The First World War in Colour, by Peter Walther, Taschen, Cologne, Germany, 2014, $59.99
World War I claimed many firsts, including aerial warfare, the use of chemical weapons and the widespread use of color photography. The First World War in Colour, by Peter Walther, is a remarkable book filled with 320 of these rarely seen images, serving to bridge the often seemingly distant war with the 21st century.
Walther relates the history of color technology, which dates from 1861. It wasn’t until 1907, however, that Auguste and Louis Lumière launched their Autochrome process, allowing for commercial and practical application of color photography.
The book features an array of scenes, including formal group portraits, civilians in bombed-out homes, soldiers playing cards in the trenches, children re-enacting battles in Paris and the camaraderie of French soldiers around a campfire during the Battle of the Marne. Conspicuous are the slight changes in hue of Germany’s haze-gray uniforms and the questionable choice of embellished, blood-red trousers worn by various French regiments. The apocalyptic stillness of the utter destruction at Verdun is juxtaposed against serene landscapes resembling fine art paintings, including the boundless field of red and purple poppies that inspired Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Fields.”
Quotes pulled from soldiers’ letters home describe what the photos cannot convey: the smell of decomposing bodies and deafening sound of artillery. A line from German poet August Stramm is particularly evocative: “I awoke to the crack of a grenade. The things whimper like little children and sob like mothers.”
History and photography buffs will devour this extraordinary collection of nearly forgotten color images from the war that was to have ended all wars.