Part 1. German Spies in Paris, with Addendum: ‘General Mordacq’s Comments on the Theory’.
Part 2. Cover-Up of an Armistice Agreement
Part 3. Other Theories
Part 1. German Spies in Paris
1a) 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 in November 1918 was the US Army Intelligence Officer 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 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, noting that the official was never identified – enquiries found that “no one at the ministry had called the embassy that day” – he insinuated that the culprit 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” was “worthy of the German service in both ingenuity and execution … [a] credit to [those] who conceived it”, he declared. 2
His speculation as to what had occurred thus concluded with an assumption that it was grounded in fact.
1b) 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 the chapter about the False Armistice he contributed to 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 person who allegedly 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 supposed spy hoped the fake peace news would transform into widespread, irresistible outbursts of popular expectation that the war was ending on 7 November. He thought he had “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 obtained in August 1919 from an alleged copy of the Captain Jackson armistice message to Admiral Wilson in Brest. This disclosed where the 7 November peace news came from: “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
The information as such was of no evidential value to the spy theory. Indeed, Howard’s account in his 1936 chapter for Miller’s book offered no more to substantiate the spy theory than Hornblow’s speculations on the matter. 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
The 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 stabilize 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
Arthur Hornblow was the first to suggest publicly that German agents were responsible for the 7 November 1918 peace news in Paris, but whether he originated this theory is not known.
When Roy Howard read the pre-publication version of Hornblow’s 1921 article, he referred to the spy explanation as being ‘supposititious’. He was advising Hornblow to change the article’s original title of The Fake Armistice when he wrote: “I can imagine that in using the term ‘fake’ you had in mind your supposititious German spy”. By using ‘supposititious’, Howard would seem to be implying that Hornblow’s explanation of Germans faking the armistice news was ‘spurious’, a ‘cover’ to hide the real reason for what had happened. But he may have confused ‘supposititious’ for ‘suppositious’; use of the latter would simply have acknowledged Hornblow’s supposition of a German conspiracy behind the false armistice news, which may have been what he intended. 8
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, however, in effect conveyed the stark message that the False Armistice occurred because Americans were easily duped by a German agent in Paris and then incautiously circulated fake peace news designed to serve the interests of the enemy.
The G-2 (SOS) Report of 9 November 1918 (not publicized until 1948) blamed the French for releasing the false armistice news on Thursday 7, and US Liaison Service officers for passing it to the American Embassy not long before midday. 9 As Chief AEF Intelligence Officer in Brest (SOS Base Section No. 5) Hornblow worked for G-2 (SOS). He may have provided some of the information in the 9 November Report about Roy Howard’s dispatch of his false armistice cablegram from Brest to the United States – in his 1921 article he stated that he contacted his immediate superior in Paris about the release of armistice news in Brest not long after 4:00 pm and was instructed to “wire full details of local hoax immediately”. 10
(What neither Hornblow nor Howard pointed out in their speculations is that armistice news had been circulating in Paris and spreading to other parts of France since late morning on the 7th – a number of hours before the afternoon message which they suggest was ‘planted’ in the American Embassy by a German spy. 12)
After the Armistice, Hornblow spent some time in Paris as “chief intelligence officer”, in which capacity he may have seen a copy of the 9 November Report. But there is no hint in his article of the latter’s more likely explanations. Perhaps he thought a German spy conspiracy as the root cause of the premature peace celebrations would engage readers more than the Report’s explanation about some Allied officers in Paris misinterpreting a 3:00 pm cease-fire order. Or perhaps he preferred not to publicize the latter, and so not expose and embarrass the Allies for being directly responsible for such a colossal false-news event and its consequences. He may have felt it was less shameful for them to suggest they were victims of highly competent German spies who threw them off-guard with eagerly awaited peace news.
Addendum: General Henri Mordacq’s Comments on the German Spy Theory.
In November 1918 General Henri Mordacq was Head of the French Military Cabinet of Georges Clemenceau (Prime Minister and Minister of War). During the inter-war period, Mordacq wrote two books about the German Armistice; both focus on events during 8-11 November, but also contain identical short accounts of the false armistice news of 7 November.
[Général Henri Mordacq, La Vérité sur l ‘Armistice. Chapitre III, ‘Les journées des 10 et 11 novembre’, pp46-48. Editions Jules Tallandier. (Paris. 1929.) And, L’ARMISTICE DU 11 NOVEMBRE 1918. RÉCIT D’UN TÉMOIN. ‘Les fausses nouvelles’, pp107-109.Librairie Plon. (Paris. 1937.) Extracts translated for this article by the writer.]
These accounts mention US Naval Attaché Captain Jackson’s “famous” armistice telegram to Admiral Wilson in Brest, the dispatch of its message to the USA by Roy Howard, its “enormous repercussions” in America, and the German spy theory about its origins. A subsequent inquiry, Mordacq commented, revealed that Captain Jackson had received the peace news by telephone from an official at the French Ministry of War.
Mordacq implied that the German spy theory arose from a “detailed inquiry” into the false news carried out by “the American authorities”. These, he remarked by way of explanation, were convinced German agents thought that the premature peace celebrations would put the Allies under great pressure to end the war, a situation the German armistice delegates could then exploit during the armistice talks. “It is possible” this is what happened, he noted, “though so far, no proof has emerged to support the theory”.
Judging solely from the accounts in his books, it would seem that most of Mordacq’s false-armistice details came from the Amazing Armistice article Arthur Hornblow had written in 1921 – eight years before the General’s first book appeared in France in 1929 (the second came out in 1937).
Intriguingly, over the five days from 11 to 15 November 1928, the Evening Star newspaper in Washington, DC, presented its readers with five articles about the German Armistice which were tantamount to a pre-publication, condensed serialization in English of General Mordacq’s 1929 book.
(The Evening Star was the paper Fred Cook worked for and which published his eyewitness recollections of 7 November events in Brest for anniversary features in 1924 and 1925. But whether Cook played a part in acquiring Mordacq’s memoirs for the paper is not known here.) 20
Mordacq included an item on the false armistice news in his fourth article. But here, in contrast to what he would relate just a few months later in his 1929 book, he disclosed far more of what he apparently knew about events on 7 November, and of what actions he had taken over the peace rumour.
Thus: referring to the findings of a subsequent investigation that Captain Jackson had received the armistice news by telephone from an official at the French Ministry of War, the General claimed that he “did [his] best to trace” what he called “that mysterious telephone call”. And as a result of his enquiries he was able to state, without doubt, that a liaison officer “between the French ministry of war and the American embassy” had telephoned the armistice news to the office of Naval Attaché Captain Jackson, and “one of the telephonists” there had then forwarded the news to Jackson himself. However, the liaison officer had been “careful enough to avoid saying whether he was a French or American liaison officer, of whom there were many”.
Captain Jackson tried but failed to “trace the call back from the embassy” to the War Ministry, so General Mordacq “immediately called in” the liaison officers on his War Ministry staff, the liaison officers with the Deuxième Bureau staff (“the G-2 of the French army”) based at the Ministry, and the telephone operators there. “None of them had sent the message”.
“I am convinced” Mordacq confessed, that the man who telephoned the message “was a German agent” – a belief, he noted, that many Americans shared. But whether he was suggesting the alleged spy operated from within the War Ministry or from somewhere else, is not clear.
“A minute investigation” was carried out by the American authorities “to discover the origin of the [false] report”, the General commented towards the end of his article. But, as in his later books, he did not complement the statement with information about the Americans’ findings. Instead, he supposed that what the Germans were hoping for from their armistice rumour – what they calculated would have been “the advantage that could accrue to [them] if they could foist the false story … upon the masses of France, America and England” – was a massive surge in favour of peace, provoked by the news, that would put pressure on the Allies to moderate the harsh armistice conditions the Germans were expecting to receive.
[The Evening Star, Wednesday, November 14, 1928, p22 under ‘The World War Armistice: Day-by-Day Negotiations Ten Years Ago’. Available through the Library of Congress, Chronicling America Historic American Newspapers portal.]
It seems most likely that the American investigation Mordacq referred to was the one carried out by the US Intelligence Service in Paris: the 7-9 November 1918 G-2 (SOS) inquiry into the origin, release and spread of the armistice news. And that he was, therefore, aware of its findings, one of which was that American Liaison Service Officers had played a part in circulating the false armistice news. Another was that French officials in the War Ministry and at least one Deuxième Bureau officer had also been involved – which the General’s own alleged investigation would appear to refute.
Why his subsequent Armistice books do not contain all the false armistice details the General included in his 1928 newspaper article, is open to speculation. But, as with his books’ accounts, his fourth article’s False Armistice item seems to owe much to Hornblow’s 1921 Amazing Armistice which implicated Mordacq’s War Ministry in the spy theory (rather than the Foreign Ministry which Roy Howard implicated in his version).
Part 2. Cover-Up of an Armistice Agreement
2a) Roy Howard’s theory
In the final part of his ‘Premature Armistice’ chapter for Webb Miller’s 1936 book, Roy Howard posed the fundamental question surrounding the 7 November 1918 False Armistice phenomenon: “What or who caused the premature report?” And followed 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”.
He asserted that many people still believed this armistice-signing had actually occurred, on the grounds that – according to a “never officially denied report” – German delegates headed by Matthias Erzberger had crossed the French front lines “at daybreak” on 7 November. As the Allies had already decided upon the armistice terms they wanted, he continued, and the Germans had “probably … agreed … in advance” to accept their terms, “at least a preliminary armistice” had been signed with Marshal Foch that day and the war, in effect, brought to an end.
However, the ‘cover-up’ theorists argued that Marshal Foch subsequently halted the proceedings by sending the German delegates back to Berlin. On being told that the Kaiser had abdicated and that Prince Max of Baden had been appointed Chancellor, Foch insisted that they obtain authority from the new German government to continue their armistice mission. But four days passed, during which thousands more were killed and wounded on both sides before the fighting finally ended on 11 November. 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”.
According to the theory therefore, the armistice news that circulated on 7 November was true, not false. But the authorities denied it, hoping to keep Foch’s meeting with the “first delegation”, the signing of a “preliminary armistice”, and an unnecessary four-day prolongation of the war all a secret. In short, the notion of a False Armistice on 7 November was fostered by the Allies in an attempt to hide from the public 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. 11
There are two versions of Howard’s ‘cover-up theory’: the 1936 one described above; and an original version that took shape in November 1918 (described below). In each, the head of the so-called first German delegation, and the date it is supposed to have met Marshal Foch and signed an armistice are different. Neither version, however, fits the facts. Historical evidence discounts both.
The 1936 Version
In this, 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”. But he said no more about the alleged report of this early morning arrival on 7 November. 11
These delegation and date details completely undermine Howard’s conspiracy theory. For, 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 on the 7th, and then 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. 13
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’ government in Berlin under “Prince Max of Baden as Chancellor”, the facts are that the abdication occurred not on the 7th but two days later on 9 November (only two days before the real Armistice), and Prince Max had become Chancellor a month earlier.
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, and approved, 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 historical circumstances of 7-11 November 1918.
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 really 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.” 14 [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”. 15
Thus, in Howard’s 1918 conspiracy-theory version, “von Hintze” is named as the head of the supposed first German delegation, Wednesday 6 November is specified as the date of its reported arrival at the French lines, and the claim made that it was “supplanted” by the Erzberger delegation and “disappeared from the news”.
It is most likely that the notion of a von Hintze delegation came from details in Allied newspapers between 6-8 November about Germany’s preparations for an armistice meeting, details which were taken from official bulletins printed in German newspapers on 6 November. One bulletin 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. 16
However, newspapers in Britain, France and the United States conflated details from both bulletins 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.
But except in Allied newspaper reports, there was no armistice delegation headed by von Hintze or von Winterfeldt. 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 three other officers took no part in it. When Allied newspapers subsequently published the Spa-Senlis wireless messages naming von Winterfeldt as a delegation member under Erzberger, but not the others, some commented on the fact, most did not. 17
It is not known why Howard replaced his original theory about a von Hintze delegation and its 6 November arrival at the Front with the one he presented and rejected in 1936 about a first Erzberger delegation and an early-morning 7 November meeting with Foch. But his 1918 version is worthy of further attention. For a consideration of its premise in its historical context produces speculations similar to Howard’s.
2c) What if …?
In their Wednesday 6 November late-evening and 7 November morning editions, many Allied 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 it 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 that followed a few hours later. 18
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 both 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”. 19
Now, 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 Spa (via Berlin and Paris) announcing the departure of an 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. But at some point, information about their arrival late on 6 November could 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, and the leaked news about it was conveniently lost in the entirely separate false armistice news that arose 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.
Part 3. Other Theories
The first two of the following ‘explanations’ of why news of the signing of an armistice on 7 November was released only to be cancelled later in the day are taken from letters written by American servicemen who, respectively, were in Paris and the Port of Brest at the time.
The first relates that an armistice agreement was concluded on 7 November but then aborted because of German bad faith:
“This was the day when you good people at home had your premature celebration, but it was not so premature as you have been led to believe. I have been told on good authority that … the Armistice was actually signed at the time its accounts stated, but that the discovery of German treachery forced the annulment of the earlier terms. I am told that originally it was arranged for all hostilities to cease twenty-four hours after the signing of the papers; but it was discovered that Germany had laid such extensive plans for further treacherous destruction of men and property, that it was necessary to make more stringent terms and, as you know, in the final arrangement an interval of only six hours was provided for.” 21
This explanation recalls the widespread mistrust among the Allied High Commands of German plans and intentions in early November 1918, and especially mistrust of their proposals for a general cease-fire to be observed by both sides during the armistice talks, which Marshal Foch rejected. 22 It would have seemed entirely feasible at the time that the armistice so many believed had been agreed on 7 November had been broken by German treachery. The false peace news reported in the newspapers – with its details of an 11 am armistice to be followed by a cease-fire, not twenty-four hours later, but at 2 pm/3 pm the same day – did not, however, provide the explanation with any ‘factual’ support.
The second blames financial considerations for preventing the ending of the war on 7 November:
“It was claimed here [in Brest] by many American officers, who secured their information from Headquarters, that the Armistice was actually signed at the time of the first announcement on Nov. 7, but that the report was later denied at the request of the French officials, who feared for the success of the French Liberty Loan then nearing completion. The French thought the Loan would not be fully subscribed if the announcement was made at this time, so the report was denied in an official statement from Admiral Wilson and was withheld until the French Loan was completed three days later…. “ 23
The “Liberty Loan” was the fourth war loan the French Government raised during the Great War. The first of four scheduled sales of its 4% Liberation Bonds lasted from 20 October until 24 November 1918, the other three were held during 1919. US Admiral Henry B. Wilson, who announced the armistice news in Brest during the afternoon of the 7th, did indeed issue a statement that the news was an error. 20 But it was not “withheld until the … Loan was completed three days later”. He released his statement the following day, Friday 8 November, by which time the armistice news had been widely declared to be false and celebrations of it had more or less petered out. And the loan, as noted, was not “completed three days later”.
It is noteworthy that the source of this particular false armistice conspiracy theory is said to be “many American officers” because information about, and an implicit invitation to subscribe to, the war loan was circulated to American forces in France at the request of the French Government. General Pershing’s Headquarters released a bulletin, dated 19 October 1918, containing details of the “French Liberation Loan” which the Commissioner General of Franco-American War Affairs had provided. 27
Stock Market speculators were widely suspected of being behind the 7 November false armistice news, according to the following two explanations.
The Liverpool Journal of Commerce and Shipping Telegraph implicated unnamed profiteers eager to make quick financial gains from the widely expected imminent ending of the war. Its 9 November issue stated that while “no reasonable explanation is forthcoming … of the premature announcement of the armistice … the general view is that the intimation was circulated from a source which had been unwittingly deceived by a London or New York Stock Exchange ramp intended to create a sudden upward movement in certain forms of security”. 24
[‘Ramp’ = an attempt to push up the price of something. In this sense, synonymous with ‘bull’.]
A few years later, in October 1925, an article appeared in Harper’s Magazine under the title ‘Fake News and The Public: How the Press Combats Rumor, the Market Rigger, and the Propagandist’. It was written by Edward McKernon who was Superintendent of the Eastern Division of the Associated Press organization. The theme of the article is the “marked difference between rumors and reports” and how “the news editor has to contend not only with rumor” but also with the efforts of numerous people “intent on misinforming the public for their own ends”. Among the latter, he identified the “market rigger, the news faker, the promoter of questionable projects, and [those] obsessed with a single idea”.
McKernon illustrated how the Associated Press had succeeded in separating rumours and disinformation from genuine, verifiable, reports by describing its handling of a number of recent news stories, one of which was “the false report of the signing of the Armistice in 1918”. He believed this was “first started deliberately as a market-rigging plot” and defined the culprits’ “business” as being “to cause prices in Wall Street to rise or fall suddenly in order that he or his associates may profit thereby”. Their key to success, McKernon observed, was watching “for the psychological moment when the public may be most easily stampeded” by rumours that anticipate events.
He did not know who the market riggers were that he was certain had started the 7 November armistice rumour or where they had operated from – “one can only speculate” about these particulars, he noted. But indicting the “president of a news agency” – not named, but obviously Roy Howard and United Press – for treating the armistice story “as a fact” and sending it as such to newspapers across the United States, he argued that Howard was responsible for the market riggers’ success: “the immediate effect of the rumor [on the New York Stock Exchange] was a confused movement of prices with sharp breaks in several ‘war stocks’ and advances in railroads and various other ‘peace’ shares”. In short, Howard’s failure to verify the armistice news and his “bad reporting” of it “played into [the market riggers’] hands”. However, according to McKernon, the Associated Press’s denial of the veracity of the armistice news, based on their own investigation of it the same day, had persuaded the Stock Exchange governors to close earlier than usual on 7 November, and so had helped to limit the overall damage the United Press’s mishandling of the rumour was causing. 25
Roy Howard read McKernon’s article and, in a comment no doubt directed specifically at its criticisms of his actions that day (rather than at the work as a whole), dismissed it as being “malicious … in that it was a perversion and a distortion of the facts through a telling of half truths and the elimination of relevant facts … prepared and published by an executive of the A.P.” 26
© James Smith. October 2018. With additions, October 2020; November 2021.
- 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, ‘Amazing Armistice’, The Century Magazine, November 1921, p99.
- 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 ‘False Armistice Cablegrams from France’ on this website.
- L. B. Mickel to Roy Howard, Oklahoma City, Aug 11, 1919. Roy Howard Papers (1892-1964). MSA 1, The Media School Archive, Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Indiana. Available online.
- Howard, ‘Premature Armistice’, pp93-95.
- See ‘Local Cease-Fires for the German Armistice Delegation’ and ‘No Cease-Fire with Germany without an Armistice Agreement’, on this website.
- Letter: Roy W. Howard to Arthur Hornblow. San Diego. June nineteenth 1921, p2. Arthur and Leonora Hornblow Papers. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Beverly Hills, California. See the Howard entry in ‘Biographical Details’ for his advice to Hornblow against using ‘fake’ to describe the False Armistice of 7 November 1918.
- See the ‘American Army G-2 Report on the False Armistice News’ on this website.
- Hornblow, ‘Amazing Armistice’, The Century Magazine, November 1921, p97.
- Howard, ‘Premature Armistice’, pp92-93.
- See ‘Local Cease-Fire Orders and the False Armistice News’ on this website.
- See ‘Local Cease-Fires for the German Armistice Delegation’ 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. Roy Howard 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 ‘The False Armistice in France’ on this website.
- H. R. Rudin, Armistice, 1918. Chapter X, ‘Germany in Revolution’, p263-264. (Archon Books. 1967. First published 1944, Yale University Press.)
- See ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest’ on this website.
- Excerpt from letter to Earl Reed Silvers from John P. Street, France, ca. January 14, 1919. Rutgers College War Service Bureau, RG 33/CO/01.
- See ‘No Cease-Fire with Germany without an Armistice Agreement’, on this website.
- Excerpt from letter to Earl Reed Silvers from Lawrence G. Gilliam, Brest, France, ca. January 1, 1919. Rutgers College War Service Bureau, RG 33/CO/01.
- The Journal of Commerce and Shipping Telegraph, November 9 1918. (Liverpool, England.) Available through the British Newspaper Archive portal.
- Edward McKernon, ‘Fake News and the Public’. Article in Harper’s Magazine, October 1925, pp528-536. Available through the Internet Archive. References above are from pp530-533.
- In Letter to Fred Cook, 28 November 1925, p3. The Roy Howard Papers (1892-1964). MSA 1, The Media School Archive, Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Indiana. Available online.
- United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919. Volume 17, Bulletins, GHQ, AEF. (Washington, D.C., 1992) ‘Bulletin, No. 79’. Available online.