Distorted images of life in a war zone

 

The killing fields of the first World War are just an hour's train ride from central Paris. The railway line through Compiegne follows the same route taken by French troops in August 1914, and the villages beside the sleepy Oise river in Picardy are still scarred by the bullets and shells of the 1914-1918 catastrophe.

Blerancourt Castle served as a field hospital for the last two years of the war. Today it is the Museum of Franco-American Co-operation, where French government archivists decided this winter to exhibit rare colour photographs from the first World War.

Colour photography was invented by the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis (also pioneers of motion pictures), in 1903; potato starch was a key ingredient of the emulsion used on their "autochrome plates". Technicians only recently found a way of reproducing the delicately coloured images from the fragile glass photos, which is why they have not been shown publicly since 1918.

The 116 photos of civilians and soldiers taken in 1917 by Paul Castelnau and Fernand Cuville are a catalogue of daily life in northern France's martyred cities. The definition, bright colours and golden quality of the light is startling, but they create a softened, propagandist's vision of a conflict that claimed 10 million lives.

Fearful of spies, France forbade all but official army photographers like Castelnau and Cuville from the war zone. Their work shows contradictory themes of normal life and devastation. By 1917, Reims had been besieged by German guns for three years, but the doorman at Restaurant Gauthier still wears a white top hat, even if his fur collar is motheaten.

The Reims postman delivers mail, the street sweeper sweeps and a man shouldering a large basket delivers bread. On close examination, you realise that these men are very old or very young - the others must be at the front. To quash rumours elsewhere in France that the northern cities were hungry, the pictures show shopfronts filled with sweets, stacked cheeses and sausages.

I am interrupted by an old French woman who sees me taking notes. "I've got to tell you what you're not seeing in these pictures - the forced labour, the killings," she says angrily. "I know these things from my family - my mother was only 10 years old in the first World War but she had to report to the kommandantur every morning. My grandfather paid gold so as not to be shot by the Germans. They survived four years of occupation. If a carrier pigeon landed on your roof, you were shot, and they made you dig your own grave first. Civilians ate nettles - there was nothing."

Was she still angry with the Germans? "No," the woman replied before turning and walking away as abruptly as she had approached me, "but I don't want any more wars."

Jaunty Australians soldiers in bush hats, an Indo-Chinese, Canadian foresters and Algerian zouaves all posed for Castelnau and Cuville, but we see not a single German, only the graffiti they left on a wall in Soissons, the ruined centre of Reims with the cathedral towering above it, gutted houses with broken-ribbed roofs. A poilu (as French soldiers were known because of their moustaches) stands next to a fruit tree that has been sawn in half by the Germans.

I overhear a Frenchman tell his two small sons: "French propaganda said the Germans destroyed everything in their path. This picture was proof that they cut down trees so the French couldn't eat apples."

Smiling poilus queue for the barber, smoke cigarettes on the grass after supper, stand in front of neat, camouflaged shelters. "This is rubbish - it's all staged," a middle-aged Frenchman mutters to his teenage daughter.

The French public never shook off the cynicism instilled by mendacious first World War politicians. Only one image, of three blind poilus in poppy red caps, the victims of a gas attack, hints at the harsh reality.

At the cemetery in the village of Cuts, Bernard Groscaux is tending his 1,743 war graves. The toothless peasant's 90-year-old father fought in both world wars, and Mr Groscaux traces a semi-circle along the horizon to show me where the front line was, just a kilometre away. "At the beginning, there were cavalry charges on the plain there," he says. "The horse cemetery was over there, by the big pine tree. The German cemetery is up there, on the plateau."

The caretaker liked the exhibition at Blerancourt, but 81 years after the photos were taken, he too is proof that history unravels propaganda. "It makes me very sad," he says, looking at the rows of white crosses and arched Islamic markers - the graves of north Africans impressed into the French army. "It was so unnecessary, so stupid."