|Captain Lawrence (Titus) Oates
17 March 1880 – 16 March 1912
Photographic Archive, Alexander Turnbull Library
On January 18, 1912, Titus Oates* and his 4 companions reached the South Pole only to find a short note in an abandoned tent with a bamboo pole flying the Norwegian flag. Roald Amundsen’s team had beat them to the pole by 35 days.
Born to a wealthy family in London, Lawrence Edward Grace (“Titus”) Oates enjoyed all the benefits of his family’s nobility and influence. He attended a preparatory school followed by Eton College and was commissioned as an officer in 1898. He served in the 2nd Boer War where he had his femur shattered by a bullet. Twice when his besiegers called on him to surrender he defiantly shouted “we came to fight, not surrender.” Though the wounded leg healed one inch shorter than the other, he recovered and went on to serve in Ireland, Egypt and India. His military prowess earned him the nickname “Titus” after the infamous Roman General that sacked Jerusalem.
In 1910, Oates joined the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of Robert Falcon Scott that was making an attempt to be the first to the South Pole. One can only imagine the disappointment of their 5-man team on seeing Amundsen’s tent. Low on food and suffering the effects of injury, exposure and exhaustion, the men turned about for the homeward journey only to be engulfed in a terrible blizzard. Progresses was hampered by horrific conditions. Wind, snow and mid-day temperatures that rose to -40 degrees made traversing the glacier very hazardous. Refusing to leave any of his men behind, Scott’s progress was slowed as they weakened. Edgar Evans died on Feb 17, 1912. Subsequently Titus Oates developed severe frostbite of his feet.
Robert Falcon Scott’s journal records Oates’ amazing selflessness:
—Friday, March 16 or Saturday 17–
Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on; he proposed that we leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come.Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not—would not—give up hope 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 in the morning—yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said ‘ I am just going outside and may be some time. ‘ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.. . . We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far.
|A Very Gallant Gentleman
John Charles Dollman (1851-1934)
Titus Oates was one day short of his 32nd birthday when he sacrificed himself for his brothers. In spite of his sacrifice, Robert Scott, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson perished two weeks later in an unremitting blizzard only 11 miles from food and fuel. One doesn’t need to know many of the details of Titus Oates’ life to recognize his greatness. It was his sort that the Lord spoke of when he said:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13).
*I first read about Titus Oates a couple of years ago when I read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South, the story of another disastrous antarctic expedition in 1914-1917. Shackleton had been on one of Scott’s earlier expeditions. The grit and endurance of these men is very inspiring and I’d strongly recommend the book (here Project Gutenberg download of South). You can also get the Journal of Robert Falcon Scott (here).