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Stiff Upper Lip

Scott of the Antarctic

In November 1912, an Antarctic search party found a tent holding three frozen corpses. One was the explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who had written a last message for the public: "For my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past."

Robert Falcon Scott, 1914
British Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, 1914
© TopFoto.co.uk
Scott and his four-man team had reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912, only to find a Norwegian flag there, left by rival explorer Roald Amundsen. After posing grimly for a photograph, they now faced an 800-mile journey back to safety.

On their desperate return journey, first Edgar Evans and then Captain Lawrence Oates died. The others perished later of cold and starvation, trapped in their tent by a blizzard. They were just 11 miles from a food depot which would have saved them.

In England, the publication of Scott's diary and farewell letters made him a national hero. A wave of grief swept the nation, comparable to the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana. Reviewing the diary in Punch, Winnie-the-Pooh author AA Milne wrote:

I have never met a more beautiful character than that which is revealed unconsciously in these journals. His humanity, his courage, his faith, his steadfastness, above all, his simplicity, mark him out as a man among men... It is a wonderful tale of manliness that these two volumes tell us... I have been for a few days in the company of the brave... and every hour with them has made me more proud for those that died and more humble for myself.

Find out more about AA Milne and Winnie-the-Pooh here

"I may be some time"

The British public was stirred by the death of Captain Lawrence Oates, whose swollen feet were badly frostbitten, and who knew that he was holding his companions back. Scott described Oates' self-sacrificial suicide:

He took pride thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint... He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said 'I am just going outside and may be some time.' He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.

Scott the man

Members of Scott's expedition, 1912
Members of Scott's expedition to the South Pole, 1912
© TopFoto.co.uk
In 1922, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who served under Scott and found his body, wrote The Worst Journey In The World. Cherry-Garrard admired Scott, but revealed that he was flawed. Most surprisingly, Scott was not always able to keep his upper lip stiff:

England knows Scott as a hero; she has little idea of him as a man... he was sensitive, femininely sensitive, to a degree which might be considered a fault... He had moods and depressions which might last for weeks... He cried more easily than any man I have ever known. (He was) peevish, highly-strung, irritable, depressed and moody.

Debunking Scott

In 1979, Roland Huntford published Scott And Amundsen, a controversial attack on Scott as an incompetent bungler. Huntford contrasted the rival explorers' approaches. Amundsen was a professional who wrote, "Victory awaits him who has everything in order. Defeat is certain to him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions." In contrast, Scott was a gentleman amateur, and believed that pluck, spirit and improvisation were more important than careful planning. He once said, "Gentlemen don’t practice."  

While Scott and his men slowly hauled their sledge, Amundsen had an easy journey, with sledges pulled by dogs. To Scott, this was less noble and splendid than man-hauling:

In my mind no journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realised when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts... Surely in this case the conquest is more nobly and splendidly won. 

Huntford also revealed that Captain Oates had no faith in Scott's leadership, and had written to his mother, "I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not that we are a British expedition and must beat the Norwegians."

Defending Scott

British Antarctic Expedition, 1910-1913
A sledge and huskies on the British Antarctic Expedition, c.1911
© TopFoto.co.uk/HIP
Huntford's attack prompted the modern Polar explorer, Ranulph Fiennes, to write Captain Scott (2003), a strong defence of the man. Fiennes claimed that many of Huntford's criticisms were based on ignorance of the Antarctic. Huntford had criticised Scott for using woollen clothing rather than furs, like Amundsen. Fiennes answer was that "manhaulers would be unable to move in furs. They would perspire too much... Furs are only correct for dog drivers."

Fiennes argued that Huntford had ignored Scott's scientific aims. Science was Scott's main purpose, not the race to the Pole. To Huntford, the 35lb of rocks carried by Scott on his sledge were "a pathetic little gesture to salvage something from defeat at the Pole". For Fiennes, these rocks would reveal "the key to the origin of Antarctica".


The true reason for Scott's failure was the unexpected arrival of extremely cold weather. For three straight weeks, in March 1912, temperatures were 10ºC below average - conditions repeated only once in the last 40 years. In any other year, Scott and his men would probably have got home.


As for Oates' dislike of Scott, it was not shared by Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson, who died in the tent beside him. Bowers wrote, "He is one of the best and best behaved up to our best traditions at a time when his own outlook must have been the blackness of darkness." Wilson declared, "There is nothing I would not do for him. He is a really good man."


Bruce Parry

Another admirer of Scott is the explorer, Bruce Parry, who tried to recreate Scott's journey for a BBC2 series, Blizzard, in 2006. Parry lost so much weight eating Scott's rations that he had to abandon his attempt. He says:

History has treated Scott fairly shabbily. It's very in vogue these days to diss our Victorian and Georgian explorers with their stiff-upper-lip approach and, for the last few decades, Scott has borne the brunt of that... To me, he's a national hero.