In a brief explanation of what lay behind the 7 November 1918 armistice news, Major Barclay H. Warburton, the American Military Attaché in Paris, told the US War Department: “Probable reason for universal belief of [armistice] report was no doubt caused by interception of wireless message ordering cessation of fire yesterday afternoon (November 7.) to permit the plenipotentiaries to cross lines”. 1 (ENDNOTES)
In Section 8 of its findings about the false news, the G-2 (US Army Intelligence) Report explained: “From the information received by this office, it would appear that the original source of the mistake was the fact that a number of officers here caught a wireless telegram stating that an order had been given to cease firing at 3 o’clock on that afternoon. This, as it since appears, was to allow the German Armistice Delegates to get through the lines, and was only local in its scope. It was, however, interpreted as being a signal that the Armistice had been signed”. 2
The claim common to both explanations, that a cease-fire wireless message had been picked up (“intercepted”/“caught”) by persons who were not the intended recipients, is entirely feasible, for hundreds of military radio stations and listening posts over a large area could have received the message on their equipment. Indeed, it was routine practice for operators to listen in on wireless transmissions, randomly “picking messages out of the air” and gleaning something about what was going on in the war. Information acquired in this way often then travelled around what one American radio operator described as “the unofficial network of communication” at the Front and elsewhere. 5 In such circumstances, there was ample scope for the cease-fire message to have been picked up, misunderstood for whatever reason, and passed on as ‘news’.
However, at least two wireless telegrams carrying information about 3:00 pm cease-fires were transmitted on 7 November. One was German the other French. Both announced a cease-fire from 3:00 pm in the area of their front lines where the German armistice delegation was due to arrive that day, but which one Major Warburton and the G-2 Report were alluding to is not certain. Moreover, confusingly, the German 3:00 pm cease-fire began an hour before the French 3:00 pm cease-fire, seemingly because German time was one hour ahead of Allied time and no arrangements were made to synchronize the respective start-times by commencing the French cease-fire at 2:00 pm.
The two cease-fire telegrams
The German telegram was the third of four sent during 6-7 November, in clear Morse code, from Field Marshal Hindenburg’s Supreme Command Headquarters in Spa (in occupied Belgium) to Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Foch’s Headquarters in Senlis (north-east of Paris).
As reported in the French press, it read: “To allow the German delegation to cross the two lines, the order has been given to stop firing on the front today from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until further orders. From the German forward positions to the French forward positions, the delegation will have a company of road-menders to help with the motorcars on the la Capelle road, which has been destroyed”.
The details in the newspapers about this telegram seem to indicate that the French received it at 1:50 pm French time on 7 November. But the Germans transmitted it at 12:30 pm their time, 11:30 am French time, and Marshal Foch’s headquarters in Senlis would have received it soon after that. 3
The French telegram was sent from the Senlis Headquarters, via the Noyon region weather bureau radio station, to French First Army units operating in the broad area where the delegation was expected to arrive at the French lines. It defined the limits of the French cease-fire zone there and showed a transmission time of 3:00 pm (“15 h”) – its effective start-time in the designated area.
Its message read: “To facilitate the arrival of the German delegates, no firing will be carried out into the area between the line Flamengerie-Trelon in the north and the line Froidestrees-Mondrepuis in the south. This order is effective from the time of its receipt until midnight.” 6
Thus, without any reference to the time-difference on each side of the front lines, both telegrams clearly specified a 3:00 pm cease-fire. But neither Major Warburton nor Section 8 of the G-2 Report identifies the provenance of the telegram they referred to, or stated which side ordered the cease-fire.
When the newspapers printed the Spa-Senlis telegrams on 8 November it was revealed that the Germans had called a 3:00 pm cease-fire the previous day to allow their delegation to cross the lines. Consequently, the German telegram is usually assumed to be the one alluded to in the G-2 Report as the “original source” of the 7 November false armistice news, and in Major Warburton’s explanation as the “reason for [its] universal belief”.
Indeed, of the two cease-fire messages, the German one seems to have been more susceptible on 7 November to being misunderstood or misinterpreted in the way claimed by the G-2 Report. For instance, it did not state that the 3:00 pm cease-fire would be a purely local (not general) cessation of hostilities restricted to the crossing-area for the German armistice delegation. And any one taking it to mean that a general cease-fire would begin at 3:00 pm German time/2:00 pm French time along the whole Western Front could, credibly, also have assumed that an armistice with Germany must have been concluded before the cease-fire announcement was made (a cease-fire starting sometime after the signature of an armistice agreement was usually part of the agreement itself).
The French telegram’s message, on the other hand, appears to be unambiguous: the cease-fire would be of limited scope and duration, and in one sector only of the Front, the one where the German armistice delegation would be arriving. It presents no obvious room for construing that an armistice must have been signed already and that all fighting in the West would cease at 3:00 pm French time, 4:00 pm German time.
Explanations in the newspapers
Many newspapers gave explanations for the false armistice news that echoed the G-2 Report’s allegation about a misinterpreted, intercepted, telegram announcing a 3:00 pm cease-fire. At least one of them, the Orléans Journal du Loiret, actually identified the telegram as being one of the German transmissions from Spa on 7 November.
In its edition of Saturday 9 November (the date also on the G-2 Report) the Journal explained that “in Orléans, in Paris and other towns, telephone calls spread the rumour that the German armistice had been signed …. It seems most likely that an unfortunate, confused interpretation of an official document was the reason for it”.
The paper then referred to the Spa-Senlis messages printed on its front page, and intimated that the German 3:00 pm cease-fire information – which it described as denoting a “limited and temporary halt in the firing” – must have been mistaken for the armistice itself. “Some well-meaning but not very well-informed persons who heard the message”, the explanation concluded, “hastily presented it to others as meaning that armistice talks had ended, whereas they had not even begun”.
Disappointingly, the newspaper did not intimate who the “persons” were who had supposedly misinterpreted the message. Nor did it disclose who during the last two days had provided it with the explanation. 7
At least one New Zealand newspaper – the Horowhenua Chronicle – and one Australian – the Hobart Mercury – printed similar (though much shorter) pieces about the armistice news that had circulated in Britain on 7 November.
The Horowhenua Chronicle published the following 8 November dispatch received from London:
“There were numerous rumours of peace yesterday during mid-afternoon and thousands of copies of the cheaper newspapers were sold in the city. The circulators of the story were obliged to withdraw the message. Apparently, it was based on the misreading of a message received from France regarding ceasing firing while the German delegates crossed the lines”. 8
The Hobart Mercury’s explanation of what had happened omitted the part about the cease-fire for the German delegates: “Apparently the [armistice] report was based on the misreading of a wireless message from France”. 9
The Australian and New Zealand Cable had sent out the dispatch, which apparently came from the Press Association in London – the organization that had helped circulate the false armistice news in Britain on 7 November after receiving it from the Reuters news agency. 10 But British newspapers do not appear to have printed the Press Association’s explanation or indeed anything else about how the false news arose and who may have been responsible for it, not even, it seems, the controversy about Roy Howard and his false armistice cablegram from Brest. They gave plenty of space to reports about the Spa-Senlis wireless telegrams but no suggestions that the 3:00 pm cease-fire one may have been the source of the premature peace news.
Most American and Canadian newspapers had reports on the wireless messages and the delegates’ journey to the Front. In several, for some reason, the sequence of the messages printed in French newspapers was changed, with the German cease-fire announcement becoming part of the first Spa telegram to Senlis and being excluded from the third. 11 Remarkably, the New York Times and the New York Tribune stood out from the others by explaining that the false armistice news was the result of some misinterpretation of a French cease-fire order.
The New York Times, a member of Associated Press, confidently reported that “What had actually happened at the French front is shown by … dispatches, published in this morning’s TIMES. In preparation for the expected arrival of the German delegates the French command had given the order to cease firing temporarily at 3 P.M. at that part of the front where the German delegates were to cross the line”.
“In the mind of the writer of the erroneous dispatch [announcing peace]”, the Times continued, “this fact was apparently distorted into a cessation of hostilities”, and from this mistaken notion, seemingly, the conclusion was drawn that the armistice must have been signed.” 12
The New York Tribune, drawing on a report from Associated Press in Paris about the Spa-Senlis telegrams, informed its readers that a “German wireless had been received at Allied Grand Headquarters expressing a hope that a meeting might bring about ‘a provisional suspension of hostilities’ and requesting passage for the German truce delegation, headed by Mathias Erzberger.” And that Marshal Foch, the “Allied commander issued orders ‘to cease fire on the front at 3 o’clock p. m. until further orders’”. However, the telegrams’ “context”, it pointed out, “appears to indicate that the order stilling the guns applied only to the front which the German delegates were approaching”.
Turning to Roy Howard’s armistice cablegram, the item’s writer concluded that the report from Paris “obviously explains the premature United Press message … that an armistice had been signed and that hostilities had ceased at 2 o’clock (Paris time)”. But it is not ‘obvious’ from the Paris report exactly how the wireless messages explain the false armistice news generally or Roy Howard’s message in particular. The writer offered no clarification for readers who failed to see the connection; and was evidently unaware that Marshal Foch’s “3 o’clock p.m.” cease-fire and the “2 o’clock (Paris time)” cease-fire mentioned in Roy Howard’s cablegram denoted the separate French and German cease-fires in the La Capelle area. 13
Different False Armistice Messages
There is an important distinction to be made between the False Armistice messages: the initial ones started circulating during late morning/early afternoon in Paris, whereas ones containing additional erroneous details, notably the one Roy Howard obtained from Admiral Wilson in Brest, appeared some hours later in the afternoon, also in Paris. Neither the G-2 Report nor separate reports demanded by the State and War Departments about the armistice news seem to have been aware of this difference.
The initial armistice messages
According to the G-2 investigation, reports that the German armistice had been signed started spreading not long before midday on 7 November. The G-2 office in Paris was informed by telephone around 11:30 am that the “Armistice had been signed that morning”; and later that day the US Military Attaché, Major Warburton, told G-2 he had received “authentic information, and had sent a cable to Washington during the morning to the effect that the Armistice had been signed”. The French Ministry of War, according to the G-2 Report, released the news “the entire day”, giving in some of its messages 10:00 am as the time the armistice was allegedly signed (though why that particular time is not clear). 2
It would seem to be more than coincidental then that the third Spa telegram, with the announcement that a German cease-fire would start at 3:00 pm, went out at 11:30 am French time and would have been picked up in Paris around that time (12:30 pm German time). So if G-2’s finding is accurate and “the original source” of the false armistice news was an intercepted wireless telegram whose message about a 3:00 pm cease-fire was misconstrued, then the intercepted telegram in question was undoubtedly the third one the Germans transmitted for the attention of Marshal Foch’s headquarters at Senlis.
The G-2 Report clearly implicated the French War Ministry and Second Bureau (Army Intelligence) officers associated with it as being primarily responsible for releasing the late morning armistice reports. Whether they were also the ones who had intercepted and misinterpreted the third Spa telegram is not made clear. But it seems more likely that they merely received the misinformation from elsewhere. Perhaps the Eiffel Tower radio station’s translation of the intercepted Spa message, to which the War Office would presumably have had undelayed access, was incomplete and misleading, making it the “original source” of the false armistice news.
Later armistice messages
It should be noted that the initial armistice reports did not state that a cease-fire had occurred. But that two available reports that do mention cease-fires appeared later in the day. These are mid-afternoon ones transmitted after 3:00 pm French time – that is, after the German and the French cease-fires had both come into effect around the armistice delegation’s crossing-point. The widely known one at the time and for many years later in the United States is that sent to Admiral Henry B. Wilson in Brest, a copy of which Roy W. Howard managed to forward to the United States. The other, previously unpublished, is a naval signal apparently sent by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Grand Fleet.
The message sent to Admiral Wilson, carrying Naval Attaché Captain R. H. Jackson’s signature, read: “Foreign Office announces Armistice signed 11 a.m. hostilities cease 2 p.m. today. Sedan taken this morning by U.S. army. 15207 Jackson [3:20 pm, 7 November]”
The British naval signal simply read: “Hostilities ceased at 2:00 P.M. to-day. 1555 [3:55 pm]” 14
The Spa telegram with the German 3:00 pm cease-fire announcement, which the French had received before midday their time, seems unlikely to have been the immediate cause (nearly four hours later) of the two mid-afternoon messages that hostilities had ceased at 2:00 pm (Allied time presumably). Something else must have prompted these erroneous mid-afternoon reports. And here, this seems most likely to have been the French order for a 3:00 pm cease-fire (their time) in the La Capelle area, an hour after the German cease-fire there had already started. For the French cease-fire could conceivably have been misconstrued as a confirmation of the earlier ‘armistice-signed’ news, especially by persons already aware of reports from the La Capelle area indicating that a German cease-fire was also in effect. 4
The American Embassy certainly played an active part in spreading the late morning ‘armistice-signed’ misinformation it had received from the American Liaison Service officers in Paris. And a unique part in the spread of the afternoon ‘armistice-and-cessation-of-hostilities’ misinformation it apparently received from the French Foreign Ministry. Through the Embassy, the latter was relayed to Admiral Wilson in Brest and, quite possibly, though with slightly different misinformation, to London. 1 (It was thanks to Roy Howard that it crossed the Atlantic and Pacific.)
How the French Foreign Ministry and British Admiralty seem to have become involved with the afternoon false armistice details is not known, however.
Comments by Stanley Weintraub and John Toland
Unlike other historians who include the False Armistice in their accounts of the last days of the Great War but ignore what may have brought it about, Stanley Weintraub and John Toland both address the matter with explanations based mostly on the 9 November 1918 G-2 Report.
Describing the spread of armistice rumours on Thursday 7 November, Stanley Weintraub observed – by way of explanation – that “the only actual cease-fire on the wires was a purely local and restricted one, beginning at three in the afternoon in the vicinity of Guise, and intended to last only until the German armistice delegates had passed through. The message may have been picked up and misinterpreted ….”
A few lines later he suggested, “it is possible that reports of an armistice were suggested by Foch’s instructions to the French First Army to hold its fire in a particular sector during the period when the German armistice mission was expected to cross into the French lines”. 15a Here, he could be referring to orders for arrangements to be made to meet the German delegation on the Chimay-Fourmies-La Capelle-Guise road which Senlis Headquarters sent out early on 7 November to General Debeney at French First Army Headquarters, but he did not elaborate. It is entirely possible that information about the early-morning instructions to General Debeney leaked out, reached Paris, and caused the armistice rumours. There was certainly ample confusion and misinformation (on both sides) at the crossing-point sector to make this feasible. 4 Or he could be referring to the later French 3:00 pm cease-fire order for the crossing-point sector, though for the reasons noted earlier, it is unlikely that this order was responsible for the rumours.
Surprisingly, Weintraub does not discuss whether the German 3:00 pm cease-fire announcement may have been the source of the false armistice news. He refers to the telegram that contained this detail, several pages later in a subsequent chapter, but he ignores the part of its message which announced the 3:00 pm cease-fire. 15b His account of it and the other telegrams in the Spa-Senlis sequence is misleading, on the whole.
John Toland suggested that the false armistice news came from “an erroneous report that the armistice was signed and all hostilities would cease at two that afternoon”. The comment appears to be based on Section 8 of the G-2 Report and the news sent to Admiral Henry B. Wilson in Brest, but Toland offered no further explanation. His main interest was in how US Liaison Officers Whitehouse and Stanton, the US Military and Naval Attachés Major Warburton and Captain Jackson, and Admiral Henry B. Wilson and Roy Howard helped to spread the news. 16
© James Smith
(June 2018) (Reviewed and with additional information, October 2020)
- See ‘Three False Armistice Cablegrams from France’ on this website.
- See ‘The G-2 Report’s False Armistice Findings’ on this website.
- See ‘The Spa-Senlis Telegrams and the German Armistice Delegation’ on this website.
- See ‘Cease-Fires for the German Armistice Delegation’ on this website.
- Amico J. Barone, ‘November 7 11’ [‘7’ crossed through] . Article in The American Legion Magazine, December 1938, pp1-3. Available online: http://www.oldmagazinearticles.comThe German Peace Delegation Crosses the Lines (American Legion Monthly, 1938)
- Armistice – Radiogrammes du 5 au 17 novembre 1918. ‘7 novembre 1918 – 15h. Radio passe par le poste météo français “MAX” (région de Noyon) à 15 heures. ORDRE’. Wesserling, mémoires familiales, Stamm, Binder http://www.wesserling.fr Translated for this article by the writer.
- Journal du Loiret, 9 Novembre 1918. Translation from information under ‘Faux bruits, fausses nouvelles’, p2. The Spa-Senlis Messages are printed on p1 under, ‘Les Parlementaires allemands chez le maréchal Foch’. Available online from AURELIA – BIBLIOTHÈQUE NUMÉRIQUE D’ORLÉANS.
- Horowhenua Chronicle (North Island), 9 November 1918, p3 under ‘Peace Rumours. How They Originated.’ Available online through the PAPERS PAST portal provided by the National Library of New Zealand.
- The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania), 9 November 1918, p7 under ‘THE GERMAN DELEGATION’. Available online through the TROVE portal provided by the National Library of Australia.
- See ‘The False Armistice in Britain’ on this website, and ‘Reuters and the False Armistice’ at http://www.thebaron.info/archives/reuters-and-the-false-armistice-of-7-november-1918
- For instance, theNorwich Bulletin (Connecticut), November 8, 1918, front page under ‘Germany Announces Start Of Peace Envoys’. Available through the Library of Congress Chronicling America
- 12. The New York Times, November 8, 1918, p3 under ‘United Press Men Sent False Cable’. Available through NYTimes.com Free to Read Articles 1918
- The New York Tribune, Friday, November 8, 1918, front page, under ‘Guns Silenced on Front Crossed by Truce Envoys’. Available through the Library of Congress Chronicling America
- See ‘Roy Howard’s Search for Information about the False Armistice’ on this website.
- Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Round The World. The End of the Great War: November 1918. (Version used here: OUP paperback, 1987.) 15a). p39, under ‘The False Armistice’. 15b). p47, under ‘The Dining Car in the Forest’.
- John Toland, No Man’s Land: The Story of 1918. Chapter 15, ‘The False Armistice’, pp547-550. (London. 1980)