This article describes attempts Roy Howard made to find out what caused the False Armistice and the information he collected about it from sundry sources. A companion article relates how Arthur Hornblow, who met Howard in Brest on 7 November 1918, separately acquired information about the Jackson Armistice Telegram. Combined, their findings (which they seem not to have shared with each other) throw some light on what occurred, or allegedly occurred, in connection with the false armistice news circulating in France on 7 November 1918.
The search and its results
When Howard left Brest on 10 November 1918, he was still “utterly distressed” over the armistice message he had sent to New York City three days earlier, according to Fred Cook who saw him on board ship just before his departure. ENDNOTE 1a) The few days it took to cross the Atlantic would have given him time to reflect on what had happened, and Howard returned firmly convinced that the US authorities were withholding important details from the public concerning the 7 November armistice news.
He set about trying to unearth the truth behind the misinformation in his armistice cablegram from Brest that embroiled him and United Press (UP) in acrimonious controversy and threatened them with ruinous consequences. If he could “get into the facts deeply enough”, he believed he would uncover the “whole story” about the False Armistice which would “round out and throw a new light on the developments of November 7th”. 2a);2b2) And with this he would demonstrate irrefutably to detractors that he and United Press had not behaved dishonestly, unprofessionally and unscrupulously in their handling of what the New York Times labelled “a monstrous invention” about the end of the war. 1b)
Letters in his archive show that Howard initiated a search for False Armistice information using UP’s news-gathering resources. And with some early promising leads. For during the first nine months after the war ended, he acquired details about several false armistice messages that were transmitted or allegedly transmitted during the afternoon of 7 November 1918. 1c)
Two allegedly sent were to the Navy Department from Admiral Wilson in Brest, and two were to the State Department from Special Representative Edward House in Paris. Howard had information about these by 2 December 1918. Another was to the State Department from the American Ambassador in Paris, William Sharp. But it is not certain when Howard obtained this latter item of information.
Of the others, one was transmitted from US Navy Headquarters in Paris by a Lieutenant Emmett King, who told United Press about it on 19 December 1918.
One was the actual Jackson false armistice message to Admiral H. B. Wilson in Brest, which Howard had forwarded to the United States on 7 November thereby starting the premature armistice celebrations across North America. He obtained a copy of the message printed on its telegram form during July and August 1919.
And two were British false armistice naval signals sent out to warships in the Grand Fleet. Howard acquired copies of these but it is not known when or how.
Information about telegrams from Admiral Wilson to the Navy Department, from Edward House to the State Department, and from Ambassador Sharp to the State Department.
The first items of information Howard acquired are some bare details about four alleged armistice messages sent on 7 November from Admiral Wilson to the Navy Department and Edward House to the State Department. (Edward House was often referred to as “Colonel House” but he had no official military rank.)
In a confidential letter dated 2 December 1918, Howard revealed to Robert (Bob) Bender, his manager at the United Press office in Washington, DC, that:
On 7 November the Navy Department received a cablegram at 12:10 pm from Admiral Wilson in Brest stating “Headquarters reports armistice signed”; and the State Department received one, at 12:30 pm, from Edward House, stating “Armistice signed congratulations”.
But at 12:40 pm, just ten minutes after its armistice news had arrived, the State Department received another message from House warning that the news was an error and promising to send a “full report”. At 1:10 pm, the Navy Department received a similar follow-on message from Admiral Wilson, stating “Headquarters report error in signature”.
“Of course,” Howard asserted, Josephus Daniels [Navy Secretary] and Frank Polk [State Department Counsellor] know “all about these messages”. 2a)
Howard explained that this information came to him “in a round-about way” from a person “unknown” to him and “whose acquaintance [he] deliberately avoided making”. (Whoever he was, the unnamed informant must have been an insider or someone with insider-contacts in Washington, DC.)
Many years later, in a letter to an American journalist, Howard disclosed that Ambassador William Sharp had also sent a false armistice message to the State Department on 7 November – “virtually identical to the one received by Admiral Wilson”. 2i)
[These alleged messages are discussed in their 7 November 1918 context in the ‘False Armistice Cablegrams from France’ article on this website.]
It is not certain when Howard first acquired the information about the above alleged messages. But it is probable that he had the details about those sent by Admiral Wilson and Edward House before a meeting he had with Josephus Daniels in November; that he spoke to Daniels about them; and had tried unsuccessfully to raise them with Admiral Wilson.
Meeting with Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels (19 November 1918)
On 19 November, a few days after returning from France, Howard had a meeting with Daniels (in private life, a newspaper proprietor and Associated Press subscriber). In a statement afterwards, Howard told reporters he had seen Daniels “to express his appreciation” for Admiral Wilson’s statement exonerating him and United Press from any blame for the false armistice news. But it is more likely that his main purpose had been to ask about the armistice news Wilson had received from Paris and the alleged 7 November messages he sent to the Navy Department about it.
Whether Daniels enlightened Howard is not known. But his press statement after the meeting, which the New York Times quoted, raised legitimate questions about the false armistice news to which he presumably had received no answers:
“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 ….” 1b)
Approaches to Admiral Wilson
Around the same time, Howard wrote to Admiral Wilson (who was still in Brest) evidently hoping to go over some points with him about what had happened during “the somewhat memorable incident of November 7th last in which you and I appeared as co-stars” – noting that some information about its “interesting phases” had come to his attention on his return home. 3a)
But Wilson ignored this and other attempts Howard made to question him about False Armistice intelligence he may have been holding. He adamantly refused to talk to Howard about the events of 7 November 1918. 18
“I don’t want you to mention [this letter’s] contents to a soul in Washington ….”
Despite those initial setbacks, Howard was determined to persevere. He wanted statements from the Navy Department that Admiral Wilson had received the armistice news “officially from [Navy] Headquarters [in Paris]” and had reported it as such to them. And from Edward House that he or an aide “actually filed the same [false] news” on 7 November to either the State Department or President Woodrow Wilson. He also wanted to learn what the “error” was that Admiral Wilson and House referred to in their follow-on cablegrams, where Navy Headquarters in Paris “got their report in the first place”, what originally gave rise to the report, and what had happened to the German delegates Howard believed had crossed the Allied lines on Wednesday 6 November with authority to sign an armistice (the delegates he alluded to in his press statement following his meeting with Daniels a few days earlier).
And he told Bender he had decided now that President Wilson and Edward House themselves should now be approached for the answers. He felt they would be more understanding and ready, for party-political reasons, to give him details that would put a stop to slurs still being made about him and United Press because of their handling of the false armistice news.
“I think that this can better be done in Paris”
The Peace Conference between the Allies and defeated Central Powers, which drew up the treaties that formally ended the Great War, was due to open in Paris (at Versailles) on 18 January 1919. House was already in Paris; President Wilson would soon be travelling there for the Conference. And Howard proposed to take advantage of the occasion to raise his False Armistice questions with them.
Bob Bender was one of the United Press team preparing to cover the Conference. Also in the team were Fred S. Ferguson, UP’s chief war correspondent in France, William Philip Simms, manager of the agency’s Paris Office, and Ed Keen, manager of the London Office. 4
Howard instructed Bender to show his letter to the others when they met in Paris. He wanted them all to assist in gathering information from US officials there – “I would like that all four of you keep your ears open for any clues or any information that may be obtainable bearing on the real reason for the [armistice] report of November 7th”. Once he himself was back in Paris to oversee UP’s coverage, Howard intended to “take … [the] matter up with House personally”; but if anything happened to prevent this, Fred Ferguson was to assume responsibility for meeting House.
As well as being manager of UP’s Washington Office (since 1917) Bender was also the agency’s “regular White House correspondent”. 5a) He had been assigned to President Wilson’s press entourage and, as he was due to travel to France on the President’s ship, Howard thought that an opportunity might arise during the voyage for Bender advantageously to “take the matter up with the President directly”. He urged him to do so “if such a contingency should arise”.
Howard reasoned at some length why President Wilson and House could be persuaded to provide answers to his questions:
“In view of the fact that all of our troubles were occasioned by information furnished us through American government channels, in further view of the fact that the American government in Washington was a recipient of the very same information that we received – received it from its most trusted representative abroad Colonel House – and in further view of the fact that our misfortune was intensified and complicated by the action of the Navy Department in holding up our correction, there seems to me to be good reason why the American government itself should willingly and quickly take whatever action is necessary to restore to us any standing or prestige that we may have lost by reason of handling information secured through the government agents.” 6
And alluding to UP’s support of the Democratic Party and of Wilson’s Administration, he added that it was “to [the President’s] interest that an organization such as United Press should not be discredited in the public mind. The President is acquainted with the Associated Press and will be able to understand the unfair advantage they have of this incident in an attempt to belittle our standing and our reliability”.
Howard considered that it was “vitally important” to obtain the information quickly and be able “to have this thing sprung as a full fledged story with all the punch and carrying force that can be put into it”, rather than “have the facts dribble out a bit at a time” without any “corrective effect”. But he realised this might not be possible. In an interesting, somewhat cryptic comment, he summed up the choices facing them: “If it can be done without embarrassing the American position” then it should be, because “the quicker this matter is cleaned up the better for us”. However, if House were to intimate that he could not “clear it up at this time without embarrassing the government”, then they would have to wait until the story could be told “without damaging the interests of the government”. And in this event, United Press would have to “stand the gaff a little longer”. 2a)
President Wilson left for France on 4 December 1918 on board the SS George Washington, as presumably did Bob Bender with his copy of Howard’s confidential letter dated 2 December. The ship arrived at Brest on 13 December; the President and his party reached Paris the following day. Howard intended to leave for France on 14 December but seems to have postponed his departure until after Christmas. Whether he eventually went to Paris himself for the Peace Conference is not certain from available sources. 2b1)
During the Peace Conference, Fred Ferguson (from UP’s office there) managed to gain an illicit exclusive pre-publication access to the text of Article Ten of the Treaty of Versailles. This was concerned with the Covenant of the League of Nations and made provision for guaranteeing the territorial integrity and political independence of all League Member-States. Ferguson had tried in vain to obtain information about Article Ten from Edward House; but he succeeded with someone he knew “who was a minor official of the delegation”. Apparently, the latter arranged for Ferguson clandestinely to read the text of Article Ten in a room of the Crillon Hotel in Paris, where American officials were staying during the Peace Conference. 5b)
However, whether Ferguson, Bender, Simms, Keen, or Howard (if he was there) managed to obtain any confidential information about 7 November 1918 is not known. And whatever may have transpired in Paris, there is nothing in Howard’s papers or in his later writings to suggest that he had been able to resolve the False Armistice mystery and use the knowledge to rehabilitate UP’s reputation in the newspaper world. Perhaps attempts to engage President Wilson, Edward House, and other officials with questions about the alleged false armistice telegrams to the Navy and State Departments that had helped launch Howard’s search were rebuffed. Or perhaps information about them and the other matters Howard wanted was actually obtained, but on condition that it would remain strictly “off the record” because the whole affair could not be cleared up “at this time without embarrassing the government” – as Howard (in his letter to Bob Bender before the Conference) suggested might happen (and as Josephus Daniels may well have intimated to Howard on 19 November 1918).
The Peace Conference ended on 21 January 1920. President Wilson had returned to the United States long before that – in the middle of February 1919. When Howard’s United Press team left Paris is not known here.
“It is too bad that the whole case cannot be put before the public.” (December 1918)
Meanwhile, before the end of December, a few more False Armistice snippets were forwarded to Howard. These are in a letter dated 19 December from US Navy Headquarters in Paris. The letter was sent by Emmett King to “W. F. L.”. It was copied and presumably forwarded to Howard by “W. F. L.” – William F. Lynch, described as being UP’s “Chief Operator” (of telegraph) in 1916. 5c)
King described himself as the Headquarters’ “Chief Electrician, (Radio)” and apparently knew W.F.L. – perhaps through their work in radio telegraphy. His navy rank seems to have been that of lieutenant. 7 The letter may be a reply to one mentioning events in the USA on 7 November that W.F.L. had already written to him, but the impression is that King wrote it without any prompting from W.F.L. He had, he explained, read some American newspapers reporting the False Armistice there and the “strong criticism” levelled against United Press by Associated Press and other agencies, and wanted to assure W.F.L. that United Press had “pulled the biggest ‘beat’ of all time” with its armistice bulletin.
He claimed to know “what caused the whole [false armistice news] affair”, and though he said he was not at liberty “just at present [to] explain it”, nevertheless offered the following tidbits:
“About 3:50 p.m., the seventh [of November] a message was handed me, in plain English, reading identically the same as the message that was afterwards published in America to the effect that hostilities had ceased. I flashed the message and as soon as had finished it was taken from my hands and never returned to the files. I can assure you that the signature on the message was thoroughly official and that the message itself was absolutely from official channels, so much so, that in half an hours time the entire Atlantic fleet would have been on its way into port, but they stopped the proceedings before they got too far …. But rest assured of this fact: That the United Press had the right dope and had in reality pulled the biggest “beat” of all time. I know this for I handled the whole case. The whole ‘bone’ [‘stupid mistake’] lay in a government official (not American). It is too bad that the whole case cannot be put before the public … what a shame that [they] don’t know the facts”.
Having been working on the armistice and “later peace stuff”, King explained that he was now engaged “in handling all Colonel House’s work”. 8 And, under the impression that Howard was in Paris in December 1918, hoped he might “drop around” to see him and find out “what he knows regarding that message”. 2c)
King did not say who handed the message to him, where it had come from, to whom, or to where he transmitted it. But what he sent was, in fact, the Jackson False Armistice message of 7 November 1918. He was the operator who forwarded it from Paris to Admiral Wilson in Brest. 1d) Whether it was he who subsequently sent the message cancelling it is not known.
His allegation that “a government official (not American)” was responsible for the misinformation suggests it was a French or British one who was. And his comment that the “whole case cannot be put before the public” implies that the Allies were deliberately withholding information about what had actually happened – the most obvious reason being that they wanted to prevent any one of them being singled out for blame over the False Armistice.
It is not certain when Howard received King’s letter, where he was at the time or whether he or one of his team was able to follow it up. In view of King’s evident willingness to discuss the 7 November armistice message, the likelihood is that someone did see him in Paris to talk about the events outlined in his letter, though there is no reference in Howard’s papers to such a meeting and discussion. And it is not certain whether Howard or any of his team realized at the time that the telegram King claimed to have transmitted was the Jackson False Armistice Telegram. A few months later, however, a copy of this was acquired for Howard.
A copy of the Jackson Armistice Telegram to Admiral Wilson (July-August 1919)
Captain Richard H. Jackson became US Naval Attaché in Paris in May 1918. As such, his instructions were to “confer” with the “Senior Naval Officer afloat in French Waters”. 9 In November 1918, this was Admiral H. B. Wilson whose headquarters were at Brest. During the afternoon of 7 November, a telegram carrying Jackson’s name as authorization arrived for Admiral Wilson with news that an armistice with Germany had been signed that morning and a cessation of hostilities had occurred at 2:00 pm. The Admiral announced the news in Brest and to Roy Howard who happened to be at his headquarters when the telegram arrived. 18
On 19 July 1919 Hugh Baillie, UP’s new manager in Washington, DC, sent a letter to Howard at United Press in New York City. (Perhaps Howard was there at the time, or the letter was forwarded to him in Paris.) In it:
Baillie told Howard a colleague had called him that day to tell him that a lawyer in Washington, DC, by the name of Carey, with offices in the Wilkins Buildings there, “was in possession of the original telegram” Captain Jackson had sent to Admiral Wilson on 7 November 1918 “notifying him the armistice had been signed”. Carey, he explained, was the Admiral’s former secretary in Brest – “hence his possession of the telegram”. He was not “mercenary” but “would expect some cash for the telegram”, and was prepared to state that “Captain Jackson got his information of the signing [of the armistice] from the French Foreign Office.” 2d)
(There is a “Lieutenant J. A. Carey, (j. g.) Supply Corps, U.S.N.R.F.”, identified as “Flag Secretary” and “Navy Press Censor” at US Navy Headquarters in Brest in November 1918. And the 1919 US Navy Register lists a “Lieutenant (j. g.) Joseph A. Carey (Pay Corps) U.S.N.R.F., who was presumably the same person.13)
There is no reply to this letter and no other correspondence from Hugh Baillie about the Jackson Telegram in Howard’s archive. And what happened to the so-called “original telegram” Carey allegedly possessed – and must have brought to the United States from Brest – is a matter for speculation. Because what Howard acquired was most certainly not an original Jackson Armistice Telegram, but an obvious, unpretentious, copy.
The following month, Howard received a letter from another United Press official, L. B. Mickel, who became UP Superintendent of U.S. Bureaus some years later. The letter was typewritten on United Press Associations headed-paper, and contains a copy of the Jackson armistice message on a typed outline of its signal-sheet:
“Amnavpar” signifies that the telegram is from the American Navy in Paris, sent from the “Naval Forces in France Communication Office”.
“#2833″ (#2833) – presumably denotes the number of this telegram among those transmitted from the Communication Office on 11/7 ( November 7, 1918).
It is to be sent to (“DESTINATION”) “COMFRAN” – ‘The Commander in France’, that is Admiral Wilson, for him to act upon (“ACTION”).
“15207” is the time and date notation for the telegram – 3:20 pm on the 7th (November 1918) – indicating when the message was originally released by ‘Jackson’ for transmission from the Communication Office in the US Navy Paris Headquarters.
(Admiral Wilson received the telegram in Brest sometime before 4:00 pm.)
The letters “RBWH” in the “DUTY” box indicate, presumably, personnel on duty at the time.
Exactly what “This is a translation, shall never be transmitted” means in the message is not certain. Perhaps it was translated from a French or German source, and the information was not for general circulation or publication until official confirmation of the details had been received and approval given for their release.
From Oklahoma City on 11 August 1919, Mickel wrote:
“Here is a copy of the Wilson armistice message on which the admiral based his announcement.
It was taken by M. R. Toomer, Oklahoma News staff, from a copy made by a wireless operator in Wilson’s office at Brest. The original is in Wilson’s file.
Whether or not it contains new information for you I do not know. To me the ‘Foreign Office announces’ part is new stuff. 2e)
So, what Howard received from Mickel was a copy (made by M. R. Toomer) of a copy of the ‘original’ telegram made by an unnamed wireless operator at Navy Headquarters in Brest. The original was still “in Wilson’s file” in Brest.
M. R. Toomer does not appear to have been the same person as the unnamed wireless operator in Brest – there are no Toomers recorded in the US Navy Lists for 1918. Apart from making the copy for Mickel, it is not clear whether Toomer was involved with the Jackson Telegram in any other way.
What link there may have been between Baillie’s and Mickel’s letters about the Jackson telegram is not clear; and how Mickel had found out about the copy’s availability is not explained. But that Howard should have received Mickel’s letter, containing a copy of it, within three weeks of Baillie’s, informing him of its availability (albeit from a different source) would seem to be more than coincidental.
Until Roy Howard saw the copy in August 1919, he may have been unaware that the Jackson armistice message came (apparently) from the French Foreign Ministry – this detail was possibly “new stuff” to him as much as it was to L. B. Mickel at that time.
[The Jackson Telegram is discussed in its context in ‘False Armistice Cablegrams from France’ on this website.]
Two British Naval Signals
Included in a collection of telegrams from Howard’s four days in Brest, in a separate part of his archive, are copies of two British naval signals sent out on 7 November 1918 and recorded on Royal Navy signal sheets.
This is the first one 2f):
“C. in C. G. F.” is an abbreviation of ‘Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet’.
(The British Grand Fleet’s main bases were at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth on the east coast of Scotland, and Scapa Flow in the Scottish Orkney Islands. It was mostly deployed in the North Sea to blockade Germany. In November 1918, its Commander-in-Chief was Admiral David Beatty.)
“General”, presumably means for ‘general release’ to other warships.
“System- Sem”: ‘Sem’ is an abbreviation for ‘semaphore’, indicating that the message “Hostilities ceased at 2:00 P.M. to-day” was sent, in this instance, by semaphore signals (made either by signal lamps, flags, or mechanical semaphore arms) rather than by a wireless transmission.
“Date- 11 7 1918”: that is, November 7 1918.
(This ‘month-day-year’ is the American style of writing the date. The British style is ‘day-month-year’, which would make it ‘7 11 1918’.)
“Time- 1553”: that is, 3:53 pm, indicating the time the message was recorded as having been received. .
“1555”: that is 3:55 pm, indicating the message’s ‘time-of-origin’ – the time the signal was ordered to be made, which may not be the time it was actually sent out.
(There is obviously an error in these times – as it stands, the message was received by semaphore two minutes before it was ordered to be sent.)
And the second one 2g):
“Lion” denotes the British warship HMS Lion.
(H.M.S. Lion was the flagship of the British Grand Fleet’s battlecruiser force, under Vice Admiral Sir William Pakenham. In November 1918, the ship was at Rosyth, as was Admiral Beatty’s flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth.)
“System – S. L.”: meaning sent by signal lamp, most probably.
“Time- 1655”: that is, 4:55 pm, when the message “Cancel signal re hostilities ceasing” was recorded as having been received.
“1650”: that is, 4:50 pm, indicating the message’s ‘time-of-origin’.
From these two signals, therefore, it seems that around four o’clock on 7 November 1918 a message from Admiral Beatty was sent to warships in the Grand Fleet stating that hostilities had ceased at two o’clock that same afternoon (about two hours earlier), with the implication that the fighting against Germany had ended. There was, however, no mention of a signing of an armistice with Germany or specific instruction for the Grand Fleet to cease hostilities. About an hour later, a signal cancelling the ‘hostilities ceased’ message was sent without any explanation.
The sheets are accompanied in Howard’s archive by what appear to be photographic negatives of them. But while there is at least some information about how Howard acquired the other documents discussed in this article, there is nothing to explain from whom, when or how Howard came by these. 2h) (It would be pure speculation to suggest that Emmett King at US Navy Headquarters in Paris was involved in his acquisition of them.)
The use of the American date-format on these Royal Navy signal sheets implies that they were being used by an American signals-operator on an American warship. And as Howardand other Americans would have known at the time, some American warships were operating with British warships in the North Sea. In fact, in November 1918 five US ships were serving with the British Grand Fleet, namely the USS Arkansas, Florida, New York, Texas, and Wyoming – battleships that formed the Grand Fleet’s ‘6th Battle Squadron’ (in the US Navy’s own deployment, known as ‘Battleship Division Nine’). 15 At least one of them – the Texas – (like HMS Lion) was at Rosyth during November 1918. 26
(See below, Addendum: Comments and further information about the naval signals.)
The results of Howard’s search for False Armistice information (as saved in his archive)
The two British naval signal sheets, together with the copy of the Jackson Armistice Telegram (not the original which Hugh Baillie had told him was for sale), the claims about armistice messages sent from France on 7 November by Admiral Wilson in Brest, Edward House and Ambassador Sharp in Paris, and Lieutenant Emmett King’s disclosure that he transmitted false armistice news from US Navy Headquarters in Paris that day, constitute the results of his search for false armistice information.
From these he made use of just one detail: the “new stuff” L. B. Mickel remarked on in the Jackson Armistice Telegram message – namely, that the French Foreign Office ‘announced’ the peace news. Howard introduced the detail, without any explanation, in his 1936 ‘Premature Armistice’ chapter for Webb Miller’s book, to assert that German agents in Paris on 7 November 1918 had fooled a secretary at the American Embassy into believing the news was from the French Foreign Ministry on the Quai d’Orsay. 10
There may have been other information which he did not wish to leave in his public archives. But nothing that he found, and made available above, answers the most fundamental of the questions Howard set down in his letter to Bob Bender about his search for False Armistice facts: where the armistice report originally came from (before the French Foreign Office announced it), and what had caused it. The two conspiracy theories Howard offered readers in his 1936 memoir were his way of addressing these questions. One of them, his own apparently, postulated a German delegation headed by Admiral Paul von Hintze and an actual armistice-signing with Marshal Foch on Wednesday 6 November. This, he said, he eventually discarded in favour of a German spy theory – in effect the one Arthur Hornblow had first aired in his 1921 ‘Amazing Armistice’ article and in which he stated that the spy claimed to be sending the false news from the French Ministry of War (the ‘old stuff’ on this detail, presumably). 20
Addendum: Comments and further information about the British naval signals.
The following extract is from an item in an American newspaper marking the first anniversary of the False Armistice in the USA. It is taken here to be corroboration that the two false armistice naval signals were actually sent to ships in the British Grand Fleet on 7 November 1918:
“Where the [false armistice] rumor started will always be a mystery. At the time of the circulation of the report, the writer happened to be at sea with the British Fleet. At some time in the forenoon a radio signal was received from the flagship of the fleet H. M. S. Lion, which in effect read, ‘Cease hostilities at 2:00 o’clock” and which was signed by a British naval staff officer. There could be but one construction to place on this, and that was that Germany had capitulated. The officers upon the ship were discussing the message, copies of which had been posted in various messes, and debating whether they should open fire upon possible submarines after 2 o’clock, when the question was quickly settled for them by another message cancelling the previous one. The armistice had not been signed, although the two messages are proof that the Admiralty, for a very brief time, thought that it had. The rumor and the cancellation came very close together, so close that, the newspaper men who had taken occasion to check up were disappointed almost at once.” 24
(The newspaper was a member of Associated Press at the time and did not publish the false armistice news on 7 November 1918. It has not been possible to ascertain who the writer was or which ship he was on. The times shown on the two signal sheets do not support his observations that the messages “came very close together” or that they were sent in the “forenoon” – they were afternoon events.)
The 2:00 pm cessation-of-hostilities detail was most likely from the Jackson armistice message, but unfortunately it is not known how it reached the Grand Fleet, who actually ordered the signal about it to be made, or what led up to its subsequent cancellation. The British Admiralty in London usually provided the Fleet with military intelligence passed on to them or acquired from their own sources – such as wireless telegraph intercepts by the Fleet itself and naval intercept stations around Britain.22 So it seems highly improbable that these signals about the end of the war would have been circulated to the Fleet without any authorization from the Admiralty.
However, a search of the British Admiralty records found no information relating to a 2:00 pm cessation of hostilities on 7 November that may have gone from the Admiralty to Admiral Beatty as Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the Grand Fleet. And information found that was sent to him on Thursday 7 November seems to leave no room for any assumption that a cessation of hostilities linked to the signature of a German armistice might be imminent.
Telegram 151 from Beatty himself to the Admiralty, showing the time “1034” (10:34 am) on 7 November, contains the following message, “Newspapers state German Delegates have crossed Allied lines to negotiate armistice. Request to be informed if this is correct as Grand Fleet should be concentrated at such a critical moment.”
(False news about the arrival of the German armistice delegates at the front lines was reported in some British newspapers during the evening of 6 November and the following morning. 12)
The Admiralty’s reply, telegram 220, carries the time “1419” (2:19 pm), over three hours later. Its message: “Immediate. Personal from D.C.N.S. only information in England is that Germany has asked for a rendezvous for Parliamentaires [armistice delegates] and has been given one. They are expected to meet representatives of Marshal Foch at 1700 [5:00 pm] this afternoon Thursday at front line on La Capelle – Guise Road. ends.”
(D.C.N.S. = Deputy Chief of Naval Staff. The information in this reply was derived from the first three Spa-Senlis Telegrams exchanged up to early morning on 7 November. 21)
If this message did go out straight away, the C-in-C would therefore have been aware after 2:19 pm that the German delegation was still on its way to the Western Front, and that no armistice agreement could be expected on 7 November before 5:00 pm. And it was followed later that afternoon (“1657”, 4:57 pm) by further unambiguous information in telegram 225: “Immediate. Personal from D.C.N.S. Terms of German Armistice provide for reply from Germany being given within 72 hours of terms being handed over. Penalty is withdrawal of terms. This is best guidance we can give you as to period of tension.”
(A telegram to the C-in-C on Friday 8 November reporting the German delegates’ first meeting with Marshal Foch that day, noted that they had asked for an armistice and an immediate cessation of hostilities, and that Foch refused the latter.) 23
To put the two signals in context, around the same time that the first one (from the C-in-C) went out at 3:55 pm Emmett King transmitted the Jackson armistice message from Paris to Brest – as he recalled, at “about 3:50 pm”, some thirty minutes after the Jackson message’s origin-time of 3:20 pm. It has not been possible to ascertain for this article where Admiral Beatty actually was at this time. But assuming he was at Rosyth, he would presumably have received sometime before 3:55 pm the “immediate” 2:19 pm telegram from the Admiralty telling him that the German armistice delegation was still on its way and expected at the front lines around 5:00 pm. The second signal (from HMS Lion), about sixty minutes later, has the origin-time 4:50 pm printed after its cancellation message. This is at least forty-five minutes after the false armistice news circulating in Britain was cancelled. And just seven minutes before the Admiralty sent its telegram 225 (4:57 pm) informing Beatty that the Germans would have to accept the armistice terms within seventy-two hours of receiving them.
Surviving from the time of these events are a diary kept by a wireless telegraphist aboard HMS Lion; a number of letters sent home by an officer from the same ship; and diaries kept by an officer of HMS Indomitable, like Lion, deployed in the Grand Fleet’s battlecruiser force. There are entries in them about the 11 November Armistice and its celebration by ships in the Fleet, and about the arrival shortly afterwards of German admirals to arrange for their warships to be surrendered and moved to the naval base at Scapa Flow. Disappointingly, however, they say nothing about Fleet signals on 7 November announcing a 2:00 pm cessation of hostilities. 17
On the other hand, the Sun newspaper in New York City, referring briefly to the uncertainty surrounding the origins of the False Armistice, commented two days after the event that “Talk was heard along Park Row of the possibility of the American warships having picked up a lie sent broadcast by the Nauen wireless in Germany. But this was pure guessing.” 16 In other words, speculation among Park Row newspapermen linked American warships to a radio interception of the 7 November misinformation.
(Park Row, in New York City, was the location of the US daily newspaper industry at that time. The Nauen wireless station, north-west of Berlin, was Germany’s long-range transmitter from where the Spa telegrams about the German armistice delegation were broadcast for Marshal Foch’s headquarters at Senlis to pick up.)
By and large, the most feasible explanation for the false armistice British naval signals is the assertion by the New Britain Daily Herald journalist that “the Admiralty, for a very brief time, thought that [the armistice] had [been signed]”. Roy Howard’s copies of the signals are “proof” of this, and verify the journalist’s – seemingly unique – anniversary story about the signals’ occurrence. For some reason, however, similar “proof” seems to have been lost from the Admiralty’s own historical records. Perhaps after the war the two signals were “considered unimportant” and consequently “removed and destroyed” along with other papers. 25 Or perhaps they were considered a mistake much too embarrassing to be recorded in the official archives.
© James Smith. (Versions from August 2019 to May 2022)
1a) Article in the Evening Star [Washington, DC] November 11, 1925, p4, under ‘Real “False Armistice” Story Is Now Told By Eyewitness’. Available online through the Library of Congress Chronicling America portal.
1b) The New York Times, 21 November 1918, under ‘Howard Excuses False Peace Report’. Available through NYTimes.com Free to Read Articles 1918 website.
For a summary of reactions to Howard’s false armistice cablegram see ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest, Part Two’ on this website.
1c) On the morning and afternoon false armistice news, see ‘The 7 November Local Cease-Fire Orders and the False Armistice News’ on this website.
1d) See ‘Arthur Hornblow’s Information about the Jackson Armistice Telegram’; and the discussion in ‘’False Armistice cablegrams from France’ on this website.
2. In Archive Source: Roy Howard Papers. (1892-1964). MSA 1. The Media School Archive, Indiana University Libraries. Bloomington, Indiana.
2a) Roy Howard to Robert J. Bender [United Press Manager in Washington, DC] CONFIDENTIAL, New York, December 2, 1918.
2b1) In a letter dated 11 December 1918, Howard told Fred. C. Cook “I had expected to sail for France on the 14th but a crush of local affairs has made it necessary for me to postpone my trip until after the holidays.” Roy W. Howard to Fred C. Cook, December 11, 1918. In Howard’s Papers only two documents are listed from the whole of 1919, none of them to/from Paris.
2b2) Roy Howard to Fred C. Cook, November twenty-eighth 1925, p3.
2c) Emmett King to W.F.L., December 19th, 1918. (Consists of the two-page original letter and an incomplete one-page copy of it.)
2d) Hugh Baillie to Roy Howard, Washington, July 19, 1919. Howard Papers. J.A. Morris, (Note 5), p126, mentions that Baillie became the Washington Bureau Manager during 1919.
2e) L.B. Mickel to Roy Howard, Oklahoma City, August 11, 1919. (There are three copies, each showing different recipients’ initials.)
2f) Naval Signal, 32/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918.
2g) Naval Signal, 34/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918.
2h) Naval Signal Negatives, 31/34 and 33/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918.
2i) R. W. Howard to David Lawrence, November 30, 1951. (The letter concerns a comment President Truman made during a Korean War press conference about Howard’s “fake” armistice cablegram.) Quoted by Lawrence in his article ‘Roy Howard Recounts ’18 Story’ for the Evening Star [Washington, DC], December 8, 1951, p13. Available online through the Library of Congress Chronicling America portal.
3. Roy Howard to Admiral Wilson, July 18, 1919. Admiral H. B. Wilson Papers, Box 1. Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C.
4. See the Fourth Estate, December 7, 1918, p8, under ‘Howard and Keen In Charge of U.P. Staff’, for an item about United Press personnel in their Peace Conference team. Available online through the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
5a) J. A. Morris, Deadline Every Minute. The Story of the United Press, pp82, 115. (New York 1957) “[Bender] quickly made friends in the right places and was able to develop a number of exclusive stories, possibly due in part to the fact that he was one of the few Washington reporters who owned an automobile and frequently taxied Joseph Tumulty, the President’s secretary, to his home at the end of the workday.” (p82)
5b) J. A. Morris, Deadline Every Minute, p116.
5c) ‘William F. Lynch’ entries in J. A. Morris, Deadline Every Minute, pp79 and 167 refer to his telegraph work in the agency.
6. Howard claimed that his later warning that the armistice news in his first cablegram could not be confirmed had been held up in New York City by the Navy censors there, thus permitting the false news to spread and United Press to be blamed for it. Navy Secretary Daniels had already issued a statement admitting that, because he was not in Washington, DC, when Howard’s subsequent cablegram arrived, the censors had withheld it from the press for several hours until he had returned to the Navy Department.
For a discussion of Howard’s claim about his “warning” cablegram, see Addendum in the ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest, Part Two’ article on this website.
7. The US Navy List for 1918 has the following entry: “Archer Emmet King Jr, Lieutenant (junior grade) 5 June 1918; born 14 September 1893. Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy, U.S. Naval Reserve Force and Marine Corps, January 1, 1919, p70.
8. Edward House’s official secretary at the Peace Conference was his son-in-law, Gordon Auchincloss.
9. See the Captain R. H. Jackson item in ‘Biographical Details’ on this website. Some of Jackson’s papers are deposited at Stanford University, but they throw no light on his involvement in the armistice telegram.
10. Chapter IV, in Webb Miller’s I Found No Peace: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, pp94-95. (London. Special Edition for the Book Club. 1937.)
12. See ‘The False Armistice in Britain’ on this website.
13. See: ‘Some of Brest Staff’: a handwritten note, listed as p25 of the Admiral Henry B. Wilson Papers. The note was by (presumably) M.S. Tisdale, in November 1918 Lieutenant-Commander and Assistant to Chief of Staff & Personnel Officer at the Brest Navy HQ. Also: An Account of the Operations of the American Navy in France during the War with Germany, pp8,10. (1919) Available online. And: Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy, U.S. Naval Reserve Force and Marine Corps, January 1, 1919, p518.
15. I am most grateful to Ken Sutton, curator of the Royal Navy Communications Branch Museum/Library, for this and other contextual information relevant to the signal sheets. The museum/library is located at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, Hampshire.
16. The Sun, November 9, 1918, p2 under ‘Action on Messages’. Available online through the Library of Congress Chronicling America portal.
17. The sources are: A Diary kept by George Lea on board HMS Lion. (Held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London; reference JOD/310); Letters from William Pakenham to Margaret Strickland-Constable. (Written whilst on board HMS Lion. Held by East Riding of Yorkshire Archives and Local Studies Service; reference DDST/1/8/1/20); Diaries of Geoffrey Coleridge Harper. (Written whilst on board HMS Indomitable. Held by the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge; reference GBR/0014/HRPR).
18. See the following on this website: ‘Admiral H. B. Wilson and Roy Howard’s Armistice Cablegram’; ‘Arthur Hornblow’s Information about the Jackson Armistice Telegram’; and ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest, Part One’.
19. See the ‘American Army G-2 Report on the False Armistice News of 7 November 1918’ on this website.
20. See the ‘False Armistice Conspiracy Theories’ article on this website.
21. See ‘The Spa-Senlis Telegrams and the German Armistice Delegation’, on this website.
22. Foran historical overview of the whole subject, see Paul Gannon, Inside Room 40: The Codebreakers of World War 1. (2010)
23. The National Archives of the UK. ADM (Admiralty) 137/2064, Grand Fleet Secret & Personal Telegrams, C In C Copies July-Dec. 1918: 151. C-in-C to Admiralty. 7/11/18. 1034; 220. Admiralty to C-in-C. 7/11/18. 1419; 225. Admiralty to C-in-C, 7/11/18. 1657. And ADM 137/927, Home Waters General Operations Telegrams, 7-9 November 1918, page 494. Telegram No. 253 to C-in-C Grand Fleet, 8.11.18. Sent 1853.
24. New Britain Daily Herald [Connecticut] Friday, November 7, 1919, p6 under ‘A Year Ago’. Available online through the Library of Congress Chronicling America portal.
25. ‘Explanatory Note’ about what happened to some of the C-in-C’s papers of a confidential nature during re-arrangement by the Grand Fleet secretarial staff in February 1919. Under National Archives’ Catalogue, Reference ADM 137/1895A, Folio 2.
26. Information from Battleship Texas BB35 website.