Review: Shots of the first world war

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 December, 2014, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 December, 2014, 12:33pm

The First World War in Colour

by Peter Walther


With commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the first world war this year, there has been a number of books published to explain the causes leading up to the war, collections of memories from diaries and letters, and analyses of the war that was supposed to "end all wars".

This extraordinary book enriches that collection. For these are colour images of the first world war. By the turn of the 20th century, colour photography was not unknown. There are autochrome photos of Hong Kong from that time. These have been assembled from archives in the US, Australia and Europe, and consist of 320 photos using the (at that time) pioneering autochrome technology.

Many are staged - they had to be because the individuals posing needed to keep still for a number of minutes - so it's all the more impressive that there's only a few blurry figures in there.

The book brings together the work of autochrome pioneers including Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville, Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Leon Gimpel, Hans Hildebrand, Frank Hurley, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud and Charles C. Zoller and makes you want to research their other work from the period. Most of the photographers were hired by their respective governments to provide photos of their citizens at war. Author Peter Walther provides us with the photographers' biographies.

The book is largely about the photos - and the printing is impressive. The prints are given ample space on the page, but Walther also provides plenty of background. One small gripe is the small bold type used for the commentary. But it's an education.

One hundred years on, it's easy to forget how many previously colonial nations were thrust into the war - we see Moroccans and Tunisians suddenly in camps on the outskirts of Paris. There are scenes of North Africa, a military camp in Medenine in southern Tunisia, a truck stuck in a sandstorm, early machine guns protecting a convoy, again in southern Tunisia.

Four members of the Senegalese Guard in Saint-Ulrich in Alsace, one eating an apple, all looking bored. Did they make it through?

There are also portraits: an old woman with a wheelbarrow; Senegalese soldier Sar Amadou from the 7th Regiment in Ballersdorf in Alsace. You look at these faces and have to wonder what an archduke's assassination had to do with them.

You see German troops in Alsace and the Vosges in deep snow, and street scenes where civilians try to keep going despite the damage. It's interesting to see the technology from the time, including an anti-air balloon gun and the production hall of the Farman factory in Billancourt in the western suburbs of Paris.

In addition to the photos and his historical commentary, Walther also includes quotes from writers and poets from all sides, some of whom - such as English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen - would be killed before the war ended. The verses, hopes and sad letters home add another human touch to a valuable collection of photographs.