Are You Sure About That?

The following are excerpts of information relating to False Armistice events and circumstances, from a variety of sources.  Some of their details, presented as facts, are rather fanciful.

[Source: Patricia Beard, Newsmaker Roy W. Howard. (2016)]

“In Berlin, … the new – and last – chancellor of the German Empire Friedrich Ebert had appointed German Secretary of State Matthias Erzberger to head a delegation to sign an armistice with the Allies.  He … left Berlin in a convoy of five cars for a ten-hour drive to the railhead, where they boarded General Foch’s private train….  Foch was waiting to receive the delegates at the Chimay-La-Châpelle road in the forest of Compiègne, in the First French Army zone. He had ordered a geographically limited cease-fire, so that the envoys could cross the French lines.” (p72)

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[Source: Nathan Ward, ‘False Dawn’, in American Heritage, Volume 44, Issue 7, November 1993.  Online]

“The greatest war in history came to an end on November 11, but not without a final cruel twist. On November 7 Roy W. Howard, president of the United Press Association, received what he thought was the scoop of the year from a group of jubilant French sailors docking at Brest Harbor, while he himself was waiting to sail for America. Using the offices of La Dépêche, Howard cabled the incredible news to New York…. ‘URGENT. ARMISTICE ALLIES GERMANS SIGNED ELEVEN [THI]SMORNING HOSTILITIES CEASED TWO [THI]SAFTERNOON. SEDAN TAKEN [THI]SMORNING BY AMERICANS.’”

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[Source: Milly Bennett, On Her Own: Journalistic Adventures from San Francisco to the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1927. Edited and Annotated by A. Tom Grunfeld. (M.E. Sharpe. 1993; Routledge. 2015)]

“WAR OVER was the Daily News headline on the seventh of November, 1918…. WAR OVER turned out to be a story that Roy Howard, the crack correspondent for the United Press, had cabled from the Mediterranean where he was on the flagship of the U.S. fleet with Admiral Wilson.” (p24)

Editor’s footnote:

  1. “In fact the ‘false armistice’ report was spread around the world based on a meeting between German and French officers on November 7 during which time the terms of the proposed armistice were discussed. The Germans were given seventy-two hours to accept the conditions, and the actual armistice occurred on November 11.” (p25)

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[Source: David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society. Chapter 5, ‘Armistice and Aftermath’. (O.U.P. 2004. Twenty-fifth anniversary issue.)]

“Waiting in his railway carriage in the forest at Compiègne, Foch guided the Germans by wireless to the designated frontier crossing-point.  As they approached the French lines on November 7, he ordered his guns in that sector to stand silent, so that the truce party might safely pass.

Somehow, a war-zone correspondent from United Press mistook the momentary stand-down in that single sector for a general cease fire.  Excitedly, he flashed a message in cable-ese to New York: ‘Urgent. Armistice Allies Germany signed smorning. Hostilities ceased two safternoon.’”

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While others in Paris were preoccupied with the false armistice news and its spread around the city on 7 November 1918, the correspondent of the London Times newspaper there sent the following report:

‘PARIS CALM IN VICTORY’

(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT)

PARIS, Nov. 7.

“Paris remains austerely calm, and there would appear to exist a national conspiracy to reserve all manifestations of joy for the final day when the Armies march back up the Avenue de la Grand[e] Armée and through the Arc de Triomphe.  The streets are silent, except for the cries of the newspaper hawkers, who, perhaps are justified in moments such as these in ignoring the police regulations as to street noises.  Even the students are dumb.  But everywhere there is deep and heartfelt joy, which at the present is finding expression only in tributes of admiration to the great architect of French victory, M. Clemenceau ….”

[Source: The Times, 8 November, 1918, p5]

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Having sent the false armistice news to the United States and “blown the story of the decade”, Howard, it seems, soon discovered how the rumour arose in the first place:

“Livid, Howard traced the phoney announcement: the American Embassy had been victim of a hoax by a caller using a private, official channel and purporting to be from the French Foreign Office.”

[Source: Gregory Gordon and Ronald E. Cohen, Down To The Wire. UPI’s Fight for Survival, Chapter 2 ‘With Scotch Tape and Baling Wire’, p9.  (USA. 1990.)]

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Will Irwin, an American reporter who took part in the 7 November 1918 celebrations in Paris, averred – reasonably enough – in his 1942 memoirs that the “famous story” of the false peace news had “never been told fully and accurately”.  Without reference to any other writers, he proceeded with his own vivid account of what had happened.

Having heard earlier in the day that the American Embassy had released the armistice news as official, he claimed that he telephoned them around 3:00 pm to confirm it but was told curtly: “that report is a canard”.

His curiosity aroused, Irwin decided to look into “this affair while it was hot”.  He set out his findings as follows:

“During the noon hour of November 8 (sic), a voice speaking in perfect French called the American Embassy on the telephone.

‘This is the Ministry of War,’ it said; ‘I wish to speak to the Ambassador.’

The Ambassador had gone out to luncheon.  So had the Chancellor.  An inexperienced secretary was in charge.  He took the call.

‘This is to inform you,’ said the voice in substance, ‘that at eleven o’clock this morning the French and German commissioners signed an armistice.  Hostilities will cease at three P.M. today.’

A more experienced diplomat would have called back the Ministry of War for confirmation.  Or would he?  ….  As it was, the young secretary raced through the Embassy telling everyone.

The admiral commanding at Brest, our chief base in France, was a friend of Captain Symington, naval attaché at the Embassy (sic).  In the interest of efficiency, Symington had promised to telephone him news of an armistice as soon as the Embassy received it.

At that moment Roy Howard, president of the United Press, sat in the admiral’s office, talking war.  The telephone rang.  The admiral answered.  Then as he hung up, he addressed Howard: ‘The Armistice was signed at eleven and goes into effect at three.  This comes from the Embassy.’

Howard’s lightning-fast mind reviewed the situation in a flash.  This might be a beat unprecedented in history!  Brest was cable head….  He talked the admiral into opening the wire for him and flashed a bulletin to which he signed his own name and, to conform with regulations, that of William Philip Simms, his Paris correspondent.”

“No one will ever know”, Irwin affirmed at the end of his story, whether the “voice from the War Office” was that of a “German agent trying to create confusion”, that of a “speculator with a scheme to bull the stock market” or just that of “a crank.”

[Source: Will Irwin, The Making of a Reporter. Chapter 20, pp365-367. (New York. 1942.) Available online.  Captain Powers Symington was not the US Naval Attaché at the Paris Embassy, at the time.]

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