January 12th 1912 – Scott reaches the South Pole

On 17th January 1912 Captain Robert Scott of the Royal Navy reached the South Pole. On his arrival he discovered that his Norwegian rival Amundsen had made it a month earlier, claiming the title of first man to set foot on the southern most place on earth.

This event became one of the most heroic quintessentially British feats, because Scotts failure to reach the Pole first was transformed by tragedy and his diary into a gripping story. The tired, hungry and defeated British team turned from the Pole after their brief visit on 17th January to attempt the journey back.

They encountered atrocious conditions. They finally had to stay in their tents on the Ross Ice Shelf because the weather was sp bad and they were so weak. One of Scotts last deeds was to write the memorable words of his ??Message to the public??:

??I do not think human beings ever came through such a month as we have come through??.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??

When Apsley Cherry-Garrard found the three frozen corpses of the Pole team in their tent on the Ross Ice Shelf in the November of 1912 he discovered the diary. Its publication gripped the imaginations of Edwardian Britain, making the brave adventurers instant heroes.

Because their suffering had been so intense and Scotts prose was so arresting in a way they became more heroic than the successful Amundsen who had proved the superior tactician in fighting the elements.

Subsequent research has suggested that Scotts team were likely to fail because they did not eat enough to sustain them in their battle with the cold and snow, a problem compounded by the inadequacy of their clothing and the difficulties of their transport.

There is something very British ?? or as Scott would have said, very English ?? about the heroic failure of this memorable expedition. The resilience in the face of adversity, the philosophical approach to danger and death, the wish to achieve the improbable if not the impossible are all part of that unconquerable spirit which has led to the triumphs of our islands story. This is one of several examples of how glorious and tragic failure are better remembered than the glittering successes ?? it ranks alongside the Charge of Light Brigade and the much larger and strategically much more important retreat from Dunkirk in the folk memory.

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3 Comments

  1. Tony Makara
    Posted January 17, 2008 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    The British spirit admires endeavour, in many ways that is seen as more important than success. On the sporting front Englands recent defeat by Croatia was despised by the nation because the England side showed no endeavour whatsoever. Same goes for the ashes debacle. I feel that a lot of the spirit of Scott has gone from our nation. We need to bring it back. We are fast becoming a passive nation, a weak nation. I remember how embarrassed I felt to see John Terry the England captain laid on the floor crumpled up and crying like a baby because England had lost the penalty shoot-out against Portugal. I felt embarrassed because I knew that image, of an Englisman sobbing after being beaten, were being beamed around the world. John Terry should not have been crying, he should have been angry, he should have felt resolve in that moment of setback, a resolve to never let that happen again. Thank heavens we can look to the likes of Scott and Colonel H Jones to show us the true spirit of our nation. Such men are an inspiration to us, people like John Terry are just an embarrassment.

  2. mikestallard
    Posted January 18, 2008 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    What an inspiring start to a grey January day! Well remembered!

  3. Andrew Duffin
    Posted January 19, 2008 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. Excellent post.

    You missed out, though, another quote you could have made from Scott's diary, which points up one of the things which have gone so badly wrong for our country in the years since.

    I refer to this (and I am quoting from memory): "We took risks, we knew we took them, things have turned out against us, and we have no complaint".

    Not much sign of the blame culture there, is there?

    Sad changes.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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