Rare Color Photographs from the Trenches of World War I

3 minute read

Black and white photographs often feel more genuine than color images — more truthful, somehow — especially those depicting historical events. Much of that perceived authenticity derives from the fact that black and white pictures seem to be, in the most positive way, far simpler than their color counterparts. The world itself (we like to tell ourselves) was simpler in the latter part of 19th century, and in the earliest decades of the 20th. It was only when human experience began to accelerate and grow profoundly more complicated — say, around the time of the Second World War — that color photography began to come into its own.

When Adolf Hitler, impressed by the color pictures made by his personal photographer, Hugo Jaeger, pronounced in the late 1930s that “the future belongs to color photography,” he might as easily have declared that “color photography belongs to the future.”

The past, meanwhile, belonged irretrievably to black and white.

Thus, we’re always jolted when we encounter vivid color photographs from the decades that we have collectively consigned to monochromatic grays. Sometimes these colors derive from a colorized restoration; at other times, we discover a world of color in the bowels of an old camera, locked in the emulsion of slide film in a machine lost, abandoned or forgotten decades earlier.

And sometimes, with luck, we stumble upon scenes from a “pre-color” era captured with experimental color processes. The vibrant photos from World War I posted in this gallery are examples of this surprisingly variegated, many-hued world.

The autochrome, more formally known as the Autochrome Lumière, was attributed to two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière — French photographers also credited with the invention of early motion-picture equipment. Although other innovators had discovered ways to bring color to images through tint and screen processing, the autochrome, debuting in 1904, utilized a number of emulsion layers (including one consisting of dyed potato starch) — locking in natural color on a permanent glass negative.

“…soon the world will be color-mad, and Lumière will be responsible,” wrote Alfred Stieglitz in a 1907 edition of Camera Work. And color-mad we soon became.

There are no more living veterans of World War I. No one left to look at a photograph of the Great War and say, I remember; I was there. No one to be triggered to the trenches, jarred back to a time and a place by patterns of light locked in photosensitive chemicals.

World War I is behind us, and with it, the first-person verification of what occurred. But the photographs — nay, the memories — remain.

Vaughn Wallace is the producer of LightBox. Follow him on Twitter @vaughnwallace.

A French soldier, circa 1915.©Mark Jacobs Archive /The Image Works
View of Verdun after 8 months of bombing, September 1916.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
French Gunners receive instruction, 1916.©TopFoto / The Image Works
The remains of a dead French soldier and his gun rest under a tree on the Western Front in France.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
French soldiers of the 370th Infantry Regiment eat soup during the battle of the Aisne in 1917.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
French Artillery soldiers are shown at the entrance of their shelter on the Western Front.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
A French soldier with an acoustic listening device capable of tracking aircraft on the Western Front.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
A French section of machine gunners take positions in the ruins during the battle of the Aisne in 1917.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
A crater caused by the explosion of 19 mines placed underneath German positions near Messines in West Flanders by the British on June 7, 1917. A total of about 10,000 soldiers died, amongst them almost all of the 3rd Royal Bavarian Division. The blast was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions of all times and was audible in Dublin and London.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
Nine French soldiers investigate a fatally injured horse on the Western Front.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
The corpse of a French soldier of the 99th infantry regiment, who was poisoned during a German gas attack on March 23, 1918 and died eight days later of pneumonia. ©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
The wreck of a German tank, which was destroyed during a battle on the Western Front.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
A little girl plays with her doll in Reims, France in 1917. Two guns and a knapsack are next to her on the ground.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
French officers of the 370th Infantry Regiment pose in the ruins after a German attack at the Chemin des Dames near Reims in 1917. They have a bicycle and the flag of the 370th Infantry Regiment. The region was one of the worst battle grounds on the Western Front during World War I. ©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works
A soldier in uniform with three medals stands next to a cannon in Paris in 1918. His left leg has been replaced by an artificial limb.©R Schultz Collection / The Image Works

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