24 Sep

                                                    Finding the Polar Party

Antarctic Bases

Scott sent Atkinson back  from the Polar Party to Cape Evans (Scott’s Base for the Terra Nova expedition), on the 22nd December 1911 – He arrived at the Base on the 28th January  1912. As the senior naval officer he became Leader at the Base. One of his priorities was Scott’s instructions that One Ton Depot (the food supply depot on the barrier, 130 miles south of Cape Evans), should be stocked with food for the men and dogs of the returning  Polar Party (the man-hauling group that had set out with supplies earlier in December 1911, had been unable pull enough weight for a sufficiency of dog food).

Scott’s orders had been that after their return to Cape Evans, Atkinson and dog-driver Cecil Meares should make a second dog-team expedition South in early January 1912, carrying both rations and dog food. A third journey was to be made to the barrier in February. This third journey would be a ‘support’ mission rather than a ‘relief’ mission – to supply One Ton Depot –- and so give the returning Polar Party a sufficiency of supplies for them to catch the Terra Nova and so sail home. But extra instructions were also apparently given to Atkinson when he turned back at the top of the Beardmore Glacier. These were for the dogs to “come as far as they can” – this message, which perhaps suggests that Scott had concerns about his plans, seem to have been mislaid in the consequent change of plans.

Mears dog team had taken much longer to return to base than Scott had anticipated (they took twenty five days), and the team was no longer available to go back to One Ton – Mears was returning to England with eight other men, on the Terra Nova,  which had arrived in early February 1912.  Further delay in going south was occasioned by Terra Nova being short handed and Atkinson, obeyed Scott’s instruction that assistance should be given – though not using the dogs – in landing the stores. This meant that valuable time was lost before a team set off to meet the returning Polar Party. Atkinson wrote to his parents that he planned to go south himself, probably on the 10th February.  He did attempt the journey, but was defeated by appalling conditions and returned to Hut Point (Scott’s base on the Discovery expedition of 1901 which lies south of Cape Evans by 20 km. -see map). He reached Hut Point on the 13th February 1912.

He was at Hut Point when, on the 19th February Tom Crean arrived from the Barrier after a treacherous solo, 35 mile trek, to report that Scott’s second in command, Teddy Evans (who had been sent back from the plateau with Tom and Chief Stoker William Lashly), was lying, immobilized by scurvy and in urgent need of medical attention. He was in a tent 35 miles to the south of Hut Point, being cared for by Lashly.

Scott’s careful plan was beginning to unravel.

Atkinson felt his primary duty was to the sick man. When the weather relented, he set out with the dogs. He found that Teddy was dangerously ill and stayed with him –  feeding him lemons and onions – and, when he was sufficiently recovered, taking him back to Hut Point prior to transfer to the Terra Nova  to return to England along with the eight other returnees. This delay meant that it was the 26th before the journey to One Ton was started.  

There were thirteen men at Cape Evans. At this time there was no particular concern about either the Polar Party or another expedition, the Northern Party, commanded by Lieutenant Victor Campbell which was exploring the coast, west and south of Cape Adare.  The group was out on the icy terrain and their actual whereabouts uncertain. The plan had been for the group to be picked up by the Terra Nova, but gales and ice had prevented the ship from reaching them. (They were eventually to make the 200 mile journey to Cape Evans by sledge, not reaching base until November 1912).

Atkinson was  now faced with the unexpected  dilemma of whom to send south, to 82°, in early February 1912 as had been suggested by Scott to meet the returning party – Atkinson could not go – he was fully occupied looking after Teddy Evans. George Simpson, the meteorologist was busy with his scientific work and anyway would be returning to England on the ship along with the other crew members. Atkinson sent a note back to Cape Evans suggesting that either the physicist, Charles Wright or Apsley Cherry-Garrard – Edward Wilson’s assistant zoologist – should go.  Simpson was unwilling to release Wright from the scientific work, so Atkinson ordered Cherry-Garrard (short-sighted, relatively inexperienced with dogs and navigation and probably tired, having man-hauled a sledge to the top of the Beardmore glacier and back, and helped unload the Terra Nova), to set out with Demitri Gerov, the dog driver.

At this point the sortie was not thought of as a ‘relief mission’. Cherry-Garrard’s was told  to ‘use his judgment as to what to do’, if he did not meet up with the Polar Party.

The two men set out on 26 February 1912. They reached One Ton Depot, which they found poorly supplied with dog food, on 4 March and they replenished it. Then they waited – for seven days. Cherry had six days dog food in reserve and could have reached the next depot without killing the dogs for dog meat. But the men were reported to be engulfed in blizzards (although others have commented that no blizzard was recorded by Scott 100 miles further south until some days later) and Cherry’s concern was that he could pass Scott’s party between depots. He was conscious that Scott had ordered that the dogs were not to be risked –  they were to be saved for scientific outings in the following year. In addition  temperatures were below minus 38°C making further progress south difficult. He was not unduly concerned about the Polar Party as he understood that his mission was ‘supply and assist’.

They did not go further south. They turned back on 10 March reaching Hut Point on 16 March. They were exhausted – Cherry Garrard collapsed after his return. But the lack of any positive information about Scott’s returning party focused concerns about their fate ( Scott, Wilson and Bowers were to finally reach eleven miles SOUTH of One Ton Depot, where they perished sometime around the end of March).

Atkinson set out again on 30 March (the beginning of the Antarctic winter), to try and reach Scott. The conditions were impossible. He turned back.

Throughout the Antarctic winter (March to September 1912), the men at the base waited and hoped. By July 1912 Atkinson wrote, in a letter to be sent to his parents later, that by this time and with no news, Scott’s party must have perished – in fact, by this time they had been dead for over three months.

The dilemma  Atkinson faced in 1912 was which of the two absent  parties should be prioritised. In April he was one of  a group of four who aimed to sledge up the Western Coast to make contact with Campbell and the Northern Party. They had to turn back. They left messages and some supplies for Campbell.

The remainder of the winter brought no respite. Atkinson went over the awful situation with all the men at the base. It was considered that the Northern Party would be able to survive. Attention would be focussed on the Polar Party. Although Atkinson was sure they had perished, he felt it was essential to know what had actually happened -he wrote a letter to the Admiralty telling of these anxieties.  The winter was spent preparing for a search party as well as continuing with the usual routines – chores, lectures, exercise, but mainly listening hopefully, but in vain, for Scott’s return.

The spring of 1912 was spent setting up supply depots.  Sufficient supplies were taken to cover the eventuality of needing to go up  the Beardmore Glacier, as well as replenishing the other depots.

On the 30th October  1912 the first six men of the search party set out.  Atkinson and Demitri Gerof rode a dog team as did Cherry Garrard. Frank Debenham, the geologist, was left in charge at Cape Evans. 

The tent was found on the 12 November 1912,  eleven miles south of One Ton Depot  (Lat. 79°29S).   Ski sticks were in front of it. Atkinson crawled into the tent accompanied by William Lashly. He wrote that Scott, Bowers and Wilson had died in their sleep.  He examined the bodies but did not specifically comment on signs of scurvy –for which he was to be criticised later. He read enough of their dairies and effects to understand what had happened to the party. When the two men left the tent, tears were streaming down Lashly’s face

Atkinson read the burial service and an extract from Corinthians. A record of the proceedings was signed by all the members of the search party. The men erected a twelve foot cairn over the tent surmounted by a cross made of the skis. They searched for Oates’s body with no success but did find his sleeping bag and they erected another cairn and cross close to the place where he had left his companions. They returned somberly to Base Hut on the 25th of November.  Here they found, with relief, that the Northern Party had managed to reach Cape Evans on the 5th November (1912), independently.

Terra Nova, now commanded by the physically recovered Teddy Evans, returned to Cape Evans having called at Cape Royds (Shackleton’s base of 1908). Scientific equipment and scientific collections were loaded onto the ship.  She left Antarctica finally on the 26 January 1913.

Atkinson faced two major criticisms- firstly the activities of the dog teams and secondly, the presence or absence, of scurvy on the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers.

As recorded, Scott had ordered that after their return, the dogs should make two further journeys to One Ton Camp  to leave both rations and dog food by the12 January 1912.   A third journey was to be made in early February to help the return of the Polar Party, so that they could catch the ship. Later instructions meant to be sent with Atkinson changed this – the dogs were to come as far as possible.

Because Scott had taken the dogs much further south than had been originally planned, Atkinson and the dogs did not get back to base until 5 January (the time he had instructed a third journey to the barrier), the dogs’ second barrier journey was never made – although rations  for the men were deposited by a man-hauling party, dog food was not left. This meant that any significant progress by the dogs south of One Ton for any reason, would be virtually impossible.

Clearly more priority should have been placed on the polar party earlier, but at this time there was no anxiety about their progress.

In relation to scurvy, Atkinson was the only doctor to examine the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers in November 1912. No medical report was published, but Atkinson is said to have told Cherry-Garrard that there was no evidence of scurvy.

I do not know whether the stigmata of scurvy would persist for eight months in sub zero temperatures. Scurvy appears about three months after vitamin C has been absent from the diet. The men had been away from base for four months before they died. They must have suffered from some deficiency of the vitamin, perhaps sub –clinical or, possibly, the stigmata had faded.

The Terra Nova sailed from the Antarctic on the 26 January 1913 under the command of Teddy Evans. Before the sail, a 9 foot cross was erected, inscribed with the names of the Polar Party. The news of the deaths was published to the world from New Zealand.  Here Atkinson met with Kathleen Scott and spent a night reading Scotts diaries to her –she wrote he was quiet tactful and reverent.

He was in London by April 1913 and subsequently posted to China. During World War 1 he served on  the warship HMS Vincent . After the war he returned to his Royal Naval duties in the Royal Naval Medical School. He was promoted to the rank of Surgeon Commander, served on a number of ships and did stints in the Mediterranean. He retired in 1928.

He died at sea in February 1929 whilst travelling from Calcutta to Britain, It was recorded that he had died of heart failure.

Atkinson’s life was both active and adventurous throughout, but probably the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910 was his most significant period of service. His contributions were recognized as is illustrated by the awards he received: The Distinguished Service Order, The British Empire 1913-1915 Star, The British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal. He was also mentioned in Dispatches and held the Polar Medal and the Royal Geographical Medal.

The fate of the Polar Party is a story  of geographic and scientific advance but also a story of heroic failure. During the expedition Atkinson was burdened with unexpected and immense responsibilities. Throughout, he showed calm decisiveness and leadership. He was a remarkable man. 

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