From empire to trench

Europe, in 1914, was unprepared for the reality of 20th century warfare. The last great European war had ended 43 years before, sparing a generation and colouring attitudes towards conflict. People expected short, great battles and quick victories. Tactics and uniforms reflected this older view of war. Since the Napoleonic era, senior French officers had emphasised the virtues of the offensive. Dressed in uniforms not far removed from that era – bright red trousers and heavy blue tunics – their soldiers went forward with optimism, but were slaughtered in their tens of thousands.

Through their passion for colour and detail, the work of the autochromists recorded this shift from 19th century military traditions to the misery of trench warfare, symbolised by the change from brilliant red to the more practical horizon blue uniforms. Early portraits, full length in ceremonial dress and ribbons, expressed confidence in France’s long standing military traditions. Later images of the trenches were a stark contrast and suggest the irony of colour photography being introduced to battlefields leached of colour by the weight of modern firepower.

AUL056
Jean-Baptiste Tourassoud
Battle-damaged colours of the French 37th infantry regiment, c. 1916
print from autochrome
Établissement Cinématographique et Photographique des Armées
AUL 56

AUL002
Photographer unknown
Captain Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud, wearing the Legion of Honour and the Medal of Honour, 1913
print from autochrome
Établissement Cinématographique et Photographique des Armées
AUL 2

SFP 806/226-A
Léon Gimpel
Captured German colours at Les Invalides, Paris, 1915
print from autochrome
Société Française de Photographie
SFP 806/226-A

Regimental colours like these were carried by the vanguard of armies into battle over centuries; by 1914, they were remnants of a fast disappearing approach to warfare.

AUL078
Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud
Valbonne camp, French sergeant-major, 1913
print from autochrome
Établissement Cinématographique et Photographique des Armées
AUL 78

AUL109
Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud
French infantry, 1915
print from autochrome
Établissement Cinématographique et Photographique des Armées
AUL 109

These infantrymen of the metropolitan army, dressed for 19th century war but soon to face 20th century weapons, symbolise the passing of an age.