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Captain Oates – Kildare racing and Polar exploring

By Kevin Kenny

One hundred years ago, in January 1912, Robert Falcon Scott  reached the South Pole. With him were four others – Dr. Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans and Capt. Laurence Oates.

Since starting the previous November, the  work of hauling tons of supplies on their sledges while enduring temperatures so cold that boiling water thrown into the air would instantly freeze was backbreaking. But this was more than exploring new lands. Somewhere out there in the frozen vastness, a Norwegian team under Raold Amundsen was vying for the honours of being first to the South Pole.

Laurence Oates was 31 years old. He was every bit the cavalry officer, schooled at Eton and with a natural love of the horse and all that went with it – hunting, polo and racing. In 1900 he was commissioned into the Inniskilling Dragoons and despatched to regimental headquarters on the Curragh. Months later he was on the way to the Boer war. Soon after arriving in South Africa, Oates found himself in action. With a detachment of men, he was pinned down in a gulley by opposing forces. The enemy retreated, but not before a sniper shot shattered Oates’ thigh.  His injury meant emergency surgery and a ship back to England.

As Scott’s party approached their destination, they saw a dark object in the distance. With each slogging footstep, it became clearer – it was a Norwegian flag. The footsteps around it and a message told them what they feared most; Amundsen had reached the Pole six weeks earlier. Scott and his party were dejected, something plainly visible in their blistered faces as they posed for a pathetic photograph. Scott scribbled in his diary: “Great God, this is an awful place...” And now, they faced a return journey of 800 miles.

Why Scott selected Oates for his polar party remains a mystery. Picking a man with one leg shorter than the other to haul a sledge to the South Pole and  back would appear an error of judgement. On the other hand, Oates was brave and tough, and Scott may have felt it politically advantageous to have an Army officer in his team, to join the other Naval members. Either way, it was a fatal decision.

Oates’ expertise with horses had been hugely important to the Scott’s expedition. He had ensured the animals were in peak condition in the frozen South and had nursed them along the Polar route until they could go no further. Oates had honed his equine ability in a recognised home of the horse – the Curragh of Kildare.

In November 1902, having recuperated from his thigh wound, Oates arrived back to Ponsonby Barracks on the Curragh. For the next three and a half years he indulged his passion for equine pursuits, building a reputation as an accomplished horseman. In 1904 he attended the spring Punchestown festival, where he rode his horse ‘Titus’ to third in the Grand Military Cup. Edward VII and Queen Alexandra stirred the cream of local and national society by attending the meeting. Oates wrote of the experience, “I do not think I have enjoyed two days better for a long time than I did in Punchestown.”

February 1905 saw him as best man when his friend, and fellow Inniskilling, Richard Morton-Wood married Miss Marguerite Mansfield of Morristown-Lattin. Snowdrops from the estate added the finishing touches to a scene which could have been lifted from Downton Abbey.

The 1905 Punchestown meeting again saw Oates in action. On the opening day he rode ‘Titus’ in the Irish Military Steeplechase, finishing down the field. ‘Blucher,’ also owned by Oates and ridden by Morton-Wood, was placed. The weather improved for the second day and the running of the Grand Military Cup. Oates’ entry ‘Angel Gabriel’ had already chalked up some notable victories and started at 8/1 with Morton-Wood aboard. The Kildare Observer reported that, ‘Gabriel was always in the leading division and fenced flippantly’ to win by four lengths. The onlooking Oates was so overcome that “my eyes got so full of tears I could not see the horses and had to keep asking the man next to me how my horse was going”.

(Kildare County Local Studies Department have within their holdings in the Local Studies Department, Newbridge Library, a Punchestown racecard listing Oates and ‘Angel Gabriel.’)

Seven years later, Oates, already suffering from frostbite and the beginnings of gangerine, faced an 800 mile slog for his life. Insufficient food and the effort of man-hauling the sledge (Amundsen had used dogs) began to take their toll on Scott and his four companions. Evans began to fall behind. On 18th February, they found him on his hands and knees, unable to walk. Later, he died.

By early March, still with 300 miles to go, Oates was spent. His legs were black and raw from gangerene. His old thigh wound had resurfaced.  His physical problems were obvious, his moral one hidden as he knew he was slowing down progress and reducing the other’s chance of survival.

On 17th March, his 32nd birthday, he did the only thing he could do. It was blowing a blizzard with temperatures around -40F. Oates painfully rose to his feet, said, “I am just going outside and I may be some time,” before stumbling out of the tent  and into oblivion. His body was never found.

Days later, Scott, Bowers and Wilson were pinned down by atrocious weather. They died in that spot, eleven miles from the next food depot.

This Saint Patrick’s day marks the centenary of Oates’ death, and that of an unlikely link between the short-grass county and the frozen wastes of Antarctica.

Polar hero Captain Oates and his connections with Kildare racing. An article by Kevin Kenny. Our thanks to Kevin

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