Heroes turn up in all sorts of shapes and sizes, everyday people doing extraordinary things, though very often nowadays it’ll be a footballer who has managed to score a goal. But is that heroic? Isn’t that his job? Praiseworthy, yes, but hardly heroic.
Captain Lawrence Oates, now, he was a hero, a real one; he overcame enormous odds and laid down his life to try to save his comrades. That certainly qualifies him as a hero, and he’s been one of mine for a long, long time. His is the kind of quiet, understated heroism that used to typify the classic Briton (and still does when you consider our armed forces). Oates is so much of that ilk that he’s come to exemplify the word ‘hero’. We often use his famous phrase in our house when one of us is off out, always with a nod to Oates and meaning no disrespect.
Bearing in mind the theme of this blog I’ve tried to work in a mention of Winchester , but nothing’s turned up apart from a general Hampshire connection. The best I can do is direct you to this website: http://www.gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/the-oates-collection/ I’m not entirely sure why the Oates family joined forces with the Gilbert White museum to house the Oates memorabilia, but it’s an odd but inspired choice – a memorial to an English hero in an beautiful English house and garden. We took a couple of visitors there recently and if you get the chance, do go – not just for Gilbert White and Captain Oates, important as they are – but for the garden too, and the very nice coffee room!
Gilbert White deserves a blog post all of his own, so for now, take a look at Lawrence Oates. I was astonished at how timeless he looks in the photograph above. He could be a mediaeval warrior monk, or a modern army officer. The military impression is telling, he was a soldier and a very distinguished one, in spite of serious ill-health as a child and young man – and his heroism continued: he was known as ‘No Surrender Oates’ because he refused to surrender to a much larger force during the Boer War.
His most famous feat though, is the one for which he is remembered and which led to his death. Selected to join Captain Scott’s epic trek to the South Pole, Oates was to be in charge of the horses. Scott had ignored advice to take dogs instead, as more suited to the terrain, and the horses were bought without consulting Oates who was distinctly unimpressed by their poor quality. The Norwegian, Amundsen, was better equipped and better provisioned and eventually won the race to the Pole while Scott’s team suffered inadequate food supplies, severe weather conditions and failing health. Oates was very weak but despite his infirmities he sacrificed his life in the hope of saving his comrades, leaving the tent in a terrible blizzard with the famous last words “I am just going outside and may be some time.” His body has never been found.
A century later Captain Oates still exemplifies the quiet courage common to all real heroes and the museum dedicated to him is the perfect place to find out more about him.
It’s poignant to reflect that had he not died on the Scott expedition he might well have died within a few years when, as a regular soldier, he would have set off to war in 1914.