The Sound of the Trenches

Instruments of war

It is hard to imagine how soldiers could have survived life in the trenches, when each day might very well be the last. Yet there were moments of release amid the mud and the shelling at the front. Music was played in the ‘rear area’, an operational zone, linked with the home territory, which constituted a place of calm and recreation for soldiers returning from duty on the front line. Obviously no large orchestral recitals would take place here, but individuals or small groups of musicians would try to lighten the gloom.

A blatant bugle tears my afternoons.

from a poem 'The Calls' by Wilfred Owen

All armies had their regimental orchestras, but soldiers also brought their personal instruments, not just the smaller and portable ones, such as mouth-organs, whistles, harmonicas and brass instruments, but also more vulnerable string instruments like violins, guitars and even cellos.

The ‘trench cello’ or, as it was originally called the ‘holiday cello’ was a very practical instrument because it was capable, apart from the bow, of being packed away into a container the size of an ammunition box, making it reasonably easy to transport. During World War One, versions were produced behind the lines, usually made simply of plywood, although old steel oil containers were also used.

Although such instruments lack the depth and tone of a genuine and full-size cello, the sound they produce is very recognisable and it comes surprisingly close to the real thing. The British virtuoso Stephen Isserlis has recorded pieces by Fauré, Debussy and Webern on a trench cello (The Cello in Wartime, Stephen Isserlis).

During World War One, whistles were used to signal the infantry to go 'over the top', in other words, to leave the trenches and advance to contact with the enemy. Shown here is a very common example of such a whistle used by the British army, made by J. Hudson & Co in 1914.

The most well-known use of drums in the military is to synchronise soldiers’ marching. In the trenches, drummers were active as runners, orderlies or stretcher-bearers.

The drum depicted was owned by Louis-Marius Guy, born in 1895 in Montpellier, France. After his training in 1911, he joined the 141st Infantry Regiment, based in Marseille, in 1912 as a drummer. Louis-Marius was active on many different fronts and got wounded multiple times. After the Armistice, he was sent to Germany as a member of the occupying forces., He was released from service in August 1919 after eight years. Louis-Marius treasured this drum all his life. He died in 2005.

Originally a carpenter, during World War One, Czeslaus Nowakowski took part in numerous battles on both the Western Front and Eastern Front. He was wounded three times and was awarded the Iron Cross and other medals. He played several instruments by ear and was assigned as a horn player during the war. For decades after the war, the instrument was kept in an attic, wrapped in newspapers. The bugle is engraved with the words, ‘C.W. Meisel Senior, Klingenthal i/S [in Saxony] 1915’, and bears an eagle with the letters ‘F.R.’

When the bugle sounds, I have the feeling that I am building a bridge into the trenches of World War One to my grandfather.

The current owner of the bugle - Nowakowski’s grandson - claims that the musicality passed from his grandfather to him. ‘When I started to blow signals on the hose of my inflatable air pump when I was on vacation in 1981 as a teenager, my father remembered the bugle in his aunt's kitchen cupboard and later brought it to me. After a short try, I was also able to give the usual signals by ear, e.g. the Last Post and the ‘Zapfenstreich’.'