Sailing ship to Antarctica

This Friday exactly 100 years ago in Antarctica, Captain Lawrence Oates walked out of a snow-starched tent into a blizzard and to his certain death, uttering the words: “I am just going outside and may be away some time”

The phrase has been misquoted by the English ever since as a jokey aside to a forth-coming prosaic action. But the immortal words have never been used in pure ridicule: they are always quoted with a poignant wryness out of respect to their originator.

Oates, suffering from severe frostbite, staggered away so that he would not hold back the chances of Captain Robert Scott and three others from getting to a provisions dump, which in the event, none of them made. All were returning from their conquest of the South Pole, having been beaten to it by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

Last Saturday I took my 12-year-old son to the Queen’s Gallery – part of Buckingham Palace- to see the exhibition of photographs taken of the ill-fated trip by George Ponting.

It’s no surprise to find that Oates – a former cavalryman, was the biggest of the team. But his condition in the picture taken at the Pole is appalling. His face black with frostbite, his expression dejected, his demeanour one of exhaustion.

As the man who understood horses, Oates was in charge of the ponies all the way. Even before they got to the ice, the sailing steamship Terra Nova, went through storms in the Southern Ocean which would have had most men turning back. Seas which broke over the ship, swamped the focsle head, where the horses were stabled, drowning two of them. At least one husky dog died – washed overboard and hung by its chain collar.

Go and see this exhibition – which also includes coverage of Ernest Shackleton’s failure to cross Antarctica, after his ship was crushed in the ice, but which became a success thanks to his rescue of all hands.

Were they heroes? No, they did not have to be there. Were they heroic – quite likely. And would they have been heroes in another venture? Certainly: several of Shackleton’s men got back in time to die in the trenches of World War 1.

Had Oates somehow survived his act of self-sacrifice he would have found himself somewhere on the Somme where, having seen this exhibition, no-one can doubt he would have put himself before his companions once again.

I hope such selflessness rubbed off on my boy.