By Frances Casey, Project Manager
One lesser known fact is that the UK National Inventory of War Memorials records memorials to those who died whilst in active service as a result of accident or disease as ‘non-combat’ deaths. One such case of note is that of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who died one hundred years ago today on 29th March 1912, whilst attempting to return from the South Pole during his British Antarctic Expedition.
The expedition, also known as the Terra Nova Expedition, named after the ship in which the party sailed, was a private venture for which Scott was responsible.
In 1909, released on half-pay from his position as naval assistant to the Second Sea Lord, Scott began to plan and then took command of the expedition, which he intended to be the first to reach the South Pole.
On 1st November 1911, the party set off, yet the five-man team that eventually succeeded in reaching the Pole on 18th January 1912 were disappointed to find that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had been there before them. Returning home, they faced severe weather conditions, scant rations and failing health.
Captain Scott was on active service in the Royal Navy when he died, weakened by hunger and unable to proceed due to blizzard conditions, and that is why, despite the fact that he did not die in war or conflict, we include memorials that commemorate his death. Of his four companions, all of whom perished, three were in service at the time of their deaths.
Captain Lawrence E G Oates is listed in the Army List (1913) as previously employed with the British Antarctic Expedition since 1910 and in ‘Special extra-Regimental employment’ (29 March 1910). Oates, an officer with the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, saw action in the Second Boer War, during which time he received a wound to his leg.
On the return journey from the South Pole, Oates suffered severe frostbite to his feet and his old wound was aggravated by this condition. Fearing that his ill health was a burden on the other members of the party and would slow their progress, on 16th March 1912, he left the tent in which they were sheltering with the words, recorded by Scott in his diary, “I am just going outside and may be some time”. Captain Oates is thought to have died on 17th March 1912, the date of his 32nd birthday. Memorials to Oates include one erected this year, on the anniversary of both his birth and death, on the wall of his family home in Meanwoodside (now Meanwood Park), Leeds.
Lieutenant Henry Robinson Bowers, who played a key role in navigating the team to the Pole, was serving with the Royal Navy and Royal Indian Marine at the time of his death, which is also thought to be around the 29th March 1912. Edgar Evans, who died on 17th February 1912, was a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy. The only civilian in the ill-fated return party was Dr Edward Adrian Wilson, who, as well as acting as the party’s medical doctor, was a talented artist and naturalist. Wilson’s paintings survived the expedition and show the wildlife encountered as well as portraits of members of the party battling the elements.
The most striking memorial to Scott is perhaps that which shows him in Arctic weather clothing. Sculpted by his widow, Lady Scott, a professional sculptress, it was commissioned and paid for by officers of the Royal Navy and is in memory of all five members of the expedition who died. Lady Scott also sculpted the memorial to Dr Edward Wilson in his home town of Cheltenham, which we have not recorded in the Inventory due to Wilson’s civilian, non-war related status.
Other notable non-combat death memorials are to Captain Cook , who was killed in Hawaii in 1779 whilst conducting an exploration of the Northern Pacific, Captain Francis Crozier, who is thought to have died in 1848 when attempting to return from the 1845 expedition with Sir John Franklin in search of the North-West passage, and Major General Henry Havelock who died in 1857 of dysentery contracted during the Indian Mutiny (1857-58).