Sunday, 1 May 2011

Scott and The Antarctic: Readings celebrating this as the Centenary Year of 1911-12 - the dates of the Last Expedition

Several books are worth reading.  The diaries and memoirs of those who took part are much more interesting than any books by armchair philosophisers who came later.

The Diaries of Robert Falcon Scott (Scott's Last Expedition Vol 1) This I read first and it was right to read this first. The tragedy lurks there from the first entries - a heavy emphasis on luck, or lack of it, and frequent notes to self of the kind: "We ought to get through".  References to bad luck started as early as the ship journey from New Zealand.  One can't help thinking that this is "moaning" of the worst kind - that planning should have taken mishaps into account, and that trusting to luck was too chancy when so much could go wrong.

And so much did go wrong, at every stage.  Bad weather on the journey put stress on the ponies and dogs, bad weather on landing finished off more ponies, and bad weather on the Polar journey itself held them up in camp and wasted time and provisions.  However, one can't help thinking that bad weather in Polar regions is surely inevitable.

Other disasters affected the plans for the Polar journey itself.  The motor transports failed very early on, and the dogs were not used as effectively as they could have been.  The ponies sickened and died.

Throughout, however, the hand-picked team of volunteers worked hard and did their absolute best to overcome difficulties and pull through. This perhaps, is the source of the great heroic myth - these men did things that should not be asked of any man. Some died, others went mad, many were marked for life. 

The thing you have to keep remembering, though, is that Scott wrote these diaries each day, not at the end of the expedition.  He didn't know how it was going to turn out, not until the last month, when the writing was on the wall.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is all the more poignant, all the more tragic.  The last entries, written lying starving and frost-bitten trapped by a blizzard in the tent, really tear the heartstrings.

Two survivors wrote their memoirs as soon after the debacle of the First World War as was possible - Scott's second-in-command Edward Evans, in 1921, closely followed the following year by the expedition's second-youngest member, the gentleman amateur Apsley Cherry-Garrard.  "Cherry" as he was known, paid £1,000 (about £100,000 in today's money) to be allowed to take part in the expedition.  Even so, he would not have been accepted, (others had offered as much), except that he was connected to the expedition's lead scientist, Edward Wilson, and recommended by him.

Cherry was one of the three members of the "Winter Journey", a three-man mini-expedition to find Emperor penguins eggs, which, because of their nesting habits, could only be found unhatched in the middle of the Antarctic winter.  It was thought that these eggs might supply important scientific evidence about the links between birds and earlier forms of life.  His book, "The Worst Journey in the World", does include a chapter about the winter journey, but much more of it is about Scott and the final tragedy.

Cherry's lasting personal legacy from the trip was that it took out of him "an overdraft on my vital capital, which I shall never quite pay off..."  His health was compromised for life, both physically and mentally.  More than that, it left him with a guilt that he never shook off.  He was the leader of a two-man dog-party sent south in March 2012. His trip was, with hindsight, the last realistic chance of anyone finding the returning Polar party alive. However, due to lack of sufficient dog-food to progress further, and due to conflicting orders regarding what his trip was actually supposed to achieve, he obeyed the clearest available instruction, which was not to risk the lives of the dogs. After waiting at One Ton Camp (eleven miles from Scott's last camp) for six days, he returned before the dog food ran out.  At the time he turned back, the party were about sixty miles away.  Had he known where they were, and been free to make the judgement to risk the dogs, he might have been able to save them.

The whole Polar expedition, as Cherry himself so aptly judges, "...Simply bristles with 'ifs':  If Scott had taken dogs and succeeded in getting them up the Beardmore; if we had not lost those ponies on the Depot journey; if the dogs had not been taken so far and the One Ton Depot had been laid; if a pony and some extra oil had been depoted on the barrier; if a four man party had been taken to the Pole; if I had disobeyed my instructions and gone on from One Ton, killing dogs as necessary; or even if I had just gone on a few miles and left some food and fuel under a flag upon a cairn; if they had been first at the Pole; if it had been any other season than that....... But always the bare fact remains that Scott could not have travelled from McMurdo Sound to the Pole faster than he did except with dogs....."  All those words are Cherry's, and no revisionist book debunking the hero myth has ever been able to sum it up better.

The biggest mistake of all was not to rely on dogs. Dogs pulled better than men, who wore themselves out completely. Dogs could start earlier than ponies, who pulled heavy loads but could not cope with the severe weather in order to start earlier.  Starting late meant returning late, when the Polar winter was again approaching.  The extremely severe cold encountered on the return journey was undoubtedly a very considerable factor in the Polar party's demise.  Parties returning earlier, (the support parties), had not suffered as much from cold.

The second-biggest mistake was, to my way of thinking, to take five men to the Pole at the last minute.  As Cherry, again, analysed it:   "The final advance to the Pole was to have been made by four men.  We were organised in four-men units; our rations were made up for four men for a week; our tents held four men; our cookers held four mugs, four pannikins and four spoons.  ...He (Scott) changed his mind and went forward a party of five".  Scott soon admitted in his diary that it took considerably longer to cook each day for five than for four.  This took time which was needed for covering ground fast before winter approached. The rations were all out of kilter, as well, of course, but it was the time taken which was the factor Scott wrote that he "had not considered when reorganising".

There were many other "if only" clauses, but those two were most weighty.  For both, only Scott could be blamed.  Therefore, it is not really necessary to plough through the revisionist text "Scott and Amundsen, the Last Place on Earth" by Roland Huntford.  This is a most unpleasant book.  I have reached half-way through and have only just come across the first faintly flattering phrase about Scott.  The rest of it reads like propaganda.  Every last little fact related about Amundsen hammers home his superior qualities, every last little fact dug up about Scott emphasises his total weakness of character, which underpinned every bad decision he made.  There is a nasty flavour to it.

Anyway, we don't really need it.  Cherry and other survivors analysed the reasons for defeat 90 years ago.  Huntford's book caused a sensation when it was first published, because prior to that all the public statements, news reports, films,  had been about the heroism of the Scott expedition.   You had to read quite carefully and between the lines to find the criticism in Cherry and Evans' respective books, but the criticism was there all the same.

Cherry noted that in the last double-team marches, prior to the return of the Last Supporting Party (which was that of Evans), with the Pole now within reach, Scott forced the pace too hard.    "Surely and not very slowly, Scott's team began to wear down the other team  .....  What did not appear until after the Last Returning Party had turned homewards was that the first team (Scott's) was getting worn out too."  The price was paid on the return journeys.  Evans fell victim to scurvy, and nearly died.  Scott's team, in Cherry's words, "broke up unexpectedly and in some respects rapidly from the 88th parallel onwards".  This was before the Pole.  Nervous energy and grim ambition kept them going.  They reached their goal to find that Amundsen had been there first, and all that had been buoying them up was now deflated.  "We have had a horrible day .." wrote Scott on 17th January 1912, after finding that he had been beaten.  "Now for the run home and a desperate struggle.  I wonder if we can do it."  All the bounce had gone out of him.  They were all feeling the cold, and had nothing to hold on to in the way of an ideal.  "Well, we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition and must face our 800 miles of solid dragging - and good-bye to most of the day-dreams!"  So wrote Scott on the same day, 17th January.  Day-dreams are certainly not the best foundation for such an expedition.  Now they were gone, and it was all slog from now on.

They might have made it, if they had marked their cairns better, and not had to waste so much time looking for their next food depot.  If the paraffin canisters had been effectively researched prior to setting off from England, so that the fuel did not evaporate, leaving them crucially short as they struggled back.  If they had been four not five, if they had not hauled half a man's weight in stones and rock samples, if they had not wasted an afternoon collecting rock samples, if Cherry had come back to look for them.

Much has been made of whether the sickening of two of the team, and in particular Captain Oates,  held them up unduly.  It is not possible to tell.  Only one man, it appears, was not suffering from any injury at all on the return journey, and this was "Little" Bowers, ( a Homeric epithet often used by Scott, unwittingly belittling perhaps the strongest man in the expedition).  Dr Wilson strained a tendon in his leg, Seaman Evans (not to be confused with Officer Evans who succumbed to scurvy on his return journey) lost morale, fell into crevasses repeatedly, and died, perhaps of poor morale, but more likely of hypothermia and malnutrition.

The story of Captain Oates is so well-known it has passed into legend and cliche.  What is less well known is that by the time of the last camp, Scott had also lost a foot to frost-bite and could hardly walk.  The reason was that, starving and desperate for nourishment, he made an error of judgement.  "Like an ass I mixed a small spoonful of curry poweder with my melted pemmican - it gave me violent indigestion.  I lay awake and in pain all night; woke and felt done on the march; foot went and I didn't know it.  A very small measure of neglect and have a foot which is not pleasant to contemplate" .......The next day he wrote "Amputation is the least I can hope for now, but will the trouble spread?" On this very same day, he was "within 11 miles of depot" but trapped in the tent by a blizzard which prevented his companions from setting off for fuel without him. The rest is history.

Analysts and polar historians have pored over the letters and diaries left behind by those who died. Much nearer to the events, Cherry tried to find an explanation.  He wrote in his book:

"There was something wrong with this party: more wrong, I mean, than was justified by the tremendous journey they had already experienced.  Except for the blizzard at the bottom of the Beardmore and the surfaces near the Pole, it had been little worse than expected. .... There seems to be an unknown factor here somewhere."

Although no records state that Scott's team had scurvy, they had gone without fresh food  longer than any other group.  The second-longest trekking team (Lt Evans' party) developed symptoms, and Evans nearly died of it.  It seems likely that Scott and his team were also succumbing.  This would explain why they felt the cold more, why Seaman Evan's wounds did not heal, and why their morale was suffering.

Was there another unknown factor?
Lt Evans "the last to see Scott alive" wrote his own survivor memoir, "South With Scott".  He made a great success of his later life, attaining medals in war-time and a high rank in his career with the Royal Navy.  He was undoubtedly a man of character.

His book does not critcise Scott, but when Scott criticised HIM (for not keeping up, as referred to above in the last stages of the last double-march), he stood up for himself robustly. " I had a long talk next morning after breakfast with Scott. He was disappointed with our inability to keep up with the speed of the main party, but I pointed out thhat we could not expect to do the same as fresh men - the other eight had only put on the sledge harness for the first time on December 10:  Scott agreed, but seemed worried and fretful..." Evans was not the man to be disloyal, but neither did he conceal material facts.  His team had been with the motorised sledges, which had failed very early on, and consequently, as he pointed out, they had been man-hauling for 400 miles already, when others had been leading ponies or driving dogs.

On Christmas Day, 1911, there were only two teams left - Scott and Lt Evans.  They were now 8,000 feet above sea level, and were  feeling the cold far more than when marching earlier stages. Evans describes the scenery as "magnificent, though lonely and awful in its stillness.  One would very soon go mad without company down here."

After striking camp on Christmas Day, ..." in an incredibly short space of time both teams swung Southward, keeping step, and with every appearance of perfect health.  But a close observer, a man trained to watch over men's health, over athletes training, perhaps, would have seen something amiss.  The two teams, in spite of the Christmas spirit, and the 'Happy Christmas' greetings they exchanged to begin with, soon lost their springy step, the sledges dragged more slowly, and we gazed ahead almost wistfully.  Yes, the strain was beginning to tell, though none of us would have confessed it."

On 4th January 1912, exactly one year after their ship came to the end of its journey and they landed at Cape Evans, Lt Evans' party turned back.  The long journey home, with only three men (Scott had taken their fourth, to make his party up to five for the Pole), was tough.  "I soon realised that the ceding of one man from my party had been too great a sacrifice .... the three of us literally stole minutes and seconds from each day in order to add to our marches, but it was a fight for life..." (Scott, meanwhile, with further to go, was losing half an hour a day to extra cooking time).  These factors add to our understanding of the disaster in waiting for the Polar party.

One further aspect struck me - the loneliness of being a party without any running mates.  "Day after day" (wrote Lt Evans) "we fought our way northward over the high Polar tableland.  The silence now that we had no other party with us was ghastly, for beyond the sound of our own voices and the groaning of the sledge runners when the surface was bad there was no sound whatever to remind us of the outer world."

Evans had good rapport with his two team-mates, who saved his life, and to whom his book is dedicated.  Scott, the leader, the founding spirit behind the entire expedition, must have felt the loneliness even more, and the responsibility.  Perhaps one of the things that was missing, on that journey home, was the reassuring presence of another team, with its own team-leader, sharing the responsibility. Lt Evans, Scott's second-in-command, was highly capable, practical and intelligent, and would never give up.  Perhaps the moral support of another group,  in which one could find companionship, encouragement, and pacemakers, outside one's own team, was the last missing link in the chain which Cherry, struggling to discern the causes, observed when he wrote those poignant words: "There was something wrong with this party. "

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