'They fought in colour:' Colourizing Great War photos shines new light on history

A new book that marks the 100th anniversary of the end of The Great War is helping Canadians see history in a whole new way.

It’s called They Fought In Colour: A New Look At Canada ‘s First World War Effort, and it’s full of colourized versions of Canadian photographs, alongside essays from notable Canadians like Margaret Atwood and Peter Mansbridge.

Gen. Sir Sam Hughes and party looking at ruins in Arras, ,France, in August, 1916. (Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)

The Vimy Foundation put the book together. Hamiltonian Jennifer Blake, communications manager of the foundation, told CBC News that adding colour to photos like these helps their stories resonate with younger generations.

This photo of prisoners bringing in wounded wearing gas masks from August, 1918, shows the stark difference between a colourized photo and the black and white original. (Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)

“When you put the colour on these photos, the faces feel more real. You connect with these people … the colour makes it more approachable,” she said.

“There’s no one left to tell their stories. So we have to find new ways for their stories to live on.”

This type of dummy was used in the Canadian Forces for instructing troops in Bayonet fighting, designed and constructed by Q.M.S. E. Drake 4th Reserve Battalion. (Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)

There are 150 photos in the book — some of them famous, but some of them never before seen, even in black and white. Some show Canadian soldiers on the battlefield, but others depict quieter moments on the margins of the conflict.

A Canadian soldier at a Division Sports Meet does balancing fete. June, 1918. (Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)

They were meticulously colourized by Mark Truelove of Canadian Colour from their original black and white scans.

“A Burial Service at the Front.” Funeral of Major E.L. Knight, Eaton Motor Machine Gun Battery. October, 1916. (Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)

It’s not like layers of colour are hidden underneath the pallid grey tones of the originals, so Truelove had to essentially digitally paint them, using colour references.

“Some subjects like military uniforms, medals, [and] advertising signs are easy to find online or in museums and I use those references as the basis for a colourization,” the Canadian Colour website reads. “For some parts of an image there may not be direct colour references but that part can be coloured by respecting the colours used at the time.

Unable to ride his cycle through the mud caused by the recent storm, a Canadian messenger carries his “horse.” August, 1917. (Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)

“For instance, a woman’s dress in a crowd scene could be coloured in a number of different ways. There is no way to guarantee that the colouring would be exactly right on the dress but I would use a colour that is period appropriate.”

Funeral of Nursing Sister G.M.M. Wake, who died of wounds received in a German air raid. (William Rider-Rider/Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)

These images are coupled with essays from the likes of actor Paul Gross, who talks about his grandfather, and Atwood, who starts her chapter with her memories of when First World War soldiers came to her school.

Blake says it’s impossible to replace hearing stories of war told straight from a veteran’s lips, but efforts like these help make sure their dedication isn’t forgotten.

Swimming in a shell hole behind the Canadian lines. June, 1917. (Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)

“I think 100 years later, there’s still a lot of room for these stories. It’s about finding a way to keep these stories personal — to keep them alive.”

Some wounded Canadians present a nurse with a dog brought out of the trenches with them. October, 1916. (Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/The Vimy Foundation)