Admiral Henry B. Wilson, the Commander of American Naval Forces in French Waters, November 1917-January 1919, never published a memoir about False Armistice events in Brest, unlike Arthur Hornblow, Fred Cook, and Roy Howard. And he seems to have spoken in public about what happened there only once – in an interview for an American newspaper’s False Armistice anniversary feature. He did, however, put together a file of ‘False Armistice Papers’ which was to be used “in case of ‘attack’ on his memory after his death”.
Drawing from his file and other sources, this article presents Wilson’s version of events in Brest on 7 and 8 November, and his rebuttals of Roy Howard’s generally believed story that he gave him permission to send his armistice cablegram to the United States and helped make sure the local cable censors accepted it for transmission.
The article consists of the following main sections:
- The Navy Department demands an “immediate explanation”
- The State Department demands explanations
- Arthur Hornblow’s Fake Armistice article and changes for Amazing Armistice
- Admiral Wilson’s newspaper interview
- Information sent to Josephus Daniels for his memoir
- Roy Howard’s memoir
- Joseph Daniels’ memoir
- Commentary on the conflicting claims
- Addendum: Josephus Daniels’ telegrams to Admirals Wilson and Sims
The Navy Department demands an “immediate explanation”
(7-8 November 1918)
As Roy Howard’s false armistice news raced across North America on 7 November, provoking unprecedented scenes of public rejoicing and celebration, the Navy Department demanded to know from Admiral Wilson in Brest, and from Admiral W. S. Sims in London, the Commander of American Naval Forces in European Waters, whether they had been involved in releasing it.
The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, had copies of the following cablegram sent to both Admirals:
“United Press announced armistice signed. Later they received cable quote Admiral Wilson, who announced to Brest newspaper Armistice had been signed, later notified announcement unconfirmed. Meanwhile French riotously celebrate. Howard unquote Did you make this or similar statement. Cable immediate explanation.” 1i and Addendum to this article.
It arrived in Brest “early in the morning” of 8 November, according to Wilson’s Assistant Chief of Staff who wrote about it in a memorandum many years later. 1xii The Admiral replied the same day with the following report of what had happened in Brest during 7 November:
“United States Naval Forces in France, Brest, France
8 November 1918
My dear Mr. Secretary:
I am in receipt of your cable . . . .
The facts are as follows:
[Concerning the armistice news from Paris]
Yesterday afternoon November 7, an official telegram in plain English came to the office from Captain Jackson the Paris Representative and the Naval Attache, which read as follows:
‘Foreign office announced Armistice signed 11 A.M. hostilities ceased 2 P.M. today. Sedan taken this morning by U.S. Army.‘
It being so apparently authentic, I allowed it to become known to the officers and men of my Force and the civil population including the little local newspaper. Two hours later I received the following message in code from the same source:
‘Rush signature Armistice unconfirmed German representatives rush [reach?] borders 6 P.M. and let it be known at once, thereby killing the previous report.‘
[Concerning Roy Howard and the armistice news]
When the first message came Mr. Roy Howard, President of the United Press, who had just come to town with letters from the President and yourself, was in my office and I let him know the contents. He asked to ‘use it’. I said ‘yes’ but it never occurred to me at the time that he meant by ‘using it’, to send it to the United States, my mind being entirely taken up with local conditions. From your message, quoted above, it seems that Mr. Howard sent the report home and that it was published. I can assure you that Mr. Howard acted entirely in good faith, believing as I did at the time that the report was true. Had I realized that the news was to be sent to America from this source and by reason of information received from me, I would not have authorized it. However, it is probable that even then I would not have made any determined opposition to the information being used as he saw fit, considering that there were censors at both ends of the line and the communications to America could go out only through properly authorized channels, none of which was controlled by me.
It was unfortunate that this thing happened, but any jollification here was perfectly orderly and the word ‘riotously’ as used in this connection was incorrect.
Signing off, Wilson noted:
I have always been shy about appearing in the public prints and I shall try all the harder in the future to keep out.”
(Signed) Henry B. Wilson
Vice Admiral, U.S.N.
Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in France
With no line space, under “Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in France“, the following is typed concerning his 8 November statement exonerating Howard and United Press.
P.S. [On 8 November] At Mr. Howard’s request I gave him for the information of the United Press Editors, but not for publication, the following statement. ‘Admiral Wilson today made the following statement for the information of United Press Editors. The statement of the United Press relative to signing of Armistice was made public from my office on basis of what appeared to be official and authoritative information. Am in position to know that the United Press and its representative acted in perfect good faith and that the premature announcement was result of an error for which agency was in no wise responsible.’
In short: Admiral Wilson told Daniels he gave Howard permission “to use” the armistice news on 7 November not realizing Howard intended to transmit it to the United States. Had he realized this he would have refused the request, but would probably then have relented because he believed either the French censors in Brest or American censors in New York City (over whom he had no influence) would stop the message. And in the postscript he emphasized that he agreed to sign the 8 November statement clearing Howard and United Press of having fabricated the armistice news on the understanding that it was for use only within the UP organization and not for general release to the newspapers.
The State Department demands explanations
(Thursday 7- Saturday 9 November 1918)
During Thursday 7 November, Secretary of State Robert Lansing instructed the American Ambassador in Paris, William Sharp, and the President’s Special Representative, Edward House, to find out how the false armistice news had evaded the censors to reach the United Press office in New York City. They told him the following day and Saturday that Admiral Wilson had given the news to Roy Howard of United Press, who was in Brest and not (as people thought) in Paris, and had influenced the local cable censors to secure its transmission.
Special Representative House informed Lansing that, having “investigated this matter”, his understanding was that the [false] armistice message had been sent to Admiral Wilson by Naval Attaché Jackson in Paris, that Wilson showed it to Roy Howard, who happened to be in Brest, then “sent an aide with [Howard] to cable censor so that Howard would be permitted to send through a despatch stating that Armistice had been signed”. Ambassador Sharp reported that, according to a United Press representative in Paris, they spoke by telephone to Roy Howard in Brest who told them Admiral Wilson released the armistice news to him and the local newspaper, and that “accompanied by one of Admiral Wilson’s aides [he] filed the cable to the United States which was passed by the censor”. 6
(Presumably, Lansing also received a copy of Admiral Wilson’s reply to Navy Secretary Daniels’ demand for information about UP’s acquisition of the armistice news and its transmission to America.)
Taken together, the reports imply that Roy Howard was the source of the allegations about Wilson’s influencing the cable censors, but this is questionable. During 8 November, Howard telegraphed United Press in Paris and New York City to inform them simply that, on Thursday, Admiral Wilson had received the armistice news from Paris, announced it in the town and to the local newspaper, given him a copy of it with “approval” for it to be “filed”, and “sent his aid with [him] to file [it]”. After he returned from France, Howard repeated these details to reporters on 20 November, with the clarification that “The Admiral . . . sent his personal aid with me to assist me in filing the dispatch, as I do not speak French fluently”; and in his ‘Full Story of Premature Peace Rumor’ for the Editor & Publisher trade magazine, where he also stated that “the message was filed at the cable office by messenger from La Dépêche”. 4a
The United Press Paris and New York City offices were facing a crisis on 8 November over Howard’s false armistice cablegram, which Howard – in Brest on the tip of the Brittany peninsula – was not aware of at first. Given this, it is far more likely that the Paris office, elaborating on what Howard telegraphed them about Wilson sending an aid to help him file the cablegram, informed the American officials investigating the false armistice news for Sharp and House that Admiral Wilson had intervened to make sure of Howard’s cablegram’s transmission. In short, they not Howard first made the allegations. (See Commentary)
Admiral Wilson seems to have been unaware of the two Paris reports and their findings concerning him, until 1933 (some fifteen years later) when the State Department publicised them in a selection of its wartime documents. (More details later.)
On 8 November 1918 Roy Howard described Admiral Wilson as “a victim” who might feel “some grief” in the future over his part in the previous day’s events in Brest. This proved to be prescient, for items about those events appeared in sundry publications in later years and certainly disturbed the Admiral’s retirement. It was not reminders that he accepted responsibility for releasing the false armistice message and giving a copy of it to Howard that later troubled him, but allegations that he gave Howard permission to transmit the message to New York City and secured the Brest censors’ clearance of it – in other words that he misused his position as a high-ranking American commander to interfere in French censorship procedures in Brest to the advantage of an American news agency.
The defamation most likely came from the United Press office in Paris and not from Roy Howard himself (as noted above). But Howard repeated it and perpetuated it in his memoirs. When Admiral Wilson first became aware of it is not certain, but he worried that it would overshadow his career even after his death.
Following the German Armistice, Wilson returned from France to become Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet (February 1919-June 1921) and then Superintendent of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He retired from the service in February 1925.
After Howard returned from France, he tried to find out what had caused the False Armistice. And as part of his search for information, he wrote to Admiral Wilson a number of times; he wanted to meet him again – perhaps for lunch “some day with my partner, Mr. Hawkins and myself” – to discuss “some of the interesting phases of the incident [of 7 November 1918] which came to my attention on my return home”. 1ii Wilson seems to have ignored most of his letters and there were no other meetings between them. Presumably, he thought Howard and United Press were trying to draw him deeper into the False Armistice story for reasons of their own and were not to be trusted. 11
Admiral Wilson also refused to have anything to do with the Associated Press news agency, one of Howard’s main business competitors and a leading critic of the false armistice message he sent from Brest. Staff at the agency’s New York City office suspected that there was some truth in the allegations about Wilson and Howard’s armistice cablegram.
Associated Press suspicions about Admiral Wilson
8-21 November 1918
On 8 November, the day that newspapers in America published Wilson’s statement on behalf of Howard and United Press, Jackson S. Elliott, the Associated Press News Department Chief in New York City (and the man who “Spiked False Armistice”), instructed Elmer Roberts at their Paris office (13 Place de la Bourse) to “see Wilson” – in other words, to go to Brest and interview the Admiral about what Elliott called Roy Howard’s “PEACE FIASCO”. 3i
Replying the same or following day, Roberts cabled that some ”American officials” in Paris had confirmed that Howard obtained the false armistice message from Admiral Wilson in Brest and told him that the Admiral had received it from an “American Naval Captain” in Paris. They also told him that Wilson “sent [a] naval officer with Howard to [the] French censorship with [a] request [to] pass his dispatch”. In view of the officials’ information and of his likely absence from Paris for “three days” just when the German armistice delegation had finally arrived and met Marshal Foch, Roberts wondered whether he should still go to Brest. 3ii Elliott changed his mind: “Trip Brest unnecessary”, he decided on 9 November: 3iii (It may be assumed that the “American officials” Roberts quoted were members of Edward House’s team with contacts in the United Press Paris office.)
Newspaper condemnations of Roy Howard and United Press ceased following the 8 November statement by Admiral Wilson that he gave the false armistice message to Howard and the latter’s own lengthy 9 November defence of his actions in Brest. In the latter, Howard warned “interested parties . . . endeavoring to capitalize the incident whereof The United Press was a victim” that he would “take any steps necessary” to protect his and his agency’s reputation. Bill Hawkins, the United Press General Manager in New York City, who circulated both documents, cautioned “all editors” receiving them that “we see no reason to continue the controversy”. 3vi
Elmer Roberts’ cablegram from Paris, containing the American officials’ information about Admiral Wilson and Howard’s armistice message, reached the Associated Press New York City office (51 Chambers Street building) around the same time as the 8 and 9 November United Press releases. Its contents seem to have induced the staff there to brush aside Howard’s and Bill Hawkins’ warnings about continuing the “controversy” and adopt a new line of enquiry which might yet discredit Howard and his agency. If successful, however, it would also have damaged Admiral Wilson’s reputation.
On 12 November, the day after the German Armistice was signed, F. R. Martin, Assistant General Manager of the New York City office, wrote to L. C. Probert, Superintendent of the Washington, D.C., office to tell him about “an angle of the recent United Press fiasco which seems to all of us [here] worthy of further investigation”.
Martin began by reminding Probert that the exclusive use by United Press of the local Brest newspaper’s private telegraph link to Paris (its “wire from Paris”) – which they had known about for some time – often gave United Press news dispatches to the United States a transmission-time “advantage” over Associated Press dispatches. 12 Then, referring to the information from American officials in Paris that Admiral Wilson “passed” Howard’s armistice cablegram, he told Probert they now believed that Howard’s “presence in Brest [on 7 November]” was not “altogether accidental”. Indeed, there was “every reason to suppose that by hook or crook Howard has made some arrangement with Navy officers at Brest which, if not circumventing the established methods of censorship, is giving him a great advantage – including the opportunity to put over his celebrated hoax”.
Martin explained that he wanted Probert to see Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels (in private life, a newspaper proprietor and Associated Press member) to “present the case” to him that “If the Navy Department has permitted a private censorship to be established at Brest, we ought to know it. If the Navy Department, which is in charge of all censorship, will permit us to cable directly from Brest by personal influence with naval officers, we ought to know it.” But before contacting Daniels, Probert was to “show this letter to Mr. Noyes” [Frank B. Noyes], the Associated Press President. 3vii
Having consulted Noyes, Probert may have been advised by him that Daniels should not be confronted in the forthright manner implied in the letter, because a few days later Jackson Elliott wrote to Probert agreeing that he could “drop . . . apparent discrimination in censorship” but must still proceed with enquiries about Admiral Wilson’s part in the transmission of Howard’s armistice cablegram: “our curiosity requires that some report be made in connection with that incident”. 3viii
Probert went to see Daniels at the Navy Department on 21 November, which was the day after Roy Howard issued a press statement about a meeting he had with Daniels on 19 November. In the statement Howard reiterated that he and United Press “had no apology to offer” for transmitting the false armistice message to America, gave some details about the False Armistice in France, and implied that the American authorities were withholding important information about what had happened on 7 November. 4
Probert discussed the statement with Daniels as well as asking him about Admiral Wilson’s dealings with Howard in Brest.
Regarding the statement, Daniels’ “resentment [towards Howard] was almost boundless”. Regarding Wilson, Daniels remarked that the Admiral was one of “our best and most able officers and a very good fellow” but had been “indiscreet” in showing the armistice message to Howard. He firmly believed that Wilson “had no idea that Howard was going to transmit it as a fact”; pointed out that it was Howard who asked for a naval officer to “go over to the cable office with him on the plea that he did not speak French”; and thought that “the presence” of this American officer “probably impressed” the clerk who transmitted Howard’s cablegram in the absence of the local censor (“it was lunch time and the censor was away”), adding, however, that “nobody here knows what was said to support the impression”.
“I don’t want to go any further than this”, Daniels insisted, “because if I have to investigate this thing I will have to court-martial Wilson . . . who was probably led into taking the responsibility for the thing [by] Howard . . . and . . . undoubtedly did not recognize the enormity of the disturbance it caused in this country”.
And with regard to Associated Press suspicions of censorship malpractice in Brest in favour of United Press, he assured Probert “there is no private arrangement whatever between the United Press and the naval officers at Brest . . . the censorship is entirely in the hands of the French”.
“This, I think, answers the question you raise in your letter of November 12”, Probert then observed to Martin, adding “so far as it may be answered on the information the Secretary of the Navy has at hand” – but the apparent reservation was not to be taken to mean that “something may be going on sub-rosa [secretly] at Brest which Mr. Daniels does not know about and which might be developed by investigation there”. 3ix
(On 9 November, nearly two weeks earlier, Daniels had already told newspapers he would not be making “any further inquiry” into Wilson’s release of the false armistice news in Brest. It is not known here whether he was aware at that time that the Admiral had been implicated in the uncensored transmission of Howard’s armistice cablegram – by the Sharp and House reports to the State Department for instance.)
Probert’s two-page report on his Daniels meeting can be assumed to have at least subdued Associated Press concerns about Wilson and the censors in Brest. Some weeks later, Jackson Elliott, who had insisted on the meeting, sent a New Year’s letter to R. M. Collins in charge of the London office. “On the subject of the United Press fake”, he told him, “there are several things about the Navy participation in this fake which Mr. Daniels would like to investigate, but he fears that if he does so, it may be necessary to court-martial Admiral Wilson. Naturally, he does not want to do this and I think all of the newspaper men who met Admiral Wilson in Washington would be loathe [sic] to do anything which would make trouble for him. Admiral Wilson was one of a number of very fine officers with whom newspaper men came in close contact.” 3x
Some praise and consideration now for the Admiral, but (as in Probert’s report) a lingering suspicion that Wilson had aided and abetted Roy Howard. In reality, however, the New York City office were closer to the truth about Howard’s uncensored armistice cablegram in their suspicions concerning United Press and the La Dépêche “wire from Paris” than they were in those about Admiral Wilson. 12
Interestingly, when Josephus Daniels wrote about his Associated Press meeting, in his coverage of False Armistice events for the (1946) second volume of his memoirs, he said nothing about the agency’s Admiral Wilson suspicions while he described Wilson as being “forthright” for having given Howard “a clean bill of health” while the latter was “being roasted at home by some news agencies as a faker”. The impression Daniels gives about the meeting is that Associated Press requested it purely to complain to him about Roy Howard and United Press and persuade him that they deserved to be penalized for the false armistice cablegram.
Thus, under the sub-title “WANTED HOWARD REBUKED”, Daniels recounted that he tried to “mollify” Melville E. Stone (the Associated Press General Manager at the time) who arrived at the “Navy Department indignant at the ‘fake message’, as he called it” and insisted that “some condign punishment” be inflicted on Howard and United Press for the trouble it had caused. But Daniels refused. “See here, Mel Stone”, he remembered retorting, “you and I have been reporters eager for scoops. If you had received the news as Roy Howard did and had not rushed to give your papers the scoop, you would be no reporter and ought to lose your job.” 10
Twenty-eight years later, Daniels, it appears, had forgotten it was L. C. Probert of Associated Press, not Melville Stone, he actually spoke to at the meeting, while his almost boundless resentment of November 1918 towards Roy Howard, which Probert described, had seemingly become empathy.
Sometime after the meeting, perhaps in December 1918, Jackson Elliott received a letter from Elmer Roberts in Paris. It will be recalled that Roberts had been reluctant to make the journey to Brest to see Admiral Wilson about his 8 November statement and Elliott had agreed it was unnecessary for him to go there. Roberts nevertheless decided to send “a long telegram” to the Admiral “concerning Roy Howard’s message on the armistice” and asked him, on behalf of Associated Press, “if he would be kind enough to let [him] know what the circumstances [of the message] were”. Wilson (who had resolved to have no further dealings with the press) rejected the request out of hand, and on 10 November, Ensign J. A. Sellards, the Admiral’s aide and interpreter, sent Roberts this brusque response by letter: “Admiral Wilson directs me to . . . inform you that he has nothing to send for transmission to the Management of the Associated Press.” 3iv (By the time it arrived in Paris, the city was probably celebrating the German Armistice.)
Concluding his letter, Roberts remarked that Captain Jackson, the American Naval Attaché “who wired Admiral Wilson that the armistice had been signed”, was a friend of his; but he had not been able to talk to him about what had happened on 7 November because Jackson had “returned to Washington rather suddenly”. 3v
It is not known when this letter reached Associated Press in New York City. It is dated 14 November 1918, but it may have taken weeks to arrive from Paris (especially after the Armistice) – and too late to have encouraged the Associated Press suspicions about Admiral Wilson that led up to the Probert-Daniels meeting.
Wilson probably never found out about those suspicions or that meeting. He did find out eventually – in July 1946 – what Daniels had to say about him and Roy Howard. And concluded that the former Navy Secretary was not interested in “the facts” or, therefore, in the “true version” of events in Brest, “prepared and stowed with my papers”, which he had sent to him years before.
Arthur Hornblow’s Fake Armistice and amendments for Amazing Armistice
During the summer of 1921, not long after he moved to the Annapolis Naval Academy, Wilson received a letter from Arthur Hornblow Jr who, as a US Army Intelligence Officer, had known the Admiral in Brest. In later years Hornblow became well-known as an author, playwright and Hollywood film producer, but in July 1921, at the beginning of his writing career, he had recently completed an article he called Fake Armistice – a partly eye-witness account of 7 November 1918 events in Brest which he was hoping to have published. He sent a copy to the Admiral with a request for his comments on the text. Wilson obliged with observations on statements in the article relating to him, observations which add details to those in his report to Navy Secretary Daniels of 8 November 1918.
a) Statements in Fake Armistice about Admiral Wilson
Hornblow was not present at the following events, so it is assumed that much of what he wrote about them came from Roy Howard and what he may have found out about them himself. Interestingly, he states here that Wilson gave Howard permission to dispatch the armistice news to the United States and sent an officer with him to make sure the censors accepted it – possibly the first time since November 1918 that these claims appeared for publication.
“Promptly at four o’clock Howard had been presented to Admiral Wilson. They had not been chatting more than a few minutes when an orderly entered with a telegram for his chief. Reading it, the Admiral gave vent to an explosive explanation and bounding enthusiastically from his chair, handed the message to Howard. The latter beheld an official communication signed by Commander Jackson, the naval attache at our Paris embassy. It said: ‘ARMISTICE SIGNED THIS MORNING AT 11 ALL HOSTILITIES CEASED AT 2 P.M. TO-DAY’.
With quick sympathy for the people, Wilson at once despatched orderlies to bulletin the great tidings in the public square and ordered the band out to help the populace celebrate. Pursuant also to his commands, flags were spread all over the tall navy building until it was fairly lost to view in a blizzard of bunting. [pp8-9]
[Howard] was at Brest, the cable point, with hot news just off the official griddle that perhaps had not even yet been given to the press in Paris. He could beat every competitor in the business on the biggest newsbreak in the history of the world!
Admiral Wilson was entirely willing that Howard should take advantage of his chance, not because he was especially desirous that Howard should register a ‘beat’ but because he was anxious for the people back home to have the news as soon as they possibly could, an attitude in which, I believe, he was more than justified. In company, therefore, with Ensign Sellards to assist him in getting his message past the local French censor, Howard dashed to the Postes [post and telegraph office]. Desiring to file a type-written message so there would be no misunderstanding on the part of the cable operator, Howard dived, en route, into the near-by telegraph room of the Dépêche and demanded a typewriter, explaining hurriedly his reason. [My italics]
Knowing that type of French official as I do, I am convinced that not even the Admiral in person could have caused the local censors to let by so portentous a message without having the O.K. of either the Ministry of War or the Paris censorship office. It was … the message’s looking as if it came from Paris . . . that resulted in its speedy transmission to America’s noon editions! [My italics] [pp10-11]
The blackest of black skies cleared considerably for Howard the following morning, when Admiral Wilson, every inch the gentleman and the man, took upon his own shoulders complete responsibility for Howard’s fateful cable. In Wilson’s statement, issued at once to the press, he did not even make mention of the naval attache who had sent or at least signed the erroneous communication from Paris. To the latter he referred simply as ‘what appeared to be official and authoritative information’. The career of a lesser man might very well have been marred by this brave assumption of blame, but then a lesser man would probably not have done it.” [p14.] 1xiii
It is important to note that having first stated that Ensign Sellards went with Howard to help him “in getting his message past the local French censor”, a few sentences later Hornblow firmly dismissed any implication that Sellards had actually achieved this task: “Knowing that type of French official as I do, I am convinced that not even the Admiral in person could have caused the local censors to let by so portentous a message without having the O.K. of either the Ministry of War or the Paris censorship office”. [pp10-11] As far as Hornblow was concerned, the sole reason for the cablegram’s “speedy transmission” was its deceptive appearance – its “looking as if it came from Paris”, although this observation did not qualify his earlier statement that Sellards went with Howard to make sure the “message [got] past the local French censor”.
Admiral Wilson read Fake Armistice “with much interest”. He found that some of its “facts” were not as he remembered them and, noting that a copy of a report he sent to the Navy Department the day after “the incident” had served as a “very good aid” to his memory, raised objections to most of what Hornblow had written about him.
Wilson’s criticisms of Fake Armistice
The Admiral began with Hornblow’s passage about the armistice message and its arrival from Paris, explaining:
“[The message was] a routine one from my representative in Paris who kept me informed of all reports and rumors. I have never told anyone from whom the message came, other than saying it was from our office there. It is true that one of his functions was Naval Attache, but those duties were small in comparison with others, and to have the article read that the message was from the Naval Attache is off, though perhaps, technically correct. I feel you do the office of the Naval Attache an injustice in so expressing yourself. It was from my office in Paris. I hope you see this. I gave it the same credence as the one hundred and one other messages I had received from time to time, some proving correct and some incorrect.“
He then corrected Hornblow’s account of what occurred after Howard arrived at Navy Headquarters, which, he remarked, was “off a little”:
“I had had the message for some time before Mr. Howard arrived, and it was lying on my desk when he came in. It is not exact to say, ‘They had been chatting for more than a few minutes when an orderly entered with a telegram for his Chief. Reading it, the Admiral gave vent to an explosive exclamation and, bounding enthusiastically from his chair, handed the message to Howard.’ With mutual greetings between Mr. Howard and myself over, conversation lagged and, with a desire to make more, I asked him if this message was of any interest to him.“
Quoting from his 8 November 1918 report to Navy Secretary Daniels, the Admiral informed Hornblow he had told Daniels he allowed Howard to read the armistice message, that Howard asked whether he might “use it” and that he replied “Yes”.
A few sentences later, referring to Hornblow’s comment that Sellards went with Howard to help him with the censors, he stated plainly:
“[The armistice bulletin] was good local news for Brest, but news to go abroad had to be confirmed. I would not have asked the censors [to pass Howard’s cablegram] as you mention on page 11. Howard thought he had something. He said nothing to me of his intentions. Lost out and then came next morning for help. I could give him none. Told him he had been foolish etc. Then he asked me for something to protect himself. I asked him what he wanted me to say, and requested him to write out what he wanted and, if it were correct, I would willingly sign it.”
And then quoted the statement he signed absolving Howard and United Press of responsibility for the false armistice news.
Turning to Hornblow’s comments that he ordered the US navy band “to help the populace celebrate” and gave instructions for flags to be spread “all over the tall navy building”, he made the following points:
“About the band. It was a regular concert day and the concert had started sometime before the message came. No ‘blizzard of bunting’ was hoisted at our place on 7 November. That happened on the 11th when the real word came. On the 7th there were displayed from our Headquarters the regular colors, and the bunch of three flags – one French, with the American flags on each side – that were put out on many occasions during the war.“
Admiral Wilson concluded his letter with the request that Hornblow treat his comments as being “entirely confidential” and avoid using his name “in connection with anything . . . written herein to you”. He would have preferred Hornblow to leave his name out of Fake Armistice altogether, disliking “very much to see [it] in print in any connection”, but conceded that this would have been asking too much. 3a
Hornblow replied nine days later. What happened on 7 November 1918, he believed, did not reflect unfavourably on Wilson “in any way”. On the contrary, it showed that his “position in the matter was . . . entirely blameless and, in fact, praiseworthy” – a circumstance Hornblow said he had “endeavored to make . . . clear” throughout the article. He promised to “put to use all the corrections” Wilson had made and avoid “any manner of injustice” to him and his part in the False Armistice, but if the Admiral insisted on being kept out of the article Hornblow promised to “throw the whole thing in the basket”. 1iii
There was evidently no wish for Hornblow to go to that length: amended to accommodate the Admiral’s (and Roy Howard’s) criticisms, Fake Armistice was published in November 1921 under the new title of Amazing Armistice.
b) Amended statements about Admiral Wilson in Amazing Armistice
Hornblow removed the Fake Armistice impressions that the Admiral had authorised Howard to send the peace news across the Atlantic and had taken steps to make sure it would be cleared by the Brest censors. The statements that he had reacted wildly to the armistice news and ordered the navy band into the town square to celebrate the news were also changed. And the sentence about flags and bunting on the US Navy Headquarters was deleted.
The amended passages read as follows:
“Promptly at four o’clock Howard had been presented to Admiral Wilson. They had been chatting awhile when the admiral remarked that he had just received a message which might possibly interest Howard, and handed it to him for his perusal. Howard beheld an official telegram, signed by Commander Jackson of Admiral Wilson’s office in Paris and naval attache at our Paris embassy. It said: ‘Armistice signed this morning at 11 all hostilities ceased at 2 p.m. to-day.’
Desirous that the people of Brest learn of it, Admiral Wilson despatched an orderly to bulletin the tidings in the public square, where the naval band happened to be giving its weekly concert.
Admiral Wilson expressed his willingness that Howard should use the report. In company, therefore, with Ensign Sellards to assist him in arranging things, Howard rushed to the postes. But . . . dived en route into the nearby telegraph room of ‘La Dépêche’.” [My italics]
As in Fake Armistice, Hornblow insisted that the Brest censors had passed the cablegram for transmission to New York City because they believed it had arrived already censored from Paris. But he now removed the Fake Armistice comment that “not even the Admiral in person [could have influenced the censors]”:
“Knowing that type of French official as I do, I am convinced that no one in Brest, of whatever exalted rank, could have caused the local French censors to let by so portentous a message without [the permission] of either the Ministry of War or the Paris censorship office.” 8 [My italics]
Admiral Wilson’s newspaper interview
7 November 1928
For the tenth anniversary of the False Armistice, Admiral Wilson apparently overcame his reluctance to have his name “appear in print” and agreed to be interviewed about 7 November 1918 events in Brest. Ironically, the reporter, Ralph H. Turner, was a United Press correspondent.
By now retired, the Admiral and his wife were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, not far from their daughter Ruth and her husband Patrick J. Hurley (soon to become Secretary of War in President Herbert Hoover’s administration). The account of his interview, which was printed in the California Madera Daily Tribune and Madera Mercury, is brief and its details entirely uncontroversial:
“As Wilson tells the story, it was a routine day in Brest . . . . The admiral was in constant communication with Captain R. H. Jackson, then naval attache in the American embassy in Paris. Jackson sent daily, sometimes hourly, reports.
And then about 4 p.m. French time on the 7th there came a message from Jackson, saying the armistice has been signed . . . . There was no special reason to doubt it. There had been reports on several days preceding that the Germans were ready to sign and that negotiations had been started.
Roy W. Howard . . . was in Brest that day on his way back to the United States after a trip to Europe. He heard the news, went to Admiral Wilson to confirm it, and received the admiral’s report. At 4:21 p.m., French time, Howard cabled the news to the New York office of the United Press . . . . Wilson said he has never learned the source of the information from the Paris embassy.” 9
Information sent to Josephus Daniels for his memoir
July 1933-February 1934
Josephus Daniels left the Navy Department in 1921, returned to his newspaper business in Raleigh, North Carolina, and remained active in Democratic Party affairs. He supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1933 presidential campaign (Roosevelt had been Assistant Navy Secretary under Daniels) and when Roosevelt became President, Daniels was appointed US Ambassador to Mexico (April 1933-November 1941). Around the same time, he began collecting material for his memoirs which were published during the 1940s in two volumes under the title The Wilson Era.
From Mexico in July 1933, Daniels wrote two private letters to Admiral Wilson about False Armistice events in Brest, disclosing his plans “to write a book one of these days about some of the high lights during the Wilson Administration”. He told the Admiral that an article he had read recently about the United Press presented the “true facts” surrounding Roy Howard’s false armistice cablegram from Brest. And requested a statement from Wilson “very full and very clear of what happened and why you let Howard send the telegram, if you did . . . . I should like to have your statement as clear and full as possible, with the atmosphere”. He also asked for “a copy if you sent in a report of it to the Navy Department”.
Admiral Wilson replied a few days later (from Atlantic City, New Jersey) and promised to send him a copy of his 8 November 1918 report to the Navy Department when he next visited Washington, DC, where his wartime “scrap book” was stored. Daniels thanked him, reminded him that he was “getting ready to write a book one of these days” and needed “all the data with reference to the Brest event, so that I will be certain to have it correct”. 1iv
It took several months for Admiral Wilson to prepare the information eventually sent to Daniels in appreciation of “the many many considerations . . . shown me . . . in the past”. It fills an eight-page typed-letter dated 1 January 1934 but not sent until 3 February (after his recovery from a bout of “the gripps” [influenza]).
The information consists of a copy of the report he had sent from Brest to Daniels at the Navy Department on 8 November 1918 (the first part of this article); some additional material concerning his meetings with Roy Howard which appears to have been put together following receipt of Daniels’ letters from Mexico City; his comments on two 1933 magazine articles and the recently published 8 November 1918 dispatches to the State Department sent from Paris by Special Representative Edward House and US Ambassador William Sharp; a statement from John Sellards, dated 23 July (1933), about accompanying Howard to the La Dépêche de Brest building; and some “Odds and Ends” mostly about how the false armistice news “got to the civil population” in Brest and the ensuing celebrations there.
As in his 8 November 1918 report, Wilson’s stand in his January 1934 eight-page letter to Daniels is that he gave Roy Howard permission to “use” the 7 November armistice news not realizing what Howard was planning to do with it; and that he made no attempt to influence the Brest censors to approve Howard’s cablegram for transmission to New York City.
The additional material concerning his meetings with Roy Howard
With echoes of his July 1921 comments to Arthur Hornblow about Fake Armistice, Wilson now told Daniels:
Mr. Howard had come to the office (about 4 p.m. 7 November, 1918) for the purpose of securing passage home in one of the transports. He was accompanied by Major Cook, U.S.A., Aide to Major General Harries, U.S.A. Commanding U.S. Army Base Number 7 (Brest District). Passage home was arranged for Mr. Howard, then he was shown the message just received from Paris – perhaps to make conversation as much as anything else – adding as I handed it to him “This may interest you”. It was then that he said “May I use this” and I replied “Yes” – my thoughts being centred on our theatre of operations (the coast of France) his significance of his questions escaped me.
Before Mr. Howard left the office he expressed a wish to meet the editor of the local newspaper. I sent with him an aide [Ensign John Sellards] who knew the editor personally. The aide left Mr. Howard in the editor’s office.
That night (7 November) I dined with Vice Admiral Schwerer, French Navy Commander of the Brittany Patrols. Shortly after the dinner started my host informed me that some one wished to speak to me on a matter of much importance. Asking to be excused I left the table and to my surprise found that it was Mr. Howard who was waiting to see me. He was in a state of great agitation, saying that he had heard a second message had come killing the first one. I told him that was correct. He then said “My God! I have sent the word to the United States”. I replied to the effect that he had been foolish to do so.
[Note: – What I actually said was more emphatic. Mr. Howard had been given no confidential information, but he had violated a rule which required correspondents to submit all material for home consumption on matters relating to my command to a designated officer of my staff for an o.k. as to fact before handing the same to the censor. I also distinctly recollect that after my surprise I became curious – what about the censor? This official in no way came under my jurisdiction. I had never met the censor; never had seen him or knew where the office of the censor was located. Our own messages went out over our own direct lines to the U.S. Naval Headquarters in London. I had heard indirectly, however, from various newspaper men that the censor was very strict. Again I said to myself – what about the censor?]
Mr. Howard said that he “would not have had it happen for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars”; that the word he had sent “would go out to all the four hundred papers covered by the United Press, both in the United States and in South America”. He repeated the above statements and asked what I “could do to set him straight with the editors”. There was nothing I could do then, but he was obviously in distress and I suggested that he come to see me the following morning at nine o’clock.
Mr. Howard turned up the next morning (8 November) at the office promptly at the appointed time, and we had another talk. He was most emphatic that he wanted nothing for publication – just some word to take home with him to show his editors that he had acted in good faith. I was equally emphatic that nothing would be given him for publication. Finally I told him to write out what he should like to have me say, and if it were correct I would sign it. He did so. I made a few minor corrections and signed the statement. It was clearly understood between us that this statement was not for publication but was to take home with him for the information of his editors.
[Note:- Some days later I was told that my statement had been cabled from Brest. Whether this be true I never learned. I was not sufficiently interested to investigate. So many matters of importance turning up to occupy my time, I soon forgot about Mr. Howard and his troubles.]
Ending his letter, he observed indignantly:
It was only when the [armistice] information proved to be in error that the U.P. ran to cover, the source of the information [was] revealed [Admiral Wilson] and the buck [was] passed. I sometimes ask myself if the U.P. is not trying to make itself (and others) believe that it was the injured party. Well! The truth is that the U.P. was let out of a bad situation, of its own creation too easily. It should be appreciative of its luck.” 1v [By ‘U.P.’ Wilson obviously meant ‘Howard’, the main target of these criticisms.]
Comments on two 1933 magazine articles
The first article Wilson commented on was the one Daniels had told him about in his 11 July letter from Mexico City. Written by S. V. Benét and published in the May 1933 issue of Fortune, it was a celebration of UP’s first twenty-five years. The part of the story that interested Daniels and Wilson came under the heading ‘Premature’. Two of its statements, the Admiral insisted, were untrue.
The first one read, “Sitting in the office of Admiral Henry Wilson at Brest, Howard had been handed a slip of paper by the Admiral himself with permission to file it verbatim. It was an official dispatch from the Embassy at Paris, ‘Armistice signed at 11 A.M’”. Rejecting it, Wilson referred Daniels to what he had already said in his letter about only permitting Howardto“use”the message, not to have it sent to the United States.
The other statement declared, “Coincidentally, Admiral Wilson had sent a cable to Secretary of State Lansing assuming entire responsibility for giving out the armistice message. This was held by Lansing until President Wilson intervened [and] ordered its release at two o’clock on November 8, the day after the celebration”. Wilson was adamant that no such “cable or letter” had gone to Lansing or the State Department from his office in Brest. 1vi (This seems to be confusing United Press allegations about a delayed release of Roy Howard’s later cablegram cancelling his 7 November armistice news with Admiral Wilson’s 8 November exonerating statement.5)
The second article was one Wilson brought to Daniels’ attention. It was a feature about Howard and his newspaper interests that appeared in TIME magazine in November 1933. Referring to the false armistice message, it declared that “Publisher Howard rushed to the cable office in Admiral Wilson’s car, with one of the Admiral’s aides to help get his message through the cable censor”. 1vii Ignoring the fiction about the use of his car, Wilson dismissed the claim about the aide and the censor: “No aid was sent with Mr. Howard by me to any place other than across the street to the office of the local newspaper, the editor of which paper Mr. Howard had asked to meet.”
He then quoted the following from a letter written by the aide, John Sellards, about what happened after he left Navy Headquarters with Roy Howard.
Statement from John Sellards
“I have a fairly clear recollection of events on 7 November 1918. I went with Mr. Howard to the office of the ‘Dépêche’ (the local newspaper in Brest), then back to your Headquarters. Putting his message through the office of the censor was handled by Howard. As I recall it none of us knew it at your Headquarters that the message had actually been sent until Mr. Howard came slinking back again filled with misgivings because he began to wonder if he had acted too hastily. It has always seemed to me that Mr. Howard distorts his version of what happened that day in Brest.” 1A viii)
Comments on the 8 November 1918 reports from Edward House and Ambassador Sharp to Secretary of State Lansing
These reports (discussed earlier) were publicised in July 1933 (the same month Daniels wrote to Admiral Wilson from Mexico City), as part of a collection of US State Department wartime documents. 6
Wilson drew Daniels’ attention to them and their allegations that he had helped Roy Howard secure the transmission of his armistice bulletin from Brest. Explaining that he had seen neither report previously nor heard anything said about them, Wilson unreservedly rejected the claims made in them:
My only comment is that apparently both despatches are entirely based on identical information furnished by the Paris representative of the United Press; he – the representative – having carried on a “conversation by telephone”. The information – “accompanied by one of Admiral Wilson’s aides” – was not correct. No questions were asked our office. The facts could have been obtained by so doing.
And then appended an undated copy of a letter Edward House sent to him not long after the events in Brest:
Embassy of the United States of America
Vice Admiral Wilson
Dear Admiral Wilson,
May I not express to you my sincere admiration for your courageous action in the matter of the report cabled to America by Mr. Roy Howard of the United Press concerning the signing of the German Armistice.
I know the whole story and it reflects much honor upon you.
I am, my dear Admiral,
(signed) E. M. House
78 rue de l’Université, Paris.” 1ix
(Not included in the information Wilson forwarded to Daniels is a memorandum M. S. Tisdale wrote for the Admiral regarding the transmission of Howard’s false armistice cablegram. Tisdale stated:
“The letter of Sellards, dated 23 July and attached hereto, states that he did accompany Mr. Howard to the Depeche office, then returned to the Flag office. And that he, Sellards, had nothing to do with the sending of the dispatch nor did he know it had been sent until Mr. Howard later returned to the Flag office. Sellards was not a press censor.
I was Assistant Chief of Staff to Admiral Wilson and was the U.S. Naval Press Censor in Brest at that time. Mr. Howard did not apply to me to have his dispatch censored, nor did I know that he intended to send it . . . .
Early in the morning of the day after Mr. Howard had sent the dispatch [Friday 8 November] Admiral Wilson received an urgent query from the Secretary of the Navy. Admiral Wilson then directed me to ask the Army Cable Censor if he had released the dispatch. The answer was ‘No’. He then sent me to visit Mr. Howard at his hotel to learn who had authorized the release of the dispatch and by what means it had passed without our censorship. The local French high commander, Vice Admiral Moreau . . . had phoned Admiral Wilson the previous night that he did not believe the report of the signing of the Armistice to be true . . . . So it seemed reasonably certain that Mr. Howard could not have obtained an official release from the French Cable Censor.
I was unable to obtain any satisfactory explanation from Mr. Howard but he said he would come to see Admiral Wilson about the matter. As I remember, he said to me only that he had filed it in the cable office in the usual manner and presumed that it would pass thru the French Censor as a matter of routine . . . .
I do not know what passed between the Admiral and Mr. Howard during the subsequent visit except a hearsay knowledge of parts of the conversation as related in my presence by Admiral Wilson later.” 1xii
Clearly, Admiral Wilson’s account of telling a distressed Howard on Thursday evening he would talk to him about his predicament the following morning at Navy Headquarters (above) differs from the impression in Tisdale’s memorandum that the Admiral’s and Howard’s Friday meeting followed, and was a result of, Tisdale’s own Friday morning meeting with Howard at the Hotel Continental. In the circumstances described by Tisdale, and considering what Howard reminded Arthur Hornblow about the Thursday evening meeting with Wilson, it seems more likely that Tisdale’s memorandum is the more reliable version of what led up to Howard’s Friday 8 November meeting with the Admiral. 4a)
Daniels, presumably, thanked Wilson for the material he had put together for him. But when he came to write about the False Armistice for his second volume of memoirs, Daniels ignored the bulk of it. Ten years before the second volume appeared, Roy Howard’s False Armistice recollections were published as the ‘Premature Armistice’ chapter in Webb Miller’s I Found No Peace. Daniels therefore had the benefit of reading and pondering this before he eventually committed himself to paper on the same subject. 7
Roy Howard’s ‘Premature Armistice’
Howard unequivocally asserted in Miller’s book that Admiral Wilson gave him permission to send the 7 November armistice news to America and told Ensign Sellards to accompany him to make sure his cablegram was cleared for transmission by the French censors in the Brest cable office. He also misreported how he learned from the Admiral later in the day that the news was false. 5
But there is nothing in Wilson’s Papers specifically about the publication of Howard’s memoir and its allegations relating to him. Perhaps any written comments he may have made about them at the time are in his scrapbooks (if they still exist).
Josephus Daniels’ memoir account
Volume Two of The Wilson Era,covering the period 1917-1923, presented what Daniels described as a condensed version of “globe-trotter and correspondent plenipotentiary and extraordinary” Roy Howard’s “graphic account . . . of how he pulled off the Premature Armistice”. Relating what happened after Admiral Wilson told Howard and Major Fred Cook about the armistice news from Paris, Daniels quoted, word for word, from Howard’s memoir:
“ ‘I beg your pardon, Admiral,’ I inquired, ‘but if this is official and you’ve announced it to the base and have given it to the local newspaper for publication, have you any objection to my filing it to the United Press?’
‘Hell, no,’ replied the Admiral. ‘This is official. It is direct from G.H.Q. via the Embassy. It’s signed by Captain Jackson, our Naval Attaché at Paris. Here’s a copy of what I have just sent to Dépêche. Go to it. By the way, unless your French is okay, perhaps I’d better – Here, Ensign Sellards, I’d like to have you take Mr. Howard over to the cable office. See that he gets this message through the censorship.’
‘Thanks, Admiral,’ I replied. ‘If this is quite okay with you, I’m going to take it on the run, and I’ll be seeing you a little later.’
‘Okay, come back when you get through, and, Sellards, stay with Mr. Howard until he gets his message through, then bring him back here.’ “
Daniels then changed Howard’s sequencing of ensuing events by omitting his detailed account of what happened in the La Dépêche building and jumping to his account of what happened later in the Post and Cable Office:
“When Sellards and I reached the cable office with the re-typed message, the censor room was deserted, the entire personnel having poured into the streets to join in the mass celebration which was on in the Place du Président Wilson. Suggesting that I remain in the censor’s office, Sellards alone went directly to the operating room at the cable head. Due to his being known by all the operators as Admiral Wilson’s confidential secretary, he was able to expedite the sending of my dispatch and remained alongside the operator until the brief bulletin with its momentous potentialities had cleared into New York.
The dispatch, not by design but by the purest accident of my being unable to use a French typewriter, resembled in all its physical appearance an ordinary United Press bulletin passed by the American press censor in Paris, and relayed via the United Press-Dépêche leased wire to Brest. Furthermore, its authenticity was vouched for by the highest American naval commander in French waters, through the medium of his own personal and confidential aide, Ensign Sellards.”
At the end of his coverage, Daniels referred to Admiral Wilson’s 8 November 1918 report to him as Navy Secretary, stating blandly that it “did not confirm all the details related by Howard”. He noted that Wilson had said he “did not send his aide to the censor’s office with Mr. Howard but to the office of the Brest newspaper”; and that he would not have authorized the armistice news to be sent to America had he realized that was Howard’s intention. But no explanation was given and no mention made of the other information Wilson had provided in his January 1934 eight-page letter.
All told, Daniels’ attention to Wilson’s side of the storyfills just six lines in nearly five pages dedicated to what Roy Howard claimed had happened to him in Brest, and how he handled a demand for Howard’s punishment for his false armistice cablegram made to him in person by an Associated Press representative (described earlier). 10
Admiral Wilson copied by hand some of the passages from these pages and then appended his comments about them for what is probably his last written statement, his testimony in effect, on his part in the False Armistice. Under the heading “Notes by me – Henry B. Wilson”, he recorded the following:
Today – 19 July 1946 – I have read the book by Mr. Daniels, and gotten his point of view. Mr. Howard’s comments I read years ago. I have refrained from entering into a controversy with a newspaper publisher. But I have written a full account of the incident and stored it away with my other papers. And I can say that my interpretation differs widely from Mr. Howards or Mr. Daniels, and that mine is correct. Again and again I have been importuned to state the facts publicly in writing, but I have not walked into the trap. Several years ago Mr. Daniels told me that he was writing a book covering the war and asked that I give him my version of the False Armistice. For a long while I declined to do so. Later he asked again and I sent him a copy of my version that I had prepared and stowed with my papers. Evidently he was not interested in it, for he has almost completely taken the version of Mr. Howard – which version is far from the facts. But his
version [sic] yarn makes good news copy no doubt. Mine may not – but it is the true version.
Henry B. Wilson 1x
The Admiral died on 30 January 1954. He had entrusted his ‘False Armistice Papers’ to M. S. Tisdale, his former Assistant Chief of Staff, who noted on the cover of the file: “I kept these for Adml Wilson . . . to be used in case of ‘attack’ on his memory after death . . . he asked me to accept them for any use or disposition I at any time deem best. I carried them from N.Y. to Wash. DC”. 1xi
Whose conflicting claims should be believed, Roy Howard’s or Admiral Wilson’s?
Given the publication of Roy Howard’s memoir, the release not long before it of the State Department’s incriminating 8 November 1918 documents concerning Admiral Wilson and Howard’s armistice cablegram, and Wilson’s refusal to put his side of the story into print, it is not surprising – as the Admiral appreciated – that Josephus Daniels went along with what Howard wrote and gave little space to his rejections of Howard’s allegations. And in any case, Daniels’ memoirs were not the place for a discussion and adjudication of Howard’s and the Admiral’s conflicting claims about what had happened in Brest twenty-eight years earlier.
A discussion and an answer to the unavoidable question ‘whose conflicting claims should be believed?’ are therefore provided in this Commentary.
John Sellards died in December 1938, a little more than two years after Howard’s memoir appeared in print. In his July 1933 letter to the Admiral, he had urged Wilson to write a book or series of articles giving his account of events in Brest and offered to help him with the necessary preparation. “I am more convinced than ever, Admiral” he wrote “that you should give your story to the public”. 1A viii) Unfortunately he seems to have left no account of his own part in the disputed events other than the short statement in his 1933 letter.
Fred Cook, who was present at Howard’s conversation with Admiral Wilson between about 4:00 and 4:30 pm on 7 November 1918, was perhaps the only other person whose evidence could have helped resolve what really occurred there. But there is nothing in the Cook sources cited in some of the articles on this website that does so. On balance, what Cook wrote about the events in Brest reinforces neither Howard’s claims nor Wilson’s and Sellards’ rebuttals of them.
Consequently, the inferences offered below are drawn primarily from what Roy Howard claimed had happened in comments/remarks he made on different occasions between November 1918 and the publication of his memoir in 1936. 5
Inferences from the Conflicting Claims
Howard alleged in his memoir that, prior to leaving Navy Headquarters, Admiral Wilson gave him permission to filethe armistice news to United Press. Wilson maintained that Howard had asked only to be allowed to usethe news.
In his earliest account of what had happened, Howard stated that he asked Wilson if he might“use”the news, or as Fred Cook put it, asked if he might “make use of the information”. And “use” rather than the unambiguous “file” is probably what he asked permission to do at the time.
The Admiral does not explain how he thought Howard would “use” the news, but Howard already knew what he was going to with it: he rushed off to cable it to his New York City office from the Postes, stopping on his way there to go into the nearby La Dépêche building.
Ensign John Sellards also went to the La Dépêche building from Admiral Wilson’s office. Howard states in his various accounts that they both went there together, as does Sellards in his July 1933 statement for Admiral Wilson.
At issue is why Sellards also went to La Dépêche. Was it to help Howard, as a French speaker, to file the armistice news and, as the Admiral’s representative, to make sure the censors cleared it for transmission to United Press inAmerica? This is what Howard claimed in his 1936 memoir. But in earlier accounts he stated that, on Wilson’s order, Sellards was returning to La Dépêche with the armistice news because he had failed a few minutes earlier to hand it to someone in charge there. Admiral Wilson claims he sent Sellards to La Dépêche simply to introduce Howard to the newspaper’s editor, whom Howard wanted to meet.
Sellards himself does not say why he accompanied Howard. But it seems most likely that he helped him, as a French speaker, by explaining to La Dépêche staff why Howard had gone there andthat he wanted to use their equipment to set out his cablegram about the armistice news just released by Admiral Wilson; and that he then left him in the La Dépêche building and returned to Navy Headquarters.
Had there been no existing agreement allowing United Press to use La Dépêche’s telegraph link to Paris, Howard would not have gone to La Dépêche in the first place. Instead, he would have been obliged to go straight to the local Postes where a telegraphist would have prepared the cablegram for him and given it a Brest dateline. It would have been checked by the French censors in the same building, and if cleared would have been transmitted to the United States. If it failed the censorship, it would have been cancelled or withheld. But Howard did not have to do this, for neither he nor Sellards went to the Postes with the armistice news.
The armistice news was put together as a telegram using La Dépêche stationery and equipment, and so looked exactly like a regular United Press news bulletin from Paris en route to the United States via La Dépêche and the Brest Postes. And, as Howard stated in his earliest accounts, a La Dépêche employee took it across to the Postes for its transmission to New York City – the usual practice. Howard himself remained in La Dépêche in order to telegraph from there to the UP office in Paris and tell them about his armistice cablegram.
This means that Howard did not himself experience what was happening in the Postes at that particular time. He stated he was told only later that the censors did not see his cablegram at the time of its transmission, that two hours had elapsed before they became aware of it. If, as he also stated, they were absent from their room celebrating outside, he would have been told this detail also, or may have assumed it for the purposes of his memoir. Consequently, Howard did not actually state in his 1936 memoir that the Brest censors cleared his cablegram in deference to Admiral Wilson’s wishes conveyed by Sellards. (Arthur Hornblow had firmly dismissed this notion in his 1921 articles, as did Fred Cook, indirectly, in his 1925 newspaper article.) Instead, Howard related that the censors were absent from their room and, therefore by implication, did not have to be persuaded by Sellards to pass the cablegram. But he then claimed that Sellards took the cablegram to the transmission room itself and remained there until it was on its way to New York – his presence, as Wilson’s aide, in effect ensuring that the transmission-room clerk accepted it and sent it off uncensored.
Arthur Hornblow and Howard himself related in the early 1920s that Admiral Wilson told them during the evening of 7 November – after dinner – that the armistice news was ‘unconfirmable’. Wilson affirmed the fact in his False Armistice papers. But Howard wittingly distorted it for his 1936 memoir by claiming that the Admiral sent an orderly to find him, and that the orderly gave him the news during the dinner he was having with Lieutenant Hornblow and some other officers.
Howard made this change because elsewhere in his memoir he also changed the actual sequence, and therefore the actual dispatch-times, of the cablegrams he sent from Brest to New York during the afternoon and evening of 7 November 1918. The actual, after-dinner,timing of the ‘unconfirmable’ news from Wilson disproved Howard’s claims that he had tried to cancel his armistice cablegram not long after he sent it. The misstated earlier, during-the-dinner, timing of it supported his distorted narrative. 5
The following day, 8 November, Howard obtained Wilson’s statement admitting responsibility for releasing the news and sent copies of it to Paris and New York City. Wilson claimed that Howard assured him the statement was intended only for the information of editors subscribing to the United Press news service and would not be made public. Howard’s 1936 recollection is that he “requested a statement for publication” and Wilson therefore signed it knowing it would be published.
Howard was under pressure from his Paris office to provide as much information as possible to help the New York City office deal with a furore in American newspapers over the false armistice cablegram and its effects across the United States. “THINK EXTREMELY IMPORTANT YOU FILE FORMAL STATEMENT URGENT TO NEW YORK USING ADMIRAL WILSONS NAME IF POSSIBLE . . . STOP “OBVIOUS OUR POSITION CRITICALEST AT HOME STOP” they telegraphed from Paris, following five minutes later with “STATEMENT EXADMIRAL CLEARING US RUSHED TO NEWYORK FOR PUBLICATION WILL DO MOREN ANYTHING ELSE SQUARE US WITH PUBLISHERS”. 5
The obvious inference to make here is that Howard would have promised almost anything to secure a signature on the exonerating statement he took to his 8 November meeting with Admiral Wilson, and that – knowing he would renege – he assured Wilson it would not be released to the newspapers. During the afternoon, the New York City office cabled that the statement arrived there at 1:10 pm local time (6:10 pm French time) and was “BROADCASTED”.
Over the years, then, Howard misreported and distorted what transpired between him and Admiral Wilson on 7 and 8 November 1918, to the latter’s evident agitation and frustration. His initial gratitude for Wilson’s readiness to sign the statement of 8 November gave way to claims implying that the Admiral grossly misused his authority and standing in Brest to circumvent strict censorship procedures on behalf of the president of a leading American news agency. Why?
Howard’s likely motives for implicating Admiral Wilson in the transmission of his armistice cablegram
To Howard and his United Press colleagues, it seemed likely that the outrage which erupted over their handling of the false German-armistice news would severely damage the agency financially and ruin their reputations as newspapermen.
Faced by such a crisis, anything that might suggest Howard was not to blame for what happened must have been welcomed as a defence against their detractors and the potentially disastrous repercussions of publishing false war news.
Indeed, everything Howard said had happened between about 4:00 and 4:30 pm on 7 November gives the impression that – rather than being the initiator – he was carried along by events shaped mostly by other people’s actions. Thus, in his narrative:
- Having informed him of the armistice news and confidently assured him it was official, Admiral Wilson readily allowed him to send it to the United States.
- Admiral Wilson, on his own initiative, instructed John Sellards to accompany him and make sure the news was cleared by the censors.
- The La Dépêche telegraph operator put the armistice cablegram together for Howard, which then, by chance, looked exactly like an already-censored United Press news bulletin sent from Paris.
- In the absence of the censors from the Postes, Sellards took the message to the cable-room and remained there until it was sent by the operator, his presence guaranteeing its dispatch.
- Howard’s attempt to cancel the armistice news, allegedly not long after he sent it, was delayed for several hours by the Navy Department in Washington, DC, thus allowing the erroneous news to spread as extensively as it did.
Not surprisingly, Howard’s 1936 memoir controverts all accusations made in November 1918, and any suspicions that may have arisen later, that he and United Press acted grossly irresponsibly, recklessly and unprofessionally in pursuit of a German-armistice scoop. Accusations Howard remained especially sensitive about for many years and never completely lived down.
By attributing a principal role to Admiral Wilson in the transmission of the armistice cablegram, Howard effectively abandoned his 8 November 1918 wish, and the gratitude behind it, that the Admiral should be kept out of the story as much as possible. But even in 1918, while acknowledging that Wilson himself was a “victim”, he wanted it known that he was the “worst sufferer” from the Admiral’s “misinformation”. 5
Josephus Daniels’ telegrams to Admirals Wilson and Sims
According to the copy Admiral Wilson kept for his scrapbook, the message Daniels sent to him read:
“United Press announced armistice signed. Later they received cable quote Admiral Wilson, who announced to Brest newspaper Armistice had been signed, later notified announcement unconfirmed. Meanwhile French riotously celebrate. Howard unquote Did you make this or similar statement. Cable immediate explanation.”
(Attempts to locate this telegram in US Navy archives have so far been unsuccessful.)
There are no details to indicate when the message was sent from the Navy Department and received in Brest. However, Wilson replied to it on Friday 8 November, the day after the events referred to in the message; and according to a 1933 memorandum by M. S. Tisdale, Wilson’s Assistant Chief of Staff in Brest, the message arrived on 8 November “early in the morning”.
This is most probably so. The words in the message between quote and unquote are from the third cablegram Roy Howard sent to United Press in New York City on Thursday 7 November, the one which finally cancelled the armistice news he had sent earlier that day. According to Howard’s copy of it, the message was ready to be dispatched at 10:50 pm on 7 November (5:50 pm Eastern Standard Time) and so must have been transmitted sometime after this.
Apparently, the US Navy censors delayed the cablegram’s delivery to United Press until Daniels was able to see it late in the evening of the 7th. (United Press did not receive it until 11:30 am on Friday 8 November.) Only after he read Howard’s cancellation cablegram could Daniels have had his cablegram to Admiral Wilson transmitted – during late-evening or not long after midnight on 7 November; and bearing in mind that French time was five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, the cablegram would indeed have arrived in Brest early in the morning on the 8th.
The following is an abridged version of the cablegram Daniels sent to Admiral Sims.
“SECRETARY OF THE NAVY JOSEPHUS DANIELS TO VICE ADMIRAL WILLIAM S. SIMS, COMMANDER, UNITED STATES NAVAL FORCES OPERATING IN EUROPEAN WATERS
Chronological Copy. File No. <55-5-2>
Cablegram Received <November 7, 1918.> Y-40
Origin Opnav Washington (Secnav) Ser. No. 4780 Simsadus. [To Admiral Sims]
RUSH. United Press announced armistice signed. Later they received following cable QUOTE Admiral Wilson, who announced to Brest, France, newspapers armistice been signed, later notified announcement unconfirmed. Meanwhile French “riotously” celebrate. Signed Howard UNQUOTE. Did you make this or similar announcement? Cable immediate explanation. 14007.
R E T R A N S M I T.
Sent: 5:30 a.m., November 8, 1918.
Recd: 5:29 a.m., November 8, 1918.”
(The full version may be accessed online through the Washington, DC, Naval History and Heritage Command website.)
The message is slightly different to the one sent to Admiral Wilson. But its date and time are given in the notation “14007”: 2:00 pm on 7 November, which was two o’clock in the afternoon in Washington, DC, seven o’clock in the evening in Brest and London in November 1918.
However, for the reasons explained above, the Navy Department could not have had Roy Howard’s ‘armistice announcement unconfirmed’ message as early as 2:00 pm on Thursday 7 November (it does state that United Press received it “later”).
What they did have by 2:00 pm – as the first sentence of the message indicates – was Howard’s armistice message which had reached New York City not long before midday and spread rapidly around the country.
Indeed, the cablegram Daniels sent appears to combine two items of information received at different times during 7 or 7-8 November. And as Sims’ copy is described as a “Chronological Copy”, and carries “RETRANSMIT” details, it may well be that two separate cablegrams were actually sent to him about the false armistice news. One, sent at 2:00 pm on 7 November, perhaps to the effect: “United Press announced armistice signed. Did you make this or similar announcement? Cable immediate explanation”. And the other, the “retransmit” one, sent at 5:30 am on 8 November, which added the information from Howard’s cancellation cablegram to the information in the 2:00 pm one.
The original 2:00 pm cablegram would most probably not have been sent to Admiral Wilson because Daniels had no reason at that hour to suspect that Wilson and Brest were in any way involved in the release of the false armistice news – Howard was believed to have sent his armistice cablegram from Paris. Admiral Sims on the other hand could have been expected to know something about it because the armistice news had been released in England just before 4:00 pm (11:00 am in Washington, DC) and the American Embassy in London, where Sims’ headquarters were located, was implicated in the event.
(Attempts to locate Sims’ reply to Daniels’ cablegram(s) in US Navy archives have been unsuccessful.)
© James Smith (July 2020) (Revised and with additions, March 2023)
(See also ‘Biographical Details’ on this website.)
1. Henry B. Wilson Papers. Box 1. Correspondence, 18 Jul 1919-1 Jan 1934. Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.
i) This is from a copy of the message and his reply to it that Admiral Wilson kept in his scrapbook. Quoted here from Admiral Wilson to Josephus Daniels, 1 January, 1934, pp1-3.
ii) Roy W. Howard to Admiral Wilson. July 18, 1919. (No copy found in Howard’s Papers.) See also on this website, ‘Roy Howard’s Search for Information about the False Armistice’.
iii) Arthur Hornblow to Admiral H. B. Wilson, 22 July 1921. (No copy found in Hornblow’s Papers.)
iv) Josephus Daniels to Admiral Wilson. Mexico, July 11, 1933; and Josephus Daniels to Admiral Wilson. Mexico, July 25, 1933. Admiral Wilson’s reply to Daniels’ 11 July letter is not among his papers; its contents are inferred from Daniels’ 25 July response. The article alluded to is ‘The United Press’ by Stephen Vincent Benét, published in Fortune Magazine, Volume 7, No. 5, in May 1933. Available online, at http://www.downhold.org › The United Press.
v) Admiral Wilson to Josephus Daniels, 1 January, 1934, pp3-4; and p8 under ‘Odds and Ends’.
vi) Admiral Wilson to Josephus Daniels, 1 January, 1934, p4. An excerpt of the article is pp28-29 of the Papers in Box 1.
vii) TIME, Monday, 20 November, 1933, under ‘Press’: ‘Howard’s Feather’.
viii) John Sellards to Admiral Wilson, 23 July (1933). It is pp16-17 of the Papers in Box 1; excerpt on pp4-5 of Wilson’s letter to Daniels.
ix) Admiral Wilson to Josephus Daniels, 1 January, 1934, pp5-6.
x) “Taken from (pages 338, 339, 340, 341, 342, 343) The Wilson Era, Years of War and After, 1917-1923 by Josephus Daniels. The Premature Armistice”. His comments are on his numbered pages 6-7 of his handwritten copy.
xi) On p25 of the Papers in Box 1.
xii) Memo to be attached to file of “False Armistice” papers of Admiral H.B. Wilson at his request, pp26-27 of the Papers in Box 1. The memorandum is undated but was prepared after 23 July 1933.
xiii) Arthur Hornblow Jr, Fake Armistice article. Listed as “Monograph, ‘The False Armistice’, undated”. But it is actually Admiral Wilson’s copy of Fake Armistice sent to him by Hornblow. (There is no copy of Fake Armistice in Hornblow’s own archive.)
2. Arthur and Leonora Hornblow Papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California.
a) Admiral Henry B. Wilson to Arthur Hornblow, 13 July 1921. (No copy of this found in the Admiral Wilson Papers)
3. Associated Press Corporate Archives, New York, NY. AP02A.03A, Subject Files, Box 27, Folder 6.
i) Telegram: Elliott to Associated, Paris, November 8 1918. And, The Evening Star, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 11, 1942, p12 under ‘Jackson Elliott Dies; A.P. Editor Spiked False Armistice’: [He] “endeared himself to every Associated Press member for his calm refusal to accept as fact the . . . rumors of November 7, 1918”, explaining that, despite a “deluge of telegrams, telephone calls and near hysteria” urging him “to follow the United Press and bulletin the Armistice rumor”, Jackson demurred. Instead, he “meticulously checked Washington, London and Paris officials and news sources” until “hours later, the State Department in an official announcement confirmed his shrewd judgment”.
ii) Telegram: Roberts to Elliott, (no date, but 8 or 9 November 1918).
iii) Telegram: Elliott to Associated, Paris, November 9 1918.
iv) Letter: J. A. Sellards to Roberts (10 November 1918).
v) Letter: Roberts to Elliott, 14th November 1918.
vi) Howard Cable, New York, Nov. 9, pp1-4.
vii) Letter: Assistant General Manager [F. R. Martin] to L. C. Probert, November 12, 1918.
viii) Letter: Chief of News Department [Jackson S. Elliott] to L. C. Probert, November 16th, 1918. The communication from Probert that Elliott was responding to has not been found.
ix) Letter: L. C. Probert to Frederick Roy Martin, November 21, 1918.
x) Letter: Chief of News Department [Jackson Elliott] to Robert M. Collins, January 2nd, 1919.]
4a) ‘Howard Excuses False Peace Report’, The New York Times, November 21, 1918. (Access only to subscribers.)
4b) ‘Howard Excuses False Peace Report’, The New York Times, November 21, 1918. (Access only to subscribers.) And Editor & Publisher for November 23, 1918, p18. (Accessible through the ‘Internet Archive’ portal.)
5. For a detailed examination of Howard’s version of what happened, see ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest’ Parts One and Two on this website.
6. For an examination of these reports in their context, see ‘False Armistice Cablegrams from France’ on this website.
7. Webb Miller, I Found No Peace: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent. First published in the USA in 1936 by Simon and Schuster.
8. ‘The Amazing Armistice: Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report’, pp94-95. Published originally in The Century Magazine, November 1921. Available online. See also ‘Arthur Hornblow’s information about the Jackson Armistice Telegram’ on this website.
9. The Madera Daily Tribune and Madera Mercury (California), 7 November 1928, p3, under ‘World War Officials Give Story of How False Report Started’. Available online through the California Digital Newspaper Collection website. This is one of two articles on the page about the False Armistice, but paragraphs from both evidently became mixed-up during the typesetting, causing some confusion in the narrative.
10. Josephus Daniels, The Wilson Era: Years of War and After, 1917-1923, pp339-343. (1946)
11. The Evening Star, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 11, 1942, p12 under ‘Jackson Elliott Dies; A.P. Editor Spiked False Armistice’.
12. See ‘Roy Howard’s search for information about the False Armistice’ on this website.