Roy Howard’s cablegram to New York City from the French port of Brest was one of (at least) two that carried false armistice news to the United States on Thursday 7 November 1918. 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. (ENDNOTES III: Note 1)
This article recounts what happened in Brest in relation to the false armistice news and its transmission to the United States. Much of the narrative comes from Roy Howard’s ‘Premature Armistice’ contribution to colleague Webb Miller’s 1936 Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, from Arthur Hornblow’s 1921 ‘Fake Armistice’ and ‘Amazing Armistice’ articles, and from private letters held in their respective archives.
Howard’s retrospective and Hornblow’s two articles are the principal first-hand accounts of False Armistice events in Brest. The ‘Fake Armistice’ article, however, was never published as such. Hornblow sent copies of it to Roy Howard and Admiral H. B. Wilson, then amended it and changed the title as a result of their comments. It therefore became the ‘Amazing Armistice’ which was published in November 1921.
Only one other eye-witness seems to have written publicly about 7 November 1918 in Brest. This was Major Fred Cook, an officer at the US Army Base there. He made a brief statement at the time, at Howard’s request, about being with Howard at US Navy Headquarters when Admiral Wilson released the armistice news – on condition that it would not be published. But some years later, working as a journalist, he wrote two anniversary features on the False Armistice for the Evening Star newspaper in Washington, DC.
This article brings together information from Howard’s, Hornblow’s and Cook’s sources for the first time, revealing similarities, differences and conflicting narratives.
Admiral Wilson refused to be drawn into public comments, which arose periodically in the years that followed, on his decision to let Howard use the 7 November armistice news. But he left a private ‘False Armistice Folder’ of papers which would have been used “in case of ‘attack’ on his memory after his death”. A separate, complementary article based on information from this folder will present Wilson’s side of the story, also for the first time. (ENDNOTES: I. Main Sources) and (ENDNOTES: II. Biographical Information)
With the aim of avoiding confusion, the content is presented in different colours throughout this article: this colour for information from Howard’s 1936 memoir; this one for extracts from his letters; this for information from Hornblow’s two articles; and this for information from Fred Cook’s letters and newspaper items. Background historical details and comments on the source information are in black text.
Roy W. Howard
In November 1918, Roy Howard was thirty-five years old and President of the United Press (UP) news agency. 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. In Paris, he intended to “have a look around a bit and meet the different fellows who are representing us at the different fronts”. 2
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 arrived there on Thursday 7 November to board 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, when he caught the overnight train to Brest from Montparnasse station, he also knew that a German delegation had left for the Western Front to arrange an armistice with the Allies. Peace, finally, seemed to be just a few hours away.
“All of these facts were clearly in my mind” he recalled, when the train pulled into Brest just after 9:00 am the next day. 3
Howard’s first day in Brest – the most consequential – started therefore around 9 o’clock in the morning. It is divided here into four parts: from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, from 4:00 pm to about 4:30 pm, from 4:30 pm to dinner, and from dinner at La Brasserie de la Marine to midnight. What he, Hornblow and Cook wrote about events that day is arranged within these four parts.
9:00 am to 4:00 pm
A member of Lieutenant Arthur Hornblow’s Army Intelligence Team met Howard at the railway station to take him to Hornblow’s office; on the way there he informed Howard “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”.
Howard “hurried” to Hornblow’s office. The lieutenant had heard the rumour and confirmed there had been no official announcement. He organised Howard’s travel arrangements to America on board the S.S. Great Northern (departure time to be communicated later), conveyed an invitation to him to lunch with General Harries at midday and escorted him to the Continental Hotel, where he would be staying. From here they went to the US Navy Headquarters to present to Admiral Wilson a letter of introduction Howard was carrying from Josephus Daniels, the US Secretary of the Navy, and to try to find out more about the peace news – “[Hornblow’s] own interest in the armistice rumour [was] as keen as my own”.
The sailor on desk duty at Wilson’s office had heard the 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 at the US Army Headquarters for his luncheon meeting – “for which Hornblow could not remain”. Staff here were “in high spirits as a result of the rumours”, but had so far failed to verify them.
[Howard 1936, pp78-80]
Howard obviously considered the armistice rumours to be an important detail about events in Brest that day, felt it necessary to emphasise that they were already circulating when he arrived, and that the military authorities he met during the morning and afternoon were trying to substantiate them. He said nothing about the rumours in letters he sent to United Press colleagues shortly after 7 November, though did refer to them in a press statement he gave on 20 November following his return to America. As the New York Times reported, Howard claimed they were “current in both French and American Army circles in Brest when [he] arrived”, and that he had “put in the entire day endeavoring to confirm [them]”. 4
However, neither Arthur Hornblow in his original ‘Fake Armistice’ article nor Fred Cook in his 1924 and ‘25 newspaper features mentioned them at all. And Howard had criticised them for it.
In comments he made to Hornblow about the ‘Fake Armistice’ article, in June 1921, Howard urged him to amend it to include “the fact” that, at the railway station, then at US Army, US Navy and French Army Headquarters, he was told there was an “unofficial rumor” the armistice had been signed and that everyone expected “the confirmation would be coming along at any moment”.
And in a letter he wrote to Cook about the latter’s False Armistice feature of November 1925, he complained that his failure to mention the rumour gave readers the impression that when the armistice news arrived from Paris around mid-afternoon, it was the first Brest had heard about it. [Further details below]
Essentially, Howard was concerned that Hornblow’s and Cook’s articles might give readers cause (again) to doubt his professional integrity and to question his “status as a journalist”, at a time when memories of newspaper rows over the False Armistice were still fresh in the United States. As he stated to Hornblow:
“I cite this fact [about the rumours] as being of importance only because of the persistent effort made by the New York Globe, the Associated Press, and one or two other newspapers particularly unfriendly to the United Press, to create the impression that I had filed a wild rumor that did not have any semblance of official justification.”
[Roy W. Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego June nineteenth 1921, pp1 and 5-6. Hornblow Papers.]
Given what Howard had been told before he left Paris, when he arrived in Brest he may well have been expecting to hear that the Germans had signed an armistice during the twelve hours he had been on the overnight express train. But it is most unlikely that the rumours he said were circulating there before 9 o’clock in the morning were to that effect – the armistice news that started spreading in Paris not long before midday on 7 November would obviously not have arrived in Brest (or anywhere else in France) before 9:00 am.
However, the official French announcement of the 6 November departure of the German armistice delegation for the Western Front appeared in the Paris morning newspapers on the 7th, and this news had certainly reached Brest by 9:00 am. 5 It is far more likely, therefore, that the rumours in Brest were about the German armistice delegation and talks it might be having with the Allies.
In response to Howard’s comments, Hornblow inserted a few brief references in his article to armistice rumours in Brest before 4:00 pm and Admiral Wilson’s announcement of his armistice news from Paris. Fred Cook’s article had already appeared in print when Howard complained to him about it, so it was too late to change it to suit Howard – assuming he would have been willing to do so, that is. [Details below.]
One of 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 Hornblow of Howard’s arrival. He expected Howard to introduce himself at his office a short time later – “most newspapermen made it a point of reporting promptly … in order to hear if any news had broken locally, and to be facilitated generally in getting around and seeing things and people”. But it was not until “shortly before noon” that Howard “strolled in casually” and asked Hornblow whether he could arrange for him to take a faster ship to America than the one booked for him in Paris, which was due to leave at two o’clock that afternoon. He wanted to reach the United States as quickly as possible to prepare 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 sailing the following morning – and in response to another request took Howard to US Navy Headquarters to meet Admiral Henry Wilson. They left Hornblow’s office “about noon”.
On the way they stopped outside the La Dépêche building, the town’s local newspaper in President Wilson Square. Here they 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” Hornblow noted, and “oddly enough, a rumor was seeping through it to the effect that an armistice had already been signed”. 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 John 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, accepted his invitation to take a few of his “cronies” to have dinner with him later that evening, and – “after two o’clock” – left him at the Continental Hotel, where Howard had managed to find accommodation.
[‘Amazing Armistice’, pp90-93; 96]
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 in his 1936 recollection that he met Hornblow in his office soon after arriving in Brest; Hornblow stated that it was not until just before midday that he and Howard met for the first time. In his 1921 letter to Hornblow about the ‘Fake Armistice’, Howard had remarked that “immediately upon my arrival in Brest I reported directly to General Harries’ headquarters”. He included this “fact” in his comments to Hornblow about where and by whom in Brest he was told about the armistice rumours.
Hornblow (as noted earlier) did not mention the armistice-signed rumour in Brest in his ‘Fake Armistice’ article. The remarks here in ‘Amazing Armistice’ about hearing it seeping through the crowd outside the La Dépêche building around midday and about Howard’s telling him he had heard it at the railway station were inserted because of Howard’s criticisms in his June 1921 letter to Hornblow.
Nor did Hornblow mention taking Howard to see the French Commandant or General Harries. He recorded that he took Howard to Navy Headquarters and then showed him around Brest before taking him to lunch at the Navy Club and then leaving him at the Continental sometime after 2:00 pm.
For his part, Howard made no reference to 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. However, in his June 1921 letter to Hornblow he refers separately to “our [his and Hornblow’s] luncheon at the Navy Club” and to “my leaving you after luncheon”. [pp4-6]
After lunch, General Harries ordered more telephone calls to be made to try to confirm the armistice rumour, again without success. Accompanied by Major C. Fred Cook, a member of Harries’ staff and a pre-war news editor at the Washington Star, Howard then went “about Brest on a quest for information”, before returning to Navy Headquarters hoping to see Admiral Wilson.
The US Navy Band was playing to a crowd of civilians and servicemen in President Wilson Square; throughout the town, “there was a tense air of cheerful expectancy” among civilians and military alike. When Howard and Cook reached the headquarters, Wilson was now in his office and available to see them. The time was 4:10 pm.
[Howard 1936, pp80-81]
4:00 pm to about 4:30 pm
By about 4:30 pm, Howard’s false armistice cablegram had been put together and transmitted from Brest to New York City, arriving around midday Eastern Standard Time and just in time for the early afternoon American newspapers. The sequence of events during that short period took place in three different locations: Admiral Wilson’s office, the La Dépêche building, and the local Post Office or ‘P.Q.’ building. 6
In Admiral Wilson’s Office
From Brest on 9 November, Howard sent a letter to Phil Simms, the manager of the United Press office in Paris, telling him what had happened two days before on the 7th.
This, it seems, is Howard’s first and therefore earliest written account of events surrounding his false armistice cablegram. It begins with Howard’s and Major Cook’s arrival at Admiral Wilson’s office (no time noted for this).
“[General] Harries had sent Cook to present me to the Admiral ….”
As he and Major Cook went into Admiral Wilson’s room, the Admiral’s aide, 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 whether the news was official; Wilson assured him 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 La Dépêche had “posted the bulletin”. Sellards said they had not – the editor, Mr Coudurier, was not there and Sellards had brought the bulletin back. The Admiral instructed him to return to the building, give the news to the person in charge and tell him to “announce it”.
Howard requested permission to see the note Ensign Sellards was holding. It was the news about the armistice, cease-fire, and Sedan. He asked the Admiral again whether the information was “official”, was told it was and had been received “directly through our own private channels”. He then asked for permission to “use” it. Wilson agreed: “go right ahead”, he told him.
Howard “hustled over” to the La Dépêche building with Ensign Sellards, leaving Major Cook in the Admiral’s office.
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, pp1-2. Howard Papers.]
The main points Howard made here:
- Admiral Wilson received the armistice news from Paris Headquarters [Navy presumably] before Howard and Cook arrived at his office.
- Also before their arrival, he had sent Ensign Sellards to give a copy of the news to the La Dépêche editor for him to post on the newspaper’s bulletin board. Sellards returned just as Howard and Cook arrived, bringing the message back with him because the editor was not in the newspaper building.
- Wilson instructed Sellards to go back to the La Dépêche building with the news. Howard went with him, having received permission to “use” what Wilson assured him twice was an “official” report from the Admiral’s private channels in Paris.
- Wilson apparently confided to Cook details about the message’s “communication channel”.
- Cook stayed behind when Howard left with the message.
Major Cook wrote down his recollections of what took place in Admiral Wilson’s office in response to a request from Howard. His account, on a single sheet of writing paper, is dated 15 November 1918, eight days after the events.
“I would like to go on record as certifying that ….”
Cook attested to the following details [no times given for them]:
- Admiral Wilson told them 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 US Army Headquarters.
[Fred Cook Letters to Roy Howard. France, November 15, 1918. Howard Papers]
Thus, according to Cook, he (not Howard) asked the Admiral whether the news was official; Wilson informed them it had come from the American Embassy in Paris (Howard told Phil Simms it had arrived from Headquarters in Paris); and Howard left the building on his own to go to the “cable office”, while Ensign Sellards left alone (a little later, it seems) to go to the La Dépêche building.
In the published ‘Amazing Armistice’ article, Hornblow wrote:
Howard was introduced to Admiral Wilson “promptly at four o’clock”. After chatting for a while, Wilson remarked that he had “just received a message which might possibly interest Howard and handed it to him for his perusal”. Howard “beheld an official telegram, signed by Commander Jackson of Admiral Wilson’s office in Paris and naval attache at our Paris embassy”, announcing an 11:00 am armistice and 2:00 pm cessation of hostilities. The admiral agreed to let Howard “use” the armistice report; and with Ensign Sellards “to assist him in arranging things” Howard hurried out of Navy Headquarters heading for the postes [“post-and-telegraph office”].
This information was second-hand – Hornblow was not there during Howard’s mid-afternoon visit to Navy Headquarters. He based his account on what he said Howard had told him at the time, and on a few comments Admiral Wilson made about his ‘Fake Armistice’ text in July 1921 which led him to change it to the above in ‘Amazing Armistice’.
Howard’s only comment on the ‘Fake Armistice’ version of events in Wilson’s office was that Hornblow’s two “quotations of the armistice message” were not “literally correct”; for the sake of accuracy, he offered to provide him with “an exact duplicate” of the message he received from Admiral Wilson. Howard was referring to Hornblow’s omission of the detail about American forces taking Sedan, which he evidently did not correct for ‘Amazing Armistice’. It is not known whether Howard contacted Hornblow after November 1921 to comment on the published account.
It is interesting that Hornblow claimed Howard saw that the armistice message was signed by Jackson, the US Naval Attaché in Paris. Admiral Wilson denied that he had disclosed this detail at the time, and although Howard acquired what purported to be an exact copy of the Jackson Armistice Telegram in August 1919, it is not certain that he knew on 7 November 1918, or before August 1919, that it carried Jackson’s signature. Hornblow, on the other hand, would presumably have soon become aware of this fact through information he acquired as Army Intelligence Officer at Brest.
When Fred Cook left the army, he returned to his work with The Evening Star in Washington, DC. He subsequently wrote two articles about the False Armistice 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 published on 11 November 1925 for the seventh anniversary.
In the latter, he recalled the following events between 4:00 and 5:00 pm:
“It so happened that I was present, a listener and close observer, when the historic episode occurred.”
Cook, the liaison officer between the US Army and Navy Bases, first met Howard during the “early afternoon” of 7 November in General Harries’ office at the Army Base. The General explained that Howard was hoping to meet Admiral Wilson that afternoon and told Cook to accompany him. Cook and Howard went straight to Navy Headquarters, “a tall building” facing President Wilson Square 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 “personal aid, confidential secretary 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. Almost immediately, Howard 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 Sellards’ room and witnessed instructions being given for the peace news to be announced to people listening to a 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 armistice message, but because they had heard nothing yet from US army authorities about it, the 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’.]
As in his 15 November 1918 letter, Cook recollected that Howard asked Admiral Wilson for permission to use the news from Paris, left the building alone with a copy of it, and went towards the cable office.
In his article (though not in his 1918 letter) Cook claimed the Admiral informed him and Howard that the armistice news had arrived in a telegram from Commander Jackson, the naval attaché at the US Paris Embassy – information that first appeared publicly in Hornblow’s November 1921 ‘Amazing Armistice’.
Howard wrote to Cook about the article several days later, criticising his 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 Paris “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 the news and without being “certain of its official nature”.
Regarding the first, “You will recall”, Howard insisted (as he had to Hornblow in 1921 on the same matter) that “the rumor … the armistice had been signed was current all over Brest” during Thursday 7 November. He maintained that he was told about it by “an M.P.” who met him at the railway station, and then by Lieutenant Hornblower [sic] “at G-2”; that he and Hornblow “tried to get something from French headquarters” but all they had was “the same vague rumor”, and reminded Cook that General Harries had “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”.
On the second matter, he felt that Cook’s article gave the impression “it was only a matter of seconds” after being told about the peace news before he rushed off, “jumped down the stairway” and “ran” to the Post Office to send his cablegram. “Let your mind run back again” Howard asserted, and “you will recall that we stood and talked to Admiral Wilson for at least several minutes” during which time “I interrogated him” to make sure the message was “actually an official announcement”; that “I delayed long enough to secure a copy of the dispatch”, which Wilson gave him permission to use, and that the Admiral “ordered Ensign Sellards to go with me to the cable office and help expedite [it] through the Censor”. And he reminded Cook that while they were waiting for Sellards “we discussed further with Wilson the authenticity of his dispatch” and were assured again that it was official.
On a separate point, Howard corrected Cook’s statement that he saw him “run across the square to the cable office” – an “instance” of Cook’s memory having failed him, he remarked – noting that “as a matter of fact”, he was 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 used for sending United Press dispatches from Paris to the “cable head”.
“I am taking the trouble to bring these points to your attention” Howard explained “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, pp1-3. Howard Papers.]
Whether Cook responded to Howard’s criticisms and corrections, or to an invitation to have lunch with him in Washington, DC, “sometime in the near future”, is not known here.
Howard’s own published version of the events appeared some eleven years after Cook’s.
“The Armistice has been signed …. It’s the official announcement.”
Ensign James Sellards, “personal aide, secretary, and interpreter”, met Howard and Cook when they arrived and took them both through to the Admiral’s office. From here, Wilson was sending an orderly [not Sellards] 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”, 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”, Cook remarked. And Howard asked whether the Admiral had “any objection to [his] filing it to the United Press”.
“Hell, no … this is official. It is direct from G.H.Q. via the Embassy. It’s signed by Captain Jackson, our Naval Attaché at Paris. Here’s a copy of what I have just sent to Dépêche. Go to it”, replied Wilson.
The Admiral then instructed Ensign Sellards to take Howard to the cable 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”.
[Howard 1936, pp80-82]
Howard in his 1936 memoir, like Cook in his 1925 newspaper account, claimed that Admiral Wilson told them the armistice message was from Captain Jackson in Paris; but neither had intimated this at the time – Howard in his November 1918 letter to Simms, nor Cook in his November 1918 letter for Howard.
Both have Ensign Sellards already present in Admiral Wilson’s offices when they arrived there, not – as Howard had told Simms – returning “rather out of breath” from the La Dépêche building having failed to leave the armistice bulletin with the editor and then being told to take it back. Here, Howard stated that Wilson instructed an orderly to take the news to La Dépêche and to the navy band master in the square.
According to both their earlier accounts, Howard asked Wilson for permission to “use” the armistice information. In his 1936 memoir above, Howard enlarged this to permission specifically to “[file] it to the United Press”, that is, for permission – which Wilson allegedly granted – to send the armistice message to United Press (in New York by implication) for it to be published in the newspapers.
Howard told reporters in his press statement of 20 November 1918 that Admiral Wilson “sent his personal aid with me to assist me in filing the dispatch, as I do not speak French fluently”. 4 But in their respective November 1918 letters, neither he nor Cook noted that Wilson instructed Sellards to accompany Howard; in his 1925 article Cook gave the impression that Howard left Navy Headquarters alone.
Similarly, neither recorded in November 1918 that Admiral Wilson told Sellards to make sure the local censors in the cable office cleared the armistice bulletin for transmission to New York City – instructions which Howard asserted in his 1936 memoir above, and earlier in his November 1925 criticisms of Cook’s newspaper feature, had been given to the ensign.
Indeed, only Howard made this contentious claim. Cook’s evidence does not support it. Both Admiral Wilson and John Sellards flatly denied it. 22
For what occurred after Howard left Navy Headquarters carrying a copy of Admiral Wilson’s armistice news, the only available first-hand evidence seems to be in a few short statements in Howard’s November 1918 letters and his 1936 narrative. These relate that before going to the Post Office to send the peace news to the United States, he and Sellards called first at the La Dépêche building to have it typed out. 7
In the La Dépêche building
In his letter to Phil Simms, Howard described in just three sentences what happened in the newspaper building:
“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 [and] pasted it up on a P.Q. blank ….”
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, pp1-2. Howard Papers.]
Simms would have known about the arrangement with La Dépêche giving United Press access to the newspaper’s telegraph link to Paris, and so would not have been surprised that Howard was able to use its equipment.
Arthur Hornblow was the first to describe publicly and at some length what happened in the La Dépêche building. He also presented the first exposition of why Howard’s armistice cablegram was quickly cleared for transmission in the Post Office cable room. But his account was second-hand, shaped by what Howard had told him and additional information he must have picked up in Brest during the days that followed.
“Probably, … Roy W. Howard was the only man in the world who could have sent the message as it was sent or who could have sent it at all.”
Howard and Sellards left Navy Headquarters with a copy of the armistice message and headed for the postes [“post-and-telegraph office”]. However, “desiring to file a typewritten message so there would be no possible misunderstanding or misreading by the French cable operator [in the Post Office] Howard dived en route into the nearby telegraph room of ‘La Depeche’ and demanded a type-writer, explaining hurriedly his reason”.
The “telegraph editor” – an “obliging Frenchman” – typed the armistice message for Howard, using the newspaper’s “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”. Having done so, the telegraph editor tore off the tape and pasted it on a “telegraphic form” so that the “message was clear and ready for immediate filing”.
The result, crucially, was a document virtually identical in appearance to United Press telegrams that arrived in Brest from Paris: it 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, in his “generosity” Howard had signed the message “Howard-Simms”, wanting to “share the glory of his ‘beat’” with Phil Simms – “the man who signed all the messages that came from Paris” and whose name was the “stamp of proper procedure”.
Consequently, when it was presented at the Post Office, the Brest censors accepted it without demur and it was speedily transmitted to New York City where the American censors passed it in the belief that it had been cleared through France.
Hornblow insisted that Howard had not acted dishonestly, and had not deliberately made the cablegram look as if it had been sent from United Press in Paris and, therefore, already approved by the censors: “it was [an] unintended strategy of Howard’s that enabled him to get his cable past the local censors … ‘unintended’ because it is inconceivable that … any man, however alert, could have thought up so extraordinarily clever a devise”.
And he reasoned that the following “strange combination of circumstances” was responsible for the outcome:
United Press’s regular use of the La Dépêche private Paris telegraph; Howard’s decision to have his handwritten copy of the armistice message typed out in the La Dépêche building (where he had earlier introduced himself to staff as president of United Press); his inability to operate a French typewriter; the La Dépêche telegraph operator’s use of the Paris telegram “receiving-instrument” and paper tape to print out the message; and Howard’s generous addition of Phil Simms’ name to the form in order to share the scoop with him.
[‘Amazing Armistice’, pp92-95]
When the armistice news spread across the United States on 7 November 1918, press reports understandably assumed it had been sent from Paris and, therefore, that Howard was also in Paris at the time. By 9 November, the New York Times had deduced (from Howard’s subsequent dispatches) that he was, in fact, in Brest, though it could not quite decide why two of his 7 November cablegrams had (seemingly) been filed in Paris. 8
Hornblow’s account above explained how such confusion had arisen, and exonerated Howard from having knowingly committed some telegraphic artifice in order to beat competitors to the American newspapers with an armistice scoop. In June 1921, Howard made just a short, cryptic comment about the account in his lengthy letter criticising ‘Fake Armistice’. Referring to the “printer tape element in the story”, he told him:
“Your outline … is off in a slight way that would considerably alter your story. Inasmuch as no harm and no injustice is done to anyone by your record of this detail as you remember it, I am not going to be a spoil sport by going into this matter. What you don’t know on this point won’t hurt anyone and you can have a clear conscience.”
[Roy Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego, June nineteenth, 1921, p4. Hornblow Papers.]
Why Howard made this comment, which he refused to explain, is open to conjecture. But Hornblow probably never found out why his story was “off” or who might have been hurt by publication of the full details of what happened in the La Dépêche building – details known only, it seems, by Howard and the person/s he had in mind.
In his own account fifteen years later, Howard related briefly how the armistice message was typed out for him; showed how the message appeared in the cablegram; and clarified some of its features.
“It was my intention to retype the message, …, on the regular form of cable blank.”
On the way to the Post Office, he and Sellards stopped at the La Dépêche building. United Press had an arrangement with the newspaper by which its dispatches from Paris to New York City, after clearance by the censors, were relayed to Brest on La Dépêche’s own telegraph system. From La Dépêche, they were sent across to the Post Office building and its Atlantic cable-room. 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 for his records. But he had difficulty using the La Dépêche typewriters, which did not have “a standard keyboard”. The operator of the newspaper’s Paris-Brest telegraph took over and typed the message for him – not, however, directly onto a blank cable form but onto the “regular tape used for Press telegrams”. This was then pasted onto a blank cable form [by the telegraph operator, by implication].
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;
- he also put Simms’ official Press Card number on the form – needed for “collect messages filed to United Press”;
- 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”.
[Howard 1936, pp82-83]
Hornblow had assumed that Howard and Sellards took the completed armistice cablegram from the La Dépêche building across to the Post Office to have it transmitted to New York City. And Howard emphasised in his 1936 memoir that this is exactly what they did. However, just two days after the events Howard told Phil Simms that someone else had taken the armistice news to the Post Office. He wrote that after printing the peace news and pasting it on a P.Q. blank, the La Dépêche operator “sent it to the wire by the newspapers messenger.” Why he stated this, giving Simms the impression he did not go to the Post Office with the news, is not known, but he seems not to have repeated it in other correspondence, and obviously contradicted it later.
In the Post Office building
Hornblow had also explained that the Brest censors in the Post Office immediately accepted Howard’s bulletin because they believed it had come from United Press in Paris and had already been approved by the censors there. But comments Howard made about the censors and his cablegram – at the time and later – offered a somewhat different explanation.
In his 9 November letter to Simms again, he added a postscript stating he had been informed on 8 November that the local censors were not shown his cablegram until two hours after it had been sent to New York City, because the people in the Post Office “were so excited” by the peace news.
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, p3. Howard Papers.]
He gave the same information to William Hawkins, the United Press manager in New York City, in a cablegram sent 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]
And after returning to the United States, he declared in his 20 November 1918 press statement that what “caused [the] wire to pass the French censorship at Brest unchallenged” was the “fact” that “all Brest, including operators and censors, accepted the news as official, and was celebrating at the time”. 4
He obviously had not told Hornblow the Brest censors did not see his cablegram and that it went off uncensored (leaving him to attribute its unhindered transmission to their assuming it was a genuine United Press telegram from Paris, already cleared there). But he intimated as much to Fred Cook in his 1925 letter to him, added extra details about what happened when the cablegram was transmitted, and placed himself and Sellards in the Post Office building as witnesses to events there:
“We subsequently went to the cable office on the opposite side of the square from the newspaper office. By the time we reached the cable office [,] censors, telegraph operators and most everyone in the place was either engaged in or watching the demonstration in the Place President Wilson …. It was, of course, due to this ensuing confusion and the fact that [the armistice message] was filed on one of the regular blanks used for the Paris dispatches of the United Press that caused the cable operator, of his own volition, to affix a Paris date line to my message which I presumed would carry a Brest date the same as any other message filed from that point.”
[Roy Howard to Fred Cook, 28 November 1925, p2. Howard Papers]
Howard included some of the above details in his 1936 memoir, where he also affirmed that Sellards’ presence and actions in the Post Office contributed significantly to the successful dispatch of the armistice news.
“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”. Howard waited there at Sellards’ suggestion, while the Ensign took the armistice cablegram to the transmission room. Known to the operators as Admiral Wilson’s “confidential secretary”, Sellards was able “to expedite” the cablegram’s dispatch. He stayed in the cable room until the message had “cleared into New York”. The time was “approximately 4.20 p.m.”
Afterwards he learned that “no French censor ever passed on the message”, and came to realise that his cablegram, put together in Brest, was indistinguishable from an “ordinary United Press bulletin” that had been cleared by censors in Paris. At the time, it simply had not occurred to him that it would show a Paris rather than a Brest dateline – an error he attributed to the inclusion of Simms’ name and press-card number on the cablegram.
“One of the most dramatic events of the entire war”, he observed, had arisen – “not by design” – but from his being “unable to use a French typewriter” and the assistance of Ensign Sellards as the official representative of Admiral Wilson. “The combination was more perfect than if it had been planned”.
[Howard 1936, pp83-84]
(See, at the end of this article, AFTERWORD: What did Roy Howard withhold from Arthur Hornblow about the armistice cablegram?)
In all, therefore, according to Howard:
- the local censors did not see his cablegram because they had abandoned their room and their duties in the Post Office building to join the peace celebrations outside;
- they did not actually see it until (two hours) after the transmission-room operator had dispatched it to New York City in their absence;
- the transmission-room operator gave the cablegram a Paris dateline because it looked exactly like a United Press telegram from Paris;
- he did not accompany Sellards to the transmission room, and was not present to witness what happened there when the cablegram was dispatched.
- what happened had not been planned by him: an extraordinary set of circumstances and sequence of events had brought it all about. (Echoes here of Hornblow’s 1921 assessment of the whole affair.)
Based on the details in Howard’s accounts, only about ten minutes elapsed between his and Major Cook’s arrival at Admiral Wilson’s office (around 4:10 pm) and the transmission from the Post Office of the false armistice cablegram to New York City (about 4:20 pm). By this reckoning, it took fewer than ten minutes for the cablegram to be prepared in the La Dépêche building, taken from there to the Post Office, and sent off. To reach its destination, Howard told Hornblow in 1921, it took just six minutes.
From 4:30 pm to dinner
As noted earlier, Howard gave Phil Simms to believe that a newspaper messenger had taken his cablegram to the Post Office for him, while he himself went straight back to Navy Headquarters from the La Dépêche building to see Admiral Wilson.
Meanwhile, the peace news had been displayed on La Dépêche’s bulletin board, a “huge American flag” was hanging outside Admiral Wilson’s office, the US navy band “played the Star Spangled Banner and the Marcellaise and the stuff was off …. Everyone went bugs”.
When he arrived at the headquarters, Admiral Wilson was “engaged”, and so 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 one about Brest being the first French city to receive the armistice news. He also wired [John] deGandt [United Press staff correspondent in Paris] reporting “fully as to what [he] had sent to New York”. And then went out to dinner “with a couple of Intelligence officers ….”
[Howard to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, pp2-3. Howard Papers.]
Hornblow recalled that he was in his office at the US Army Base when he learnt about the armistice news:
In the ‘Fake Armistice’, he wrote that around 4:30 pm he heard “a great shout go up” from the direction of President Wilson Square. He ignored “the racket”, but a few minutes later Howard, “hatless, and literally wild-eyed”, rushed into his office, “exclaimed breathlessly, ‘Boy! I’ve scored the biggest beat in history!’” and in a “maze of excited explanations” told him what had happened.
[‘Fake Armistice’, pp7-8]
Howard, however, objected that the passage was “somewhat at variance with the facts”. He denied rushing to Hornblow’s office immediately after the cablegram was sent off, stating he had “first returned to Admiral Wilson’s headquarters with Major Cook [sic] … in the hope of getting some further details”. As Wilson was out, he decided to return to General Harries’ headquarters “to ascertain if the army wires had carried any additional details”; and “kept scurrying around right up to the hour of [their] dinner appointment” trying to pick up information that could be expected to follow the “official announcement”.
He also denied being “hatless” and “wild-eyed” but admitted claiming he had “scored the biggest beat in history”. On the latter point, however, he asked Hornblow to alter the statement, “to soften [it] a bit”, in order to make his “declaration sound less egotistical”. The “courtesy would be appreciated”, he added.
[Roy Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego, June nineteenth, 1921, pp2-4. Hornblow Papers.]
Hornblow obliged and changed the passage to accommodate Howard’s comments and request.
“If the news was true, Howard probably had scored the biggest news beat of history.”
Hornblow was told about the news “at four-thirty or thereabout”. One of his men reported that Navy Headquarters had announced, as official, that an armistice had been agreed and the fighting was over. “Astounded at the suddenness with which truth had been given to the odd rumor that had hovered over Brest all day”, Hornblow immediately investigated.
It took “some time” for him to find Howard, who was with Major Cook “going from one official bureau to another” looking for more information about the end of the war. Back in Hornblow’s office, Howard showed him his copy of the armistice bulletin and related what had happened after he met Admiral Wilson.
Hornblow was “torn between believing and not believing” the peace news, primarily because Army Intelligence [G-2] Headquarters in Paris had not so far informed him of the momentous developments and ordered him to tell General Harries that the war was over. He therefore telephoned G-2 and – “to their apparent astonishment” – explained what was happening in Brest. “No word of any armistice had reached [them]”, only that German delegates were “expected to meet Marshal Foch that afternoon at five”.
Hornblow asked them to make immediate inquiries at the French Ministry of War and report back to him.
The failure of G-2 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 from his “office” in Paris; and argued that the American Embassy must have received the news ahead of G-2 Headquarters.
General Harries 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 that before then there would be no victory celebrations at the Army Base.
[‘Amazing Armistice’, pp93-94 and 96]
“Astounded at the suddenness with which truth had been given to the odd rumor that had hovered over Brest all day”, and a remark at the end of the article that the rumour “was present in Brest before Admiral Wilson’s receipt of the message from Paris”, were the other rumour-insertions Hornblow made in ‘Amazing Armistice’ following Howard’s comments about his ‘Fake Armistice’ article.
By the time Hornblow telephoned G-2 in Paris – sometime after 4:30 pm seemingly – false armistice rumours had been spreading around the capital and to other parts of France since before midday. And G-2 had been investigating them and reporting them to AEF Headquarters in Chaumont and Services of Supply Headquarters in Tours. 5
In a sense, therefore, what they allegedly told Hornblow – that “no word of any armistice had reached [them]” – was true, in that they would not have received any official notification of a signing of the German armistice on 7 November. However, they certainly knew about the rumours, though they may have been surprised to hear they had reached Brest as well. And it seems likely they would have told Hornblow about them, warning him they were unconfirmed and most probably false.
Howard did not write about meeting Hornblow after 4:30 pm, going back to his office, telling him what had happened, and being told by him about a telephone call to G-2 in Paris.
In his 1936 memoir he simply related that Admiral Wilson was not in his office by the time he and Sellards had made their way back there from the Post Office and through crowds celebrating the peace news. He therefore returned to his hotel where he prepared a “follow” to his armistice cablegram [no details], 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 was unlikely he had succeeded in getting the peace news to the United States ahead of American correspondents in Paris. But then, because Captain Jackson’s message had travelled by military wire from Paris, he reasoned that there was “an outside chance” it had arrived in Brest very soon after the news had broken in Paris. The advantage of his being in Brest, he concluded, may well have helped him beat the competition in Paris to be the first to get the peace news to New York City.
[Howard 1936, p85]
In pre-1936 accounts Howard had stated that after returning to Navy Headquarters he went, not straight to his hotel, but to find Major Cook (at Army Headquarters presumably). And Hornblow altered his ‘Fake Armistice’ article to say that he found Howard with Cook, sometime after 4:30 pm, looking for follow-on information about the armistice news.
Fred Cook, however, gave the impression that, after leaving Navy Headquarters (alone) and returning to the US Army Base to give General Harries the peace news, he did not see Howard again until the following day – in the La Dépêche building where Howard was using the newspaper’s telegraph line to Paris.
[The Evening Star, Wednesday, November 11, 1925, p4, under ‘Real “False Armistice” Story Is Now Told By Eyewitness’.]
From dinner at La Brasserie de la Marine to midnight
Dinner at La Brasserie de la Marine
Recollections of what happened during dinner differ sharply, even though Hornblow changed his original, vivid account of it in ‘Fake Armistice’ (in full below) to suit Howard.
“At Howard’s request, and growing constantly more infected by the spirit of the great victory, I rounded up a band of cronies for a dinner party to be given by Howard by way of celebrating his ‘scoop’…. Six of us gathered around the tiny table that Howard had managed to wangle at La Brasserie de la Marine, Brest’s Delmonico, and, that evening, a pandemonium of gaiety. [With Howard and Hornblow were the latter’s assistant intelligence officer, two navy headquarters officers, and a French liaison service officer.]
Through the windows poured the din of rejoicing in the streets. The Brasserie was alive with flags, confetti and streamers that had all leaped suddenly into being from nowhere, and the usual clatter of dishes was replaced by the yells and songs of several hundred unrestrained throats. Two pretty girls danced recklessly on a narrow table packed tightly against ours, while their Yankee escorts roared a jazz accompaniment. On our table danced nothing less solemn than a collection of magnums – Moët, 1904. I do not recall seeing any food anywhere …. As a matter of fact, we had ordered some, but the restaurant could find neither the means of serving it nor the place to put it! What a setting for a celebration of the ‘greatest beat in history’! With the whole world seemingly helping us celebrate!
Then suddenly came the crash, just as it had to come …. I had left word for any wire from Paris to be sent to me immediately. In the midst of a din that was getting louder momentarily, a signal corps orderly entered the room unnoticed and made for our table. A feeling of grave apprehension seized me as I grasped and opened the message that was handed me. I felt Howard’s eye on me as I read, and the blood marched to my head.
The communication was in intelligence code, and the process of translation was slow and fearful. Finally it was done…. The message said: ‘Armistice report untrue. [French] 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.’
It was signed by Major Robertson, my immediate superior at Paris.
I shall draw a swift curtain over the cruel scene of reaction. Howard’s white, drawn face as he realized what he had done, as he read in the words I handed him his own doom and that of the United Press. His exclamation that he would give a million dollars to recall his cable to New York. Our filing out with him back to the Continental, leaving behind us, undisillusioned, the tragically joyous throngs celebrating a peace that wasn’t a peace …. We stayed with Howard as long as we could that night, with the pitiful hope of cheering him up or, at least, trying to keep his thoughts off the suicidal!”
[‘Fake Armistice’, pp12-13]
Howard objected to the impression created by Hornblow’s account that he had organized a party to celebrate his armistice “scoop”, and that they all went out to “paint the village pink”. He reminded Hornblow that he had invited him to have dinner after their lunch at the Navy Club – hours before “either of us had any intimation of what was to transpire”. And asked him to change it and remove the impression “for the sake of having the record written straight”.
He disliked his description of the effects on him of the denial of the armistice news: “I really think that you swung one a little bit low in your reference to suicide. It isn’t the Irish way, old top. I might have contemplated murder that night – but never suicide”. He felt Hornblow could still “bring out all the dramatics” of the arrival of the message “without having it quite so heavily at [his] expense”.
[Roy Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego, June nineteenth, 1921, pp4-5. Hornblow Papers.]
Hornblow altered his story for ‘Amazing Armistice’. He tactfully avoided the impression that the dinner was a celebration of Howard’s ‘scoop’; extended his description of the hectic, joyful scene in the crowded restaurant, but excluded his group (and names of the others) from his observations; omitted the reference to Howard and suicidal thoughts; and inserted new details about going with Howard to look for Admiral Wilson later in the evening:
“During our luncheon and before the storm had broken, Howard had asked me to dine with him that night, little thinking that he was, in effect, asking me to an ‘armistice celebration’”.
Howard had reserved a table at La Brasserie de la Marine, and six of them in all arrived there for dinner. The restaurant 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. Hornblow deciphered it at the table; it had come from a Major Robertson, his “immediate superior in Paris”, and revealed the 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.”
“I shall draw a swift curtain over the cruel scene of reaction: Howard’s white, drawn face as he realized what he had done, as he read in the words I handed him his own doom and that of the United Press; [and] our filing out with him back to the Continental….”
[‘Amazing Armistice’, pp95-97]
When Howard came to write about it for his memoir he gave little space to the dinner scene, describing it in just a short paragraph:
“We had not yet ordered our dinner – not even the drinks which were to precede it.”
He recounted that, before they had ordered anything to drink or eat, an orderly arrived at the restaurant with a message for him from Admiral Wilson. The message stated that the Admiral had received information from Paris, “via his direct signal-corps wire”, that the armistice news was “unconfirmable”, and that he had not been able to “get in touch … personally” with Howard because he had left Brest for the evening. Accompanied by Hornblow, Howard “went immediately to the office of La Dépêche ….” [My italics]
[Howard 1936, pp 85-86]
Here, Howard evidently altered the fact (acknowledged in his 1921 letter) that the orderly arrived with the message for Hornblow, presumably because having the message arrive for him from Admiral Wilson fitted better into his own overall narrative of events that day.
Hornblow did not say anything in ‘Fake Armistice’ about accompanying Howard to the La Dépêche building immediately after they left the restaurant. Howard did not complain about it, and the detail is also absent from ‘Amazing Armistice’.
However, Howard complained strongly that in ‘Fake Armistice’ Hornblow had omitted to record that they went off to find Admiral Wilson after dinner, reminding him that when they left the Brasserie de la Marine:
“You and I having failed to locate Admiral Wilson at his office or at his home, called at the house where he was attending a dinner party – as I recall it was either the Mayor of Brest [or] the French Admiral commanding the base – and there had sent out to us the Admiral’s own report that the information was (not untrue, please recall [but]) ‘premature’”.
And added somewhat indignantly: “I am considerably at a loss why it was that you entirely eliminated mention of this feature of the evening, one which to me has always seemed significant”. 9
[Roy Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego, June nineteenth, 1921, p5. Hornblow Papers.]
Thus reproached, Hornblow amenably included the information in ‘Amazing Armistice’:
“Howard spent most of the night trying to get information ….”
“[Back at the hotel] a revival of hope, an inability to believe [the denial of the armistice news] impelled Howard to go in search of Admiral Wilson. The two of us finally located him dining en famille with a French local official”. Here, Sellards came out and 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 “premature” armistice news meant “true, but not properly released” and might be officially confirmed later on, and then 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”.
[‘Amazing Armistice’, p97]
When Howard came to write his version of what he did after leaving the restaurant, rather surprisingly he omitted the very details he had criticised Hornblow for overlooking. In just a few sentences, he stated that:
With Hornblow he left the restaurant and went straight to the La Dépêche building. Here he prepared a cablegram reporting that Admiral Wilson’s armistice news was now held to be “unconfirmable”. It was transmitted to New York City “approximately two hours after the first one”. [This would have been around 6:20 pm.]
Not until much later that evening – when the newspaper’s private telegraph opened – was Howard able to contact his Paris office and obtain more information (it had been impossible to communicate earlier “for censorship reasons”). They told him of the “celebrations under way in America” caused by his armistice bulletin.
[Howard 1936, pp 85-86 and 89]
The above details are contained in five sentences. In between them, Howard devoted nearly three pages of text to an exposition of what he believed had happened to his ‘armistice news unconfirmable’ cablegram, the release of which in the United States was delayed until late morning on 8 November 1918. He did send it, but presumably not until after he and Hornblow had received the information from Admiral Wilson (about which Howard is silent in his 1936 memoir) and not, as he claims above, “immediately” after leaving the restaurant – or therefore before finding the Admiral. The delayed cablegram was the third one he sent that day, not the second as claimed above. The second one reported the peace celebrations in Brest.
Hornblow, as noted, said nothing in his articles about going to the La Dépêche building with Howard after dinner to send a ‘news unconfirmed’ cablegram to New York City, and Howard had not mentioned the omission in his 1921 letter about ‘Fake Armistice’. Whether Hornblow was present at this particular event is therefore uncertain.
Howard offered a somewhat different version of the evening’s events in his 9 November 1918 letter to Phil Simms, for he gave him the impression he had first heard the armistice denial news from French sources, and had spent the evening alone trying to find out what was going on.
“You can imagine what a sweet night I had of it.”
“I … went to dinner with a couple of Intelligence Officers whom I had met [no details about what occurred], and immediately after went to the office of la Depeche [no reason given], where I found that the French officers in Brest had received a report that the armistice was not ‘confirmed’”.
He eventually located Admiral Wilson who, accompanied by Ensign Sellards, was having dinner with “the French Admiral”. He “got Sellards out of the dinner” and learnt that Wilson had been informed that the peace news was “unconfirmed”.
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 not, the American censors in New York City would have done so. He therefore sent another cablegram stating that Admiral Wilson had since been told that the peace news had not been confirmed.
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, November 9, 1918, p3. Howard Papers.]
Similarly, in a cablegram to Bill Hawkins, general manager at United Press in New York City, he stated that after hearing the French were doubtful about the armistice news he went to check with Admiral Wilson:
While the celebrations in Brest were at their height, Howard was told that some French Army Officers 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 the Admiral “had received word his original bulletin [had been questioned]”.
[Howard Papers, Brest cablegrams, image 15. (8 November 1918 probably)]
These November 1918 references to French authorities and the denial of the armistice news seem to be the only ones Howard made. There are no such references in Hornblow’s articles.
Fred Cook, on the other hand, in his November 1925 feature, described how Colonel Maurice Laureau, the French Government’s liaison officer with the US Army in Brest, suddenly arrived at the Army Base during the late afternoon of 7 November, began protesting loudly that the peace news was not true and demanding that the celebrations in the town be stopped.
The next day, Colonel Laureau reported to his superiors in Paris that, around 5:30 pm on 7 November, he was contacted by the Brest Maritime Prefect’s Headquarters and advised that the armistice news had come from an official French source but was “fake”. He immediately telephoned the information to the American Army Base, then went over there to speak to General Harries. The General decided to contact the American authorities about the news, and around 9:00 pm was told that no armistice had yet been concluded. 10
Fred Cook apparently was at the Army Base at 5:30 pm (having left Navy Headquarters not long before 4:30 pm). But where were Hornblow and Howard when Colonel Laureau announced his news? Neither reported the event in their accounts; when it occurred they were probably already on their way to La Brasserie de la Marine. But it was most likely this French refutation of the peace news that shaped the rest of their evening. In other words, the message the Signal Corps orderly handed to Hornblow at the restaurant most likely carried Colonel Laureau’s information, rather than a reply to enquiries Hornblow claimed he had earlier made to G-2 in Paris about the news. And it was most likely Laureau’s information, therefore, that induced them to leave the restaurant (before 6:30 pm) and find Admiral Wilson to ask him whether he knew anything about it. (Admiral Wilson’s papers verify that he spoke to Howard in the evening about a denial of the armistice news. 22)
Subsequently, Howard went to the La Dépêche building (probably alone) to try to ascertain from the United Press Paris office what was going on, eventually sending the dispatch to New York City cancelling his armistice cablegram and returning distraught to his hotel.
It is worth noting here that, over thirty years later, Donald L. Stone, the principal US Army Press Censor in Paris in November 1918 (whom Howard contacted on 9 November to explain why his armistice cablegram from Brest carried a Paris dateline) recollected that a “high French naval officer” had sent the “untrue [armistice] news” to Naval Attaché Jackson in Paris; and that Jackson “in complete good faith telephoned this information” to Admiral Wilson in Brest, who “in equal good faith” allowed the news to be released.
Unfortunately, Stone did not explain how he knew that US navy authorities in Paris had obtained the armistice message from a French navy source. But assuming his recollection of this detail was accurate after all those years, it is possible he was alluding to the same “fake” armistice news from an official French source that the Brest Maritime Prefect’s Headquarters alerted Colonel Laureau to during late afternoon on 7 November 1918. 11
Friday 8th to Sunday 10th November
By Friday morning Howard knew from the Paris office that his armistice cablegram had been published across America with the most spectacular results and potentially dire consequences for him and United Press. Fortunately for them, Admiral Wilson agreed to provide a statement exonerating them from any blame for the false armistice news.
Hornblow and Howard concluded their accounts of events in Brest with brief acknowledgments of Wilson’s selfless action.
“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”. He gave Howard a statement, “issued at once to the press”, that the false armistice message was based on “what appeared to be official and authoritative information” received from Paris, but did not disclose “whose signature was affixed to the erroneous communication”.
[‘Amazing Armistice, p97.]
“I was at Admiral Wilson’s office when he arrived around ten o’clock on the morning of the eighth.”
Howard “explained the situation” to him. Wilson asked how he could “set matters right” and, in response to Howard’s request, provided him with a “statement for publication, giving his version of what had occurred” the previous afternoon. It read:
“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”.
[Howard 1936, p89]
According to Admiral Wilson, Howard had prepared the statement himself beforehand. Wilson agreed to sign it because it was accurate in its details and because Howard had assured him that it would not be published, only used by him to show editors in the United States he had not acted improperly.
In his letter to Phil Simms at the time, Howard was positively effusive in his praise of the Admiral:
“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 Friday morning, Paris informed Howard that “the stuff had gotten through and been printed” in the United States. “There was nothing to do except put it up to Wilson”, Howard decided. He made his way to Navy Headquarters, was allowed to see the Admiral again, and obtained “that statement of fact” from him.
Wilson told Howard that Secretary of State Lansing had contacted him about the armistice cable. The Admiral “knew full well that he was in for some grief too”, Howard observed. Indeed, he thought that when Wilson gave him the statement exonerating him and United Press “he did it knowing that he might be writing his own resignation”.
Wilson’s action had 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”. 12
And earned his gratitude and discretion. In the uproar he fully expected United Press to become involved in over the false armistice news, Howard told Simms he had asked Hawkins 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, November 9, 1918, p3. Howard Papers.]
Without delay, Howard cabled Wilson’s statement “urgent rate” to United Press in New York City and ordered it to be released. 13 Some evening papers published it later that day (Friday 8th); United Press paid for it to be printed the following day (Saturday 9th) on a whole page of the Fourth Estate (which marketed itself as “A Newspaper for the Makers of Newspapers and Investors in Advertising”). 14 And the obvious implication of the statement was made public. As the New York Times commented: “full responsibility for the circulation of the false news was placed on Vice Admiral Henry B. Wilson … one of the most distinguished officers of the American Navy”. 15
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. When, on 8 November, Hawkins reported from New York City that it was impossible to overestimate the seriousness of the armistice bulletin’s fearful effects on the public – “unparalleled [in] all newspaper history” – he was not exaggerating. The news, he told Howard, had provoked “the greatest demonstration [in] American history”, which had lasted “daylong [and] nightlong”. And “opposition services papers” were attacking United Press “viciously”.
[Hawkins (New York City) to Howard (Brest). Cablegram, 9 November 1918. (Paris date-stamp). Images 1 and 2. Howard Papers]
They clamoured for him and the agency 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, calling 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. 16
The peace news Admiral Wilson received from Paris was certainly not true. But it was erroneous information, not fake or hoax news: it was misinformation rather than disinformation.
On the other hand, Howard’s cablegram, put together in the La Dépêche building in Brest but carrying features that made it seem that it had been sent from United Press in Paris and cleared by the Paris censors, was tantamount to a fake. And to absolve the Paris office of any blame, Howard sent a telegram to the American Censor in Paris, Captain Stone, explaining that he had transmitted the peace 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”.
[Telegram, Howard to Captain Stone, November 9, 1918. Howard Papers.]
Two days after the events, Howard was “still a bit groggy from this jolt … received here” and “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”. 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]”.
[Howard to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918. And Howard to Robert J. Bender [United Press Manager in Washington, DC], CONFIDENTIAL, New York, December 2, 1918, p2. Howard Papers.]
Howard left for the United States on Sunday 10th November. On board ship, the following day he heard the official news that the war with Germany had ended.
Shortly after his return, he spoke to newspapers about what had happened in Brest. He did not try to explain to them why his armistice cablegram did not 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.” 4
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”. 17
The Brest cablegram nevertheless became “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, AP during the war”. 18 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”. 19 Even as late as November 1951, Howard was publicly labelled as having been “responsible for” the 7 November 1918 armistice report – on this occasion by President Harry S. Truman, no less. 20
As far as business was concerned, however, United Press “amazingly lost only one client” (the Vermont Burlington News). Howard’s $250,000 estimate of the probable cost to the agency, therefore, seems to have been over-pessimistic. 18
The 7 November 1918 armistice story remained newsworthy throughout the inter-war period in the United States (though not in other countries affected by it). Hornblow’s November 1921 ‘Amazing Armistice’ article was reviewed in many newspapers. Reviving memories of events just three years earlier, it not only contained a great deal of new information for readers, it also offered an intriguingly new explanation of what had caused the False Armistice: a conspiracy theory involving German spies in Paris as the originators of the peace news. Eighteen years after the events, Roy Howard’s ‘Premature Armistice’ chapter received particular attention in reviews of Webb Miller’s 1936 book. Towards the end of his account, Howard endorsed Hornblow’s spy theory, having finally abandoned a conspiracy theory of his own that involved four German armistice envoys who, he believed, actually signed an armistice with the Allies on 7 November 1918. 21
What did Roy Howard withhold from Arthur Hornblow about the armistice cablegram?
After Admiral Wilson gave him permission to use the armistice message, Howard planned to send it to United Press in New York City from where it would be distributed to the agency’s subscribers.
Howard had a handwritten copy of the message but wanted it to be typed out for use in the Post Office, where the trans-Atlantic cable-transmission room and local censors’ office were located. For this purpose, he (and Sellards, he claims) went first to the La Dépêche building. Here, a French telegraph operator typed the message out for him; Howard (and Sellards) then took it to the Post Office – not, however, as a simple typewritten copy of the armistice news, but as a printed telegram that looked exactly like one sent straight to Brest from United Press in Paris and therefore already cleared by censors.
Hornblow’s and Howard’s descriptions of how the cablegram was put together:
Hornblow explained in his 1921 articles that the La Dépêche “telegraph editor” typed the armistice message onto printer tape, using the newspaper’s “telegraph instrument” with which it was possible to “type on the ribbon [printer tape] with the local telegraph key as well as with the transmitting-key in Paris”. Having done so, he then pasted the section of tape containing the message on a “telegraphic form”; and “lo!” the “message was clear and ready for immediate filing”.
[‘False Armistice’, p10; ‘Amazing Armistice’, p95]
In his account, Howard recalled that he wanted to use one of the La Dépêche typewriters to print the armistice message on “the regular form of cable blank”, address it to United Press in New York City, and make a carbon copy for his records. But he had difficulty using the newspaper’s typewriters, which had a different keyboard. The newspaper’s Paris-Brest telegraph operator typed out the message for him – not, however, directly onto an ordinary blank cable form but onto the “regular tape used for Press telegrams”. This was then pasted on a “regular cable blank”.
[Howard 1936, p82]
The two accounts contain essentially the same information about how the cablegram was put together and what it looked like when it was taken to the Post Office, namely that its message was typed onto printer tape by a La Dépêche employee and then glued onto a blank cable form.
However, Howard informed Hornblow that the “printer tape element” in his ‘Fake Armistice’ account was not entirely accurate. He wrote:
“Your outline … is off in a slight way that would considerably alter your story. Inasmuch as no harm and no injustice is done to anyone by your record of this detail as you remember it, I am not going to be a spoil sport by going into this matter. What you don’t know on this point won’t hurt anyone and you can have a clear conscience.”
[Roy Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego, June nineteenth, 1921, p4. Hornblow Papers.]
Hornblow did not change his ‘Fake Armistice’ version for his published ‘Amazing Armistice’ article. And since Howard’s own 1936 account contains essentially the same “printer tape element” information as Hornblow’s articles, it too must have been similarly “off”.
Several years earlier though, Howard had revealed some additional details about the armistice cablegram to Fred Cook. In his letter concerning the latter’s False Armistice article of November 1925, he made the following significant statement:
“[In] the office of La Depeche … the [armistice news] was typed on one of the cable blanks used in that office for transmitting the United Press dispatches which came from Paris to the cable head over [the La Dépêche] private wire ….” [My italics.]
[Roy Howard to Fred Cook, 28 November 1925, p2. Howard Papers.]
Both Howard and Hornblow had stated that the French operator typed the armistice message onto printer tape and pasted the tape on a blank cable form. Howard omitted the printer tape detail here; but assuming this was no more than an oversight, it now seems that the printer tape had actually been pasted, not onto an ordinary blank cable form but onto one used specifically (and exclusively) for United Press dispatches arriving from Paris over the La Dépêche private telegraph line en route to the Atlantic-cable transmission room in the Post Office.
This may well be what Howard was alluding to when he told Hornblow his description of how the cablegram was put together was slightly “off” because he did not know something about it “that would considerably alter [his] story”. Assuming that it is, how does the detail about the special cable blank alter both Hornblow’s and Howard’s accounts of what happened in the La Dépêche building?
The obvious answer seems to be that the blanks for United Press cables were most likely not entirely ‘blank’. They would have been already-formatted with printed particulars relating to United Press in Paris (as a header) and therefore immediately identifiable by Post Office staff and local censors as telegrams arriving directly from Paris for transmission to United Press in New York City, and already cleared by Paris censors.
Hornblow and Howard both intimated in their respective accounts that just the armistice message, on printer tape pasted on a standard cable blank, was sufficient for the local censors to conclude that the telegram had arrived from United Press in Paris. But surely not every ordinary or ‘regular’ telegram form carrying a message typed on printer tape was automatically classed as having arrived from Paris or elsewhere outside Brest.
Hence, the crucial feature of Howard’s cablegram – rather than being the printer tape – must have been the United Press cable form he told Fred Cook about. With its message on printer tape pasted onto one of these, there would have been no doubt in the Post Office that the armistice telegram had arrived at La Dépêche straight from United Press in Paris (and nowhere else).
Who, then, might have suffered harm and injustice, according to Howard, if this particular detail had been publicised by Hornblow in 1921 or by him in 1936? A reasonable guess would be that he had in mind the La Dépêche telegraph operator who typed the message onto the printer tape and then pasted it onto the special cable form, rendering it indistinguishable from genuine United Press telegrams from Paris to New York City.
For if the operator had typed the armistice message directly onto an ordinary cable blank and addressed it to United Press in New York City, as Howard said he would have done, the document would have looked like any other telegram emanating in Brest for dispatch to the United States. The local censors would have checked its contents with their counterparts in Paris, been told that the news was false and refused to allow it to be transmitted to New York City. There would then have been no False Armistice celebrations in North America, Australia and New Zealand, only those (on a much smaller scale) in France and Britain (which did not receive their false armistice news from United Press sources).
But as this did not happen, the charge might have been made that the French telegraph operator was to blame because of what he did with Howard’s handwritten copy of the armistice message.
However, both Hornblow and Howard intimated that the mere typing of the message onto the printer tape was a key factor in the cablegram’s deceptive appearance. But there had been no insinuation at the time or later that the “obliging Frenchman” was in any way at fault or carried some responsibility for what happened on 7 November 1918.
The possibility arises, therefore, that Howard himself might have been the one who would have been blamed had the detail about the special cable form become known. In spite of all assertions to the contrary, he may in fact have been complicit in the operator’s use of the printer tape and special cable form – in the faking, in effect, of an armistice telegram from United Press in Paris. Or, not realizing the full significance of what the operator was doing until the completed telegram was handed to him, that Howard may have decided nevertheless to go ahead and use it rather than have the message set out again in the manner he said he originally intended it to be.
If this was what actually happened and Howard had admitted as much at the time, his critics’ serious accusations against him and demands for his punishment would have been indisputable and the consequences for him and United Press far more damaging than they proved to be.
There is also the possibility that someone other than the telegraph operator was responsible for the armistice cablegram’s appearance: the editor of La Dépêche, Louis Coudurier. Admiral Wilson mentioned in a 1934 account to Josephus Daniels of events in his office on 7 November 1918 that, having received permission to use the armistice news, Howard “expressed a wish to meet the editor of the local newspaper”. Wilson sent Sellards with Howard to the La Dépêche building to find him; and Sellards, who “knew the editor personally … left Mr. Howard in the editor’s office”. 22
Howard did not refer to the editor anywhere in his 1936 memoir or in his letters to Hornblow and Cook about their False Armistice articles. But in his 9 November 1918 letter to Phil Simms he implied that, when he and Cook arrived at Navy Headquarters to see Admiral Wilson, Coudurier was not in his La Dépêche office because Sellards had been unable to hand him the armistice news and had returned with it just after their arrival; and also that when he went to the La Dépêche building, Sellards accompanied him and took the message back. However, Fred Cook’s evidence of what occurred in the Admiral’s office did not mention these two particular points, nor did Howard again in any of his later accounts of events.
Coudurier, therefore, could well have been present when Howard, accompanied by Sellards, entered the newspaper building with the armistice news. As the editor, he may have instructed the operator to prepare Howard’s cablegram using the telegraph printer and materials for United Press bulletins arriving from Paris, knowing that it would then be routinely and quickly passed for transmission when it went to the Post Office. And Howard, therefore, could have been shielding him as well as himself and United Press by keeping this information to himself.
But if this was so, what motivated Howard in June 1921 to tell Hornblow that his ‘Fake Armistice’ account of the cablegram was “off” (lacking or missing something) “in a way that would considerably alter” his story if he knew the full story? The comment must have made Hornblow wonder what really went on in the La Dépêche building – though evidently not enough to dissuade him from declaring in ‘Amazing Armistice’ that “it was an unintended strategy of Howard’s which enabled him to get his cable past the local French censors”. And what caused Howard to reveal the detail about the United Press cable blank to Fred Cook in November 1925?
In truth it probably would not have mattered how the peace news had been presented for transmission in the Post Office – whether as a printed telegram from Paris ready for filing, or as a handwritten message on a piece of ordinary paper. Like everyone else at the time, the transmission room operator believed the war was over; and in such extraordinary circumstances had no compelling reason – not even the absence of the local censors from the building – to delay sending the message. Even if Howard had handed him the piece of paper with just the armistice message written on it, the operator would surely have made his transmission copy from it, added necessary destination details, given it a Brest dateline and still sent it uncensored to New York City.
[August 2019] [November 2019, with additions.]
© James Smith
I. Main Sources
Roy Howard, ‘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.)
Among his papers, Howard kept a copy of the title-page of the 1936 Simon and Shuster edition of Miller’s book. There are, though, no letters or other documents in the archive relating to the book or his chapter in it.
A German edition of Miller’s book was published in 1938: Ich fand keinen Frieden. (Rowohlt Berlin.)
Roy Howard 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.
There is also a collection of Howard’s papers in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. In the ‘Finding Aid’ to the collection, under Miscellany, 1918-1966, is listed ‘Box 340, World War 1 “Armistice” incident’. The items in the box, mostly newspaper clippings of reviews of Howard’s chapter in Webb Miller’s book, add nothing to the information provided by the Media School Archive papers.
Arthur Hornblow Jr, ‘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.
Hornblow sent a pre-publication version of it, which he called the ‘Fake Armistice’, to Roy Howard and to Admiral Wilson for their comments. As a result of their “suggestions as to changes in the statements of fact” he amended some of its contents and changed its title to ‘Amazing Armistice’. The ‘Fake Armistice’ is not available in the Hornblow or the Howard archive, but Admiral Wilson kept his copy of it in his ‘False Armistice’ folder. Extracts in this article are from Wilson’s copy.
Reader’s Digest magazine published a condensed version of the November 1921 article in its November 1936 issue, the same year Howard’s memoir appeared in Miller’s book.
Arthur and Leonora Hornblow Papers. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Beverly Hills, California.
Admiral Henry B. Wilson Papers. Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC 20374-5060.
Fred Cook 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
II. Biographical Information
For some biographical details about Roy Howard, Arthur Hornblow, Fred Cook, Admiral Henry Wilson and Ensign John Sellards, see the ‘In Brest on 7 November 1918’ item of the False Armistice Commentary on this website.
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. Letter to Ed. L. Keen [United Press, London] from Buenos Aires, September 4, 1918. Howard Papers.
3. 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 planning 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.)
4. The New York Times, 21 November 1918,under ‘Howard Excuses False Peace Report’. Available through NYTimes.com ‘Free to Read Articles 1918’website.
5. See the Faux Armistice in Francearticle 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. There is a handwritten copy of the Jackson armistice message in Howard’s archive – possibly the one he said Wilson gave to him, or the one Wilson handed to Sellards. It is written in ink on a piece of paper with a serrated edge, suggesting that it was torn, across a strip of serrated metal, from a roll or pad of paper. It reads (unclearly in parts): “Armistice signed 11 AM Hostilities ceased 2 PM today Sedan taken this AM by US Army”. Whether Admiral Wilson, Howard or an orderly wrote it down is not certain. Beneath it, in pencil and also not clear in parts, is the explanation that the message is a copy of the note Admiral Wilson sent to the La Dépêche newspaper. Howard presumably added this comment at some later date. [7 November 1918: Armistice documentation. Armistice. Howard Papers]
8. 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.
9. Howard went on to explain to Hornblow that he had “always believed” there was a hidden reason the armistice denial message to Wilson “was not a flat statement that the previous announcement was erroneous, but was a statement that it was ‘premature’”. See the article, Roy Howard’s and Arthur Hornblow’s Acquired Information about the False Armistice Messages, on this website.
10. 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.
The Colonel’s words about the armistice news are : « La nouvelle annoncée était controuvée de source officielle française. »
11. Brown Alumni Monthly, March 1952, ‘The False Armistice’ p17. Available online.
12. ‘White man’ as a colloquialism of the period = ‘someone who deals fairly with others’.
13. Cablegram, Howard to Unipress, New York, November 8, 1918. Howard Papers.
14. The Fourth Estate, November 9, 1918, p7. Available online through the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
15. 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 Newspapersportal.
16. 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)
17. 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 Newspapersportal.
18. Dale E. Zacher, The Scripps Newspapers Go To War, 1914-18. Chapter 7, under ‘The False Armistice’, p208. (USA. 2008)
19. Richard M. Harnett and Billy G. Ferguson, UNIPRESS. United Press International. Covering the 20thCentury, Chapter 7, ‘World War Sells News’, p58. (USA. 2003)
20. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, January 1 to December 31, 1951, ‘The President’s News Conference at Key West, November 29, 1951’, p637. (US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1965.)
21. See the article, False Armistice Conspiracy Theories, on this website.
22. Letters: Admiral Wilson to Josephus Daniels, 1 January, 1934. Admiral Wilson Papers.