Roy Howard’s 7 November 1918 cablegram to New York City from the French port of Brest, carrying ‘official’ armistice news US Admiral Henry B. Wilson had given him, was very quickly reported by hundreds of newspapers with the United Press (UP) news agency. Its premature peace message 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: 1c) d) Weintraub.
This article recounts and examines what reportedly happened in Brest during 7-9 November in relation to the false armistice news and its transmission to the United States. Much of the narrative comes from Roy Howard’s own memoir, the ‘Premature Armistice’ chapter in UP reporter Webb Miller’s 1936 I Found No Peace: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent; from Arthur Hornblow’s partly first-hand accounts in his 1921 ‘Fake Armistice’ and ‘Amazing Armistice’ articles; and from letters and telegrams held in their respective archives.
(‘Fake Armistice’ was never published as such. Hornblow sent copies of it to Roy Howard and Admiral Wilson and, as a result of their comments, amended it and changed its title to ‘Amazing Armistice’ which The Century Magazine published in November 1921.) ENDNOTES: 1. Arthur Hornblow item, for details.
Apart from Howard and Hornblow, only one other eyewitness seems to have written publicly about what happened. This was Major Fred Cook, like Hornblow a US Army officer based in Brest at the time. He made a brief statement in November 1918 at Howard’s request (on condition that it would not be published) about being present with Howard at US Navy Headquarters when Admiral Wilson released the armistice news. And some years later, as a journalist for the Evening Star newspaper in Washington, DC, he wrote two consecutive False Armistice anniversary features based on his recollections.
Admiral Wilson refused to be drawn into making public comments about his part in 7 November events in Brest, but he left a ‘False Armistice Folder’ of unpublished papers from which some details are drawn. A separate article complementary to this one, presenting his side of the story, is on this website. ENDNOTES: I. Main Sources and ENDNOTES: II. Biographical Information.
Information from those primary, and from some secondary, sources is brought together here for the first time. Under examination it reveals similarities, and, much more importantly, differences, contradictions and factual distortions in the historical record they present.
With the aim of avoiding confusion, the text that follows is presented in different colours: this colour for information from Howard’s 1936 memoir; this one for extracts from letters and telegrams sent by him; this one for details from telegrams he received; 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 made on information from the sources are in black text.
Roy W. Howard
In November 1918, Roy Howard was thirty-five years old and President of the United Press 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 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”. [Letter to Ed. L. Keen [United Press, London] from Buenos Aires, September 4, 1918. Howard Papers.]
He left Paris (alone) for Brest on the evening of Wednesday 6 November and spent the next three full days there (7- 9 November). On Sunday 10th he set sail for the United States, as the man who had scooped – four days too soon – the eagerly awaited news that the Great War had finally ended.
Located on the tip 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 had a trans-Atlantic telegraph transmitter (in the main Post Office building) for sending cablegrams to North America. The French Telegraph Cable Company (Compagnie Française du Télégraphe de Paris à New York) owned the submarine cables from there that provided a direct telegraph link between Brest and New York City.
The local newspaper, La Dépêche de Brest, leased a telegraph line to Paris (most probably from the French Telegraph Cable Company) which provided it with a private telegraph link to the capital. Importantly, United Press had an agreement with La Dépêche that allowed it to use the private telegraph for its bulletins from Paris to New York City via the Brest Post Office cable transmitter. This enabled it to bypass the usually crowded public telegraph service from Paris to Brest, and United Press thereby enjoyed a quick communication between its Paris office (Rue Rossini, Montmartre) and New York City office (third floor of the Pulitzer Building).
The time in Brest, as in the rest of France and Britain (Allied Time), was five hours ahead of New York City Eastern Standard Time.
Thursday 7 November, Roy Howard’s first and most consequential day in Brest, started around 9 o’clock in the morning. For this article it is divided into the following parts: 9:00 am to about 4:00 pm, 4:00 pm to about 4:20 pm, 4:20 pm to about 6:30 pm, dinner, and the remainder of the evening. What he, Hornblow, and Cook wrote about events on the 7th is therefore arranged within those five parts of the day.
Howard travelled to Brest 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 [better known as ‘Colonel’ 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 Howard 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. 2
“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 (4:00 am in New York).
Thursday 7 November: 9:00 am to about 4:00 pm
Chasing Armistice Rumours
A member of Lieutenant Arthur Hornblow’s Army Intelligence [G-2] Team met Howard at the station to take him to Hornblow’s office [presumably in the Army Base]; on the way 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 told him he had heard the armistice rumour and confirmed there had been no official announcement. He arranged for Howard to travel to America on board the S.S. Great Northern (departure time to be given later), conveyed an invitation 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 give 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 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, pp77-80]
Howard obviously considered the armistice rumours to be an important detail about events in Brest on 7 November, 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 them in his letters and telegrams to United Press colleagues while he was in Brest, 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 “put in the entire day endeavoring to confirm [them]”. 3
However, neither Arthur Hornblow in his ‘Fake Armistice’ article nor Fred Cook in his 1924 and ‘25 newspaper features mentioned the rumours at all. And Howard criticised them for not doing so.
In comments he made to Hornblow in June 1921 about ‘Fake Armistice’, 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 November 1925 False Armistice feature 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 inflammatory 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.”
(* To file is a journalistic term meaning “to send a story to the office usually by wire [telegraph] or telephone”. 23)
[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, on his arrival 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. Eager for news, it is more likely that he asked the G-2 orderly at the station whether the armistice had been concluded than it is that the orderly told him “quite casually”, on their way to US Army Headquarters, there were rumours it had been.
It is most unlikely, however, that the rumours Howard said were circulating in Brest before 9 am were to the effect that the Germans had signed an armistice. The ‘armistice-signed’ 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. On the other hand, the official French announcement of the 6 November departure of the German armistice delegation for the Western Front had appeared in the Paris morning newspapers on the 7th, and this news had certainly reached Brest by 9:00 am. 1.d) If there were rumours circulating in Brest when Howard arrived, therefore, they were probably about the German armistice delegation and talks it might be having with the Allies. In ‘Fake Armistice’, Hornblow did remark that people were discussing the delegation news outside La Dépêche where a bulletin about it was on display.
In response to Howard’s comments about his article, Hornblow inserted a few brief references to armistice-signed rumours in Brest before Admiral Wilson’s afternoon announcement that the war was over. Fred Cook’s article had already appeared in print when Howard complained to him about not mentioning the rumours, so – even if he had been willing to do so – it was too late to change it to suit Howard. (Details below)
One of Hornblow’s duties as the US Army Intelligence 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 G-2 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” [around three hours later] that Howard “strolled in casually” and asked Hornblow whether he could arrange for him to take a faster ship to America than the one already booked for him, 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 de Brest, the town’s local newspaper on 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 a private telegraph line to Paris which United Press used to the exclusion of all other foreign newspapers, and Howard introduced 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.
[Hornblow, ‘Amazing Armistice’, November 1921, 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 memoir 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 June 1921 letter to Hornblow about ‘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. According to Howard, then, the events he outlined occurred after 9:00 am and before a midday lunch with General Harries; according to Hornblow, the events he outlined, including lunch together at the Navy Club, occurred between midday and sometime after 2:00 pm.
Hornblow (as noted) did not mention any armistice rumours in his ‘Fake Armistice’ article. The above remarks in ‘Amazing Armistice’ about hearing a rumour 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 only because of Howard’s criticisms (as were similar remarks later in his article).
Nor did Hornblow specify taking Howard to see the French Commandant or General Harries. He recorded that he took Howard to US Navy Headquarters and then showed him around Brest before taking him to lunch and leaving him at the Continental after 2:00 pm.
For his part, Howard made no reference to a pre-lunch visit with Hornblow to La Dépêche 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”. [19 June 1921 letter, pp4-6. Hornblow Papers]
Each named a different ship as the one Hornblow arranged for Howard to return home on. The Great Northern – the one Howard named – was the one he said he boarded on 10 November when he eventually left Brest.
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 heading to Navy Headquarters again for his appointment with Admiral Wilson.
The US navy band was playing to a crowd of civilians and servicemen in President Wilson Square; and 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]
An obvious thing for Howard to have done would have been to contact the United Press office in Paris to see if they had any news about a German armistice. He could have done this by using La Dépêche’s telegraph link or by telephoning them. And from midday they would have been able to tell him there were armistice rumours spreading around the capital. But Howard commented towards the end of his 1936 memoir that the La Dépêche telegraph was not open “until late on the evening of the seventh” and that “meantime, it was impossible for censorship reasons for me to communicate with the Paris office, or for them to get in touch with me”. [p89]
However, the comment is not true. Howard telegraphed staff correspondent John de Gandt at the Paris office just after sending his armistice cablegram to the New York City office around 4:20 pm, and received replies (as will be seen). It is possible therefore that he did contact Paris during the day, became aware of the armistice rumours there, and was fully expecting official news to reach Brest that the German armistice had been signed and the war was over.
Thursday 7 November: 4:00 pm to about 4:20 pm
Admiral Wilson’s armistice news, and Howard’s armistice cablegram
Shortly before 4:00 pm Admiral Wilson received the false armistice news from Paris. Between 4:00 and 4:20 pm, Howard’s cablegram containing the news was put together and transmitted to New York City, arriving around midday Eastern Standard Time – ahead of the early afternoon newspapers in that time zone, and of late morning ones farther west.
The sequence of events during those twenty minutes took place in three separate locations: Admiral Wilson’s office, the La Dépêche building, and the local Post Office or ‘P.Q.’ building. 5
In Admiral Wilson’s Office
Howard’s earliest account (unpublished) of events surrounding his false armistice cablegram is in a letter he typed to Phil Simms, UP’s Paris manager, on Saturday 9 November 1918. It begins, in direct speech mode, with his and Major Cook’s arrival at Admiral Wilson’s office (no time given).
“[General] Harries had sent Cook to present me to the Admiral ….”
As he and Cook entered 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 La Dépêche with Ensign Sellards, leaving Major Cook in the Admiral’s office.
[Letter to Phil Simms, November 9, 1918, pp1-2. Howard Papers.]
Howard typed this letter the day before he left Brest for the United States. He had been communicating with Simms by telegram, but in the letter Howard gave him additional details about what had happened during the previous two days.
The main points Howard made are that:
- Admiral Wilson received the armistice news from Paris Headquarters [Navy presumably] before Howard and Cook arrived at his office.
- Before their arrival, Wilson 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 entered the office just after Howard and Cook arrived, bringing the message back with him because the editor was not in the newspaper building.
- Wilson apparently confided to Cook details about the message’s “communication channel”.
- Wilson instructed Sellards to return to La Dépêche 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.
- Cook stayed behind when Howard left with a copy of the message.
So, according to Howard on 9 November, he accompanied Sellards to the La Dépêche building on his own initiative. There is no suggestion at all that Admiral Wilson instructed Sellards to go with Howard to help him file the armistice cablegram, or to make sure the censors allowed the cablegram to be transmitted – allegations that appeared in later references to what happened in the Admiral’s office.
Major Cook wrote his unpublished eye-witness account in response to a request from Howard. On a single sheet of writing paper, it 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]:
- After the introductions, Admiral Wilson “hastened to inform” 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 [located in the Post Office].
- Cook remained with the Admiral, “observed the sending of the Admiral’s personal aide to the Brest newspaper” [no reason given for this] and heard the Admiral order “an immense American flag” to be raised on the building. From the office balcony, he noted the “public announcement of the news from the band stand” in President Wilson Square. The US navy band then played the Marseillaise and The Star-Spangled Banner.
- Cook believed the news was 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); Howard left the building on his own to go to the “cable office”, and Ensign Sellards left alone, a little later it seems, to go to the La Dépêche building (for some unspecified reason).
Arthur Hornblow was not with Howard between 4:00 and 4:20pm. His ‘Fake Armistice’ account of what happened in Admiral Wilson’s office was presumably based on what he said Howard had told him after the event.
However, some comments Admiral Wilson made about the ‘Fake Armistice’ text led Hornblow to change a few of its details for ‘Amazing Armistice’, in which he 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”].
[Hornblow, ‘Amazing Armistice’, November 1921, pp93-94]
As a result of the Admiral’s comments, Hornblow had substituted the ambiguous sentence above that Ensign Sellards went with Howard “to assist him in arranging things”, for the unambiguous statement in ’Fake Armistice’ that Sellards went with Howard “to assist him in getting his message past the local French censor”.
This allegation first arose in 8 November 1918 reports from Paris to the US State Department about the false armistice news. The reports, with other official wartime documents, were only made public in 1933. 6 But Roy Howard most probably knew about them and their contents at the time and may have given some details to Hornblow. After the Armistice, Hornblow moved to G-2 in Paris for a time, so he may also have become aware of the reports there. Had he not withdrawn it, the allegation would have made its first public appearance in ‘Amazing Armistice’ in November 1921.
[Further discussion about the allegations later in the article.]
Roy Howard’s only comment on the ‘Fake Armistice’ version of events in Wilson’s office was that Hornblow’s “quotations of the armistice message” were not “literally correct”. He was referring to Hornblow’s omission of the detail about American forces taking Sedan, and offered, for the sake of accuracy, to provide him with “an exact duplicate” of the message he received from Admiral Wilson. Evidently, Hornblow failed to correct the omission for ‘Amazing Armistice’. Whether Howard subsequently contacted Hornblow to comment on the published article is not known.
Captain Jackson’s name on the false armistice news from Paris
It is interesting that Hornblow claimed Howard saw that the armistice message was signed by Captain Jackson, the US Naval Attaché in Paris. Admiral Wilson told Hornblow in 1921 that, when he announced it to Cook and Howard in his office and gave Howard a copy of it, he did not disclose who had sent him the armistice news. But Howard did know about it on 7 November: that evening he telegraphed Phil Simms in Paris suggesting he should try to talk to Jackson about it. (Below)
How Howard knew this detail on 7 November is not certain. But if Howard knew, perhaps Major Cook also knew it at the time. When or how, before 1921, Hornblow became aware that Jackson’s name was on the armistice message is also not certain, but ‘Amazing Armistice’ seems to have made it public.
When Fred Cook left the army, he returned to his job with The Evening Star in Washington, DC. He wrote two articles for the newspaper about the False Armistice: a short item for the 11 November 1924 issue, in which he avoided identifying Howard by name; and a much longer, 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 holding a piece of paper in his hand. Before Cook “could utter a word”, the Admiral told them it was a telegram from Commander Jackson, the US Naval Attaché at the embassy in Paris, saying that “the armistice was signed at 11 o’clock this morning, effective at 2 o’clock this afternoon”. There was an “absolute silence” in the room lasting “a second or two” until Howard asked if he could use the information. After some hesitation, Wilson consented, whereupon Howard uttered “a hasty ‘I’ll see you later’” and rushed out of the building.
From the open window, Cook watched Howard run across the square to the Post Office, where the Atlantic-cable transmitter was located, and saw crowds gathering to read the Admiral’s news now displayed outside La Dépêche. Inside the office, he witnessed instructions being given for the peace news to be announced to people listening to a US navy band in the square and for a huge flag to be hung across the Headquarters 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 news, 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 ‘witness’ letter for Howard, Cook recollected here that Howard asked Admiral Wilson for permission to use the news from Paris, left alone with a copy of it and went towards the cable office.
In the 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.
Like Hornblow, Cook omitted the detail about Sedan from his version of the armistice message sent to Admiral Wilson.
Howard read the article and wrote to Cook about it several days later, criticising his account of events as 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”.
One was that Admiral Wilson’s armistice message “was the first news” they had received that day about an armistice. “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 asserted, was not “that the armistice had been signed”, but rather that Wilson had received the news “ahead of everyone else”.
The other impression given, Howard felt, was that “only a matter of seconds” elapsed after Wilson told them the news before he [Howard] rushed off, “jumped down the stairway” and “ran” to the Post Office to send his cablegram. “Let your mind run back again” Howard suggested, 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 Admiral Wilson held in his hand”; that having given “permission to use” it, the Admiral then asked him if he spoke French “with any fluency” and, being told he did not, “ordered Ensign Sellards to go with [him] to the cable office and help expedite the dispatch through the Censor”; and that while they were waiting for Sellards, Wilson assured them again that the dispatch was official.
Howard also corrected Cook’s statement that he saw him “run across the square to the cable office”. This was another “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 La Dépêche to type the peace news on a cable blank used for sending United Press bulletins 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”.
[Letter: Roy Howard to Fred Cook, 28 November 1925, pp1-3. Howard Papers.]
Clearly, Howard was still sensitive to even the slightest suggestion that on 7 November 1918 he “filed a wild rumor that did not have any semblance of official justification”, a sensitivity brought on by accusations UP’s competitors directed at him personally at the time, as he had explained to Hornblow in his criticisms of ‘Fake Armistice’.
Howard had not drawn attention to any supposedly faulty observations or important omissions in Cook’s ‘witness’ statement of 15 November 1918. But now, according to Howard, Cook had forgotten to note in his article (and 1918 statement by extension) that Ensign Sellards went with him “to the cable office” having been ordered by Admiral Wilson to “help expedite the dispatch through the Censor”. This is the same claim Hornblow withdrew from ‘Fake Armistice’ after Admiral Wilson objected to it. (See ‘Contentious allegations’, above)
Perhaps Howard was prompted to raise this particular point by the following comment Cook made elsewhere in his 1925 article: “In my judgment, the most remarkable incident of the ‘false armistice’ was the fact that the message filed by Mr. Howard was dispatched immediately, and without question. There was no demand, so far as I am aware, that it be censored and approved ….” Howard was sensitive also to comments, like these, which queried how his armistice cablegram actually got out of France, offering various explanations at the time and later. Hornblow dealt with the subject at some length in ‘Amazing Armistice’, as will be seen.
It is not known whether Cook responded to Howard’s criticisms, or to an invitation to have lunch with him in Washington, DC, “sometime in the near future”.
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 through to Admiral Wilson’s office, where the Admiral “was standing by his desk holding in his hand a sheaf of carbon copies of a message”. From here, Wilson sent an orderly [not Sellards] to give some of these copies 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 the 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]
Here, Howard, like Cook in his 1925 newspaper account, claimed that Admiral Wilson told them the armistice message was from Captain Jackson in Paris; but neither Howard in his November 1918 letter to Simms, nor Cook in his November 1918 ‘witness’ statement for Howard had intimated this at the time.
And here, Ensign Sellards, as in Cook’s account, was already present in Admiral Wilson’s offices when they arrived, not – as Howard had told Simms in November 1918 – 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. Howard now states that Wilson instructed an orderly to take the news to La Dépêche and to the navy band master in the square.
Both earlier records noted that Howard asked Wilson for permission to “use” the armistice information. Here, 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 for it to be published in the American newspapers.
Cook gave the impression in his ‘witness statement’ and 1925 article that Howard left Navy Headquarters alone, and not, therefore, with Ensign Sellards accompanying him to the cable office. Howard told Phil Simms in his 9 November letter only that he went to La Dépêche with Sellards, who was returning there with the armistice news. Several days later, in a press statement of 20 November 1918, he stated that Admiral Wilson “sent his personal aid with me to assist me in filing the dispatch, as I do not speak French fluently”, but did not suggest that Admiral Wilson ordered Sellards to go with him to make sure the armistice bulletin passed the censors. 3
As pointed out above in ‘Contentious allegations’, claims that Wilson intervened in some way to make sure Howard’s cablegram was not held up by the censors appeared for the first time on 8 November 1918, in reports sent to the US State Department from Paris. Before the reports’ publication in 1933, Howard had made the allegations to Cook in his November 1925 letter; and publicly avowed them here in his 1936 memoir. But he is the only participant in the 4:00 to 4:20 pm events in Brest to do so. Cook’s evidence does not support the claims. Hornblow removed them from ‘Amazing Armistice’. Both Admiral Wilson and John Sellards flatly denied them.
For what occurred after Howard left Navy Headquarters with the armistice message, the only available first-hand evidence seems to be in Howard’s 9 November letter to Simms and in his 1936 narrative. These relate that before going to the Post Office, Howard and Sellards went first to La Dépêche where Howard wanted to have the message typed out. 7
In the La Dépêche building
In his letter to Phil Simms, Howard described in just three sentences what happened when he stopped off at La Dépêche:
“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 understood what Howard was talking about. But how the La Dépêche telegraph link to Paris, together with its apparatus, was involved in the story of Howard’s armistice cablegram (crucially as it turned out) requires some explanation.
The La Dépêche telegraph
UP’s access to the La Dépêche telegraph was a key factor in the spread of the 7 November 1918 peace news to the United States: without it there might well have been no False Armistice in North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Webb Miller, who was with United Press in France at the time, described the main features of the arrangement with La Dépêche as follows:
“[It was] a contract for the exclusive use of the only private leased wire between Paris and Brest, the cable head. Louis Coudurier, owner of the newspaper Dépêche de Brest, held all rights. The utility of this wire lay in the fact that messages did not have to pass through the Bourse [Stock Exchange] telegraph office and censorship in Paris, where most of the delay en route to New York occurred. Sometimes urgent-rate messages [the highest charge for fast delivery] … were an hour getting through the red tape at the Bourse, while our messages over the leased wire were transmitted instantly, and taken across the street in Brest to the cable office.
[John de Gandt and Lowell Mellett of the UP Paris office] concluded a private arrangement with the chief censor, who permitted us to telegraph over the leased wire without Paris censorship anything from the American front which had already been censored by the American military censors, anything that appeared in the Paris newspapers, and any official communiqués issued in Paris, but nothing else. We furnished the censor copies of everything sent over the wire afterward. Of course, we did our utmost to keep these arrangements secret.” [Webb Miller, pp54-55]
Among the telegrams in Howard’s archive is one from John de Gandt about La Dépêche‘s telegraph. There is nothing to show when de Gandt sent it to Howard or where Howard was at the time, but it seems from the message that de Gandt was outlining, for Howard’s approval, the “private arrangement” Webb Miller attributed to him and Lowell Mellett (above). De Gandt wrote:
ALTHOUGH I DO NOT KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOUR PLANS ARE I WANT TO TELL YOU THAT IT STRUCK ME SOME TIME AGO THAT THE BREST PAPER GETTING A FULL NEWS SERVICE (ALREADY CENSORED) FROM PARIS IT MIGHT BE INTERESTING FOR US TO BE ABLE TO REWRITE THE STUFF IN CABLE STYLE IN BREST AND FLASH IT FROM THERE PROVIDED WE SHOULD HAVE SOME BODY IN THE PAPER OFFICE WHO WOULD DO IT AND SEND IT THE PUBLISHER WOULD LIKELY ACCEPT SUCH AN ARRANGEMENT AND IT WOULD SIMPLY REQUEST [REQUIRE?] PERMISZION FROM BOTH HEAD CENSORSHIPS IN PARIS THE AMERICAN AND THE FRENCH THERE NIGHT [MIGHT] BE ALSO A QUESTION RE THE OPPOSITION BUT I WOULD RATHER WRITE [WAIT?] ON THAT SUBJECT
[28/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
Howard himself referred to the arrangement only briefly, giving the impression that the telegraph was mainly a United Press concern:
“At specific hours of the day the U.P. operated a leased wire between Paris and Brest. In addition to carrying a news report for Dépêche, this wire handled cable dispatches for the United Press in New York, which were relayed to Brest via this wire after being censored in Paris.”
[Howard 1936, p83]
Arthur Hornblow publicised the arrangement and provided details about how the La Dépêche telegraph apparatus was used to prepare Howard’s dispatch for transmission. It presented a lengthy explanation not just of what happened but also of why the armistice message was cleared for transmission to the United States.
“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 news 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” – took over and printed the armistice message for Howard. Using the newspaper’s “telegraph instrument”, he typed the message onto paper tape with his local telegraph key – 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 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, the Brest censors in the Post Office readily accepted the cablegram which was then speedily transmitted to New York City. Here, the American censors passed it in the belief that it had been cleared through France.
Hornblow insisted that Howard had not deliberately had the cablegram put together to look like one sent from United Press in Paris, with its message already approved by the censors – that he had not committed some telegraphic artifice in order to be first to the American papers with the peace news. “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”.
Hornblow also dismissed the possibility that anyone in Brest “of whatever exalted rank” could have influenced the local censors to clear Howard’s cablegram and its “so portentous a message” without first obtaining permission from the Ministry of War or the censorship office in Paris to do so.
[‘Amazing Armistice’, November 1921, pp92-95]
Here again, Hornblow’s account was essentially second-hand, shaped presumably by what he learnt from Howard and any additional information he may have picked up in Brest during the days that followed – for instance, from the La Dépêche editor, M. Coudurier, whom he later met officially on behalf of General Harries, the US Army Base commander. 22
He did imply that Sellards went to the Post Office with Howard after leaving La Dépêche. But he pointedly challenged any suggestion that, acting on Admiral Wilson’s instructions, Sellards made sure the censors allowed the peace news to go to the United States. In ‘Fake Armistice’ Hornblow actually declared that “not even the Admiral in person” could have persuaded the censors to pass the armistice cablegram without specific authority to do so from Paris, then changed it slightly for ‘Amazing Armistice’ (above) to read “no one in Brest, of whatever exalted rank” could have done so. The only reason the cablegram cleared from Brest, Hornblow emphasised, was that it seemed to the censors it had arrived already censored from United Press in Paris.
(A full account of Hornblow’s comments about Wilson in his 1921 ‘Fake-’ and ‘Amazing Armistice’ articles is offered in ‘Admiral H. B. Wilson and Roy Howard’s Armistice Cablegram’ on this website.)
What Hornblow described as the newspaper’s “telegraph instrument” was most probably a version of the Hughes Type-Printing Telegraph, “one of the earliest forms of printing telegraphs which use a separate key for each letter of the alphabet”. The machine’s keyboard was not like a typewriter keyboard; it resembled a piano keyboard and consisted of “28 keys arranged in two rows of black and white keys”. Apart from two blank keys (‘space’ and ‘shift’) each of the others produced a separate letter of the alphabet or, alternatively, a separate digit or symbol. The sender used the keyboard “to directly input the text of the message. The receiver would then receive the instantly readable text of the message on a paper strip … in contrast to the telegraphs that used Morse Code dots and dashes which needed to be converted into readable text”. The machines, apparently, were “very popular in France”. 4
Howard’s secret about the armistice cablegram
In June 1921, in his lengthy letter criticising ‘Fake Armistice’, Howard made a short, cryptic, comment about Hornblow’s account of the armistice cablegram. Referring to the “printer tape element in the story”, he told Hornblow:
“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 is open to conjecture. He evidently refused to explain it, and Hornblow perhaps never found out what he was hinting at, why his story was “off” and who might have been hurt if the full details of what happened in La Dépêche were publicised.
In his own account fifteen years later, Howard related briefly how the armistice message was typed out for him; showed how it was set out as a 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 La Dépêche, “which was a client of the United Press”. 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 typewriters, which did not have “a standard keyboard”. The “telegraph operator handling the U.P. wire” [La Dépêche’s telegraph to Paris] took over and typed the message for him, not directly onto a blank cable form, but onto the “regular tape used for Press telegrams”. This was then pasted onto a “regular cable blank”.
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 on the form Simms’ official Press Card number, which was 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]
Howard’s secret revealed?
In the collection of telegrams in Howard’s papers, there is one that shows clearly that La Dépêche had its own pre-formatted telegram forms for messages sent from Paris over its leased telegraph wire – its “fil télégraphique spécial et direct de Paris à Brest”.
The distinguishing features of the forms are an image of the newspaper’s building, and a header containing the newspaper’s name, postal and telegraphic addresses, and name of its editor, Louis Coudurier, as shown:
The creased form has been folded outwards and copied in two halves. This is the top half.
The bottom half carries Howard’s printed armistice message, illegible in parts because of pencil-deletions. And added in pencil are “Simms” (positioned after a crossed-out four-digit number) “Collect” and “4.18 PM Thursday Nov 7”.
[29-30/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers. The form has been folded outwards and copied in two halves.]
This may be Howard’s draft of the armistice message and other details for his cablegram to New York City, retained as a copy. As a piece of historical evidence, it seems to challenge both Hornblow’s and Howard’s respective descriptions of the composition of the armistice cablegram in the La Dépêche building. Firstly, because the message is typed directly onto the telegram form, and not on cut-and-pasted printer tape. And secondly because the form is not an ordinary or “regular cable blank”.
In 1921 Howard had told Hornblow that the “printer tape element” of his account in ‘Fake Armistice was “off in a slight way that would considerably alter your story”. Perhaps he was hinting that printer tape was not, in fact, used in the composition of the cablegram. And in 1925, unwittingly it seems, he had disclosed to Fred Cook that “[the armistice message] was filed on one of the regular blanks used for the Paris dispatches of the United Press”. This evidence now appears to substantiate what he told to Cook.
Howard certainly withheld the La Dépêche telegram-form detail from his various references to what happened in the newspaper building; and he went along with Hornblow’s explanation that it was the message on printer tape that gave the cablegram its appearance of having arrived, already censored, from Paris. If the armistice message and other details went to the Post Office on printer tape pasted on a La Dépêche form (at the time, Howard told Phil Simms the message was on printer tape) they would have been automatically approved by the censors and transmitted without further ado through the cable-head machine to New York. If, however, the message and other details went to the Post Office printed directly onto a La Dépêche form, the censors might not have automatically approved transmission – unless just the use of a La Dépêche telegram form, its message being either on printer tape or typed directly onto the form, was sufficient for it to be accepted as a United Press bulletin from Paris.
Disappointingly, the cable-form evidence does not help determine whom Howard was trying to shield from “harm” and “injustice” (as he stated to Hornblow) by concealing it. If the form and printer tape were deliberately used to make sure the armistice message would be accepted for immediate transmission – a possibility that ought not be discounted merely because Hornblow and Howard denied it – then Howard may well have been shielding himself (for being complicit in the action), the La Dépêche telegraph operator, and perhaps Louis Coudurier, the editor. But this remains conjecture.
Hornblow assumed in his 1921 articles that both Howard and Sellards took the armistice cablegram from the La Dépêche building across to the Post Office. Howard insisted to Cook in 1925 that this was so, and emphasised it in his 1936 memoir (as will be seen). However, on 9 November 1918, just two days after the events, Howard told Phil Simms that a newspaper employee took the cablegram to the Post Office: “the [La Dépêche] operator who printed my message out on his tape printer [and] pasted it up on a P.Q. blank … sent it to the wire by the newspapers messenger.”
If this is in fact what happened, Howard clearly changed the story later. And indeed, some of Howard’s early references to what happened in the Post Office do convey the impression that he was not present there as a witness to events.
In the Post Office building
Howard added a postscript to his letter to Simms stating he had been informed on 8 November that the local censors did not see his cablegram until two hours after it had been sent to New York City. This, he noted without elaboration, was because 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, in a message sent the same day, for W. W. (Bill) Hawkins, general manager in New York City and a United Press vice-president:
“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”.
[11/17, in the collection at 25 April 1957. 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”. 3
Howard’s comment that he was “told” about these events suggests he was not in the Post Office when they occurred, and adds credibility to what he told Simms about a La Dépêche employee having taken the cablegram to the Post Office. And this casts doubt on his allegation that Ensign Sellards, acting on Admiral Wilson’s orders, went with him to the Post Office to make sure the Brest censors passed the cablegram.
As a separate consideration, if the cablegram passed through because everyone believed its news was true, and if the censors did not see it beforehand because they were otherwise engaged, suggestions that the censors did not stop it because they mistook it for a United Press bulletin already censored in Paris have no foundation.
Howard may not have told Hornblow the Brest censors did not see the cablegram before it went to New York. But he intimated as much to Fred Cook in his 1925 letter. Clearly placing himself and Sellards in the Post Office building at the time, he divulged extra details to Cook about what happened when the cablegram was transmitted:
“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.” [My italics]
[Letter: Roy Howard to Fred Cook, 28 November 1925, p2. Howard Papers]
The impression now is that Howard and Sellards arrived in the middle of great excitement and disruption in the Post Office caused by the peace news and that, without Howard’s knowledge, the transmissions operator – not the censors – assumed from the cablegram’s appearance that it had arrived from United Press in Paris. For this reason, he gave it a Paris dateline and, by inference, decided to transmit it without waiting for the censors’ approval. The otherwise-engaged censors played no part in the matter, whereas the cablegram’s deceptive appearance certainly did.
In his 1936 memoir, Howard alleged that Admiral Wilson instructed Sellards to go with him to file the news and make sure the censors approved it (as already noted). What is more, he asserted that Sellards succeeded in making sure the cablegram went off unhindered and undelayed – even though the censors were absent at the time:
When they entered the building, “the censor room was deserted, the entire personnel having poured into the streets to join in the mass celebration … in the Place du Président Wilson”. At Sellards’ suggestion, Howard waited in the censor room while the Ensign took the armistice cablegram to the “operating room at the cable head”. 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 Howard learned that “no French censor ever passed on the message” and that his cablegram had arrived in New York City “with a Paris dateline”. This error, he explained, was because of “confusion” on the part of the cable operator who probably assumed that Simms’ name and Press-card number printed on the form meant it had come from “the Paris office of the United Press”. [My italics]
Howard concluded his version of the cablegram story with echoes of Hornblow’s 1921 assessment:
“The impossible had happened. A fantastic set of circumstances which could not have been conceived of in advance combined unintentionally and unwittingly to circumvent an air-tight military censorship which no amount of strategy and planning had ever beaten …. The dispatch, not by design but by the purest accident of my being unable to use a French typewriter resembled in all its physical appearance an ordinary United Press bulletin passed by the American Press censor in Paris, and relayed via the United Press-Dépêche leased wire to Brest. Furthermore, its authenticity was vouched for by the highest American naval commander in French waters, through the medium of his own personal and confidential aide, Ensign Sellards. The combination was more perfect than if it had been planned ….” [My italics]
Towards the end of his chapter, Howard quoted from the 8 November 1918 reports to the US State Department which implicated Admiral Wilson in the spread of the armistice rumour to the United States. He was using the report ostensibly to substantiate a theory about the source of the false armistice news being a German spy in Paris, but it also served to corroborate the claims he was making publicly that Admiral Wilson and Ensign Sellards assisted him with cablegram.
[Howard 1936, pp83-84;93]
Based on Howard’s details, only about ten minutes elapsed between his and Major Cook’s arrival at Admiral Wilson’s office around 4:10 pm and the cablegram’s transmission by about 4:20 pm. About ten minutes therefore, to obtain a copy of the armistice message from Admiral Wilson, have the cablegram prepared in the La Dépêche building, taken from there to the Post Office, and sent off. Hornblow’s accounts have Howard arriving at Wilson’s office ten minutes earlier – “promptly” at 4:00 pm – which would have given him about twenty minutes to receive the peace news, have his cablegram put together and transmitted.
It took six minutes for the cablegram to cross the Atlantic, Howard told Hornblow in 1921. By the time it had been cleared by US military censors and forwarded to the United Press office in New York City, it was about midday local time. Within minutes, UP offices around the United States were alerting well over four hundred newspapers to the peace news, and Americans began celebrating on an unprecedented scale.
Thursday 7 November: From 4:20 pm to about 6:30 pm
Immediately after sending the cablegram, Howard telegraphed John de Gandt at the Paris office to tell him what he had done:
“NOTE TRES URGENTE … DEGAND UNIPRESS PARIS “
“GETTING NEWS FROM ADMIRAL WILSON HERE I FILED THE FOLLOWING URGENT VIA PQ AT 4.18 QUOTE ARMISTICE ALLIES GERMANY SIGNED ELEVEN SMORNING HOSTILITIES CEASED TWO SAFTERNOON SEDAN TAKEN SMORNING BY AMERICANS HOWARD SIGNED SIMMS UNQUOTE WHAT TIME DID YOU FILE STOP SUGGEST INTERVIEW HOUSE DON’T HESITATE FULL RATE DESCRIPTION PARIS TONIGHT STOP AM AT HOTEL CONTINENTAL FOR FEW DAYS HOWARD
[2/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
On Howard’s copy of the telegram, in pencil, is “4.20 PM Thursday”, in what is most likely his own handwriting.
Twenty-five minutes later, according to a similar pencil note – “4.45 PM” – Howard received de Gandt’s reply.
The contents of Howard’s telegram had “surprised everybody” at the Paris office, de Gandt said. The signature of an armistice with Germany was being “persistently rumoured”, but it was “impossible [to] get any confirmation”. During a Senate meeting earlier in the afternoon, it was stated that “Parliamentaries” [German armistice delegates] were on their way towards the Front; but when de Gandt telephoned the French Press Bureau and Foreign Office just before he sent his reply to Howard, they refused to say whether the delegates had arrived.
De Gandt signed off, advising Howard that he was going to the War Office where an official announcement of “some sort expectable”, and would instruct “operators” to keep the wire open that night “between 8 and 10” [the La Dépêche wire to Paris presumably].
Five minutes later, a follow-on note from de Gandt arrived saying he had called the War Office: they had no word yet but were “expecting news from GHQ any minute”. He added that he was planning to “stay on job until midnight”.
[3-5/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
Not surprisingly, Howard had acted quickly to let Paris know about his armistice cablegram. Naturally assuming the peace news had been released there as well, he wondered at what time they had reported it (to New York presumably), and suggested they interview Special Representative House about the armistice, (and, perhaps, send a bulletin about how Paris was reacting to the news). But de Gandt could only report that although the capital was filled with armistice rumours, so far it had been impossible to confirm them.
By 5:00 pm therefore – around forty minutes after sending his armistice cablegram – Howard was fully aware that the news Admiral Wilson had received from Paris around 4:00 pm had not yet been announced there – some sixty minutes later. But he was assured that an announcement could be expected soon.
From Paris, Fred Ferguson also responded to Howard’s news about his armistice bulletin to New York:
Like de Gandt, Ferguson told Howard there were “unconfirmable” armistice reports circulating in Paris; but was able to disclose also that, during the afternoon, Special Representative House had reported to Secretary of State Lansing that no armistice had been signed (in answer to Lansing’s query about the rumours) 1c). He added that “nothing [was] being passed” [by the censors presumably]. And ended his message: “DO YOU KNOW WHETHER YOUR CABLE CLEARED”.
[12/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
A pencil annotation on the form – “about 11PM Thursday” – may denote the time Howard received the message, or read it, or both.
Ferguson evidently had valuable contacts in House’s entourage, for he remarked that the information about the report to Lansing (sent at 6:00 pm) had come from “RUE UNIVERSITE FRIENDS” – a reference to House’s Paris residence and base at 78 Rue de l’Université. The following day, Friday 8 November, in a separate report to Lansing about the rumours, House stated that it was “perfectly clear that United Press was not at fault in this matter”, information that was also passed on to Howard (as detailed later).
After what appears to be an hour’s interval, another message, presumably from de Gandt, arrived for Howard.
He had spoken by ‘phone to Phil Simms who told him that at 6:00 pm Fred Ferguson had contacted Gordon Auchincloss [Edward House’s son-in-law and personal assistant in Paris]; that Auchincloss said they had no news about the arrival of the German delegation; that the American GHQ “knew nothing about it either”; and that Simms felt House would say “the same as” his son-in-law.
[6/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
Confusingly, there is a pencil note on the message-sheet reading “about 5 PM Thursday”. But this must be an error. There was no time difference between Brest and Paris, so Howard could not have received or seen the message before 6:00 pm – the time Ferguson reportedly spoke to Auchincloss. The latter, House’s son-in-law no less, was obviously one of Ferguson’s “Rue Universite friends”.
There is nothing to suggest where Howard was or what time it was when he did see the message. But around 6:30 pm, he went to La Dépêche to prepare a cablegram about peace celebrations in Brest. This was the second one he sent to New York City that day; it also had a Paris dateline.
His handwritten version of it reads:
“Urgent Unipress New York
By HOWARD BREST 07183 [7 November, 18:30 hours] BREST PROBABLY FIRST CITY WORLD LEARD ARMISTICE NEWS REACHED ARMYERS NAVYERS SHORTLY AFTER FOUR COMMANDERS ADMIRAL WIL COMMANDERS COMMUNICATED NEWSPAPER DELA DEPECHE WHICH BULLETINED EXTRAED TOWN WILD YANKS KISSED CHEERED BOATS FACTORIES SIRENED HOWARD SIMMS”
[7-8/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
Again, confusingly there is a pencil annotation reading “about 6 PM Thursday” – half an hour before the dispatch-time stated in the message.
Confusing annotations aside, the 6:30 pm cablegram to New York seems to have been occasioned by the ‘Ferguson-Auchincloss 6:00 pm talk’ telegram from Paris. It is assumed here, therefore, that Howard became aware sometime between 6:00 pm and 6:30 pm that no information had yet been released in Paris about the German armistice delegation, or therefore about an armistice having been signed. Although he was not told that Admiral Wilson’s armistice news was false, he may have begun to feel it was a distinct possibility. And this would help explain why he decided to send the ‘celebrations in Brest’ message.
The New York City office labelled it the “07183 confirmatory Brest bulletin”, which was probably how Howard intended it to be interpreted. Feeling a little anxious at this point about the accuracy of the armistice news, Howard would have realised that he and United Press might need to prove later that they had not fabricated the news or acted irresponsibly by reporting mere rumours. That Brest had also been given the news and was wildly celebrating the end of the war could be a major factor in such a defence.
More indications that Howard and Sellards were not in the Post Office
As pointed out earlier, Howard told Phil Simms that a La Dépêche messenger took his cablegram to the Post Office while he went straight back to Navy Headquarters to see Admiral Wilson.
But Howard evidently did not go back to Navy Headquarters immediately after filing his armistice cablegram: he remained where he was, telegraphed his news to Paris and received news from there. And the obvious place for Howard to have been while he was doing this was in the La Dépêche building using its Paris telegraph. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this – and from the times shown on the Paris telegrams – is that he would not have had the time to take his armistice cablegram to the Post Office himself.
Therefore, if, as Howard told Simms, a La Dépêche messenger went to the Post Office with the cablegram, Howard could not have been in the Post Office as an eyewitness to what was happening there. And Ensign John Sellards could not have been there with him. Indeed, Sellards told Admiral Wilson that he left Howard in the La Dépêche building and returned to Navy Headquarters. 8
After his cablegram went to the Post Office, Howard told Simms, he wired John de Gandt “fully as to what [he] had sent to New York” and “a little later … filed in the same way that [he] had filed the first story a little item re Brest being the first city in France to get the news”. He returned to Navy Headquarters to see Admiral Wilson, “found him engaged, and then went down to call on Major Cook” [no further details]. Later, he went out to dinner “with a couple of Intelligence officers”.
In the meantime, he remarked, the peace news had been displayed on the newspaper’s bulletin board, a “huge American flag” was hung outside Admiral Wilson’s office, the US navy band in the square “played the Star Spangled Banner and the Marcellaise and the stuff was off …. Everyone went bugs”.
[Letter to Phil Simms, 9 November, pp2-3. Howard Papers.]
Howard’s reference to his ‘de Gandt’ and ‘Brest celebrating’ telegrams indicates that all these events occurred between 4:18 and 6:30 pm, except the ‘dinner’ which occurred sometime after 6:30 pm. Most probably, he went back to Navy Headquarters to see whether Admiral Wilson had received any armistice news his Paris office was not yet aware of, and then to find Major Cook – at US Army Headquarters presumably – for the same reason. And this would have been after 5:00 pm, that is, after he had received the information from Paris that the armistice rumours had not been confirmed there.
Arthur Hornblow recalled that he was in his office when he was told about the armistice news.
In ‘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” recounted what had happened.
[‘Fake Armistice’, pp7-8]
Howard objected that the passage was “somewhat at variance with the facts”. He denied rushing to Hornblow’s office immediately after sending the armistice cablegram, 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 heard 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 “started inquiries that quickly disclosed what had occurred”.
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. Howard told him that Admiral Wilson had declared the news to be official and that he – Howard – had sent a cablegram to the United States announcing the war was over. Back in Hornblow’s office, Howard produced a copy of the cablegram and described what had taken place in the Admiral’s office and La Dépêche building. He reckoned his cablegram would arrive “in time to catch the afternoon editions” and remarked “There’s a day in history for you”.
Hornblow was “torn between believing and not believing” the peace news, primarily because 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 Paris [no time given] and to G-2’s “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.
G-2’s failure 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 peace celebrations at the Army Base.
[‘Amazing Armistice’, November 1921, pp93-94 and 96]
Thus, instead of having Howard rush into his office to tell him about his “beat”, as in ‘Fake Armistice’, prompted by Howard, Hornblow stated in ‘Amazing Armistice’ that after hearing about the peace news he went to look for Howard, eventually found him and Major Cook enquiring around Brest for more information about the armistice, and then took Howard back with him to his office.
“There’s a day in history for you” was obviously Hornblow’s ‘softer’ and ‘less egotistical’ alternative to Howard’s actual exclamation of “‘Boy! I’ve scored the biggest beat in history!’”
The sentence “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 insistence in his ‘Fake Armistice’ comments that peace rumours were widespread in Brest hours before Admiral Wilson’s announcements that the war was over.
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 shortly before midday. And G-2 had been investigating them and reporting them to AEF Headquarters in Chaumont and Services of Supply Headquarters in Tours. 1b) d)
In a sense, 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 armistice rumours, though they may have been surprised to hear they had reached Brest as well. It seems very odd, therefore, that they did not tell Hornblow there were similar rumours in Paris and warn him they were unconfirmed, when he spoke to them after 4:30 pm.
In his memoir Howard said nothing about knowing before 5:00 pm that the armistice news had not been confirmed in Paris, about being with Fred Cook trying to obtain more information, or about going to Hornblow’s office, telling him what had happened, and being told about a telephone call to G-2 in Paris. He gave the impression he was confident the news was true, believed he had received it before it was announced in Paris, and had managed to forward it to America before anyone else.
He stated that Admiral Wilson was not in his office by the time he and Sellards had made their way back from the Post Office through crowds celebrating the peace news; that he returned to his hotel where 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 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]
Hornblow had altered his ‘Fake Armistice’ article to say that he found Howard with Cook, sometime after 4:30 pm, looking for more information about the armistice news – as Howard had insisted was the case.
Fred Cook, however, gave the impression that, after leaving Navy Headquarters and returning to the US Army Base (alone) to give General Harries the peace news, he did not see Howard again until the following day – Friday 8 November – in the La Dépêche building using the telegraph to Paris.
[The Evening Star, Wednesday, November 11, 1925, p4, under ‘Real “False Armistice” Story Is Now Told By Eyewitness’.]
Thursday 7 November: Dinner
“Armistice Report Untrue”
Both Howard and Hornblow described having dinner at Brest’s La Brasserie de la Marine restaurant later in the day, but neither stated at what time they arrived there or left. It is proposed here that they were in the restaurant after 6:30 pm, and therefore after Howard sent his ‘Brest celebrating’ cablegram to the New York City office.
Their respective recollections of what happened at dinner differ sharply, even though Hornblow changed his original, vivid, account in ‘Fake Armistice’ (in full below) to suit Howard’s comments on it.
“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. 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 at the start of the 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 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 “for the sake of having the record written straight”.
He disliked Hornblow’s 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 again altered the text for ‘Amazing Armistice’. He tactfully avoided the impression that the dinner was a celebration of Howard’s ‘scoop’ by stating, “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’”; extended his description of the hectic, joyful scene in the crowded restaurant; removed the names of his associates and references to their champagne purchases; and omitted the remark about Howard and suicidal thoughts – “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 …. “
[‘Amazing Armistice’, pp95-97]
When Howard came to write about the dinner scene, he gave it just a short paragraph:
“We had not yet ordered our dinner – not even the drinks which were to precede it.”
He claimed that 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 been unable 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]
The orderly’s message
In his 1921 letter about ‘Fake Armistice’, Howard had acknowledged that the orderly brought the ‘untrue’ message to Hornblow from Army Headquarters. Above, he claimed that Admiral Wilson sent an ‘armistice unconfirmed’ message to him. The Admiral, however, sent no such message; Howard’s claim is baseless. The orderly’s message was for Hornblow but was not necessarily the message Hornblow said had arrived from G-2 in Paris. Whatever its wording, however, it was clearly not good news for Howard and his armistice cablegram.
Destination after leaving the restaurant
In spite of Howard’s statement above, he and Hornblow did not leave the restaurant in order to go straight to the La Dépêche building. In ‘Fake Armistice’ Hornblow said nothing about accompanying Howard to La Dépêche after they left the restaurant, and Howard did not complain about the omission. Consequently, there is nothing about it in ‘Amazing Armistice’ either.
On the other hand, Howard did complain to Hornblow because he did not mention in ‘Fake Armistice’ that the two of them went to find Admiral Wilson after dinner. He reminded him that when they left the Brasserie de la Marine:
“… while I naturally felt that an element of great doubt had been injected into the [armistice] story by this denial, I was by no means yet satisfied that the report was untrue. As a matter of fact my confidence in its authenticity was not seriously shaken at any time until 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, showing some annoyance: “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 ….”
On leaving the restaurant, they went with Howard back to the Continental. “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 that “premature” meant “true, but not properly released” and that the armistice news would be officially confirmed later on. He spent “most of the night trying to get information from his own Paris office”. But when he succeeded, all hope evaporated: “‘premature’ meant untrue”, and “the world collapsed about Howard’s ears”. His “biggest ‘beat’ in the history of journalism had turned cruelly into its biggest ‘bloomer’.”
[‘Amazing Armistice’, p97]
Surprisingly then, when Howard came to write his version of what he did after leaving the restaurant, he omitted the very details he had criticised Hornblow for overlooking. In just a few sentences, he related that:
He and Hornblow left the restaurant and went straight to La Dépêche where he prepared another 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 by Howard’s timings.]
[Howard 1936, pp85-86]
Since Howard did not receive the ‘unconfirmable’ news from Admiral Wilson while he was in the restaurant, he could not have gone straight to La Dépêche with it and sent it to New York City “approximately two hours after the first one”. He did send a cablegram from La Dépêche to United Press around that time: his 6:30 pm one which, he told Phil Simms, was “a little item re Brest being the first city in France to get the news”. And he did send a cablegram reporting that the armistice news was “unconfirmable”, though not until much later that evening.
Howard’s reasons for misreporting what happened
Howard had obviously not made a mistake about the orderly bringing him the message during the dinner, about going straight to La Dépêche to send the message off, or about the sequence in which he sent the two cablegrams. He misreported these events in order to support claims made initially on 8 November by Bill Hawkins at the New York City office, claims that his “unconfirmable” dispatch was his second cablegram and was held up by American censors until the following day, thereby delaying United Press’s withdrawal of the armistice news for many hours. [See Addendum for more details.]
Howard offered a slightly different version of the evening’s events in his 9 November letter to Phil Simms. Here he gave the impression that – after dinner, in La Dépêche – he learnt that the armistice-news denial had come from the French, and had then spent the evening alone trying to find out what was going on. He also unwittingly offered some idea of when during the evening he sent his third cablegram with its ‘unconfirmed’ message.
“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 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 “kill” his armistice cablegram or, if not, the American censors in New York City would “snag it”. He nevertheless sent another cablegram saying that “Admiral Wilson who had given the first news out had now stated that the report was unconfirmed”.
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.
[Letter to Phil Simms, 9 November 1918, p3. Howard Papers.]
Similarly, in a cablegram to Hawkins at United Press in New York City, he stated that while the celebrations in Brest were at their “height” he was told that “French Army Officers” had questioned the accuracy of the armistice news. He went to check with Admiral Wilson:
“IMMEDIATELY SOUGHT WILSON FOUND HE HAD RECEIVED WORD HIS ORIGINAL BULLETIN ?” [had been questioned.]
[15/17, in the collection at 25 April 1957. Howard Papers]
He did not say who informed him the French officers were doubtful about the armistice news, where he happened to be when he heard it, or what the time was. Only that he was told so.
From Howard himself, here is clear indication that he sought out Admiral Wilson before he sent his “unconfirmed” cablegram. And a clear implication that he did not act as quickly to send the latter as he claimed in 1936, but delayed doing so until quite late in the evening – until he had finally given up hoping the news might turn out to be true after all. It was an implication Howard seemingly wanted to conceal from readers of his version of events in Webb Miller’s book. But where do his references to French denials of a 7 November armistice fit into the broader story?
French denials of the armistice news
Howard’s two November 1918 references to French officers and the armistice news seem to be the only ones he made. And there are no similar references in Hornblow’s articles.
Fred Cook, on the other hand, described in his November 1925 feature 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.
Colonel Laureau reported the matter to his superiors in Paris the next day. He stated that around 5:30 pm on 7 November the Brest Maritime Prefect’s Headquarters contacted him 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, who eventually decided to contact the American authorities about the news. Around 9:00 pm – three and a half hours later – these informed Harries that no German armistice had yet been concluded. 10
Fred Cook, this suggests, was at the Army Base at 5:30 pm (having earlier left Navy Headquarters without Howard). Where Hornblow and Howard were when Laureau announced his news is not certain: neither reported the event in their accounts. But from what is in their accounts, Howard could either have been with Cook at the time, with Hornblow in his office at the Army Base, still at the telegraph in the La Dépêche building, or at the Continental Hotel waiting to go to dinner.
In the event, it was probably this French intervention that shaped the rest of Howard’s and Hornblow’s evening. For the message the Signal Corps orderly handed to Hornblow in the Brasserie de la Marine is more likely to have been the reply to General Harries’ enquiry, prompted by Colonel Laureau’s denial of the armistice news, than a reply to the enquiry Hornblow claimed he had made not long after 4:30 pm to G-2 in Paris. And therefore the one that induced them to leave the restaurant (sometime after 9:00 pm it would seem) to find Admiral Wilson and ask him whether he knew anything about it.
Admiral Wilson’s papers confirm what Howard wrote about interrupting his dinner. He was at the house of a French admiral at the time and had himself already received a wire from Paris cancelling the armistice news, though he seems not to have released this information to the town. He may also have already known about Colonel Laureau’s news when Howard located him. 8
It is worth noting here that, over thirty years later, Donald L. Stone, the principal US Army Press Censor in Paris in November 1918 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
Thursday 7 November: Remainder of the evening
There is nothing in Howard’s or Wilson’s records to help ascertain at what time in the evening Howard turned up at the French admiral’s house. But after speaking to Admiral Wilson there, Howard returned to La Dépêche to communicate with his New York City and Paris offices.
In his third cablegram for Hawkins that day, Howard finally withdrew his afternoon armistice bulletin. The handwritten draft of it reads (without its crossings-out):
“Urgent Unipress New York 10:50 PM Thursday
Brest Admiral Wilson who ANNOUNCED to Brest newspaper 16:00 Armistice been signed later notified ANNOUNCEMENT unconfirmable meanwhile Brest riotously CELEBRATING HAWKINS DID MY ORIGINAL BULLETIN ANNOUNCING ARMISTICE REACH YOU HOWARD SIMMS”
It would seem from the layout that Howard either sent the message to Simms in Paris for him to relay it to Hawkins, or sent it from Brest with Simms’ name again attached as the sender.
A separate message, five minutes later according to the time shown on its handwritten draft, is addressed unambiguously to Simms. It names Captain Jackson as the sender of the false armistice news:
“SIMMS UNIPRESS PARIS 10 55 PM Thursday
ADMIRAL WILSONS INFORMATION [CAME] FROM CAPTAIN JACKSON AMERICAN NAVAL ATTACHE PARIS SUGGEST YOU PHONE HIM UNABLE SAY WHETHER MY FLASH REACHED HAWKINS”
[9 and 10/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
Howard wrote in his 1936 memoir that by midnight on the 7th he knew from the Paris office that people across America were celebrating but did not know his “correcting message” had “not gotten through”. [p89] But he was referring there to the ‘armistice unconfirmed’ message he misstated he had sent around 6:30 pm, not to the actual 10:50 pm ‘unconfirmed’ message above.
How much time elapsed between Howard’s leaving the French admiral’s house and his filing the ‘unconfirmed’ news at 10:50 pm is not known. If, as he claimed, the La Dépêche telegraph link to Paris was suspended for part of Thursday evening “for censorship reasons”, he may have had to delay sending it until after the link was restored. Also, the cablegram, unlike its two predecessors, was given a Brest dateline, and would have been processed by the Post Office censors before being passed. How long this took is not known, nor therefore is the time it was actually transmitted.
As for the ‘Captain Jackson’ telegram, whether Phil Simms ‘phoned Jackson about the armistice bulletin is not known, but it seems unlikely that Jackson would have agreed to discuss the matter with him, or any other newspaperman.
What appears to be the last message Howard received from the Paris office on Thursday evening was another from de Gandt. It was concerned with the wireless messages to Marshal Foch at Senlis from German Headquarters in Spa.
De Gandt stated that he had “flashed” reports [not clear to whom; New York logically] about the progress of the German armistice delegates: first, “THE LAST GERMAN WIRELESS ANNOUNCING DELEGATION WOULD ONLY CROSS LINE BETWEEN 8 AND 10 PM”, followed by the ones sent beforehand. He closed by asking Howard whether he had “ANYTHING ELSE TO SAY FOR TODAY”.
[11/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
No time is shown for when de Gandt sent the message. A pencil annotation, “about 11 PM Thursday”, presumably indicates when Howard received it. Judging by its contents, it was a late-evening telegram – news about the Spa-Senlis messages was not officially released in Paris until 9:00 pm. A telegram containing details about the messages was sent to President Wilson by Special Representative Edward House at 11 pm on 7 November; the French newspapers reported the messages and the arrival of the German delegation the following day. 1a) b)
Between Howard’s 6:30 pm “confirmatory Brest bulletin” and the “about 11:00 pm” de Gandt message, around four and a half hours therefore elapsed, during which time his interrupted dinner with Hornblow, the search for Admiral Wilson, and his return to La Dépêche and its Paris telegraph all occurred.
At the UP New York City office
Meanwhile in New York by midnight on 7 November, Hawkins had only received Howard’s first two armistice cablegrams, each of which carried a Paris dateline. And United Press was facing a torrent of condemnation over the release of the first one – the armistice cablegram itself. Believing the news had come from the Paris office, had been sent by Howard and Simms and passed by the French censors, Hawkins refused to retract it even after the State Department announced during the afternoon that no armistice with Germany had been concluded, and the war therefore had not ended. In answer to a midnight telephone call to the office about the accuracy of the armistice news, he made the following statement:
“We stand absolutely on that dispatch [from Howard]. It is authoritative. We haven’t the slightest doubt of its accuracy. It was passed by the French censor and the American censor. It was signed by Mr. Howard and Mr. Simms, two responsible newspaper men. It was transmitted in perfectly plain English and there is no doubt about what it said. The event will show that it is correct.”
Earlier that evening he had announced that “a cable message had been received telling of a celebration of the signing of the armistice at Brest” (Howard’s second one) which United Press regarded as confirmation of “the accuracy of the [first] message from Mr. Howard and Mr. Simms”. Therefore, Hawkins insisted, until the news they had sent was proved beyond doubt to be wrong, United Press would not withdraw it: “it is inconceivable that they could be misled in a matter so important as this”. United Press was “standing pat” on all its published reports. 12
FRIDAY 8 NOVEMBER and SATURDAY 9 NOVEMBER 1918
Managing UP’s False Armistice Crisis
Generally overlooked or ignored in accounts of Roy Howard’s eventful time in Brest, Friday 8 and Saturday 9 November are integral to the broader story. They were critical days, when he and United Press found themselves confronted by the consequences of the armistice cablegram. As it turned out, Fred Ferguson at the Paris office, Bill Hawkins at the New York City office, and Howard in Brest managed the crisis entirely successfully, though not without some misrepresentations. 25
As follows, Friday’s events are arranged during the morning, afternoon and evening parts of the day.
Friday 8th November: Morning
Alarming news from Paris and New York City.
In a somewhat ambiguous late morning message from Paris, Fred Ferguson told Howard “YOUR CABLE REACHED HAWKINS”, and the censor called “SMORNING INQUIRING UPON RECEIPT MESSAGE EXHAWKINS ANNOUNCING ARRIVAL”. He urged Howard as a matter of “OBVIOUS IMPORTANTEST” to “GET QUICKEST EXPLANATION SOME SORT NEWYORK ALSO TO CENSORS”. And warned “SERIOUS EMBARRASSMENTS POSSIBLE HERE [in Paris]”.
Ferguson signed off with “APPRECIATE ANY SUGGESTION”.
A pencil annotation “Friday Nov 8 10 AM” presumably shows the time Howard received the message.
[13/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
Ferguson had answered Howard’s question about whether his armistice cablegram had cleared to Hawkins the previous day, information perhaps obtained at this stage from the (French) censors he was alluding to or from Hawkins himself. They were asking obvious questions about how Howard’s armistice cablegram had been able to reach New York from Paris. Thus, an “explanation [of] some sort” from Howard was urgently needed to help Hawkins and Ferguson deal with worrying situations developing in both New York and Paris for United Press.
Howard replied with just the bare details of where his armistice bulletin had come from:
“[A] MESSAGE SUPPOSEDLY OFFICIAL RECEIVED HERE BY AMERICAN ADMIRAL WILSON AND COMMUNICATED TO LOCAL NEWSPAPER AND TO ME”.
He suggested that the Paris censor should have his “LOCAL REPRESENTATIVE SEE ADMIRAL WILSON HERE HE IS NOT EXCITED AND IS READY TO EXPLAIN TO ANYONE INQUIRING HE SENT HIS AID WITH ME YESTERDAY TO FILE MY BULLETIN”.
He asked Ferguson to clarify whether the censor he mentioned had visited the Paris or the New York City office. And repeated his earlier question – “Did Hawkins publish?”. [Ferguson stated above that the message had reached Hawkins.]
[7/17. (8 November 1918 date verified from the contents). In the collection at 25 April 1957. Howard Papers]
There is nothing to suggest at what time this telegram left for Paris, but as its contents clearly relate to the “Friday Nov 8 10 AM” message from Ferguson, Howard must have filed it sometime after 10:00 am.
It contains the first of Howard’s recorded comments about receiving some assistance from Admiral Wilson and his aide Ensign Sellards with the armistice cablegram – namely that Sellards was sent with him “to file” the bulletin. But there is very little about what had taken place in Brest the previous day which the New York City office could use, or which might satisfy the censors.
A response arrived from Ferguson at “11 AM Friday Nov 8” (pencil annotation).
In answer to Howard’s questions and quoting details apparently received from Hawkins, Ferguson now stated that the “STORY PUBLISHED AMERICA FROM NOON ON CELEBRATIONS COUNTRYWIDE”, and that he had “SEEN CENSORS HERE” [in Paris]. He informed Howard that the censor would be “CALLING WILSON AT BREST”, that the State Department “HAS ASKED [FOR AN] EXPLANATION”, but that he believed “CIRCUMSTANCES WILL SAVE SITUATION”. [See ‘The State Department and Howard’s armistice cablegram’, further below.]
However, “OUR POSITION”, Ferguson warned, was “CRITICALIST AT HOME”, and advised Howard “EXTREMELY IMPORTANT YOU FILE FORMAL STATEMENT URGENT TO NEW YORK USING ADMIRAL WILSONS NAME IF POSSIBLE”. Meanwhile, he and Phil Simms, feeling it was “ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE”, had told Hawkins in New York that “HOWARDS MESSAGE FILED EXBREST WHERE AWAITING HOMEBOUND STEAMER FLASH BASED WHAT CONSIDERED UNIMPEACHABLE AUTHORITY BUT WHOSE INFORMATION PROVED PREMATURE”.
They had sent this, he explained, not only for whatever use Hawkins might make of it, but also “TO REASSURE CENSORS HERE” [on reading the message before clearing it for transmission] who suspected them of “USING CODE” [presumably to get the armistice bulletin through] thus “ENDANGERING OUR ENTIRE STANDING”. And he intimated that more details to them and Hawkins about what had happened in Brest were needed – “BELIEVE QUICK STATEMENT THROUGH BOURSE TO US IMPORTANT ADDITION STATEMENT NEWYORK”.
[14*/34 and 17*/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers. Although separated in this collection, these two forms are in sequence as “76” and “77” according to pencil annotations, and are treated as such here.]
Five minutes later, a note, cutting straight to the point, arrived indirectly from Phil Simms. Short and decisive, it told Howard that Simms “BELIEVES STATEMENT EXADMIRAL CLEARING US RUSHED TO NEWYORK FOR PUBLICATION WILL DO MOREN ANYTHING ELSE SQUARE US WITH PUBLISHERS”. “11 05 AM Friday” (pencil annotation)
[18/34. To Howard from (it seems) “Taylor” (a UP reporter just returned from the Front). In the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
Just before midday Howard sent an “urgent” message to the New York City office. On a US Army Signal Corps telegram form, he stated:
“ARMISTICE BULLETIN BASED LOCAL ANNOUNCEMENT ADMIRAL WILSON ADMIRAL SUPPOSING OFFICIAL WAS FILED WITH ADMIRALS APPROVAL LOCAL NEWSPAPER BULLETINED BREST CELEBRATED NIGHTLONG DID UNIPRESS PUBLISH”
[8 November 1918 to Unipress (item 1). Howard Papers.]
According to handwritten details on a copy of it, the message was filed at 11:55 am and cleared the censors at 1:30 pm French time. (It arrived at 11:30 am, New York time – three hours later.)
This really provided Hawkins with little more than Ferguson and Simms had sent out to him earlier that morning. And in spite of what Ferguson had already told him, Howard asked Hawkins himself (again) whether he had published the armistice news. Perhaps Howard was still not convinced it was his false armistice story that had been published in America the previous day.
However, not long afterwards, Howard acted on Simms’ suggestion that “STATEMENT EXADMIRAL CLEARING US RUSHED TO NEWYORK FOR PUBLICATION WILL DO MOREN ANYTHING ELSE SQUARE US WITH PUBLISHERS”. For he went to see Admiral Wilson, told him what was happening in the United States because of UP’s distribution of the false armistice news, and asked for his help.
Friday 8th November: Afternoon
Lifeline from Admiral Wilson.
Howard “explained the situation” to Wilson who 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.
[Howard 1936, p89]
In fact, Wilson signed a declaration completely exonerating Howard and United Press from any blame for the false armistice news. Sent in separate telegrams to Hawkins and Ferguson, it read:
“Admiral Wilson today made following statement for information of United Press editors quote The statement of the United Press relative to signing of the Armistice was made public from my office on basis of what appeared to be official and authoritative information. Am in position to know that the United Press and its representative acted in perfect good faith and that premature announcement was result of an error for which agency was in no wise responsible unquote”
[8 November 1918. To Unipress New York Urgent Rate (item 2). And 9/17 to Ferguson Unipress Paris, in the collection at 25 April 1957. Howard Papers.]
As Arthur Hornblow commented in ‘Fake’ and ‘Amazing Armistice’: “The blackest of black skies cleared considerably for Howard … when Admiral Wilson, every inch the gentleman and the man, took upon his own shoulders complete responsibility for Howard’s fateful cable”. [p14; p97 respectively.]
Some uncertainty about when Howard dispatched Wilson’s statement.
Written in pencil on the copy of the statement sent to Hawkins is “3 20 PM Nov 8 18” – presumably noting the time in Brest when Howard filed it. This and the time-annotations (between 10:00 am and midday) on the preceding telegrams between Brest, Paris and New York City logically indicate that Howard dispatched Wilson’s statement after his morning ones and must have obtained it from the Admiral sometime during the afternoon of Friday 8 November. Moreover, Howard told Simms on 9 November that when he “had the wire from Paris that the stuff had gotten through and been printed”, he felt “there was nothing to do except put it up to Wilson”. The wire referred to here sounds like the Ferguson reply to Howard, received at 11:00 am, that his armistice news had been “PUBLISHED AMERICA FROM NOON ON CELEBRATIONS COUNTRYWIDE”, after which he prepared his 11:55 am “Urgent” message to New York City with its bare details about the news having been released by Admiral Wilson in Brest.
However, according to Admiral Wilson, Howard had asked him the previous evening, when they spoke at the French admiral’s house, whether he could help “set him straight with the editors” over his armistice cablegram. Wilson said he told Howard to see him the following morning at 9:00 am, that Howard arrived on time, and that after some discussion Howard himself wrote out the statement. The Admiral explained that he agreed to sign the statement because it was accurate and because Howard assured him it would not be published but used only to show United Press editors Howard had not acted improperly. 8
In his 1936 memoir, Howard said nothing about having arranged on Thursday evening to see Wilson the following day, only that he went to his office before “ten o’clock on the morning of the eighth”.
As it seems most unlikely that Howard would have delayed sending the Admiral’s exonerating statement for several hours after obtaining it at an alleged morning meeting, in the absence of evidence that Howard actually did delay its transmission, it is therefore assumed here that Wilson’s and Howard’s claims about a morning meeting – pre-arranged according to Wilson – are misstated. This may be because the claims fitted better into their respective narratives. Or because of some later confusion over meetings that day. For it seems that during the morning of 8 November, Admiral Wilson sent his Assistant Chief of Staff, M. S. Tisdale, to question Howard about the armistice cablegram. Tisdale was also the US Navy Censor in Brest and asked Howard – without obtaining “any satisfactory explanation” – who had approved the release of the cablegram and how it had passed the censors. The meeting between Howard and the Admiral occurred later, after Howard’s interview with Tisdale. 8
It is also assumed here that Howard actually sent Wilson’s statement to New York City before the 3:20 pm annotation on it suggests. Apparently almost immediately after filing the statement to Hawkins, Howard wired the separate copy to Paris: “I HAVE JUST SENT THE FOLLOWING URGENT TO NEWYORK”, he opened the telegram to Fred Ferguson.
“JUST SENT” can be taken to mean that Howard was writing his copy to Ferguson soon after 3:20 pm – the time pencilled on the copy he sent to New York. Confusingly, however, on the statement to Ferguson is the pencil annotation “Friday Nov 8, 1918 2:30 PM”, which would mean that the statement to Hawkins went before 2:30 pm, not at 3:20 pm. As Howard sent a follow-on note to Ferguson in Paris with a 2:35 pm annotation, instructing him to show Admiral Wilson’s statement to Special Representative House, on the basis of these timings the assumption here is that he forwarded Wilson’s statement to both the New York City and Paris offices around 2:30 pm. By this reasoning, therefore, Howard’s crucial meeting with Admiral Howard took place sometime after midday and before 2:30 pm. “3:20 pm” was perhaps a slip-of-the-pencil, an inadvertent reversal of the digits.
Howard sent the statement “Urgent Rate” to the New York City office. It arrived at 1:10 pm their time. Hawkins “broadcasted” it and by 3:00 pm “all agencies” carried it.
[Telegrams 5-6/17, in the collection at 25 April 1957; and in 26/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
Some afternoon and evening papers were able to publish it the same day. 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”). 13
Among the many non-United Press subscribers outraged by the release of the armistice news, the New York Times commented accusingly 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”. More bluntly, the Oklahoma Daily Ardmoreite’s heading for its feature on the statement accused United Press of “Making Admiral Wilson the [Scape] Goat”. 14 But hostile comments such as these were unfair. There was no attempt to blame Wilson for circulating the false armistice news. On the contrary, in his press bulletin releasing the Admiral’s statement Hawkins insisted that, supposing the armistice news to be official, “Admiral Wilson acted in good faith” when he allowed it to be announced in Brest and approved Howard’s “filing of the message to The United Press in New York”.
On the other hand, Hawkins involved the US government in the affair by claiming they had “badly delayed” releasing Howard’s ‘unconfirmable’ cablegram, and thereby allowed the false news many more hours to spread across the country than would otherwise have been the case. This is the claim Howard repeated and justified at length in his 1936 memoir. (See Addendum)
The Admiral’s statement rescued United Press. Rivals, mostly but not exclusively the Associated Press (AP), vilified Howard and his agency, accusing them, above all, of egregious unprofessionalism in concocting what some labelled “fake” news and others characterized as “the greatest hoax of recent years”. 15
Howard described their attacks in lucid detail:
“Indignation burned like a brush fire in the columns of those virtuous paragons of American journalism which had not printed the report. According to most of their editors, the United Press was a nefarious, soulless outfit, trafficking with the emotions of American patriots; the government should suppress it; its officers should be jailed; it should be made to pay the bill for cleaning up the New York city streets and restoring all the ash and garbage cans which had been commandeered for noise-making. Similarly, the newspapers which had printed the dispatch, including many of the most reputable publications in the country, were co-conspirators. They had printed the false report to increase circulation; they had deliberately hoaxed their readers; they should be boycotted by both readers and advertisers.
Howard was a traitor to his country and to his profession. He was the greatest faker in the long annals of journalism. He had known that the report could not possibly have been true. Being in uniform and an accredited war correspondent, he was subject to military authority and should be handled without mercy. Nothing that Admiral Wilson had said should be accepted in mitigation, even though he was conceded to be a very gallant gentleman, and though he had given the United Press a clear bill of health and had in turn been completely absolved by his superiors.”
[Howard 1936, pp91-92]
Publication of Admiral Wilson’s statement effectively ended the lambasting (more quickly than Howard’s last sentence may suggest). It was an affirmation of UP’s innocence, and a decisive rebuttal of the potentially hugely damaging accusations levelled against them. Howard was deeply grateful.
And yet, on the same day that Wilson signed the statement, reports (not publicised at the time or for many years later) were sent to the State Department claiming that, the previous day, the Admiral had acted to make sure Howard’s armistice cablegram was cleared for transmission to the United States from Brest by the local censors. The allegation arose from the details about the Admiral which Howard had telegraphed to the Paris office before midday on the 8th (above).
The State Department and Howard’s armistice cablegram
Unaware that the false peace news had been sent from Brest, Secretary of State Lansing presumed the United Press office in Paris had indulged in some sharp practice to get it out of France to the United States. He asked both Special Representative House and the Ambassador in Paris, William Sharp, to find out, and report to him, what had happened. As Fred Ferguson told Howard in his long “11 AM Friday Nov 8” message (above), the State Department “HAS ASKED [FOR AN] EXPLANATION”.
Lansing cabled to William Sharp:
“United Press [in New York City] received telegram today [7 November] before 1 p.m. announcing armistice had been signed. Telegram published at once and greatest excitement and enthusiasm prevails. This Department and War Department have been informed no foundation for story. Please find out why censor passed this report as the incident is most unfortunate.”
At the same time, a separate cable, its message less restrained, was sent to House:
“United Press received telegram this morning which was published at once announcing armistice had been signed. Later information from War Department and from you is that there is no foundation for report …. The effect of publication of news naturally has created tremendous excitement. People marching through streets cheering peace. If as you report there is no foundation for report, it would seem a grave error has been made by censor in permitting this message to pass and that the United Press has been guilty of reckless news work. Please have Embassy investigate and report how United Press has made such a serious mistake.” 6
Both telegrams left the State Department on 7 November at 4 pm. They would therefore have arrived in Paris sometime after 9 pm French time. The reports Sharp and House subsequently sent to Lansing were obviously based on information obtained mostly from United Press staff in Paris and, indirectly therefore, from what Howard told his Paris staff.
Taken together, the reports stated: that Roy Howard, “head of the United Press”, had transmitted the armistice message from Brest; that it was “passed by the American authorities” there; that the American Naval Attaché in Paris had sent the message to Admiral Wilson who then released it to the local press and to Howard; that Howard, “accompanied by one of Admiral Wilson’s aides filed the cable to the United States which was passed by the censor” / “Wilson … sent an aide with him to cable censor so that Howard would be permitted to send through a dispatch stating that the armistice had been signed.”; that “it is perfectly clear … United Press was not at fault in this matter”; and that “the fault if any, lies with Jackson or the French official who started the rumor”.
Before midday on Friday, Ferguson had warned Howard that the Paris censors were “SUSPECTING US [OF] USING CODE” and that UP’s “ENTIRE STANDING” was being endangered. But by early evening, the danger had receded: the censors had been placated, and the agency’s standing with the authorities in Washington, DC, appears to have been safeguarded.
This entirely satisfactory result for Howard and United Press was the work primarily of the Paris office, achieved, the reports to Lansing suggest, by claiming that Admiral Wilson played a key role in the successful transmission of the armistice cablegram from Brest. By the time the reports reached Lansing, Wilson’s statement admitting responsibility for releasing the peace news in Brest and allowing Howard to use it had also arrived and was being published in the newspapers. In the State Department, viewed alongside the reports from House and Sharp, Wilson’s statement may well have been seen as corroboration of the Admiral’s involvement in the transmission of Howard’s cablegram.
At the UP Paris office
Fred Ferguson appears to have handled the cablegram crisis in Paris and spoken for United Press in the enquiries ordered by the State Department. In the “11 05 AM Friday” note from Taylor (just back from the Front) Howard was told that Ferguson would “EXPLAIN MATTER COLONEL HOUSE” – that is, tell House about Wilson’s release of the peace news in Brest and sending an aide with Howard to file his bulletin – the first details Howard gave to Paris and New York City. Later – “2.35 PM” – when Howard had sent a copy of the Admiral’s exonerating statement to Paris, he instructed Ferguson to show it to House and tell him “I WORST SUFFERER ADMIRALS MISINFORMATION [THOUGH] REALIZE ADMIRAL ALSON VICTIM”. [“Friday Nov 8 1918 2:35 PM” pencil annotation. Number 21/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
It was Ferguson, therefore, who effectively resolved the crisis during the following four hours, as two telegrams from him outlined to Howard.
In the first of these, he related that House had remarked to him that he already knew United Press was not responsible for the false news, because the US Embassy had released “IDENTICAL STUFF” on 7 November to that in Howard’s cablegram. House claimed they tried unsuccessfully to make him believe the news. The Embassy, Ferguson commented, was “IN VERY BAD WILL WRITE DETAILS”; “AM KEEPING CLEAR AWAY”.
Regarding the censors, he was able to assure Howard “EVERYTHING ALRIGHT WITH CENSORSHIP NOW NOBODY IN AUTHORITY [in Paris presumably] BLAMING US”. But it was still urgently necessary to “SET WASHINGTON STRAIGHT”. He had spoken to House’s son-in-law, Gordon Auchincloss, and “impressed” upon him “IMPERATIVE BLAME BE PUT WHERE BELONGS”. Auchincloss told him he would send a “STATEMENT POLK [Frank Polk, a State Department counsellor] TONIGHT IN WHICH ASSURED ME ABSOLUTE JUSTICE BE DONE”. If Admiral Wilson could send a message to Washington, DC, “MIGHT HELP ADDITIONALLY”, Ferguson advised.
[“Friday, Nov 8, 1918 3:15” pencil annotation. Number 22/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
The following note from Howard to Ferguson may have been sent in reply to the above and before Ferguson’s next telegram (judging from its contents):
“THANKS THINK YOU HAVE HANDLED THINGS WELL … PLEASE MAIL TONIGHT COPIES ALL HAWKINS WIRES ALSON MEMO RE HOUSES ATTITUDE ASK HOUSE IF HE WOULD PREFER I RETURN TO PARIS BEFORE SAILING SUGGEST YOU WIRE HAWKINS WATCH WASHINGTON”.
[No date or suggestion of a transmission/receipt time. Only a signed annotation in French reading ”Recu à 18.25” (received at 6:25 pm.) 17/17 in the collection at 25 April 1957. Howard Papers.]
Ferguson sent more good news in his next telegram:
Auchincloss had now dispatched his message to Polk in Washington, DC, – “COMPLETELY EXONERATES US … SAYS IN EFFECT WE WARRANTED SENDING NEWS ON BASIS INFORMATION – and “TAKES VIEW WE SHOULD COME OUT SCRAMBLE STRONGERN BEFORE”. Ferguson added that he was “CABLING HAWKINS WATCH FOR POLK CABLE”.
Meanwhile, an investigation at the US Embassy in Paris had cleared it of “FIRST SUSPICIONS”, but of course, Ferguson remarked, “YOU KNOW WHO WILSON GOT MESSAGE FROM”.
[“Friday, Nov 8, 1918 6 30 PM” pencil annotation. Number 23/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers.]
It is not certain from Ferguson’s telegrams what actually transpired in Paris, what was done or said to dispel the censors’ suspicions about Howard’s armistice cablegram, or what discussions took place with House and Auchincloss for the report House sent to Secretary of State Lansing. But from the telegrams Howard sent to Paris on 8 November, it seems the claim that Admiral Wilson helped make sure the censors in Brest allowed the cablegram to be transmitted did not come from him. It is possible Howard discussed matters with Ferguson by telephone. Ambassador Sharp’s report says he did, but it states only that Howard “accompanied by one of Admiral Wilson’s aides filed the cable to the United States which was passed by the censor”. The explicit claim that the Admiral “sent an aide with him to cable censor so that Howard would be permitted to send through a dispatch stating that the armistice had been signed” was in House’s report.
In his 8 November telegrams, Howard did not attempt to explain how or why his armistice cablegram was able to leave Brest (with or without the permission of the local censors). But his statement that Admiral Wilson assigned one of his aides to help him file the cablegram could easily be taken as implying that the Admiral used his authority to influence the censors to pass the cablegram, which offered a feasible explanation.
Regardless, however, of whether Howard was complicit in this story in November 1918, he certainly endorsed it publicly in his 1936 memoir, three years after the House and Sharp reports were published.
Before Howard left Brest, Ferguson telegraphed to wish him ‘bon voyage’. He assured him that although it had “BEEN SOME BATTLE HERE” United Press “WIN BY AMILE”. And in signing off, he noted that “HOUSE WRITING LETTER APPRECIATION ADMIRAL WILSON”. [Which Wilson subsequently received. 8]
[No date or time shown. Perhaps Saturday 9 November. 16/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers.]
Probably not very long after reading Ferguson’s encouraging “Friday, Nov 8, 1918 6 30 PM” telegram above, alarming details reached Howard from Hawkins about what was happening in America. Hawkins had sent them to Paris (where he assumed Howard still was) at 12:30 pm (5:30 pm French time). The Paris office relayed the details in a separate telegram it must have sent to Howard sometime after 5:30 pm, painting a stark picture of the impact the armistice cablegram had had in the United States, the crisis it had created for Hawkins, and the serious consequences that threatened United Press.
Hawkins began by informing Howard that his “ORIGINAL PARIS FLASH” had been received at midday (local time) on the 7th and was “PUBLISHED EVERYWHERE EXACTLY AS SENT”; that his “CONFIRMATORY BREST BULLETIN”, transmitted at 6:30 pm French time, had arrived at 2:40 pm. Nothing more, however, had arrived until 11:30 am that morning (Friday 8th) when he received “FIRST REFERENCE ADMIRAL WILSON OR UNCONFIRMABLE” together with “YOUR BREST MESSAGE STATING ADMIRAL APPROVED FILING”. [The former was the “10:50 PM Thursday” one from Howard, the latter his Friday morning 11.55 AM one sent (on Army Signal Corps form) before he filed a copy of Admiral Wilson’s “statement for information of United Press editors” to Hawkins.]
United Press was “CARRYING FULL EXPLANATION QUOTING YOUR MESSAGES”, Hawkins continued, but he urgently needed “FULLEST POSSIBLE STATEMENT FOR PUBLICATION FACT THAT [YOUR] CABLES RECEIVED EXPARIS [from Paris]”. And then, without mincing words, told him why:
“[YOUR] ANNOUNCEMENT YESTERDAY CAUSE[D] GREATEST DEMONSTRATION AMERICAN HISTORY DAYLONG NIGHTLONG OPPOSITION SERVICES PAPERS ATTACKING UNIPRESS VICIOUSLY … WE STOOD PAT UNTIL OFFICIAL COMMINIQUES FRIDAY SHOWED FIGHTING CONTINUING IMPOSSIBLE OVERESTIMATE SERIOUSNESS INCIDENT WHICH UNPARALLELLED ALL NEWSPAPER HISTORY IN TREMENDOUS EFFECT PUBLIC”.
[24-25/34 in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers. The Paris office also forwarded Hawkins’ cablegrams themselves; they arrived in Brest on Saturday 9 November – 2-3/17 in the collection at 25 April 1957.]
Hawkins sent three more messages – much shorter ones – before Friday was over: one to acknowledge the receipt and release of Admiral Wilson’s statement; the next to report that “all agencies” were carrying it; and the last asking when Howard would be returning to America. [4-6/17 and 26/34]
By the time Howard had received all three, also via Paris, it would have been well after 8:00 pm in France but still mid-to-late afternoon in New York. So although it meant leaving Hawkins for many more hours without the information he requested, Howard apparently put off sending any replies until the following day, giving himself time to prepare a lengthy response.
Saturday 9 November
Hitting Back At The Competitors
[No times are indicated on any of the following telegrams to indicate when during Saturday they were sent or received in New York City, Paris or Brest.]
Howard replied to Hawkins in two cablegrams which went first to Phil Simms in Paris with instructions to forward their contents “urgent rate” to New York City.
In the first, Howard provided details of what had happened in Brest on Thursday afternoon for release to the New York Times and other newspapers.
Admiral Wilson’s 8 November statement “TELLS WHOLE STORY”, Hawkins was to assure them while explaining that:
“ADMIRAL GAVE TO ME PERSONNALLY AND TO BREST PAPER WITH PERMISSION TO BOTH OF US TO PRINT A BULLETIN STATING THAT ARMISTICE BEEN SIGNED AT 11 AM HOSTILITIES HAD CEASED AT TWO PM AND THAT AMERICAN HAD TAKEN SEDAN UPON THE ADMIRALS ASSURANCE THAT THE INFORMATION WAS OFFICIAL AND FULLY AUTHENTICATED I FILED A VERBATUM COPY OF HIS BULLETIN THIS WAS FILED IN THE REGULAR MANNER IN PLAIN ENGLISH AT THE BREST POST OFFICE TO BE PASSED ON BY THE FRENCH CENSORS HERE
I WAS TOLD YESTERDAY [8th] 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 NEWYORK
I AM PERSONALLY CONVINCED THAT ADMIRAL WILSON WAS ASSURED THAT THE BULLETIN HE MADE PUBLIC WAS OFFICIAL AND THAT HE ACTED IN ABSOLUTE GOOD FAITH I HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ADMIRALS MISINFORMATION MY OWN PART WAS MERELY THAT OF A NEWSPAPERMAN AT THE END OF A CABLE RECIVING FROM A BASE COMMANDER WHAT I WAS ASSURED AND HAD EVERY REASON TO BELIEVE WAS AN OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT OF AN ARMISTICE I MADE USE OF THE SUPPOSEDLY OFFICIAL INFORMATION ONLY AFTER REQUESTING AND RECEIVING SPECIAL PERMISSION TO DO SO”
[11-12/17 in the collection at 25 April 1957. Howard Papers.]
In the second telegram, which followed immediately afterwards, Howard responded to Hawkins’ request for an explanation for the press as to why his armistice cablegrams “RECEIVED EXPARIS” – that is, carried a Paris dateline.
Ferguson had already suggested what Howard should say on this particular point (the previous day in his relay of Hawkins’ messages): “SHOULD BE MADE CLEAR EVERYTHING FILED FROM BREST UNFORTUNATE WAS DATED PARIS BUT WELL HAVE ACCEPT THIS MISTAKE EXPLAINING THIS DUE CABLES BEING SIGNED SIMMS OWING HIM HAVING FILING PRIVILEGES”.
[In 26/34. In the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
Howard told Hawkins:
“UNIPRESS DISPATCH WAS CABLED FROM BREST DIRECTLY NEW YORKWARD MESSAGE CONTAINED BOTH MY OWN SIMMS SIGNATURE LATTER BECAUSE COLLECT CABLE PRIVILEGE REPOSES SIMMS NAME STOP UNDERSTAND DOUBLE SIGNATURE CAUSED CONFUSION NEWYORK CREATING ERRONEOUS IMPRESSION MATTER FILED PARIS STOP SIMMS PARIS OFFICE UNINVOLVED STOP”
And ended with an uncompromising combative statement holding a clear warning to UP’s competitors. It represents Howard’s personal response to the uproar in the American newspapers over his false armistice message:
“CABLES RECEIVED INDICATE INCLINATION INTERSTED PARTIES CAPITALIZ FOR PERSONAL ENDS INCIDENT WHEREOF UNIPRESS UNFORTUNATELY VICTIM STOP SERVE NOTICE EVERY ACTION UNIPRESS MATTER OFFICIAL RECORD OUR HANDS CLEAN [later amended to “ABSOLUTELY CLEAN”] ALL OFFICIALS DIRECTLY CONCERNED ABSOLUTELY ABSOLVED UNIPRESS RESPONSIBILITY WILL TAKE ANY STEPS NECESSARY PROTECT REPUTATION AT HOME UNQUOTE HOWARD”.
[13/17 in the collection at 25 April 1957. Howard Papers.]
In the first telegram, then, some considerate words in support of Admiral Wilson and the position he found himself in as a result of releasing the peace news on the 7th; nothing about an aide helping Howard with the bulletin, about the armistice cablegram’s composition in La Dépêche, or about its overall appearance of having been sent from and already censored in Paris. Just a note alleging that it was not seen by the local censors until two hours after it was transmitted.
In the second, a claim that people in New York – censors presumably – assumed the cablegram had been sent from Paris because it had his and Simms’ name on it (which still did not explain why it actually left Brest with a Paris dateline). And a defiant, clear warning directed at UP’s detractors.
In supplementary cablegrams, he added for Hawkins’ information that “WHILE BREST DEMONSTRATION HEIGHT LEARNED FRENCH ARMY OFFICERS BREST QUESTIONED ACCURACY REPORT IMMEDIATELY SOUGHT WILSON FOUND HE HAD RECEIVED WORD HIS ORIGINAL BULLETIN ?” And that, unless advised otherwise, he proposed to leave for America on Monday [11th]. [He actually left on Sunday 10th]
[14-15/17 in the collection at 25 April 1957. Howard Papers.]
Hawkins issued a new press statement reinforcing UP’s defence against its accusers. It contained new details from these Saturday telegrams and reiterated ones from his statement the previous day. And it concluded with Howard’s powerful warning to rivals: “I will take any steps necessary to protect our reputation at home”. 16
The bulletin evidently had the desired effect, for Hawkins reported jubilantly: “YOUR FINE SATURDAY STATEMENT EFFECTUALLY ENDS ARGUMENT … OUR ENEMIES … NOW REALISE THEY SQUAWKED OVERQUICKLY… INCIDENT ONLY SERVE CEMENT REAL FRIENDS CLOSER REVEAL HYPOCRITES ALTOGETHER RESULT HEALTHY CLARIFYCATION ATMOSPHERE MORALE WHOLE ORGANISATION HIGHEST NEVER WAVERED ASIDE BUSINESS ….”
[15/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers. No date or times shown, may be Saturday 9 or Sunday 10 November.]
Probably later on in the day, probably, Howard finally sent a telegram to Captain Stone, the American Military Censor at the Bourse in Paris, about his three 7 November armistice cablegrams, which Fred Ferguson had twice prompted him to do. He started with a copy of Admiral Wilson’s 8 November statement, then presented the following information:
“I FILED THREE MESSAGES FROM BREST FIRST A VERBATUM COPY OF ADMIRAL WILSONS BULLETIN STOP I DID NOT DATE THIS BREST AS I SUPPOSED CABLE WOULD CARRY BREST DATELINE WHEN DELIVERED SECOND DESCRIBED STREET SCENE IN BREST FOLLOWING PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT HERE THIRD WAS A CORRECTION STATING ADMIRAL BEEN INFORMED HIS NOTIFICATION WAS NOT OFFICIAL AND NOT CONFIRMED STOP UNIPRESS PARIS OFFICE FILED NOTHING STOP 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”.
[9 November 1918. To Captain Stone. Howard Papers.]
The abrupt ending of the telegram, without Howard’s name to sign it off, suggests there may have been a following sheet which is missing from the collection. If so, perhaps the information it contained explained why Simms’ name was ‘in addition’ to Howard’s – “BECAUSE COLLECT CABLE PRIVILEGE REPOSES SIMMS NAME”.
Shortly before he sent the above to Captain Stone, Howard sent similar details to Ferguson, together with answers to queries Ferguson had raised earlier:
“WILL WIRE STONE IN FEW MINUTES YES I FILED THREE BULLETINS FROM HERE THE ARMISTICE FLASH THE FACT BREST PROBABLY FIRST CITY IN WORLD TO CELEBRATE AND THE CORRECTION AFTER WILSON LEARNED THAT HE HAD BEEN MISINFORMED I SUPPOSED BREST DATE WOULD SHOW ON CABLE IN NEW YORK I DID NOT PUT BREST DATE ON FIRST FLASH BUT DID MENTION BREST IN OTHER TWO CABLES THIS PROBABLY ACCOUNTS FOR HAWKINS REFERENCE TO PARIS FLASH”
[Howard to Ferguson. 9 November. 10/17, in the collection at 25 April 1957. And 27/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918.]
The information in both telegrams is clear about the order in which Howard filed his three armistice cablegrams on 7 November. But it does not explain (to Captain Stone or Ferguson) why the French censors in the Brest Post Office had allowed the first two to be cleared for transmission to the United States.
Perhaps towards the end of the day, Howard found time to type out his long 9 November letter to Phil Simms, containing his earliest account of what had happened in Brest. Understating the torment he must have experienced over his armistice cablegram, Howard told Simms:
“Personally I’m still a bit groggy from this jolt I received here”, and “fully conscious of what it has done to us in America”. “Conservatively speaking” he reckoned “that thing” had probably caused United Press at least “a quarter of a million dollars worth of damage”. But in spite of everything, he confessed that if “the same thing [happened] again today”, he would do exactly as he had done before – “there would be nothing for me or any other newspaper man to do except just what I did”.
[Letter to Phil Simms, 9 November 1918, p1. Howard Papers]
Sunday 10 November
Howard left for the United States on Sunday 10th November aboard the USS Great Northern, the fast troop-transport between Brest and the Port of New York. Major Fred Cook had seen him on Friday in the La Dépêche building, “in touch with Paris by wire, endeavoring to straighten out the muss”, and saw him again on Sunday on board ship just before it departed, “utterly distressed” because of the armistice cablegram. Admiral Wilson, of course, met him again on Friday at Navy Headquarters. Neither Hornblow nor Howard intimated whether they met again before Howard left Brest, though it seems unlikely they would not have done so.
The following day, the ship’s radio picked up the official broadcast to “All Allied Men of War” announcing that an armistice with Germany had been signed and that hostilities should be “forthwith suspended”. Howard kept a copy of it in his papers. [Single item at 11 November 1918.]
He was back in America within nine days; and on 20 November spoke at length to reporters about what had happened in Brest. Much of what he told them is contained in the telegrams he sent and received on 8 and 9 November and in his 9 November letter to Phil Simms. For instance, he stated that the armistice cablegram reached New York “unchallenged” because “all Brest, including operators and censors, accepted the news as official, and was celebrating at the time”. And claimed that Admiral Wilson “sent his personal aid with me to assist me in filing the dispatch, as I do not speak French fluently”. 17 One detail – that the 7 November armistice news was announced at a luncheon in Paris attended by the American Consul-General and Admiral William Benson, US Chief of Naval Operations – came from the United Press office there.
Almost all the information he released on 20 November would be included in his 1936 memoir, augmented by such significant items as the deceptive appearance of the armistice cablegram, and the unambiguous assertion that Admiral Wilson and his aide Ensign Sellards assisted with its transmission from the Post Office.
In spite of Howard’s efforts to vindicate himself and silence detractors, his armistice cablegram remained “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”. 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 its business operations were concerned, however, United Press “amazingly lost only one client” (the Vermont Burlington News) because of the cablegram. So Howard’s gloomy $250,000 “conservative” estimate of the probable False Armistice cost to the agency was over-pessimistic, in the event. 18
The False 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, published at the beginning of his career as an author and playwright, was reviewed in many newspapers, reviving memories of events just three years earlier. It not only contained a great deal of new information, but also offered an intriguing, 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, Howard’s ‘Premature Armistice’ chapter received particular attention in reviews of Webb Miller’s 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 actually signing an armistice with the Allies on 7 November 1918. 21
HOWARD’S 7 NOVEMBER CABLEGRAMS TO HAWKINS, AND EVENING MEETING WITH ADMIRAL WILSON.
The historical evidence is clear:
On 7 November 1918, by his own contemporary account, Howard sent his armistice cablegram to United Press in New York City at 4:18 pm French time; at 6:30 pm, in a second cablegram, he reported that peace celebrations were taking place in Brest; and in a third, sent around 10:50 pm, he cancelled his armistice message because he had subsequently learnt from Admiral Wilson that the news was “unconfirmable”. Admiral Wilson gave him this news sometime after 6:30 pm, when Howard left the Brasserie de la Marine to find him and ask him about reports that the German armistice had not yet been signed.
Bill Hawkins informed Howard at the time that his armistice cablegram reached the United Press office in New York City at midday, local time, on 7 November; that his 6:30 pm (second) cablegram, the “confirmatory Brest bulletin”, was received at 2:40 pm; but that nothing more from him arrived until the following day, Friday 8 November, when, at 11:30 am, Hawkins received the “unconfirmable” cablegram containing a “first reference” to Admiral Wilson. No date or time is given for this cablegram in Hawkins’ message, but it is the third one Howard sent to him on the 7th which carries the “10:50 PM Thursday” detail.
Distorting the facts: Fred Hawkins.
Fred Hawkins assumed that Roy Howard was in Paris on Thursday 7 November, since the two cablegrams he received from him that day both carried Paris datelines (added in the Brest Post Office). In a press release that evening, he stated that a subsequent cablegram had been received from Howard “telling of a celebration of the signing of the armistice at Brest” and that UP regarded this “as confirmatory of the accuracy of the [armistice] message”. [New York Times, 8 November 1918, p3] This, clearly, was a reference to Howard’s 6:30 pm, second, cablegram Hawkins reported receiving at 2:40 pm that day.
After that, Hawkins made no reference to the genuine second cablegram again. It was removed from the record of Howard’s 7 November dispatches to New York City, and replaced as his 6:30 pm cablegram by the ‘unconfirmable’ third one Howard sent around 10:50 pm to cancel the armistice news. In short, the third 7 November cablegram became Howard’s second, according to United Press, and the genuine second cablegram and its message were suppressed.
On 8 November, having finally accepted that the armistice news was not true, Hawkins announced that a cablegram had arrived from Howard “shortly before noon today” stating that Admiral Wilson had been told later on the 7th that the signing of the armistice was “unconfirmable”. Meanwhile, Howard added, “Brest [was] riotously celebrating”.
This is the actual third cablegram Howard sent to Hawkins on 7 November at around 10:50 pm. According to Hawkins it “did not show, in the form in which it was delivered, whether it was sent yesterday [7th], or how long it had been held up”. But he thought it indicated “in every way” that “it was probably filed very quickly after the original [armistice] bulletin”.
Consequently, he concluded, “there was reason to believe that the message … that the news was unconfirmable was badly delayed in view of the fact that it was not received here until almost twenty-four hours after the original cablegram”. [My italics] And added that “the United Press today [8th] asked the Government to ascertain how long Howard’s message … [was] held up by the censors”. [Endnote 14, New York Times article cited, under subtitle ‘Hawkins Makes Explanation’.]
Hawkins’ statement, printed in the newspapers along with other information he provided, is not very clearly set out and may have confused some readers. But its purpose is obvious. He sought to conceal Howard’s tardy withdrawal of his armistice news on 7 November, and excuse UP’s embarrassingly long-postponed acknowledgment that the news was untrue, by blaming American censors for holding up the ‘unconfirmable’ news UP would otherwise have printed early in the afternoon of 7 November.
By insinuating that Howard sent his ‘unconfirmable’ cablegram “very quickly” after he sent his armistice cablegram, which had arrived not long before noon on the 7th, Hawkins’ claim that it had been “badly delayed” provided him with some much-needed defence against the agency’s critics who were demanding its blood. And to add weight to his claims, he asked authorities in Washington, DC, to investigate the matter.
Several days later, on Saturday 16 November, the weekly Fourth Estate newspaper carried what seem to be the results of such an investigation. In a short item about “the famous United Press armistice message”, it reported that Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels “has admitted that the second U.P. message stating that the report of the signing could not be confirmed, was held up by the [navy] censors”. Daniels had explained that because he was absent from Washington, DC, at the time, the “supplemental report when received was withheld pending his return”.
[The Fourth Estate, November 16, 1918, p2, under ‘Armistice Blunder To Get Coat Of Oblivion’.]
The distortion that Howard’s third 7 November cablegram was his second bulletin to New York City that day was thus accepted and stated as such in print. And the claim that its release for circulation had been delayed by the authorities in Washington, DC, thus apparently vindicated.
Restating Hawkins’ claims: Roy Howard.
After his return to the United States, Howard did not refer to Hawkins’ claims about a delayed delivery of his ‘unconfirmable’ cablegram, either in his 20 November press statement issued following his meeting with Navy Secretary Daniels or, it seems, in any public comments about events in Brest during the years before his 1936 memoir in Webb Miller’s book. Here, however, he dealt with the matter at some length, and along the same lines Hawkins followed in his 8 November 1918 press statement.
Across nearly three pages, Howard also claimed that his “unconfirmable” cablegram was the second one he sent from Brest to New York City on 7 November 1918, that US navy censors deliberately delayed its release until the following day, and that the Navy Department thereby prevented United Press cancelling the armistice news not long after it had been released in America.
The evidence and explanations he offered to substantiate the claims included:
- an alleged 8 November anonymous telephone call to Hawkins (who recognised the caller’s voice as that of a former journalist then serving in Navy Censorship) warning him that a “correcting dispatch” had arrived from Howard “within two hours after [the] first dispatch had cleared”, but was being held back by the Navy Department;
- reference to the November 8 1918 reports Ambassador Sharp and Special Representative House sent to the State Department about the false armistice and about Major Warburton’s armistice message to the War Department (published in 1933);
- an outline of attempts in April 1914 by the State and Navy Departments to discredit accurate United Press reports (ahead of those of the US government and any other press agency) about the taking of Veracruz by American forces that led to a six-month US occupation of the Mexican port and city;
- and claims that President Wilson intervened to have the “correction” released after the UP office in Washington, DC, told him it was being held back.
[Howard 1936, pp 85-89]
Of course, it may well be that the Navy Department did block the delivery of Howard’s third November 7 cablegram to the New York City office – his “10:50 pm unconfirmable” one. For if, as Hawkins originally told Howard, it did not actually reach him until 11:30 am local time on the 8th, that means it was in transit between 10:50 pm French time/5:50 pm New York time on the 7th, and 4:30 pm French time/11:30 am New York time on the 8th: just over seventeen hours in total. So the Howard cablegram Navy Secretary Daniels admitted in November 1918 that his censors held up may, in fact, have been this one.
(In the second volume of his memoirs, published in 1946, Josephus Daniels gave a condensed verbatim version of Howard’s 1936 memoir of 7 November 1918 events in Brest, but he excluded from it Howard’s claims that the Navy Department had held up his second message.)
Regardless, however, of what Howard wrote in 1936 in reaffirmation of what Hawkins wrote in 1918, the “correcting message which, had it been released on its receipt early in the afternoon of November 7, would have set all United Press clients right on the facts” was not the “second message” he sent in the afternoon of November 7. For as he had told US Army Censor Captain Stone and the UP Paris office at the time, his ‘unconfirmable’ message was the third one – the last one – he sent that day
(As a matter of speculation: if the ‘unconfirmed’ third message had been cleared by the French and American censors and delivered to Hawkins within, say, two hours of the 10:50 pm Brest time shown on Howard’s copy of it, Hawkins might have received it around 8:00 pm local time – after he issued his statement to the press that evening.)
Howard’s evening meeting with Admiral Wilson
Howard’s 1936 re-arranged details relating to his 7 November 1918 evening meeting with Admiral Wilson are his personal contribution to the Hawkins narrative about the armistice cablegrams.
The ‘historical’ details are that Howard (accompanied by Hornblow) left the Brasserie de la Marine, having learnt that the armistice news was false, and went in search of Admiral Wilson and any recent information he might have about what was happening. They eventually located him at the French Admiral’s house, where he was having dinner, and heard from him that the armistice news was unconfirmable. Howard then went to La Dépêche and sent his ‘unconfirmable’ cablegram to United Press in New York City.
In his memoir, however, Howard claimed that Admiral Wilson sent the news to him in the Brasserie de la Marine (contradicting what Hornblow stated in ‘Amazing Armistice’), upon which he immediately left the restaurant and went straight to La Dépêche to send his ‘unconfirmable’ cablegram “approximately two hours after the first one”.
By so re-arranging these details, Howard could ignore the fact that he and Hornblow went to find the Admiral on leaving the restaurant, which in turn allowed him to claim that he went directly to La Dépêche from the restaurant and sent the Admiral’s ‘unconfirmed’ news, as his second cablegram, around 6:30 pm, rather than much later after he had found Wilson and obtained the news from him in person. And he was thereby able to endorse what Hawkins had claimed on 8 November 1918:
“Had it been delivered with the same dispatch as the first, the correction would have been in the United Press office in New York some time after one p.m.” and “would have enabled the United Press to correct the original error within two hours. [But it] was not delivered … until shortly before noon on the following day, Friday November 8”. [Howard 1936, p86]
© James Smith (August 2019) (Enlarged and revised, May 2020)
I. Main Sources
- ‘Premature Armistice – Roy W. Howard Speaking’, presented as Chapter IV in Webb Miller’s, I Found No Peace. The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent. (The Book Club Special Edition, Camelot Press, London, 1937, is used in this article.)
Howard kept a copy of the chapter from the 1936 Simon and Shuster first edition of Miller’s book: images 1-21 at 6 January 1936 in his archive. There are, though, no letters or other documents relating to 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. Available online.
Telegrams sent by and to Howard while he was in Brest are in different parts of the archive. The first collection, of 34 items, is at (CONTENTS) 7 November 1918: Armistice documentation. Next, three separate items, wrongly described as ‘letters’, are at 8 November 1918: To Unipress. From: Roy W. Howard (2 items); and (1 item) at 9 November 1918: To Captain Stone. Another collection, of 17 items, is at 25 April 1957: To: Naoma Lowensohn. From: Marshall Coles. Armistice.
Unfortunately, many of the telegrams have been cropped so that only their messages are left, meaning that essential ‘dates and times’ and other information on the cropped forms has been lost. Some of the telegrams are mixed up between the two main collections, from which others may have been excluded when they were originally put together.
Roy Howard’s Diaries are not in the Media School Archive, and so have not been consulted for this article. They are with other family papers still held privately and separately from the Media School Archive.
Another archive of Howard’s papers is in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. In the ‘Finding Aid’ to it, 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.
‘Amazing Armistice’ 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 in its November 1936 issue, the same year Howard’s memoir appeared in Miller’s book.
- ‘Fake Armistice’, June 1921.
‘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 given in this article are from the Admiral’s copy.
Roy Howard reasoned that “Inasmuch as the idea of a fake story involves palpable and deliberate intention to deceive, and inasmuch as your article makes clear that there was no such intention on the part of the newspapers or the newspapermen, I feel that your purpose would be better served and an unintentional injustice avoided by the substitution of another term for the word ‘fake’”. He suggested that ‘false’ should be used instead of ‘fake’, but Hornblow settled on The Amazing Armistice: Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report as his publication title. Howard’s memoir, published many years later, appeared with the title ‘Premature Armistice’. Howard was surely correct to assert that the 7 November 1918 peace news was ‘false news’ rather than ‘fake news’ – both as he understood the terms’ meanings then, and as they are still differentiated today.
- Arthur and Leonora Hornblow Papers. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Beverly Hills, California.
Admiral Henry B. Wilson:
- Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC 20374-5060.
- 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 John Sellards, see the ‘Eyewitnesses In Brest on 7 November 1918’ item of the False Armistice Commentary on this website.
III. References to sources; and other explanatory details
1. See the articles on this website about a) the Spa-Senlis wireless messages; b) G-2’s false armistice findings; c) false armistice cablegrams from France; the spread of the armistice news in d) France and e) 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. Accompanied by Peg and UP war correspondent Fred Ferguson, Howard reached Montparnasse 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.)
3. The New York Times, 21 November 1918,under ‘Howard Excuses False Peace Report’. Available through NYTimes.com ‘Free to Read Articles 1918’ website.
4. See: Post Office Engineering Department, Technical Pamphlets for Workmen, ‘Hughes Type-Printing Telegraph’ pp5-6 and illustrations pp7-8. (1919) Available online. Also, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Printing Telegraph. Videos of working examples of the machines can be watched on the (British) Science Museum website.
5. “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)
6. See the article False Armistice Cablegrams from France on this website for more details.
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. [1/34, in the collection at 7 November 1918. Howard Papers]
8. Main Sources. Admiral Henry B. Wilson Papers.
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. The telephone-call statement is reported in the Evening Star (Washington D.C.), 8 November 1918, under ‘”War Over Story” Precedes Events’, front page. The earlier statement is based on extracts from The New York Times, November 8, 1918, p3. (May be accessed through the NYTimes.com ‘Free to Read Articles 1918’ website.) And from the Greeneville Daily Sun, November 8, 1918, p2. (Available online through Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers portal.)
13. The Fourth Estate, November 9, 1918, p7. Available online through the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
14. 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. And the Ardmore (Oklahoma) Daily Ardmoreite, 22 November 1918, p3 under ‘United Press is Making Admiral Wilson the Goat’. Available online through Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers portal.
15. 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) The newspaper extract is from the Lancaster News (South Carolina), 8 November 1918, front page: “PEACE REPORT WAS HOAX”; “Associated Press Dispatches In This Morning’s Papers Credit United Press With Greatest Hoax Of Recent Years”. (Online from Chronicling America)
16. As featured in the (Kansas) Topeka Daily State Journal, 9 November 1918, p7; the (Oregon) Daily Capital Journal November 9, 1918, p7; and the (Tennessee) Columbia Herald, Friday, November 15, 1918, p3. Available online through Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers portal.
17. As featured in The New York Times, 21 November 1918,under ‘Howard Excuses False Peace Report’. Available through NYTimes.com ‘Free to Read Articles 1918’website. And in the (Utah) Ogden Standard, 20 November 1918, p6; and the (South Dakota) Saturday News, 21 November 1918, p1. Available online through Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers portal.
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 False Armistice Conspiracy Theories article on this website.
22. See the False Armistice in France article on this website, in the section under ‘Afterwards’.
23. The Wall Street Journal. ‘Glossary of Terms: Journalism’. Available online.
24. Apart from a few short references to Fred Ferguson and W. W. Hawkins in the indexes of some books outlining the history of United Press, detailed information about them and their careers with the agency seems not to be available. A publication accessible online, United Press International Centennial Anniversary, 1907-2007, under ‘Unipressers and UPI Staff’, contains some biographical items about other employees over the years, but Ferguson and Hawkins are not among those remembered.