These were the last words Captain Robert Scott wrote in his diary 100 years ago on this very day. Of the five men who set out for the South Pole five months earlier, only three remained. Evans had died on 17 February and Royal Army Captain Oates on 16 March. Not only had they arrived at the Pole a month after Roald Amundsen (“All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return”), but they were facing worsening weather conditions and dwindling supplies of food and fuel. Captain Scott and his companions had sacrificed much to attain the South Pole. In addition to the physical hardship, there had been years of extended absences from friends and loved ones back in the Great Britain…all to explore the unknown, expand the frontiers of science, and fly the British flag over new territory. In the face of bitter disappointment, however, they continued to make scientific observations and collect geological specimens…even while their safe return remained in doubt.
Unfortunately they encountered some absolutely dreadful conditions on their return journey. On 19 March, Captain Robert Scott (expedition leader), Dr. Edward Wilson (first physician at the South Pole), and Navy Lieutenant H.R. Bower’s pitched their tent for the last time. Weather prevented further travel north toward safety.
From Scott’s diary –
Thursday, March 29.—Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
For God’s sake look after our people.
A search party led by Dr. Edward Atkinson, a Royal Navy Surgeon, found the last camp on 12 November 1912. Inside were the three frozen explorers, along with their diaries, last letters, exposed photographic film, and geological specimens. Wilson and Bowers were found in the attitude of sleep, their sleeping-bags closed over their heads as they would naturally close them.
Scott died later. He had thrown back the flaps of his sleeping-bag and opened his coat. The little wallet containing the three notebooks was under his shoulders and his arm flung across Wilson.
After gathering the personal papers, geological specimens, diaries, film, and a few artifacts, the search party collapsed the tent over the bodies in their sleeping bags and covered the site with a large cairn of snow blocks. A cross made from skis was affixed at its pinnacle.
With the diaries in the tent were found the following letters:
To Mrs. E.A. Wilson (Dr. Wilson’s wife)
MY DEAR MRS. WILSON,
If this letter reaches you Bill and I will have gone out together. We are very near it now and I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end—everlastingly cheerful and ready to sacrifice himself for others, never a word of blame to me for leading him into this mess. He is not suffering, luckily, at least only minor discomforts.
His eyes have a comfortable blue look of hope and his mind is peaceful with the satisfaction of his faith in regarding himself as part of the great scheme of the Almighty. I can do no more to comfort you than to tell you that he died as he lived, a brave, true man—the best of comrades and staunchest of friends. My whole heart goes out to you in pity,
To Mrs. Bowers (LT Bowers mother)
MY DEAR MRS. BOWERS,
I am afraid this will reach you after one of the heaviest blows of your life.
I write when we are very near the end of our journey, and I am finishing it in company with two gallant, noble gentlemen. One of these is your son. He had come to be one of my closest and soundest friends, and I appreciate his wonderful upright nature, his ability and energy. As the troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful, and indomitable to the end.
The ways of Providence are inscrutable, but there must be some reason why such a young, vigorous and promising life is taken.
My whole heart goes out in pity for you.
To the end he has talked of you and his sisters. One sees what a happy home he must have had and perhaps it is well to look back on nothing but happiness.
He remains unselfish, self-reliant and splendidly hopeful to the end, believing in God’s mercy to you.
On this Thursday evening, March 29, at the South Pole, we enjoyed the most serenely beautiful sky I have seen since arriving. It seemed a fitting celestial tribute to those brave souls who gave every measure of themselves and departed this life a century ago today.