On this day in 1912 Lawrence Oates, a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s British team to the South Pole, left their tent never to be seen again. Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition was his second attempt and aimed to become the first group to reach the South Pole. The group succeeded in reaching the Pole on 17th January 1912, only to discover that they had been beaten by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition. Sadly, Scott’s entire party of five men died on the return journey.
Oates was one of those who died first. He was suffering from severe frostbite and, in an apparent act of self-sacrifice, simply walked out of his tent into a blizzard. He had asked them to leave him behind as his condition worsened, and it is likely he felt that he was holding his group back and limiting their chances for survival. Thus on March 16th he walked out of the tent saying: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” The others died soon after and their bodies were found by a search party in November, along with some of their equipment and personal effects.
Whilst Oates’s body was never found, he and his companions are remembered as brave men and national heroes. Oates’s sacrifice especially, and those haunting words he spoke to his companions before going out into the blizzard to die, have remained in the national consciousness as an example of self-sacrifice. Scott’s group may not have been the first to the Pole, but that in no way dimishes what they achieved by reaching it. Recently Scott’s leadership abilities have been questioned, and more have wondered whether the tragedy was due to a fault of his own. However most still maintain that the death of the Scott expedition could not have been prevented.
“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.”
– Entry in Scott’s diary about Oates