We will leave no man behind.” Though a distinctively American service ethos, the philosophy of supporting the wounded has an unexpected antecedent in early 20th-century British naval history. During the Terra Nova British Antarctic Expedition (1910–13), the expedition leader, Royal Navy Captain R. F. Scott, chose to slow the pace of his polar party on their return from the South Pole. He did this to support an injured subordinate, rather than abandon him; it cost all five men their lives.
Though “Scott of the Antarctic” was celebrated as a British hero, his reputation was later distorted by modern misunderstandings. Only after a century has it been possible to reconstruct both Scott’s self-sacrifice and British expedition member Cecil Meares’ pattern of covert insubordination that obscured the general understanding of Scott’s orders and reputation.
From Naval Officer to Polar Explorer
Born in 1868 in Devonport, England, Scott had a genteel but impecunious childhood. To ensure his future, his father enrolled him in Dartmouth Naval College. Graduating with high marks, Scott became one of the Royal Navy’s most promising lieutenants. He trained as a torpedo officer (a prestigious, lucrative specialty), receiving praise in official reports. In 1900, Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), “talent-spotted” Scott as a leader for Antarctic exploration.
During 1897–98, Scott endured his father’s bankruptcy and death and his younger brother’s sudden death from typhoid fever. Now Scott was the “man of the family,” responsible for his mother’s and unmarried sisters’ welfare. An RGS–funded explorer’s salary, more than doubling his naval wage, was a boon he could not refuse.1 After promotion to commander, he assumed command of the RGS Antarctic expedition, which set sail on 6 August 1901.
Scott’s Discovery Antarctic expedition (1901–4) was the most comprehensive scientific and geographic exploration of that continent to date. Scott also made an attempt to reach the South Pole alongside Dr. Edward Wilson and Sub-Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, Royal Naval Reserve. After establishing a new record of 82°17' S (the 1902 “Farthest South Reached”), Scott and Wilson turned back, escorting the now debilitated Shackleton. Though theirs was a narrow escape, all three made it safely to base.
On Scott’s return to Britain in 1904, abundant honors awaited him, including early promotion to captain. His expedition memoir, The Voyage of the ‘Discovery’ (1905), sold well. His abilities were noted; although a junior captain, Scott joined the Naval Intelligence Division, a distinction usually reserved for senior captains. From 1907 to 1909, he returned to sea, commanding cruisers and battleships. Admiral Charles Beresford’s verdict: “No defect, very zealous and excellent judgment, fine physical qualities. Strongly recommended for advancement. An excellent officer of very varied experience, handles his ship very well. Will make a good Admiral.”2 The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir John “Jacky” Fisher, obligingly released naval personnel for Scott’s second, privately funded Antarctic expedition.
The Terra Nova Expedition
Scott’s second Antarctic expedition set sail from Cardiff, Wales, in June 1910. However, on reaching Australia, Scott was shocked by a telegram from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, famous as the first navigator of the Northwest Passage (1903–6). Scott learned that Amundsen’s forthcoming polar expedition had switched objective from the North Pole (reportedly reached in 1909 by American explorers Robert E. Peary and Frederick Cook) to the yet-undiscovered South Pole. Scott had not expected a race for the Pole—and Amundsen’s concealment of his intentions until the last moment ensured Scott was unprepared for one.
Nonetheless, Scott started for the South Pole on 1 November 1911. His expedition used four forms of transportation: ponies, dogs, motorsledges, and man-hauling (the last was crucial for climbing the Beardmore Glacier, already known to be too crevassed for animals to scale safely). On 17 January 1912, the five-man British polar party reached the South Pole, only to find a Norwegian flag fluttering above a conical tent. Amundsen had found an easier route. The Norwegians had triumphed.
In his tent Amundsen had left a note for Scott, requesting that he confirm Norwegian primacy. Scott duly recorded Amundsen’s victory, photographing the Norwegian tent. However, his frustration emerged in his journal: “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.”3 The iconic photograph of Scott’s party at the Pole shows their faces etched with misery at having journeyed more than 745 miles over the Antarctic interior for “second place.”
Circumstances conspired against them on their return. Petty Officer Edgar Evans, a Discovery veteran, suffered physical injuries and grew debilitated. Though the party took a half-day’s rest for rock collecting at the Beardmore Glacier, giving Evans a chance to recover, he died on 17 February. The temperatures plummeted. On 2 March, Army Captain Lawrence Oates disclosed that his foot was blackened with frostbite.
However, all was not yet lost. Back in October 1911, and remembering his earlier narrow escape on the Discovery expedition, Scott had left a safety net of written orders for the dog teams to travel beyond One Ton Depot (135 miles from base) to meet the returning polar party on the Great Ice Barrier by early March. Included were orders for his dog driver, Cecil Meares, to go out in January 1912 to stock One Ton Depot with the dog food necessary for the dog teams’ further travel in February–March 1912, beyond One Ton, to intercept the polar party.
Though the dog teams ventured south in February 1912, they did not venture beyond One Ton. Recent research indicates that their inaction originated in Meares’ opportunistic insubordination.
Disinformation and Sacrifice
Born in 1877 in Kilkenny, Ireland, Meares had undertaken intelligence work in Asia and had a track record of duplicity and cowardice. Despite having cavalry experience and claiming in 1910 that he knew pony types “well,” Meares purchased poor-quality ponies in Siberia for Scott’s expedition.4 When their condition was noticed, he spread disinformation about the purchase to divert blame from himself.5 Later, Meares lost face by refusing Scott’s order to enter a crevasse to retrieve fallen sledge dogs; Scott himself elected to be roped up and lowered down to fetch them.6
By October 1911, Meares was determined to leave Antarctica early, informing Oates that he intended to “clear out whatever happened.” From November to December 1911, Meares’ dog teams participated in the main polar trek; they then peeled off to return to base at Cape Evans, arriving back on 5 January 1912. On 17 January, Meares was loading his dog sledges to go south again to restock One Ton Depot, when the returning Terra Nova was unexpectedly sighted out at sea. Now Meares had a choice: an absence from base of at least two weeks to go restock the depot (following Scott’s orders), or remaining at base to guarantee returning home on the ship that year.
The scientist in charge at base, George Simpson, recorded in his 1912 journal Meares’ sudden claim at the time that his proposed One Ton excursion was merely to deliver a “stock of luxuries like Irish Stew, Marmalade and Tinned Fruit.”8 A 270-miles round-trip just to deliver luxuries? Scott had never ordered that; Meares was to deposit dog food for the later support journey. Simpson, however, unaware of the distances involved but aware of Scott’s proviso that there might be “updates from returning parties,” trusted Meares’ claim that his cargo was trivial and his journey unnecessary.9 Meares was allowed to remain at the base.
Expedition surgeon Edward Atkinson subsequently reported that “strict injunctions had been given by Captain Scott that the dogs should not be risked.”10 Scott never ordered that; indeed, it directly contradicted Scott’s 1911 instructions for dog teams to journey out to meet him. This claim appears to have been Meares’ verbal excuse to Atkinson for why he had not stocked One Ton with dog food for further travel. By 1919, Atkinson apparently recognized that he had publicly repeated disinformation and privately described Meares as having “disobeyed [Scott’s] orders.”11
Meares accordingly “cleared out” of Antarctica early in 1912. However, his disinformation destroyed all understanding that Scott had ordered a safety net. In February 1912, two civilians, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Dmitri Gerof, traveled out with dog teams to One Ton Depot. They went no farther, believing Atkinson’s assertion that Scott had given “strict injunctions” that the dogs “should not be risked.” After waiting seven days for the polar party’s arrival, they turned back to base on 10 March.
That same day, on the Great Ice Barrier more than 70 miles south of One Ton, Scott recorded despondently that “the dogs which would have been our salvation have evidently failed. Meares had a bad trip home I suppose.”12 Evidently, something had gone wrong; Scott’s instinct was to suspect Meares of having taken fright.
However, Scott had made a crucial decision back on 2 March, on learning of Oates’ frostbite. Scott did not realize then that those in charge of his dog teams would not follow his orders and would never venture far enough south to intercept the polar party on the Barrier. All Scott knew was that Oates’ frostbitten foot hampered their progress.
Scott could keep Oates alongside them or abandon him so the rest could keep up a faster pace and have a better chance of survival. Only by abandoning Oates on 2 March could the remaining three men have quickened their pace. Had they reached One Ton by 10 March, they would have met Cherry-Garrard’s supporting dog teams before they turned back for base. A terrible choice for Scott: to risk his life to support Oates, or lose his humanity by abandoning him. Ultimately, Scott opted for slowing down to support Oates, placing his hope in the dog teams’ expected arrival to meet them.
By 10 March, that hope was extinguished. Oates knew he had become a burden. The next day Scott wrote that Oates “practically asked for advice. Nothing could be said but to urge him to march as long as he could.”13 Later that day, Scott wrote that he shared out painkillers from the medicine case, allowing everyone the option of “ending [their] troubles.”14 If Oates wanted this, then Scott would take responsibility; however, he would not be Oates’ executioner.
Four days later Oates went to sleep, in Scott’s words, “hoping not to wake.” He awoke on 16 March, with strong winds raging outside the tent. Now Oates gave his companions one last slim chance of survival, leaving the tent with words that would go down in history: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”15
The three surviving polar party men (Scott, Wilson, and Royal Indian Marine Lieutenant Henry Bowers) marched on, man-hauling their sledge. Two days later, Scott contracted frostbite in his right foot. Huddling in a tent in the bitter cold and with dwindling strength and supplies, all three were now trapped 11 miles south of One Ton Depot.
They spent their last days writing letters to loved ones. Scott wrote to influential friends requesting support for the party’s dependents. His last words were “For God’s sake look after our people.”16 Rather than explicitly deplore the dog teams’ absence, Scott emphasized his naval duty. To his friend J. M. Barrie, he wrote, “We have done everything possible, even to sacrificing ourselves in order to save sick companions.” To Admiral Bridgeman: “We could have come through had we neglected the sick.” To Sir Edgar Speyer: “[W]e shall die like gentlemen. . . . If this diary is found, it will show how we stuck by dying companions.”17
The polar party died in late March 1912. Searchers found their frozen bodies in November. When the news of their deaths reached the world in February 1913, the British Empire went into mourning. The men’s endurance and loyalty was commemorated in statues and plaques across Britain, from rural churches to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Royal Navy acknowledged Scott’s heroism by awarding his widow the pension of a combatant fallen in battle.
In the next year, a four-year worldwide conflict erupted in which such self-sacrifice would become practically commonplace. Many British World War I memorials displayed the Bible verse John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Scott’s heroism became one example among many. In 1915, he was honored with a statue in London’s Waterloo Place, 350 yards from the Admiralty Arch; however, after the war, a traumatized nation preferred to move on from past tragedies.
While other Terra Nova expedition officers involved in the main events gave detailed written accounts of their actions in archived journals or published memoirs, Cecil Meares evaded accountability, volunteering no written record of his actions in Antarctica before his death in 1937. Scott’s personal journal, published as Scott’s Last Expedition (1913), became a polar classic; however, his 1911 orders were not included. When those orders were eventually published (in his second-in-command Lieutenant E. R. G. R. Evans’ 1921 memoir, South with Scott), they included pages of formal text that most readers simply skipped. When Cherry-Garrard published his seminal memoir The Worst Journey in the World (1922), it unfortunately repeated the tale of Scott’s “strict injunctions” protecting the dogs. Ironically, Oates’ heroic death also obscured understanding of Scott’s actions: Oates’ famous self-sacrifice naturally overshadowed Scott’s quiet refusal to abandon him.
One commentator who championed Scott was his friend and fellow polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. A leading diplomat and founding father of an independent Norway, Nansen’s creation of the Nansen passport, which enabled thousands of stateless refugees to obtain safe repatriation, earned him the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize. Recognizing in Scott a fellow humanitarian, Nansen wrote in 1929 that “had it not been for the breakdown of some of his comrades, whom Scott could never think of leaving behind, he could easily have pulled through.”18
After World War II, Scott’s story still resonated in Britain. In the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, the explorer was seen supporting the debilitated Oates to the bitter end. With no apparent hope of external rescue, this seemed the ultimate in British gallantry. However, misunderstanding prevailed. Scott was shown doting on the dogs, instead of planning to use them for support. Scott’s pioneering polar motor sledges (funded by millionaire Lord Howard de Walden and peripheral to the main transport arrangements) were misrepresented as Scott’s tender-hearted preference, and their eventual breakdown as a central logistical misjudgment.19 Though the film celebrated Scott’s bravery, it also whispered that Scott’s sentimentality toward dogs was the hamartia underpinning the disaster.
During the 1970s, in a growing anti-imperialist backlash, various heroes of the British Empire such as T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) were subjected to violent iconoclasm. Attempting to mint a moral tale of “misfortune deserved,” revisionist historians misrepresented Scott as an incompetent naval officer who failed to plan his expedition. Invented anecdotes distorted the record. Everything was analyzed with modern hindsight; errors far from obvious to Edwardian-era polar explorers were condemned as self-evident. External factors (the treacherously crevassed Beardmore Glacier, the Antarctic climate) were deemed irrelevant.
Disgruntled responses to Scott’s authority from civilian expedition members were cited as indictments of Scott’s character. Gone was any understanding of naval discipline, or recognition that Scott’s insistence on his authority was balanced by loyalty to his subordinates. Conversely, missteps by Amundsen were excused; for example, it is not well known that nine men died under his command in the polar regions, compared with five under Scott’s. Amundsen, ever pragmatic, had no compunction about abandoning subordinates. He left his frostbitten colleague Kristian Prestrud on the Antarctic interior during a polar attempt, requiring another expeditioner, Hjalmar Johansen, to rescue Prestrud independently.20 He abandoned his Maud Arctic expedition early to return to civilization, leaving his men to continue without him.21 Nonetheless, some erroneously believed Scott to be the leader lacking loyalty to his men.
Scott’s career and final self-sacrifice require some understanding of naval procedure and comradeship. Unfortunately, civilian commentators have primarily judged him. However, the complex factors leading to the expedition’s disaster can now be more clearly assessed. Despite Meares’ evident wish to evade scrutiny during his lifetime, his recorded behavior can be examined. In “clearing out” from Antarctica early, Meares was the antithesis of Scott, who followed the principle that a naval leader should leave no man behind, even if adherence to that credo should cost him his life.
1. George Lewis and Karen May, “‘Will Make a Good Admiral’: A Reassessment of Captain Scott’s Naval Career,” Polar Record 51, no. 2 (March 2015): 111–29.
2. Lewis and May, “‘Will Make a Good Admiral,’” 127.
3. Robert Falcon Scott, Journals (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), 376.
4. Karen May and George Lewis, “‘They Are Not the Ponies They Ought to Have Been’: Revisiting Cecil Meares’ Purchase of Siberian Ponies for Captain Scott’s British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition (1910–1913),” Polar Record 51, no. 6 (November 2015): 655–66.
5. May and Lewis, “‘They Are Not the Ponies They Ought to Have Been,’” 657–59.
6. Ranulph Fiennes, Captain Scott (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2004), 214.
7. Karen May and George Lewis, “‘Strict Injunctions that the Dogs Should Not Be Risked’: A Revised Hypothesis for This Anecdote and Others in Narratives of Scott’s Last Expedition, Polar Record 55, no. 6 (November 2019): 373–84.
8. May and Lewis, “Strict Injunctions,” 377.
9. May and Lewis, “Strict Injunctions,” 378.
10. May and Lewis, “Strict Injunctions,” 379.
11. May and Lewis, “Strict Injunctions,” 379.
12. Scott, Journals, 408.
13. Scott, 409.
14. Scott, 409.
15. Scott, 410.
16. Scott, 412.
17. Scott, 416–17.
18. Fridtjof Nansen, “Preface to New Edition” (1929), in Robert Falcon Scott, The Voyage of the ‘Discovery,’ (Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions, 2009), 6.
19. Karen May, “‘Terra Firma’: A Myth in Secondary Accounts of the Meeting Between the Fram and Terra Nova Expeditions, 4 February 1911,” Polar Record 52, no. 3 (May 2016): 267–75.
20. Tor Bomann-Larsen, Roald Amundsen (Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press, 2006), 103.
21. Bomann-Larsen, Roald Amundsen, 220.