Today in History... Captain Oates makes his gallant sacrifice

Captain Robert Scott's final Antarctic mission was intended to be the first to reach the South Pole. It is remembered as a tragic failure, though marked by a degree of heroism.

Scott's planning for the mission has been criticised, notably his refusal to rely on dogs, and handing over the purchase of horses (which had served his rival Shackleton well) to someone with no experience with them, resulting in poorly suited animals.

Scott made it to the South Pole, though only four of his companions had been resolute enough to press on with him, only to find a note left in a tent by rival Roald Amundsen informing them he had reached there over a month earlier.

Photograph taken of Captain Scott's earlier expedition by Charles Royds
Photograph taken of Scott's earlier expedition by Charles Royds

On the return journey, the team were beset by frostbite, exacerbated by scurvy. Scott's log notes that Captain Lawrence Oates became particularly ill and asked to be left behind to avoid slowing the others down.

They refused, but soon after Oates took matters into his own hands and walked out of the tent with the words "I am just going outside and may be some time". Oates was of course walking to certain death, and did not even bother putting his boots on.

Oates's sacrifice proved to be in vain as neither Scott nor any of the others made it back.

Polar medal for Captain Lawrence Oates, Birdie Bowers, Edgar Evans for Scott's Antarctic
Polar medal awarded to a member of Scott's team
(Click to enlarge)

Scott's expedition and others have provided some unique and fascinating collectible pieces.

In our interview with him, Dix Noonan Webb's Medal Specialist David Erskine-Hill singled out handling the Polar Medals won by members of Scott's expedition including Oates as a particular highlight of his career.

A set of photographs from Scott's earlier, relatively successful, expedition sold late last year at Bonhams for £5,400.

Other frosty collectibles are more surprising. A team of serious New Zealanders recently made an expedition to rescue some whisky Ernest Shackleton had abandoned in 1909. Distillers have hopes of recreating the well-regarded Rare Old whisky based on samples.

Likewise, an Australian team spent some time out in the frozen wastes attempting to recover parts of a broken British Vickers plane associated with another expedition.

The team was close to giving up when it was discovered - by the light of rare blue moon.


Images: Dix Noonan Webb (medal) and Bonhams (photograph)

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