‘A Dull Roar’

The Triumph of Sport & Technology for Deaf Service Personnel.

'...It was the first really heavy bombardment of trenches we had suffered. Some you could see coming, some you could hear, and some came without any preliminary announcement...'

Report in the Green Howards Gazette of bombing on Sunday 19th December, 1915. The strain of listening and watching for incoming bombardment was incredibly nerve racking and mentally exhausting.

Submitted by the Thackray Medical Museum

Noise was one of the defining features of the First World War. Soldier’s memoirs are full of descriptions of what they could hear from the trenches. Fighting from a trench restricted a soldier’s vision, which meant that hearing was vital for recognising danger: knowing where the enemy was or where a shell might fall. This was the first time in warfare that hearing became more important than seeing. Reliance on hearing and the constant noise of bombardment was a nerve-racking experience, which left many soldiers mentally exhausted and nervous.

Many soldiers became partially deafened as a serious, but hidden, consequence of their experience in the First World War. Troops at the front were affected by loud guns and exploding shells, and little hearing protection was available. For centuries, all types of deafness had been stigmatised, but this began to be challenged as fit, young men lost much or all of their hearing as a result of the war.

The increase in hearing loss as a wartime sacrifice stimulated new medical interest in how noise damages hearing. It also moved scientists and inventors to apply other wartime technologies to the needs of people with hearing loss. The noise of combat in the First World War had prompted the military to turn their attention to amplified telephones, which were needed for communication in the trenches. At the end of the war, this same technology was used to develop telephones for people who were hard of hearing. Valves from radio sets were also used to make hearing aids more powerful.

However, most soldiers did not benefit from these new inventions. Hearing aids were expensive, and only wealthy people could afford the new electronic devices; most ordinary soldiers would not have been able to afford one. Many deafened soldiers were only offered lip-reading classes or a banjo design hearing aid to help with everyday life. Few people received the new hearing aids which made use of new technology.

Conversely, deaf sports often prevent the use of hearing aids while competing. The deaf community has a long history of sporting prowess, competing against and with hearing athletes. The first deaf football club was formed in 1871 by the Glasgow Institute Initiative. Glasgow Dead and Dumb Football Club is now one of the oldest football clubs in the country. International criteria prevents players from wearing hearing aids when playing deaf football to level the playing field, although this can cause balance issues and players can’t hear instructions. Instead, flags are used by referees at deaf football clubs to manage the game but there can sometimes be problems when playing against a hearing team. The first International Silent Games (now known as the Deaflympics) took place in Paris in 1924, a forerunner of the Stoke Mandeville Paralympic Games which began in 1948. In 2005 the Doncaster College Deaf Football Club made deaf history and football history by winning the FA National Futsal Championships.

Today, hearing remains important in combat. Soldiers who are unable to hear their radio, or enemy movements, are a risk to themselves and others. Hearing protection is compulsory for all soldiers in battle, but many believe that ear defenders reduce their sense of hearing, possibly putting them at risk. If a soldier develops hearing loss however, their military career can be limited.

Noise and damage to hearing is often associated with the pain and trauma of both warfare and injury. It is common for soldiers to be affected by noises that they remember from the war after leaving the frontline or the armed forces. For example, a car backfiring can remind soldiers of gunshot or explosions. This can cause upset and is linked to shell shock and post-traumatic stress.