The Sound of the Trenches

After the war

Les ennemis ont tout pris, Jusqu'à notre petit lit!

[The enemies took all we had, even our little bed!]

from Debussy’s “Noël des enfants qui n’ont pas de maison”

The war displaced huge numbers of civilians across Europe. The image above shows Belgian refugees at the start of the war, and shows the type of scene that prompted Debussy to write his last vocal work, ‘_Noël des enfants qui n’ont pas de maison_’ - Christmas for the children without homes. Debussy wrote the song at the end of 1915, on the eve of an operation for bowel cancer.

The song clearly contains a great deal of anger. At this time, Debussy was worried not just about his own health but, also, the fate of his family who had had to move from place to place because of the war.

Noël des enfants qui n’ont pas de maison,
Claude Debussy, baritone Charles Panzéra, conducted by Piero Coppola,
Bibliothèque nationale de France, No Copyright - Other Known Legal Restrictions

Debussy did not survive the war, dying from cancer in April 1918. Europeana has several recordings of the song - including the one above, sung by the baritone Charles Panzéra and conducted by Piero Coppola – and an autograph manuscript of the song below.

Many soldiers came home with terrible injuries, shellshock, or traumatised by what they had witnessed. The Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm but was determined to continue his career as a musician.

Wittgenstein commissioned works from composers to be played on the piano with the left hand only. One example of such a commission is this piano concerto by Franz Schmidt.

Ravel also composed a concerto for the left hand for Wittgenstein - this is one of Wittgenstein’s best-known commissions. Ravel, who served in the war as a truck driver, composed ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ as a tribute to his fallen comrades. Here he is, pictured in his uniform, in 1916.

But music was also important for convalescent soldiers who were not high profile musicians. Prosthetic limbs were adapted so they were able to play instruments, as shown in this image of a trio of musicians.

Soldiers who had lost their sight could still continue to play - or, indeed, learn to play - an instrument. The photograph below says, ’St. D's, May 26th 1919’ and is probably from St. Dunstans, Regents Park, London (which went on to become Blind Veterans UK). St. Dunstans provided training for blind veterans such as shorthand typing and playing a musical instrument. Below is a photo of six men playing banjos and mandolins, accompanied by a man playing guitar and a woman playing piano (who both seem to be sighted).

Some soldiers were blinded suddenly during the war as a result of explosions and shooting. Others, who had been gassed, lost their sight more gradually. Captain Ian Fraser, blinded by a sniper in the Somme in 1916, became the president of St. Dunstans and came up with the idea of a book that could “talk”. Fraser worked with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to develop The Talking Book, which originally began as a way of bringing reading to soldiers blinded in World War One. 

Fraser went on to become a member of parliament and, subsequently, entered the UK’s House of Lords as a life peer.

By recording the spoken word at a slower speed than the usual 78 revolutions a minute, it was possible to record an entire book on about ten discs. This was a groundbreaking step forward in recording technology - and this is perhaps difficult to appreciate today, when one mobile phone can accommodate hundreds, if not thousands, of Talking Books. 

The RNIB opened their first recording studio in London in 1934. The Talking Book Service became a valuable resource and is still widely used today. We finish this exhibition with a Pathé News clip, from 1945, showing a Talking Book being recorded.