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Captain Lawrence Oates: Antarctic tragedy


‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

Most people will know that these simple words, so famous and so often repeated over the past decades, were uttered by Captain Lawrence Oates who, according to legend, gallantly gave his life to help save his comrades in an Antarctic blizzard during Captain Scott’s tragic last expedition. There are few phrases in the English language that are so instantly recognisable or so enduring, or that capture the imagination to such an extent. From the moment that his tragic words and the circumstances of his death arrived in the public domain in 1913, Oates became a symbol of gallantry and heroism and a national icon.

Oates was at centre stage of the Scott disaster and the expedition’s most unfortunate victim. It was a tragedy which left such an impression on the national psyche that 100,000 British soldiers, who themselves were staring death in the face from the trenches of the First World War, were shown pictures of Oates and his comrades as an example of how to die nobly. One senior military chaplain wrote from the Front that the tragedy was ‘…just the thing to cheer and encourage us out here…’ Oates was the finest example of how, if nothing else, Britons knew how to die.

With hindsight it is easy to understand how the country sought to draw strength from Oates. The Old Order was changing and war had accelerated the change. The reforms of the Edwardian age had left many Britons bewildered and uncertain, the Empire was under intense strain in places like Ireland and India, and the map of Europe was being re-drawn by the war.

Oates was a symbol of Britishness at a time when the country was under most pressure and people drew strength from his heroism. It was a time for heroes, unlike the modern day preoccupation with villains.

However, the man behind the memorable words, Lawrence Edward Grace Oates, remains something of an enigma. He is a mysterious, largely unknown character, whose fame arises chiefly from his short valedictory remark and miserable death in the most inhospitable and remote place on earth.

However, there was far more to Lawrence Oates than a distinguished death.

Oates was undoubtedly a hero, a cool-headed man of tremendous courage. He might have won the Victoria Cross during a distinguished army career.

But he was a reluctant hero, a quiet man who was uncomfortable in the limelight and hated convention and what he called ‘fuss’. He would have been entirely repelled by the attention and hero worship which has followed him since his death in 1912.

On the surface, Oates was just another member of the Landed Gentry, who emerged from one of England’s oldest families at the end of the Victorian age to an enviable position of inherited wealth and social position. The trappings of privilege took him from the family’s country estate to Eton and onto a commission in an elite cavalry regiment. It also gave him a lazy, self-indulgent life hunting, playing polo and attending an endless merry-go-round of parties and social functions for the idle rich.

Beneath the surface the Oates story is different. He was always something of an outsider, a man who disliked the strict conventions of the Victorian era into which he was born and yet struggled to come to terms with the reforms of an Edwardian Britain. He was a contradiction, a person who epitomised the English country squire but was no dandy. He rejected the rigid social customs, ignored class distinction and deliberately wore shabby clothes to emphasise his abhorrence of social status. He was informal in an age of formality.

The other side of Oates was that he was dominated by his austere and over-powering mother, a formidable woman who exercised a powerful control over his life from the stuffy drawing room of the grand manorial home and who could never come to terms with his death. It was a control she continued to exercise long afterwards. Her obsessive love for her son also meant that she was among the first to raise uncomfortable questions about the official version of Scott’s ill-fated expedition, which killed her son.

Oates played a prominent role in the key events which shaped the Scott tragedy and was the only one of the five men who perished on the terrible Polar journey to offer an alternative perspective on the unfolding catastrophe. Contemporary scraps of diaries and letters reveal a different picture from the conventional story of gallant failure by the harmonious and unlucky British explorers. Oates did not suffer fools gladly and his writings are typical pieces of iconoclasm offering a sardonic and alternative outlook on the disaster.

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