As sure as snow melts off a dyke, the aging demographic of yesteryears generation will cast a judgmental eye over the present generation's social, political and moral standings, which will be quite often judged as falling below the acceptable plimsoll line of standards and behaviour. Arcing back to the good old days will always be filled with nostalgia and feelings of a better more moralistic time. In times when you could simply sort a heated dispute with bare fists followed by a handshake. Times when it was safe to leave your doors unlocked because everybody knew and respected each other. Times when kids played outdoors and had to be either called in by mum yelling at the back door or trudging off home at sunset.
There can be no doubt that society has changed and is always in a constant state of flux, whether the influence is deliberate or natural. Although it is impossible to quantify if the changes inflicted or the change rate between the levels of behaviour, from what used to be such a stoically expected bench mark to what has now been deemed acceptable, has had a positive or negative influence on society as a whole.
The judgment of whether these political and societal changes are positive or negative is of course both objective and subjective, and more appropriately should be left as topic of discussion to those who are far more experienced or researched in the development of social and political sciences and moral acceptability, to discuss.
From a personal perspective, I have my own views on the current state of affairs and about how liberal society has become in only the second decade of the 3rd millennium CE. I do believe that it is important for people to be more relaxed and accepting of people and situations that aren't so black and white in life, but I often think that the boundaries have been stretched too far in what I think has become a heavily disposable society. What are the catalysts for these changes? There are many factors that contribute to the change in social acceptability, including advancements in technology, consumer marketing, health care, a general liberalization of attitudes, pace of work and lifestyle environments, the invention of social media amongst others.
The internet and social media has made it OK to communicate without the prompt of personal interaction and social cues. It has encouraged obnoxious social behaviour which would be so awfully unacceptable in times where disputes were held face to face and settled more often than not, with a bit of physical retribution. The advent of 'reality TV Shows' has also given sections of society something that I would consider to be a repugnant disposable attitude towards life. It seems that the negative effects of social media and trash television, is slowly sucking the questioning attitude out of the next generation. It gives those unaware of what history was and what it stands for a false impression that being a famous person is more important than being a good person. The road to super stardom and fame is no longer hard work and dedication, but fast tracked via social media and carrying out increasingly stupid acts of Jackass style stunts or plunging to decadent style depths of self-exposure for the whole world to see... It seems far more important these days for people to be popular with perfect teeth, than honest with scars. And of course this is only one aspect of the multi-disciplinary reasons for what I believe is a social and political decline. The simple fact lies in that in today’s' society, there is a distinct lack of proper gentlemanly conduct and self-sacrifice.
A Very Gallant Gentleman
Of course my scathing single minded view could simply be explained away by two amazingly blunt points:
Life goes on and change is an inevitable and natural occurrence. Those who are adaptable to change survive. Those who aren't, do not.
I'm an angry middle aged nobody from nowhere, angry at the opportunity afforded to the undeserving generations, angry at my own failures, and forgetful of what it was like to be young.
But grant me the grace to take you back to a snapshot in time. A snapshot within the vast Great British history that may help me convince you that society has been in a better state. What do I mean by better? To me it means a simpler time, a more respectful time, a harsher time, a tougher time and pretty much a no non-sense time and certainly a more honourable time. Sure, at no point in history, as far as we know, has there ever been a state of complete utopia, which I accept and understand. Each epoch has fallen foul to its particular black spots and dark times and the good old days are no exception. To me, there is however something much more romantic and earthly about the way life was conducted in the first half of the twentieth century. It seemed to be filled with many more Ladies and Gentleman with honest and pure intentions. Tough, stoical no non sense people with an abundance of respect for each and all during what the modern generation of millenials would look back on as a simply prosaic time to live, with no cell phones or iPads required for immediate distraction and attention.
A very gallant gentleman is an examination of what I believe is the perfect example of an early twentieth century Edwardian gentleman in Lawrence 'Titus' Oates. His rise to prominence came unfortunately after his death in 1912 as part of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's second and fateful expedition to Antarctica during the 'race for the South Pole'.
This examination is inspired by the book, "I am just going outside - Captain Oates, an Antarctic Tragedy" by Michael Smith, which also provides the majority of the facts and details associated with the second of Scott's Antarctic expeditions, valued in this article. The book exquisitely conveys the hardships endured by not just the men, but also the animals, but more importantly it details how the iron will of the characters, specifically Oates, was so evident and appeared to be the natural disposition - something that I believe is so desperately lacking in today’s' society.
"I am just going outside and maybe some time" - a quote from Lawrence Oates noted in Scott's journal, uttered as the harsh effects of the Antarctic weather took their toll on his physical, mental and spiritual being. These were the last words spoken by a man whose spirit was so broken and ground down by the toils of the Antarctic endeavours, that he sacrificed himself in order that his contemporaries could continue on their journey without the hindrance of a practically lame companion, in order for them to faster reach salvation.
Arguments could be voiced that this unsung hero of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's fatal expedition was in fact a spoiled upper class mummy's boy, but rather conversely, his upper class family inheritance inspired an attitude that was so reserved and stoical, but yet which so much sought adventure.
Antarctica, the name, derives from the Greek work arktos, meaning bear. The name was given to the North Pole, or Arctic region due to the visibility of two star constellations in the northern night sky: Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear). ANTarctica, is therefore the opposite of Arctic. The continent was allegedly discovered in 1820, initially by a Russian fleet captained by the superbly named Admiral Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen. Although neither von Bellinghausen nor his crew actually set foot on the ice that honour was left to English born American sealer, Captain John Davis, when he set foot on the ice, also in 1820 albeit 10 months after von Bellinghausen had allegedly first discovered the continent.
There have been some typically radical challenges to this mainstream version of history with the cartographically precise Piri Reis and Oronteus Finnaus maps drawn up from millennia before the date of 1820. These maps dare to suggest that at some point in late antiquity, someone has had the capability to travel to or view Antarctica and map out the topography and coastlines and estuaries very accurately, either prior to the on-set of the ice on the continent, which is thought to have happened around 11,000 years ago, or with specialist equipment similar to Ground Penetrating Radar, which is the technique employed by Geophysicists in modern times. These ancient maps also defied scientific and geographic logic and capability of the time they were produced (~1500's) due to their longitudinally accurate depictions of South America and Africa. Longitude is the measurement of the Meridian geographic coordinates of the globe and were traditionally said to have been un-measurable to scientists and explorers alike until the invention of a precise enough chronograph around ~1761.
The Antarctic held explorers in fascination and wonder. 90 degrees south, the most southern tip of the world had never been attained - it was the last continent on earth to be explored, and the most brutally unforgiving.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott was cut from a similar cloth to Oates, who author Michael Smith had this to say:
"Lawrence Oates was a product of his time. Born in 1880, he was raised during the era of British supremacy in the world. A quarter of the world’s population were part of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen. It was also a time when many people, especially the public schoolboys like Oates, were brought up to believe that “character” was more important than a wider knowledge-based education".
Britain at the time controlled a quarter of the earth's population and any gentlemen born and bred into opulent lifestyles during this period generally thought they had a divine right to be the first to or the best. Scott, a Royal Navy Officer, had previously attempted the feat between 1901-1904 during the Discovery expedition, named after the ship used to sail there and included Ernest Shackleton, who returned to the pole another two times in his life time, almost losing his life during the process. The first Scott expedition was not without a fatality as George Vince slipped into a crevice during a reportedly horrendous blizzard. There seemed to be very little experience to draw from during this first expedition. It should have been the learning foundation for the Terra Nova expedition in 1910.
Scott and his crew on this occasion managed to reach 82° 17’, still some 530 miles from 90° South.
Although it was Shackleton who was to gain the furthest ground on the Antarctic continent during his Nimrod expedition between 1907 and 1909, as he again failed to reach 90° South, but did attain 88° 23’, just 97 miles from the pole. The furthest any human had gotten in recorded history. Shackleton had set the bar.
Oates, during the early twentieth century, had spent his time at locations around the world with the British Army. In 1899, Britain was about to try and flex its military muscle in South Africa against the Afrikaners (the Dutch settlers in South Africa of the 2 South African republic states Republic of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, that despised the presence of foreigners).
Oates, chomping at the bit for adventure and a life away from the mundane - finally got his wish in 1901 and at just 20 years old was stationed with the 6th Innerskilling Dragoons leading a patrol of men into action against a group of Boer guerrillas near the town of Aberdeen.
Under considerably overwhelming odds, Oates' patrol suffered an ambush which had them stuck in a Mexican stand-off under sweltering South African sun and slowly running out of ammunition, but his calmness under fire was immeasurable. Reportedly, Oates rebuffed multiple opportunities to surrender by responding to the Boers' Captain Fouche's note with terms of surrender, by simply stating "we came here to fight, not surrender". Oates suffered a gunshot wound that broke his left femur bone during the skirmish, which of course he played down with typical understatement and stoicism, but which left him with a permanent limp that would play a factor in his eventual decline in potentially even harsher an environment in years to come.
Oates then spent a number of years stationed in Ireland, Egypt and India, where he honed his Cavalry Officer skills, which would be one of the strings on his bow that would catch Captain Scott's attention when he was building his team for the second expedition.
Race for the Pole
Oates applied in writing to be part of Scott's expedition to the South Pole and was chosen out of over 8000 applicants. His resume was attractive, especially as a cavalry officer and his experience managing horses, which were to be used as the primary beasts of burden during the journey to the pole. That wasn't the only attraction however; Oates' declaration to submit a donation of around £1000 (£47k in todays’ money) also held sway for Scott. The fact that Scott needed extra financial contributions for the expedition was maybe (with the benefit of hindsight) a glimpse into the potential gaps in his preparatory plans.
For Oates, what could inspire excitement and adventure more than the escape from the prosaic lifestyle, than being part of the first ever group of people to reach the South Pole?
Without making this article a simple remedial regurgitated version of Michael Smiths' fantastic book, I am going to bullet point some of the more fantastic examples of how times of how the extreme hardships the team experienced in the harshest of environments were dealt with during the "race for the pole".
As Michael Smith says about the attraction and fascination of this particular group of gentlemen, “I am particularly drawn to the remarkable human qualities of these men – they were all men from this era – who endured so much for so little in personal rewards. The courage, self-sacrifice and endurance is beyond belief".
The journey to 90° South, was somewhere in the region of 1,800 mile round trip. The majority of which for Scott's team would be carried out on foot. Man-Hauling sleds of supplies (800lb pulled by 4 men) whilst strapped into harnesses and enduring temperatures as low as -40°C.
Preparatory expeditions were undertaken in order to set up supply depots at set distances along the route. This in itself proved treacherous as one particular group found them isolated on sea ice which then proceeded to break away from the main land and float off into the Antarctic sea. Stranded with horses and supplies, the men then began to jump from one floating piece of sea ice to another in order to save themselves, all whilst behind hounded by a group of Orca Whales. Unfortunately the horses did not make it and either slipped into the icy waters or were left stranded to suffer their own fate.
The Terra Nova expedition's rivals during the race for the pole were Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's crew aboard the Fram. Amundsen was an experienced explorer who had taken time out to live and experience life with the Inuit’s of the Arctic in order to gather much needed skills and experience in dealing with the harsh freezing temperatures. This experience proved vital in his preparation. At home in Norway, it is said that Amundsen would use any opportunities available to inoculate himself against the cold, including leaving his house windows open during the Norwegian winter to let the cold air sweep through his home.
The experience of Amundsen proved vital in the race to the pole. His knowledge and use of better equipment, warmer materials such as wolf and moose skin, the more efficient use of skis and sled dogs versus Scott's use of traditional Siberian ponies, of which Oates described as subpar crocks.
Although it was never officially declared as a 'race for the pole', Amundsen's purpose was solely to reach the pole before anybody else. Scott's journey was also to undertake geographical and scientific studies of the land and the environment. Even so, the old British pride was still at sake and Oates is quoted as saying "bloody Norskies coming down south is a bit of shock" "I only hope they don't get there first. It will make us look pretty foolish after all the noise we have made".
All the noise of course was the euphoria that surrounded the expedition. The fact that the weight of expectation of the British Empire was laid on the shoulders of these men, was something that they all had to live up to.
Amundsen had the advantage; travelling 'light' compared to the cumbersome troupe of Scott, using much more appropriate equipment and experience and having one purpose of reaching the pole first. These factors alone would have been enough to favour Amundsen's expedition, but he also had another advantage in that his trek started in the Bay of Whales, on the opposite side to Scott's expedition, and as such had a 60 mile head start on Scott before a bat was struck.
Inevitably, Amundsens' crew reached 90° South in December 1911. 5 weeks before Scott and his team.
Scott's team on the opposite side of the Ross Ice Barrier had endured some unthinkable conditions. The original 8 man team was due to split up at a set point in order for 1 four man team to head back to camp and for those lucky enough to be chosen and be (potentially) part of the first ever team to reach the South Pole, would continue onwards. Scott for some reason changed his mind and decided to take 5 men towards the pole. It is thought that this decision only hindered the teams’ chances in this already brutal environment.
In January 1912, Scott's 5 man expedition made it to 90° South. Frost bite gnawing at their feet, hands and facial extremities. Undernourished, frozen to the bone and now with shattered dreams as they came across Amundsen's tent, proudly flying the Norwegian flag.
Now imagine having to deal with the disappointment of coming second, all whilst the realisation that the march 'home' is some 900 miles of brutal weather conditions and horrendous food rations. But even close to death, these 5 men continued with their injuries and ailments without complaint. The immeasurable amount of pride in themselves, their achievements and their country spurred them on to progress as far as they could, without the slightest submission to pain, or blame or being of fragile mind.
The lead up to and the conditions of the deaths of these 5 hardy men must have been devastatingly brutal. Although none of the men made it back alive, the spirit of the expedition lives on through their journal entries and scientific recordings of the journey.
Oates' frost bitten feet were now so swollen and painful, each morning it took him an hour and a half to put on his footwear. He was still stoically pulling the sleds without a hint of any discomfort or request for pity. His hands became the next to suffer. So much so, he could no longer use them to either help himself or the other others.
On 17th March 1912, 120 miles from the safety of Hut Point, in the shelter of the tent, Oates' took matters into his own frost bitten hands and made the decision to relieve his comrades of his burdensome troubles.
Uttering the now famous line, "I'm going outside and maybe sometime", Oates' left the relative safety of the tent and crawled outside into the oncoming blizzard where temperatures were said to have delved to -42°C. His body has never been found.
In Scott's journal, found later by a search and rescue team, stated:
"He did not - would not - give up hope until the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke up in the morning - yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said "I am just going outside and maybe some time". He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since". "It was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman".
For me, Oates' life and how he dealt with the inevitability of his death, is something that is missing from the character of the majority of the population in todays’ society. His selfless act of self-sacrifice carried out in order so that his comrades would have at least a small chance of survival is something that we can all learn from. And yes, the society in Edwardian England was not perfect, as Michael Smith points out: "I seem to recall that at least 20% of the UK population were still living in desperate poverty in the final decades of the 19th century and a third of the recruits for the army during the Boer War were rejected on health grounds – despite the incredible wealth of the Empire which was concentrated in the hands of a few.". But the attitude of the population of the time is something that seems to have been more resolute even in these harsher times.
Michael Smith - http://micksmith.co.uk/
“I have always been interested in history, which was my best subject at school. I developed a particular interest in exploration in general but was increasingly drawn to the history of Polar exploration – Arctic and Antarctic - and to this day remain fascinated by the amazing stories.
I have written nine books and contributed items to several others. Combined sales of my books have exceeded 250,000 copies. My biography of Lawrence Oates (I Am Just Going Outside – Captain Oates) was my second book.
I have also appeared in numerous TV and radio programmes and written contributed to many TV and radio documentaries. I have written extensively in newspapers, specialist magazines and websites. In addition, I am a frequent public speaker and have lectured at many prestigious venues including: The Queen’s Gallery Buckingham Palace, Royal Geographical Society, National Maritime Museum, National Museum of Ireland, National Library of Ireland, Princess Grace Memorial Library Monaco, Queen’s University Belfast, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and Scott Polar Research Institute Cambridge. I have also appeared at many literary festivals and am a regular speaker to local history societies, U3A groups, Women’s’ Institutes, Townswomen’s’ Guild, Odd fellow Societies and schools.
Michael’s books can be found on Amazon or his own website above. "I am just going outside" is a fantastic book and highly recommend it if you have an interest in the fatal expedition of the Terra Nova and more specifically the biography of Lawrence 'Titus' Oates.