The Sound of the Trenches

The Sounds of War

The emergence of recorded sound, particularly via the portable record player, brought music and entertainment directly to the troops as well as to loved ones back at home. Recordings created at this time ranged from vaudeville songs and sketches to speeches from politicians and royalty.

The Decca portable gramophone was introduced in 1914 by the long-established London music instrument maker, Barnett-Samuel. This model dates from 1919, and is essentially the same as the popular ‘Trench Decca’ which brought music to soldiers in the trenches. Sound travels from the soundbox along the tone arm to the small horn, but is then reflected and amplified by the bowl in the lid. The soundbox fitted here is a Telesmatic, a proprietary sound box some years newer than the machine.

Elsie Janis is as essential to the success of [American] Army as a charge of powder is essential in the success of a shell.

Army newspaper "Stars and Stripes"

Elsie Janis (1889-1956) was one artist who entertained the troops. Below, she gives her rendition of ‘Give Me the Moonlight’, with which Frankie Vaughan later became associated. In this recording, made in 1919, she sings the song in the way she claims different troops might sing it.

Hullo America!; Give me the moonlight, part 2, Elsie Janis, Harry Von Tilzer,

The words of the US President, Woodrow Wilson, were recorded in 1917, spoken by Ervin Goodfellow. In the President’s speech to Congress in April 1917, Wilson explained why he felt it necessary for the US to enter into the war. Although this recording is not of the President himself, it shows how much impact the words would have on the listeners who, until then, would mainly read these speeches in newspapers.

President Wilson's war message part 1,
Delivered before a joint session of both houses of Congress on April 2, 1917. Spoken by Ervin Goodfellow,

On the third of February last I officially laid before you the extraordinary announcement of the Imperial German Government that on and after the first day of February it was its purpose to put aside all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean.

Woodrow Wilson

Recordings were made on wax cylinders or the 78 discs which succeeded them. Neither format could store more than a few minutes’ worth of material so music hall performers would offer quick sketches, followed by a song or two. A good example of this is ‘Life in a trench’ performed by Henry Burr (1882-1941) and Lieutenant Gitz Rice (1891-1947).

The sketches aimed to boost morale in the trenches. In a mixture of scripted conversations and songs, there is dark humour about what food was available to eat, and the hope for a ‘blighty’ - a serious enough wound for a soldier to return home, and of course, the desire to survive the war.

Life in a trench in Belgium – part 1,
Gitz Rice, Henry Burr,

Other recordings attempted to convey the sounds of war. Recording the actual sound of gunfire was harder to do than filming and photographing the action; before microphones were introduced, a large horn would be used to pick up sound vibrations. One recording claims to be the genuine sound of a gas shell bombardment, with the voices of the gunners giving orders, the clicks and bumps of the guns and the whizzing of shells being fired through the air. At the end of the recording comes an announcement:

Gas shell bombardment,
Royal Garrison Artillery, CNRS-LARHRA-Phonobase, CC BY-NC-ND

Feed the guns with war bonds, and help to win the war!

This recording was marketed as genuine at the time. However, it was probably created using a mixture of different layers of recordings. It’s possible that one of those layers could have been recorded on the front line; alternatively, the sounds could have been created in a studio. Genuine or not, it shows how the new medium of recorded sound was used to engage with its listeners and encourage them to contribute to the war effort.