“A very terrible day.”
That was how Captain Robert Falcon Scot began his journal entry on this day a hundred years ago. He had just lost the first man of his expedition to the South Pole – the big sailor called Taff Evans. A month earlier, Evans had posed for pictures at the South Pole with Scott and the rest of his polar party: Lawrence Oates, Birdie Bowers and Bill Wilson. Evans was from “the lower deck,” a petty officer in the Royal Navy, and his inclusion in the polar party had been a grand gesture by Scott, a reward for the very hard work of the big, cheerful sailor.
They had reached the Pole on January 18, to find that the Norwegians led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them there by a month, snatching the honor of “first to the Pole.” For the next twenty-nine days they had struggled homeward, pulling their sledge across the polar plateau, then down through the mountains on the Beardmore Glacier. In the last week, Evans had been slowing the others down. Finding reasons to get out of the harness, he had lagged far behind the rest of the party.
At the end of this day, in a tent near the bottom of the glacier, Scott recorded the details of the sailor’s death:
“Evans looked a little better after a good sleep, and declared, as he always did, that he was quite well. He started in his place on the traces, but half an hour later worked his ski shoes adrift, and had to leave the sledge. The surface was awful, the soft recently fallen snow clogging the ski and runners at every step, the sledge groaning, the sky overcast, and the land hazy. We stopped after about one hour, and Evans came up again, but very slowly. Half an hour later he dropped out again on the same plea. He asked Bowers to lend him a piece of string. I cautioned him to come on as quickly as he could, and he answered cheerfully as I thought. We had to push on, and the remainder of us were forced to pull very hard, sweating heavily. Abreast the Monument Rock we stopped, and seeing Evans a long way astern, I camped for lunch. There was no alarm at first, and we prepared tea and our own meal, consuming the latter. After lunch, and Evans still not appearing, we looked out, to see him still afar off. By this time we were alarmed, and all four started back on ski. I was the first to reach the poor man and shocked at his appearance; he was on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes. Asked what was the matter, he replied with a slow speech that he didn’t know, but thought he must have fainted. We got him on his feet, but after two or three steps he sank down again. He showed every sign of complete collapse. Wilson, Bowers and I went back for the sledge, whilst Oates remained with him. When we returned he was practically unconscious, and when we got him into the tent quite comatose. He died quietly at 12:30 a.m.”
Half an hour later, Scott and the others packed up their tent and moved along, leaving the body of Taff Evans behind in the snow. The next day they reached the foot of the glacier and camped at their old Shambles Camp, where they had shot the last of the ponies on their way to the Pole. Back on the floating ice of the dreadful Barrier, they celebrated their return to sea level with a meal of pony meat dug up from a frozen cache.
James Pigg – my Winter Pony – was among those shot at Shambles Camp. He may well have provided a part of that meal on February 19, 1911. It would have been his very last gift to men he loved dearly.
At the South Pole. Evans is second from the right.
Petty Officer Edgar “Taff” Evans