44 Autochrome Images Of World War I That Bring The Great War To Life

Published May 27, 2024
Updated May 28, 2024

Captured by Albert Kahn's fearless photography team, these early color photos of World War I help reveal the human side of the conflict.

World War I took place more than a century ago. As such, it’s easy to see the conflict as a mere speck in history’s rear-view mirror. But Albert Kahn’s World War I photos bring the “war to end all wars” to life.

Thanks to the then-recently invented autochrome, the photographs taken by Kahn’s team of photographers during the conflict are in color. They capture the blue of French uniforms, the crumbling gray ruins of cities like Reims, and the dark, mousy brown of trenches on the frontline.

Soldiers In 1915
Soldier Writing In Rubble
Soldiers Standing In Trench
44 Autochrome Images Of World War I That Bring The Great War To Life
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In the gallery above, peruse some of the striking photos taken by Albert Kahn's team during World War I. And below, learn more about Kahn's mission to create a "photographic inventory of the surface of the globe."

One Man's Photographic Mission

By trade, Albert Kahn was a banker. But the Frenchman is best known for his photography project, "The Archives of the Planet," which set out to document different cultures across the world. Between 1909 and 1931, Kahn's team of photographers spread to every corner of the globe. Using the newly invented autochrome, they took vivid color photos of different cultures worldwide.

Kahn envisioned his project as "a kind of photographic inventory of the surface of the globe, occupied and organized by man, such as it presents itself at the beginning of the 20th century." And his team would ultimately take some 72,000 photos of distant places like Syria, India, and Vietnam.

Carpet Weaver In Algeria

Musée Albert KahnA young carpet weaver in Algiers, Algeria. Circa 1910-1912.

They documented dancers in Algeria, sprawling public gardens in Afghanistan, and royalty in Albania. And their photos, as Kahn intended, captured a stunning spectrum of the human experience.

But in 1914, some of Albert Kahn's photographers also started photographing something much closer to home: World War I, which began after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The World War I Photographers Working For Albert Kahn

Because Ferdinand had been killed by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, Austria-Hungary, with the support of their ally Germany, declared war on Serbia. But Serbia was supported by Russia, so Germany soon declared war on the Russians — and then on Russia's ally, France. Germany's attack on France, through neutral Belgium and Luxembourg, also drew Great Britain into the conflict. With that, World War I began.

As the Musée Albert Kahn notes, Albert Kahn's World War I photos come from photographers like Auguste Léon, Stéphane Passet, Paul Castelnau, and Georges Chevalier, who documented the conflict as it unfolded.

Paul Castelnau

Musée Albert KahnPaul Castelnau, as photographed by Auguste Léon.

Photographers like Léon and Passet had long worked on "The Archives of the Planet." Léon was the first professional camera operator recruited by Kahn in 1909 (and he would work on Kahn's photography project until 1930). Before the war, he traveled to places like the Balkans and Egypt. When the worldwide conflict broke out, Léon documented it on Kahn's behalf.

Passet started working with "The Archives of the Planet" in 1912. He had spent most of the pre-war years taking photos of people in countries like China, Mongolia, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, and India. When World War I began, he served in the artillery section of the French Army, but he continued to take photographs for Kahn's archives.

Paul Castelnau, on the other hand, was a photographer with the French Army. His wartime photos were later divided — somewhat haphazardly — between "The Archives of the Planet" and the French Army itself.

Together, they and others captured World War I in stunning color.

Albert Kahn's World War I Photos

World War I ultimately lasted four years. It ushered in a new age of terrifying weapons like mustard gas, machine-gun fire, and artillery attacks from the air, and led to the deaths of millions of people. By the time the war came to an end in 1918, the total number of military and civilian casualties exceeded 40 million, with over 20 million dead and 20 million wounded.

Albert Kahn's World War I photos, however, most often capture wartime life off the battlefield. His photographers took photos of cities left in ruins, soldiers nervously standing in trenches, and doctors tending to patients.

Little Boy With Gas Mask

Musée Albert KahnA young boy in Reims, France holds a gas mask as he sits atop rubble. 1917.

They captured moments like a nurse speaking to a soldier, a priest shoveling away debris, and children playing on decimated streets. In other words, Albert Kahn's World War I photos captured the human side of the conflict.

Remarkably, for the time, they captured these moments in color, making them seem less like a page from a history book and more like "real life."

In the gallery above, peruse some of Albert Kahn's World War I photographs.

After looking through Albert Kahn's World War I photos, peruse this collection of moving photos from the American Civil War. Or, check out this stunning gallery of color photos from World War II.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "44 Autochrome Images Of World War I That Bring The Great War To Life." AllThatsInteresting.com, May 27, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/albert-kahn-ww1-photographs. Accessed June 21, 2024.