Adventure, Alexander Gardner, Alfred Waud, Alonzo Chappel, American Civil War, Antietam, Battle of the Somme, Charge of the Rohirrim, Confederate, early photography, Felice Beato, First Virginia Cavalry, Fort Geroge, Matthew Brady, Mexican-American War, Minas Tirith, Pelennor, Peter Jackson, Rohirrim, Second Opium War, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
In this posting, we want to talk a little about a subject so often left out of heroic stories: the aftermath of battle.
In Chapter 10 of The Return of the King, what we might call the GEF—the Gondorian Expeditionary Force—sets off from Minas Tirith for the Morannon. It begins with this little army mustered on the Pelennor and we see events through the eyes of one left behind, Merry:
“At last the trumpets rang and the army began to move. Troop by troop, and company by company, they wheeled and went off eastward. And long after they had passed away out of sight down the great road to the Causeway, Merry stood there. The last glint of the morning sun on spear and helm twinkled and was lost, and still he remained with bowed head and heavy heart, feeling friendless and alone.”
Considering what these folk had endured in the previous days, and what they dreaded might happen in those to come, it’s hardly surprising that it’s not described as a joyous event. What is not described, however, is the landscape in which they gather and which they initially march through.
The Minas Tirith to which Gandalf rides with Pippin
has been attacked by a massive army.
In an attempt to lift the siege, the Rohirrim have charged across the Pelennor,
only to encounter the fierce Southrons and their mumakil.
These are defeated, in turn, by Aragorn, his companions, and troops from South Gondor, as well as the surviving Rohirrim and a party from Gondor itself.
When the carnage is over and the invaders killed or driven off, the story, while touching on the burial of Snowmane, quickly moves back to the city. In real life, such destruction would have left behind a ghastly memorial, something only touched upon in the film of The Return of the King. As you can see in this still, all which seems to remain is the wreckage of the war machines.
In fact, there would have been thousands of bodies, not only of men and orcs, but of horses and mumakil as well.
Such an aftermath has not been a popular subject for art, except in scenes where fallen heroes are lamented when found among the slain. (Think here of Boromir, surrounded by dead orcs, for example.)
That sense of war was changed, in our world, by the introduction of the camera to the battlefield, first, briefly, by Felice Beato, during the Second Opium War (1860)
but in the US by Alexander Gardner, in the fall of 1862.
Previous images of war had tended towards the glorious, full of bravery and flags, as in this engraving made from Alonzo Chappel’s painting of the taking of the Canadian Fort George in 1813—
Even if the depiction tended to be more realistic, it came heavily filtered. During the American Civil War, several northern newspapers and magazines sent artists into the field, who drew what they saw or at least heard about from those who had seen events. One of the best was the Englishman, Alfred Waud.
He drew from life, as in the picture of the First Virginia Cavalry, with whom he spent a brief time in late September, 1862. Here’s his original drawing, which he would have sent to his publisher, in New York.
In New York, the drawing would have been turned into a woodblock print for ease of conversion to a magazine page.
And, thus, the reading public would have lost immediacy practically at the first step.
Photographs had been made in the US since the 1840s, and even some during the Mexican-American War of 1846-8, but they had been static pictures of soldiers off the battlefield.
In September, 1862, however, Gardner had been sent by his boss, Matthew Brady
from the studio in Washington, DC, to the field of the recent battle of Antietam, which had been fought only two days before. Gardner came with his photographic wagon
and ranged the battlefield. The battle was over, but the dead were still in place, where they had fallen, and soon he had a collection of images. Because there was already a tradition of photographing the dead (and, no, we’re not going to continue this practice here—just do google.images “photos of dead victorians” or the like and you can see this for yourself), it was probably not quite so horrifying as one might imagine, but those who saw the exhibit in Brady’s New York gallery
might have agreed with the New York Times review of 20 October, 1862, that “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.”
Gardner didn’t take the pictures he did out of a morbid interest, but because the cameras of the day were large and cumbersome
and the process necessary to make a picture took too long to capture motion (just look what happens when there is motion).
Thus, what one might see in a painting, even if it had attempted to depict reality, as in this Keith Rocco painting of a moment in the battle of Antietam when Confederates were fighting behind a fence on the Hagerstown Road,
was impossible to capture. What Gardner could capture was the aftermath. And so he did.
For us, who are modern Rohirrim, as far as horses are concerned, it’s just as well that he confined himself to humans. After Gettysburg, several other photographers included them—only a few photos, but representing anywhere from 3 to 5000 horses and mules who died during the three days of battle. (And, no, again, we won’t show you those—google.images will, but we’re not sure what’s harder to look at.)
would have seen such horrors every day during the battle of the Somme
and perhaps that’s why he moves so quickly from the battlefield to the city and healing. Perhaps it’s also why the view we are given of the GEF is through the eyes of a wounded survivor and, at this moment in the story, one full of foreboding at the thought of another battle. And it may be that Peter Jackson felt the same way.
What do you think, dear readers?
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Our title is taken from the work one of our favorite Great War poets, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who, having survived the entire war, was killed just before the armistice which halted the fighting.