Commentary on Could Captain Scott have been Saved? Revisiting Scott's Last Expedition - Polar Record 49(2013)72-90 by Karen May

From TheSouthPole
Revision as of 17:37, 13 March 2019 by Admin (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search

by William J. Alp, Wellington, New Zealand.

Received Nov. 27th, 2018


The article Could Captain Scott have been saved? Revisiting Scott’s last expedition, by Karen May, first published in Polar Record in 2012 (May, 2013), builds a case that Roland Huntford’s dual biography Scott and Amundsen presents an inaccurate and biased picture of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s instructions about using dog teams for relief of the Polar Party. May’s article covers several subjects in depth, including the written instructions from Scott to Cecil Meares, the Dog Party leader. It seeks to explain why the orders for the third dog journey were not obeyed.

May identifies her purpose on page 73:

I will argue that the decision [Naval Surgeon Edward] Atkinson made at this point led to the failure to recover the four members of the polar party still alive and struggling north: Scott, Oates, Wilson, and Bowers.

On page 83, the article claims that Atkinson, acting independently, deliberately altered Scott’s orders, with fatal consequences:

The evidence and the timing point to one conclusion: that Atkinson independently decided to alter Scott’s orders at the exact moment when [Apsley] Cherry-Garrard was appointed as leader of the dog teams. The original mission of heading south to ‘meet the polar party’ as far as 300 miles out was now altered to the unloading of supplies at One Ton Depot, only 119 miles out. The task was silently, and fatally, downgraded to fit the abilities of the man chosen for it.

However, the author’s claim is diminished – in my view – by three significant mistakes that undermine the case against Atkinson. In the three sections below, I identify the mistakes and consider whether the strong claims made are justified, and whether alternative explanations can be found in expedition records.

This is my second commentary on a Polar Record article, the first being about Could Captain Scott have been saved? Cecil Meares and the ‘second journey’ that failed by Karen May and Sarah Airriess (Alp, 2018). Both commentaries arise from the way men from the Heroic Age have been portrayed and the respect I hold for the integrity of Polar Record. I am concerned that May makes inaccurate accusations of blame for alleged errors or omissions by Atkinson. In my view, she has been too hasty in attributing blame and not considering carefully enough the ample evidence that undermines the claims. Whilst much could be written about discrepancies in the research, assertions and hypotheses of her 2012 article, this short commentary simply focuses on three weaknesses in the case against Atkinson. It does not address the full scope of May’s article.

Advanced navigation skills

The article focuses on advanced navigational skills (and Cherry-Garrard’s lack thereof), erroneously relying on a Scott quotation that applied only to the main Southern Journey. On page 81, the article states:

Scott was well aware of the importance of navigation skills, and wrote on 12 June 1911 that ‘every officer who takes part in the Southern Journey’ (Scott 2008: 222) should possess some knowledge of navigation, including meridian altitude observations.

May mistakenly takes Scott’s statements out of that specific context and applies it to the third dog journey.

It may be noted that Bernard Day and Frederick Hooper successfully retraced the southern route from about 81.14 S – more than 100 miles south of One Ton – back to Hut Point, without either man being a skilled navigator. The actions of Day and Hooper refute the article’s assertive claim on page 82:

However, south of One Ton, the terrain soon devolves into a featureless white plain where a thorough knowledge of navigation is crucial. Beyond One Ton, Cherry-Garrard could not easily proceed.

Retracing a well-marked route is a much simpler proposition than trail-blazing on an unexplored frontier. For their journey southward from One Ton, the Southern Party’s target had been 13 miles per day. Every day they had built a single cairn about four miles out, a double cairn during their lunch stop, pony walls at end of a day and a single cairn in-between, meaning the southern route had a clear marker every three to four miles, sometimes closer. Wright’s journal confirms the uniformity of route markings, at least as far as the Southern Barrier Depot (1993, pp. 187 - 207). Scott did this on purpose so that returning parties, such as Day and Hooper, could safely travel by using straightforward dead reckoning with just a compass and a sledge-meter, forestalling the need for a skilled navigator in every party. This applied equally to southbound parties retracing the southern route, led by men like Atkinson and Cherry-Garrard, neither of whom possessed advanced navigation skills. Scott wrote:

We are picking up last year’s cairns with great ease, and all show up very distinctly. This is extremely satisfactory for the homeward march. What with pony walls, camp sites and cairns, our track should be easily followed the whole way. (2011, p. 322)

Scott apparently had no qualms when he instructed Atkinson to lead the Dog Party, which involved retracing the southern route as far as possible in order to meet up with the returning Polar Party. Scott knew that Atkinson was not a proficient navigator when he issued the instruction, “to proceed as far south as possible, taking into consideration the times of return of the various parties” (Atkinson, 2011, p. 665). Atkinson apparently had no qualms in accepting Scott’s instructions and he clearly intended to travel as far south as necessary, as noted on page 82 of the article. Atkinson was not a proficient navigator. My research has yielded no record him working as a navigator in Antarctica. Additionally:

  • His biographer Mike Tarver wrote, “You are right, in my researches, there was no mention of Atkinson having any knowledge or training in navigation, nor any pretense to be a navigator” (M. Tarver, personal communication, 17 March 2018)
  • Tryggve Gran, the Norwegian ski instructor on the Terra Nova expedition, wrote, “the doctor was no navigator.” (1961, p. 185)

Had Scott required a proficient navigator to lead the Dog Party, he could have instructed Atkinson to despatch either Edward Nelson or Charles Wright as Dog Party leader. Nelson was available and was a knowledgeable navigator, as noted by Wright (1993, p. 300) and Gran (1961, p. 185). Had Atkinson considered advanced navigational skills to be essential, he could have nominated Wright or Nelson as his replacement. The article does not comment on Nelson’s advanced navigation skills (as an alternative to Wright); neither does it acknowledge that Atkinson’s navigational skills were similar to Cherry-Garrard’s. Perhaps this is a sign of hasty or insufficient research.

In the event, Cherry-Garrard successfully retraced the southern route to One Ton, using dead reckoning, which illustrates the worth of Scott’s route marking technique. Without detracting from it being a miserable experience for Cherry-Garrard, skills in meridian altitude observations would not have made a material difference to the journey, the outcome or the misery.

Scott’s instructions to Day, Hooper and Atkinson show he was not fixated upon advanced navigation skills for re-tracing the southern route in either direction. In my view, May is mistaken in taking a stance contrary to Scott on this matter. This section has shown that May appears to be mistaken in claiming that advanced navigation skills were essential for leading the Dog Party along the well-marked southern route. Her article goes on to compound that mistake.

The dogs were not to be risked – claimed misrepresentation

May’s article focuses on the fifth part of the oral instructions that Atkinson is alleged to have given to Cherry-Garrard before he left Hut Point with Demetri Geroff and the dogs:

5. That Scott had given particular instructions that the dogs were not to be risked in view of the sledging plans for the next season. (Cherry-Garrard, 2010, p. 430)

On pages 82-83, the article probes the origin of this statement and finds no verifiable source. It then goes on to claim the idea was invented by Atkinson and the following rationale appears on page 83:

Why should Atkinson misrepresent Scott’s instructions in this way? My hypothesis is that Atkinson wished to protect Cherry-Garrard as far as possible. From Hutt Point, Cherry-Garrard would have been able to reach One Ton safely, but his limited navigational abilities would have led to serious difficulties on the Ice Barrier itself. He had to be prevented from a quixotic attempt to head out onto the featureless plain in search of the polar party for, without the restriction that ‘the dogs were not to be risked’ Cherry-Garrard certainly would have been tempted to try. .… Atkinson had to prevent this, and stating that ‘Scott’ had expressly forbidden such a move would have been the easiest way of reining Cherry-Garrard in.

As discussed in the preceding section, concerns about navigation abilities when retracing a well-marked route are groundless and, ipso facto, the hypothesis is wrong. The article provides no direct evidence of Atkinson misrepresenting Scott on this or any other occasion. It seems to be nothing more than an unsupported assertion by May who defames Atkinson with the claim that he misrepresented Scott.

An interesting secondary account provides a possible source of the phrase “the dogs are not to be risked”. At the foot of the Glacier, the man-hauling parties were struggling to make progress in calf-deep soft snow but the Dog Party had no difficulty in keeping up with the men. Gran wrote:

Next day [11 December 1911] continued up the glacier. The dogs followed. At lunch break, Dimitri and Meares were ordered to return to base. Meares raised objections by saying, “Considering what the terrain here looks like today, the dogs have the very best of chances [to succeed]. It is crazy not to take advantage of them”. These were harsh words. However, Cecil Meares was a civilian, and Captain Scott answered, “Today yes, but maybe not tomorrow. I stick with [take the word of] Shackleton, and you know, my dear Meares, what he thinks of Beardmore. The dogs shall meet me, time and place for this I will let be known through the returning support party. As a result, I do not wish to expose the dogs to needless risk. Thank you for your help, Meares. [Emphasis added]” (1961, p. 156)

Gran’s account appears plausible, as Scott needed to preserve the dog teams for their journey to meet the returning Polar Party. It arose during the first dog journey and makes perfect sense when viewed as protecting dogs final journey of the 1911/12 season. Having dealt with Meares’ objections on the spot, there was no need for Scott to issue any written orders. In this context, Scott’s reference to “needless risk” is about the hazards presented by crevasses in the lower Beardmore region – which had caused the demise of Shackleton’s last pony, a fact that was probably on his mind, along with his own experience of dogs falling into a crevasse during the return from the Depot Journey. Readers may be more comfortable with this interpretation of “risk the dogs” than Cherry-Garrard’s stance upon returning to England, when he seemed believed that Scott required him to preserve the life of every single dog.

Gran’s account is also consistent with Scott’s written instructions to Meares, “I should like you to give such assistance as you can without tiring the dogs [prior to their journey to meet the returning Polar Party] [Emphasis added]” (Evans, 1961, p. 162). It also covers the objections raised by May on pages 82-83. However, Gran’s account does not come from a primary expedition record and it would be useful if independent verification could be found. None-the-less, it presents an interesting and plausible alternative to May’s flawed hypothesis. Regardless of whether the reader believes Gran’s account or not, the hypothesis about Atkinson misrepresenting Scott is wrong.

Atkinson was presumably present at the time of Scott’s conversation with Meares on the Glacier. In 1913 he wrote, “Strict injunctions had been given by Captain Scott that the dogs should not be risked in any way” (2011, p. 669), based upon what he had presumably overheard on the Glacier. Nothing in Atkinson’s 1913 narrative appears to contradict Gran’s account. The idea of saving the dogs for the following season was not mentioned by Atkinson at that time, or later.

Cherry-Garrard wrote detailed journals throughout his time in Antarctica and I have found no hint of Atkinson ever instructing him: “the dogs were not to be risked”. This is the only part of Atkinson’s purported five-point oral instructions not verified (directly or implicitly) by Cherry-Garrard’s journals.

Cherry-Garrard’s 1922 book The Worst Journey in the World does however embellish the story by stating that Scott wanted the dogs to be saved for the next season (as quoted at the top of this section). The embellishment makes little sense, as pointed out by May on page 83. I have not found any contemporaneous expedition record suggesting Cherry-Garrard understood Scott’s three planned dog journeys for 1911/12 - their purposes, payloads or destinations. Some years later Cherry-Garrard wrote to Meares, requesting a copy of Scott’s exact orders (May & Airriess, 2015, p. 269), which suggests a level of uncertainty in Cherry-Garrard’s mind. It is possible that he did not fully understand the three dog journeys until he read Scott’s orders, reproduced in Teddy Evans’ 1922 book South with Scott.

This section has shown that May’s hypothesis about Atkinson misrepresenting Scott is wrong. The article provides no direct evidence to support the hypothesis. She appears to be mistaken in charging Atkinson, a serving Naval Officer, with misrepresenting his superior officer.

Alteration of orders for the Dog Party: silently and fatally downgraded

As noted above, the article states, “The task [of the third dog journey] was silently, and fatally, downgraded to fit the abilities of the man chosen for it” by Atkinson. This section reviews the evidence for and against that statement.

The article convincingly shows that Scott wanted the Dog Party to travel as far south as possible, in order to meet his party and not to simply replenish depots. It may be noted that Scott needed to satisfy a contract to provide 8,000 to 10,000 words of press material to Central News Agency, acting as sole worldwide distributor (Jones, 2003, p. 98, 101), thereby securing £2,500 of much needed expedition funding. The Dog Party was to be instrumental in relaying the press material to the ship.

The article explores possible reasons for the Dog Party orders being altered to restrain them from proceeding beyond One Ton. It claims that a decision was made ‘silently’ and ‘independently’ by Atkinson, motivated by sympathy for Cherry-Garrard. I believe there is more behind the alteration of orders than the article reveals. The following paragraphs show how several men were involved in making a group decision, motivated by an optimistic view of when Scott would return and not influenced by Cherry-Garrard’s personal limitations.

The critical decision was made in the old Discovery hut at Hut Point. Simpson had sent the requested reinforcements on the afternoon of 23 February, after which there were eight men present: Evans (Scott’s deputy), Atkinson, Cherry-Garrard, Wright, Lashly, Crean, Geroff and Francis Davies (shipwright/carpenter). With the outside temperature well below freezing point, the men would naturally congregate around the rudimentary blubber stove in the draughty old hut. Conditions were far from ideal, as Davies recounted:

The fireplace filled the hut with acrid smoke, and grease from the blubber ran on to the floor mixing with hairs from the reindeer sleeping bags, which was trodden everywhere – everybody and everything was covered in soot. (Davies, undated, p. 222).

Evans, in the early stages of recovery from scurvy, was in his sleeping bag on the floor near the stove. He was the alpha male of the group and was naturally inclined to participate in discussions, to the maximum extent possible with his medical condition. Without dismissing Atkinson’s medical diagnosis, it is necessary to consider Evans’ level of consciousness and possible involvement in proceedings.

Lashly’s journal for 20 February indicates the length and depth of his conversations with Evans whilst they awaited relief:

Mr Evans is about the same but quite cheerful. We have had the whole journey over and over: it have passed these three days away. We have wondered how they are getting on behind us [referring to Scott’s Party]; we have worked it out and they ought to be on the Barrier now, with anything of luck. (Cherry-Garrard, 2010, p. 418)

Upon arrival at Hut Point on 22 February, it appears Evans was alert and showing an interest in what was going on around him. He later wrote:

we covered the thirty-five miles into Hut Point, where I was glad to see Crean’s face once more and hear first-hand about his march. (Evans, 1961, p. 226)

Davies wrote about his visit to Hut Point (23 to 28 February):

The hut was very dismal, and in this atmosphere Lieut Evans lay in his sleeping bag on the floor. Yet in spite of being so ill he was always cheerful and ready with a joke. I being the only one of the party who had been in touch with the outside world for the past sixteen months, I spent a lot of time telling him all the news.(Davies, undated, p. 223).

It appears Evans was compos mentis and capable of participating in discussions, at least in a limited way. I have found no record of Atkinson completing any paperwork to certify Evans as medically unfit for duty. Evans was the senior Naval Officer present and therefore responsible for whatever was decided and done. However, May’s article does not consider Evans’ possible role in the decision to alter Scott’s orders - it treats him as though invisible or unconscious or not worth acknowledging. The articlepresents no rationale for ignoring Evans’ presence.

Perhaps this is a sign of hasty research in preparing the article for the 2012 centenary of Scott’s death – first published 20 January 2012.

None of the men wrote about the mood of the small group but we can surmise they would not have been unduly anxious or stressed. Four parties had already returned from the south, in accordance with Scott’s plan (Motor Party, Dog Party, Atkinson’s Party and Evans’ Party) albeit with two parties being delayed and one man seriously ill with scurvy, but on the road to recovery. All four parties had returned without serious injury or loss of life. The outlook for Scott’s Party was promising (last seen 150 miles from the pole and going strong). The ship had arrived and essential over-wintering provisions had been landed. The season was going more-or-less to plan and it is suggested the men’s collective mood would have been upbeat.

Evans’ Party had brought new optimism to the group, as later recorded by several men. Cherry-Garrard wrote:

and indeed it appeared that we had been wrong to hurry out so soon, before the time that Scott had reckoned that he would return, and that the Polar Party would really come in at the time Scott had calculated before starting rather than at the time we had reckoned from the data brought back by the Last Return Party. [Emphasis added] (2010, p. 434)

Crean’s experience is recorded by his biographer, Mike Smith:

He was also optimistically on the lookout for Scott’s Party, who he assumed, with five fit men in the harness, would be travelling faster than the slow-moving and weakening trio. He continually looked back over his shoulder in hopeful anticipation of catching a glimpse of an approaching black speck on the distant horizon. (Smith, 2007, p. 135)

Gran also wrote about Scott’s presumed progress:

All indications were that Scott’s Party were not far behind. It would, in the opinion of Lieutenant Evans and his two companions, be unlikely if the dogs, even if they started at once, would reach One Ton depot before Scott. (1961, p. 184) The men at Hut Point needed to revisit Scott’s October 1911 instructions (for the dogs to “travel as far south as possible, taking into consideration the times of return of the various [returning] parties”) in light of the optimism brought by Evans’ returning party (that Scott was not far away). Cherry-Garrard referred to the considerations, estimations and calculations carried out on 23 February (Cherry-Garrard, 2010, pp. 429 - 430). He copied the most important of the calculations into his personal journal (see below) and later wrote: “it was supposed that all previous estimates made for the return of the Polar Party were too late, and that the opportunity to reach One Ton Camp before them had been lost”. (Cherry-Garrard, 2010, p. 430) Atkinson referred to the same considerations. (Atkinson, 2011, p. 666) Evidently, at least one member of Evans’ Party plus Cherry-Garrard and Atkinson had been involved in that discussion; it was not a matter of Atkinson acting ‘independently’ and ‘silently’.

It is quite possible the men were in fact doing their best to comply with Scott’s instructions to meet the Polar Party, taking into consideration the information brought back by returning parties. Six pages of instructions and relevant details appear in Cherry-Garrard’s journal entry of 24 February 1912:

1. The first page includes the readings from both Gerof’s and Cherry-Garrard’s sledge-meters at the start of the journey.

2. The second page includes a calculation for when the Polar Party was expected to reach One Ton, based upon Evans’ Party’s dates and Scott’s estimated speed. The calculation shows Scott was expected to reach One Ton on 30 February [sic] [i.e. 1 March 1912].

3. The next page defines a course from Hut Point to One Ton, and no farther. The course is defined in three legs, by geographic bearing and distance (i.e. dead reckoning method), followed by simplified instructions for magnetic variance correction (constant 150 degree correction), with an explanatory diagram.

4. The next page has a list of provisions to be taken, plus a list of provisions known to be already at One Ton.

5. The next page itemises dog food that was to be picked up from Hut Point, Biscuit Depot and Corner Camp.

6. The sixth page has a list of news items to be conveyed to Scott’s Party.

The second page includes the distance from the pole where Evans’ Party turned. This information would have come from Evans, the only navigator in his party, not from Atkinson.

The third page provides useful insight into the expertise required to define the course, which is set out in precise detail, suitable for dead reckoning. For example, “Safety Camp to Corner Camp S68E Distance 23m.” and “Observation Hill from Corner Camp bears N68W”. This level of detail has evidently come from an experienced navigator, meaning either Evans or Wright was involved. It is most unlikely that Atkinson could have produced this information independently. Atkinson’s natural decision-making style is illustrated by the way he managed the expedition during the second winter, when the vital question of whether to accord priority to Scott’s Party or to Campbell’s Northern Party was determined by a democratic vote, after extensive democratic discussion. (Tarver, 2015, p.74)

Nothing in the foregoing suggests Atkinson acted ‘independently’ and ‘silently’, as claimed by May. The evidence suggests that several men participated in group discussion(s),leading to a decision that the Dog Party need go no further than One Ton, taking only three weeks’ worth of dog food for the 240 mile round-trip. Cherry-Garrard’s phrase “we had reckoned”, emphasised above, indicates the decision-making process at Hut Point had indeed been an inclusive one.

On page 83, the article states:

Furthermore, Atkinson kept these instructions to Cherry-Garrard purely oral, even though a novice would have gained much needed reassurance from explicit orders in writing.

It is inexplicable that the article places emphasis on the oral instructions in preference to the six journal pages. Cherry-Garrard had both oral and written instructions but for some reason the author chose to ignore the latter.

It is evident that May is mistaken in claiming Atkinson ‘independently’ and ‘silently’ decided to alter Scott’s instructions, with fatal consequences. The preceding paragraphs show that the decision was made by a group of conscientious men, motivated by news about Scott’s presumed progress and not because of Cherry-Garrard’s personal limitations. Atkinson was not the senior officer present and it seems unreasonable for May to hold him solely responsible.


May’s article is strong in its conclusions about Atkinson’s honesty and integrity. The conclusions are however based on hypotheses and assumptions, with quite a lot of speculation and minimal clear evidence from primary records. I find it unsatisfactory for a writer to be so sure in stating her conclusions with such a paucity of strong evidence. In my opinion, an author needs to exercise considerable caution in making accusations against individuals when there is no opportunity for those accused to respond, or to explain their versions of events.


Alp, W. J. (2018). Commentary on Could Captain Scott have been saved? Cecil Meares and the ‘second journey’ that failed. Polar Record, doi:10.1017/S0032247418000189

Atkinson, E.L. (2011). The Last Year at Cape Evans, In: Scott, R.F. Scott’s Last Expedition (pp. 665-700). Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Cherry-Garrard, A.G.B. (1912). Journal, 24 February to 24 April 1912. Cambridge, England: Scott Polar Research Institute MS 559/7; BJ.

Cherry-Garrard, A.G.B. (2010). The Worst Journey in the World. London, England: Vintage Books.

Davies, F.E.C. (undated). Unpublished typescript With Scott Before the Mast, Christchurch, New Zealand: Canterbury Museum MS125

Evans, E.R.G.R. (1961). South with Scott. London, England: Collins.

Gran, J.T.H. (1961). Kampen om Sydpolen. Oslo, Norway: Ernst G. Mortensens Forlag.

Jones, R.M. (2003). The last great quest: Captain Scott's Antarctic sacrifice. [Kindle version] Retrieved from

May, K. (2013). Could Captain Scott have been saved? Revisiting Scott’s last expedition. Polar Record, 49, 72-90.

May, K. & Airriess, S. (2015). Could Captain Scott have been saved? Cecil Meares and the ‘second journey’ that failed. Polar Record, 51, 260-273.

Scott, R.F. (2008). Journals: Captain Scott’s last expedition Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Scott, R.F (2011). Scott’s Last Expedition, Ware, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Smith, M. (2000) An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean - Antarctic Survivor. [Kindle version] Retrieved from

Tarver, M.C. (2015). The Man Who Found Captain Scott. Antarctic Explorer and War Hero. Surgeon Captain Edward Leicester Atkinson. Brixham, Devon UK: Pendragon Maritime Publications

Wright, C. S. (1993). Silas the Antarctic Diaries and Memoir of Charles S. Wright. C. Bull & P.F. Wright (Eds.). Columbus, USA: Ohio State University Press.