Richard Hughes, Curator, First World War and Early 20th Century.
As part of a season of exhibitions and events commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War in 1918, IWM featured 32 voices from the IWM Sound Archive in a sound installation called ‘I Was There: Room of Voices’.
The voices belong to a group of people who shared a common experience – the declaration of the Armistice at 11am on 11 November 1918. At the time, some were soldiers, some civilians, others children, but they all have their own very personal memories of that day and what followed.
'I didn't know nothing about the Armistice see...'
"To tell you the truth, my dad died two days before the Armistice, darling, and I loved my dad, you know. And he died of that terrible flu that shocking thing, you know. On the Armistice day my mum had gone to register his death because they used to keep the bodies in the house then, you know, my dad was laying in the front room in his coffin and (inaudible) my mum had just had a little baby. I didn't know nothing about the Armistice see, because we had been up night and day with my dad with his terrific flu and when we heard the balloons go I thought it was another air raid."
One such person was Caroline Rennles, born in Camberwell, London in 1899. In an interview recorded for the IWM in 1975 Caroline vividly recalls her experiences as a shell filler at Slade Green munitions factory, where she began working in 1916.
The long hours and hazardous conditions took their toll on Caroline and her fellow munitionettes. Many of them, Caroline included, suffered the effects of prolonged exposure to TNT, which caused their hair to fall out and turned their skin bright yellow.
During the war, up to a million women worked in the munitions factories and over three hundred died in explosions or were poisoned. Caroline was also an active trade union member, working to improve pay and conditions for women munitions workers
Caroline moved to the cartridge factory at Woolwich Arsenal in 1917, where she worked until the end of the war. On the morning of 11 November 1918 she was at home and unaware that the war was over:
After the war Caroline took part in unemployment protest marches and during the Second World War worked in the canteen at RAF Cranwell. She died in London in 1985, aged 86.
Caroline Rennles is just one of many thousands of men and women whose voices have been preserved in the IWM sound archive. They provide a unique and deeply personal perspective on some of the most momentous events of the last hundred years.
The IWM Sound Archive was created in 1972 and currently holds over 34,000 recordings relating to war and conflict from 1914 until the present day. As well as speeches, sound effects, broadcasts, music and poetry, the archive has one of the largest oral history collections of its type in the world. The interviews cover both military and civilian experiences during the two world wars and post-1945 conflicts in which Britain and the Commonwealth played a significant role.
Many of the sound recordings in the IWM’s collections are available to purchase and license for use in commercial projects.
Find out how to order and license sound files.