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. 1 (ENDNOTES)
This article recounts what happened in Brest in relation to the false armistice news and its transmission to the United States. Much of the information comes from Roy Howard’s memoir published in Webb Miller’s 1936 The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, and from the November 1921 Amazing Armistice article written by Arthur Hornblow, Jr, the American Army Intelligence Officer who met Howard in Brest. But some of it – previously unpublished – comes from private letters held in archives now open to the public.
Howard’s and Hornblow’s are the principal published first-hand accounts about False Armistice events in Brest. As for other participants, only one seems to have left a public record of what apparently happened. This was Major Fred Cook, an officer at the American Army Base in Brest. He made a brief statement at the time, at Howard’s request, about accompanying Howard to US Navy Headquarters that day – on condition that it would not be published. 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. Admiral H. B. Wilson, who gave Howard a copy of the false peace news, made a few comments to Hornblow about what passed between him and Howard, in a letter he wrote after receiving a pre-publication copy of Hornblow’s 1921 article. He asked Hornblow to treat what he divulged as being in strict confidence, and not to link his name to anything he told him.
There are glaring discrepancies across the various sources of information which naturally raise questions about their overall accuracy and reliability as historical evidence. However, these matters are not the main concern here. This article brings together in one place (for the first time) all the available eye-witness accounts, reporting and arranging them in sections for different parts of Thursday 7 November in Brest, and offering comments on various points, statements and claims contained in them. (ENDNOTES, Main Sources)
To try to avoid confusion, the information in the various sections is presented in different colours: this colour for information from Howard’s 1936 memoir; this one for information from Hornblow’s November 1921 article; this for extracts from Howard’s letters; this colour for information from Cook’s letters to Howard and from his later newspaper items; and this one from Admiral Wilson’s letter to Hornblow. Comments on the reported information and background information from this writer are in black.
Roy W. Howard
In November 1918, Roy Howard was thirty-five years old, President of United Press (UP) news agency, and an accredited American war correspondent. Accompanied by his wife Peg (short for Margaret) he had travelled to France from Argentina a few weeks earlier, at the end of a disappointing business trip to South America. 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 was in Brest on 7 November – without his wife – waiting for a ship back to the United States, where he was planning to make arrangements for United Press to cover the peace conference that would follow the end of the war. And he believed the war would be ending very soon.
A few days earlier in Paris, Edward House, President Wilson’s Special Representative, had confided to Howard (at a luncheon laid on by the US Military Attaché, Major Warburton) that the Germans’ surrender could be expected at any time, and that the Allies had already agreed upon the armistice terms to be imposed on them. By late evening on the 6th, when he caught the overnight train to Brest, he also knew that a German delegation had left for the Western Front to arrange an armistice with the Allies.
“All of these facts were clearly in my mind” he recalled “when a few minutes after nine the next morning I stepped off the train”. 3
Morning and Early Afternoon in Brest
“As we got underway on foot, my escort remarked, ‘Well, it’s grand news, isn’t it?’”
A member of Lieutenant Arthur Hornblow’s Army Intelligence Team met Howard at the station and, on the way to Hornblow’s office, informed him “quite casually” that “the Armistice had been signed”. The news had travelled “via the grapevine” and was “general throughout the base”.
Lieutenant Hornblow “had the rumour, but no official announcement” when Howard met him at his office. The Lieutenant organised Howard’s travel arrangements to America, conveyed an invitation to him to lunch with General Harries at midday, escorted him to the hotel he would be staying at – the Continental – and suggested they go from there to Admiral Wilson’s Headquarters to present a letter of introduction Howard was carrying from Josephus Daniels, the US Secretary of the Navy, and try to find out more about the peace news – “his own interest in the armistice rumour [was] as keen as my own”.
The sailor on desk duty at Wilson’s office “had heard the armistice rumour” but was unaware of any official report having been sent to the Admiral, who was not there at that moment and not expected back until 4:00 pm.
Hornblow then took Howard to meet the local French Commandant, who “suspected that [the rumour] was true” but also had no official confirmation of it. Afterwards he left him with General Harries at 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, pp 76-80]
Howard did not say when the German armistice rumour had arrived in Brest “via the grapevine”, only that it was already circulating when he arrived at 9:00 am. Given what he had been told before leaving Paris, he probably was not entirely surprised to hear about it.
He said nothing about the rumours in any of the letters he sent to United Press colleagues shortly after 7 November. But he referred to them in a press statement he gave on 20 November following his return to America. As the New York Times reported, Howard claimed that 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
The above 1936 details of how Howard became aware of the rumours and of those who had also heard them, appear in similar terms in a letter he wrote in 1921 to Arthur Hornblow concerning a pre-publication version of the latter’s Amazing Armistice article, and in one he sent to Fred Cook about the latter’s False Armistice newspaper article of November 1925. Neither Hornblow nor Cook had mentioned in their accounts that armistice rumours were circulating in Brest during the morning and early afternoon of 7 November 1918. And Howard made a point of raising the matter with both.
He urged Hornblow to include “the fact” that, when he (Howard) arrived in Brest, visited US Army, US Navy, and French Army Headquarters, he was told “the armistice had been signed”, that it was “as yet merely an unofficial rumor” but everyone expected “the confirmation would be coming along at any moment”. And he criticised Cook because the omission of the detail from his article suggested that the armistice news from Paris, arriving around mid-afternoon, was the first Brest had heard about it. [Below]
Basically, Howard was concerned that the articles might lead readers to doubt his professional integrity and question his “status as a journalist”. As he wrote 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.”
[Letter from Roy W. Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego June nineteenth 1921, pp1 and 5-6. Hornblow Papers.]
In his published article, presumably in response to Howard’s comment, Hornblow inserted a few brief references to an armistice rumour present in Brest before the news from Paris was announced. As Cook’s article had already appeared in print, it was too late for him to change it to suit Howard – assuming he would have been willing to do so.
It is not known here precisely what Howard’s alleged armistice rumours in Brest may have been. The false armistice news that started circulating 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. But the announcement of the German armistice delegation’s departure for the Front the previous day was already in Paris newspapers, and had reached Brest by 9:00 am. 5 It is possible, therefore, that the rumours Howard recollected were embellishments of this particular item of news, as is suggested by a comment Hornblow made about the delegation-announcement in his November 1921 article. [Details immediately below.]
One of Arthur Hornblow’s duties as the US Army Intelligence (G-2) Officer in Brest was to look after American journalists arriving there. He had not met Howard before but had received favourable reports about him and regarded him as a “distinguished visitor” entitled to a high “degree of attention”.
“I sensed something of what goes to make the successful newspaper man.”
Not long after 9:00 am, one of his Intelligence Team on duty at the railway station informed Hornblow of Howard’s arrival. He expected Howard to introduce himself at his office “shortly thereafter”, but it was not until “shortly before noon” that Howard “strolled in casually” and asked Hornblow if he could make arrangements for him to take a faster ship to America than the one he was booked to leave on at two o’clock that afternoon. He wanted to reach the United States as quickly as possible to make arrangements for returning to France with President Wilson’s peace conference entourage: “The man knew even then that the President was coming”.
Hornblow was able to do so – a transfer to the S.S. Leviathan due to sail the following morning – and in response to another request took Howard to US Navy Headquarters to meet Admiral Henry Wilson. They left Hornblow’s office “about noon”.
On the way, at around midday, 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, and “after two o’clock” left him at the Continental. They agreed to meet later for dinner with a few of the Lieutenant’s “cronies”.
[Hornblow 1921, pp91-93; 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 that he met Hornblow soon after arriving in Brest; Hornblow stated that it was not until just before midday that they met for the first time. It seems that Hornblow’s recollection was the more accurate, because Howard noted in his 1921 letter to him that “immediately upon my arrival in Brest I reported directly to General Harries’ headquarters”. Howard included this “fact” in his statement to Hornblow detailing where and by whom in Brest, before mid-afternoon, he was told that the armistice had been signed.
Hornblow, as already explained, did not mention the armistice rumour in Brest in his article’s pre-publication version, so what he wrote about hearing it outside the La Dépêche building around midday must have been inserted in deference to Howard’s comments on the matter.
Nor did he mention taking Howard to see the French Commandant or General Harries – just that he showed Howard around Brest before taking him to lunch at the Navy Club and then leaving him, sometime after 2:00 pm, at the Continental hotel.
For his part, Howard did not mention a pre-lunch visit with Hornblow to the La Dépêche building to introduce himself to the staff there. And to his recollection, he had lunch, not with Hornblow at the Navy Club, but with General Harries and some of his staff at Army Headquarters, which Hornblow did not attend.
Here also Howard’s 1936 recollection of events seems to have been faulty: in his 1921 letter he refers separately to “our [his and Hornblow’s] luncheon at the Navy Club” and to “my leaving you after luncheon”.
[Letter from Roy W. Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego June nineteenth 1921, pp4-6. Hornblow Papers.]
Afternoon: between about 2:00 pm and 4:30 pm
After lunch, Howard returned to US Army Headquarters. Major C. Fred Cook, a member of General Harries’ staff and a former news editor at the Washington Star, took Howard around Brest in a further, unsuccessful, attempt to obtain information about the armistice rumours. Throughout the town, “there was a tense air of cheerful expectancy” among civilians and military alike.
Accompanied by Cook, Howard returned to Navy Headquarters at around 4:10 pm. The Admiral was now available to see him.
[Howard 1936, pp80-81]
Less than half an hour later, Howard’s false armistice cablegram had been transmitted to the USA – just in time for the early afternoon newspapers there.
The sequence of events during that short period of time took place in three different locations: Admiral Wilson’s office, the La Dépêche newspaper building, and the local Post Office, or P.Q. building. 6
Howard was present throughout. The Admiral, his aide Ensign Sellards, and Fred Cook were among those present at Navy Headquarters. Hornblow took no part in these particular events; he related them from what Howard (and perhaps others) told him had occurred.
In Admiral Wilson’s Office
From Brest on 9 November 1918, 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 7 November.
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 after 4:00 pm.
“[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 that it was, adding that it had come “right from headquarters – right from Paris” just a few minutes earlier. The Admiral whispered something to Cook about – what Howard “gathered” to be – “the communication channel” for the news, and then asked Sellards whether the La Dépêche newspaper had “posted the bulletin”. Sellards said they had not because Mr Coudurier [the editor] was not in the building, adding that he had not left “the note” there which Wilson had given him for the editor. The Admiral instructed Sellards to take the note back to the building, give it to whoever was in charge and tell them 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 and intending to return later.
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, pp1-2. Howard Papers.]
Main points 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 La Dépêche and hand the news to whoever was in charge there. 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.
- Major Cook stayed behind.
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:
- Admiral Wilson told them in his reception room that the Germans had signed the Allies’ armistice terms.
- Cook asked if the news was official. The Admiral replied that it was, explaining that he had received it from “the Embassy in Paris”.
- Howard asked permission to “make use of the information”. Wilson agreed and Howard then “disappeared” to the cable office.
- Cook remained with the Admiral and “observed the sending of the Admiral’s personal aide to the Brest newspaper”; noted the “public announcement of the news from the band stand” in President Wilson Square; heard the Navy Band play the Marseillaise and The Star-Spangled Banner, and Admiral Wilson give the order for “an immense American flag” to be raised on the building.
- Cook believed the news to be official, and reported it to General Harries at 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.
After the war, Cook 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, printed on 11 November 1925 for the seventh anniversary.
In the latter, he recalled the following events involving Howard:
“It so happened that I was present, a listener and close observer, when the historic episode occurred.”
Cook first met Howard during the early afternoon of 7 November. Howard had been to lunch with General Harries and was hoping to meet Admiral Wilson that same afternoon. Harries sent for Cook and asked him to take Howard to US Navy Headquarters, “a tall building facing the ‘Place President Wilson’” and “about five city blocks” away from Army Headquarters. The Admiral’s office was on the “fifth deck” of the building; access to it was through a room occupied by Ensign Sellards, Wilson’s aide and interpreter.
Cook introduced Howard to Sellards, who then left the room to inform the Admiral of their arrival. A short time later, Wilson came out of his office carrying a copy of the peace news. He read it out and explained that it had been sent to him by Jackson, the US Naval Attaché in Paris. 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 the US Navy band playing in the square, and for a huge flag to be hung across the Headquarters building. And he observed crowds gathering to read the armistice bulletin just posted on the La Dépêche building. As “pandemonium” started spreading outside, he left Navy Headquarters and made his way back to give General Harries the news. Army Headquarters believed the peace message, but because they had heard nothing yet from AEF authorities about it, the Army base “attended to business and continued quietly at work”.
[The Evening Star, Wednesday, November 11, 1925, p4, under ‘Real “False Armistice” Story Is Now Told By Eyewitness’.]
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 both his newspaper articles (though not in his letter) Cook claimed that the Admiral stated to him and Howard that the armistice news had arrived in a telegram from Commander Jackson, the Naval Attaché at the US Paris Embassy.
Howard read the article and wrote to Cook about it several days later. He criticised Cook’s version of events for being “at variance”, in several respects, with his own “remembrance” of them.
“Not with any desire to be meticulously critical, …, I want to check up with you on ….”
Howard considered that Cook’s account created “two erroneous impressions”:
- that the armistice message Admiral Wilson received from 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 station, 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, or to an invitation to have lunch with him in Washington, DC, “sometime in the near future”, is not known here.
Howard’s 1936 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 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”. He told them it was official, had come “direct from G.H.Q. via the Embassy” and was “signed by Captain Jackson, our Naval Attaché at Paris.”
“Howard and I have been chasing this rumour all day”, Major Cook remarked.
And Howard asked if 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]
Some items of information from Howard’s 9 November 1918 letter to Phil Simms, and from Cook’s November 1918 statement and 1925 newspaper article are discernible in the above passage.
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]
Howard, like Cook , claimed that Admiral Wilson told them the armistice message was from Captain Jackson in Paris. However, Wilson stated to Hornblow in July 1921 that he had never told anyone who sent the message, only that it had arrived from his office in Paris. Indeed, it is possible that Jackson did not actually see the armistice telegram to Brest that carried his name. 7
Cook’s statement and article, and Howard’s 1936 memoir each have Ensign Sellards already present in Admiral Wilson’s offices when they both arrived there – not 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 to the newspaper, as Howard had claimed in his 9 November 1918 letter to Simms.
In Howard’s letter to Simms and in Cook’s 1918 letter and 1925 article there is nothing to support Howard’s 1936 assertion that Admiral Wilson instructed Sellards to take Howard to the cable office and make sure the censors there cleared the armistice bulletin. Indeed, the impression from Cook is that Howard left Navy Headquarters alone, and went alone to the Post Office (where the cable office was).
In his press statement of 20 November 1918, however, Howard had announced that Admiral Wilson “sent his personal aid with me to assist me in filing the dispatch, as I do not speak French fluently”. 4 And correcting Cook in his 1925 letter to him, Howard reminded him that Wilson had instructed Sellards to take him to the cable office and “help expedite” the armistice message through the local censors.
When he wrote his 1936 memoir, Howard was most probably unaware that Admiral Wilson had made statements, to Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels and later to Arthur Hornblow, denying that he gave Howard permission to send the armistice news to the USA.
Wilson sent a report of what had happened on 7 November 1918 to Josephus Daniels, the following day. The report did not, according to Daniels, “confirm all the details related by Howard” in Webb Millers book. In particular, Wilson stated that he sent his aide Sellards not to the “censor’s office” with Howard, but to the La Dépêche building; and that he would have refused Howard permission to dispatch the armistice news to America had he realized that was his intention. 8
In his 1921 letter to Arthur Hornblow, the Admiral pointed out several details in Hornblow’s (unavailable) pre-publication article which were not as he remembered them, details Hornblow had presumably obtained mainly from Roy Howard.
Wilson told Hornblow that the armistice news from Paris had arrived, not “promptly at four o’clock” as Hornblow was stating in the article, but “some while before” Roy Howard arrived at Navy Headquarters – “it was lying on my desk when he came in”. Therefore, Hornblow was not “exact” in writing that “they had been chatting for more than a few minutes when an orderly entered with [the] telegram … the Admiral [having read it] gave vent to an explosive exclamation and, bounding enthusiastically from his chair, handed the message to Howard’”. The fact was that the “conversation lagged” following the “mutual greetings”, and with “a desire to make more” Wilson (calmly) told Howard about the message and asked whether it was “of any interest to him”.
The message “was good local news for Brest”, the Admiral explained, “but news to go abroad had to be confirmed. [Consequently] I would not have asked the censors as you mention [in the article]. Howard thought he had something. He said nothing to me of his intentions.”
Outside Navy Headquarters, Wilson continued, the band had been playing “sometime before the message came” – “it was a regular concert day”. And “no ‘blizzard of bunting’ [as Hornblow apparently described it] was hoisted at our place on 7 November. That happened on the 11th when the real word came. On the 7th there were displayed from our Headquarters the regular colors, and the bunch of three flags – one French, with the American flags on each side – that were put out on many occasions during the war.”
[Admiral Henry B. Wilson to Arthur Hornblow. 13 July 1921 (pp1-2). Hornblow Papers.]
By inference, Hornblow amended his offending account of events at Navy Headquarters to accommodate Wilson’s comments. For when his article appeared in print in November 1921, the passages in question read as follows:
“Promptly at four o’clock Howard had been presented to Admiral Wilson. They had been chatting awhile when the admiral 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…. Admiral Wilson despatched an orderly to bulletin the tidings in the public square, where the naval band happened to be giving its weekly concert…. Admiral Wilson expressed his willingness that Howard should use the report. In company, therefore, with Ensign Sellards to assist him in arranging things, Howard rushed to the postes… [diving] en route into the nearby [La Dépêche building]”.
[Hornblow 1921, pp94-95]
Here there is no suggestion that the Admiral gave permission for Howard to send the news across the Atlantic. And by using the French word postes, Hornblow avoided stating plainly that Howard and Sellards were heading for the Post Office and Atlantic Telegraph Building when they stopped at the local newspaper office.
A major difficulty with the recollections about what occurred in Admiral Wilson’s office is that they strongly suggest that either Howard or Wilson misrepresented what was said concerning the armistice news from Paris. Did the Admiral give Howard permission to send it to America, and tell Sellards to help him, or not? Did Howard, perhaps, presume wrongly that permission to ‘use’ the news meant permission to send it to United Press in New York City? But what use, other than sending it to America, did the Admiral expect Howard to make of it?
Unfortunately, John Sellards, who died in 1938, seems not to have left a record of his part in the events. Had he done so, it might have provided answers to these and to other questions raised by the conflicting evidence.
From Wilson’s Headquarters, Howard and Sellards went first to the La Dépêche building and then to the Post Office. In the absence of a Sellards account, the only first-hand evidence of what occurred there seems to be in Howard’s 1936 narrative and a few short statements in his earlier letters.
In the La Dépêche building
In his 9 November 1918 letter to Phil Simms, Howard described in just three sentences what happened when he left Admiral Wilson’s office:
“I excused myself from Major Cook, hustled over to la De Peche with the Ensign and looked up the operator of the leased wire. I tried to find a typewriter and a cable blank but could not. The Ensign told my trouble to the operator who printed my message out on his tape printer, pasted it up on a P.Q. blank and sent it to the wire by the newspapers messenger.” [my italics]
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, pp1-2. Howard Papers.]
Simms would have known that United Press had an arrangement with La Dépêche giving it access to the newspaper’s telegraph link to Paris. And he must have imagined, from the last few words of the comment, that Howard himself did not go to the Post Office from the La Dépêche building.
However, the other recollections cited in this article, including later ones by Howard himself, place him and Ensign Sellards unambiguously inside the Post Office with his cablegram, or on the way there from La Dépêche to have it transmitted. What he told Phil Simms, therefore, seems not to be true, though why he chose to mislead him about this on 9 November 1918 is unknown.
Arthur Hornblow’s article was the first to describe in detail what happened when Howard and Sellards went into the La Dépêche building. It was also the first to present an exposition of why Howard’s false armistice cablegram was cleared for transmission in the Post Office cable room. What he wrote was based on what he said Howard had told him at the time, but he probably picked up additional information later.
“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 Ensign Sellards (“to assist him in arranging things”) hurried out of Navy Headquarters to the postes. However, “desiring to file a typewritten message so there would be no possible misunderstanding or misreading by the French cable operator 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” – offered to type 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 that the completed cablegram “looked exactly as though it had been transmitted from Paris as were all other United Press messages and had been censored there!” [Hornblow’s italics] Moreover, Howard in his “generosity” had signed the message “Howard-Simms”, wanting to “share the glory of his ‘beat’” with Phil Simms – “the man who signed all the messages that came from Paris” and whose name was the “stamp of proper procedure”.
Hornblow insisted that Howard had not acted dishonestly, and had not deliberately set out to make the cablegram look as if it had originated in Paris and been cleared by censors there.
Regular use by United Press of the La Dépêche Paris telegraph, a “strange combination of circumstances” and an “unintended strategy” were “largely accountable for” the successful transmission of Howard’s peace bulletin to the United States, Hornblow believed – “unintended” because neither Howard nor anyone else could possibly have planned “so extraordinarily clever a devise”.
He explained how the private telegraph arrangement worked: having been cleared by censors in Paris, United Press bulletins were then sent by the La Dépêche wire to Brest. Here the newspaper’s “receiving-instrument” – a type of “ticker-tape” machine – printed the messages onto “paper ribbon”. The message-section of the ribbon was then cut up, pasted onto an ordinary “telegraph form” and carried by messenger across President Wilson Square to the “post-and-telegraph office” [the postes] to be cleared by the local censors based there and then transmitted to the United States.
Assuming the cablegrams had been already cleared by their counterparts in Paris, the Brest censors passed them straight through to the transmission room. At the other end, in New York City, the American censors, presumed that the cablegrams had been cleared through France and routinely released them for delivery in the United States.
[Hornblow 1921, pp92-95]
When the armistice news spread across the United States on 7 November 1918, press reports therefore assumed it had been sent from Paris and, therefore, that Howard was in Paris at the time of its transmission. 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. 9
Hornblow’s 1921 account explained in detail how such confusion had arisen. And it exonerated Howard from having knowingly committed some telegraphic artifice in order to beat competitors to the American newspapers with an armistice scoop.
In his letter to Hornblow about the pre-publication article, Howard made a short, cryptic comment on what Hornblow had written about the way the cablegram was put together. 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 felt it necessary to make this observation about some “slight” error in Hornblow’s “outline” about the preparation of the cablegram that “considerably” affected the account’s accuracy, an error he decided not to reveal or explain, must be left to guesswork. Presumably, he was alluding to some error by a person or persons in the La Dépêche building at the time, or to some technical detail about the printer tape or the machinery used.
If so, Howard may have disclosed what the error was in his own account several years later. Here he recounted briefly how the armistice message was typed out for him; reproduced the message as it 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 whom Howard does not say, but by implication the telegraph operator].
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 had 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]
As noted earlier, the armistice message Howard and Sellards took to the La Dépêche building was written on a piece of paper. What is new here, compared to Hornblow’s version, is Howard’s remark that he originally wanted the message to be typed onto a blank cable form and carbon copied, but instead the French operator typed it onto printer tape which was then pasted onto the cable form. Howard did not specify here that it was the telegraph operator who cut and pasted the tape onto the cable form, though he did state this to Simms in his November 1918 letter.
Howard thus made a point of mentioning that the armistice message was typed onto printer tape, and not, as he intended, directly onto a blank cable form. Could this be what Hornblow had not known in 1921, putting his “outline … off in a slight way”, according to Howard? What difference would it have made if the message had been typed straight onto the cable form and not on printer tape pasted onto the form? Was there something intrinsically significant about the printer tape? Enough to have “considerably” altered Hornblow’s or, for that matter, Howard’s own version of the story?
Hornblow gave the impression, in his November 1921 article, that the Brest censors in the Post Office immediately cleared Howard’s cablegram because they believed it had come from, and been approved in, Paris.
Comments Howard made about his cablegram and the censors – at the time, later, and in his 1936 memoir – offer a somewhat different explanation.
In the Post Office building
Having told Phil Simms in November 1918 that a La Dépêche messenger (and therefore neither he nor Ensign Sellards) had taken the armistice cablegram to the Post Office, Howard added in a postscript that, on 8 November, he was told “the people in the P.Q. office” did not show it to the censors until two hours after it was sent to New York City – because they “were so excited” by the peace news.
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, sheet three. Howard Papers.]
He repeated this in a cablegram, probably sent the same day, to William Hawkins, the United Press manager in New York City:
“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]
Having returned to the United States, Howard declared in his 20 November 1918 press statement that what “caused [his] 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
And writing a few years later to Fred Cook, about the latter’s False Armistice article, Howard stated clearly that by the time he and Sellards 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”.
[Roy Howard to Fred Cook, 28 November 1925, p2. Howard Papers]
Howard repeated much of the above in his 1936 memoir, while affirming, as a separate, previously unmentioned factor, the role and invaluable assistance of Ensign Sellards in the whole affair.
“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 in the empty censors’ room 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.”
It was only afterwards that 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. Further, it simply had not occurred to him at the time that it would show “Paris” rather than “Brest” as its “date line” – a confusion he attributed to the inclusion of Simms’ name and press card number on the 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]
It would seem, therefore, that:
although he was in the Post Office building – Howard was not present in the transmission room with Sellards when the cablegram was dispatched;
the false armistice news left Brest because the local censors had abandoned their post and duties in the building to join the peace celebrations outside;
and they did not actually see the message until (two hours) after the transmission room operator (with Sellards in attendance) had dispatched it to New York City in their absence.
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 of the false armistice news to New York City (about 4:20 pm). By this reckoning, it took, therefore, fewer than ten minutes for the cablegram to be prepared in the La Dépêche building, taken from there across to the Post Office, and sent off. To reach its destination, Howard told Hornblow in 1921, it took just six minutes.
After the Cablegram’s Transmission and Before Dinner
Howard told Phil Simms on 9 November 1918 that, after a La Dépêche messenger had taken the cablegram to the Post Office, he returned to Navy Headquarters to see Admiral Wilson again.
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 time 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”.
He then went out to dinner “with a couple of Intelligence officers ….”
[Howard to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, pp2-3. Howard Papers.]
In his 1936 memoir, Howard related:
Admiral Wilson was not in his office by the time he and Sellards had made their way back through crowds celebrating the peace news, and Howard returned to his hotel. There, he prepared a “follow” to his armistice cablegram [no details]; and then waited until it was time to go to dinner with Hornblow and “two or three of his officer friends”.
At first, he thought it unlikely that he had succeeded in getting the peace news to the United States ahead of the 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 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]
Lieutenant Hornblow was in his office at the US Army Base when he heard the armistice news.
“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 to him that Navy Headquarters had put out information that an armistice had been agreed and the fighting was over. Hornblow – “astounded at the suddenness with which truth had been given to the odd rumor that had hovered over Brest all day” – immediately tried to find out what had happened.
It took “some time” for him to find Howard, who was with Major Cook “going from one official bureau to another” searching for more information about the end of the war. Back in Hornblow’s office, Howard gave him a 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 (the Army Base Commander) 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 allow the Army Base to celebrate victory.
[Hornblow 1921, 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 his article, that the armistice rumour “was present in Brest before Admiral Wilson’s receipt of the message from Paris”, were the other insertions about the alleged Brest armistice rumours during 7 November 1918 that Hornblow made because of Howard’s complaints about his failure to mention them in his pre-published article.
By the time Hornblow telephoned G-2 in Paris – after 4:30 pm – 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 one sense, what they allegedly told Hornblow – that “no word of any armistice had reached [them]” – was true: they would not have received any official notification of a signing of the German armistice on 7 November. However, they certainly knew about the armistice rumours, and may have been surprised to hear they had reached Brest as well. But it is unlikely that they did not tell Hornblow when he telephoned them that similar unconfirmed armistice rumours were circulating in Paris and elsewhere.
In none of Howard’s accounts is there a mention of the meeting Hornblow claimed took place in his office sometime after 4:30 pm, during which Hornblow told Howard about his telephone call to G-2 in Paris. Indeed, Howard records no meetings with Hornblow as having taken place at any time between lunch and dinner on 7 November.
In 1921, he told Hornblow that a statement, in the pre-publication version of his article, that he rushed “hatless and literally wild-eyed” into Hornblow’s office at the Army Base “half an hour after sending his cablegram” was “somewhat at variance with the facts”.
Howard maintained that he had returned to Navy Headquarters “with Major Cook” [a slip of the pen, presumably] but “failing to find Admiral Wilson in” then went to Army Headquarters “to ascertain if the army wires had carried any additional details”. For the rest of the afternoon, up until it was time for him to go to dinner (with Hornblow) he “kept scurrying around” trying to pick up any information that may have followed the peace announcement.
[Roy Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego, June nineteenth, 1921, p4. Hornblow Papers.]
And according to his 1936 recollections, after returning to Navy Headquarters with Ensign Sellards he went to call on Major Cook; then went to his hotel, where he remained until Hornblow arrived to go to dinner.
Fred Cook gave the impression that he remained at the Army Base when he returned there to give General Harries the peace news, and that he and Howard did not meet again on 7 November after Howard left Admiral Wilson’s office. He stated that he did not see Howard 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’.]
Recollections of what happened during dinner also differ sharply.
“Then suddenly came the crash….”
Hornblow wrote that Howard reserved a table for six of them to have dinner at La Brasserie de la Marine. When they arrived, it was packed with revellers – “everywhere, noise, din, madness”, a “pandemonium of gaiety”.
Into the middle of it all, an orderly from the US Army Signal Corps entered the restaurant, found their table and handed Hornblow a message. (After contacting G-2 Headquarters earlier to tell them about the peace news in Brest, the Lieutenant had left instructions for any information arriving from Military Intelligence in Paris to be taken to him without delay.) Hornblow deciphered the message at the table; it had come from a Major Robertson, his “immediate superior in Paris”, and revealed the devastating words:
“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.”
[Hornblow 1921, p97]
“We had not yet ordered our dinner – not even the drinks which were to precede it.”
Howard recalled that, before they had ordered anything to drink or eat, an orderly arrived at the restaurant with a message for him from Admiral Wilson. [My italics] The message stated that the Admiral had received information from Paris, “via his direct signal-corps wire”, that the armistice news was “unconfirmable”. And explained that he had not been able to “get in touch … personally” with Howard because he had left Brest for the evening.
[Howard 1936, pp 85-86]
The contradictory statements as to which of them received the message denying the armistice news and where it came from – the US Army Signal Corps or Admiral Wilson – are the result of Howard’s apparent misreporting of the event. For in comments on the restaurant-scene as Hornblow described it in his article’s pre-publication version, he acknowledged that Hornblow had a “perfectly legitimate desire to bring out all the dramatics of … the arrival of your orderly with the denial from the War Minister”. [My italics]
Howard was complaining that Hornblow’s account created the impression that he had organized a party to celebrate his armistice “scoop”, and that they all went out to “paint the village pink”. And asked him to correct it “for the sake of having the record written straight”.
[Roy Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego, June nineteenth, 1921, p4. Hornblow Papers.]
Hornblow changed his story to appease Howard. He described the hectic, joyful scene and revelry in the crowded restaurant, but excluded his group from his observations.
Thus, in his 1936 account Howard had altered the fact that the orderly arrived with the message for Hornblow – presumably because the fiction of having the message arrive for him from Admiral Wilson fitted better into his own narrative of events that day.
“Howard spent most of the night trying to get information ….”
Following the arrival of the “armistice report untrue” message, the dinner guests left the restaurant and went to Howard’s hotel, “leaving behind … undisillusioned, the tragically joyous throngs”.
Howard’s face became “white [and] drawn” with the realization of “what he had done” and with thoughts of “his own doom and that of the United Press”.
However, the thought occurred to Howard that the denial of the armistice news might itself be inaccurate, and he decided to find Admiral Wilson to discuss the matter with him. Hornblow accompanied him to the house of a local French official where the Admiral and Ensign Sellards were dining. Here, Sellards told them that the Admiral had subsequently heard from Paris that the armistice news he had released earlier was “premature”.
Howard seized upon this, desperately hoping now that “premature” armistice news meant “true, but not properly released” and might be officially confirmed later on. And spent “most of the night trying to get information from his own Paris office”. When this forlorn hope was dashed “the world collapsed about Howard’s ears”.
[Hornblow 1921, p97]
Surprisingly, in his pre-publication version Hornblow had not written about going with Howard to find Admiral Wilson after they all left the restaurant. Howard reminded him, at some length, of what they both did “following your receipt of the War Office denial”:
“… 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) “premature”. 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.”
Howard went on to explain to Hornblow that he had “always believed” there was a hidden reason why 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’”. 7
And he took strong exception to Hornblow’s description of him (also in the pre-publication article) as being “suicidal” by the time he finally accepted that the peace news was false:
“I really think that you swung one a little bit low in your reference to suicide”, Howard complained. “It isn’t the Irish way, old top. I might have contemplated murder that night – but never suicide”.
[Roy Howard to Arthur Hornblow, San Diego, June nineteenth, 1921, p5. Hornblow Papers.]
Hornblow obviously amended his pre-November 1921 text in line with these criticisms.
When Howard came to write his version of what he did after dinner, he condensed it into just five sentences, offering no insights into his personal feelings that evening, and omitting the very details he criticised Hornblow for overlooking in his 1921 pre-publication article.
“I went immediately to the office of La Dépêche ….”
He and Hornblow left the restaurant and went straight to the La Dépêche building. Here Howard prepared a cablegram “stating that Admiral Wilson’s first bulletin had been followed by a second stating that the original statement was now held to be unconfirmable”. It was transmitted to New York City (with a Brest date line) “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 information about the armistice news (it had been impossible to communicate earlier “for censorship reasons”). They told him of the “celebrations under way in America” that his cablegram’s arrival had caused.
[Howard 1936, pp 85-86 and 89]
(In between the five sentences containing the above details, Howard devoted nearly three pages of text to an exposition of what he believed had happened to his after-dinner, ‘news-unconfirmable’ cablegram whose release in the United States was delayed until late morning on 8 November 1918. This 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’s published November 1921 account did not record that he and Howard went to the La Dépêche building immediately after dinner, or that Howard sent a cablegram to New York City about the armistice news not having been confirmed. It is not known whether his pre-publication account had also failed to record these events; Howard did not mention them at all in his June 1921 letter to Hornblow about it.
Howard did send the ‘news-unconfirmable’ cablegram, but presumably not until after he and Hornblow had received this information from Admiral Wilson (about which Howard is silent), and not, as he claims above, “immediately” after leaving the restaurant – and therefore before finding the Admiral.
In his 9 November 1918 letter, Howard had given Phil Simms a somewhat different version of the evening’s events. He told him that he learnt some French officers in Brest had been informed the armistice news was unconfirmed, and that he 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 cablegram or, if not, the American censors in New York would have done so. He therefore sent another cablegram stating that Admiral Wilson, who had released the peace news earlier, had since been told that it 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 Letter, November 9, 1918, p3. Howard Papers.]
Similarly, in a cablegram to Bill Hawkins, general manager at United Press in New York City, Howard stated that he went to check with Admiral Wilson after he had heard the French were doubtful about the armistice news:
While the celebrations in Brest were at their height, he 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 14.]
Neither Howard, in his later letters and 1936 account, nor Hornblow in his 1921 article mention the French authorities in relation to the denial of the armistice news.
Fred Cook, on the other hand, in his 1925 newspaper article, 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 Evening Star, Wednesday, November 11, 1925, p4, under ‘Real “False Armistice” Story Is Now Told By Eyewitness’.]
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 inform General Harries in person. The General contacted the American authorities to request a confirmation or denial of the armistice news. At about 9:00 pm, he received the reply that no armistice had yet been concluded. 10
Fred Cook was back at the Army Base when Colonel Laureau arrived; but where were Hornblow and Howard? Either they also were there – in Hornblow’s office talking about what Howard did after leaving Navy Headquarters with a copy of the armistice message – or they had gone to dinner at La Brasserie de la Marine.
It is more likely that they were there when Colonel Laureau and his news arrived. And this makes it highly probable that the initial doubts about the accuracy of the peace news (as related in Hornblow’s account) arose because of the Colonel’s protestations; that the inquiry Hornblow made to G-2 in Paris was the one ordered by General Harries as a result of Laureau’s information; and the message the Signal Corps orderly took to Hornblow at the restaurant was the reply to this inquiry.
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. 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 the 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
The Following Morning, Friday 8 November 1918
Hornblow and Howard concluded their retrospectives of false armistice events in Brest with brief acknowledgments of Admiral Wilson’s rescue of Howard and United Press as outrage rose against them in America over the false armistice cablegram.
“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 issued a press statement to the effect that the false armistice message was based on “what appeared to be official and authoritative information”, though he did not disclose who sent it or “at least, whose signature was affixed to [it]”.
[Hornblow 1921, p97.]
“I was at Admiral Wilson’s office when he arrived ….”
“Around ten o’clock” the following morning, Howard went to see the Admiral and “explained the situation to him”. Wilson asked how he could “set matters right” and, in response to Howard’s request for an explanation to the press of what had happened the previous afternoon, provided him with the following:
“The statement of the United Press relative to the signing of the Armistice was made public from my office on the basis of what appeared to be official and authoritative information. I am in a position to know that the United Press and its representative acted in perfect good faith, and the premature announcement was the result of an error, for which the agency was in no wise responsible”.
[Howard 1936, p89]
In the letter he wrote to Phil Simms in Paris the day after Wilson issued the statement, Howard was 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 the morning of Friday 8 November, United Press in Paris informed Howard that “the stuff had gotten through and been printed” in the United States. He went to see Admiral Wilson and obtained “that statement of fact” from him.
Howard learnt from Wilson that US Secretary of State Lansing had cabled the Admiral, who “knew full well that he was in for some grief too”. Indeed, Howard thought, 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.]
For his part, Admiral Wilson appears to have had very little sympathy for Howard. He referred to their Friday morning meeting in his 1921 letter to Arthur Hornblow, and intimated that he considered Howard had only himself to blame for the predicament he found himself and United Press to be in. Nevertheless Wilson agreed to help him:
He confided to Hornblow that Howard, having “lost out” over the armistice bulletin, “came next morning for help”. At first he said he could “give him none”, telling Howard how “foolish etc.” he thought he had been. But Howard persisted and asked for “something to protect himself”. Wilson told him to “write out what he wanted and, if it were correct” agreed “willingly” to put his name to it. Howard penned the statement, the Admiral appended his signature.
[Admiral Henry B. Wilson to Hornblow, 13 July 1921, pp2-3. Hornblow Papers.] 7
The same day, Howard cabled Wilson’s statement “urgent rate” to United Press in New York City and ordered it to be released to the American newspapers. Some evening papers published it later that day; and United Press paid for it to be printed the following day on a whole page of the Fourth Estate (which marketed itself as “A Newspaper for the Makers of Newspapers and Investors in Advertising”). The statement’s significance, as the New York Times commented, was that “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”. 13
Nevertheless, as Howard expected, he and United Press were vilified in American newspapers – mostly but not exclusively in ones linked to their rival, the Associated Press (AP) agency. These clamoured for him and United Press to be made to pay for the enormous cost of disruption the false news caused across the country – through street celebrations and interruptions to business, commerce and war supplies. They held them responsible for the disappointment people experienced when the peace news was eventually shown to be false, 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. 14
On 8 November, therefore, when 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]
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 but carrying a Paris dateline and other features that made it seem that it had been cleared by the Paris censors, was tantamount to a fake.
To absolve his Paris Office of any blame, Howard sent a telegram to the American Censor in Paris, a 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.]
He left for the United States on Sunday 10th November. On board ship, therefore, he heard the news the following day that the war with Germany had ended.
Shortly after his return, Howard spoke to newspapers about what had happened in Brest. He did not try to explain to them at that time why his armistice cablegram did not 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”. 15
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, A[ssociated] P[ress] during the war”. 16 According to some, it cast a shadow over Howard’s subsequent career and damaged the agency’s reputation for many years to come. The authors of a history of United Press, for example, writing early in the present century, considered that adverse effects on the agency persisted for “the rest of the twentieth century”. It was “never allowed to forget the goof” and “many newspaper editors, some who were not even born when Howard ended the war prematurely, would not print a United Press ‘beat’ but would wait for AP to confirm it”. 17 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. 18
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. 16
The 7 November 1918 armistice story remained newsworthy throughout the inter-war period in the United States (though not in other countries affected by the false peace message). Hornblow’s November 1921 article was reviewed in many newspapers. Reviving memories of events just three years earlier, his account 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. 19
(August 2018) (May 2019, re-arranged, with additional material)
© James Smith
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.
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.
Reader’s Digest magazine published a condensed version of it in its November 1936 issue, the same year Roy Howard’s memoir appeared in Webb Miller’s book.
A pre-publication version of the article was called The Fake Armistice. Hornblow sent a copy of it to Roy Howard and to Admiral Wilson for their “suggestions as to changes in the statements of fact”, and made changes to the text and title as a result of their comments. The pre-publication version is not available in the Hornblow archive.
Arthur and Leonora Hornblow Papers. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Beverly Hills, California.
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
For some background details about Howard and Hornblow, and about Fred Cook, Admiral Henry Wilson and Ensign John Sellards, see the False Armistice Commentary on this website, under ‘In Brest on 7 November 1918’.
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 1918website.
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. See the Roy Howard, Arthur Hornblow, Jr, and the Jackson False Armistice Telegram article on this website.
8. Josephus Daniels, The Wilson Era. Years of War and After, 1917-1923, p343. (University of North Carolina Press. 1946)
9. 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.
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. As reported in Brown Alumni Monthly, March 1952, 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. The Fourth Estate, November 9, 1918, p7. Available online through the Hathi Trust Digital Library.The New York Times, November 9, 1918, under ‘United Press Admits Peace Report Is False’. Available through NYTimes.com Free to Read Articles 1918 website. The Evening Star (Washington, DC), reported it in its Friday 8 November issue, under ‘U.P. Gives Source of “Peace” Story’, ‘Says Admiral Wilson at Brest Made Announcement to its Correspondent’, p25. Available online through Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers portal.
14. 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)
15. The Columbia Herald, Friday, November 15, 1918, p3, under ‘Roy W. Howard Explains Report of Armistice’. Available online through Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapersportal.
16. Dale E. Zacher, The Scripps Newspapers Go To War, 1914-18. Chapter 7, under ‘The False Armistice’, p208. (USA. 2008)
17. Richard M. Harnett and Billy G. Ferguson, UNIPRESS. United Press International. Covering the 20thCentury, Chapter 7, ‘World War Sells News’, p58. (USA. 2003)
18. 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.) Available online.
19. See the False Armistice Conspiracy Theories article on this website.