The Sound of War

The Sound Planning team will be joining the nation to remember our brave war heroes who gave their lives to protect the freedom of future generations. We will remember them.

War can impact on a person in many ways, both physically and mentally. While physical injuries such as shrapnel and gunshot wounds are obvious, the hidden effects of the battlefield can be just as disabling. Many military personnel have suffered noise-induced hearing loss as a result of exposure to loud noises in war zones.

More than you might think, a soldier’s hearing is affected due to the different noises they experience on the battlefield. During the First World War, soldiers were exposed to up to 185 dB of continual noise from high-energy weapons, causing damage to the inner ear – known as labyrinthine concussion.

WW2 Planes

© Jerry J. Jostwick / Public Domain


Hearing loss

In the army, it is considered that noise-induced hearing loss is related to exposure to weapon noise, and a considerable amount of research has been carried out in this context.

In the 19th century, impaired hearing in the military was caused by the explosions of cannons. By the early 20th century, medical articles by ear, nose and throat specialists detailed occupations where workers were exposed to excess noise, leading to deafness. These included riflemen, artillerymen and sailors.


World War I

During World War I, magazine and belt-fed weapons were deployed for the first time, using metal cartridges filled with powder, that resulted in greatly exaggerated noise levels as the ammunition exited the muzzle. In addition, high explosives replaced the old-fashioned black powder, and this coincided with a significant increase in the number of soldiers reporting hearing damage.

In the French Army, studies showed up to 20% of the troops suffered hearing damage during the first world war. Physicians attributed this to noise-induced hearing loss.

Not all doctors accepted hearing loss as a disability during World War I. The Oxford War Primers, a series of short medical texts published in England, dismissed hearing loss as “malingering and exaggeration”.

After the Great War ended, eminent surgeon Major T Jefferson Faulder, who served with the 92nd Brigade Royal Field Artillery and the 2nd London Division, wrote a paper on injuries to the ear in modern warfare in 1921. He claimed that hearing damage from gunfire was temporary. However, it is now recognised that vast numbers of troops suffered significant, permanent hearing loss.


World War II

By the time of World War II, there was a revival in interest in noise-induced hearing loss. It was reported that military personnel with impaired hearing struggled with night operations, when even quiet sounds, such as the snap of a twig, might be significant.

By this time, there were many sources of noise exposure in the Army: divided into continuous noise likened to the noise found in industry, and sudden noise such as explosions and gunfire. Intense noises that were continual included the buzz of the main battle tank engines. Helicopter crews and passengers were exposed to noise in the cockpit of 125 dB.

The groundcrew, who approached the aircraft when the engines were running, were exposed to considerably louder noises. Armoured fighting vehicles subjected their enclosed crew to noise levels of 115 dB. The most significant cause of sudden noises in the military was small arms fire. This had a louder peak level than industrial noise, causing damage to the hair cells to progress quickly.

The loudest noises of 188 dB were caused by the anti-armour weapons and medium mortar bombs. Medium artillery created a noise of 180 dB, while the service rifle caused a noise of 160 dB at the firer’s ear.


Ear protection

Some soldiers recognised the damage being done to their hearing and took steps to protect themselves by putting cotton wool in their ears. Although earplugs were available in the army, they were just rubber tubes and largely ineffective. They weren’t high on the list of supplies to those soldiers in the thick of it, and it was also considered that wearing earplugs diminished communication on the battlefield, which was dangerous in itself.

In 1974, the Army Hazard Classification Programme was launched to protect military personnel against the background of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

In the United States, a report labelled hearing loss the “silent epidemic”, claimed that almost 70,000 troops had been left with tinnitus and more than 58,000 had suffered hearing loss after serving in modern-day war zones.

People all over the world are preparing to remember the brave men and women who died during the Great War, World War II and other conflicts. Services will take place on Remembrance Sunday, 10th November, at cenotaphs and churches to commemorate their bravery. Lest we forget.


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