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The Actual Sound of WW1

The BBC Sound FX Library is a mighty archive of nearly every sound you can think of, but unsurprisingly when Cal Knightley and I went through it in July 2013 they didn’t have the sounds of the First World War. And especially not in 96/24 digital sound.


The challenge, then, was to find the raw materials to build a soundscape that hadn’t been heard in one hundred years. If it was done right, this was a chance to take the listener to a place where only our forebears had ever been. And because this is radio, not television, the effect could be all the more immersive. One can never reproduce it exactly, of course, but that’s no reason not to try.




The comparatively easy bit was to record the appropriate rifles of the time - not just the Lee-Enfields and the Mausers, but also the Rosses and Moisin-Nagants. No point in just recording rifles needed for 1914, there were future episodes and fronts to be thought about. So it was off to a local range to see what could be captured. And it was a chance to talk to the experts about the different way each weapon was loaded, handled and fired. Jeff Marshall took these great pictures.


More difficult was to record the sound of the bullets arriving on target and going overhead - this needed a longer range as you otherwise get the sound of it being fired all over the sound of the bullet itself. So recording kit was put at a distance where the bullet was outstripping the speed of sound and a clean recording could be made.


That was done on the same day I got the recordings of a Maxim machine gun, on both the firing and receiving end.


A long morning at the Royal Artillery’s Firepower Museum in Woolwich (sadly soon to be closed) secured the sounds of those big heavy breeches on a selection of WW1 artillery pieces.

Now for the biggest challenge of all, the sound of exploding shells. I knew that there has been an ‘iron harvest’ every year since WW1 by French and Belgian farmers of unexploded shells. Everyone's seen them placed by the roadside to be collected by the Bomb Disposal Units.

After some high-level negotiation all the way up to the French Ministry of the Interior in Paris  there was a chance to go to their centre on the old Western Front.  There the team blew up a wide selection of French, German and British artillery shells that have lain silent for a hundred years. Now you can hear what only our forebears heard.

French law stipulated that we were all miles away in an old French army armoured personnel carrier while they blew the shells using a little bit of Semtex and remote control. So I never saw a single one explode, just heard these amazing sounds.

War artist William Orpen memorably said that he might be able to paint the Somme, but he “could not paint the smell”. Now perhaps, we will take a tiny step towards hearing what has been impossible to hear for 100 years. Although these shattered shells had an aroma impossible to forget.

You can also see how the expensive recording kit was bagged up behind a huge earth bank and my older stuff is right out in the firing line. There was no telling if one explosion might do for the lot.

It was raining like crazy (of course) hence the umbrella over the kit deadened with a blanket - though you can see where the blast waves of the explosions have pushed everything against the umbrella ribs.

There were other more peaceful sides to this process too.  When I went to Turkey to research the episode I wrote about Gallipoli, I also got to record the atmospheres of Gully Beach that we could use under dialogue. Nothing like the real thing if you can get it.

Not pictured, the agreeable three course lunch we went for in a superb local restaurant. I paid, which seemed only reasonable. They said I could come any day.

Gully Sunset tweaked IMG_2187 three kit umbrella fix

And I found this wild tortoise out for a stroll, and if you heard the 11th May 1915 episode you’ll know the role he found himself playing.

Close Semtex IMG_2585 IMG_2545 IMG_2555 IMG_2630