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 by motor car to start talks with the Supreme Allied Commander, 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 their reply to the telegram, Foch’s Headquarters at Senlis told the German Supreme Command in Spa to direct the armistice delegates to the French forward positions on the road between Chimay, Fourmies, La Capelle and Guise. They would be met there and then taken elsewhere to Marshal Foch. The request for hostilities to be suspended, however, was ignored. 1 ENDNOTES
This article presents an account of what happened during 7 November, following these initial Spa-Senlis messages, in the area where the German delegation crossed the front lines on its way to meet Marshal Foch.
The telegrams generated operational communications, on both sides, around the broad area the delegation would be heading for. Information and orders passed from the French and German High Commands to their respective commanders in the area, and travelled between the latter and their units at the Front: general information about the armistice delegation itself and specific orders and instructions relating to it. For the French, these covered arrangements for halting the delegation at the Front and taking it on to Rethondes to meet Marshal Foch. For the Germans, they were mainly concerned with arrangements for its safe journey to the French lines on the designated road.
During early morning on 7 November, rumours about the delegation started spreading among French and German troops in the crossing-point sector. 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.
Such circumstances 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.
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-Senlis telegrams – have been converted to French times, and are indicated as such in grey italics.
Foch’s Headquarters in Senlis received the first Spa wireless message, relayed from Paris, between 11:00 pm and 11:30 pm on 6 November. It was handed to Commander Riedinger, the Second Bureau (Deuxième Bureau) chief there, who took it straight to General Weygand, Foch’s Chief of Staff.
Prepared by General Weygand and agreed by Foch, the French reply was eventually transmitted, 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 armistice delegation’s crossing of the front lines is in north-east France, close to the Belgian border. It was in the operations area of General Marie-Eugène Debeney’s French First Army, elements of whose 166th Division, commanded by General Paul Cabaud, were at the forward positions around the road.
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. 2 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 reply went out to Spa, 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. 3
At French First Army Headquarters, at about 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 that he was to put one of his staff officers in charge of arrangements for meeting it there.
The General gave the responsibility to Commander François de Bourbon-Busset, his Headquarters Second Bureau Chief, with instructions to leave for the Front before 8:00 am and liaise with Commander Auguste Ducornez, whose units formed the vanguard in the crossing-point area. As Marshal Foch had ordered the overall offensive against the Germans to continue, General Debeney authorised Bourbon-Busset to make sure the German delegates got across the lines safely. They were then to be brought to Homblières, where the General was expecting to be later in the day.
Bourbon-Busset left First Army Headquarters by car shortly before 6:30 am, expecting to receive information later about the delegates’ arrival time. 4
Delegates arriving after 8:00 am (false news)
Around the same time – 6:30 am – an officer arrived at the Buironfosse front line with a ‘top-secret’ message for Commander Ducornez. This informed him that he could expect German armistice delegates to arrive along the La Capelle road after 8 o’clock that morning, and that he must make arrangements for them to cross the French lines. 5
Ducornez received this information from General Paul Cabaud’s 166th Division Headquarters. It had been sent out originally by First Army Headquarters for all units in the sector containing the designated road area. 6
Somewhere along the way, the message had evidently become modified. The arrival time given for the delegation was erroneous, derived perhaps from some confusion or speculation about the time – “before 8:00 am” – that Bourbon-Busset was instructed to leave for the Front.
Ducornez immediately set about making arrangements for the German delegation to cross his lines unhindered. He sent a messenger, with instructions concerning the news, to find Captain Marius Lhuillier, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the 171st Infantry Regiment which was providing the forward units around La Capelle.
In no time at all armistice rumours had started spreading among the men in Commander Ducornez’s front-line sector. 7
At about 7:30 am, Captain Lhuillier dispatched the information to Lieutenant Édouard Hengy, acting commander of the forward units from the 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 he should keep it from his men until the last moment. 8
The armistice delegation failed to arrive. While the French were making these preparations to meet them, the delegates 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 front lines on Foch’s 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. 9
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 in La Capelle, which his troops had now cleared of the enemy. He met Ducornez in the town’s main street, and explained why General Debeney had sent him from First Army Headquarters. 10 They would presumably have discussed the Commander’s earlier information, from his Division Headquarters, about the delegation’s supposed 8:00 am arrival, and the arrangements he had made for meeting it at the front lines.
Delegates to arrive at midday (false news)
Sometime that morning, four staff officers from First Army Headquarters were sent to join Bourbon-Busset in La Capelle. They took with them information that the armistice delegates were now expected to arrive around midday. The British also acquired it. At Field Marshal Haig’s Headquarters in Montreuil-sur-Mer, a staff officer noted the news 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 ….” 11
It is not clear where this new item of misinformation came from – perhaps an incomplete or inaccurate, mistranslated or misunderstood transcript of a German field message picked up after 8:35 am, or of the second Spa telegram message the Germans transmitted at 11:00 am. 12
Midday cease-fire in La Capelle
The staff officers travelled to La Capelle in four French motor cars that were to be used to take the delegates to General Debeney at First Army Headquarters, which he was moving forward to Homblières. When the four officers arrived is not certain (the journey should have taken no more than two hours) but the delegation-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 halt their advance and stop firing. They issued instructions to that effect but did not, it seems, inform the Germans of their actions. 13
More Delegation Information
From First Army Headquarters, General Debeney telephoned new information to La Capelle – again relayed through other units’ headquarters – 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 Germans’ second Spa-Senlis wireless message.
His 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. 14
It is not clear when exactly Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez received this information, but the second Spa-Senlis telegram went out from Berlin at 11:00 am, so it is reasonable to assume that the information from it and the accompanying instructions reached La Capelle before or soon after midday – around the time Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez ordered their local cessation of hostilities. 15
When the armistice delegation did not arrive at midday, Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez would, therefore, have understood why – it was not to be expected now until much later that afternoon.
At 11:30 am, the Germans transmitted their third Spa-Senlis 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. 16
None of the sources used for this article mentions that this particular message was also relayed to La Capelle, that it was received here or, therefore, that Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez were aware that Spa Headquarters had ordered a German cease-fire to begin at 2:00 pm. 17
German 12:30 pm cessation of hostilities
Not long before midday, Lieutenant Hengy had received orders from Captain Lhuillier to resume the advance in the area on the left of the road from La Capelle to the small village of Haudroy, which was still occupied. His 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 1st Battalion forward units, groups of Germans approached wanting to fraternize, or, holding back, waved their arms and shouted about an armistice being signed and a 12:30 pm cease-fire. At the location where Lieutenant Hengy happened to be, a German officer sent an old man, a French civilian, to contact French troops and tell them that he wanted to talk to them. 18
French suspension of hostilities
Captain Lhuillier reported the incidents, and Commander Ducornez ordered him to halt his units, take prisoner any Germans who approached their positions and avoid fraternizing with them. The Commander sent the information back to General Cabaud at Division Headquarters and asked for instructions.
He wrote later that he received a message around 1:00 pm that Division had ordered a cessation of hostilities with effect from 1:00 pm until midnight. 19
As the afternoon progressed, further reports came from the forward positions about German troops trying to fraternize. By three o’clock, more than 400 had been taken prisoner. 20
Probably in reaction to these occurrences, General Edmond Buat, Marshal Pétain’s Deputy Chief of Staff of the French Armies, warned 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. 21
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. 22
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. 23
The assumption is made here that the order for a cessation of hostilities that Commander Ducornez recalled receiving from his Division Headquarters around 1:00 pm (above) was in fact this order from the French High Command. If this is so, then the start-time for the cease-fire (“13 heures”) which the Commander noted in his account, is presumably an error and should be 3:00 pm.24 It is also assumed, therefore, that the French cease-fire zone in the La Capelle sector became effective from three o’clock (15:00 pm), in accordance with the High Command order.
None of the sources used for this article mentions the French 3:00 pm cease-fire order or, as noted above, the receipt in La Capelle of information about the German Spa-Senlis telegram 2:00 pm cease-fire announcement, to which the French order was presumably a response. 24
This French cease-fire zone, stretching a few kilometres on either side of the Chimay-Fourmies-La Capelle road, provided space for the delegation to make its way towards the front lines, as conditions dictated, from a number of directions. In effect, it extended the midday cease-fire, ordered by Ducornez and Bourbon-Busset around the La Capelle forward positions, over a much larger area.
However, by the time the order for it went out at 3:00 pm French time, the German cease-fire announced in the third Spa-Senlis telegram for 3:00 pm German time (2:00 pm French time) had already been operating for an hour. It applied from Étroeungt to Ohis, on either side of La Capelle and part of its road to Fourmies.
Around 3:30 pm, a German officer and two men, on horseback and showing a white flag, approached the outskirts of La Capelle, where they were stopped at the French forward positions. The officer, 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 now before 4:00 pm (the time indicated earlier in the second Spa-Senlis telegram). He also complained that, although they had ceased hostilities on their lines, the French had not. 25
Hengy made it known to von Jacobi that his orders were to take prisoner any Germans who approached his positions and not to enter into discussions with them. He then took him to Captain Lhuillier’s command post a short distance away. Von Jacobi repeated his message to Lhuillier, and was then allowed to return to his lines. 26
The two French officers saw von Jacobi again later that evening when the armistice delegates arrived. Having been detailed to accompany them to the French positions, he introduced the leading military delegate, General von Winterfeldt, to them.
Believing the delegates would now be arriving after 4:00 pm, Bourbon-Busset and Ducornez had moved to Lhuillier’s command post. When the Germans did not appear, they returned to Commander Ducornez’s Headquarters in La Capelle. Around 6:00 pm, a German motor car, carrying a white flag, stopped outside the building. It brought a Major von Behr and two other officers with a letter for the French commander from their commanding officer, General von Anwarter. 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 asked the French to make arrangements to safeguard the armistice delegation when it reached the front lines.
Bourbon-Busset explained to von Behr that he had orders to implement a cease-fire in the La Capelle sector specifically for the delegates’ safety. And perhaps to reassure him, invited the major to remain in La Capelle until the delegates arrived. Von Behr agreed to do so. 27
General Debeney at First Army Headquarters also received what was tantamount to a complaint about his forces in the cease-fire zone. A wireless message to him, received at 6:50 pm, noting that a German cease-fire had been in place since 2:00 pm from Étroeungt to Ohis, requested him to apply the same coordinates for French troops and to pull back those who had continued moving forward after the cease-fire. The message appears to have come from General von Hutier, the commander of the German forces facing Debeney’s. The latter replied 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. 28
By the time this was transmitted to, and would have been received by, von Hutier, the delegation had already arrived and was safely behind French lines.
Information from the fourth German Spa-Senlis 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. 29
The village of Haudroy, still occupied by the Germans, was a short distance 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 finally 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 very 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. They left around 10:00 pm, in the French cars sent earlier, 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 received the orders, issued much earlier, to extend the cease-fire in his sector, due to expire at midnight, to 6:00 am the following day. 30
German Side of the Crossing-Point
The times stated in this part of the article are in German time – one hour ahead of French/Allied time in November 1918.
Army Supreme Command Headquarters in Spa should have received the French reply to their initial wireless message, telling them where the armistice delegation should cross the front lines, after 3:30 am and again after 4:00 am, on Thursday 7 November.
As on the French side, information about what was happening and orders concerning the delegation were sent to the front lines.
The delegation to assemble in Spa
Three of the five armistice delegates named in the initial 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, 7 November.
Will reach the front at midday (false news)
Just over an hour and a half after the three delegates had arrived in Spa, 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.
Army Group Gallwitz, 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 armistice delegation preparations. The information it received about the delegation originated, it seems, from Supreme Headquarters in Spa, and shows the time 9:35 am. It is followed by the assessment that “the situation requires holding the position at all costs, as otherwise the armistice negotiations might be made very difficult”. And then by the requirement that “the Group of Armies [should] concentrate all reserves at its disposal, in order to contest every enemy success” – a view von Gallwitz, who was opposed to an armistice, probably fully agreed with. 31
Why this report specified midday as the time the delegation would reach Guise is not known here – the delegation was not expected to set out from Spa until midday (so some confusion, perhaps). But midday is the delegation’s supposed arrival time that the four staff officers sent to join Bourbon-Busset carried to La Capelle from General Debeney’s Headquarters. And it seems more than likely that the French had intercepted this German transmission (around 8:35 am their time) and forwarded the information to La Capelle, but without taking into account that German midday was 11:00 am for them.
Midday Departure from Spa
In Spa, Navy Captain Vanselow joined the three from Berlin as the fourth armistice delegate; the fifth was excluded from the group. Accompanied by an interpreter, stenographer, secretary and orderlies they set out for the Front around midday in a convoy of five motor cars. 32
In the second wireless telegram to Senlis (transmitted at midday) Supreme Headquarters announced that the delegation had left Spa at midday and would probably reach the French lines on the designated road between four and five o’clock that afternoon. 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. 33
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 the armistice delegation making its way to Marshal Foch.
Cease-fire at 1:30 pm
Facing the French First Army units in the La Capelle area were German forces from the 11th and 5th Infantry Divisions under General von Anwarter, part of General Oskar von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army. It is reasonable to assume that von Anwarter, as commander of the units directly involved, would have been 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 there 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. 34 Nevertheless, he issued orders for a cease-fire to begin at 1:30 pm. 35
By early afternoon on 7 November, therefore, the French and German commanders in the La Capelle sector, apparently without 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. 36
Cease-fire at 3:00 pm
Half-an-hour after midday, the third German Spa-Senlis wireless message 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. 37
When this cease-fire came into effect, it applied along a line from German positions in Étroeungt, north of La Capelle, to those in Ohis, to the south-east. 38 In the light of it, the cease-fire General von Anwarter put into effect at 1:30 pm would seem to have been premature by an hour and a half.
The General may have ordered his earlier cease-fire on his own authority, or may have been carrying out separate instructions sent to him in Rocquigny which specified a 1:30 pm cease-fire for the immediate area around the front lines on the designated road. Alternatively, orders that may have gone to him could have given him the wrong start-time for the 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 made it known to the French that they had been told to cease hostilities at 1:30 pm. Some of them also made announcements about an armistice having been signed, but these were obviously erroneous and misinformed, the result perhaps of confusion or wishful-thinking as to what was happening. 39
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. The delegation had to contend with numerous delays, the first, occurring as it was leaving Spa, caused by a collision that badly damaged two of its cars (no passengers were injured) and reduced the convoy to three. The main cause, however, 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 delayed-action mines to obstruct the French advance.
In Rocquigny during the early afternoon, General von Anwarter must have received reports from his front lines about the French taking prisoners and seeming not to have ceased hostilities. He must also have received information about the armistice delegation’s slow progress because, in the course of the afternoon, he sent two officers, von Jacobi and von Behr, on separate missions to tell the French about the delegation’s delays, and to complain to them about what he apparently believed was their failure to implement a cease-fire for its safety.
Von Jacobi’s was the first of the two ‘official’ white-flag missions to the French lines. He informed Lieutenant Hengy and Captain Lhuillier there that the armistice delegation was being held up because of the state of the roads and would not now arrive before 5:00 pm – the time given in the second German Spa-Senlis telegram. He was with them from about 4:30 pm to sometime after 5:00 pm. But General von Anwarter would have known by 5:00 pm that he had made contact with the French because one of the two soldiers with von Jacobi was allowed to return to report back.
Von Behr took a letter from the General to the French commander in La Capelle, arriving around 7:00 pm. By this time, Rocquigny had probably been told that the delegation was now to be expected between 8:00 pm and 10:00 pm – information also contained in the last Spa-Senlis telegram, transmitted at 5:30 pm (after von Jacobi’s mission). 40 The General most likely instructed Von Behr to make sure the French were aware of this. His mission, within two hours of von Jacobi’s and with its insistence that the French prepare for the delegation’s safe arrival, is more understandable in this context.
Von Behr and the two officers accompanying him remained at La Capelle to wait for the delegation to arrive; whether General von Anwarter was made aware of this arrangement is not clear. Von Behr met and spoke to the delegates later that evening, and was reportedly overheard by Bourbon-Busset telling von Winterfeldt that it was essential to obtain an armistice because of the poor morale of the German troops. 41
The Germans’ cease-fire line, along their front from Étroeungt to Ohis and effective from 3:00 pm their time, extended beyond the northern and southern lines that delimited the French cease-fire zone which became effective an hour later than the Germans’ at 3:00 pm French time.
Given the time and range differences between the two zones, it seems more than likely that French troops continued moving forward and, in places, crossed the Étroeungt-Ohis line before and after 3:00 pm their time. Indeed, General von Hutier contacted General Debeney and asked him to pull back French troops who had moved forward after the start of the German cease-fire, and to bring the French cease-fire coordinates in line with his. He also requested to be informed of the lifting of the cease-fire ten hours beforehand. 42
It is not clear when this message was sent, but Debeney acknowledged receiving it at 18:50 French time, so it went out sometime before 19:50 German time. 43 Von Hutier, evidently, had received reports about the French in the crossing-point sector continuing to advance in places and (perhaps) taking prisoners. And before transmitting it, he may also have received reports from General Anwarter about the unsatisfactory results of von Jacobi’s and (possibly) von Behr’s discussions with the French – all compelling reasons for contacting General Debeney personally.
At 6:00 pm, in the period between the von Jacobi and von Behr episodes, the delegation had reached Chimay. Here the local German commander tried to persuade Erzberger to remain overnight because of the roads and the time needed 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 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 way to Fourmies, reached by 8:30 pm. Here they were joined by a bugler and acquired three white flags (made out of 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. 44
Where the cars were halted – the crossing point on the La Capelle-Haudroy road – was just a short distance outside La Capelle. 45
More than twenty-eight hours after leaving Berlin, and nearly nine and a half after leaving Spa, Erzberger had finally arrived at the French lines. Nearly twelve hours later, he and the three other delegates were taken to Marshal Foch for their first armistice meeting.
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.
The German and French buglers, Arthur Zobrowski – who sounded the German cease-fire as the delegation moved from Haudroy to the French positions – and Pierre Sellier – 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. 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 about the cease-fire agreed to by their own High Command, and 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. 46
© James Smith
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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 Wireless Telegram Messages, 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)
- See Smith article on this website. Also, the ‘Marshal Foch and the German requests for a cease-fire’ item in the False Armistice Commentary on this website.
- Laiss, pp29-33. On Debeney’s left was General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army, the boundary with which was just a few kilometres north of the crossing-point sector; on his right, was General Charles Mangin’s French Tenth Army.
- De Gmeline, pp192-195; and 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.
- De Gmeline, p210. Ducornez’s details about the time and location in La Capelle of his initial meeting with Bourbon-Busset differ slightly, pp81-82.
- De Gmeline, pp212. And Hew Pike, From the Front Line: Family Letters and Diaries. Reggie Tompson diary entry, ‘Thursday 7th November’, in Chapter Five, p57. (Pen & Sword Books Ltd. 2008)
- See ‘German Side of the Crossing-Point’ section of this article; and the Spa-Senlis Wireless Telegram Messages article on this website.
- Ducornez, p81. De Gmeline, p227 and pp212-213.
- De Gmeline, p215. The 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 details contained in the message. See Smith article on this website.
- Vilain states that the phone call conveying the information came at midday (p9).
- See Smith article 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 the German cease-fire was 1:30 pm French time. De Gmeline identifies 1:30 pm as being the German time for the start of the cease-fire, 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. None of the other sources used here contains the detail about a 1:00 pm (“13 heures”) to midnight order being received at 1:00 pm from Division Headquarters.
- 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 Lieutenant Hengy received the order at 1:00 pm, (p217). It is assumed here that this is also a mistake.
- De Gmeline states 5:00 pm, but it is not clear whether this is French or German time (p222). This article considers it most likely to be German time, so 4:00 pm French 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 4:30 pm. See Smith article on this website.
- Laiss, p51. Ducornez, p85. De Gmeline, p250.
- United States Army in the World War, ‘HS Ger. File: 810-33.5: Fldr. I: War Diary. Group of Armies Gallwitz. November 7, 1918’. The text provided is an AEF Document Collection editorial translation.Many German military archives from 1914-1918 were lost during the 1939-1945 war. See: Records lost as a result of war, http://www.bundesarchiv.de
- Erzberger, p376
- See Smith article on this website; and United States Army in the World War, ‘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 one Erzberger met at Trélon towards the end of the delegation’s journey to the Front. Erzberger does not mention these details in his memoires.
- See Smith article on this website.
- 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’. This German cease-fire line is mentioned 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, p244, writes that Bourbon-Busset mentioned the matter to von Winterfeldt when the delegates arrived in La Capelle, and the General commented that it must have been a misunderstanding. Vilain notes the conversation (pp17-18); but it is not reported in the other sources used for this article.
- See Smith article on this website.
- Weygand, p20 ; de Gmeline, p245.
- 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 Française’.
- Same. ‘7 novembre 1918 – 21h 15. Général commandant d’Armée Debeney à A.O.K. Huter. 21h15 – 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.
- 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.
- Laiss pp71-77.
- See illustrations and maps on, Forum Pages 14-18, Le passage du Front par les plénipotentiaires allemands