True Colours

The exact colours of the French locomotives during the Great War, have always been a great mystery to the modellers of this era. The black and white pictures of that time show them as either having a dark tone or a relatively light tone. The first one shows a Decauville ‘Progrès’ in a dark colour …

A dark coloured Decauville locomotive

…while the colour of the locomotive in this second picture is much lighter and probably very close to the colour of the wagons it is pulling.

A light coloured Decauville locomotive

Similar differences can be seen in pictures of the Kerr Stuart ‘Joffre’. There is even a very nice movie at ECPAD, which shows a light coloured ‘Joffre’ amongst other locomotives and rolling stock that were used by the French. So which colour should I use for my ‘Joffre’ … the dark or light one? And what did these colours look like in real life?

The lighter tone is for certain ‘gris artillerie’ (artillery grey), which is being described as a blue-grey colour. A nice example are the specifications which were sent to Baldwin for the Pechot-Bourdon locomotives they produced. They mention them as being ‘light blue grey’. At the start of he war, this colour was used for most heavy equipment of the French army and this pre-war choice was based on the availability of anti-rust zinc industrial paint.

Pechot-Bourdon locomotives in a ‘gris artillerie’ livery

The darker colour is most likely ‘vert armée’ (army green), a more expensive colour which was also used by the French for tanks and other heavy equipment. It is being described as a dark olive green colour in ‘French Tanks Of World War I’ by Osprey Publishing. An even better description of this colour was given to me by Eric Fresné on the Voie Libre Forum in the colour specifications of the Kerr Stuart ‘Joffre’ locomotives that were commissioned by the French Army.

Specification for paint and varnish
To be sent out with
Loco 2402 to 16 and 2428 to 29

Colour as per Paint No 33255 (French Commission)

  • Two coats of green for the boiler clothing, outside of tanks, bunkers and cab panels, etc.
  • Two coats of black for outside of panels, frame, wheel centres, tyres, frame plates, and parts not polished and the inside of the frames, etc.
  • One coat of varnish for flatting
  • Paint for red lining front of buffer beams
  • Paint for white back of buffer beams
  • One coat of finishing body varnish
  • The interior of the top part of the cab to be painted light green. The lower parts are to be painted black.

The composition of the green paint to be as follows:-

  • Terre d’ombre naturelle 235 parts
  • Vert Milori <N° 1> 350 parts
  • Essence de térébenthine 205 parts
  • Vernis flatting (base mattante) 210 parts

The composition of the black paint is:-

  • Noir léger 100 parts
  • Huile de lin claire 300 parts
  • Huile de lin cuite 300 parts
  • Essence de térébentine 100 parts
  • Siccatif francais 100 parts
  • Ocre rouge lavé 100 parts

The composition of the red paint is:-

  • Rouge broyé a l’essence 600 parts
  • Huile de lin 300 parts
  • Siccatif francais 100 parts

The composition of the white paint is:-

  • Jaune de chrôme 7.5 parts
  • Rouge broyé a l’essence 2.5 parts
  • Blanc de zinc en pâte 990.0 parts

Paint etc. to be sent out to quantities sufficient for 5 locos

Mr Storer
Feb 25th 1915.

So the outside of the ‘Joffre’ had two colours – green and black, where the green is a mixture of ‘Vert Milori <N° 1>‘ and ‘Terre d’ombre naturelle‘ in the mentioned ratio (≈ 3:2). The big unknown is of course the exact colour of ‘Vert Milori <N° 1>‘, but I was able to find the following, which is part of the collection of the ‘Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée‘ in Paris.

Vert Milori N° 1

Mixing this very dark green-blue colour with ‘Terre d’ombre naturelle‘ (raw umber), will indeed give a dark kind of Olive Green. Which seems to be in line with the first picture in this post of a Decauville ‘Progrès’ and the picture below of a derailed Kerr Stuart ‘Joffre’.

A 'Joffre' locomotive in a 'vert armée’ livery

As I am intending to build a Decauville in ‘gris artillerie’ at a later stage, I will give my ‘Joffre’ the ‘vert armée’ colour scheme. This however gives me a problem with the wheels and chassis, as they need to be black … which means that I will not be able to use my current grey chassis. Fortunately I found out that Roco also made a Spanish version of the BR 80, which has a black chassis and black wheels … so I am out hunting for that one now.