The world recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of end of World War I, which came to its close on November 11th, 1918. The last veterans of that unprecedentedly large-scale military conflict, all of them centenarians or supercentenarians, died in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Though historical scholarship on the subject continues, the Great War, as it was widely known at the time, has now well and truly passed out of living memory. No one alive saw World War I for themselves, though we do have photographs, some of them in color; and no one alive heard World War I for themselves, though we do have a little recorded audio: in the clip above, you can hear the sounds of a gas shell bombardment in the war's final year.
"Just before the end of the Great War, William Gaisberg, a sound recordist of the pre-electric era, took recording equipment to the Western Front in order to capture the sound of British artillery shelling German lines with poison gas," writes media historian Brian Hanrahan at Sounding Out!. The “Gas Shell Bombardment” record, "a 12-inch HMV shellac disc, just over 2 minutes at 78 rpm," came out just as the war ended, a few weeks after Gaisberg's own death (probably of Spanish flu) and just after the end of the war itself. "Initially intended to promote War Bonds," Hanrahan explains, ultimately the record was used to raise money for disabled veterans."
Long billed as one of the first "actuality recordings" (the kind "documenting a real location and event beyond the performative space of the studio, imprinted with the audible material trace of an actual moment in space and time"), the record later came under scrutiny, which Hanrahan writes about in detail: "Close listening at slow speeds – just careful attention and notation, nothing more elaborate – revealed inconsistencies and oddities in the firing noises." These and other qualities suggest layers of sound added after the fact, on top of the initial recording in the field, much like live concert recordings now get "sweetened" with additional layers of instrumentation (and even audience enthusiasm).
But we can hardly expect perfect fidelity from audio recordings of the events of a century ago, a time when audio recording itself was still in its infancy. You can hear another approach to the task of hearing World War I in the clip just above, an "interpretation" of the sound of the armistice causing the guns to fall silent. This realistic minute of sound was based on sound information collected in the field, using a technique called "sound ranging" in which, as Smithsonian's Jason Daley explains, "technicians set up strings of microphones — actually barrels of oil dug into the ground — a certain distance apart, then used a piece of photographic film to visually record noise intensity," much as "a seismometer records an earthquake."
As part of its commemoration of the armistice's centennial, London’s Imperial War Museum "commissioned the sound production company Coda to Coda to use the film strip of the guns firing away at 10:58 A.M. on November 11, 1918, then going silent when the clock strikes 11, the symbolic moment politicians determined the war would end, to try and recreate what that instant may have sounded like." Though you can hear the result on the internet, you can also go to the Imperial War Museum exhibition Making a New World in person and more intensely experience it through the "soundbar" installed there, on which "visitors to the exhibit lean their elbows on the bar and place their hands on their ears. The sound is then conducted through their arms to their skulls where they can both hear and feel the moment," the moment that birthed that "New World" — in not just the political sense but the technological one, and many others besides — in which we still live today.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.