A Victorian soldier, adventurer, and a “very gallant” English gentleman is being honoured by his countrymen 100 years after his death.
Captain Lawrence Oates’s death in Antarctica and his famous last words “I am just going outside and may be some time” still resonate a century later as an expression of self-sacrifice.
A blue commemorative plaque is to be unveiled in Leeds at Meanwood Park, an area formerly owned by the Oates family, in honour of the polar explorer, who reached the South Pole with Scott of the Antarctic.
Beloved by many in England throughout the past century, Oates had been recommended for the Victoria Cross for his bravery in one of modern history’s harshest military theatres, the Boer war. He was known as a distinguished soldier and a valiant servant of King and country. He later bought himself out of the army, paying a vast sum so that he could be free to enlist with Scott’s fated 1911 South Pole expedition from which no one returned.
Scott’s team had valiantly battled the forbidding ice fields and reached the South Pole only to be pipped at the post by the more efficient Amundsen expedition. The Norwegian team had used dog sleds instead of exhaustingly man-hauling their provisions and equipment. For the British team this error of methodology combined with the use of less than adequate horses on the first 400 miles of the gargantuan outward journey, conspired with the elements to prove the British expedition’s downfall.
Disappointment at not getting to the pole first was soon compounded with disaster as the undermined team turned for home. Catastrophe loomed when, starving and debilitated, the explorers found themselves so near yet so far from the next feeding station. They were ill-equipped to go much further and in sub 40 degree temperatures.
Captain Oates, an accomplished equestrian, who had been originally hired to manage the ponies, had limped from the outset of this most forbidding journey. His disability was due to the shortening of a leg from his injuries as an officer in the African campaign. In the rapidly deteriorating conditions, his health, inevitably, was the first to fall apart.
Oates was now famished and desperately compromised by aggressively advancing gangrene, frostbite, and the re-opening of the old war wound. His colleagues, despite his neediness and the extremity of their situation, had decided never to abandon him. Facing this and seeing no choice, he then made his terrible and now famous decision to unburden his fellow explorers of his rapidly increasing dependence upon them.
Displaying the quintessential British stiff upper lip, he woke up on March 16, 1912, and told Scott and the others, “I am just going outside and may be some time”. Leaving his boots behind him in the tent, and despite attempts to dissuade him, he then walked out barefoot into the Arctic blizzard. Day turned to night and March 17, Captain Oates’s 32nd birthday, dawned but he was never seen again.
This act and the dignity of its execution immortalised the man as a paragon of valiant self-sacrifice and a beloved son of Victorian England who is still very much admired today. He is remembered as a shining example of right conduct and of disregarding self interest to put one’s fellows first, even in the face of the direst personal adversity.
Tragically, after a last effort to reach the feeding station only 11 miles from where they managed to camp, Scott and all the remaining expedition members became trapped by a fierce snow storm and perished in their tent.
A stone erected affectionately to Oates’s memory can be seen at Memorial Drive in Leeds and bears the inscription:
“Lawrence Edward Grace Oates of Meanwoodside in this Parish 1880–1912. Captain 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. Served with distinction in the South African war. In 1912 he reached the South Pole with Captain Scott and on the return journey, hoping to save his companions, went out from them to die. His body lies lost in the Antarctic snows. His name is here by his fellow villagers recorded. A very gallant gentleman.”
The Oates Gallery in Selborne, Hampshire, also opened a permanent exhibition in his name on March 10, 2012.