Listening In

Ernest H. Hinrichs, Listening In: Interpreting German Trench Communications in World War I by ed. Ernest H. Hinrichs, Jr.
(Shippensburg: White Mane Publishing Company, Inc, 1996)

I sit at the table ten feet underground, listening. All the others, three Frenchmen and one American, sleep.
Listening from 2 to 6 A.M. From the telephone receiver on one ear the ground noises roar and crackle. These are static and generator disturbances common to the trench listening set. Into the other ear comes only the sound of an occasional flare shot to illuminate no-man’s land, the crack of a nervous sentry’s rifle or the faint rustle of the wind in the trees outside.

During the First World War, Sergeant First Class Ernest H. Hinrichs, an American draftee, fluent in German, intercepts German communications from the trenches. His autobiography reveals the essential role that telephone intercepts played in the Allied war effort against the Germans. Here, Hinrichs’ rich sensory depiction gives us a picture of the perils he faced for ‘listening in’ to the Germans. As shots are fired overhead, Hinrichs (writing this entry ‘by a single flickering candle and the dim lights of the amplifier’), has to listen through, too—discerning enemy voices from the background noise of war whilst always staying alert ‘to the job of listening’. It is not easy with ‘fixed hour after hour on a roaring buzz and fixed static.’

by Ruth Charnock