Roy Howard’s cablegram to New York City from the French port of Brest was one of two (at least) that carried false armistice news to the United States on Thursday 7 November. The first, sent by the American Military Attaché in Paris, was confined within the War and State Departments in Washington, DC. Howard’s was very quickly reported by hundreds of newspapers with the United Press news agency, its premature peace message – which spread throughout North America, parts of Latin America, and to Australia and New Zealand – bringing hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets to celebrate victory for the Allies. It also brought vilification and, some maintained, lasting damage to the reputations of Howard and United Press. 1 (ENDNOTES)
This article recounts what happened in Brest in relation to the false armistice message and its dispatch to the United States. It is derived primarily from Roy Howard’s memoir published in Webb Miller’s 1936 The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, from letters held in his private papers archive, and from the 1921 Amazing Armistice feature written by Arthur Hornblow, Jr, the American Army Intelligence Officer who spent some time with him in Brest. Theirs are the principal first-hand accounts that have been published about 7 November 1918 events there.
Only one other participant seems to have left a public record of his part in the events. This was Major Fred Cook, an officer at the American Army Base in Brest. He wrote a brief statement at the time, at Howard’s request, about accompanying Howard to US Navy Headquarters that day (on condition that it would not be published). Seven years later he wrote a feature on it for the Evening Star newspaper in Washington, DC. 2
There are glaring discrepancies, particularly between Howard’s and Hornblow’s accounts, which naturally raise questions about the overall accuracy and reliability of their recollections as historical evidence. However, these matters are not taken up here. This article simply reports all the eye-witness recollections, arranging them in sections for different parts of Thursday 7 November in Brest, and offering comments on various points, contradictory claims and statements contained in them.
In the sections, information from Howard’s 1936 memoir is presented in this font colour; that from Hornblow’s 1921 article in this colour; from Howard’s private papers in this colour; and from Cook’s accounts in this colour.
Roy W. Howard
In November 1918, Roy Howard was thirty-five years old, President of the United Press (UP) news agency, and an accredited American war correspondent. Accompanied by his wife Peg (short for Margaret) he had travelled to France from Argentina a few weeks earlier, at the end of a disappointing business trip to South America. He intended to “have a look around a bit and meet the different fellows who are representing us at the different fronts”, when they reached Paris. 3
On the northern promontory of the Brittany peninsula, Brest was the principal entry port for American troops shipping to France after April 1917. The United States had two major military facilities there: an army base under the command of General George Harries; and the main base and headquarters of US naval forces in French waters, under the command of Rear Admiral Henry B. Wilson. The town also had a trans-Atlantic telegraph transmitter – in the main Post Office building – for sending cablegrams to New York City.
Howard was in Brest on 7 November – without his wife – waiting for a ship back to the United States, where he was planning to make arrangements for United Press to cover the peace conference that would follow the end of the war. And he believed the war would be ending very soon.
A few days earlier in Paris, Edward House, President Wilson’s Special Representative, had confided to Howard (at a luncheon laid on by the US Military Attaché, Major Warburton) that the Germans’ surrender could be expected at any time, and that the Allies had already agreed upon the armistice terms to be imposed on them. By late evening on the 6th, and before he caught the overnight train to Brest, he also knew that a German delegation had left for the Western Front to arrange an armistice with the Allies.
“All of these facts were clearly in my mind” he recalled “when a few minutes after nine the next morning I stepped off the train”. 4
Morning and Early Afternoon in Brest
“As we got underway on foot, my escort remarked, ‘Well, it’s grand news, isn’t it?’”
A member of Lieutenant Arthur Hornblow’s Army Intelligence Team met Howard at the station and, on the way to Hornblow’s office, informed him “quite casually” that “the Armistice had been signed”. There had been no official announcement: the news had travelled “via the grapevine” and was “general throughout the base”.
Lieutenant Hornblow “had the rumour, but no official announcement” when Howard met him at his office. The Lieutenant organised Howard’s travel arrangements to America, conveyed an invitation to him to lunch with General Harries at midday, escorted him to the hotel he would be staying at – the Continental – and suggested they go from there to Admiral Wilson’s Headquarters and present a letter of introduction Howard was carrying from Josephus Daniels, the US Secretary of the Navy.
The sailor on desk duty at Wilson’s office “had heard the armistice rumour” but was unaware of any official report having been sent to the Admiral, who was not there at that moment and not expected back until 4:00 pm.
Hornblow then took Howard to meet the local French Commandant, who “suspected that [the rumour] was true” but also had no official confirmation of it. Afterwards he left him with General Harries for his luncheon meeting – “for which Hornblow could not remain”. Staff at the Army Headquarters were “in high spirits as a result of the rumours”, but attempts they made to verify them failed.
[Howard, pp 76-80]
Howard did not say when the German armistice rumour had arrived “via the grapevine”. But given what he had heard before leaving Paris, he was probably not entirely surprised by it. The 1936 details above, of how he became aware of it and of those who had also heard it, appeared in similar terms in a letter he wrote some years earlier to Fred Cook about the latter’s False Armistice newspaper article published in November 1925. (Discussed further below.)
However, it is not known here what the pre-9:00 am armistice rumour in Brest may have been. The armistice news that started circulating in Paris not long before midday would obviously not have arrived in Brest (or anywhere else in France) before 9:00 am. But the announcement of the German armistice delegation’s departure for the Front the previous day was already in Paris newspapers, and had reached Brest by 9:00 am. 5 And it is possible, therefore, that the rumours Howard recollected were embellishments of this particular item of news, as is suggested by a comment Hornblow made about the delegation-announcement in his article.
One of Arthur Hornblow’s duties as the US Army Intelligence [G-2] Officer in Brest was to look after American journalists arriving there. He had not met Howard before but had received favourable reports about him and regarded him as a “distinguished visitor” entitled to a high “degree of attention”.
“I sensed something of what goes to make the successful newspaper man.”
Not long after 9:00 am, one of his Intelligence Team on duty at the railway station informed him of Howard’s arrival. He expected Howard to introduce himself at his office “shortly thereafter”, but it was not until “shortly before noon” that Howard “strolled in casually” and asked Hornblow if he could make arrangements for him to take a faster ship to America than the one he was booked to leave on at 2:00 that afternoon. He wanted to reach the United States as quickly as possible to make arrangements for returning to France with President Wilson’s peace conference entourage: “The man knew even then that the President was coming”.
Hornblow was able to do so – a transfer to the S.S. Leviathan due to sail the following morning – and in response to another request took Howard to US Naval Headquarters to meet Admiral Henry Wilson. They left Hornblow’s office “about noon”.
On the way, they stopped at the La Dépêche building, the town’s local newspaper in President Wilson Square, to read the bulletin about the German armistice delegation’s departure for the front lines. “A small, excited crowd was discussing the tidings and waiting eagerly around for more. Oddly enough”, Hornblow noted, “a rumor was seeping through it to the effect that an armistice had already been signed….”
Here, outside the building, at around midday, Howard told Hornblow that he had “heard the same thing” on his arrival at the station.
La Dépêche had its own private telegraph line between Paris and Brest which United Press was able to use to the exclusion of all other foreign newspapers, and Howard went inside the building to introduce himself to the newspaper staff. He and Hornblow then went on to Admiral Wilson’s Headquarters. As the Admiral was elsewhere, his aide Ensign Sellards booked an appointment for Howard to meet him at 4:00 pm.
Hornblow gave Howard a tour of “a few of Brest’s sights (nothing much to see)”, took him to the Navy Club for lunch, and, “after two o’clock”, left him at the Continental. They agreed to meet later for dinner with a few of the Lieutenant’s acquaintances.
There are clear differences here between Howard’s and Hornblow’s accounts of their morning and early afternoon activities in Brest:
Howard gave the impression that he met Hornblow soon after arriving in Brest; Hornblow stated that it was not until just before midday that they met for the first time.
There is no mention in Hornblow of any armistice rumours in Brest before Howard’s arrival there. He wrote nothing about any rumours in the town until he described events outside the La Dépêche building around midday; and nothing about any talk of an armistice rumour during their unsuccessful visit to see Admiral Wilson.
Further, Hornblow did not record taking Howard to see the French Commandant or General Harries, both of whom, Howard said, talked about the rumour when he visited them with Hornblow. The latter remarked that he just showed Howard around Brest before taking him to lunch at the Navy Club and leaving him, sometime after 2:00 pm, at the Continental hotel.
For his part, Howard did not mention a pre-lunch visit with Hornblow to the La Dépêche building to introduce himself to the staff there. And to his recollection, he had lunch (not with Hornblow at the Navy Club) but with General Harries and some of his staff at Army Headquarters, which Hornblow did not attend.
Late Afternoon: about 4:00 pm – 4:30 pm
In no more than half an hour during the late afternoon in Brest, the false armistice news had arrived at Admiral Wilson’s Headquarters from Paris and been forwarded by Howard to the USA in time for the early afternoon newspapers there.
The sequence of these events took place in three different locations: the US Naval Headquarters, the La Dépêche newspaper building, and the local Post Office, or P.Q. building. Howard was present and instrumental throughout. Fred Cook witnessed what happened at Naval Headquarters. Hornblow reported, mostly second-hand, what Howard told him had occurred in the first two locations. 6
After lunch, Major C. Fred Cook, a member of General Harries’ staff and a former news editor at the Washington Star, took Howard around Brest in a further, unsuccessful, attempt to obtain information about the armistice rumours. Throughout the town, “there was a tense air of cheerful expectancy” among civilians and military alike. With Cook, he returned to Admiral Wilson’s office around 4:10 pm; the Admiral was now available to see him.
In Admiral Wilson’s Office
“The Armistice has been signed …. It’s the official announcement.”
Ensign James Sellards, “personal aide, secretary, and interpreter”, met them and took them both through to the Admiral’s office. From here, Wilson was sending an orderly to give some important news, just received from Paris, to La Dépêche for a bulletin and to the bandmaster of a US navy band playing in President Wilson Square for him to announce to the crowd. The orderly was also instructed to tell the duty officer to hang out the “biggest flag we have” across the headquarters building.
In reply to Major Cook’s enquiry about the news, the Admiral informed them that the Armistice had been signed. He handed Cook a copy of a message “just received … over my direct wire from the Embassy”. He told them it was official, had come “direct from G.H.Q. via the Embassy” and was “signed by Captain Jackson, our Naval Attaché at Paris.”
“Howard and I have been chasing this rumour all day”, Major Cook remarked; and Howard asked for permission to send the news to United Press in New York. The Admiral agreed, handed him a copy of the bulletin he had sent across to La Dépêche, and instructed Ensign Sellards to take him to the Atlantic cable-head office – “See that he gets this message cleared through the censorship … stay with Mr. Howard until he gets his message through, then bring him back here”.
From Brest on 9 November 1918, Howard sent a letter to Phil Simms, the Manager of the United Press Paris Office, telling him what had happened on 7 November. He started his narrative – presumably the first on paper and closest in time to the events described – with his and Major Cook’s arrival at Admiral Wilson’s office.
“[General] Harries had sent Cook to present me to the Admiral ….”
Howard related to Simms that as he and Major Cook went into Admiral Wilson’s room, Ensign Sellards also entered “rather out of breath”.
The Admiral announced “Well its over”; Cook asked him what he meant; Wilson replied that the Armistice had been signed at 11 o’clock that morning, hostilities had ceased at 2:00 pm, and the Americans had taken Sedan during the morning.
Howard asked if the news was official; Wilson assured him that it was, adding that it had come “right from headquarters – right from Paris” just a few minutes earlier. The Admiral whispered something to Cook about – what Howard “gathered” to be – “the communication channel” for the news, and then asked Sellards whether the La Dépêche newspaper had “posted the bulletin”. Sellards said they had not because Mr Coudurier [the editor] was not in the building, adding that he had not left “the note” there which Wilson had given him for the editor. The Admiral then instructed Sellards to take the note back to the building, give it to “who ever is in charge”, and tell them to “announce it”.
Howard requested, and was given, permission to see the note Sellards was holding. It was the news about the armistice, cease-fire, and Sedan. He asked the Admiral if he was sure the information was “official”, was told it was and had been received “directly through our own private channels”, upon which he asked whether he might “use” it. Wilson agreed: “go right ahead” he told him.
Howard “hustled over” to the La Dépêche building with Sellards, leaving Major Cook in the Admiral’s office but intending to return later.
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, sheets one and two. Howard Papers.]
In Howard’s 1936 version of the above events, Ensign Sellards was already there in Wilson’s offices when he and Cook arrived, not returning from the La Dépêche building having failed to leave the false armistice news with the editor.
A short time later, in response to a request from Howard, Major Cook committed to paper what he recalled as having taken place in Wilson’s office. An outline account only, it is dated 15 November 1918, eight days after the events.
“I would like to go on record as certifying that ….”
In a one-sheet letter, Cook set out what he witnessed in the “Navy Flag Office” during the few minutes between arriving there with Howard and the latter’s leaving to send his copy of the armistice message to New York City.
The Major attested to the following details:
- Admiral Wilson told them in his reception room that the Germans had signed the Allies’ armistice terms.
- Cook asked if the news was official. The Admiral replied that it was, explaining that he had received it from “the Embassy in Paris”.
- Howard asked permission to “make use of the information”. Wilson agreed and Howard then “disappeared” to the cable office.
- Cook remained with the Admiral and “observed the sending of the Admiral’s personal aide to the Brest newspaper”; noted the “public announcement of the news from the band stand” in President Wilson Square; heard the Navy Band play the Marseillaise and The Star-Spangled Banner, and Admiral Wilson give the order for “an immense American flag” to be raised on the building.
- Cook believed the news to be official, and reported it to General Harries at Army Base Headquarters.
[Fred Cook Letters to Roy Howard. France, November 15, 1918. Howard Papers]
Howard thanked Cook for the “memoranda”, promising not to “make any use of it to embarrass [him]”
After the war, Cook returned to his work with The Evening Star in Washington, DC. He subsequently wrote two False Armistice articles for the newspaper: a short item for its 11 November 1924 issue, in which he avoided identifying Howard by name; and a much longer and more detailed account, for the seventh anniversary, printed on 11 November 1925. In the latter he recalled the following events involving Howard:
“It so happened that I was present, a listener and close observer, when the historic episode occurred.”
Cook first met Howard during the early afternoon of 7 November. Howard had been to lunch with General Harries and was hoping to meet Admiral Wilson that same afternoon. Harries sent for Cook after lunch and asked him to take Howard to US Navy Headquarters, “a tall building facing the ‘Place President Wilson’” and “about five city blocks” away from Army Headquarters. The Admiral’s office was on the “fifth deck” of the building; access to it was through a room occupied by Ensign Sellards, Wilson’s aide and interpreter.
Cook introduced Howard to Sellards, who then left the room to inform the Admiral of their arrival. A short time later, Wilson came out of his office carrying a copy of the peace news. He read it out and explained that it had been sent to him by Jackson, the US Naval Attaché in Paris. Howard almost immediately asked if he could use the information; and when, after some hesitation, Wilson consented, uttered “a hasty ‘I’ll see you later’” and rushed out of the building. From the window, Cook watched Howard run across the square to the Post Office, where the Atlantic-cable transmitter was located.
Cook remained in Sellard’s room and witnessed instructions being given for the peace news to be announced to people listening to the US Navy band playing in the square, and for a huge flag to be hung across the Headquarters building. And he observed crowds gathering to read the armistice bulletin just posted on the La Dépêche building . As “pandemonium” started spreading outside, he left Navy Headquarters and made his way back to give General Harries the news. Army Headquarters believed the peace message, but because they had heard nothing yet from AEF authorities about it, the Army base “attended to business and continued quietly at work”.
[The Evening Star, Wednesday, November 11, 1925, p4, under ‘Real “False Armistice” Story Is Now Told By Eyewitness’.]
Neither Cook’s letter nor his article mentions that Ensign Sellards returned from the La Dépêche building just as they entered Wilson’s office and was told to go back there with the armistice news – details contained in Howard’s letter to Simms written a few days earlier, but not in his 1936 memoir. And neither Howard’s letter to Simms nor Cook’s evidence supports Howard’s 1936 statement that Wilson instructed Sellards to take Howard to the cable-head office and make sure the censors there cleared the armistice message. The impression from Cook is that Howard left Naval Headquarters alone, and went alone to the Post Office.
Howard read the article and wrote to Cook about it several days later. He criticised Cook’s version of events for being “at variance”, in several respects, with his own “remembrance” of them.
“Not with any desire to be meticulously critical, …, I want to check up with you on ….”
Howard considered that Cook’s account created “two erroneous impressions”: that the armistice message Admiral Wilson received from Captain Jackson “was the first news we had on the subject”; and that he (Howard) “went off half cocked and filed the dispatch” almost immediately after Wilson gave him permission to publicise the message and without being “certain of its official nature”.
“You will recall”, Howard insisted, that “the rumor that the armistice had been signed was current all over Brest” before he arrived from Paris. He maintained that he was told about it by “an M.P.” who met him at the station, and then by Lieutenant Hornblower (sic) “at G-2”; that French Headquarters in the town “had the same vague rumor”, that General Harries had heard it and “stated that it was quite possible … the report was true”. Indeed, “our surprise” when Admiral Wilson announced the news, Howard suggested, was not “that the armistice had been signed”, but rather that Wilson had received the news “ahead of everyone else”.
Challenging Cook over the impression he felt the article had given “that it was only a matter of seconds” after Wilson announced the peace news before he rushed off to send his cablegram, Howard reminded him that “we stood and talked to Admiral Wilson for at least several minutes”, during which time Howard “interrogated him” to make sure the message was “actually an official announcement”.
And he described the sentence where Cook says he saw Howard “run across the square to the cable office” as “at least one instance” of Cook’s memory having failed him, noting that “as a matter of fact” he, accompanied by Sellards, did not go straight to the cable office but went first to the La Dépêche building to type the peace news on a cable blank.
“I am taking the trouble to bring these points to your attention”, Howard explained, somewhat condescendingly, “not with any intention of appearing critical of your article, but rather because I believe that on second thought you will recall conditions to have been as I have stated them”.
[Roy Howard to Fred Cook, 28 November 1925. Howard Papers]
Howard repeated the claims made here about a 7 November 1918 morning and early afternoon armistice rumour in Brest, in his 1936 memoir for Webb Miller’s book. In his accounts, Cook said nothing at all about any rumours preceding Admiral Wilson’s afternoon announcement. Hornblow made a comment in his article that he was “astounded at the suddenness with which truth had been given” – by Wilson’s news – “to the odd rumor that had hovered over Brest all day”. This could be taken, perhaps, as some verification of Howard’s assertion. [Hornblow, p6]
Whether Cook responded to Howard’s criticisms of his article, or to an invitation to have lunch with him in Washington, DC, “sometime in the near future”, is not known here.
Howard’s 1936 narrative and a few short statements in his earlier letters seem to be the only first-hand evidence of what occurred after he and Sellards left Admiral Wilson’s office with a copy of Captain Jackson’s peace message from Paris.
The 1936 account, containing clarifying information, is reported first.
In the La Dépêche building
“It was my intention to retype the message, …, on the regular form of cable blank.”
On the way, Howard and Sellards stopped at the La Dépêche building. United Press had an arrangement with the newspaper by which its dispatches from Paris for transmission to New York City were sent (after clearance by the censors) first to La Dépêche on the newspaper’s own telegraph system, and then across to the Post Office building. For United Press, this was “a distinct advantage over … competitors forced to depend upon overloaded commercial telegraph wires” to Brest.
Howard wanted to use one of the newspaper’s typewriters to print the armistice message on an ordinary blank cable form, address it to United Press in New York City, and make a carbon copy of it for his records.
He had difficulty using the La Dépêche typewriters, which did not have “a standard keyboard”. The operator of the paper’s private Paris-Brest telegraph took over and typed the message for him – not, however, directly onto a cable form but onto narrow press telegram tape. This was then pasted onto a blank cable form.
The message read:
URGENT ARMISTICE ALLIES GERMANY SIGNED ELEVEN SMORNING HOSTILITIES CEASED TWO SAFTERNOON SEDAN TAKEN SMORNING BY AMERICANS
Howard explained that “UNIPRESS” was the “cable address of United Press”; “SIMMS” was the surname of William Philip Simms, the United Press Manager in Paris; that he had also put Simms’ official Press Card number on the form – needed for “collect messages filed to United Press”; and that the only difference between his and Admiral Wilson’s bulletin was the deletion of the word “this” and its replacement by an “s” at the beginning of the words “morning” and “afternoon”.
In his 9 November 1918 letter to Simms, Howard described what happened after leaving Admiral Wilson’s office in just three sentences:
“I excused myself from Major Cook, hustled over to la De Peche with the Ensign and looked up the operator of the leased wire. I tried to find a typewriter and a cable blank but could not. The Ensign told my trouble to the operator who printed my message out on his tape printer, pasted it up on a P.Q. blank and sent it to the wire by the newspapers messenger.” [my italics]
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, sheets one and two. Howard Papers.]
Simms must have imagined from these comments that Howard did not actually go to the Post Office building with the cablegram, and that at the time he was therefore unaware of what happened inside the building when the peace message was transmitted.
Hornblow’s 1921 account of the false armistice cablegram was based largely on what he said Howard had told him about it, and dealt only with what happened in the La Dépêche building. He probably picked up some of its more detailed information, however, from enquiries he must have made afterwards.
“I gradually gathered a fact that was to have tremendous bearing later on.”
Not long, it seems, after sending the cablegram, Howard explained to Hornblow what had happened when he met Admiral Wilson: the Admiral told him about the armistice news from Captain Jackson in Paris; gave him permission to use it; and then, with Ensign Sellards “to assist him in arranging things”, he rushed to the cable-head office but “dived en route” into the La Dépêche building, where the cablegram was set out for him.
Hornblow considered that “habitual” use by United Press of the La Dépêche telegraph was “largely accountable for” the unhindered transmission of Howard’s peace bulletin to the United States.
He explained how the system worked: having been cleared by censors in Paris, United Press bulletins were wired to La Dépêche in Brest and printed by their “receiving-instrument” onto ticker-tape “paper ribbon”. The section of the ribbon containing the message was then cut up, pasted onto an ordinary “telegraph form” and carried by messenger across President Wilson Square for transmission to the United States. Assuming the cablegrams had been already cleared by their counterparts in Paris, the Brest censors passed them straight through to the transmission room. [pp92]
When Howard went into the La Dépêche building to type out the armistice message, “by … coincidence” the newspaper’s “telegraph editor” offered to type it for him using the “telegraph instrument” with which it was possible to “type on the ribbon with the local telegraph key as well as with the transmitting-key in Paris”.
The result, crucially, was that the completed message, pasted on a telegraph form, “looked exactly as though it had been transmitted from Paris as were all other United Press messages and had been censored there”. [Hornblow’s italics] Moreover, Howard, in his “generosity” had signed the message “Howard-Simms”, wanting to “share the glory of his ‘beat’” with Simms – “the man who signed all the messages that came from Paris” and whose name was the “stamp of proper procedure”. [pp94-95]
It was this “strange combination of circumstances”, Hornblow asserted, that led to the message’s looking as if it had come from Paris and been cleared by the censors – an “unintended strategy” on Howard’s part, for no one in such circumstances, Hornblow thought, could possibly have planned “so extraordinarily clever a devise”. [p95]
In the Post Office building
“The impossible had happened. A fantastic set of circumstances … combined … to circumvent an air-tight military censorship….”
When he and Sellards entered the Post Office building, “the censor room was deserted, the entire personnel having poured into the streets to join in the mass celebration”. While Howard waited there, Ensign Sellards took the cablegram to the transmission room, where he was known by the operators and was able “to expedite” its dispatch. Sellards stayed there until the message had “cleared into New York”. The time was “approximately 4.20 p.m.”
It was only afterwards, Howard stated, that he learned that “no French censor ever passed on the message”, or that he fully realised that his cablegram, put together in the La Dépêche building, was indistinguishable from an “ordinary United Press bulletin” that had been cleared by censors in Paris.
And it simply had not occurred to him at the time that it would show “Paris” rather than “Brest” as its “date line” – a confusion he attributed to the inclusion of Simms’ name and press card number on the dispatch.
“One of the most dramatic events of the entire war”, he observed, had arisen from his being “unable to use a French typewriter” and the assistance of Ensign Sellards as the official representative of Admiral Wilson.
Having stated, in his 9 November 1918 letter to Simms, that a La Dépêche messenger (and therefore not he or Ensign Sellards) had taken the armistice cable to the Post Office, Howard added in a postscript that he was told on 8 November that “the people in the P.Q. office” did not show his armistice message to the Brest censors until two hours after his cablegram had gone to New York City – because they “were so excited” by the peace news.
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, sheet three. Howard Papers.]
He repeated the information in a cablegram to William Hawkins, United Press Manager in New York, sent probably the same day:
“I WAS TOLD YESTERDAY THAT IN THE EXCITEMENT IN THE BREST POST OFFICE DUE TO THE LOCAL NEWS PAPERS BULLETIN ANNOUNCING THE ARMISTICE MY MESSAGE DID NOT REACH THE CENSORS UNTIL MORE THAN TWO HOURS AFTER THE MESSAGE HAD BEEN CABLED TO NEW YORK”.
[For Hawkins Reference to Paris. Cablegrams, images 9 and 10. Howard Papers]
In his letter to Fred Cook about the latter’s newspaper article, Howard offered a slightly different explanation of why his cablegram had gone through so quickly:
When he and Sellards entered the Post Office building, “censors, telegraph operators and most everyone in the place was either engaged in or watching the demonstration in the Place President Wilson”. The “ensuing confusion” and the cablegram’s resemblance to United Press dispatches sent from Paris “caused the cable operator, of his own volition, to affix a Paris date line” to the armistice report.
[Roy Howard to Fred Cook, 28 November 1925. Howard Papers]
From the details Howard provided in his accounts, it seems that only about ten minutes elapsed between his and Major Cook’s arrival at Admiral Wilson’s office (around 4:10 pm) and the dispatch of the false armistice news to New York City. By this reckoning, therefore, it took fewer than ten minutes for the cablegram to be prepared in the La Dépêche building, taken from there across to the Post Office, and sent off.
After the Cablegram’s Transmission and Before Dinner
On 9 November 1918, Howard told Phil Simms that after he left the Post Office building:
The peace news was on La Dépêche’s bulletin board, a “huge American flag” was hanging outside Admiral Wilson’s office, the US Navy band “got the tip, stood up and played the Star Spangled Banner and the Marcellaise and the stuff was off …. Everyone went bugs”.
When he returned to Naval Headquarters, as Admiral Wilson was “engaged”, he “went down” to call on Major Cook [no further details]. “A little later” he sent another cablegram to United Press in New York City, this time about Brest being the first French city to receive the armistice news. And also wired [John] deGandt [United Press staff correspondent in Paris] reporting “fully as to what [he] had sent to New York”.
[Howard to Phil Simms Letter, November 9, 1918, sheets 2 and 3. Howard Papers.]
In his 1936 memoir, he related:
Admiral Wilson was not in his office by the time he and Sellards had made their way back through crowds celebrating the peace news, and Howard returned to his hotel. There, he prepared a “follow” to his armistice cablegram [no details]; and then waited until it was time to go to dinner with Hornblow and “two or three of his officer friends”.
At first, he thought it unlikely that he had succeeded in getting the peace news to the United States ahead of any of the American correspondents in Paris. But then, reasoning that there was “an outside chance” Captain Jackson’s message to Admiral Wilson, having travelled by military wire, had arrived very soon after the news had broken in Paris, he felt the advantage of being in Brest may well have helped him beat the competition to New York City.
[Howard (1936), p85]
Lieutenant Hornblow was in his office at the US Army Base when he heard the peace news.
“If the news was true, Howard probably had scored the biggest news beat of history.”
Hornblow heard about the armistice news – “at four-thirty or thereabout”. One of his men reported to him that Naval Headquarters had put out information that an armistice had been agreed and the fighting was over.
The Lieutenant eventually “located” Howard with Major Cook “going from one official bureau to another” trying to find out more about the end of the war. Howard returned with Hornblow to his office and explained what had happened after he met Admiral Wilson.
Hornblow was “torn between believing and not believing” the news, primarily because Army Intelligence Headquarters in Paris had not so far informed him of such momentous developments and ordered him to tell General Harries the war was over. He therefore telephoned them and – “to their apparent astonishment” – explained what was happening in Brest. They knew nothing of an armistice with Germany. Hornblow asked them to make immediate inquiries at the French Ministry of War and report back to him.
The failure of Army Intelligence in Paris to confirm the news did not seem to have worried Howard unduly – he simply refused at that point to believe that misinformation about an armistice with Germany could have been sent to Admiral Wilson by trusted US Naval representatives in Paris.
General Harries, the Army Base commander, telephoned Hornblow and told him that only when verification of the armistice news came through either from Paris or General Pershing’s AEF Headquarters at Chaumont would he believe the war was over and allow the Base to celebrate victory.
According to Howard, after returning to Naval Headquarters with Ensign Sellards he:
a) “went down” to call on Major Cook; and b) went to his hotel, where he remained until Hornblow arrived to take him out for dinner.
Hornblow, however, stated that he “located” Howard, with Major Cook, sometime after 4:30 pm, trying to gather more armistice information, and then took him back to his office.
In his 1925 article, Cook did not mention having seen Howard again on 7 November after Howard left Admiral Wilson’s office. He gave the impression that he remained at the Army Base following his return there from Navy Headquarters to give General Harries the peace news. He noted in his article that he saw Howard the following day in the La Dépêche building using the newspaper’s private telegraph line to Paris.
Absent from Howard’s accounts is any indication that he actually saw Cook again when he “went down” to call on him; and any information about meeting Hornblow after 4:30 pm (before dinner); discussing his cablegram to New York City with him; and Hornblow’s calling Intelligence Head Quarters in Paris to verify the peace news.
Their respective recollections of what happened when they met for dinner also differ sharply.
“Then suddenly came the crash….”
Hornblow wrote that Howard had reserved a table for six at La Brasserie de la Marine. When they arrived there, it was packed with revellers – “everywhere, noise, din, madness”, a “pandemonium of gaiety”.
Into the middle of it all, an orderly from the US Army Signal Corps entered the restaurant, found their table and handed Hornblow a message – the Lieutenant had left instructions for any information arriving from Military Intelligence in Paris to be taken to him without delay. At the table, Hornblow deciphered the message, which had come from a Major Robertson, his “immediate superior in Paris”, and revealed its devastating words:
“Armistice report untrue. War Ministry issues absolute denial and declares enemy plenipotentiaries to be still on way through lines. Cannot meet Foch until evening. Wire full details of local hoax immediately.”
“We had not yet ordered our dinner – not even the drinks which were to precede it.”
Howard recalled that at the restaurant, and before they had anything to drink or eat, an orderly arrived with a message for him from Admiral Wilson. The message stated that the Admiral had received information “via his direct signal-corps wire” from Paris that the armistice news was “unconfirmable”. Wilson explained that he had not been able to “get in touch … personally” with Howard, having left Brest for the evening.
[Howard, pp 85-86]
Thus, completely contradictory statements from Hornblow and Howard as to which of them received the message denying the armistice news and where it came from – the US Army Signal Corps or Admiral Wilson.
In stark contrast to those dramatic versions of an interrupted dinner, Howard told Simms a completely different story in his 9 November 1918 letter. Here, the occasion appears to have been entirely uneventful, worthy of just a single sentence:
“I then went to dinner with a couple of Intelligence Officers whom I had met, and immediately after went to the office of la Depeche.”
And as for the alarming news that the armistice was unconfirmed, he told Simms it was given to him in the La Dépêche building – after dinner – by the French.
“You can imagine what a sweet night I had of it.”
Howard did not explain to Simms why he went directly to the La Dépêche building after dinner; but he claimed that when he arrived there he was informed that “the French officers in Brest had received a report that the armistice was not ‘confirmed’”.
He therefore went in search of Admiral Wilson who, accompanied by Ensign Sellards, was having dinner with “the French Admiral”. Howard “got Sellards out of the dinner” and learnt from him that Wilson had subsequently been informed that the peace news was “unconfirmed”.
In a cablegram to Hawkins in New York City, Howard also stated that the French were responsible for challenging the accuracy of the armistice news. While the Brest celebrations were at their height, he told Hawkins, he had learned that some French Army Officers in Brest had questioned the peace report. He did not say who gave him the information, where he happened to be when he heard it, or what the time was, but he “immediately sought Wilson” and discovered that he too “had received word his original bulletin [had been questioned]”. (No further details about Wilson’s receipt of this information.) [Howard Papers, Brest cablegrams, image 14.]
Similarly, in his November 1925 article, Fred Cook described how the French Government’s liaison officer for the US Army Base, Colonel Maurice Laureau, suddenly arrived, began protesting loudly about the release of the peace news, which he denounced as being false, and demanding that the celebrations in the town be stopped. (This must have been after Cook returned to the Base from (presumably) Naval Headquarters.) [Cook’s November 1925 newspaper article.]
The following day, Colonel Laureau reported to his superiors in Paris that, around 5:30 pm, he was contacted by the Brest Maritime Prefect’s Headquarters and told that according to an official French source the armistice news was false. The Colonel immediately telephoned the information to the American Army Base, then went over there to inform General Harries in person. 8
Howard was “stunned”; but it occurred to him that if “the thing” was not true, either the French censors in Brest would have stopped his armistice cablegram or, if it had passed through them, the American censors in New York would have done so. He therefore sent another dispatch stating that Admiral Wilson had released the peace news earlier but had since been told the information had not been verified.
It was 10:00 pm “by this time”, Howard noted – nearly six hours after his armistice cablegram had left at “about 4:20 P.M.” He stayed in the La Dépêche building – “at the leased wire” – until midnight.
[Howard to Phil Simms Letter, November 9, 1918, sheet 3. Howard Papers.]
Howard does not mention Hornblow by name anywhere in the letter or involve him in his activities that evening. His 1936 account, however, included Hornblow as well as some details from the letter to Simms.
“I went immediately to the office of La Dépêche ….”
Howard and Hornblow left the restaurant and went straight to the La Dépêche office, where Howard prepared a cablegram containing Wilson’s armistice-unconfirmed message and had it transmitted to New York City – “approximately two hours after the first one”. [This would have been around 6:20 pm.]
It was not until much later that evening – when the La Dépêche private telegraph opened – that Howard was able to contact his Paris office. “For censorship reasons”, it had been “impossible … to communicate with [them]” earlier. They told him of the celebrations his armistice cablegram had provoked throughout the United States. [Howard, pp 85-86 and 89]
Hornblow’s 1921 account of post-dinner events did not mention Howard’s sending a later report to United Press in New York City about the armistice news not being confirmed. He gave the impression that Howard spent his time trying to get news from his Paris Office.
“Howard spent most of the night trying to get information ….”
The dinner guests left the restaurant, “leaving behind … undisillusioned, the tragically joyous throngs”, and went to Howard’s hotel. His face was “white [and] drawn” with the realization of “what he had done, … [of] his own doom and [of] that of the United Press”.
However, the thought occurred to Howard that the denial of the armistice news might itself be inaccurate, and he decided to find Admiral Wilson to discuss the matter with him. Hornblow accompanied him to the house of a local French official where the Admiral and Ensign Sellards were dining. Here, Sellards told them that the Admiral had subsequently heard from Paris that the armistice news he had released earlier was “premature”.
Howard seized upon this, desperately hoping now that the “premature” armistice news might yet – belatedly – be officially announced and therefore finally confirmed; and “spent most of the night trying to get information from his own Paris office”. When this forlorn hope was dashed, “the world collapsed about Howard’s ears”.
Hornblow and Howard concluded their 1921 and 1936 retrospectives with brief statements of how Admiral Wilson reacted when he became aware of the crisis the dispatch of the false armistice news to America had created for Howard and United Press.
The Following Morning
“The blackest of black skies cleared considerably for Howard ….”
Admiral Wilson, “every inch the gentleman and the man, took upon his own shoulders complete responsibility for Howard’s fateful cable”. On 8 November he issued a press statement exonerating Howard over the false armistice message, which, the Admiral explained, was based on “what appeared to be official and authoritative information.”
“I was at Admiral Wilson’s office when he arrived ….”
“Around ten o’clock” the following morning, Howard went to see the Admiral and “explained the situation to him”. Wilson asked how he could “set matters right” and, in response to Howard’s request for an explanation to the press of what had happened the previous afternoon, provided him with the following:
“The statement of the United Press relative to the signing of the Armistice was made public from my office on the basis of what appeared to be official and authoritative information. I am in a position to know that the United Press and its representative acted in perfect good faith, and the premature announcement was the result of an error, for which the agency was in no wise responsible”.
In his 9 November letter to Simms – the day after Wilson issued the statement – Howard was much more expansive.
“He could see that it was a bad mess and he came all the way through to do everything within his power to undo the damage.”
During the morning of Friday 8 November, his Paris office informed Howard that “the stuff had gotten through and been printed”. He went to see Admiral Wilson and obtained “that statement of fact” from him.
Howard learnt from Wilson that US Secretary of State Lansing had cabled the Admiral, who “knew full well that he was in for some grief too”. Indeed, when Wilson gave Howard the statement exonerating him and United Press, “he did it knowing that he might be writing his own resignation”.
Wilson’s action clearly impressed Howard:
“… he never showed the slightest hesitancy or the slightest suggestion of intention to welch. If I am anything of a judge he is one WHITE man”. 7
And earned his gratitude and discretion. In the uproar he expected United Press to become involved in over the false armistice news, Howard told Simms he had asked Hawkins, United Press Manager in New York City:
“… to leave the Admiral out of the picture as much as possible…. I am sure that he was bunked and that he is going to have his troubles too”.
[Howard to Phil Simms Letter, November 9, 1918, sheet 3. Howard Papers.]
Howard sent the Admiral’s statement “Urgent Rate” to United Press in New York City the day he obtained it. Some American evening papers published it later that day; the agency paid for it to be printed the following day on a whole page of the Fourth Estate (marketed as “A Newspaper for the Makers of Newspapers and Investors in Advertising”). And “full responsibility for the circulation of the false news”, the New York Times commented, “was placed on Vice Admiral Henry B. Wilson … one of the most distinguished officers of the American Navy”. 9
Nevertheless, as Howard expected, he and United Press were vilified in American newspapers – mostly but not exclusively in ones linked to their rival, the Associated Press (AP) agency. These clamoured for him and United Press to be made to pay for the enormous cost of disruption the false news caused across the country – through street celebrations and interruptions to business, commerce and war supplies. They held them responsible for the disappointment people experienced when the peace news was eventually shown to be false, and called for their punishment under various laws. And they accused them of egregious unprofessionalism in concocting what some labelled “fake” news and others “hoax” news of unprecedented magnitude and consequence. 10
When, on Friday 8 November, Hawkins reported to Howard from New York City that it was impossible to overestimate the seriousness of his false armistice bulletin’s fearful effects on the public – “unparalleled [in] all newspaper history” – Hawkins therefore was not exaggerating. The news, he told Howard, had provoked “the greatest demonstration [in] American history”, which had lasted “daylong [and] nightlong”. Now, in consequence, United Press was being attacked “viciously” by “opposition services papers”. [Hawkins (New York City) to Howard (Brest). Cablegram, 9 November 1918. (Paris date-stamp). Images 1 and 2. Howard Papers]
The peace news Admiral Wilson received from Captain Jackson in Paris was certainly not true. But it was erroneous information, not fake or hoax news: it was misinformation not disinformation.
On the other hand, the cablegram put together in the La Dépêche building, passing as it did as having a Paris dateline and having been cleared by censors there, was tantamount to a fake.
To absolve his Paris Office of any blame for sending it, Howard explained in a telegram to the American Censor in Paris, a Captain Stone, that he had sent the news from Brest but had not dated it as such:
“I SUPPOSED CABLE WOULD CARRY BREST DATELINE WHEN DELIVERED …. IF NEWYORK STORY CARRIED PARIS DATE LINE WAS DUE FACT CABLE COMPANY UNDATED MY MESSAGE BREST OR TO CONFUSION RESULTING FROM MY NECESSARILY SIGNING SIMMS NAME IN ADDITION”. 11
Two days after the events, Howard was “still a bit groggy from this jolt … received here” but “fully conscious of what it has done to us in America” – “that thing”, he reckoned, had probably caused United Press at least “a quarter of a million dollars worth of damage”. 12 But he was determined to re-establish the agency’s standing “in the public mind”, and overturn the “unfair advantage” he felt Associated Press had gained from events in Brest and their “attempt to belittle [us]”. 13
He left for the United States on Sunday 10th November, and was at sea therefore when he heard the news the following day that the war with Germany had ended.
Shortly after his return, Howard spoke to newspapers about what had happened in Brest. He did not try to explain to them at that time why his armistice cablegram did not clearly show its origins in Brest; but he used Admiral Wilson’s statement exonerating him and United Press to justify refusing to apologise for having sent it. He declared:
“Neither I, myself, nor The United Press has any apology to offer for giving to the American people as news a statement of the signing of the armistice announced as official …. The bulletin which Admiral Wilson gave out, and which The United Press carried, was not a ‘rumor’ or a ‘report’. It was a bulletin furnished to the Admiral as official, and so given to us.” 14
And he warned all those “interested parties … endeavoring to capitalize the incident whereof United Press was a victim” that he would “take any steps necessary to protect our reputation at home”. 15
Nevertheless, the Brest cablegram “was a huge embarrassment to UP and left a bitter taste in the mouths of those who had worked so hard to compete with, and often beat, A[ssociated] P[ress] during the war”. 16 According to some, it cast a shadow over Howard’s subsequent career and damaged the agency’s reputation for many years to come. The authors of a history of United Press, for example, writing early in the present century, considered that adverse effects on the agency persisted for “the rest of the twentieth century”. It was “never allowed to forget the goof”, and “many newspaper editors, some who were not even born when Howard ended the war prematurely, would not print a United Press ‘beat’ but would wait for AP to confirm it”. 17 As far as business was concerned, however, United Press “amazingly lost only one client” (the Vermont Burlington News) so Howard’s ‘quarter million dollars’ worth of damage’ estimate seems to have been over-pessimistic in the event. 18
The 7 November 1918 armistice story remained newsworthy throughout the inter-war period in the United States (though not in other countries that had received it). Arthur Hornblow’s 1921 article, reviving memories of it just three years later, received reviews in many newspapers – not least because it contained an intriguingly new explanation of what had caused the False Armistice – a conspiracy theory involving German spies as the originators of the peace news in Paris.
Roy Howard endorsed the theory in his recollections for Webb Miller’s book some fifteen years later, after having abandoned a conspiracy theory of his own that involved four armistice delegates, named in the press on 6 November 1918, whom he described as “the first bunch of German peace delegates”. 19
© James Smith
1. See the various articles on this website about the false armistice reports from France and about the spread of the news in France and Britain. See Stanley Weintraub (listed in the Bibliography on this website) for an account of the spread of the news in the United States.
2. Hornblow Jr, Arthur, ‘The Amazing Armistice: Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report’. Published originally in The Century Magazine, November 1921, pp90-99. Available online.
The article was selected for inclusion in a collection of narrative writing, compiled by J.W. Cunliffe and G.R. Lomer with the title Writing of Today: Models of Journalistic Prose. It is in Part B. Narrative Articles, pp. 67-73. (Third Edition. New York, 1923.) Available Online.
Howard, Roy, ‘Premature Armistice – Roy W. Howard Speaking’. In Webb Miller’s, I Found No Peace. The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, presented as Chapter IV. (The Book Club Special Edition, Camelot Press, London, 1937, is used here.)
Howard, Roy Papers (1892-1964). MSA 1, The Media School Archive, Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Indiana. The Papers also contain a sequence of cablegrams, sent to and from Howard after his armistice one and while he was still in Brest. They are to be found in the Papers following a letter from Marshall Coles to Naoma Lowensohn, dated 25 April 1957.
Cook, Fred. Letters: Fred C. Cook to Howard, Nov. 15 (Note sent with testimony letter.) Fred C. Cook to Howard, A.P.O. No. 716, A.E.F., France, November 15, 1918. (Testimony letter.) In Roy Howard Papers, MSA 1, The Media School Archive, Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Indiana. Articles: ‘Real “False Armistice” Story Is Now Told By Eyewitness’. The Evening Star, (Washington, DC,) Wednesday, November 11, 1925, p4; and ‘False Armistice Day Report Vividly Recalled’. The Evening Star, Tuesday, November 11, 1924, p5
3. Letter to Ed. L. Keen [United Press, London] from Buenos Aires, September 4, 1918. Howard Papers.
For some background details about Howard and Hornblow, and about Fred Cook, Admiral Henry Wilson and Ensign John Sellards, see the False Armistice Commentary on this website, under ‘In Brest on 7 November 1918’.
4. Howard began his journey to Brest at Montparnasse railway station in Paris on Wednesday 6 November. With his wife Peg and UP war correspondent Fred Ferguson, he reached the station just in time for the 9:00 pm train and a twelve-hour journey to the westernmost region of France. He did not mention his wife or Ferguson anywhere else in his account, and clearly intimated that he travelled alone to Brest (“with the hastiest of farewells I … was off … to Brest”, p77). Information in cablegrams Howard sent and received while in Brest indicate that both his wife and Ferguson remained in Paris. (Howard was hoping to return to France in the very near future.)
Emmet Crozier wrote that Peg travelled to Brest with her husband: American Reporters on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Chapter XXIII, ‘Too Soon the Good News’, pp259, 260. (New York. 1959.)
Patricia Beard does not mention Peg’s presence in Paris, but states that Ferguson travelled with Howard to Brest, arriving there at 10:00 am on 7 November: Patricia Beard, Newsmaker Roy W. Howard. The Mastermind Behind the Scripps-Howard News Empire. Chapter 10, ‘The Worst Day: “The False Armistice,” November 7, 1918’, pp70, 71, 72. (Lyons Press. Connecticut. 2016.)
5. See the Faux Armistice in France article on this website.
6. “P.Q.” = a “nickname” denoting “all French companies operating trans-Atlantic cables”, after the initials of Augustin Pouyer-Quertier, founder of the Compagnie Française du Télégraphe de Paris à New York. See: René Salvador, Underwater Cables in the Brest Harbor. A Short History of French Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cables from the French Viewpoint. (Online)
7. ‘White man’ as a colloquialism of the period = ‘someone who deals fairly with others’.
8. Maurice Laureau, ‘Réjouissances publiques à Brest suite à l’annonce de l’Armistice : minute no 2729 du 8 novembre 1918. Service historique de la défense, Fonds Maurice Laureau, Brest 12 S 202. Unfortunately, the report is incomplete: only the first two pages were available when this article was written.
9. Howard to Unipress, New York, November 8, 1918. Howard Papers. The Fourth Estate, November 9, 1918, p7. Available online through the Hathi Trust Digital Library. The New York Times, November 9, 1918, under ‘United Press Admits Peace Report Is False’. Available through NYTimes.com Free to Read Articles 1918 website. The Evening Star (Washington, DC), reported it in its Friday 8 November issue, under ‘U.P. Gives Source of “Peace” Story’, ‘Says Admiral Wilson at Brest Made Announcement to its Correspondent’, p25. Available online through Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers portal.
10. For an outline of reactions in the American press, see Dale E. Zacher, The Scripps Newspapers Go To War, 1914-18. Chapter 7, under ‘Such an Almighty Fluke’, pp206-208. (USA. 2008)
11. Howard to Captain Stone, November 9, 1918. Howard Papers.
12. Howard to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918. Howard Papers.
13. Howard to Robert J. Bender [United Press Manager in Washington, DC], CONFIDENTIAL, New York, December 2, 1918, sheet 2. Howard Papers.
14. The New York Times, 21 November 1918, under ‘Howard Excuses False Peace Report’. Available through NYTimes.com Free to Read Articles 1918 website.
15. The Columbia Herald, Friday, November 15, 1918, p3, under ‘Roy W. Howard Explains Report of Armistice’. Available online through Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers portal.
16. Dale E. Zacher, The Scripps Newspapers Go To War, 1914-18. Chapter 7, under ‘The False Armistice’, p208. (USA. 2008)
17. Richard M. Harnett and Billy G. Ferguson, UNIPRESS. United Press International. Covering the 20th Century, Chapter 7, ‘World War Sells News’, p58. (USA. 2003)
18. Quoted here from Dale E. Zacher (see note 16).
19. Howard to Robert J. Bender [in Washington, DC], CONFIDENTIAL. New York, December 2, 1918, sheet 2. Howard Papers. On the conspiracy theories, see the False Armistice Conspiracy Theories article on this website.