Powerful Colour Photos From World War One

Colour photography was first patented by the French Lumière brothers in 1903, but didn’t become widespread until after World War 2. However, at the forefront of innovation, the French Army kept colour records of some of their operations. A large archive of WWI colour photography is available at www.worldwaronecolourphotos.com - here are some highlights, which I found particularly powerful for their depiction of the ordinariness of life at and just behind the front. These are all original colour photos, not colourised b&w shots.

1. A little girl plays with her doll

A little girl plays with her doll in the street in Reims, France, with a soldier’s pack and rifles nearby.

2. A little relief

A French soldier relieves himself at a camouflaged pissoir in the rear areas.

3. A slightly tattered butcher’s shop

The owners of the Minouflet boucherie-chevaline (horse-butchers) in front of their shop in Reims, replete with pock-marks from the recent German bombardment.

4. The Front Line

A view into no-man’s land from the French lines, somewhere near Hirtzbach in Alsace. Not your usual image of no-man’s land.

5. French soldiers in the line

Taken near the same dugout from which the previous was taken. Note the black soldier in the centre of the group - the French army wasn’t a segregated force.

6. Armed Neutrality

Not far from the trenches in the above photo is the border with Switzerland. Photographed through the chicken-wire, these Swiss border guards look distinctly 19th-century in their brightly-buttoned navy blue uniforms.

7. Dinner time

Most soldiers in most armies spent only a small amount of time in the front-line trenches; the rest was sent on rotation behind the lines, staving off boredom. Here, soldiers of the French 370th Infantry division eat their dinner…

8. … and a rest

After dinner, soldiers have a bit of downtime.

9. Time for a haircut

A French soldier cuts another’s hair behind the lines on the Aisne front.

10. Letters from the front

A French soldier (with truly impressive facial hair) writes home from behind the lines at the Aisne.

11. Traffic signs

A French soldier poses by some traffic signs in French and English. This photo is taken on 10 September 1917 at Rousbrugge, Belgium - the Battle of Passchendaele is happening just up the road.

12. Lunch break

A French soldier parks his bike in the Place Royale, Reims, for a spot of lunch, sometime in 1917.

13. Algerians

Algerian soldiers off-duty behind the lines. The French army included soldiers from all across their Empire and Algerians and Moroccans were present in large numbers.

14. Annamese

An Annamese (Vietnamese) soldier from the 17th regiment. The Annamese didn’t see combat but were employed as workers and labourers.

15. Russians

More as a gesture of solidarity than anything else, the Russian government sent a brigade to fight alongside the French. When the Russian Revolution came, a few months after this photo was taken, most of the Russians were interned and were quite happy not to have to keep fighting for a foreign country. Some volunteered and a Russian Legion of a few hundred men fought in the French Army as part of the 1st Moroccan Infantry Division.

16. Senegalese soldiers

Senegalese soldiers pose for the camera behind the lines. The French played to the racism of the day by describing the Senegalese in propaganda as barely civilised savages, lusting to kill the enemy with their machetes (such as the one the soldier on the left is showing off). In reality, the Tirailleurs Sénégalaises served with distinction at the Somme, Verdun and Gallipoli among others.

17. Diggers

Australian soldiers wearing their distinctive bush hats relax behind the lines at the small town of Bergues, just inland of Dunkirk. The Australian troops were known as “Diggers”, or as “Anzacs”, derived from the initians of the Australia & New Zealand Army Corps.

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