Many don’t know that World War I was the first major conflict to be documented in the then-new medium of color photography. Here, a motorized gun carriage with an antiaircraft gun, Verdun, 1916.

A German trench canteen. About 4,500 full-color images were taken by pioneering war photographers experimenting with autochrome technology.

Soldiers pose in a concrete trench. The First World War in Color, a new book, compiles 320 of these rare images, many in print for the first time.

A French warplane, Caudron G3, 1914. The First World War was the first time air warfare played a role in combat.

The French airship Alsace shot down on October 3, 1915, near Rethel. The crew survived unharmed and were taken prisoner. Airships were not just used for aerial reconnaissance, but also for the bombardment of civilian and military targets.

View across the Meuse of the devastated Verdun. For modern readers accustomed to seeing the early 20th century in shades of gray, these images amplify perceptions of the horrors that began a century ago this year.

British ambulance, 1914. Motorization made possible the large-scale and relatively quick transport of the wounded to the medical staging area for the first time.

Ammunition depot in France, 1918. The photo was taken on assignment of the American Committee for Devastated France (1917–24). Founded by Anne Morgan (1873–1952), a daughter of financier J. P. Morgan, this committee tried to assuage the suffering of French war refugees. The photographs were used to illustrate the situation to Americans and in soliciting donations.

A British tank from the Mark series in Péronne near Amiens. "The people in the photographs no longer look like they’re from another age, they look contemporary,” editor Peter Walther tells Co.Design.

Victory celebration at Arc de Triomphe, Paris, 14 July 1919. “It surprises readers, because our visual memories have been trained to think of the early 20th century as a black-and-white era.”

The First World War in Color is available from Taschen for $59.99 here.

10 Rare Color Photographs From World War I

A new book presents hundreds of autochrome color photographs of The Great War, many of them in print for the first time.

There were several million black-and-white photographs taken of the World War I—you’ve probably seen them in history textbooks or museums. But many don’t know that World War I was the first major conflict to be documented in the then-new medium of color photography—about 4,500 full-color images were taken by pioneering war photographers experimenting with autochrome technology. It had been in development for half a century.

The First World War in Color, a new book, compiles 320 of these rare images, many in print for the first time. For modern readers accustomed to seeing the early 20th century in shades of gray, these images amplify perceptions of the horrors that began a century ago this year. Color—whether it's the bright red of the French Zouave units' uniforms (which made them easy targets for German machine-gun fire), or the yellow of a downed French airship—makes the catastrophe seem more painfully real. “The people in the photographs no longer look like they’re from another age, they look contemporary,” editor Peter Walther tells Co.Design. “It surprises readers, because our visual memories have been trained to think of the early 20th century as a black-and-white era.”

In color, the beauty of the European landscapes—red poppy fields in Champagne, snowy mountains on the Western Front, yellow flowers at the Battle of Marne—contrasts more starkly with the devastation of the “war to end war.” As French writer Romain Rolland wrote in his diary in July, 1914, “The air is sweet, the scent of wisteria floats in the night; and the stars sparkle in such perfect brilliance! In this divine tranquility and tender beauty the nations of Europe begin the great slaughter.”

Jules Gervais-Courtellemont

Walther collected most of the photos in the book from archives in France, and chose the best work by pioneers in the medium, including Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville, Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Léon Gimpel, Hans Hildenbrand, Frank Hurley, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud, and Charles C. Zoller.

They all used the Autochrome Lumiere photography process, patented in 1903 by the Lumiere brothers of France. Autochromes are transparent images on glass, similar to slides, and had to be either projected or held up to a light to be viewed. Since autochromes required a long exposure time, there aren’t many color images of front-line action—instead, they’re carefully composed group portraits of soldiers preparing for battle or haunting stills of villages reduced to rubble, destroyed churches, and overcrowded hospitals. One of the images Walther was most struck by shows a Christmas tree brightly decorated with miniature flags from nations all over the world, taken in 1911 in Nikolskoye, Russia. Says Walther: “The tree symbolized the hope of peace."

The First World War in Color is available from Taschen for $59.99 here.

[Images: Courtesy of Taschen]

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3 Comments

  • Harun Karelia Jonsen

    Oh wow. Its just like Snoopy, a white dog with a large black spot on his ear. I'm not sure, but it looks like it might be painted on some canvas.

    I wonder if this was common or at least something Bill Schultz might have seen when he created Peanuts.