"We seek the secrets of the earth … but find the hidden face of God."
Motto of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. (Book of Job).
Part of the Titanic's enduring appeal is the stoic heroism displayed during the disaster. Instead of 'every man for himself', upper lips were stiffened and duties performed. Gentlemen acted as gentlemen, the band played on, and the Captain went down with his ship.
This year also marks the centenary of another doomed venture, that of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose bid to be the first to reach the South Pole fell thirty-three days short of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's. Scott and his men died on the return trip when a freak blizzard made it impossible for them to leave their tent, a scant eleven miles from their next supply depot.
On 30 March 2012, a ceremony took place at St. Paul's Cathedral to commemorate the occasion. The Bishop of London, Robert Chartres, had this to say:
"The example of Scott and his team helped inspire the Antarctic treaty, which guaranteed the integrity of the continent as a place of peace and scientific research, as far as possible uncontaminated by the rubbish we have made of so much of the rest of the natural world."
The service was well attended, but at the original ceremony in 1913, ten thousand people flocked to St Paul's to pay tribute to a band of men who epitomized the spirit of Edwardian Britain. Scott and his men knew in all likelihood that they'd be beaten by Amundsen, yet they continued their trek to the Pole. And on the return trip, they knew their almost certain fate—but, according to Scott's diaries, not a word of regret was spoken inside that lonely tent at the edge of the world.
This Edwardian ethic, the desire to 'do one's bit' and to act as though death would be 'a great adventure' would face its sternest test in a scant two years' time. With the outbreak of the first World War, the menfolk of entire villages raced to sign up to be shipped overseas—primarily to France, where they would literally become cannon fodder. Scott's expedition and the Titanic disaster proved to be mere foreshadows of the deaths of millions.
Looking back through the telescope of time, it's easy to admire the courage and willingness of our grandfathers' grandfathers to 'do their duty' while wondering at the lack of self-preservation. If nothing else, the stories, myths and legends surrounding these three diverse tragedies continue to inspire us today.
But whether mankind has learned its lesson is still an open question. We seem hard-wired to want to be the biggest, best, and fastest; to explore and to stamp our authority over nature. And the Great War, far from being 'the war to end all wars', seems just to have been the beginning of modern warfare.
The last line in Scott's diary, 'For God's sake, look after our people', referred to his family and those of his companions: How wonderful if the human race were to adopt that same sentiment today.
Scott's group took this photograph of themselves using a string to operate the shutter on 17 January 1912, the day after they discovered Amundsen had reached the pole first.
Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates, and Edgar Evans.