Hear the Very Moment When World War I Came to an End

Robert Graves’ poem “Armistice Day, 1918” begins with a riot of sound in a town in North East Eng­land. “What’s all this hub­bub and yelling, / Com­mo­tion and scam­per of feet,” he writes, “With ear-split­ting clat­ter of ket­tles and cans, / Wild laugh­ter down Mafek­ing Street?” The poem grows somber, then embit­tered, end­ing in a chill­ing silence for the “boys who were killed in the trench­es, / Who fought with no rage and no rant.” It’s a famil­iar con­trast from much World War I poetry—the hoot­ing civil­ian crowds and the grim, silent sol­diers count­ing their loss­es.

One project, cre­at­ed as part of the 100th anniver­sary of the Armistice last year, gave us a dif­fer­ent take on this WWI theme of sound and silence —using inno­v­a­tive tech­niques from 1918 that turned the final shelling of the war into visu­al data, then trans­lat­ing that data back into sound a cen­tu­ry lat­er. Rather than cel­e­bra­tion, the “ear-split­ting clat­ter” is the sound of mass death, and the silence, though sure­ly “uneasy,” as Matt Novak writes, must also have been rev­e­la­to­ry.

In the “graph­ic record” of the Armistice, just below, we can “see” the deaf­en­ing sounds of war and the first three silent sec­onds of its end, at 11 A.M. Novem­ber 11th, 1918. The film strip records six sec­onds of vibra­tion from six dif­fer­ent sources, as the graph­ic, from the Army Corps of Engi­neers, informs us. “The bro­ken char­ac­ter of the records on the left indi­cates great artillery activ­i­ty; the lack of irreg­u­lar­i­ties on the right indi­cates almost com­plete ces­sa­tion of fir­ing.”

You might notice a cou­ple lit­tle breaks in one line on the right—likely the result of an exu­ber­ant “dough­boy fir­ing his pis­tol twice close to one of the record­ing micro­phones on the front in cel­e­bra­tion of the dawn of peace.” But this was 1918—field record­ing tech­nol­o­gy bare­ly exist­ed, though a few bat­tle­field attempts were made (at least one sur­vives). The “micro­phones” in ques­tion were actu­al­ly “bar­rels of oil dug into the ground,” notes Jason Daley at Smith­son­ian.

This tech­nique, called “sound rang­ing,” worked by reg­is­ter­ing vibra­tion, sim­i­lar to a seis­mo­graph’s oper­a­tion, and helped spe­cial units locate ene­my fire, using “pho­to­graph­ic film to visu­al­ly record noise inten­si­ty.” The film above was part of the cen­te­nary exhi­bi­tion at London’s Impe­r­i­al War Muse­um, which also com­mis­sioned sound design­ers Coda to Coda to recon­struct the dra­mat­ic moment with an audio inter­pre­ta­tion. At the top of the post, hear what the sec­onds before and after the Armistice like­ly sound­ed like, as record­ed on the Amer­i­can front at the Riv­er Moselle.

Lis­ten­ing to the sec­onds of the war’s end from the bat­tle­field perspective—rather than streets filled with cheer­ing crowds—is rather chill­ing, “a sud­den reprieve from the stac­ca­to of weapons blast­ing,” Novak writes. The “graph­ic record” of the Armistice also shows us “just how hor­rif­i­cal­ly pre­cise and cru­el war can be.” The slaugh­ter could have been stopped in an instant, by the mutu­al decree of world lead­ers, at maybe any time dur­ing those har­row­ing four years.

On Novem­ber 11 at 11 A.M., “the guns fell silent,” writes the Impe­r­i­al War Muse­um, and “a new world began.” But as artists like Graves remind us, for the return­ing maimed and trau­ma­tized sol­diers and the hun­dreds of thou­sands of bereaved fam­i­lies, the war didn’t end when the noise final­ly stopped.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Peter Jackson’s New Film on World War I Fea­tures Incred­i­ble Dig­i­tal­ly-Restored Footage From the Front Lines: Get a Glimpse

Hear the Sounds of World War I: A Gas Attack Record­ed on the Front Line, and the Moment the Armistice End­ed the War

Watch World War I Unfold in a 6 Minute Time-Lapse Film: Every Day From 1914 to 1918

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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