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On 9 January 1909, Ernest Shackleton and three companions turned north, after marching to within 100 geographical miles of the South Pole. Shackleton's failure to attain the Pole left an opening for Britain's other great Polar explorer, Robert Falcon Scott; the result was Scott's British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913.

The expedition was privately organised, although half of the £40,000 cost was met by a government grant. Its aims were threefold: first, a vast programme of scientific research in the fields of geology, glaciology, geomagnetism, geophysics, meteorology and biology; second, to try and explore King Edward VII Land and Victoria Land; third, an attempt on the Pole. With this in mind, Scott appointed as chief of the scientific staff his colleague from his first, 'Discovery', expedition, Edward Wilson, along with a scientific team of eight and an untrained assistant zoologist, Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Scott's second-in-command was Lt Edward Evans, formerly second officer of the Morning, sent to relieve Scott's Discovery expedition in 1902. The expedition, totalling 65 men, included several other veterans of previous Polar expeditions. The ship chosen was also an Antarctic veteran: the Terra Nova, an old sealing barque with an auxiliary steam engine which had formed part of the Second Discovery Relief Expedition.

The Terra Nova left Cardiff on 15 June 1910, traveling via the uninhabited Ilha de Trinidade and Cape Town to New Zealand. After collecting final supplies and members of the expedition, she left Port Chalmers on 19 November 1910, and, after enduring severe storms and heavy pack ice, reached Ross Island on 4 January 1911. Unable to reach the old Discovery hut at Hut Point, Scott settled on Cape Evans for his base, and unloading began the same day. One of the expedition's three experimental motor sledges was lost in the process, plunging through the sea ice.

On 27 January, a large party headed south across the Ross Ice Shelf to lay depots for the next year's attempt on the Pole. Hampered by bad conditions and the unsuitability of the ponies chosen to haul the loads, the final 'One Ton Depot' was laid at 79º 29' S, 31 miles short of its intended position at 80ºS. The majority of the ponies were lost on the return, due either to overwork or an accident on the sea ice; the last of the party arrived at Hut Point on 6 March.

The Terra Nova departed on 26 January carrying a four-man team headed for the Victoria Land mountains opposite Ross Island, and a six-man Eastern Party under Lt Victor Campbell. The Victoria Land party comprised the geologists Thomas Griffith Taylor and Frank Debenham, the physicist Charles Wright, and PO Edgar Evans; it investigated the geology and glaciology of the McMurdo dry valleys and the Taylor and Koettlitz Glaciers, returning to Hut Point on 14 March.

The Eastern Party intended to explore King Edward VII Land to the east of Ross Ice Shelf. Prevented from landing there by ice, they were returning along the edge of the Shelf when they found Roald Amundsen and his ship, the Fram, anchored in the Bay of Whales. After returning to Cape Evans with the news, the Terra Nova left on 9 February to carry the Eastern Party north to Cape Adare, where they established a base for the winter next to the huts erected by Carsten Borchgrevink's Southern Cross expedition. Like Borchgrevink, they found Cape Adare a poor site for access inland; but the surgeon George Murray Levick took the opportunity provided by the huge Adélie Penguin rookery at Cape Adare to make extensive studies of the birds' behaviour, eventually writing the standard book on the subject.

During the Antarctic winter of 1911, the main party at Cape Evans settled into a routine of planning, preparation, exercise for men and ponies, regular lectures, and the resumption of the Discovery expedition's magazine, the South Polar Times. In the middle of winter, Wilson, Lt 'Birdie' Bowers and Cherry-Garrard set out for the Emperor Penguin colony at Cape Crozier, planning to obtain eggs in the early stages of development in the belief, then current, that embryonic development mimicked evolution, and the penguin eggs, belonging to a particularly primitive bird, would thereby illuminate the evolution of birds. Departing on 27 June, they endured temperatures of -60º C - so cold that they were frostbitten whilst inside their sleeping bags - and a gale which tore the roof off their temporary hut, returning to Cape Evans on 1 August with three eggs. Cherry-Garrard later described this as 'the worst journey in the world' in his book about the Terra Nova expedition.

Scott's plan for the South Pole was to follow Shackleton's route and methods, using ponies to haul supplies to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, and then man-haul the sledges up the Glacier and across the Polar plateau to the South Pole and back, laying and picking up supply depots along the way. Shackleton had nearly succeeded, and, with two additional motor sledges and a larger support party, Scott was confident of success.

Once spring had returned, the Polar Party set off in stages: the motor sledges on 24 October 1911, and the dogs and ponies on 1 November. The motor sledges both broke down within seven days, their drivers resorting to man-hauling; the two parties eventually combined on 21 November. They continued across the Ross Ice Shelf to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, where they were delayed by a warm, wet blizzard. As the expedition ascended the Beardmore and moved across the Polar plateau, supporting parties were sent back: four men on 11 December, another four on 22 December; and the final three on 3 January 1912, at 87º 32' south, 148 miles from the Pole. Unexpectedly, Scott chose four, rather than the planned three, companions for the final march to the Pole: Wilson, Bowers, PO Evans, and the cavalryman Capt Lawrence Oates.

The last returning party, comprising Lt Evans, Leading Stoker William Lashly, and PO Tom Crean, suffered badly from malnutrition and scurvy on their return to Ross Island. Evans had to be carried on the sledge from One Ton Depot to 35 miles south of Hut Point, where a tent was erected and Lashly remained with him while Crean marched non-stop for the last 35 miles to fetch help. Evans was brought back to Hut Point on 22 February; he was invalided home on the Terra Nova shortly afterwards.

On 16 January, Bowers spotted a flag, and Scott's party discovered that Amundsen's expedition had beaten them to the South Pole by a little over a month. They reached the Pole itself on 17 January 1912, and turned north the following day. Pausing on the Beardmore Glacier to collect geological samples, they found the weather increasingly - and unexpectedly - cold, making it much harder to pull their sledge; consequently, they were often on short rations. Following a bad fall, PO Evans gradually declined, dying at the foot of the Beardmore on 17 February from a combination of concussion, high altitude and malnourishment. The remaining party struggled across the Ross Ice Shelf during one of the coldest Marches on record. Increasingly cold and hungry, they gradually slowed down, most notably Oates, whose feet were badly frost-bitten. On 17 March, famously stating that 'I am just going outside, and may be some time', Oates walked to his death in the snow so that he might not hold his companions back any further. But three days later Scott, Wilson and Bowers were trapped by a blizzard only eleven miles from One Ton Depot, eventually succumbing to cold, dehydration, malnourishment and starvation around 29 March 1912.

Meanwhile, Taylor and Debenham, this time accompanied by the Norwegian ski expert Tryggve Gran and PO Robert Forde, had departed again for Victoria Land on 17 November 1911, heading for the area around Granite Harbour and the Mackay Glacier for further geological work. The Terra Nova was unable to collect them as planned on 15 January, so they set off themselves on 5 February, only to be picked up by the Terra Nova on 18 February.

At Cape Evans, concerns were raised when Chery-Garrard had failed to meet Scott's party at One Ton Depot in early March. Following a last-ditch attempt to meet the Polar Party at the end of March, when the expedition's temporary commander, the naval surgeon Edward Atkinson, and PO Patrick Keohane sledged south to Corner Camp on the Ross Ice Shelf, the remaining expedition members settled down for the winter, sure that Scott's party had perished and unsure of the fate of the Eastern Party, who had been collected from Cape Adare by the Terra Nova on 4 January 1912, and taken south along the Victoria Land coast to the area of Evans Coves and Mount Melbourne to carry out geological work. Excessive ice prevented the Terra Nova from collecting the party as planned on 19 February, and they found themselves marooned for the winter with only a month's supply of food. Digging a small snow-hole for themselves in 'Inexpressible Island', they hunted as many seals as they could and waited out the winter, suffering from hunger, dysentery and cold. With the arrival of spring, they left the snow-hole on 30 September 1912 and sledged back to Cape Evans, arriving on 7 November, only to find that the bulk of the expedition was absent.

After voting on whether to look for the Polar Party or the Eastern Party, Atkinson led a search party south on 29 October. They found Scott's tent on 12 November, with Scott, Wilson and Bowers's bodies inside. Collapsing the tent and erecting a cairn over the bodies, the search party looked for Oates's body, but could only find his sleeping bag, erecting another cairn on the spot on 15 November, and returning to Hut Point on 25 November, carrying the Polar Party's diaries, final letters, and scientific specimens.

The Terra Nova left Cape Evans with the remains of the expedition on 19 January 1903; pausing to pick up Taylor's and Debenham's and the Eastern Party's specimens from Victoria Land, they sailed for New Zealand, arriving to telegraph the news of Scott's death on 10 February 1913.

The announcement was met in Britain with an immense outpouring of grief, augmented by respect for the way the explorers had met their deaths, helped in large part by the dying Scott’s eloquent Message to the Public:

Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale …

However, the expedition's greatest legacy is arguably the many volumes of scientific reports and papers which it produced, adding significantly to knowledge of Antarctica's natural history, geophysics, geomagnetism, glaciology and geology - including fossils of the fern Glossopteris, gathered by the Polar Party as they descended the Beardmore Glacier, which provided evidence for the theory of continental drift.