Oates’ sacrifice, but were forced to halt four days later as their health deteriorated and a fierce blizzard set in. Scott’s last diary entry was dated March 29th.
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 any 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. R. Scott. Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people
Scott’s instructions on where and when the rest of the expedition should meet with the polar party appear to have been vague, and there was some confusion around what should be done. An attempt by one party to reach the polar team was forced to turn back after the officer leading it became ill with scurvy.
Atkinson was now the senior officer at Cape Evans, and recorded in his own diary that he abandoned a final attempt due to the weather and cold. He also confided that he believed the polar party had already perished. Atkinson later opined that they could not have done more to save the stranded men. Expedition member and zoologist Apsley Cherry-Garrard disagreed, and was plagued with guilt for the rest of his life that he could have done more to rescue the party.
The men at Cape Evans waited out the Antarctic winter before dispatching a search party in late October. The tent containing the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers was found on 12th November. A cairn was built over the bodies, as well as an additional cairn in the area that they thought Oates was likely to have died, although his body was never found.