Sculpture of a sea horse and eagle by Edmond R. Amateis, located outside the Baltimore War Memorial Building. Photo by Karen S. Garvin.
This week’s Thursday Writing Prompt is about poetry and the memories of war. This year, 2014, marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, also known as the Great War. Trench warfare and the use of gas are the historical aspects of WWI that you’re most likely to see featured on television shows and in movies, but some great poetry was written during the confrontation. Some of the authors were Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Alfred Joyce Kilmer, Vera Brittain, John McCrae, Rudyard Kipling, Katharine Tynan, and Alan Seeger.
Your task this week is to combine history and poetry. Go to the First World War Poetry Digital Archive or First World War: Prose and Poetry and spend some time viewing the collections. Pick two authors and read one poem from each writer. To get a much better feel for their work, view any images of the actual manuscripts. Your task is to notice the language used in the poems and how the authors told their story. There’s no writing involved this week unless you’re moved by what you read and want to try your own hand at war poems. This isn’t a post about politics, but about the wider scope of war and human experience. If you do make an attempt to write something, try to see beyond the political squabbling and into the greater truths of human nature.
The photo accompanying this post building is the Baltimore War Memorial Building, which was completed in 1925. It serves as a memorial to Maryland veterans of all wars and has an interesting history of its own.
Cindy Kelly, Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore: A Historical Guide to Public Art in the Monumental City. With photographs by Edwin Harlan Remsberg. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2011.
The Smithsonian Institution is opening an exhibit at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2012, to honor the anniversaries of the Hindenburg and the Titanic. The Fire and Ice exhibit runs through January 6, 2014. I have plenty of time to visit before the exhibit closes. Airships have been an interest of mine for quite awhile, and three years ago I presented a paper on World War I German airships at the Mid-Atlantic Regional meeting of Phi Alpha Theta.
So, why are an airship and a steamer being honored at the postal museum? Simple: because both the Hindenburg and the Titanic served as mail carriers. According to the Smithsonian’s website, the Hindenburg was the largest flying post office ever built. The airship carried more than 17,000 pieces of transatlantic mail and a few hundred pieces managed to survive the fire when the ship exploded, but mail aboard the Titanic went down with the ship.
If you want to know more about the Hindenburg or Titanic, the Smithsonian’s website has a bibliography for each one that offers websites, films, and publications about these two giants.
I went back to Gettysburg National Military Park during the Thanksgiving weekend with my husband. We both enjoy photography, so we spent some time at the battlefield taking pictures. Unfortunately, that Thursday it was bitterly cold and after only about 20 minutes my hands were so stiff that I could hardly hold the camera. It was also approaching 4 o’clock, and getting overcast.
The late afternoon light wasn’t adequate for available-light photography, so I decided to try some flash photography and take some interior shots of the Pennsylvania Memorial. Even in the unheated interior of the building it was a little warmer than outside, and it was out of the wind. I spent some time experimenting with flash fill and adjusting the intensity of my flash. I don’t work with flash very often, so this was a learning opportunity for me.
My objective was to have a strong enough flash to light the subject adequately and give some highlights to the highly textured wall detail without washing out the whole scene. I also wanted to achieve the kind of visual texture that so much good black-and-white photography has, and the stairwell was a good subject for texture. I used a bracketing technique and took several shots of the same scene. I first selected an aperture, then adjusted my flash intensity and took several shots at different speeds. I selected a second aperture setting and did the same thing.
It’s easy to do bracketing with digital photography because there’s no wasted film. In a sense, I think that digital photography can make a photographer lazy because it’s easy to just keep taking shots until you have one that you like. But on the other hand, it allows photographers to play without worrying about wasted resources, and so I find that I am more likely to experiment with aperture and speed settings.
Detail on a door at the Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park.
The interior of a stairwell wall in the Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Back in November I took a one-credit undergraduate history class through the University of Maryland University College on the Battle of Gettysburg. Although I live only about an hour-and-a-half away from the battlefield and have visited it several times, I had never actually studied anything about the area. Our history classes in junior high and high school always seemed to get stuck on the Civil War, but somehow they never really seemed to teach us much about the war itself. I decided it was time to really learn something about such an important event.
The class itself was conducted over two weekends. On the first Saturday, we spent the day in the classroom learning about the basics of the battle. We talked about terrain and tactics, and the kinds of weapons that were used, and why the American Civil War is considered to be the first “modern” war. We also talked about the Union and Confederate armies, their strengths and weaknesses, and a bit about the personalities of the leaders. I learned more in that one day about the Civil War and Gettysburg than I had ever been taught in all the years of public school history that I’d had to take.
Our second class was a field trip to the battlefield. We drove ourselves there and met up at the new Visitor’s Center. During the day, we watched a movie, toured the museum, and then had lunch. Afterward, we went outside to walk the battlefield. The mid-November day was overcast and it even snowed a little. We were cold, but the walking and climbing (Gettysburg battlefield is not flat) kept us warm. I had worn a pedometer that day so I could see how much we walked, but somehow I managed to reset it. I’m fairly certain that we walked at least five miles. Later, we returned to the Visitor’s Center and had our final exam. We sat on benches by the window or at empty lunch tables and did our paperwork. It was the most unusual final exam that I’ve taken.
Gettysburg is well worth a visit, not only for the Civil War buffs, but for anyone who wants to learn a little more about our country’s history. I would recommend to anyone who wants to visit that they do a little background reading before getting to the battlefield park, because understanding the events that took place here gives meaning to the monuments. And there are a lot of monuments at Gettysburg; plan to spend a day or more touring the battlefield and Visitor’s Center. But don’t rush home — the town itself is also worth a visit and has numerous restaurants, boutiques, and Civil War related stores.
Photo: This mile marker is one of several at the Pennsylvania Memorial in Gettysburg National Military Park.