The 3:00 pm Cease-Fire Order – Source of the False Armistice News?

 

In his brief explanation of what lay behind the 7 November armistice news, Major Barclay H. Warburton, US Military Attaché in Paris, told the War Department in Washington, DC: “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 its Section 8 explanation, the G-2 Report on the false armistice news stated: “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

 

There were two 7 November wireless telegrams ordering an afternoon cease-fire to allow the German armistice delegation to cross the front lines.

One was German, the third of four messages sent during 6-7 November, in clear Morse code, from Field Marshal Hindenburg’s Supreme Command Headquarters in Spa (occupied Belgium) to Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Foch’s Headquarters in Senlis.

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”. 3

The other was French, sent by Senlis Headquarters, via the Noyon region weather bureau radio station, to (presumably) the French First Army units in the crossing-point sector.  It defined the limits of the French cease-fire area in that sector.

Its message was: “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.”  It carried the transmission time of 3:00 pm (“15 h”) which was, therefore, the effective start-time of the French cease-fire in the designated area. 4

Both telegrams thus specified a 3:00 pm start for their respective cease-fires for the German armistice delegation.  But it is uncertain which one is alluded to either in Major Warburton’s explanation to the US War Department, or in Section 8 of the G-2 Report.  Neither identifies the telegram’s provenance, or, therefore, which side ordered the cease-fire.

The sequence of Spa-Senlis telegrams printed the next day in the newspapers revealed that a German 3:00 pm cease-fire had been called on 7 November to facilitate the armistice delegation’s crossing into France.  But no information about the similar French cease-fire was published.

 

The claim in the G-2 Report that “a number of officers” (not the intended recipients) had “caught” the cease-fire message was entirely feasible.  Hundreds of radio stations and listening posts over a very large area could have intercepted it, and it was common practice for wireless operators to listen in on transmissions.  By “picking messages out of the air” they hoped to glean something about what was going on in the war.  And information acquired in this way, beyond the censors’ control, 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 both messages to have been picked up and passed on as ‘news’.

However, of the two, the German rather than the French cease-fire message would seem to have been more susceptible to being misunderstood or misinterpreted in the way claimed by G-2.  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 area where the German armistice delegation was due to cross the front lines.  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.

This would help to explain why US Naval Attaché Captain Jackson told Admiral Wilson, in his false armistice telegram to Brest, that “hostilities ceased [at] two this afternoon” (French time, presumably); and why he reported the armistice was signed at 11:00 am, and others that it was signed at 10:00 am – that is, during the morning before the announcement was made – though why at those particular (German or French) times is not clear. 6

Furthermore, the German message was transmitted around the time the false armistice news started circulating.  It went out at 12:30 pm their time, which was 11:30 am French time. 7  This means that it was probably picked up in Paris soon after 11:30 am, that is, before midday on 7 November when, the G-2 Report shows, the armistice news was being passed around American and French military circles there.

It is not known here when on 7 November the instructions for the French cease-fire order were prepared and issued by Senlis Headquarters, whether they were released before midday and its distribution/start-time of 3:00 pm, and, therefore, whether it could have caused the false armistice reports.

But its message 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 the fighting in the West was to cease at 3:00 pm.

On balance, therefore, the German cease-fire telegram could well have been what the G-2 Report claimed was the “original source” of the mistake about the 7 November armistice news, and what Major Warburton suggested was probably the “reason for [the] universal belief” of the news.

 

The G-2 Report’s Section 8 Explanation Published

Some newspapers (a minority it would seem) gave readers explanations for the false armistice news that were obviously founded on the information included in Section 8 of the G-2 Report.  And one of them, the Journal du Loiret (Orléans) actually identified the 3:00 pm cease-fire order as being German.

In its edition of Saturday 9 November (the date also of the G-2 Report) the Journal explained to readers 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 wireless telegram messages (now released for publication) which were printed on its front page, and intimated that the 3:00 pm cease-fire announcement by the Germans –  which it described as 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 disclose who the “persons” were who had allegedly misinterpreted the message, who had provided the explanation, or when (7/8 November presumably). 8

At least one New Zealand newspaper – the Horowhenua Chronicle – and one Australian – the Hobart Mercury – printed similar, though much shorter, explanations about the armistice news that 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”.

The dispatch, sent out by Australian and New Zealand Cable, apparently came from the Press Association in London, which had circulated the false armistice news to its members around Britain on 7 November immediately after receiving it from the Reuters news agency. 9

In the Hobart Mercury the explanation was curtailed, with the last part about the cease-fire for the German delegates being omitted: “Apparently the [armistice] report was based on the misreading of a wireless message from France”. 10

As with the Journal du Loiret, there were no further details that might have clarified where the explanation had come from.

Unlike the Australian and New Zealand examples, British newspapers (so far consulted) do not appear to have printed the Press Association’s explanation obtained from some unnamed quarter, 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 cablegram from Brest.  They gave plenty of space to reports about the Spa-Senlis wireless telegrams, including the 3:00 pm cease-fire one, but no comments about the latter’s being the possible source of the premature peace news.  Indeed, they seem to have quickly and completely lost interest in the False Armistice as a news story. 11

Most American and Canadian newspapers identified the 3:00 pm cease-fire order as German, in their reports on the Spa-Senlis telegrams and armistice delegates’ journey to the Front.  A number, changing the sequence printed in French newspapers, included it with the first Spa telegram to Senlis and excluded it from the third. 12

At least two stated that it came from the French, and linked it to Howard’s false armistice cablegram.  The New York Times, a member of Associated Press, confidently reported that 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”.  The “writer of the erroneous dispatch”, the Times then explained, distorted this “fact” to mean a “cessation of hostilities” had been declared, and “from this mistaken notion” concluded that an armistice must have been signed with Germany.  “Both these errors were transmitted to New York as statements of fact”. 13

The New York Tribune, reporting a dispatch received from Associated Press in Paris about the Spa-Senlis telegrams, informed its readers that Marshal Foch, the “Allied commander”, had called the 3:00 pm cease-fire “until further orders”.  The report concluded that the dispatch “obviously explains the premature United Press message … that an armistice had been signed and that hostilities had ceased at 2 o’clock (Paris time)”.  Unfortunately, it is not ‘obvious’ from the dispatch how the telegram messages explain the armistice misinformation; but the paper offered readers no further enlightenment. 14

 

Stanley Weintraub and John Toland comments

In an assessment of what caused the false armistice rumours, Stanley Weintraub wrote 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 ….”

No further information is provided.  But the passage seems to be derived from the information contained in Section 8 of the G-2 Report.

A few lines later, Weintraub comments: “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”. 15

This could be referring to the orders for arrangements to be made to meet the German delegation on the Chimay-Fourmies-La Capelle-Guise road which Senlis Headquarters sent out very early on 7 November to General Debeney at First Army Headquarters.16

Weintraub offered no explanations.  But information about the early-morning instructions to General Debeney could well have leaked out, reached Paris, and caused the armistice rumours: there was certainly ample confusion and misinformation at the crossing-point sector to make this feasible. 17

The comment could also be referring to the later French 3:00 pm cease-fire order for the crossing-point sector.  However, for the reasons already noted, it is unlikely that this order was behind the rumours.

Surprisingly, Weintraub does not discuss whether the Germans’ Spa-Senlis telegram announcement of a 3:00 pm cease-fire on 7 November may have been the source of the false armistice news.  He does not refer to this telegram until several pages later in a following chapter.  And his account of it and other telegrams in the Spa-Senlis sequence is misleading.  Moreover, he ignores that part of it which announced the 3:00 pm cease-fire. 18

John Toland suggested, without elaboration, that the false armistice news came from “an erroneous report that the armistice was signed and all hostilities would cease at two that afternoon”.  He makes no explicit reference to Section 8 of the G-2 Report; but the comment appears to be based on it and Captain Jackson’s message to Admiral Wilson in Brest.

The main focus of Toland’s account is how the news was spread by Liaison Officers Whitehouse and Stanton, Attachés Warburton and Jackson, and Admiral Wilson and Roy Howard. 19

© James Smith

(June 2018)

ENDNOTES

1. See False Armistice News from France article.

2. See False Report of Signing of Armistice and G-2’s False Armistice Findings articles.

3. See The Spa-Senlis Wireless Telegram Messages article.

4. 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

Translation for this article by the writer.

5. Amico J. Barone, ‘November 7 [7 crossed through] 11’. 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) 

6. See False Armistice News from France and G-2’s False Armistice Findings articles.

7. See The Spa-Senlis Wireless Telegram Messages article and the notes about this particular telegram and the time of its transmission.

8. Journal du Loiret9 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. See the ‘Endnotes’ to The False Armistice in Britain article for information about British newspaper sources.

12. For instance, the Norwich Bulletin (Connecticut), November 8, 1918, front page under ‘Germany Announces Start Of Peace Envoys’. Available through the Library of Congress Chronicling America

13. The New York Times, November 8, 1918, p3 under ‘United Press Men Sent False Cable’. Available through NYTimes.com Free to Read Articles 1918 website.

14. The New York TribuneFriday, November 8, 1918, front page, under ‘Guns Silenced on Front Crossed by Truce Envoys’.

15. Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Round The World. The End of the Great War: November 1918.‘The False Armistice’, p39. (Paperback. New York. 1987)

16. See the Cease-fires for the German Armistice Delegation article.

17. Same.

18. Stanley Weintraub (as note 15), ‘The Dining Car in the Forest’, p47.

19. John Toland, No Man’s Land: The Story of 1918. Chapter 15, ‘The False Armistice’, pp547-550. (London. 1980)