PETTY OFFICER EDGAR EVANS (1876 – 1912)
Edgar Evans was a member of the “Polar Party” in Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole in 1911–1912. This group of five men, personally selected for the final expedition push, attained the Pole on January 17, 1912; but all of them, including Evans, perished as they attempted to return to their base camp.
Early Years and First Antarctic Expedition
Evans was born in Wales, the son of a seaman. He enlisted in the Royal Navy at age 15 and served with Robert Scott on the HMS Majestic. He then joined Scott’s first expedition to Antarctica aboard the Discovery in 1901–1904. Evans accompanied Scott on his “Furthest West” sledge journey to the interior of Victoria Land in 1903. Over the course of the expedition he contributed to seven polar sledge journeys totalling 174 days, a record beaten only by Scott himself. Evans was awarded the Polar Medal on Scott’s recommendation.
Return to Antarctica and the South Pole
Evans returned to Antarctica with Scott’s 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition and Scott chose him as a member of his polar party, together with Lieutenant Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates, and Dr. Edward Wilson. Eleven weeks after setting off from base camp, the Polar party reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912, only to discover that Roald Amundsen’s five-man party had beaten them to the Pole by five weeks. Their return journey soon became a desperate affair as the exhausted and malnourished men raced against the onset of winter. Evans had cut his hand repairing a sledge as they neared the pole and the wound did not heal. Infection, lack of food, malnutrition and intense cold now took their toll. Evans began to deteriorate mentally as well as physically, suffering from frostbite to his fingers, nose, and cheeks. He fell into a crevasse as they descended the Beardmore Glacier on February 4, and is thought to have sustained a head injury, which caused his condition to rapidly worsen.
On February 16, nearing the base of the glacier, Evans collapsed. The next morning, unable to keep up, he was left behind while the others went ahead towards the next supply depot. When he did not appear, they retraced their steps and found him; ‘…on his knees, clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten and with a “wild look in his eyes”. Asked what was the matter, he replied with a slow speech that he didn’t know, but thought he must have fainted.’ He was placed onto a sledge and taken to the camp they had set up. By the time he was placed in the tent, he was comatose and he died that night. It was not recorded what was done with his body, and none of the other members of the polar party survived the return journey.
In the follow-up to the tragedy, people wanted someone to blame and Evans, as the first to die, was a convenient target, despite all other mistakes and misfortunes which befell the trip. As the only non-officer member of the final five, Evans was dismissed as someone morally unable to withstand the trek. It was said his deteriorating condition delayed the explorers, diminishing their food supply, and leading to their desperate demise. Unfortunately, Evans’ many contributions to the expedition were largely ignored.
Evans the Resourceful Innovator
Scott repeatedly praised Evans’ strength and ingenuity throughout their preparations and en route to the Pole. His journal records, ‘The men are equally fine. Edgar Evans has proved a useful member of our party; he looks after our sledges and sledge equipment with a care of management and a fertility of resource which is truly astonishing—on ‘trek’ he is just as sound and hard as ever and has an inexhaustible store of anecdote.’
Evans not only fitted up the sledges, he also modified or fabricated items that were found lacking: a lining for one of their tents, crampons, and new ski boots and overshoes for the men. With each innovation, Scott sang his praises,
‘We have designed new ski boots and I think they are going to be a success. Evans, P.O., has arisen well to the occasion as a boot maker…[The] sealskin overshoes for ski made by Evans seem to be a complete success. He has modified the shape of the toe to fit the ski irons better. I am very pleased with this arrangement.‘ and later, ‘We have worn our crampons all day and are delighted with them. P.O. Evans, the inventor of both crampons and ski shoes, is greatly pleased, and certainly we owe him much.’
When the ponies sank into deep snow, ‘The situation was saved by P.O. Evans, who put the last pair of snowshoes on Snatcher. From this he went on without much pressing, the other ponies followed…’
When pulling sledges, ‘P.O. Evans, of course, is a tower of strength…’
When shoes needed repair, ‘We had their shoes into our tent this morning, and P.O. Evans put them into shape again.’
When the sledges became damaged near the pole, Evans, along with Crean, stripped them down, shortened them, and built them up again, ‘It is a very remarkable piece of work. Certainly P.O. Evans is the most invaluable asset to our party. To build a sledge under these conditions is a fact for special record.’
Evans the Unsung Hero
Evans only regained his rightful place as Scott’s loyal petty officer and an Antarctic hero after many years. The 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, placed Edgar fairly as an important part of the expedition. In the 1960s, the Royal Navy named an accommodation block in Portsmouth after him—the Edgar Evans Building (the first not to be named after an admiral). In commemoration, Edgar’s Polar Medal and clasp was taken to the South Pole during the “Footsteps of Scott” expedition of 1986. More recently, historian Dr. Isobel P. Williams has written a book that squarely places Edgar Evans as an unsung hero and re-interprets the causes of the polar party’s demise.
Several Landmarks are named after P.O. Edgar Evans, including Evans Glacier, near where he died; Evans Neve; and Evans Piedmonte Glacier. [Cape Evans on Ross Island is named for F.O. Edward ‘Teddy’ Evans, of the Terra Nova expedition].