Battle of the Aisne
rare photos

The Color Photographers of World War I

Rarely seen color photographs of the Great War provide a glimpse into life behind the lines and at the front.

World War I is known for its spark (the assassination of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand), for the first large-scale use of chemical weapons (mustard gas, among others), and its deadly toll (9 million combatants perished). It is not known for color photography. When the war broke out in 1914, photography was still in its toddlerhood — equipment was bulky and slow — but a few vanguard photographers were, in fact, working in color during the Great War. And these rare color photographs show the war in a different — and in many ways, more relatable — light. (Pictured: French machine gunners take a position amid ruins during the battle of the Aisne on the Western Front, in 1917.)

AWAY FROM THE BATTLE Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images AWAY FROM THE BATTLE Given the size and speed of their equipment (large and slow, respectively) the photographers working in color often captured quieter moments away from the chaos and gore that was so prevalent on the front lines — as seen in this picture of a young child seated with a doll on a soldier's rucksack in Reims, France, in 1917, at the height of the conflict. CLEANING UP Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images CLEANING UP One of these pioneering photographers was Fernand Cuville, who served with the French Army. Through the use of autochromes — a technology developed by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, who were among the world's first film-makers -- Cuville documented scenes of soldiers doing their laundry, shaving, and going about their daily lives away from the battlefield. This photo was taken at a French military encampment in Soissons, northern France, in 1917. SAFE...FOR NOW Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images SAFE...FOR NOW Three French soldiers do their laundry at a well in 1917 in Soissons, France. Soissons was taken over by German troops twice during World War I and was heavily damaged by artillery fire. This picture was also made by Fernand Cuville. MEALTIME Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images MEALTIME The technique Cuville used in his color pictures — technically, the Autochrome Lumière — required longer exposures than black-and-white plates and were therefore impractical for capturing the energy, chaos, and frenetic movement of battle scenes. A CRATER'S EDGE Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images A CRATER'S EDGE So while in-battle photographs were difficult, Cuville was able to capture scenes like this: a colossal crater in the aftermath of the British detonating 19 massive mines underneath German positions in June 1917. The blast, which killed around 10,000 German troops, was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions of all time and was reportedly audible in Dublin and London. A LONELY LUNCH Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images A LONELY LUNCH French photographer Paul Castelnau was another WWI color pioneer. He captured emotive portraits of soldiers, doctors, and nurses at rest. Here, a French soldier pauses for lunch (just bread) in front of a damaged library in Reims, France, in April of 1917. SENEGALESE SOLDIERS Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images SENEGALESE SOLDIERS This Castelnau autochrome pictures Senegalese infantrymen, who fought on the French side, resting with their equipment in Saint-Ulrich, in the Alsace region along the Western Front. The picture was made in June, 1917. IN THE TRENCHES Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images IN THE TRENCHES French soldiers pose for Castelnau in a trench on the Western Front, 1917. Much of WWI was fought in tenches like this, a grueling form of battle, in which any advances took a heavy toll. HERE FOR THE WOUNDED Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images HERE FOR THE WOUNDED A Castelnau portrait of doctors, nurses, and medical personnel in front of a field hospital in Bourbourg, France, in September 1917. LINE IN THE SAND Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images LINE IN THE SAND Self-taught photographer Frank Hurley had recently returned from shooting Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legendary 1914–16 expedition to Antarctica when he was appointed Australia's official WWI photographer. After some time on the Western Front, Hurley traveled to the Middle East where he documented the Australian Mounted Division. This Hurley photograph shows Australians of the Imperial Camel Corps. in Egypt, in 1918, as they fought the Ottoman Empire. THE RED CROSS Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images THE RED CROSS A Frank Hurley portrait of four camel ambulances attached to the Imperial Camel Corps at Rafa, Egypt, 1918. WHERE FLOWERS FALL Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images WHERE FLOWERS FALL Australian soldier George "Pop" Redding, from the 8th Light Horse Regiment, picks flowers during a lull in the action in the Middle Eastern theater of World War I, 1918. The photograph, taken by Frank Hurley, now looks like a metaphor for the millions of soldiers and civilians who fell during the long war.

More War Photography Stories