‘German Spies in Paris’
a) Arthur Hornblow’s version of the theory
One of the earliest published accounts of the False Armistice appeared in November 1921 – three years after the events. It was written by Arthur Hornblow Jr, who was the US Army Intelligence Officer in November 1918 on the staff of General George Harries, Commander of the AEF Army base in the French port of Brest. He was with Roy Howard for part of Thursday 7 November 1918 and participated in a few of the events relating to Howard’s dispatch of his false armistice cablegram to the United States. Hornblow called his account The Amazing Armistice: Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report – “Inside Story” because he considered himself to be one of “scarcely a handful of persons … acquainted with the facts”. 1 ENDNOTES
Towards the end of his story, Hornblow suggested that “one or more [German] secret agents” fabricated the 7 November 1918 peace news in order to precipitate an armistice agreement between the Allies and Germany.
From his counter-espionage experience, he felt it “reasonable to suppose” that German spies in Paris, acting on “their own initiative and without orders”, concocted the armistice story after the release of the news that a German armistice delegation was on its way to meet Marshal Foch. By spreading such disinformation (fake news), their aim, he surmised, was to provoke a widespread popular relief and rejoicing in the Allied countries that would put Allied leaders under considerable pressure to end the war quickly once armistice talks began, induce a “swifter cessation of hostilities”, and thereby avert “the terrible smashing blows that … Germany seemed doomed to receive”.
As he put it, the spies carried out “an organised attempt … to make the Allied nations cherish an armistice which, though not yet existent, was within easy reach if the people wanted it and showed clearly that they wanted it”.
Hornblow offered only unsubstantiated remarks to support the theory. First, he alleged that the peace news Captain Jackson (US Naval Attaché in Paris) sent to Admiral Wilson in Brest on 7 November reached the American Embassy by telephone from an official at the French Ministry of War. Then, stating that the official was never identified – enquiries found that “no one at the ministry had called the embassy that day” – he insinuated that the official was a German spy.
“The naval office in Paris, Admiral Wilson, Roy Howard, and the entire United States of America were the victims of one or more secret agents of the German Espionage Corps”, Hornblow decided. And noted admiringly, “I should greatly like to see [their] intelligence reports … for November 7, 1918”; their “scheme” (now treated as a matter of fact) was “worthy of the German service in both ingenuity and execution … [a] credit to [those] who conceived it”. 2
b) Roy Howard’s version of the theory
Roy Howard also believed the Germans were behind the false armistice news, and for the same reasons put forward by Hornblow. Without referring to the latter’s 1921 article, he enlarged upon the spy theory in his chapter of recollections about the False Armistice in the 1936 memoirs of Webb Miller, one of his United Press reporters. 3
Howard took advantage of the 1933 publication of US State Department documents from November 1918 to quote the telegram Special Representative Edward House sent to Secretary of State Lansing on 8 November concerning the spread of false armistice news in Paris. Part of the telegram explained why Howard and United Press were not to blame for what had happened, and concluded that “[Captain] Jackson or the French official who started the rumour” were probably at fault. 4
In Howard’s view, as in Hornblow’s, the official who started the rumour was not French but “a German secret agent located in Paris” – an opinion founded, he claimed, on “conversations with American and French intelligence officers” (one of whom, perhaps, was Hornblow). He described, at greater length and more clearly than Hornblow, Germany’s desperation for an armistice by November 1918 and the war-weariness in Allied countries the spies hoped their peace news would transform into widespread, irresistible outbursts of popular expectation that the war was ending on 7 November. He thought the secret agent “very probably phoned” the disinformation to the American Embassy, having, it was “logical to believe”, previously “tapped the private wire connecting the American Embassy and the Quai d’Orsay” (location of the French Foreign Ministry). Indeed, the agent “may have had it tapped for months – and … when the situation warranted, he merely rang the Embassy, announced himself in perfect French as speaking for the Foreign Office, and communicated his message”.
Howard’s belief that the spy pretended to be calling from the French Foreign Ministry – rather than, as Hornblow implied, from the French War Ministry – may be traced to information he had obtained in August 1919. This was not to do with the spy theory but with where Naval Attaché Captain Jackson said the 7 November armistice news came from. In an alleged copy of his armistice telegram to Admiral Wilson in Brest, Jackson states plainly: “Foreign office announces Armistice signed 11 a.m. hostilities cease 2 p.m. today. Sedan taken this morning by U.S. army. (My boldface.)” 5 As such, it was of no evidential value to the spy theory.
Indeed, Howard’s version offered no more to substantiate the spy theory than Hornblow’s. And like Hornblow, he concluded with a similar excuse for the unproved and unprovable propositions: “… if ever (the) German secret agent working in Paris tells his story”, he wrote, “or if his official report in the German War Office is ever made public, the secret of the false armistice will be revealed – but not otherwise”. 6
Arthur Hornblow was the first to suggest publicly that German agents were responsible for the 7 November 1918 peace news in Paris. Whether he was the author of the conspiracy theory itself is not known here.
His spy theory evinced Allied anxieties in early November 1918 that German overtures for armistice talks were little more than a ruse, aimed at gaining time to stabilise their military position in the West. Marshal Foch and the French Army High Command in particular were apprehensive of the Germans spreading rumours that the war had ended and undermining military and civilian willingness to continue the struggle. Foch warned Allied commanders to be alert to the possibility. He refused German requests for a cessation of hostilities while armistice talks were being held in case the talks failed, fighting had to be resumed, but the army and people refused to support a renewed war. When armistice rumours did start to spread on 7 November, commanders were told that the Germans were trying to deceive them and that hostilities must continue unabated. 7
Hornblow did not state openly or directly that it was a German spy, pretending to be an official at the French Ministry of War, who telephoned the false peace news to the American Embassy. He implied it, and left his readers to ponder how and why the spy was able to carry out this vital part of the alleged plot. Roy Howard spelt out the practicalities – tapping into the telephone line without detection and impersonating a French official convincingly enough to deceive the Embassy staff with the disinformation. Both conveyed the stark message that the False Armistice occurred because Americans were easily duped by German agents in Paris, and readily circulated fake peace news designed to serve the interests of the enemy.
The SOS G-2 Report of 9 November 1918 (not publicised until 1948) blamed the French for releasing the false armistice news, and US Liaison Service officers for passing it to the American Embassy. 8 As Chief AEF Intelligence Officer in Brest (SOS Base Section No. 5) Hornblow worked for SOS G-2. It is possible that he provided some of the information in the G-2 Report about Roy Howard’s dispatch of the false armistice cablegram from Brest – in his 1921 article he stated that he contacted his immediate superior in Paris about the armistice news in Brest and was instructed to “wire full details of local hoax immediately”. 9
After the Armistice, Hornblow spent some time in Paris as “chief intelligence officer”, in which capacity he may have seen a copy of the G-2 Report. But there is no hint of its explanations in his article. Perhaps he thought a German spy conspiracy as the root cause of the premature peace celebrations would engage readers more than an explanation about some Allied officers in Paris misinterpreting an afternoon cease-fire order. Or perhaps he preferred not to publicise the latter, and not to expose and embarrass the Allies for being directly, unmitigatedly responsible for such a colossal false-news event and its consequences. Less shameful for them, he may have felt, to suggest they were victims of highly competent German spies who threw them off-guard with eagerly-awaited peace news.
‘Armistice Agreement Cover-Up’
a) Roy Howard’s theory
Opening the final part of his memoir in Webb Miller’s book, Roy Howard posed the question, fundamental to the False Armistice phenomenon: “What or who caused the premature report?” And followed it with a short discussion of the theory that “an armistice of some sort actually was signed on November 7” by the Allies with what he called the “first” German armistice delegation “bearing credentials from the Kaiser’s government”.
Many people, Howard wrote in 1936, still believed this. They cite as evidence, he explained, “the never officially denied report” that German delegates headed by Matthias Erzberger crossed the French front lines “at daybreak” on 7 November. And maintain that the delegates signed “at least a preliminary armistice” with Marshal Foch, on the terms the Allies had already drawn up and the Germans had “probably … agreed … in advance” to accept.
However, having in effect agreed to end the war on 7 November with this “preliminary armistice”, Marshal Foch, the theorists argued, curtailed the proceedings by sending the German delegates back to Berlin. On being told that the Kaiser had abdicated and Prince Max of Baden had been appointed Chancellor, Foch insisted that they obtain authority to continue their armistice mission from the new German government. Four days passed, during which thousands more were killed and wounded on both sides before the fighting finally ended. And in the event, neither side afterwards “dared to assume responsibility” for the “needless casualties” by admitting that “hostilities might have been terminated on November 7”.
In other words, according to the theory, the armistice news that circulated on 7 November was true, not false. The authorities denied and dismissed it, in an attempt to keep the meeting with the “first delegation”, the “preliminary armistice” Foch suspended, and an unnecessary prolongation of the war all secret from the public. In short, the notion of a False Armistice was the product of official denials and an attempted cover-up of what really happened.
Howard admitted that “for a time” he thought the theory “might be plausible”; but he abandoned it “as the years passed and no confirmation … ever became public”. By 1936, he had decided that “the explanation” for the false armistice news now lay “in a different direction”: that of the German spy theory. 10
It may be assumed that Roy Howard himself initiated the ‘cover-up theory’ to explain the 7 November 1918 peace news (no pre-1936 references to it by other writers seem to exist). And that there are two versions of it: the one described above from his 1936 memoir; and an original version that took shape in November 1918 (described below). In each, the designation of the so-called first delegation, and the date it is supposed to have met Marshal Foch and signed an armistice are different. Neither fits the facts: historical evidence discounts both.
The 1936 Version
For his 1936 account, Howard named Matthias Erzberger as head of the first delegation, and claimed that, according to a “never officially denied report”, it had crossed the French lines “at daybreak on the morning of Thursday, November 7”. He said no more about the report. 11
These delegation and date details completely undermine Howard’s conspiracy theory. As was well documented by 1936, until 8:00 am (German time) on 7 November, Erzberger and two other delegates were still on their way by train from Berlin to German Army High Command Headquarters in Spa (in occupied Belgium). They and the rest of the delegation members (already at Spa) did not set out for the Front until midday, and needed more than nine hours to reach the French lines by car. The historical facts are that there was only one Erzberger delegation; it could not have crossed the lines during early morning on 7 November; and it did not meet Marshal Foch until 9:00 am on Friday 8 November. 12
As for the assertion that, when he learned of the Kaiser’s abdication (on 7 November by implication), Marshal Foch sent the delegates away to obtain credentials from the ‘new’ Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, the facts are that the abdication occurred two days later on 9 November (only two days before the real Armistice), Prince Max had become Chancellor a month earlier, and Erzberger was already carrying credentials from his government.
After the war, especially in the United States, there was much debate about ‘unnecessary’ casualties among Allied personnel during the four days from 7-11 November when the German armistice talks were taking place. But there was no attempt to conceal the reasons why the fighting continued. There was no cover-up of who was responsible for this: newspapers in the Allied countries reported Marshal Foch’s refusals to agree to German requests to suspend hostilities during the talks. The rationale of Howard’s 1936 version of his conspiracy theory does not fit the particular circumstances of the time.
The 1918 Version
Howard suspected within days that there had been some attempt to hide the truth about the 7 November armistice news and what had happened that day. And he hinted at the existence of a ‘first’ German armistice delegation soon after returning to the United States.
On 20 November, he made a lengthy press statement which the New York Times published under the heading ‘Howard Excuses False Peace Report’. Commenting on the absence of any official explanation for the 7 November armistice news, Howard insinuated that there was a possible connection with “the first German armistice delegation” – though he did not imply then that there had been a ‘first’ armistice as well. The New York Times reported him as saying:
“Upon my return to the United States I learned that no news had been published here of the fact that celebrations of the signing of the armistice took place on Nov. 7 at practically all the army and naval bases on the French coast.
I was also surprised to learn that nothing had reached here by cable concerning the fact that all Paris had the report of the armistice being signed …. All the celebration on that day was by no means on this side of the Atlantic.
Nothing much has yet been said as to the source of Admiral Wilson’s information. This is not for me to discuss. Nothing has been said as to the reason for the report current on that day throughout France. No explanation has yet been offered of how the report reached the American Embassy in Paris as official. Neither has any explanation been offered yet as to what became of the first German armistice delegation, headed by von Hintze, which was reported to have reached the French lines on Nov. 6 and which then disappeared from the news, being supplanted by the Erzberger plenipotentiaries.” 13 [My boldface]
A few days later, in a confidential letter to R. J. Bender, the Washington, DC, United Press Manager, Howard disclosed that “in a round-about way” details had reached him of official dispatches, sent from France to the State and Navy Departments between 5:10 pm and 6:10 pm French time on 7 November, announcing and then, not long afterwards, denying the signing of an armistice.
He told Bender he wanted “to get into the facts [about the false armistice report] deeply enough to find the whole story”, which would mean obtaining more information about those official dispatches, and trying to ascertain where the false report came from, what caused it, and “what happened to the first bunch of German peace delegates”. [My boldface]
Shortly afterwards, in a letter to Major F. C. Cook, who had been with him at Admiral Wilson’s Headquarters on 7 November, Howard confided that he was “convinced on the basis of certain information which has come to me that we will find one of these days that there was considerable more ground and justification for Admiral Wilson’s statement than we at first suspected”. 14
Those 1918 documents record the genesis of Howard’s conspiracy theory, which at that time named “von Hintze” as the head of the supposed first delegation, specified Wednesday 6 November as the date of its reported arrival at the French lines, and claimed that it “disappeared from the news”, after being “supplanted” by the Erzberger delegation.
The notion of a von Hintze delegation came most likely from items in Allied newspapers between 6-8 November about Germany’s preparations for an armistice meeting. These were derived from information printed in German newspapers on 6 November. One item named four high-ranking officers – Admiral von Hintze, Admiral Meurer, General von Gündell and General von Winterfeldt – as members of the “armistice commission”. Another announced that the “German delegation” had departed from Berlin for the West to conclude an armistice. 15
Newspapers in Britain, France and the United States conflated both items and reported that the German armistice delegation that left Berlin on Wednesday 6 November for the Western Front consisted of those two admirals and two generals. Some named von Hintze as the delegation’s head, others von Winterfeldt, and provided readers with a few background biographical details.
Except in the newspaper reports, however, there was no von Hintze or von Winterfeldt delegation. Von Winterfeldt was included in Erzberger’s delegation, and accompanied him on the train journey from Berlin to Spa during the night of 6-7 November, but the other three took no part in it. When newspapers subsequently published the Spa-Senlis wireless messages naming von Winterfeldt – but not the others – as a leading delegate, some noted the changes, most did not. 16
It is not known here why – as substance for his theory – Howard substituted the details about a first Erzberger delegation and an early-morning 7 November meeting with Foch for his 1918 details about a von Hintze delegation and its 6 November arrival at the Front. Or how long before 1936 he had finally abandoned it in favour of the spy theory.
But his erstwhile belief that a German delegation reached the Front on 6 November, then “disappeared from the news” having been “supplanted” by the Erzberger delegation is worthy of attention. For a consideration of the proposition, in its historical context, produces speculations similar to Howard’s.
c) What if …?
In their Wednesday 6 November late-evening and 7 November morning editions, many newspapers printed an unconfirmed report that the German armistice delegation had crossed the front lines (French in some bulletins, British in others) during the evening of the 6th. They assumed, it seems, that it was the delegation that had left Berlin (and, therefore, that it had reached the Front the same day and only a few hours after it had set out.) For Howard, this meant von Hintze’s delegation; for others, von Winterfeldt’s.
The report, it seems, was never denied or explained, and was probably erroneous. But it was important because it became linked in the minds of many people with the armistice reports that suddenly started circulating on 7 November: news that the German delegation had arrived enhanced the credibility of the news the war was over which followed a few hours later. 17
Supposing for the moment that the unconfirmed report was in fact true, the obvious immediate questions this raises are: Where did the 6 November delegation come from? Who were the delegates? Who sent it? What authority did it have to discuss an armistice? What happened to it?
In the context of what is known about events at German Army High Command Headquarters in Spa during the first week of November 1918, a consideration of such questions suggests plausible answers.
By Wednesday 6 November, both Prince Max’s Government in Berlin and High Command Headquarters in Spa were desperate to stop the war, in order to avoid a complete military collapse on the Western Front and to bring loyal troops home to put down the Bolshevik-inspired mutinies and popular upheavals spreading across Germany. But preparations to send an armistice delegation were being delayed by arguments between Berlin and Spa about proposed delegation members, demands for the Kaiser’s abdication, and awaited information from US President Wilson about the Allies’ position on armistice terms.
The Kaiser, Admiral von Hintze and General Gündell were all in Spa at that time. General Groener (General Ludendorff’s replacement at Spa Headquarters) was in Berlin on 6 November to see Prince Max. He told the Chancellor that the Kaiser had informed him and the Foreign Office that, as matters were now so pressing, action by the Army to contact the Allies and obtain their armistice terms was urgently necessary. The moment was rapidly approaching, Groener warned, when “we must cross the lines with the white flag”. 18
If the Kaiser and his staff had gone ahead with this plan (unbeknown to Berlin), envoys carrying credentials from Spa Headquarters could have left for the Front on 6 November and could have arrived at the French or British lines, to the south-west, sometime during the evening. They would have been held there, questioned, their papers scrutinised, and reports about them sent to Marshal Foch’s Headquarters at Senlis. And the Marshal would have refused to see them – the Allies had agreed already that they would not engage in armistice talks with the Kaiser and his Army High Command.
The arrival at Foch’s Headquarters, between 11:00 and 11:30 pm on 6 November, of the wireless telegram from Berlin (via Spa) announcing the departure of the armistice delegation from Berlin would have ended any further dealings with the Spa envoys, who would either have been sent back or detained behind Allied lines. At some point, information about their arrival late on 6 November might have leaked out and been reported in London.
If the Allies had been prepared to deal with the Spa envoys, the latter would most certainly have accepted the Allies’ armistice terms without delay. The war would then have ended on 6 November, or 7 November at the latest. And had the envoys’ arrival at the Front become widely known, the charge would inevitably have arisen that, by rejecting them and their Spa credentials, the Allies were responsible for unnecessarily prolonging the war. The arrival of the Spa delegation was therefore kept hidden from the public, the leaked news about it being conveniently lost in the news – both false and true – that very quickly followed on 7 November.
The above is mere conjecture, as stated. But it is quite possible that Roy Howard had been on to something with his 1918 suspicions about an armistice delegation and arrival somewhere on the front lines on 6 November.
© James Smith. October 2018
- Arthur Hornblow Jr, ‘The Amazing Armistice: Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report’. Published originally in The Century Magazine, November 1921. For an account of what happened in Brest, see the Roy W. Howard in Brest article on this website.
- Hornblow, pp14-15.
- Roy Howard, ‘Premature Armistice – Roy W. Howard Speaking’. Chapter IV in Webb Miller’s, I Found No Peace. The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent. (The Book Club Special Edition, Camelot Press, London, 1937, is used here.)
- See the False Armistice News from France article on this website.
- L. B. Mickel to Roy Howard, Oklahoma City, Aug 11, 1919. Howard, Roy Papers (1892-1964). MSA 1, The Media School Archive, Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Indiana. Available online.
- Howard, pp93-95.
- See the Cease-Fires for the German Armistice Delegation article on this website. And, ‘Marshal Foch and the German requests for a cease-fire’ item in the False Armistice Commentary article on this website.
- See the G-2’s False Armistice Findings article on this website.
- Hornblow, p12.
- Howard, pp92-93.
- See the Cease-Fires for the German Armistice Delegation article on this website.
- The New York Times, November 21, 1918. Available through NYTimes.com Free to Read Articles 1918 website.
- Howard to Robert J. Bender[in Washington, DC], CONFIDENTIAL. New York, December 2, 1918. And Howard to Fred Cook, November 15, 1918. Howard, Roy Papers (1892-1964). MSA 1, The Media School Archive, Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Indiana. Available online.
- For example, Neue Badische Landes-Zeitung. 7. November 1918. Translation of Reports from Berlin, 6 November 1918, available under ‘The German Negotiations’ and ‘Armistice Negotiations’. Available online.
- For example, The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin), Friday, November 8, 1918, p3 under ‘Armistice – Contradictory Statements’. Available online through the British Newspaper Archive website.
- See the False Armistice in Britain and Faux Armistice in France articles on this website.
- H. R. Rudin, Armistice, 1918. Chapter X, ‘Germany in Revolution’, p263-264. (Archon Books. 1967. First published 1944, Yale University Press.)