In the early hours of Thursday 7 November, from information in the first German wireless telegram sent from Spa to Senlis the previous night, the Allied Army High Commands were aware that five German delegates, with assistants, would be travelling to the Front by motor car to start talks with Marshal Foch about an armistice. They knew also that the German Army Supreme Command wanted hostilities to be suspended when the delegation reached the Allies’ lines.
In reply to the telegram, Foch’s Senlis Headquarters told the German Supreme Command to direct the armistice delegates to the French forward positions on the road from Chimay (in occupied Belgium), to Fourmies, La Capelle and Guise in occupied French territory from which the Germans were retreating. They would be met and then taken elsewhere to Marshal Foch. The request for hostilities to be suspended, however, was ignored.
This article is an account of what happened during 7 November following these two telegrams, first on the French side of where the German delegation crossed the lines, and then on the German side.
The telegrams generated communications about the delegation on both sides, passing from the respective High Commands to their commanders in the broad area around the designated road and on to their front-line units there. For the French, they covered arrangements for meeting the delegation and taking it to Marshal Foch in Rethondes. For the Germans, they were mainly concerned with its journey to, and safe crossing of, the lines on the Chimay-Guise road.
Inevitably, during early morning on 7 November rumours about the delegation leaked out and started spreading among French and German troops around what became the crossing-point zone; and for most of the time before the delegation finally arrived, there was uncertainty on both sides about what was actually happening. Consequently, misunderstandings occurred, and misleading, erroneous information arose and circulated – circumstances which provided the context of the 7 November false news that the German armistice had been signed and the war had ended that day. (News that spread from France to Britain, North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand.)
On the French Side of the Crossing-Point
[The times stated in this part of the article are in French/Allied time – one hour behind German time in November 1918. This means that any German times included here – for instance from the Spa telegrams – have been converted to French times. They are indicated in italics and this colour. For example, ‘3:00 pm and 4:00 pm’ the French time for 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm German time.]
Foch’s Headquarters received the first Spa telegram between 11:00 pm and 11:30 pm on 6 November – it had been picked up and sent to Senlis by the Eiffel Tower radio station in Paris. Commander Riedinger, the French Intelligence Second Bureau (Deuxième Bureau) chief in Senlis took it straight to Foch’s Chief of Staff, General Weygand. The reply, prepared by Weygand and agreed by Foch, was eventually released for the Germans to pick up, at 2:30 am and again at 3:00 am on 7 November.
The road it designated for the delegation’s crossing-point, mostly in north-east France and close to the Belgian border, was in the operations area of General Marie-Eugène Debeney’s French First Army. Elements of the Army’s 166th Division, commanded by General Paul Cabaud, were at the forward positions around the road. (On Debeney’s left, just a few kilometres north of the crossing-point sector, was General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army; on his right, was General Charles Mangin’s French Tenth Army.)
As the day began on 7 November, the front lines were just forward of the village of Buironfosse, a short distance south-west of the town of La Capelle, still held by the Germans but against which the French were due to resume their advance at 6:00 am. The delegation’s crossing-point on the road would be where the front lines happened to be when it arrived.
Arrangements for the armistice delegation
Before the French reply went out for the Germans to pick up, it was encoded and telephoned to the Office of Georges Clemenceau and the Ministry of War in Paris – Clemenceau was both head of the French Government and Minister of War.
At the same time, Foch’s Allied Commanders (General Philippe Pétain, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, General John Pershing and Albert I, King of the Belgians) were told by encoded telegram that if German armistice delegates appeared at their front lines asking to be taken to Marshal Foch, they were to be held there pending instructions from Senlis. 1 [ENDNOTES]
At his First Army Headquarters, around 2:00 am, General Debeney received the information that a German armistice delegation was to be directed to his front lines on the Chimay-La Capelle-Guise road and instructions to put one of his staff officers in charge of arrangements for meeting it there.
The General sent the information to all his units located in the broad area of the road and gave responsibility for meeting the delegation to Commander François de Bourbon-Busset, his Headquarters Second Bureau Chief. He instructed Bourbon-Busset to leave for Buironfosse-La Capelle before 8:00 am and liaise with Commander Auguste Ducornez, whose troops formed the French vanguard in the area. As Marshal Foch had ordered the overall offensive against the Germans to continue, Bourbon-Busset was to make sure the German delegates crossed the lines safely. They were then to be brought to General Debeney at Homblières.
Bourbon-Busset left First Army Headquarters by car shortly before 6:30 am, expecting to receive details later about the delegates’ arrival time. 2
‘Delegates arriving after 8:00 am’ (misinformation)
Around the same time – 6:30 am – an officer arrived at Buironfosse with a ‘top-secret’ message for Commander Ducornez, whom Bourbon-Busset was just setting off to meet. The message informed Ducornez that he could expect German armistice delegates to arrive along the La Capelle road after 8 o’clock that morning and that he must arrange immediately for them to cross the French lines. The officer had been sent from General Paul Cabaud’s 166th Division Headquarters, which had received the news about the German delegation earlier that morning from Debeney’s First Army Headquarters. 3
Somewhere along its route, the message had evidently become modified. First Army Headquarters had not stated an arrival time for the delegation – the supposed 8:00 am arrival time taken to Commander Ducornez from 166th Division Headquarters was erroneous. Perhaps it arose from some confusion or speculation about the time – “before 8:00 am” – that Bourbon-Busset was instructed to leave for the Front.
Ducornez immediately started preparing for the German delegation to cross his lines unhindered. He sent a messenger to take the news to Captain Marius Lhuillier, commanding the 1st Battalion of the 171st Infantry Regiment which was providing the forward units around La Capelle.
In no time at all armistice rumours started spreading among Ducornez’s men. 4
At about 7:30 am, Captain Lhuillier dispatched the received information to Lieutenant Édouard Hengy, acting commander of forward units from the 1st Battalion’s 3rd Company. A German motor car, he told him, would be arriving near La Capelle at around 8:00 am. He ordered him not to fire on the car but to stop it when they saw a white flag. Apparently unaware that the news was already spreading, Lhuillier told Hengy to keep it from his men until the last moment. 5
The armistice delegates failed to arrive. While the French were making these preparations to meet them, they were about 200 kilometres away in Spa, at Supreme Command Headquarters in the Hotel Britannique. It would be a few more hours before they left from there for the designated road. At 8:30 am, Captain Lhuillier ordered Hengy to hold his positions, not to advance further for the time being, but to send out reconnaissance patrols and report back. 6
Misinformation about the German armistice delegation was thus circulating around French units in the La Capelle area well before 8 o’clock in the morning of 7 November, and forward units around the La Capelle road had already been placed on alert.
When Bourbon-Busset caught up with Commander Ducornez, around 9:00 am, the latter was now in La Capelle, which his troops had not long cleared of the enemy. He met him in the town’s main street and explained why General Debeney had sent him. 7 They would presumably have discussed Ducornez’s earlier information from 166th Division Headquarters about the delegation’s supposed 8:00 am arrival and the arrangements he had already made for his forward units to meet it.
‘Delegates arriving at midday’ (misinformation)
Sometime that morning, four staff officers from First Army Headquarters were sent to join Bourbon-Busset in La Capelle. They took with them misinformation that the armistice delegates were now expected to arrive around midday. 8 The British and (presumably) the Americans also had the news: at Field Marshal Haig’s Headquarters in Montreuil, a staff officer noted in his diary: “The German [delegation] is expected to cross the line at 12 noon and to be at Foch’s Headquarters at Senlis at 4pm to receive the terms of the Armistice. All firing ceased on the road to Guise by which [it] is expected from about 10 am. The air was thick with rumours ….” 9
The source seems to have been a telegram from German Supreme Headquarters to General Max von Gallwitz, which the Allies apparently intercepted. But as ‘midday’ was the time stated in the telegram, the Allies seem to have circulated the detail without taking into account that German midday was 11:00 am for them.
(See below, ‘It will reach the Front at Midday’ under “On the German Side of the Crossing-Point”.)
Midday cease-fire in La Capelle
The four staff officers travelled to La Capelle in four French motor cars that were to be used later to take the German delegates to General Debeney at First Army Headquarters, which he was moving forward to Homblières. When the officers arrived is not certain (the journey should have taken no more than two hours) but the midday-arrival news probably reached La Capelle before they did. In any case, as midday approached, Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez agreed that the forward units around La Capelle should now halt their advance and stop firing. They issued instructions to that effect but did not, it seems, inform the Germans of their actions. 10
More delegation information
First Army Headquarters telephoned new information to La Capelle (probably relayed via the headquarters of other units) that the German delegates would reach the French lines between 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm, were headed by Secretary of State Erzberger, and that ten people, plus drivers, would be in the group. (These details were undoubtedly from the second Spa wireless telegram to Senlis which went out from Berlin at 11:00 am. 11)
General Debeney’s accompanying instructions stated that the delegation’s German motor cars and drivers were to remain at La Capelle, and that Commander Bourbon-Busset was to travel with the (unblindfolded) delegates to First Army Headquarters in the four French vehicles sent for the purpose. 12
One source notes that this telephone information arrived at La Capelle at midday. 13 And it may be assumed that it and the news the four French officers brought to La Capelle had prompted Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez to implement their local cessation of hostilities.
Expectations of a midday arrival were thus replaced by ones of a mid-afternoon arrival.
At 11:30 am, the Germans transmitted their third Spa telegram announcing that an order had been given to cease firing on the Front from 2:00 pm, until further orders, to enable the delegation to cross the lines; and that road menders would be accompanying the delegation to repair the damaged La Capelle road. 14
However, none of the sources for this article indicates that this particular Spa message was relayed to La Capelle, that it was received there or, therefore, that Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez were aware that the Germans had ordered a cease-fire to begin at 2:00 pm. 15
Cessation of hostilities at 12:30 pm by the Germans
Not long before Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez’s midday cessation of hostilities, Captain Lhuillier sent orders to Lieutenant Hengy to resume the advance in the area left of the road from La Capelle to the small village of Haudroy, which was still occupied. Hengy’s units encountered no opposition from the Germans, took a number of them prisoner, halted and prepared for a counter-attack. None occurred.
Instead, starting early in the afternoon at various points manned by the 1st Battalion’s forward units, groups of Germans approached wanting to fraternize while others, holding back, waved their arms and shouted about an armistice being signed and a cease-fire from 12:30 pm. Where Lieutenant Hengy himself happened to be, a German officer sent a French civilian (an old man) to contact French troops and tell them that he wanted to talk to them. 16
As the afternoon progressed, several other reports came from the forward positions about German troops trying to fraternize. Captain Lhuillier reported the incidents; Commander Ducornez ordered him to halt his units, take prisoner any Germans who approached their positions and avoid fraternizing with them. By three o’clock, more than 400 had been taken prisoner. 18
Probably in reaction to these reports, General Edmond Buat, Marshal Pétain’s Deputy Chief of Staff of the French Armies, warned Allied commanders along the Front that the Germans – “in order to deceive us” – were spreading rumours that an armistice had been signed. He forbade them to allow any cessation of hostilities “of any sort” without authority from his headquarters, adding that General Debeney’s First Army had been given “very particular instructions” in the matter. 19 Recalling the incidents several years later, General Weygand, who was with Foch on 7 November, commented that the German troops, desperate for the war to end, and either believing or just pretending that hostilities had ceased, tried to fraternize with French forces. 20
Commander Ducornez wrote later that he reported the Germans’ behaviour to General Cabaud at Division Headquarters and asked for instructions. He recalled that he received a message around 1:00 pm (“13 heures”) that Division had ordered a cessation of hostilities with effect from 1:00 pm until midnight. 17
The French 3:00 pm cease-fire
At three o’clock, the French High Command relayed the order that no firing in the La Capelle sector was to be directed into the area between a line from La Flamengrie to Trélon (in the north) and one from Froidestrées to Mondrepuis (in the south). This was in anticipation of the German armistice delegation’s arrival and was to last until midnight. Later that afternoon, at 6:30 pm, the cease-fire was extended until six o’clock the following morning, Friday 8 November (information which seems to have taken four and a half hours to reach La Capelle). 21
This cease-fire was presumably the French High Command’s response to the German 2:00 pm cease-fire announced in the third Spa telegram. But none of the sources mentions a French 3:00 pm cease-fire order or, as already noted above, whether La Capelle received information about the German 2:00 pm cease-fire announcement.
(The cease-hostilities order Commander Ducornez mentioned receiving from Division Headquarters around 1:00 pm (above) is assumed here to have been the French High Command order to cease-firing in the La Capelle sector at 3:00 pm until midnight, and that the 1:00 pm start-time the Commander recalled is an error and should be 3:00 pm. 22 It is also assumed that the designated French cease-fire zone in the La Capelle sector became effective from 3:00 pm, in accordance with the High Command’s order.)
The French 3:00 pm cease-fire zone, stretching a few kilometres on either side of the Chimay-Fourmies-La Capelle road, provided space for the German delegation to make its way towards the front lines from a number of directions, as conditions dictated. And it extended over a much larger area than the midday cease-fire Ducornez and Bourbon-Busset ordered around the La Capelle forward positions.
Of course, by the time the French order went out at 3:00 pm, the German cease-fire, scheduled for 3:00 pm German time (2:00 pm French time), had already been in effect for an hour. Why the French did not start their cease-fire at 2:00 pm to coincide with the Germans’ – why, in other words, the respective start-times apparently disregarded the time-difference on either side of the front lines – is not known here. But the French seem to have profited from their later start, and also from the difference between the areas covered by their and the German cease-fire zones. As shown on the map, the German zone applied from Étroeungt to Ohis, on either side of La Capelle, which meant that the area between La Flamengrie and Étroeungt to the north, and that from Froidestrées south south-east to Ohis were both covered by it. But both were outside the limits of the French zone.
Around 3:30 pm, a German officer and two men, on horses and showing a white flag, approached the outskirts of La Capelle and were stopped at the French forward positions. The German officer, a Lieutenant von Jacobi, informed Lieutenant Hengy, in charge there, that the armistice delegates were being delayed by the condition of the roads and would not arrive before 4:00 pm (the time indicated earlier in the second Spa telegram). 23 He also protested that although they had ceased hostilities on their lines the French had not.
Hengy told von Jacobi that his orders were to take prisoner any Germans who approached his positions and not to enter into discussions with them. He took him to Captain Lhuillier’s command post a short distance away where von Jacobi repeated his message and protest. Lhuillier took note and allowed the Germans to return to their lines. 24 (When the armistice delegates arrived later that evening, the three officers met again. Having been detailed to accompany the delegates to the French positions, von Jacobi presented Lhuillier and Hengy to General von Winterfeldt, the superior German military delegate.)
Believing the delegates would now be arriving after 4:00 pm, Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez moved to Lhuillier’s command post, but then returned to La Capelle around 6:00 pm. Within minutes of entering Ducornez’s Headquarters there, a German motor car, carrying a white flag, stopped outside the building. A Major von Behr, one of three officers in the car, had been sent with a letter from his commanding officer, General von Anwarter, for the French commander in the town. Bourbon-Busset took it and read it. Complaining that French troops had continued firing and taking prisoners even though his own forces had halted hostilities at 12:30 pm, von Anwarter wanted assurances that the French would safeguard the armistice delegation when it reached the front lines.
Bourbon-Busset explained that his orders were to implement a cease-fire, specifically for the delegates’ safety, only in the La Capelle sector. And perhaps to reassure the major, invited von Behr to remain there with him until the delegates arrived. Von Behr agreed to do so. 25
General Debeney himself was also contacted about his front-line troops failing to respect the German cease-fire. A wireless message to him at First Army Headquarters, noting that a German cease-fire had been in place since 2:00 pm from Étroeungt to Ohis, requested him to pull back those troops who had continued advancing after the cease-fire and apply the same German coordinates to a French cease-fire zone. The message appears to have come from General von Hutier, the commander of the German forces facing Debeney’s, and was received at 6:50 pm. Replying at 9:15 pm, Debeney stated that in accordance with orders given to him, he had already made his arrangements for the safe arrival of the German delegates and would not be making any additional ones. 26
By the time the reply was transmitted and would have been received by von Hutier, the delegation had already arrived and was safely behind French lines.
The delegates’ arrival
Information from the fourth Spa telegram, stating where the delegation would actually arrive at the front – Haudroy – and a revised time of between 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm, had been sent to La Capelle sometime before 7:00 pm. 27
The village of Haudroy, still occupied by the Germans, was a short distance away to the north-east of La Capelle, on the road leading to Rocquigny, where General Anwarter had his headquarters. The delegates arrived here not long before 8:00 pm and reached Haudroy before 8:20 pm, in the November darkness and a dense mist. From the village their five cars moved slowly towards La Capelle, headlights blazing, flying three white flags, and with a bugler on the running-board of the leading vehicle sounding their cease-fire.
Captain Lhuillier stopped the leading car at his forward positions – noting that the time was exactly 8:20 pm. After a brief exchange between him and General von Winterfeldt, the delegates were taken first to La Capelle – with a French bugler now sounding a French cease-fire – where they met Bourbon-Busset, Commander Ducornez and other staff officers. In the French cars sent earlier, they left around 10:00 pm for General Debeney’s Headquarters some distance away in Homblières. From here they were driven to Tergnier for the train journey to Rethondes. They finally met Marshal Foch during the morning of 8 November.
In the meantime, at 11:00 pm, Captain Lhuillier finally received the French High Command’s 6:30 pm orders to extend the cease-fire in his sector, originally due to expire at midnight, to 6:00 am the following day. 28
On the German Side of the Crossing-Point
[The times in this part of the article are German times – one hour ahead of French/Allied time in November 1918. Some have been converted from French times and as such are indicated in italics and this colour. For example, ‘after 3:30 am and again after 4:00 am’ – the German times for ‘after 2:30 am and again after 3:00 am’ French times.]
The French wireless message from Foch’s Headquarters in Senlis specifying where the armistice delegation should cross the front lines would have been picked up by the Nauen radio station near Berlin after 3:30 am and again after 4:00 am on 7 November and relayed to German Army Supreme Command Headquarters in Spa (in occupied Belgium). Information and orders concerning the delegation were then sent to German military units in the crossing-point area.
The delegation to assemble in Spa
Three of the five armistice delegates named in the first Spa telegram to Senlis – Secretary of State Matthias Erzberger, Count Alfred von Oberndorf (former minister plenipotentiary in Bulgaria) and General Detlev von Winterfeldt (former military attaché in Paris) – left Berlin by train at 5:00 pm on Wednesday 6 November to join the other two at Supreme Headquarters in Spa. They arrived in the town, to the south-east of Liège, at 8:00 am the following day, fifteen hours later.
‘It will reach the Front at midday’ (misinformation)
Just over an hour and a half after the three delegates arrived, General Max von Gallwitz was notified that an armistice delegation was on its way to meet the Allies and would cross the front lines in the vicinity of Guise at around midday.
Von Gallwitz’s Army Group, facing the Americans in the Meuse-Argonne region of the Front and some distance south-east of the La Capelle sector, was not directly involved in the armistice preparations. But he received the following telegram from Spa about the delegation:
“GROUP OF ARMIES GALLWITZ, November 7, 1918.
9:35 a.m.: Supreme Headquarters (Major von Stuelpnagel) … Major Bramsch. Supreme Headquarters is oriented on situation. The Group of Armies is informed that toward noon the Armistice Commission will cross the lines in the vicinity of Guise. The situation requires holding the position at all costs, as otherwise the armistice negotiations might be made very difficult. It is necessary for the Group of Armies to concentrate all reserves at its disposal, in order to contest every enemy success.”
Other German Army Groups presumably received similar telegrams at the same time. Indeed, the basic message – “that the front must be held at all costs [during the armistice talks], and that the occupied ground must be defended under all circumstances” – had gone out periodically from Hindenburg at Spa Headquarters since 12 October 1918. The rationale behind it being that “If the [German] army succeeds in repulsing the enemy attacks for a little while longer and in losing only little ground, then the conditions laid down for us by the Entente will be less severe than they would be ….” 29
By 9:35 am, the delegates arriving from Berlin had only been in Spa for about an hour and a half. Perhaps Supreme Headquarters did imagine that they and the rest of the group would depart and complete the journey to Foch’s designated road in the two and a half hours left before midday. But in the event, it was not until midday that the delegation left Spa. (As explained earlier, for a while the Allies were also expecting a midday delegation arrival.)
Midday departure from Spa
In Spa, Secretary of State Erzberger, Ambassador Count Obeurndorf, and General von Winterfeld were joined by Navy Captain Vanselow; but the intended fifth delegate was withdrawn. The four set out for the Front around midday, accompanied by an interpreter, stenographer, secretary, and orderlies, in a convoy of five motor cars. 30
In its second telegram to Senlis (transmitted at midday) Supreme Headquarters announced that the delegation left Spa at midday, would probably reach the French lines between four and five o’clock that afternoon, that Erzberger was in charge of it, and ten persons (plus drivers) would be travelling in the group.
Admiral Paul von Hintze informed the Foreign Ministry in Berlin (as its representative at Spa Headquarters) that the Erzberger delegation left for the Front at twelve noon, that General Erich von Gündell had withdrawn as a delegate, and that a second group of assistants was preparing to follow later. 31 Von Hintze had persuaded Erzberger to exclude von Gündell from the delegation, and both he and the General remained in Spa during the next few days. However, the two were erroneously and confusingly reported in many newspapers to be leading members of what Roy W. Howard called the von Hintze armistice delegation, information about which he believed had been deliberately withheld from the public. Howard based his False Armistice conspiracy theory around this alleged von Hintze delegation. 14
Cease-fire at 1:30 pm
In the area around La Capelle, units from the 5th and 11th Infantry Divisions under General von Anwarter (part of General Oskar von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army) faced the French First Army units there. Presumably, therefore, von Anwarter was among the first to be told during the morning of 7 November that an armistice delegation was heading for his sector.
His headquarters were in the town of Rocquigny, north-east of La Capelle, and by midday preparations were already in hand to provide a suitable bugler to accompany the delegation’s motor cars as they travelled to the French positions. But it seems that the General was unsure at midday when he could expect its arrival.32 Nevertheless, he issued orders for a cease-fire to begin at 1:30 pm. 33
Thus, by early afternoon on 7 November, both the French and German commanders in the La Capelle area, apparently without any prior arrangement or communication between them, had ordered firing to cease on their sides of the lines in anticipation of the armistice delegation’s arrival. 34
Cease-fire at 3:00 pm
Half-an-hour after midday, the third Spa telegram announced that German forces would stop firing on the Front at three o’clock that afternoon to allow the armistice delegation to cross the lines, and that men would be working to repair the La Capelle road ahead of its vehicles. 14
In the light of this development, the 1:30 pm cease-fire would seem to have been premature by an hour and a half. Of course, it may have been General von Anwarter’s own decision to order the earlier cease-fire; or he may have been carrying out separate instructions specifying a 1:30 pm cease-fire just for the immediate area around the front lines in the crossing-point area; or he may have received orders that gave him the wrong start-time for the three o’clock cease-fire – ‘1:30 pm’ instead of ‘3:00 pm’.
Whatever the explanation, Anwarter’s troops at some of his forward positions in the La Capelle area succeeded in making it known to the French that they had been told to cease hostilities at 1:30 pm and that an armistice had been signed. The latter piece of news was obviously erroneous, perhaps the result of confusion or wishful thinking as to what was happening. (Bourbon-Busset mentioned the matter to General von Winterfeldt when the delegates arrived in La Capelle, and the General suggested that it must have been a misunderstanding.) 35
It is not known here which route from Spa to the crossing-point was marked out for the delegation’s vehicles. But the five hours’ estimated journey-time proved to be insufficient, in the prevailing circumstances of 7 November 1918 because the delegation had to contend with numerous delays. The first, occurring as it was leaving Spa, was caused by a collision that damaged two of its cars (no passengers were injured) and reduced the convoy to three. But the main cause was the state of the roads. Even some distance from the shell-damage near the Front, they became virtually impassable as retreating soldiers blocked them with trees and buried delayed-action mines to obstruct the French advance.
General von Anwarter’s Headquarters in Rocquigny evidently received reports about the armistice delegation’s slow progress and became aware that the French were taking prisoners and not ceasing hostilities, because in the course of the afternoon he sent two officers, von Jacobi and von Behr, on separate missions to inform the French about the delegation’s delays and to protest about the apparent absence of a French cease-fire for its safety.
Von Jacobi’s was the first of the two ‘white-flag missions’ to the French lines. Accompanied by two German soldiers, he met Lieutenant Hengy and Captain Lhuillier outside La Capelle and informed them that the armistice delegation was being held up because of the state of the roads and so would not now arrive before 5:00 pm – the arrival-time stated in the second Spa telegram. He was with Hengy and Lhuillier from about 4:30 pm. Lhuillier allowed one of the German soldiers to leave to report to General von Anwarter what was happening, ahead of von Jacobi’s own eventual return sometime after 5:00 pm.
Von Behr took a letter from the General to the French commander in La Capelle, arriving by car with two other officers around 7:00 pm . By this time, von Anwarter had probably been told that the delegation was now to be expected between 8:00 pm and 10:00 pm – information transmitted at 5:30 pm in the fourth Spa telegram (after von Jacobi’s mission).14 It is most likely that the General instructed Von Behr to make sure the French were aware of this and to insist that they prepare for the delegation’s safe arrival: his mission, which occurred within two hours of von Jacobi’s, is more understandable in this context.
Von Behr and his accompanying officers remained at La Capelle to wait for the delegation (whether General von Anwarter was made aware of this is not clear). When von Behr spoke to the delegates later that evening, Bourbon-Busset reportedly overheard him telling von Winterfeldt that it was essential to agree to an armistice because of the poor morale of the German troops. 36
Further protests about the French and the cease-fire
When the German 3:00 pm cease-fire came into effect, it applied along a line from their positions in Étroeungt, north of La Capelle, to those in Ohis, to the south-east. 21 And it extended beyond the northern and southern lines that delimited the French 3:00 pm cease-fire zone, which did not become effective until an hour later than the Germans’. (See sketch map.)
Consequently, French troops continued moving forward and crossed the Étroeungt-Ohis line at some points after the German cease-fire had started. General Oskar von Hutier, German Eighteenth Army Commander, contacted General Debeney, French First Army Commander, and asked him to pull back those troops who had moved forward and to bring the French cease-fire coordinates in line with his. He also requested to be informed ten hours beforehand of any French decision to lift the cease-fire. It is not certain when this message was sent but it was received at 7:50 pm, so it obviously went out sometime before that. During the two hours and twenty-five minutes before Debeney’s reply was transmitted at 10:15 pm, the armistice delegates finally crossed the French forward positions – safely. 26
The delegates’ arrival
At 6:00 pm – after the von Jacobi and before the von Behr ‘white flag missions’ – the armistice delegation reached Chimay. Here the local German commander tried to persuade Erzberger to halt his journey and stay there overnight because of the condition of the roads to the Front and the time it would take to clear them. But Erzberger insisted on continuing. He telephoned the German commander in Trélon (to the west of Chimay and north of Fourmies) and persuaded him to have the roads cleared for his vehicles. Able eventually to move on, the delegates arrived in Trélon around 7:30 pm, probably not long after von Behr had given von Anwarter’s letter to Bourbon-Busset.
From Trélon they were able to pick up speed on the cleared roads to Fourmies, which they reached by 8:30 pm. Here they were joined by a bugler and acquired three white flags (cut from tablecloths). They were in Rocquigny before 9:00 pm, from where, in five motor cars, they moved towards Haudroy and the forward French positions, the bugler on the leading car and a white flag attached to each of the first three. Just before 9:20 pm, French soldiers positioned outside La Capelle, around the road to Haudroy, spotted the cars’ headlights, heard the bugle, and promptly alerted their officers. 37
Where the cars halted on the La Capelle-Haudroy road was just a short distance outside La Capelle. 38
More than twenty-eight hours after Erzberger left Berlin, and nearly nine and a half after leaving Spa, his armistice delegation finally crossed the front lines. Nearly twelve hours later, he and the three other delegates were taken to Marshal Foch for their first armistice meeting.
Some notes from a 1934 German Newspaper Feature about Events at the Crossing-Point
Marking the sixteenth anniversary of the end of the Great War, the Kolnische Illustrierte Zeitung published an article by a Dr Ernest Overhnes about “important and little-known” events that occurred on 7 November 1918 in the sector where the armistice delegation crossed the front lines.
Arthur Zobrowski, the German bugler who sounded the German cease-fire as the delegation moved from Haudroy to the French positions, and Pierre Sellier the French bugler who replaced him and sounded the French cease-fire as the cars drove on to La Capelle, are the main focus of the article. But mention is also made of arrangements by both sides for halting hostilities around the crossing-point.
Regarding these, Dr Overhnes states that a cessation of hostilities in the sector, from three o’clock in the afternoon until midnight, was agreed with the French, by radio, on 7 November. He also states that General von Anwarter put a cease-fire in place at midday. (This would have been 11:00 am French time.) But he does not mention a 1:30 pm cease-fire being ordered by the General.
However, according to Overhnes, the French forward positions did not know their own High Command had agreed to a cease-fire, and so continued hostilities well into the afternoon. Consequently, von Anwarter had to send some of his officers (not named) to negotiate with the general commanding the French infantry. The latter told them that he had not received an order to suspend hostilities, but on his own authority ordered a cease-fire in his area – the time was about 6:00 pm.
The article provides little clarification of these or other events it mentions.
[Notes made from Version allemande de l’arrivée devant les lignes françaises de la Mission parlementaire, d’après le journal « Kolnische Illustrierte Zeitung ». Laiss, pp71-77]
© James Smith (March 2018) (Reviewed September 2020)
MAIN SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE
De Gmeline, Patrick, Le 11 Novembre 1918 : La 11e heure du 11e jour du 11e mois. (Presses de la Cité. Paris. 1998)
Ducornez, Auguste, Le 19e Bataillon de Chasseurs à Pied pendant La Guerre 1914-1918. (Berger-Levrault. Paris. No date) [Available online through Gallica.bnf.fr]
Erzberger, Matthias, Souvenirs de Guerre. (Payot. Paris. 1921)
Laiss, Lucien, L’Arrivée des Parlementaires Allemands Devant Le Front Occupé par Le 171me R.I. (B. Arthaud. Grenoble. 1938)
Smith, James, The Spa-Senlis Telegrams and the German Armistice Delegation, 6-7 November 1918. (On this website)
United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919. Volume 10. Part 1. The Armistice Agreement and Related Documents. Center Of Military History, United States Army. (Washington, DC, 1948; 1991) [Available online]
Vilain, Charles, Le 7 novembre 1918 à Haudroy. (Saint Quentin. 1968) [First published in 1938 for the twentieth anniversary; republished in 1968 for the fiftieth anniversary.)
Weygand, Général Maxime, Le 11 Novembre. (Flammarion. 1932)
- De Gmeline, pp192-195; Laiss, pp29-33; United States Army in the World War, ‘Fldr. 1: Message: Parliamentaries to be stopped at Front Line. Second Army, A.E.F., November 7, 1918’.
- De Gmeline, pp196-197.
- Weygand, Chapter II, ‘L’armistice sur le front’, p17 ; De Gmeline, pp200-202.
- Ducornez, p81.
- Laiss, pp34-35 ; de Gmeline, p203
- Laiss, p37.
- Ducornez, pp81-82; De Gmeline, p210. Details about the time and location in La Capelle of Ducornez’s initial meeting with Bourbon-Busset differ slightly between these two sources.
- De Gmeline, pp212 and 227.
- Hew Pike, From the Front Line: Family Letters and Diaries. ‘Thursday 7th November’, p57. (Pen & Sword Military, 2008.) See also “On the German Side of the Crossing Point”, ‘Will reach the front at midday’ in this article.
- Ducornez, p81. De Gmeline, pp212-213.
- Newspaper versions of this telegram give 5:00 pm precisely – German time presumably – as the expected arrival time. The information apparently sent to La Capelle omitted some of the details contained in the message. See Smith article on this website about the ‘Spa-Senlis Telegrams’.
- De Gmeline, p215
- Vilain p9.
- See the ‘Spa-Senlis Telegrams’ article on this website. On the so-called von Hintze delegation, see ‘False Armistice Conspiracy Theories’ on this website.
- De Gmeline, pp218-219, writes about the message being received at Senlis and prompting General Weygand to have the armistice railway carriages moved to Rethondes.
- Laiss, pp41-43; de Gmeline, pp213-215; Ducornez, pp81-82. Laiss does not point out any difference between French and German time, thus giving the impression that 1:30 pm for the start of this German cease-fire was 1:30 pm French time. De Gmeline identifies 1:30 pm as being the German time and converts it (twice) to French time. Ducornez does not record that the Germans made known a cease-fire on their side of the lines.
- Ducornez, pp81-82.
- The figure is based on details contained in De Gmeline, pp213-220.
- United States Army in the World War, ‘Telegram. Order Forbidding Cessation of Hostilities. General Headquarters, French Armies of the East. November 7, 1918. C-in-C French Armies to Staffs’. No time is shown on this contemporary American translation of the French order, but it probably went out during the early afternoon.
- Weygand, p18.
- Wesserling, mémoires familiales, Stamm, Binder. ‘7 novembre 1918 – 15h. Radio passe par le poste météo français “MAX” (région de Noyon) à 15 heures. ORDRE’; and ‘7 novembre 1918 – 18h 30. De “MYZ“ 18 heures 30, à tous les postes : ORDRE’. The French cease-fire line is stated to be from La Flamengrie to Froidestrées in Gabriel Hanotaux, La Victoire et L’Armistice, ‘Le Passage des Plénipotentiaires Allemands à La Capelle (7 Novembre)’, Volume 17, Chapter 89, p238.
- De Gmeline writes, without clarification, that at 1:00 pm Lieutenant Hengy received the order to cease-firing until midnight (p217). It is assumed here that this is based on the detail in Ducornez.
- De Gmeline states ‘before 5:00 pm’ (p222), which seems to be the German time.
- De Gmeline, pp222-224; Laiss, pp41-42 and pp44-45; Vilain, pp10-11. Laiss and Vilain do not mention that von Jacobi complained to the French about not observing a cessation of hostilities, or that he stated when the delegates might arrive, only that he could not give a precise time because of the state of the roads.
- De Gmeline, pp230-231. The other sources cited in this article do not mention von Behr’s arrival at La Capelle.
- Wesserling, mémoires familiales, Stamm, Binder. ‘7 novembre 1918 – 18h 50. Radiogramme de l’antenne no 4 (18h 50), au général Debeney, Commandant en Chef de l’Armée Francaise’; and ‘7 novembre 1918 – 21h 15. Général commandant d’Armée Debeney à A.O.K. Huter. 21h 15 – Réponse à message reçu à 18h 50’. ‘Huter’ should be ‘Hutier’ – General Oskar von Hutier, in command of 18th Army, facing Debeney’s Ist French Army.
- De Gmeline, p235. This Spa-Senlis telegram was transmitted at 5:30 pm German time. See Smith article on this website.
- Laiss, p51. Ducornez, p85. De Gmeline, p250.
- United States Army in The World War 1917-1919: ‘HS Ger. File: 810-33.5: Fldr. I: War Diary:
- Group of Armies Gallwitz. November 7, 1918, p33.
- Ditto. October 12, 1918, p8.
- Ditto. October 28, 1918, p26.
The excerpts are from editorial translations of the telegrams. Many German military archives from 1914-1918 were lost during the 1939-1945 War, so the originals probably no longer exist.
See: Records lost as a result of war http://www.bundesarchiv.de
- Erzberger, p376
- United States Army in the World War 1917-1919. ‘Telegram, German Document No. 102 (Editorial Translation). General Headquarters, November 7, 1918, to Imperial Secretary of State, Foreign Office’.
- De Gmeline, pp215-216.
- Confusingly, on pp216 and 222 de Gmeline gives midday German time as the time the cease-fire started; but on pp213, 215, 231 he gives 1:30 pm German time. The latter is used in this article.
- Nicholas Best, in The Greatest Day in History: How the Great War Really Ended, clearly implies that there was some prior arrangement between the French and Germans. He states: “The timetable agreed with the French had already expired, so the commander decided to send some officers forward to negotiate an extension to the ceasefire before Erzberger’s convoy followed on behind”. (p77. London, 2008) The commander referred to here is not von Anwarter, but the one in Trélon who had the roads cleared for Erzberger’s vehicles. Erzberger talks in some detail in his memoirs about his conversation with this commander but does not mention any officers being sent by him to discuss a cease-fire extension with the French.
- De Gmeline, p244. Vilain also notes the conversation (pp17-18). But it is not reported in the other sources used for this article.
- Weygand, p20 ; de Gmeline, p245.
- Erzberger, pp376-377 and de Gmeline, pp232-234, give the time of arrival in Chimay as “about 6 o’clock” and “18:00 hours” respectively; and the arrival time in Trélon as “about half-past-seven” (Erzberger, p377) and “19h 30” (de Gmeline, pp237-240). Only de Gmeline gives an arrival time in Fourmies, which, having switched to French time, he says was “19 h 30” (p237). The delegation’s two damaged vehicles were obviously replaced somewhere along the route to Rocquigny.
- Illustrations, photographs and maps relating to the delegation’s crossing may be accessed online at Forum Pages 14-18, Le passage du Front par les plénipotentiaires allemands