Hear the Sounds of World War I: A Gas Attack Recorded on the Front Line, and the Moment the Armistice Ended the War

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Peter Jackson’s New Film on World War I Fea­tures Incred­i­ble Dig­i­tal­ly-Restored Footage From the Front Lines: Get a Glimpse

Watch World War I Unfold in a 6 Minute Time-Lapse Film: Every Day From 1914 to 1918

The Great War: Video Series Will Doc­u­ment How WWI Unfold­ed, Week-by-Week, for the Next 4 Years

The First Col­or Pho­tos From World War I: The Ger­man Front

British Actors Read Poignant Poet­ry from World War I

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.


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