In 1910, Captain Robert Falcon Scott led a team of explorers on the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, with the goal of reaching the South Pole before anyone else and collecting invaluable scientific data along the way. After a gruelling journey through the unforgiving Antarctic landscape, Scott and his men arrived at the pole on 17th January 1912, only to find that Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beaten them to it weeks earlier; crestfallen and exhausted, the men then began the harrowing 700-mile return trek to the ship that awaited them. In this diary entry of 17th March, Scott describes the last sighting of team member Lawrence Oates, and records Oates’ now-famous last words. Twelve days later, Scott would write his final diary entry. His body, and those of his remaining companions, were discovered on November 12th, 1912.
The Diary Entry
Friday, March 16 or Saturday 17.—Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come.
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 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.
We are cold on the march now, and at all times except meals. Yesterday we had to lay up for a blizzard and to-day we move dreadfully slowly. We are at No. 14 pony camp, only two pony marches from One Ton Depot. We leave here our theodolite, a camera, and Oates’ sleeping-bags. Diaries, &c., and geological specimens carried at Wilson’s special request, will be found with us or on our sledge.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can flick through Scott’s diaries, virtually at least, on the British Library website, which handily features a transcript of each page on the left-hand side. His diaries have also been published in various editions over the years and a good option is OUP’s brilliant Robert Falcon Scott: Journals, published in 2008 and edited by Max Jones. But you could also try Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen, in which editor Roland Huntford has taken entries from the “rival” explorers and laid them out side by side, allowing you to compare their progress as the days go by.
Photo of Captain Scott’s Diaries, Vol III, 1912 © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved. Used here with permission.