The Battle of the Marne, 1914.
War is terrible, and all resources are called on and all media are used in its furtherance. The relatively newly-developed art of Sound Recording was no exception and was pressed into service early. The most obvious use was as a vehicle for the patriotic songs that inevitably appear when a war breaks out. Freshly recorded National Anthems of the Allies were made, and so on. But ‘Descriptive Records’ also appeared from earliest times. These would enact or re-enact battles, speeches, events etc., for the public at home to listen to, and marvel at the bravery of ‘our troops’ (though they knew that already). Better still, able-bodied men who had not yet enlisted may have been persuaded to do so by these records.
The earliest war Descriptive record I ever had was a Columbia 2-minute cylinder. Alas, I have it no longer; it succumbed to attack by mould. It was titled ‘The Capture of the Forts At Port Arthur’, an event in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. It was of the simplest nature. First a military band played ‘Lord God Protect The Czar’, the Imperial Russian National Anthem (the opening bars of which are actually quite similar to the British National Anthem). There was then a flurry of shouting, cries of ‘Banzai’, and rifle shots imitated on a snare drum. (I had the record 30 years ago and can’t remember the exact details…) This lasted for a few seconds, then the band played the Japanese National Anthem.
Therefore, compressed into the slender compass of 2 minutes was a stylised, or symbolic, representation of a battle. Had the Russians won, the Anthems would merely have been reversed.
There are doubtless many earlier examples of War Descriptive Records, (e.g. the Spanish-American War of 1898 must have produced some), but the above example is probably typical.
The Great War naturally called into being large quantities of these records. These were much more elaborate than the 1905 cylinder. Disc records lasted longer, recording was (generally speaking) better… and besides, much more was at stake in Europe than commenting on what was, in 1905 to us at least, a ‘minor war’ right round the other side of the globe.
All the different record companies produced such issues, naturally. Columbia, for instance, produced a four-sided set called ‘The Big Push’. But the one you will be able to hear on this page struck me as being far more convincing than the many others I’ve heard.
It’s a Diamond Record, called ‘The Battle of the Marne’. This Diamond Record label was originally a client of the Pathé company; they later took it over. These discs were of vertically-cut, as opposed to the lateral cut. It’s an ‘audio impression’ of the first Battle of the Marne, which took place in early September 1914.
Example of a Diamond Record. This is No. 0136;
‘The Battle of the Marne’ was on disc No. 0133.
A Diamond record in its packet. ‘The Battle of the Marne’ was first issued on
Pathé in January 1915; the Diamond came out in February.
Records were then made by a mechanical process: the sounds passed down a conical horn, and caused a thin glass disc to vibrate to the sound. A light lever was attached to this diaphragm, and a point on the other end of it embossed indentations, corresponding to the sound, in a disc of wax. So the quality was not very good.
Sound effects could only be very simple: a snare drum hit for a single rifle shot… repeated hits for a machine gun; a bass drum (which would record badly, if at all, on most acoustic systems) to represent heavy artillery; a siren whistle for the whine of the shells… So they don’t sound very convincing to us, 100 years later.
And the dialogue: in 2015, it seems stilted, predictable, jingoistic, patronising; the men marching up, whistling a song; the Colonel speaking of the glory of the British Empire…
Yet those are the words and the style actually used a century ago, as only a small amount research will show. In fact, these records are far more authentic as documentaries than they are given credit for, today.
Also, this one is more immediate somehow. There are quite a few people taking part, so the ‘crowd scenes’ are more convincing… the bugle calls set an atmosphere (they’re accurate; a military historian friend of mine has checked them for me). There are commendable touches like the (cocoanut shell) horse riding up, then snorting fairly authentically. At the end of the Colonel’s address, a soldier shouts out ‘Kill ’em!’ (Normally on these records, there is a greater sense of chivalry; I think the people at home were more comfortable with that). Also, the record does not end in a triumphant victory march… it just fades out, without any proper conclusion. I spent quite a bit of time transferring this record and tinkering with the sound, so I got ‘drawn into’ it. Eventually I found the big shell-burst with the screams of the wounded hit by shrapnel, becoming more and more horrible. I have never heard screams on any other Great War descriptive record.
In the end, I concluded that if sound recordings made during the start of a battle in The Great War actually existed (which they don’t, of course): then this really is what they would sound like! In other words, primitive and amateurish as this disc sounds to us today, it nevertheless carries in its long-obsolete, vertically-modulated groove, rather frightening elements of reality…
Right-click this link & select ‘Open in new tab’ to hear the mp3 file:
Revised & re-formatted 17th December 2015.