What colours are World War One? Is it the brown of Flanders mud, the gunmetal grey of the guns, the crimson red of the blood?
According to PANTONE’s The 20th Century in Color, the war was Medal Bronze, Twill, Trekking Green, Dress Blues, Saxony Blue, Grenadine, and Bright White.*
In the Anglosphere, at least, we tend to see the war in sepia tones, a reflection of the photography of the era and a gesture towards the mud and the khaki of the British army. The muddiness of the images match the muddiness of our memories. World War One is a past that has already been raided for messages so many times that it is danger of collapsing into oblivion, undermined so badly by successive searchers for morals.
As Gary Sheffield has observed, by the time they were interviewed for the BBC’s The Great War, the war’s veterans had lived through and in some cases fought in a second, very different, world war. Probably the most influential academic book on the war’s legacy, Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, was written by a US Army lieutenant who had fought in North-West Europe in 1944-45 (and went on to write several books about that war).
Look at the war’s paintings, blessed with a palette that doesn’t stop at the limits of reality but takes in the full spectrum. You can start with John Singer Sargent’s Gassed and its thin khaki line set against a mottled, muddy sky, but this was also the war of the Futurists, the Vorticists, and god-forbid, the Cubists. (Ignore Picasso’s statement to Gertrude Stein that the cubists had made camouflage possible. Their impact on the war was much more subtle and wide-ranging.)
When Hew Strachan published his one-volume history of the war in 2003 he included a set of plates with autochrome pictures captured by the French army’s Service Photographique. The color images are a revelation, not because they deny any of the truths about the war we already know, but because they cast them in what is—literally—a new light.
Suddenly, khaki, horizon blue, and field grey no longer blend into the background but stand out against it. Grass is green, flower-flecked, even when it grows on the edge of a trench. The sun is warm, even if shells fall from it without warning. The many posed shots show a a mix of smiles and scowls, but they never show the placid faces of those who have seen their own deaths (though if the idea of that interests you, you should watch the 1975 World War Two film Overlord).
I’ve tried very hard in this post to avoid the word “reality.” The reality of World War One is something that can never be truly recovered, and anyone who tells you that they’ve got it or experienced it is a liar. But we can try to honor the full breadth of that reality, at least in small ways. It would be a terrible pity if the war’s centenary were to be a flurry of excavating for symbols and lessons that finally kicks in the props and makes the whole edifice collapse.
*Wondering what were the colors of World War Two? Pantone gives a more muted palette of Tan, Olive Grey, Dress Blues, Major Brown, Desert Palm, Paprika and Blithe. No entry for Vietnam, though the book does have crackerjack palettes for Film Noir and Miami Vice.