The Great War as it really looked: colour photos bring past to life
The photos collected in They Fought in Colour represent all aspects of Canada's involvement in the First World War. In this image, Canadian soldiers return from Vimy Ridge. Canadian War Museum / George Metcalf Archival Collection / The Vimy Foundation
Memorizing In Flanders Fields as a student, and keeping that memory alive into adulthood, is one thing; knowing that the Montreal Canadiens’ unofficial motto (“To you from failing hands we throw the torch …”) is from John McRae’s iconic poem will get you bonus points. Wearing a poppy pin for a couple of weeks every November can only be good. But at a time when technology and social media have us all living in a perpetual present tense, a little more is needed to keep the memory of the First World War alive past the 100th anniversary of its end.
“It’s not so much a lack of appreciation,” said Jeremy Diamond regarding the challenge of engaging younger people with the story of the war that represented Canada’s coming of age on the international stage. “I think it’s more a lack of imagination, in many cases, with how it has been presented.”
Diamond is executive director of the Vimy Foundation, a non-profit concern named for the hard-fought victory by Canadian troops at the pivotal Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.
“Vimy was the first time in the war that four (Canadian) divisions fought,” said Diamond, whose interest in the subject was first stoked by a high school history teacher. “You had 100,000 Canadians from all over meeting each other. There was this understanding that we were all on the same playing field, the same battlefield, whether we’re from Saskatchewan or Halifax or Toronto or Montreal.”
“To many young people, 1914 to 1918 may as well have been 1,000 years ago,” Diamond commented. “So if you’re taking a grainy black-and-white photo and a sped-up version of old film footage and asking them to resonate with that a century later, it’s a tall, tall order.”
The solution, arrived at after an experimental treatment of a famous photo of victorious Canadians riding a wagon post-Vimy Ridge, was colour. British Columbia-based Mark Truelove got the assignment to colourize more than 150 period photographs representing all aspects of the war: the buildup, the battles, life behind the lines, the home front, the aftermath.
They Fought in Colour includes scenes of warmth and joy â such as this photo of nursing sisters Mowat, left, McNichol and Guilbride â but the book is not a sugar-coated treatment of the First World War. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / The Vimy Foundation
Narratives hitherto neglected, like the roles played by minority-community personnel, are given their due. And while moments of joy amid the horrors of war are included — this was a time when your natural response was to smile if you saw a camera — this is not a sugar-coated treatment, as a striking photograph of wounded veterans protesting a lack of employment opportunities shows.
The immediacy wrought by colour is revelatory throughout: images we might have skipped over through habit now jump off the page at us. A razor-cut-sporting soldier writing a letter home looks for all the world like a 2018 hipster.
“I saw that photo and thought, ‘I’ve seen that guy! In downtown Toronto!’ ” said Diamond.
Any notion that what the Vimy Foundation has done with the source material might be a gimmick dissolves on first contact. They Fought in Colour is a rare feat of historical scholarship: not just a revival, but a transformation.
AT A GLANCE
They Fought in Colour / La Guerre en couleur is available from dundurn.com, and in stores across Canada. For more information on the Vimy Foundation, see vimyfoundation.ca.