Terra Nova in a Nutshell

The British Antarctic Expedition 1910, nicknamed the Terra Nova Expedition after its ship, was under the command of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, who had commanded a previous expedition to Antarctica in the Discovery in 1901-4.  Officially, the second-in-command was Lt. ‘Teddy’ Evans, but in all other respects the role was filled by Scott’s comrade from Discovery days, the doctor, naturalist, and artist Edward ‘Bill’ Wilson.  His assistant on this second expedition was an idealistic young man named Apsley Cherry-Garrard, soon nicknamed ‘Cherry.’

The Terra Nova leaves Cardiff Bay

The Terra Nova left Cardiff on June 15th, 1910, had a very exciting and fun-filled journey to New Zealand and thence to Antarctica. She made landfall there in January of 1911, at a little outcrop of land on Ross Island which was christened Cape Evans.

A wide shot of the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans, 2019
The hut at Cape Evans in 2019, showing its puny insignificance in the vast landscape

While the hut was being constructed, Scott and a selection of men – including Wilson, Cherry, quartermaster ‘Birdie’ Bowers and seemingly indestructible sailor Tom Crean – set off to cache stores along the route to the South Pole, so that when they made the journey in the following year, they wouldn’t need to haul everything they needed from base.  This string of depots culminated in a great big cache called One Ton Depot. On their way back to base, Cherry, Bowers, and Crean were crossing sea ice back to Ross Island when it broke up, and only by sheer pluck managed to get to safety instead of drifting out to sea. (I have made a 12-page comic about this episode, called The Sea Ice Incident, which you can download free if you want to know more.)

Shortly after this, Scott learned that Roald Amundsen, who was making a surprise attempt on the Pole himself, had also set up his base on the Ross Sea coast, in direct competition with Scott. As nothing could be done about this, Scott decided to proceed according to plan and not make a race of it. (He wasn’t happy about it, though.)

The first winter was a happy one, but for Cherry, Wilson, and Bowers, the conviviality of the hut was interrupted by a gruelling midwinter journey to the other side of Ross Island in search of Emperor penguin eggs, as part of Wilson’s investigation into the birds’ evolution, a trip they just barely survived.

R-L: Wilson, Bowers, and Cherry, after they’d been cut out of their ice-encrusted clothes on returning from Cape Crozier.

Three months later they set off again in the party of twelve who were to make the attempt at reaching the South Pole. It was arranged that two parties of four would turn back in succession after helping the final party as far as they could. Cherry was selected to be in the first returning party, Lt. Evans headed up the second returning party, and Wilson and Bowers accompanied Scott in the final Pole Party. Cherry was disappointed to have been sent back so soon, and be parted from his friends, but got on with life back at the hut, happy to have played his part in the great endeavour.

The First Returning Party, returning.

All was well until news came that the leader of the second returning party, Teddy Evans, was deathly ill with scurvy. The expedition doctor, Atkinson, was supposed to go meet the final party with the dog teams as they returned, but was instead sidelined into caring for Evans. Atkinson delegated the rendezvous to Cherry, who duly took the dogs out to One Ton Depot to meet the returning party, but they never turned up; he waited as long as he could, but as winter was closing in and he was running out of food for the dogs, he turned back to base.

When the Pole Party failed to arrive in the next few weeks, it became apparent that they never would, and the remaining men faced another winter knowing that their friends had perished. The following summer, another southern journey was made, in an attempt to find any trace of what had happened the Pole Party. They were expected to have fallen down a crevasse somewhere en route, but were found snowed up in their tent about twelve miles south of One Ton Depot, a point they had reached nine days after Cherry had turned back from there. From their letters and journals, the survivors learned that the Pole Party had reached the South Pole, but had discovered there that Amundsen had beat them to it by a month.

Four of the five members of the Pole Party, pictured with Amundsen’s tent.

On the return journey, two of the five men Scott had taken to the Pole suffered crippling mishaps, but instead of abandoning them, the healthy men slowed down to accommodate them. The injured men both eventually died, but by then the season had started to turn, and the remaining three – Scott, Wilson, and Bowers – were trapped in their tent by a blizzard which kept them from reaching the necessary food and fuel until they, too, expired.

The search party retrieved all the records and personal effects they could, then collapsed the tent over the Pole Party where they lay and built a great memorial cairn over them. They brought their story back to a world which, having been expecting great news, instead plunged into mourning.

Cherry had his own personal torment beyond that, though, in the idea that, had he pressed on with the dog teams from One Ton, he might have been able to save his friends’ lives. After returning to civilisation (and a small interruption we call the First World War) he wrote The Worst Journey in the World, his memoir of the expedition, largely as a tribute to them and the friendship they’d shared.

The portion of the story relating to the Southern Journey – from Cherry’s point of view – was dramatised by BBC Radio 4 in 2008. This radio play is what got me hooked on the story (and especially the characters!) and precipitated the chain of events which got me out of animation and onto this crazy journey of my own, making the book – ALL of it – into a series of graphic novels.  The BBC probably won’t rerun the radio play, but you can currently listen to it on archive.org.

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