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Dogged by ill fortune

1 November 2003

12:00 AM

1 November 2003

12:00 AM

Captain Scott Ranulph Fiennes

Hodder, pp.508, 20

Sir Ranulph Fiennes has done Captain Scott’s memory some service. For the past two decades, since Roland Huntford’s devastating demolition job — Scott bad, Amundsen good — was first published (also by Hodder & Stoughton) in 1979, ‘the world’s greatest explorer’ has dropped quite a few places in the league table. Fiennes may not have succeeded in putting his man back at the top of the first division, but he has certainly written a more dispassionate and balanced account than Huntford ever set out to do.

Yet Fiennes is not entirely objective. A distingushed polar explorer himself, he is, like Scott, a manhauler. He feels instinctively, as Scott’s mentor, Sir Clements Markham, put it, that dragging your own equipment and provisions is ‘the true British way’. Neither Scott nor Shackleton ever understood how to handle sledge dogs, nor did they really want to learn. Their experience with dogs on their first expedition together to the Antarctic persuaded them it should not be repeated. But it was principally by his use of dogs that Amundsen beat Scott to the Pole and survived.

Fiennes never says this in so many words. He acknowledges that the odds were in Amundsen’s favour because his base was 60 miles nearer the Pole and with dogs he was able to start his journey earlier in the season than was Scott with his ponies. He suggests that Scott’s party would have made it back had the weather not been so exceptionally cold on the return journey, had Oates not held them up in the latter stages, had Cherry-Garrard taken the decision to continue beyond One Ton Depot to meet them. But he does not directly address the question: would they have survived had they taken dogs to the Pole and back, and was Scott at fault in dismissing his dogs at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier?

Scott feared the dogs would not manage the crevasses ahead. On a previous journey he had almost lost dogs and sledge when they fell down a crevasse. As Cherry-Garrard noted, ‘Up to this day Scott had been talking to Meares [the expedition’s dog-handler] of how the dogs would go to the Pole. After this, I never heard him say that.’ The fact was that, when it came to dog-driving and skiing, the Norwegians were the professionals, the Players, against the British amateur Gentlemen. Scott was quite happy in this role: manhauling was in his eyes the superior discipline, and Shackleton had reached furthest south three years earlier without dogs or skis. But Scott was relying on Meares to bring the dog-team out to meet them on the return journey, and as they struggled towards death two months after reaching the Pole, Scott wrote poignantly in his diary of ‘the dogs which would have been our salvation’. After the first world war, the new generation of British explorers would soon become expert in the use of dogs.

Huntford denigrated Scott in all sorts of ways. He was not only an autocratic leader but incompetent and depressive. His bullying manner and rigid segregation of officers and men brought some members of the Terra Nova expedition close to mutiny. He falsified his diary of the earlier Discovery expedition. He was jealous of Shackleton and took every opportunity to disparage him. He forced Oates to walk out to his death. His wife was an adulteress and bisexual, Markham was homosexual. Huntford decided to overlook the importance which Scott attached to scientific research on his expeditions, commenting quite unfairly that the rocks and fossils which Wilson and Bowers were collecting in the final weeks were ‘a pathetic little gesture to salvage something from defeat at the Pole’. (Fiennes himself largely ignores the scientific work of the northern party from the Terra Nova and their six-month ordeal in an underground ice-cave, followed by a five-week overland journey, which is an extraordinary tale of both heroism and survival.)

One of Amundsen’s team, quoted by Fiennes, wrote afterwards, ‘What shall we say of Scott and his comrades, who were their own dogs? . . . I do not believe men ever have shown such endurance.’ And when the time came, they died like gentlemen — though whether of cold and hunger or of scurvy, which would have reflected badly on Scott, is open to doubt. According to Fiennes, the surgeon, Edward Atkinson, who found three bodies many months later stated that none showed signs of scurvy. Huntford, in his biography of Shackleton, quotes the chief surgeon on Endurance as having been told by Atkinson in 1917 that scurvy had probably killed Scott’s party, but that ‘it would be disloyal to Scott to say so’. Fiennes unwisely calls his final chapter ‘The Last Word’. There will never be a last word on Scott.

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