Captain Lawrence Oakes
For generations, in England’s public schools, including in elite institutions such as Eton and Harrow, Lawrence Oakes was held up as the ideal gentleman. He was dashing, adventurous, well-educated and well-mannered. And, when the chips really were down, he chose to sacrifice his own life so that his colleagues would have a better chance of survival. What’s more, he made the ultimate act of sacrifice with true stoicism and with a sense of humor.
Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates was born in London in 1880. As was befitting for a boy from a wealthy family, he attended Eton College, though he left after a couple of years due to ill health. In 1898, he joined the British Army. As a commissioned officer, he led men in the Second Boer War, winning the Victoria Cross for his bravery. After his exploits in South Africa, Oates then served as a lieutenant and then as a captain in Ireland, Egypt and India.
However, it was as a member of Great Britain’s polar exploration team where Oates truly made a name for himself. In 1910, the acclaimed explorer Robert Falcon Scott invited Oates to join him on an expedition to the South Pole. To begin with, he was appointed as a carer for the team’s 19 ponies. However, his strength and soldierly discipline impressed Scott so much that he promoted Oates to the five-man team who would make the final push to the South Pole.
On the morning of 1 November 1911, the expedition team set off on their journey. Some 79 days later, they made it to the Pole. There, however, they stumbled across a tent left behind by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team. Scott had been beaten by just 35 days. The team started heading back, dejected and struggling in the harsh conditions. After a few days, one of their party had died, and Oates was struggling. His feet were frostbitten, and his progress was slow. Fearful that his condition was slowing down the rest of his party, and thereby placing them in danger, Oates decided to sacrifice himself. On 17 March, Oates left the tent. He told Scott: “I am just going outside and maybe some time.”
Scott noted in his diaries that Oates had sacrificed himself so that others may live. He called his companion “a true gentleman”. Tragically, Scott and his two other teammates only ever made it a further 20 miles. They died in their tent, too weak and cold to continue. While their bodies were soon found, that of Oates has never been located. On the spot where he is believed to have perished lies a memorial that states: “Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman…He walked willingly to his death in a blizzard, to try and save his comrades, beset by hardships.”