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  • Tom Marshall

100 Years On: The Somme in Colour

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in human history and symbolised the horrors of warfare in the First World War. July 1st 1916, the first day of the battle, saw almost 60,000 British casualties.

After months of fighting over one million men had been wounded or killed across all sides. By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties. The French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.

Of the thousands of photos taken during the Somme, I have chosen a handful to illustrate the living and fighting conditions of British troops from the lowest to highest ranks. The images include one of King George V who visited the front on several occasions, and one of a British Tommy traipsing through the thick mud with his horse, delivering boots to the men on the front lines.

I decided to colourise these images as a tribute to the men pictured, because I believe that colour adds another dimension to historic images, and helps modern eyes to connect with the subjects, more than with a black and white photo. Black and white images are too often sadly ignored, especially by younger generations, and by colourising the photos, I hope that more people will stop to look and learn more about the soldiers at the Somme, and what they went through 100 years ago.

The information accompanying the photos comes from the National Library of Scotland's website. Any original notes found with the photos have been included as titles in bold.

'A Boche prisoner, wounded and muddy, coming in on the 13th.'

A British soldier helps a wounded German prisoner walk along a railway track. A man, possibly an official French war photographer is shown behind them, holding a camera and tripod. The derogatory term for a German, 'Boche’ or 'Bosch’, originates from the French slang 'alboche’, which was two words 'Allemand’ (German) and 'caboche’ (pate, head) put together.

'Some jolly gunners and their pet.'

A group of men from the Royal Regiment of Artillery, photographed alongside a long-barrelled field gun. For the occasion, they have chalked the words, 'Somme gun' on the side of the barrel. The men are well wrapped with non-uniform scarves, gloves and a balaclava. In purely military terms, the heavy artillery of both sides was in many ways more important than any other weapon. It could fire into the opposing trenches with little risk to their own side and could effectively keep the enemy in the trenches.

'Open air cookery in a steel helmet near Miraumont-le-Grand.'

Three officers making themselves comfortable, near Miraumont-le-Grand, France. Steel helmets had many more uses than the War Office might have intended.

'Commander explaining the capture of Thiepval to H.M. from the top of the Thiepval Chateau.'

King George V sitting next to an army commander, Thiepval, France on the site where Thiepval Chateau once stood. The army commander to his right is pointing into the distance and, according to the original caption, recounting the capture of Thiepval. This photograph was taken by John Warwick Brooke during one of the King's many visits to the Western Front. The village of Thiepval was completely destroyed during the Somme Offensive of 1916. A memorial to the missing of the Somme, with no known grave, now stands near where Thiepval Chateau once stood.

'Artillerymen outside dugouts.'

This photograph shows a group of soldiers standing in the entrance to a dugout. Other men are outside, standing beside a washing line with towels on it. A pot is steaming on a brazier made of a tin drum. The cap and collar badges of the men are not distinct but appear to vary, suggesting they are from more than one unit. This rather domestic scene appears well removed from the reality of the trenches at the Front. It may have been intended to counter criticism of the campaign by implying that it was better organised than was the case.

'Their home on the Somme.'

Two officers looking out of a small shelter they appear to have made for themselves. It seems to have been made of a mixture of corrugated iron, wood and canvas or tar-paper. As it is built above ground, this must have been well away from the front-line trenches.

This is one of a number of photographs which illustrate the degree to which shelter was left to the individual soldier. For officers this was, however, relieved by their greater freedom off-duty to go to nearby towns and villages, or on longer leave to visit Paris. When billets were available in civilian houses, officers again had the better conditions.

'In the track of the Hun. The first of our men to cross the Somme, near Peronne.'

Soldiers after crossing the River Somme. According to the photograph's original caption these soldiers are the first to have crossed the River Somme. Some of them are clambering up a temporary walkway. Others in the background manage to scramble up the embankment. The foreground is littered with debris. The slang British term used in the original caption for German, 'Hun', gained popular usage after Kaiser Wilhelm II urged his troops to 'behave like Huns' to win the war. Scenes such as this were commonly used as propaganda, intended to boost morale amongst the troops.

'Artillery stripped trees and a signboard pointing the way for pack transport'

The other-worldliness of this ravaged landscape at Courcelette, shrouded in clouds of dust or smoke, leaves a lasting impression. The foreground is littered with many objects, including an abandoned carriage and a sign stating 'pack transport this way.'

'Horse laden with trench boots on the Somme Front.'

Horse and soldier transporting boots. The path is inches deep in wet mud discernible by the deep imprint round the soldiers boot and the fact that the horses hooves are no longer visible. Rather than cloth puttees though he is wearing long lace-up boots. The horse is absolutely laden with rubber trench waders. Horses, due to their reliability and ability to travel over most terrains were crucial to transportation during World War I.

'Clearing the way for our advancing troops.'

An explosion taking place on the Somme. According to the existing caption it is a controlled explosion set up by the Royal Engineers, to clear the way for the advance. A uniformed soldier, possibly a member of the Royal Engineers, sits on a wooden post watching the explosion. A retreating army often laid obstacles and sabotaged any equipment or weapons they left behind, in an attempt to hinder any advance. Royal Engineers, as well as taking part in the fighting, were also responsible for 'combat engineering'; finding solutions to engineering problems on the battlefield.

Original images courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

All colourised images © Tom Marshall (PhotograFix) 2016.

To see more of my colourised photos, please follow PhotograFix on Facebook and Twitter.

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