This is What the End of WWI Sounded Like (and Why)
The Imperial War Museum commissioned the group Coda to Coda to recreate what the end of WWI sounded like, based on seismic recordings from the time.
On November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m., for the first time in four years, the guns around the world fell silent. The date and time for the proposed armistice were known as early as November 7 and the actual agreement was signed at 6 a.m., but the fighting continued until the very last minute. It was a profound moment for those that experienced it and remains a singular moment in human history.
Audio recordings of the era used a needle and wax or soft metal to capture the audio, which made it impractical to record at the front – plus, the actual audio wouldn’t have been able to capture much of the background anyway. As a result, there are plenty of images of the moment when the armistice took effect, but there is no audio – until now.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, the British Imperial War Museum turned to the group Coda to Coda to create a recording based on records taken from the fields of France. The company took a few liberties with the audio, but it is a fairly accurate recreation of the last minutes of the First World War as heard on a section of the Western Front in France.
The recreation was created using a seismic recording, a relatively common technology used during the war to determine the location of enemy troops. Soldiers would dig a series of holes at a uniform distance, then place oil-filled barrels in them to act as “microphones,” recording the vibrations caused by weapons fire and other explosions. The barrels were connected by string, and the seismic vibrations would then provide a graphic visualization via a film strip. The troops could then cross reference the readings with the location of confirmed enemy fire in order to triangulate where to range their own weapons.
The recorded film strip features six lines, one from each barrel. The team from Coda to Coda researched the weapons from the time and used the film to determine the size, frequency, and distance of blasts. From that, they were able to accurately recreate the sounds as they would have been from 10:58 a.m. to just after 11 a.m. as the armistice went into effect.
This particular film strip was taken from the Moselle River in France on the American Front, but the sound would have been similar up and down the line. The company also added a few flourishes like birds tweeting (wildlife had long since left or died), but it helps hammer home the point.
Part of what makes this so fascinating – and even a little disturbing – is that the fighting continued until the last minute, even though it was set that the armistice was coming.
The Last Bloody Days of the War
The war officially began on July 28, 1914, and over the next four years, more than 70 million people were mobilized globally as part of the war effort. The fighting was brutal and vicious, claiming the lives of more than 9.7 million soldiers and 10 million civilians. After a series of bloody offensives and counterattacks in August 1914, fighting in Europe (primarily France) soon ground to a halt. By the end of the year, both sides were dug in and trench warfare was born.
During the course of the war, both sides launched several massive offensives, introducing new technologies and sending more and more troops to the front. As the death toll rose from the thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions, it became clear that the only way to win the war would be for the other side to collapse – not just the military, but the countries themselves.
Even as late as the summer of 1918 it wasn’t clear which side would win. The Central Powers were badly outnumbered, especially thanks to the arrival of the American forces, but the collapse of Russia in 1917 left things very much uncertain. It wasn’t until the Bulgarians were defeated in September 1918 that things began to change, but unlike WWII, there was no decisive military victory or loss. So when the Germans approached the Allies in November 1918 to discuss an end to the war, the Commander-in-Chief and Generalissimo of the Allied Army, Ferdinand Foch, gave orders to continue fighting in case the Germans were using the talks to stall.
Although that makes sense in the context of a war that saw humanity as one of the first casualties, the fighting was as brutal on November 11 as it was on November 1 before there was even a hint of an armistice. By November 7 it appeared that the war would end within the next few days, but the majority of the troops on the line, including the officers, had no idea. By November 11 at 6 a.m., the armistice was finalized and set for 11 a.m. But still, the fighting continued and most soldiers never even saw a slowdown in fighting until the moment it was officially over.
On average, more than 2,500 Central Powers and Allied soldiers were dying per day on the Western Front alone, not counting major offensives.
Fighting Until the Last Minute
Two of the more infamous last-minute assaults involved the American Expeditionary Forces. The first came the morning of November 11 at 4 a.m., before the armistice was officially signed, but after it was clear to most of the Allied commanders that the war was over. A Marine General named Major General Charles P. Summerall ordered his troops to cross Meuse River in a futile battle that cost 1,100 lives.
At 10:30 a.m., American soldiers were ordered to charge German lines. Thousands died, and minutes later the guns went silent. Despite nearly 200,000 casualties and more than 53,000 deaths, America came out of the WWI as one of the few – possibly the only – major power to be strengthened by its involvement in the war. Later analysis of the last day of the war showed that the commanding American officers were told at around 6 a.m. that the war would end at 11 a.m., but they weren’t given specific instructions on how to act in the hours until the armistice. Some generals chose to stand down and wait for the end, while others saw it as a last chance at glory.
On November 11, 1918, there were more than 3,500 casualties among the American forces alone. A year later, Congress called on General John Pershing, leader of the AEF, to testify about the unnecessary deaths leading up to the armistice.
Pershing blamed Foch for the last minute attacks and testified that he was following orders issued on November 9. He also testified that he left the final decisions about how to proceed leading up to the eleventh hour up to the individual commanders, but Pershing was also against the armistice in general. When asked about it prior to the end of hostilities but after an armistice seemed likely, Pershing famously said, “There can be no conclusion to this war until Germany is brought to her knees.”
At 11 a.m. the “Great War” officially ended. The armies went home and the governments of the world negotiated the Treaty of Versaille – the terms helped set the stage for the Second World War, but at that moment the world knew peace. And you can hear what it sounded like below.
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