What did World War One sound like?

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1. Understanding the noise of war

World War One was the first industrial war. Many new and powerful mechanical weapons were deployed on the battlefield, resulting in carnage and injuries on a scale previously unseen.

In June 1916 the War Office granted two cameramen access to the British section of the Western Front, but the footage captured was silent. There are no known audio recordings of battle in WW1.

The Western Front reverberated with the noise of war. Each of the weapons had a distinctive sound which was mixed with the shouting of orders, whistles and the cries of wounded men. Although no historical account exists, can modern sound engineering recreate the experience of the soldier, waiting with his comrades for the signal to attack?

2. The 18-pounder gun

In the early stages of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, German lines were bombarded by 1.6 million shells in the space of one week. Such was the intensity of the bombardment, vibrations could be felt in England.

One of the most common weapons used by the British Army at the Somme offensive was the 18-pounder gun. More than 800 of these field guns were in operation. Larger, longer range and heavier weapons were also put into use.

The rate of fire of the 18-pounder was high; gunners could potentially fire three or four rounds a minute. But this could quickly wear out the barrel on the gun and exhaust the teams. For these reasons, the gunners only raised their rate of fire during the final minutes before the infantry’s assault.

The 18-pounder produced a loud noise on firing and again, several seconds later, on the arrival and explosion of its shell. Soldiers would speak of hearing the ‘perpetual rumble’ of distant detonation.

3. What did weapons sound like?

Click on weapons to reveal more.

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A range of powerful weapons was deployed by both sides during WW1. This clickable infographic features noises similar to those heard by soldiers fighting on the Western Front.

4. Is this the sound of WW1?

For the BBC Two documentary, Pipers of the Trenches, historian Michael Stedman and engineer Paul Wilson of Glasgow School of Art worked together to create an audio soundscape of fighting at the Battle of the Somme.

Focusing on the bloody battle at La Boisselle, the various noises associated with the offensive were layered together. Is this what soldiers on the battlefield would have heard?

5. Life on the Western Front

The ferocious and repetitive noise heard in the trenches and on the battlefield impacted on the soldiers’ wellbeing

Ear damage

In an era before stringent health and safety regulations, gunners were not issued with ear defenders. Many of them suffered instantaneous deafness in one or both ears from the concussive effects on the ear drums, perforated by a blast. Soldiers recall seeing gunners’ ears bleeding.

Sergeants took to communicating with their men using whistles; their high-pitches being more easily heard by damaged ears.

Emotional response

The experience of noise was emotionally isolating. At La Boisselle, the cacophony on the battlefield meant soldiers could not hear orders.

The men, civilian volunteers, began to abandon their military training and reverted to human instinct, huddling together for safety but in doing so making themselves easier targets.

Sleep deprivation

In the barrage preceding the Battle of the Somme, shelling continued through the night, albeit with fewer guns. The soldiers’ sleep was disturbed; their tiredness increasing the trauma of the situation.

Shell shock

The fear and anxiety many soldiers felt during bombardments contributed to ‘hysterical deafness’, hearing loss that develops under conditions of severe emotional strain.

Heart palpitations, hysteria and paralysis were also among the many symptoms of shell shock. These baffled doctors who were new to treating the stresses of mass warfare.

6. Where would you have fought?

The extreme noises you would have had to cope with in WW1.

Gunners

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Teams working the artillery

Days before the Somme your gunnery team fired a concentrated barrage for 80 minutes, then a continuous steady barrage through the rest of the day and night.

Tunnellers

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Planting mines underground

You worked in total silence but when your explosives detonated, as at the Lochnagar crater, there was “an ear-splitting roar”, according to a witness.

Infantry

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Fighting on the battlefield

On the battlefield you found yourself amid enormous explosions and ferocious gunfire. In the trenches you endured hours of continuous artillery fire.