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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Sound recordings of conflict


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I've renovated gramophones for a number of years now and have long been puzzled by the seeming dedication that we have in dismissing sound recordings as historical sources. Even generalists and Joe Public are aware of propaganda posters for recruitment depicting Uncle Sam or Kitchener, but have probably never stumbled across the 'actuality' recordings issued on 78 rpm shellac records during the First and Second World Wars. 


Whole tomes are dedicated to war art, poetry, reportage, diaries and film, but I'm aware of only one serious study of recorded sound - 'Wars, Dictators and the Gramophone 1898 -1945' (Blake, York 2004).


There is a wealth of interesting material out there, which is sadly neglected - far more than just another rendition of 'Tipperary'! This subject is to be explored in a talk this week from the Green Howards Museum in Richmond, North Yorkshire.


If interested you can register here - https://www.crowdcast.io/e/the-sounds-of-war/register - there is a small charge, but this supports the charitable trust that runs the museum. If unable to make the live streamed event, you can listen at your leisure to a recording of it.


Perhaps it is simply that people are so used to the audio world created in digital clarity through films like '1917' or 'Journey's End' that they can't be convinced by the pre-electric recording of an actual Gas Shell Bombardment made by William Gaisberg in October 1918. Perhaps they just don't know that such a recording exists?

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Wow, this is fascinating. I was under the impression that sound recordings of bombardments/from the front were not done due to lack of technical feasibility as suggested in this article from the Smithsonian Museum. For the centenary the IWM partnered with a company to use data collected by wartime sound ranging units (essentially seismic wave data) to create an audio reconstruction of the moment that the armistice took effect, but that's obviously not the same as an actual recording.


Can you give an idea of how many such recordings of battle exist and where they are held? I just wrote an article (of the hobbyist sort) about onomatopoeia in German soldiers' letters from the front, so would be interested in including more information about actual recordings from the battlefield.


Will your talk include anything about Germany and/or Austria-Hungary?

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We're basing the talk on recordings in our collection alone - and as there's nothing from the Germans/Austro-Hungarians I'm afraid they are absent - I'd be fascinated to learn of recordings from the other side of 'no-man's land' however.


The sound-ranging reconstruction of the moment of Armistice is fascinating - but you're right, in this instance the original 'recording' is another visual source, with the reconstruction providing sound interpretation based upon that visual source. The Gaisberg recording is the only known original recording of conflict from the Western Front. You're right that technical issues prevented widespread recording, and the story behind the recording is fascinating.


There are some 'descriptive' reconstructions and  recorded speeches, which highlight the preoccupations of (a) the public who bought the records, (b) the propaganda messages that were deemed acceptable by the authorities. Concert party recordings capture the feelings and entertainments witnessed by the troops at the front.


I've found some of the most informative and interesting 78s are of subjects such as a military funeral and a church service - to hear a Great War era bugler sounding the Last Post always feels something of a privilege. 


I'm still puzzled as to why so little attention is paid to such a rich field of evidence.

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