Cross inscription near to the site of Oates' death
Most of the military men on Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition 1910-13 had links to the Royal Navy, but Lawrence Oates was a notable exception. ‘Soldier’ as he became known (an alternative nickname to the more widely recognised ‘Titus’) was British Army through and through.
As a sickly child, prone to chest infections, little in his early life pointed to the man he would become. After leaving Eton in 1898, Oates joined the 3rd West Yorkshire (Militia) Regiment, and then in 1900 he was posted to the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. He took part in the Boer War, landing at Cape Town on 10th January 1901 in order to join his regiment who were already deployed. The small draft of men he arrived with crossed Cape Colony, joining Colonel Parson’s column near the small town of Aberdeen.
On 6th March, Oates’ patrol of Inniskillings was subject to an ambush and resultant fire-fight with Boers about six miles from Aberdeen. The South Africans sent a man with a white flag to demand the patrol’s surrender. Though outnumbered, the patrol refused. Oates reputedly replied, “We came here to fight, not to surrender.” It took four hours of strenuous fighting to get each of his men to safety. Oates was the final man within firing range, and a Boer round hit him in the left thigh, breaking the bone. Over eight hours later, Oates was found by Captain Herbert Whyte, Medical Officer, 18th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry. He set Oates’ leg without anaesthetic before evacuating him to Aberdeen. Because of his bravery, Oates was nominated for the Victoria Cross. He may not have been awarded a VC, but a new nickname, ‘No Surrender Oates’ was given to him by his comrades.
After a period of convalescence at home, Oates returned to South Africa on 31st December 1901. He re-joined his regiment and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 2nd February 1902. ‘There’s a young chap in the Inniskillings who did very well, named Oates,’ the future Lord Baden-Powell told the British press around this time. ‘And he is worth his oats — one of these youngsters that will go far; keen as mustard.’
During this second spell in South Africa, Oates not only walked with a noticeable limp, but also survived typhoid. He was mentioned in despatches by Lord Kitchener in his final despatch dated 23 June 1902.
Following the conclusion of the Boer War, Oates remained in service, being posted to Ireland, Egypt and India, gaining promotion to Captain in 1906. Lawrence found his posting in India to be too quiet and inactive. An expert horseman, he spent much of his time playing polo, steeplechasing and hunting, even bringing his own pack of hounds to India with him. It was in India that Oates caught and then survived smallpox.
Inactivity in India was a prime motivation to apply to join Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition. Even then, thoughts of his career in the army were evident. A letter to his mother recorded:“I have now a great confession to make. I offered my services to the Antarctic Expedition which starts this summer from home under Scott…. I don’t know whether you approve or not but I feel that I ought to have consulted you before I sent in my name. I did not do so as I thought there was very little chance of my being taken.…. Points in favour of going: It will help me professionally as in the Army if they want a man to wash labels off bottles, they would sooner employ a man who had been to the North Pole than one who had only got as far as the Mile End Road. Now points against. I shall be out of touch for some considerable time. It will require a goodish outlay of about £1,500 as I have offered to subscribe to the funds. I shall have to give up the hounds. I shall annoy the Colonel very much.”
Oates took charge of the expedition’s 19 ponies, transported to the Antarctic to help lay the depots of food, vital to the expedition’s chances of success. Captain Scott, Captain Oates and 14 other members of the expedition set off from their base camp for the South Pole on 1 November 1911. By 4 January 1912, only the five-man polar party of Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry ‘Birdy’ Bowers, Edgar Evans and Oates remained to walk the last 167 miles to the Pole. On 18 January 1912, 79 days after starting their journey, they finally reached the Pole only to discover a tent that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his four-man team had left behind at their Polheim camp after beating them in the race to be first to the Pole. Inside the tent was a note from Amundsen informing them that his party had reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911, beating Scott’s party by 35 days.