Explorer Lawrence Oates’ Brave Sacrifice to Save Companions
Every now and then in the annals of history one comes across incredible stories of great courage and heroism. Such is the story of Captain Lawrence Oates, who on March 17, 1912, stepped out of an Antarctic expedition’s tent into a blizzard, knowing full well he was walking to his certain death. Oates realized his weakened condition was slowing down his three companions and increasing the chances they would not survive the return trip (the party had reached the South Pole on January 18). Oates told the men: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Then he stepped out, and was gone. It was his 32nd birthday; his body has never been found.
Unfortunately, despite Oates’ great sacrifice, his companions never made it back. On Nov. 12, 1912, a search party on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica found the frozen bodies of the three companions Oates left behind: Captain Robert Scott (the expedition’s leader), Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson, eight months after the men perished on their return trip from planting England’s flag at the South Pole. An expedition that had started two years earlier with such great expectations (they hoped to be the first to reach the South Pole) ended in abject misery as the three men spent the last nine days of their lives inside a tent, buried by a raging blizzard as food and fuel ran out—the swirling snow and bitterly cold temperatures preventing them from reaching their next supply depot just 11 miles away.
Their deaths were the last in a string of losses and disappointments that plagued the expedition, starting when Scott and his four companions finally reached the South Pole on January 18, only to find that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to the honor by 35 days. Amundsen had left a tent and Norwegian flag to commemorate his arrival at the Pole on Dec. 14, 1911. Upon discovering that Amundsen had beaten him, Scott wrote in his diary “The worst has happened” and commented “Great God! This is an awful place.”
Things worsened as the five disheartened explorers struggled to retrace the 800 miles back to their home base. One of the men, Edgar Evans, died on February 17 after he weakened and fell repeatedly on the ice. The four remaining explorers had 400 miles remaining to get across the Ross Ice Shelf, and they were fighting extreme weather, exhaustion, dwindling food and fuel, snow-blindness and severe frostbite. They had no dogs, and were pushing their supply sledges themselves. Their situation was bleak, and continued to deteriorate.
Oates had frostbite in both feet and could barely walk, and his pace was slowing the party down and making it impossible for them to reach their next supply depot. On the morning of March 16 he asked his companions to let him remain in his sleeping bag to die, and go on without him. They refused. The next morning he made his decision to step out into the snow alone to perish, in the hope that the other three could somehow make it without him. After Oates’ sacrifice, Scott wrote in his diary:
“Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not—would not—give up hope to the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. 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.
“I take this opportunity of saying that we have stuck to our sick companions to the last. In [the] case of Edgar Evans, when absolutely out of food and he lay insensible, the safety of the remainder seemed to demand his abandonment, but Providence mercifully removed him at this critical moment. He died a natural death, and we did not leave him till two hours after his death. 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. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far.
“I can only write at lunch and then only occasionally. The cold is intense, -40° at midday. My companions are unendingly cheerful, but we are all on the verge of serious frostbites, and though we constantly talk of fetching through I don’t think any one of us believes it in his heart.”
After Oates sacrificed himself, Scott, Bowers and Wilson pushed on for another 20 miles until a harsh blizzard struck on March 20, confining the men to their tent for the last nine days of their lives. They knew the next supply depot was only 11 miles away, but they could not reach it. In the dim light, with frozen fingers, Scott scribbled a “message to the public” in which he said “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…” His final diary entry, March 29, 1912, stated: “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.”
When the search party found the frozen bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson, they discovered Scott’s diary and that is how the tragic story of their final days became known. To honor the sacrifice of Oates, the search party erected a cairn and cross with this inscription:
Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman, Captain L. E. G. Oates, of the Inniskilling Dragoons. In March 1912, returning from the Pole, he walked willingly to his death in a blizzard, to try and save his comrades, beset by hardships.
A tribute to Oates was reported in this article, published by the Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington) on Feb. 15, 1951:
Enniskillen, North Ireland.—This city plans a memorial for one of its sons, Capt. Lawrence Oates, “a very gallant gentleman,” according to the diary of Robert F. Scott, Antarctic explorer. As the ill-fated Scott expedition of 1912 was struggling to reach its base through appalling weather conditions Oates became ill, and feeling he would be a burden on his comrades, deliberately left his tent and walked to his death in the blizzard.
Enniskillen did indeed erect a memorial to Oates. In the Town Hall there is a plaque bearing this inscription:
Lawrence Edward Grace Oates
Knowing the storm without, the dwindling food,
His failing strength, his comrades’ constancy,
This man, in hope to save them, thought it good
To walk alone into the snow to die.
In Meanwood, Leeds, a monument to Oates was erected with this inscription:
Lawrence Edward Grace Oates
of Meanwoodside in this parish
Captain 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. Served with distinction in the South African War. In 1912 he reached the South Pole with Captain Scott and on the return journey, hoping to save his companions, went out from them to die. His body lies lost in the Antarctic snows. His name is here by his fellow villagers recorded.
A very gallant gentleman.
It took time for news of the discovery of the explorers’ frozen bodies to reach the outside world. The San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California) ran two poignant articles about the explorers’ fate. The first was an account of their death. The next day, the paper ran an article in which Amundsen movingly speaks of his fellow polar adventurers.
Here is the article announcing their deaths, published on Feb. 11, 1913:
Late Dispatches Tell of Brave Struggle of Robert Scott and Party to Reach South Pole
Rescuers Find Frozen Bodies in Scott’s Tent
Death in Blizzard When Food and Fuel Were Gone
Oamaru, N.Z., Feb. 11.—Captain Robert F. Scott and his party were overwhelmed by a blizzard on their return journey from the South Pole. The entire polar party perished. They reached the South Pole on the 18th of January, 1912.
The news of the appalling disaster which befell Captain Scott and his companions was brought to this port by a signaled message from the Terra Nova, the vessel which had carried the explorer and his expedition to the Antarctic, and which last year went once again to the south to bring him and his companions back.
Captain Scott’s party reached the exact point where Roald Amundsen planted the Norwegian flag at the South Pole. They found there the hut constructed and left behind by Amundsen’s party.
These facts were recorded in the documents found on the bodies of the explorers when they were recovered.
Those who perished besides Captain Robert F. Scott were Dr. A. E. Wilson, Lieutenant H. R. Bowers, Captain L. E. G. Oates and Petty Officer E. Evans. When the explorers failed to return a rescue party was sent out from Cape Evans late in October. This party reached One Ton Depot and found the provisions in good order. The party proceeded along the southern route and came upon Scott’s tent on November 12. Within lay the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Oates died a few days later [actually, 12 days earlier –ed.].
Captain Scott’s main traveling party was to consist of 16 men besides himself, while groups of four men each were to return at different stages of the journey, leaving Scott and four others to complete the final dash to the Pole.
London, Feb. 11.—A number of details of the disaster in which Captain Scott and four of his men perished in the Antarctic are brought here in special dispatches of the Central News Service. Captain Oates evidently set out from the tent, in which the four men had all but succumbed to starvation and exhaustion, to brave death alone in the blizzard which had overwhelmed them.
After a brave struggle for weeks, with his hands [and feet—ed.] frostbitten, Oates declared to his comrades that he was going to set out in the storm and did not know when he would come back. He left the tent and was never seen again. He evidently knew he was setting out to meet his death alone.
The others later tried to push on, but were forced into camp again on March 21 [20th –ed.], after nine days’ struggle with the blizzard. Food and fuel were both exhausted.
Probably realizing that his party was doomed, Captain Scott entered in his diary four days later, on March 25, “a message to the public.” In this he declared that disaster was not due to faulty organization, but to misfortune. He said nobody in the world could expect to successfully encounter such temperatures and storms as they had met on the barrier, which so retarded their progress.
When they arrived within 11 miles of One Ton Depot they had food for one hot meal and fuel for two days.
The doomed explorer wrote apologetically of his “rough notes.” He said these and the bodies must tell the tale. He appealed to his countrymen for the care of those dependent upon the perishing explorers.
According to the special dispatches, the Terra Nova relief party which found the bodies read a simple burial ritual over them.
The relief expedition then set out in search for the body of Captain Oates, but although they covered over 70 miles they found no trace of his body.
Here is the article reporting Amundsen’s words, published on Feb. 12, 1913:
Amundsen Gives Thrilling Picture of Probable Manner in Which Robert Scott Met His Death
Tells of Terrific Blizzards That Swept Icefields
Exhausted and Starving, They Fell on Ice and Died
Chicago, Feb. 12.—A thrilling picture of the probable manner in which Robert F. Scott and four of his companions met death on the ice barrier close to the earth’s southern extremity was painted verbally by Captain Roald Amundsen, discoverer of the South Pole, who was in Chicago today.
“It is hard to say just what happened,” said the Norwegian explorer, “but we can imagine, perhaps, although it is horrible. We know, of course, that it happened about the 79th parallel and that they were down on the barrier and plateau. And just about there our positive knowledge stops.
“Certainly they were exhausted and starving. They were not in a fit condition to meet the terrible blizzard when it came.
“Not that blizzards are unusual. Scott was prepared for blizzards, for he was no amateur. One may always expect blizzards in that country. But there they were—those poor forlorn fellows—straggling along without even ponies to draw their sledges, for they had sent back their last ponies when they had reached a point 150 miles from the Pole on the journey southward.
“They were drawing their own sledges, weakened though they must have been. They had no dogs, and that was a mistake, I am afraid. And always before them there stretched this awful waste of ice. Can you see it? It is flat ice stretching right across the country in long, glassy undulations—stretching away so far that the eye cannot bear to follow it.
“And across the frozen surface sweeps the wind—furiously. The great flat expanse offers a terrific sweep for the blast, and there is no protection except what man is able to build for himself.”
Captain Amundsen passed a hand across his eyes.
“And there they died,” he said softly. “Of course, Evans—petty officer—had died already. He fell on the ice. But the others must have died within a short time of each other. Oates went bravely, you know, out into the blizzard that his sickly condition might not hinder the others. That was a great sacrifice, but it did no good.
“I cannot read that last message of Captain Scott’s without emotion. I never met him, personally, but I know he was a brave man.
“And to think,” added the captain in a hushed tone, “that while those brave men were dying in the waste of ice I was lecturing in warmth and comfort in Australia.”