False Armistice News from France

By Thursday 7 November 1918, separate armistice agreements had already stopped the fighting between the Allies and Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey – the countries aligned with Germany.  And during that day, German delegates were making their way to the Western Front to conclude an armistice between Germany and the Allies – eventually signed on Monday 11 November 1918.1 ENDNOTES

Hours before the delegates reached the Front during late evening on 7 November, erroneous information was released in Paris that the armistice had been signed with Germany that morning: the false German armistice news of 7 November 1918.

Initially, the news spread from France to the USA and Britain.  But from the USA it crossed into Canada, Mexico and other parts of Latin America, and from Canada reached Australia and New Zealand.

This is an account of how the false news entered the USA and Britain in three distinct cablegram messages (each from American sources) and of subsequent reports US officials in Paris sent to Washington, DC, about two of them.

 

The False Armistice Cablegrams

The time of the day in Britain was the same as in France in November 1918.  In the United States, Eastern Standard Time was five hours behind British and French time.  German time was one hour ahead of the time in France (Allied Time). Thus, 11:00 am in Britain was 11:00 am in France, 6:00 am in Washington DC, and 12 midday in Germany.

a) Two cablegrams to the United States

At least two false armistice messages went to the USA on 7 November 1918, one to Washington, DC, the other to New York City.  Both arrived before midday.

The first was from Major B. H. Warburton, the Military Attaché at the American Embassy in Paris.  Sent by military wire to the War Department, it read simply “Armistice signed”.2

The cable arrived at 8:55 am local time, which was 1:55 pm French time.  Unfortunately, neither this nor other cables Warburton sent on 7 and 8 November show the time of dispatch from Paris.  However, on 7 November, at 1:00 pm in Paris, Warburton told Lieutenant Colonel Cabot Ward, the Assistant Chief of Staff of SOS G-2, that he had sent it “during the morning”.3

By a so-called “war-time system of quick communication” it would have taken about 10 minutes for the cable to reach the War Department from Paris.If it had been in a transmission queue, it could have taken much longer.

From the War Department – at “about 10 o’clock” – the head of the Military Intelligence Division, Brigadier General Marlborough Churchill, personally delivered a “secret copy” of Warburton’s message to the State Department.  Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Army Chief of Staff General Peyton March, and foreign policy adviser Frank Polk all agreed that it must be a mistake.  They reasoned, accurately, that “it was physically impossible for the German [delegates] to have [already] reached the French lines and much less to have conferred with Marshal Foch” as they had left Berlin for the Western Front (hundreds of miles away) only the previous afternoon.

But to be certain, Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s Special Representative in Paris, was asked “for confirmation or denial” of the news.5   The request left at 11:00 am.  Apparently, it “got through to the embassy … in nine minutes” and so would have arrived there sometime after about 4:10 pm French time.  House’s reply denied the armistice news.6

However, before it reached the State Department, another cable from Major Warburton, cancelling his earlier “Armistice signed” message, was received at the War Department.  Warburton now reported that a Major Straight (US liaison officer presumably) had telephoned a denial of the armistice news from Marshal Foch’s headquarters (in Senlis) and stated that the “parlementaires” (German delegates) “will arrive [there] at 5 p.m. today”.7

The War Department received Warburton’s cancellation at 12:25 pm.  Sometime after 12:45 pm, Polk gave a copy of it to Lancing at the club where the Secretary of State was having lunch.8

Around the same time as Warburton’s cancellation message was being shown to Lansing in Washington, DC, the second cablegram carrying false armistice news to the USA suddenly arrived in New York City (some 300 miles away).  Its message was sent originally from Paris by Captain R. H. Jackson, the American Naval Attaché at the Embassy, to Admiral Henry Wilson, commander of US naval forces in France.  It travelled by military wire, sometime before 4:00 pm (French time) to the Admiral’s headquarters in the port of Brest on the Brittany peninsula.

Jackson’s message stated that the Allies and Germany had signed an armistice at “eleven this morning” and that “hostilities ceased [at] two this afternoon”.  It also contained inaccurate information about the city of Sedan having been “taken this morning” by American forces.9

Shortly after 4:00 pm, Admiral Wilson released the news to the townspeople in Brest, who immediately began to celebrate the end of the war.  He also gave a copy of it to Roy Howard, President of the United Press news agency, with permission to send it to his New York City office for release in the United States.  By coincidence, Howard was in Brest waiting for a ship back to America.

Accompanied by Admiral Wilson’s interpreter, Howard sent the peace news from the trans-Atlantic cable-head building in the town shortly before 4:30 pm.  But it went without prior clearance from the French cable censors who had an office there.  They did not see the message before the telegraph operators transmitted it, apparently because they were outside with the crowds celebrating Admiral Wilson’s armistice news.

Howard’s cablegram arrived at the United Press office in the Pulitzer Building on Park Row not long before noon.  The New York cable censors believed that Howard had sent the message from the United Press office in Paris (rather than somewhere else) and that the French censors had cleared it.  They therefore allowed the office in New York to send it “on the leased wires of the service … to all parts of the country”.  Within a very short time, “the nation was aflame, and started a celebration that was never halted until after the real signing of the armistice”.10

What could not have been very long after Howard sent his cablegram, Admiral Wilson received a warning that the armistice message was “unconfirmable”.  Whether Captain Jackson sent this to Brest is not known.

The Admiral forwarded the alarming news to Howard, who was eventually traced to a local restaurant where he and some acquaintances had met to celebrate.  Howard left intending to dispatch a second cablegram to New York to cancel his first one.  This was “approximately two hours” later; but his cancellation message failed to reach United Press until just before noon the following day – Friday 8 November.11

b) The cablegram to Britain

Unfortunately, there seems to be little available information concerning the false armistice cablegram that went to Britain.  

It was sent to the American Embassy in London sometime before 4:00 pm on 7 November.  Presumably travelling by uncensored military telegraph, most probably from Paris but possibly from a US base elsewhere in France, it announced that an armistice with Germany had been signed at 2:30 that afternoon.

Who sent the cable is unknown, but US Navy personnel in the Embassy buildings apparently received it initially.  Who released the information to the British is also unknown, but he passed it on to the Reuters news agency in London which made it available to newspapers just before 4:00 pm in a short bulletin describing it as “official American information”.  The time in Britain was the same as in France in November 1918, so the false armistice news arrived and began spreading in Britain before Roy Howard’s cablegram had left Brest for New York City.

Reuters did not submit its armistice bulletin to the British press censors before sending it out; within minutes, however, it was informed – perhaps by the American Embassy or British Foreign Office – that the news had not been confirmed.  The agency immediately cancelled it, though this failed – for several hours – to stop its amazingly rapid spread across England, Wales and Scotland.12

 

Of the three false armistice cablegrams, Roy Howard’s is the most well-known.  It achieved immediate notoriety in American newspapers outside the United Press syndicate, was the main focus in many writings about the False Armistice after 1918 and is mentioned, often in relation to ‘fake news’, in more recent ‘blogs’.  Major Warburton’s cablegram, effectively contained within the War and State Departments on 7 November 1918, was not revealed to the public until many years later, and is still relatively unknown even in the United States.13  The cablegram that took the false armistice news to Britain was very quickly forgotten about, as were the events it helped to generate there.

The State and War Departments subsequently wired Paris demanding to know how the false armistice information had escaped the censors and got through to the United States.  Whether similar enquiries were ever made into how the misinformation reached Britain, is not known here.  No evidence of any has been found for this article.

The State Department Demands Explanations

With false armistice news from United Press racing around the United States, the Secretary of State demanded to know why it had not been quashed in France.  As yet unaware that Roy Howard had sent the news from Brest, Lansing had the following telegram, its text evidently restrained, sent to the American Ambassador in Paris, William Sharp:

“United Press [in New York City] received telegram today before 1 p.m. announcing armistice had been signed.  Telegram published at once and greatest excitement and enthusiasm prevails.  This Department and War Department have been informed no foundation for story.  Please find out why censor passed this report as the incident is most unfortunate.” 14

At the same time, he had a separate cable sent to Special Representative House.  Its longer message, less restrained, presumed some sharp practice on the part of the news agency:

“United Press received telegram this morning which was published at once announcing armistice had been signed.  Later information from War Department and from you is that there is no foundation for report.  Similar report was received early this morning by War Department from Warburton but not credited.  The effect of publication of news naturally has created tremendous excitement. People marching through streets cheering peace.  If as you report there is no foundation for report, it would seem a grave error has been made by censor in permitting this message to pass and that the United Press has been guilty of reckless news work.  Please have Embassy investigate and report how United Press has made such a serious mistake.” 15

Judging from what Lansing said he reported to President Wilson about the armistice news, the State and War Departments decided that French and British censors must be to blame for its arrival in America.  For in a memorandum written the same day, he recorded that he told the President the French and British “had permitted the press telegram to come through” – what he described as “a strange neglect of duty”.  He did not say, however, on what evidence he based his assertion.16

 

Explanations from Sharp and House

Ambassador Sharp’s report to the State Department arrived in two parts, during Friday 8 and Saturday 9 November.

In the first part, received on Friday at 9:34 am, the Ambassador explained:

“Preliminary investigation shows that the telegram referred to was filed in Brest by Mr. Roy Howard head of the United Press who is now at that Port enroute to the United States.  The telegram was passed by the American authorities at Brest.  Will cable you when further investigation shows where responsibility lies.”

The second part arrived at 11:43 am on Saturday:

“Paris representative of United Press states that he has been in communication telephone with Mr. Howard at Brest who informs him that Admiral Wilson, having received a telegram from the Naval Attaché at the Embassy that armistice had been signed, gave out the news to the local press at Brest, also to Mr. Howard; the latter accompanied by one of Admiral Wilson’s aides filed the cable to the United States which was passed by the censor.” 17

Special Representative House reported that his information coincided with the Embassy’s.  He explained:

“Most of the officials in Paris and practically every non-official person here believed yesterday that the armistice had been signed.  Captain Jackson, Naval Attaché at the Embassy, sent Admiral Wilson at Brest a wire to that effect.  Wilson showed wire to Roy Howard at Brest and sent an aide with him to cable censor so that Howard would be permitted to send through a dispatch stating that the armistice had been signed.  It is perfectly clear that United Press was not at fault in this matter and that the fault if any, lies with Jackson or the French official who started the rumor….” 18

Clearly, Lansing’s assumptions about British and French censors in France neglecting their duties, and of  “reckless news work” there by United Press were not borne out by Sharp’s and House’s reports.  On the contrary, they absolved United Press and Roy Howard of any wrongdoing, while insinuating that it was American authorities, in Paris and Brest, that were responsible for what the Secretary of State had termed the “grave error” and “serious mistake” of allowing the armistice news to spread.

The War Department Demands an Explanation

In his follow-on message cancelling his armistice news on 7 November, Warburton had claimed – without elaboration – that the “Armistice signed” information had been confirmed by “G-2 (?) S.O.S., Paris”.19

The following day, Brigadier General Marlborough Churchill demanded an explanation from him.  Evidently annoyed, the General instructed him to:

“… explain fully the circumstances which led you to make the unqualified statement that the armistice had been signed, based merely on the authority of G-2, S.O.S., as stated in your No. 629.  Rush answer.” 20

Warburton reported later that day.  He now told Churchill that he had received the news from the American Embassy; but he repeated his claim that G-2 had confirmed it:

“[The] information was furnished me by embassy, as I thought, officially.  Subsequently after having sent my [“Armistice signed” cable] embassy, to my astonishment, asked me if [armistice] report had been confirmed.  Immediately upon discovery of my error endeavored to secure confirmation, which was obtained from Lt. Col. Ward, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, S.O.S., who stated at 1:00 P.M. that French War Office had called him by telephone and confirmed report and had requested him to notify our General Headquarters.  This report was given absolute credence by various departments of French government and was not officially denied until the afternoon and at the same time this office sent you cable No. 629 [his follow-on cancellation message].”

He concluded his explanation with the following intriguing comment:

“Probable reason for universal belief of [armistice] report was no doubt caused by interception of wireless message ordering cessation of fire yesterday afternoon (November 7.) to permit the plenipotentiaries to cross lines.” 21

With no other information to clarify it, the War Department may not immediately have comprehended what Warburton meant by his last sentence.  But he was stating, in effect, that  everyone in Paris believed the armistice news on 7 November because an intercepted wireless message contained an order for a cease-fire that afternoon to enable the German armistice delegates to cross the front lines.

Major Warburton thus named the American Embassy, Lieutenant Colonel Cabot Ward of SOS G-2 in Paris, and various French government departments as having either spread or confirmed the armistice news.  And he affirmed that everyone believed the news because of an intercepted wireless message about an afternoon cease-fire on 7 November for the German plenipotentiaries.

His information added a little to what Ambassador Sharp and Special Representative House had reported.  But none of them attempted to explain where the armistice news came from, though House blamed some “French official” for starting it.  And there seem to have been no subsequent calls from the State and War Departments for other details or clarifications about the false armistice news.

One other report about it was produced – by the AEF SOS G-2 Intelligence Service in Paris during 7-9 November.  G-2 carried out its own investigation into why the false news had started and how it had spread.  Its findings, presented elsewhere, were far more detailed than those sent in the three reports to the State and War Departments.22

Developments leading towards the real armistice on 11 November very quickly overshadowed False Armistice events, but – unlike elsewhere –  did not completely submerge them in the United States.  For many years after the war ended, American newspapers retained a particular interest in the story of Roy Howard and his 7 November armistice cablegram from Brest.

© James Smith

(April 2018)

ENDNOTES

Documents Sources

A) 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) [Online]

B) Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs. Military Intelligence Division. Security Classified Correspondence and Reports, 1917-1941. Record Group 165, United States National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

C) Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918. Supplement 1, The World War, Volume I.Part 1: The Continuation and Conclusion of the War – Participation of the United States. Editor: Joseph V. Fuller. (US Government Printing Office. Washington, DC. 1933.) [Online]

D) Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States: The Lansing Papers, 1914-1920. Volume II. ‘Memorandum by the Secretary of State. November 7, 1918.’ Document 126. Editors: Cyril Wynne; E. Wilder Spaulding; E. R. Perkins. (US Government Printing Office. Washington, DC. 1940.) [Online]

E) Department of State Records, Record Group 84, United States National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland.

Notes

1. The literal meaning of armistice is ‘a halt to, or stopping of, the use of arms’ (as in weapons of war). See the Armistice item on the ‘False Armistice Commentary’ page of this website.

2. Warburton to War Department. Paris. November 7, 1918. No. 628. File# 2169-38.  Documents Sources B).  Referred to as Document No 398 in Documents Sources C); and in the Lansing Memorandum in Documents Sources D).

See the ‘Roy Howard’s and Arthur Hornblow’s Information about False Armistice Messages’ article on this website for information about other possible false armistice reports to Washington, DC, on 7 November 1918.

3. G-2 Report, Section 3. Documents Sources A). The 8:55 am arrival time at the War Department is recorded on the telegram.

4. The “war-time system of quick communication” is mentioned in a 1928 article, about the two cablegrams to America, in the Madera Daily Tribune and Madera Mercury (California), 7 November 1928, p3, under ‘World War Officials Give Story of How False Report Started’. There are two separate articles on the page but paragraphs from each article evidently became mixed-up during publication, causing some confusion in the narrative.

5. Lansing Memorandum, Documents Sources D). And, Secretary of State to the Special Representative (House). Washington, November 7, 1918, 11 a.m. Document No 398, Documents Sources C). House is sometimes referred to as ‘Colonel’ House, but he had no military service or official rank.

6. The Madera Daily Tribune and Madera Mercury (California), 7 November 1928, p3. See note 4 above.  House’s reply, “Armistice has not yet been signed. German representatives [have not yet met] Marshal Foch”, reached the State Department at 2:04 pm (7:04 pm in Paris).  It shows the time of “6:00 pm” from Paris, so it seems to have taken about an hour to get to Washington, DC.  House to Secretary of State. Paris, November 7, 1918, 6 p.m. Document 399. Documents Sources C).

7. Warburton to War Department. No. 629. Paris. Dated November 7, 1918. Received November 7, 12:25 p.m. File# 2169-39. Documents Sources B).

8. Lansing Memorandum. Documents Sources D).

9. Webb Miller, I Found No Peace. The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent. Chapter IV ‘Premature Armistice’, p83. (Camelot Press, London. Book Club Special Edition. 1937.)

10. The Madera Daily Tribune and Madera Mercury (California), 7 November 1928, p3. See note 4 above.

11. For events in Brest, see the Roy W. Howard in Brest article on this website.

12. For more on events in Britain, see James Smith, ‘Reuters and the False Armistice of 7 November 1918’, in The Baron Archives, 6 April 2017. http://www.thebaron.info/archives/reuters-and-the-false-armistice-of-7-november-1918   And the ‘False Armistice in Britain’ article on this website.

13. Warburton’s false armistice cable was made known in 1933, when the State Department Papers, cited in Documents Sources C), were published. The 7 November 1928 article in the Madera Daily Tribune claimed it was revealing “for the first time the fact that the U.S. military attache communicated … word that the armistice had been signed”. But it does not name Warburton.  Roy Howard named him in his account in Webb Miller (see note 18) where he described Warburton’s message – erroneously – as a “verbatim duplicate” of Captain Jackson’s to Admiral Wilson. (p87)

14. Lansing to Sharp. Washington, November 7, 1918, 4 p.m. Document 400, Documents Sources C).

15. Lansing to House. Washington. November 7, 1918. 4 p.m. Not in Documents Sources C). Quoted here from File# 763.72119/9101a, Documents Sources E).

16. Lansing Memorandum. Documents Sources D).

17. Sharp to Lansing. Paris. November 8, 1918, 4 p.m. File# 763.72119/2514; and Sharp to Lansing. Paris. November 8, 1918, 8 P.M. File# 763.72119/2543. Documents Sources E).  The latter, part two, is also in the published Documents Sources C), as Document 409.

18. House to Lansing. Paris. November 8, 1918, 7 p.m. Recd. 5:10 p.m. File# 763.72119/9100. Documents Sources E). Also in Documents Sources C), as Document 404.

19. Warburton to War Department, No. 629, November 7, 1918. Received November 7, 12:25 p.m. File# 2169-39. Documents Sources B).

20. Churchill to Military Attache, Paris. November 8, 1918. File# 2169-40. Documents Sources B).

21. Warburton to War Department. No. 642, Paris. November 8, 1918. Received Nov. 8, 10:40 p.m. File# 2169-41. Documents Sources B).

22. See the G-2’s False Armistice Findings article on this website.