The soundscape of the Great War must have been devastating: constant artillery bombardment, rifle shots, fighter planes buzzing overhead and the screams of soldiers encountering gas. But we don’t actually know quite what the World War I sounded like. Magnetic tape didn’t exist yet and recording technology was in its infancy, requiring sound to be mechanically produced using a needle and soft wax or metal. Taking such machines into the field was not practical.
Still, there were people on the front recording. Special units used a technique called “sound ranging” to try and determine where enemy gunfire was coming from. To do so, 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. The effect is similar to the way a seismometer records an earthquake. Using that data and the time between when a shot was fired and when it hit, they could then triangulate where enemy artillery was located—and adjust their own guns accordingly.
At least one bit of that “sound ranging” film survived the War—the film recording the last few minutes of World War I when the guns finally fell silent at the River Moselle on the American Front. As Richard Connor at Deutsche Welde reports, part of a new exhibit called Making a New World at London’s Imperial War Museum uses those graphic sound waves to recreate the moment the Armistice went into effect and the guns fell silent.
As part of a celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, the 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.
According to the company, the film strip has six lines, one for each microphone in use. The team researched the types of weapons being used by each side at the end of the war, then used the film to determine the size, frequency and distance of blasts. Looking at landscape images of the front, they also figured out how intense the reverberations from the blasts would be.
Using that info, they recreated the sound of the last minutes of battle, but they also wanted visitors to feel what the moment was like. To that end, they also created a soundbar. 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.
“This document from IWM’s collections gives us a great insight into how intense and chaotic the barrage of gunfire must have been for those fighting on the western front,” Coda to Coda director and principal composer Will Worsley says in a statement. “We hope that our audio interpretation of sound ranging techniques… enables visitors to project themselves into that moment in history and gain an understanding of what the end of the First World War may have sounded like.”
Since that historic moment of silence, the Armistice has been remembered in the U.S. as part of Veterans Day and marked around the world by other holidays, notably, as Remembrance Day by the U.K and Commonwealth of Nations. More than 9.5 million military personnel died during the World War I and an equal number of civilians perished from famine and disease brought on by the conflict.