Captain Oates

by Michael Smith


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Captain Oates was the 'very gallant gentleman' who walked to his death in a blizzard, hoping to save his comrades on Scott's disastrous South Pole expedition in 1912. As he crawled from their tent on to the ice in temperatures of -40 °C, Oates achieved immortality with the famous parting remark: 'I am just going outside and may be some time.'

But there was more to Oates than a famous death.

He was a reluctant hero, who was dominated by his overbearing mother and clashed bitterly with Scott on the ill-fated expedition. His dislike of Scott became so intense that he resigned from the expedition on the eve of the Polar march and, alone among the five who perished, Oates pointed an accusing finger at Scott's bungling management.

Oates also went to his death not realizing that he was a father. A little girl, who was born at an unknown location in Ireland, was taken from her young mother and sent to an orphanage in the south of England and grew up not knowing her father's identity. Oates was unaware of the child, and the dark secret has remained untold for about a hundred years.

The secret was indeed dark, since the mother of the child was only 12 years of age when she gave birth. Her family, who came from Scotland, sent the pregnant girl to Ireland to have the child in secrecy and her story has been kept a closely-guarded secret until today.

By coincidence, Oates, a professional soldier, spent almost four years in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century. These were the key years that shaped Oates and led him to make the fateful decision to enlist in Scott's expedition to the Antarctic.

The traditional view is that Oates was a member of Victorian England's landed gentry, born into a life of wealth and privilege. He went from the grand manor house to the famous Eton public school and on to a commission in an elite cavalry regiment, the Inniskilling Dragoons. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery, during the Boer War.

But Oates became deeply disenchanted with army life in the years following the Boer War. In 1909, while stationed in India, the chance for escape came when Captain Scott announced his plans to reach the South Pole.

Oates was so desperate to leave the army that he paid £1,000 from his own pocket to join Scott. Today that £1,000 is worth almost £50,000.

Oates was the expedition's most unfortunate figure, who should never have gone to the Pole. A bullet wound from the Boer War left one leg two inches shorter than the other, giving him a noticeable limp. In addition, he was a cavalry officer, trained to ride. Both these facts made him unsuitable for man-hauling a sledge 1,800 miles across the frozen wastes of Antarctica.

But Oates was imbued with the British tradition of self-sacrifice and the stiff upper lip. Consequently, he concealed his severely frostbitten and gangrenous feet on the Polar march. As the only solider among a predominantly naval expedition, he was also an outsider.

New studies of Oates' diaries and letters present a stark contrast to the conventional tale of gallant failure by a harmonious group of plucky explorers. By comparison, Oates offers a sardonic and disparaging judgement, which points to mismanagement and poor leadership by Scott.

Oates frequently clashed with the temperamental Scott and once wrote: 'Myself, I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not that we are a British expedition.' He added: '[Scott] is not straight, it is himself first, the rest nowhere …'

His intense loathing of Scott even prompted Oates to heap praise on Roald Amundsen, who reached the Pole a month before Scott's party. Oates concluded that Amundsen 'must have had his head screwed on right' to use dog teams to pull his sledges. It was 'very different to our wretched man-hauling' of sledges, he observed.

Oates and Scott were ill-matched. Scott was a short-tempered, irrational and moody man who rarely confided in colleagues. Oates was taciturn, clear-cut and intolerant. 'Their natures jarred on one another,' a fellow explorer recalled.

But Oates was central to the expedition. As an expert horseman, he was hired to handle a team of tough Manchurian or Siberian ponies hauling supplies on the first 400 miles of the Polar journey. But Scott dropped an astonishing blunder by sending Cecil Meares, who knew nothing about horses, to buy the animals.

Oates was horrified at the 'greatest lot of crocks I have ever seen' and said: 'Scott's ignorance about marching with animals is colossal.'

Trying to make the best of a bad job, Oates argued that the ponies should be driven into the ground and shot as they weakened to feed the men. But Scott was squeamish and rejected the idea - a decision that planted the seeds of disaster.

On the crucial depot-laying journey, Scott ordered a halt to the march and insisted that the depot be placed 30 miles further north than originally intended. Oates warned Scott that he would regret not driving the ponies further south and build the depot 30 miles nearer the Pole.

A year later, 30 miles was the difference between life and death as the starving, freezing explorers struggled back from the Pole in crippling weather. Oates died about 30 miles from the depot - at roughly the spot he had urged Scott to build the cache of supplies.

Even the myth of Oates' suicide can be questioned. It seems highly unlikely that Oates' suicide was an attempt to save the three other men in the tent - Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Nor did it save them.

Oates had reached a pinnacle of suffering by the time suicide beckoned. He could barely walk, his feet blackened and swollen by a merciless combination of frostbite and gangrene. He was starving and incoherent from the cold. The side effects of scurvy had re-opened his old war wound as a festering mess.

Suicide was a merciful relief from unbearable suffering.

Oates had plenty of earlier opportunities to leave the tent and speed up his colleagues' progress. He lingered painfully week after week and crawled to his death on 17th March 1912.

The bleak fact is that Scott, Wilson and Bowers were beyond redemption when Oates crawled from the tent. Scott, too, sensed the end was near and wrote his first letter of farewell on the day Oates died. The letter included the telling words: '…we have been the Pole and we shall die like gentlemen.' They struggled on but died a slow death just 11 miles from the food depot.

Lawrence Oates, the cool-headed man of immense courage, was the only one of the party to decide when he was going to die. It was his 32nd birthday.

© Michael Smith 2002. Michael Smith is a freelance journalist and author of I Am Just Going Outside, published by The Collins Press and Spellmount. He is also the author of An Unsung Hero - Tom Crean and Sir James Wordie - Polar Crusader: see this website for details. Anyone wishing to contact Michael may do so via e-mail:

For details of the Oates Museum, click here



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