French gunners try to shoot down an aeroplane
Only a handful of genuine colour images of the First World War exist, and today they often appear alongside monochrome photographs that have been retrospectively retouched in colour (such as the photos of British troops in this article). They offer a gripping insight into the shattered landscape through which our ancestors walked, from the mud and blood of Passchendaele to the backstreet-grief of mourning mothers all over France and the world.
Damage by artillery
The majority of these images are held by Gallica, the digital wing of the Bibliothèque National de France. Although the provenance of the photos is uncertain, it is thought they may be autochromes taken by the French photographer, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud – a noted friend of early filmmakers, the Lumière brothers, who in 1903 patented the first colour photography process.
Duckboards with soldiers resting
Many of these photos carry with them a bewitching capacity to morbidly fascinate. They compel us to look and to look again – images of our worst fears made reality so often do – for they give shape not only to indescribable pain and misery, but to someone else’s pain and misery. We look to indulge our curiosity and assuage our disbelief, but we look again because we are unable understand. For such massive suffering and destruction is so alien to peacetime inclinations; our mind balks at what it sees.
When emotion proves too much we can simply look away, a simple luxury those who were there were not afforded. And it is for this reason also that we find these images so coercing – for we cannot view such immeasurable suffering without asking to understand how it was withstood; how human beings coped with marching miles through shell-torn wasteland, sleeping and eating in filth and living in a state of almost constant terror.
For these difficult reasons, we often prefer to treat images of war as if they were questions. We find their stark directness so thorny, we intrinsically attempt to lessen such sharpness by assuming the presence of and searching for answers – answers for what has happened, why it happened and how it was survived. So often though, it seems there are none.
The emotional pull of colour photos only compounds this predicament. Their vivid hues revivify commonly received images of the First World War as an antique war conducted in monochrome, with music hall ballads whirring in the background. They present us instead with images a step nearer to our own world of chromatic media – bringing the spectre of a harrowing war, often considered ‘before our time’, uncomfortably close to the channels through which we consume contemporary experience.
Colonial worker in the French army
These photos allow the war to peak hitherto largely unexplored regions of poignancy, and to challenge us in new and occasionally unexpected ways. A certain type of profound emotional movement prompted Wilfred Owen to write of soldiers ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags’ as they ‘cursed through sludge’, but glancing at these photos and bearing witness to the reality that provoked Owen’s lines, we are assailed by an altogether more direct sort of emotion.
For one, these unusual photos of ethnic troops – Senegalese, Algerian and Tunisian members of the French Army – both remind us of the global dimension of what we term a ‘world’ war, and alert us to the fact that any war on such a scale will always have the ability to surprise us, even ninety years on.
Shaving in camp
And it is not just the photos of rotting corpses and broken villages that have the power to move us emotionally. Returning to the idea of coping with the heartache and stress of combat, the pictures of soldier’s daily routines – shaving, lunching or simply relaxing – are equally affecting in their brutal juxtapositions of the mundane with the extraordinary. In these photos we see how pervasive war can be, how it does not stop when a soldier leaves the frontline or when he does his morning toilet, but how it is total and uncompromising. Even those photos of soldiers laughing or playing sports are the more tragic for the muted backdrop of bloody cries we inevitably detect, lying not far behind in the distance.
Portrait of two french marines
Perhaps the most pointed question these images provoke is how, if such terrible war lies within photographic (indeed, colour photographic) memory, do we continue to allow soldiers to go their deaths in unnecessary wars the world over? The announcement over Remembrance weekend of two more British soldiers killed in action only serves to reinforce this – political wrangling aside, should we not take the pain and ruin inflicted upon itself by several generations this century as a valuable lesson for the future? The fear is that if we don’t such suffering will be in vain.
Girl with doll in front of rifles
We hope, on this day of Remembrance, that their sacrifice will not be forgotten and that, with NATO troops currently engaged in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe, never again will we be asked to bear such needless loss.