100 years ago on Antarctica: Oates walks to his death

Posted: Mar 16, 2012 02:28 pm EDT

(Correne Coetzer) He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, said Scott about Lawrence (Titus) Oates hundred years ago on their march back from the South Pole to Cape Evans.

With severely frostbitten hands and feet and an open war time wound Oates begged his leader to leave him behind, in his sleeping bag; while Antarctica’s winter was setting in.

His team mates encouraged him to go on. Mentally and physically it became too much and while a blizzard was blowing outside the tent, Oates announced he was just going outside and may be some time – and was never to be seen again. Eight months later a search party found only his sleeping bag.

From the army to the Terra Nova

Lawrence Edward Grace Oates was born on March 17, 1880 in London. After school he joined the army. He served in the Anglo-Boer War* in South Africa where, in March 1901, he suffered a thigh wound which left his left leg a bit shorter than his right leg. In 1906 he was promoted to Captain.

While he was serving in India he responded on an advertisement of Captain Robert Falcon Scott who was looking for two people to join the Terra Nova expedition (1910-1912) to the South Pole. Oates paid GBP1,000 to join, but was mainly accepted because of his experience with horses. On this expedition horses/ponies were used to sledge-haul food and fuel to the depots enroute to the South Pole.

Slogging on, frostbitten

On Antarctica Oates was chosen as a member of Scott’s polar party. When the support teams left Scott and his final selection of men to haul the sledges themselves, he wrote, “Oates had his invaluable period with the ponies; now he is a foot slogger and goes hard the whole time, does his share of camp work, and stands the hardships as well as any of us.”

Already on January 14, less than 40 miles from the South Pole Scott wrote in his diary Oates seems to be feeling the cold and fatigue more than the rest of them.

Eventually Oates’ hands and feet turned out to be badly frostbitten. Edward Evans in his book, South with Scott, Oates constantly appealed to Wilson for advice. What should he do, what could he do? Poor, gallant soldier, we thought such worlds of him. Wilson could only answer "slog on, just slog on."

Robert Falcon Scott’s diary – tragedy:

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 anyone 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 Depôt.

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.


Search teams

On October 29 and November 1, 1912 two search teams set off from Cape Evans, where they had over-winter a second time, to search for Scott and his men as no one had returned to Cape Evans.

Founding Scott’s tent and the diaries and three dead bodies on November 12, they learned about what happened to Oates.

Trygvy Gran, the Norwegian in the British team, recorded in his diary, ’Soldier’ [Oats] had got his feet frost-bitten badly and suffered enormously. He understood that the salvation of the party depended on his death — but as death would not relieve him he went out of the tent in a blizzard to meet it.

The search team leader, Edward L. Atkinson wrote in his account, I decided then to march twenty miles south with the whole of the Expedition and try to find the body of Captain Oates. For half the day we proceeded south, as far as possible along the line of the previous season's march.

On one of the old pony walls, which was simply marked by a ridge of the surface of the snow, we found Oates's sleeping-bag, which they had brought along with them after he had left.

The next day we proceeded thirteen miles more south, hoping and searching to find his body. When we arrived at the place where he had left them, we saw that there was no chance of doing so. The kindly snow had covered his body, giving him a fitting burial.

Here, again, as near to the site of the death as we could judge, we built another cairn to his memory, and placed thereon a small cross and the following record: '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. This note is left by the Relief Expedition of 1912.


The British polar team with Robert Falcon Scott as leader set off from Cape Evans on November 1, 1911 on their quest to discover the South Pole. The polar party who arrived at the already discovered South Pole on January 17, 1912 was Henry R. Bowers, Edward A. Wilson, Lawrence E.G. Oates and Edgar Evans (Evans died February 17, 1912 on the way back to cape Evans). The ages of the five men when they set off on the journey to the Pole were: Scott 43, Wilson 39, P.O. Evans 37, Oates 32, Bowers 28.

Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team, Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, Helmer Hanssen and Sverre Hassel, set off from The Bay of Whales October 20, 1911 and discover the Geographic South Pole (90°S) on December 14, 1911. Kristian Prestrud, Jørgen Stubberud and Hjalmar Johansen stayed behind at Framheim (Bay of Whales) with the cook, Adolf Lindström.

*The Anglo-Boer War (October 11, 1899 to May 31, 1902) was fought between the British Empire and the Afrikaans speaking Boers over the independence of two Boer republics, the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State. In 1902 the war ended with the annexation and colonization of both republics by the British Empire.

Ed note: check in next week for an interview with Henry Worsley, the only person who has ever retraced both Scott and Amundsen’s routes; as well as an interview with Mark Langridge who retraced Scott’s route during the centenary year.

#Polar






Oates and the ponies on the 1910-1912 Terra Nova Expedition.
Image by Herbert G. Ponting
During the recent centenary South Pole season, Lt Col Henry Worsley carried the polar medal posthumously awarded to Captain Lawrence (Titus) Oates with him on his expedition retracing Amundsen’s route from Bay of Whales. In 2009 Worsley retraced Scott’s route.
courtesy Adventure Network International (ANI), SOURCE
Scott and Amundsen's routes.
2011-12 Antarctica ski routes.
courtesy ExplorersWeb.com

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