Faux Armistice in France

There was a False Armistice in France (and elsewhere) on 7 November 1918, in the sense that false news (misinformation) about a German armistice having been signed that day spread around the country and was believed by thousands of people who celebrated – prematurely – the end of the Great War.

This article gives an overview of France’s False Armistice.  It is based on what a number of newspapers said about it at the time, on the G-2 (American Army Intelligence Service) Report about it, and on the recollections of a few people who recorded their experiences of it.

False Armistice News in Paris

“On 7 November, unrestrained joy erupted on the boulevards when the (false) news was announced that the armistice had been concluded.”

 

Starting early in the morning of 7 November, Paris newspapers began reporting the previous day’s German press announcements that a delegation had left Berlin for the West to conclude an armistice and open peace talks with the Allies.  Some carried the story in 5:00 am issues, others in later morning, afternoon and evening editions. 2

Commenting on the German bulletins, Le Petit Parisien told its readers that the envoys “will no doubt arrive at their destination this morning”, while La Presse calculated (inaccurately) that, although there was no official information, the envoys had probably completed the journey from Berlin and were already in France. 3

From Paris the delegation news went out to other parts of France, where local newspapers published it throughout the day.

 

As the delegation reports raised hopes that the war would end soon, news was suddenly released – not long before midday – that the armistice with Germany had actually been signed.  But it did not come through the newspapers.  Initially, French and American officials in Paris circulated it.

For instance, officials at the Ministry of War in Rue Saint-Dominique gave the news out to people “the entire day”. 4  Alice Snyder, an American nurse at a soldiers’ hospital in Paris, told her husband that the War Ministry confirmed rumours they heard during the afternoon of an armistice having been signed “at 10 a.m.” and fighting ceasing “at 2 p.m.”  Immediately, “excitement and rejoicing among patients and personnel” spread throughout the hospital when the confirmation was announced. 5

People crowded around the Ministry building hoping to hear details “of the German application, under a flag of truce, for an armistice”. 6  And it was widely expected that the Government would announce the armistice in the afternoon session of the Chamber of Deputies. 7

Having received the news from US Liaison Service officers, the American Embassy played a major part in its dissemination.  For example, the US Consul-General, Alexander Thackara, announced it to guests during a luncheon at the American Club of Paris.  And the Military and Naval Attachés cabled it, respectively, to Washington, DC, and to the French port of Brest. 8

Will Irwin, an American war correspondent, recalled that the Embassy told a British nurse he knew that “the armistice is signed (and) goes into effect at three o’clock this afternoon”.  “It’s official,” she assured him, “they’re out of their heads with joy!”  Irwin passed the news on to people he met in the street, in the Café de la Paix, at Ciro’s and in Harry’s New York bar, which he visited in turn and where his announcements immediately provoked loud celebrations. 9

The news was also sent to US military representatives at the American Embassy in London, though by whom and from where in France is unknown. 10

Paris “bubbled” with emotion as the misinformation spread around the city. 11  And the arrival later in the day of other exhilarating (inaccurate) reports that the Americans had liberated Sedan, close to the border with Belgium in the Ardennes, boosted the “patriotic gaiety, so long contained”.  Well into the evening, in spite of showers, people walked in “large processions” in some parts of the city singing the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Sambre et Meuse’. 12

 

The Paris press censors refused to allow the armistice news to be published.  Seizing upon the U.S. Consul-General’s luncheon announcement, the newspapers demanded permission to report what was going on in the city and dedicate their late afternoon and evening editions to the news that the war was finally over.

Not long after 1:30 pm, the editor of L’Heure called the censors at the Press Bureau to inform them that, at a meeting attended by numerous journalists, a “very high-up Allied official” had just announced that the German armistice had been signed.  The censor told him not to print this. Separately, Le Petit Parisien’s editor, seemingly mistaking the Consul-General for the American Ambassador, insisted that the papers must be allowed to publish the news as no less a person than Mr Sharp had officially announced it.  By 3:00 pm, all the afternoon papers had called, wanting permission to print the news everyone in Paris was talking about.

The censors checked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and the President’s Office.  All refuted the armistice news.  Reassured, the Press Bureau warned the editors that the American Ambassador was mistaken and the rumours were false, and forbade them to print anything about an armistice having been signed or the German delegates having arrived in France.  Regional censors were instructed by telephone to enforce the same guidelines. 13

 

Without the newspapers’ help, the armistice news therefore spread by word-of-mouth and by private and official telephones and telegraphs beyond the censors’ control.  And it moved, it seems, “at a remarkable rate”. 14

Elsewhere in France

The American Naval Attaché, Captain R. H. Jackson, sent the armistice news to Brest by military cable.  It was received – sometime before 4:00 pm – at the headquarters there of the commander of US naval forces in France, Admiral Henry B. Wilson.  The message stated that the Allies and Germany had signed an armistice at “eleven this morning” and that “hostilities ceased [at] two this afternoon”.  It also contained the inaccurate information that Sedan had been “taken this morning” by American forces. 15  Without consulting the French, British or other American military authorities in Brest, Admiral Wilson ordered the news to be announced in the town.

 

Several hours earlier, the local morning newspaper, La Dépêche de Brest, had printed the official German bulletin, sent from Paris, announcing that an armistice mission had set out from Berlin for the Western Front – news, the paper remarked, that removed “all possible doubt that the Germans had asked for an armistice”. 16  On display during the day, the bulletin attracted numbers of “excited” people who discussed it outside the newspaper building while “waiting eagerly around for more”. 17

When Admiral Wilson’s armistice news was suddenly released shortly after 4:00 pm, many people, therefore, would not have been entirely taken by surprise.  Peace celebrations broke out almost immediately.  The news “set a flame that … spread like a prairie fire from one end of Brest to the other”.  People “pressed” into the streets, “laughing, screaming, sobbing, singing” and “gradually opening up into a mad rejoicing.” 18

The French military authorities informed the Americans that the peace news was false soon after 5:30 pm, with little detrimental effect on the celebrations which lasted long into the night.  The following day, La Dépêche described how sirens on American ships and church bells in the town were still sounding at 7 o’clock in the evening, and how “a thousand” floodlights lit up the harbour while rockets burst overhead into the night. 19 And the commandant of a British army base there, which appears not to have been affected by the news, noted in his war diary for Thursday 7 November, without any elaboration, that the town and ships in the harbour were “illuminated” following a false report received by the Americans that an armistice had been signed. 20

 

Having ordered its announcement in the town, Admiral Wilson agreed to allow Roy Howard, the United Press news agency president, to cable the peace message from Brest to New York City.  In consequence, the false armistice news travelled to the United States, reached almost everywhere there, and set off the “greatest demonstration [in] American history ”. 21

 

In the words of La Dépêche, the armistice news generated “indescribable joy and wild enthusiasm” not just in Brest but in the port of Lorient, to the south-east on the Brittany coast, in Tours and Bordeaux – indeed “in all the towns where there were American headquarters”. 22  Lieutenant Arthur Hornblow, the American Army Intelligence Officer in Brest, named St NazaireMarseilles, Nice, “and other French points” as having received the news. 23  Le Mans heard it from French sources, and Chartres also celebrated, according to the SOS G-2 Intelligence Report. 24 

 

The news undoubtedly reached a large number of combat troops and support facilities at or near the Front.  Among them were American units along the Lys-Scheldt Canal and, much further south, in the Argonne Forest.

Here, well to the south of St Quentin, Guise and La Capelle, the news travelled to the ‘309th Infantry Regiment of the 78th Division’ through “unexpected sounds of firing, and shouts that the war was over” from soldiers in the vicinity.  To celebrate, they fired off a few signal rockets and their entire stock of signal grenades. 25

Another  American “outfit”  – the ‘Ninth Field Signal Battalion of the Fifth (Red Diamond) Division’ – was in the small Argonne village of Cunel at the time.  Its radio operator recalled some years later how the armistice news broke there during “early evening of November 7, 1918 [about 6:00pm]”.  Someone suddenly gave the order “Lights!”, and immediately vehicles in the vicinity “began to streak white beams down shell-smashed roads …. We could hardly believe our eyes”.

The reason for this “daring signal to the enemy” was assumed to be that “the armistice had come!”  And “frenzy swept over Cunel.  Soldiers on all sides shouted: ‘The war’s over!’  Rifle and pistols were fired into the air to herald the end”. 26  

In the St Quentin area to the north-west and some thirty-four miles (fifty-five kilometres) to the west of where the German armistice delegation would cross the lines late on 7 November, British troops at Bellenglise heard that an armistice was being arranged through Swiss intermediaries. 27  And not far from here, news that the war was over suddenly arrived at a French ambulance station.  A British nurse with the French Red Cross described what happened, in a letter to her father:

“Is the war really over?  Yesterday afternoon some American ambulance drivers rushed into our house and told [us] that peace was signed at 2 o’clock!  Shortly after everyone was rushing round telling everyone else the same news and people were in groups on the road, the hospital and everywhere discussing it.  Towards evening the soldiers (especially the Americans) got more lively and the shouting and singing in the roads, the Popotes [canteens] and the Billets was most exuberant!” 28

The armistice news reached Rennes, the regional capital of Brittany south-east of Brest, after midday.  By 3:30 pm, all the streets were so densely packed with people that the trams virtually came to a halt.  Crowds pressed inside and outside the building of the L’Ouest-Éclair seeking verification of the news, which the newspaper was unable to obtain.  Despite this, people behaved patiently and with self-control, according to the paper, which urged them to remain calm and not be taken in by rumours. 29

North-east of Rennes, in the Argentan area of Normandy, rumours started spreading that the armistice had been signed just as the weekly Journal de l’Orne was going to press.  The paper reported how local people set about bringing out flags and decorating the streets without waiting for confirmation. 30

The news spread around the region of Montpellier, on the Mediterranean coast to the west of Marseilles, throughout the afternoon.  Le Petit Méridional wrote about crowds filling the streets and the ‘place de la Comédie’, and gathering outside its office building and the Prefecture hoping for confirmation of the news.  In the port of Sète, to the south-west, “everybody” was in the streets, and all the church bells were rung.

The newspaper commented, sarcastically, that among the Montpellier crowds there were many “well-informed” people.  Some confidently claimed that the armistice had been signed in Sedan at 7 o’clock that morning, some that it was signed in Nancy at 2:00 pm, while others maintained they had seen its official announcement on a poster displayed outside the Prefecture.

 

The paper explained to readers that it had ignored the peace rumours in its afternoon edition that day in compliance with instructions from the censors. 31

 

When the false armistice news stopped spreading in France is not certain.  But as late as 9:30 pm it reached British soldiers in a convalescent camp close to Cayeux-sur-Mer, where it spread “like a conflagration” and the “whole eight or ten thousand of us yelled ourselves hoarse”.  Some of the men “broke out of camp and headed into Cayeux to celebrate in the town”.  It was only the next day that they learnt the war was not over. 32  The news may have been relayed to Cayeux from Rouen, to the south-west, where it had arrived at a British Labour Corps Depot “during dinner”. 33

 Afterwards

Among after-the-event comments a number of papers made about the 7 November armistice news, Le Figaro urged Parisians to take it as a clear warning not to believe wild rumours.  They must remain calm and wait patiently for victory, it advised. The Excelsior, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, admonished those who had not paused to think about the news before immediately believing it.  Had they done so, the newspaper informed them, they would have realised the delegates could not possibly have reached their destination so soon after leaving Berlin. 34

The Cri de Paris, a weekly satirical magazine, mocked the way people had reacted on 7 November.  It expressed amazement at their credulity and at the confidence with which many had passed the false news on as a certainty – “I know it’s true. I heard the guns in Versailles announcing the good news”.  The magazine ridiculed some of those in military and municipal authority not just for being gullible, but also for using the occasion to project themselves as being important and ‘in-the-know’ – “I assure you, the armistice was signed at 11 o’clock this morning, …, I have my sources” (an army captain to a sceptical civilian on a tram). 35

 

Perhaps alone amongst French newspapers, the Journal du Loiret of Orléans, the regional capital, published an item explaining how the false armistice news had arisen.  The paper stated that a misinterpretation of the 7 November German Spa-Senlis telegram ordering a cease-fire to begin at 3 o’clock that afternoon was the probable source of the misinformation.  It wrote:

“The temporary cease-fire, limited in scope, must have been mistaken for the armistice itself …. Some persons who heard the wireless message … hastily presented it to others as meaning that armistice talks had ended, whereas they had not even begun.”

The news had spread to Orléans, some distance south-west of Paris, by telephone on 7 November.  The newspaper did not disclose where the call had come from.  Nor did it reveal who had subsequently given them the explanation about the German telegram, or say who the “persons” were who had apparently misinterpreted it. 36

But it is most likely that the paper had obtained its information from an American contact.  For the misinterpretation-explanation is part of the report the US Army G-2 Intelligence Service in Paris quickly put together about the 7 November armistice news.  The report, which was sent to G-2 SOS Headquarters in Tours, south-west of Orléans, is dated Saturday 9 November – the same day the Journal du Loiret offered the explanation to its readers. 37

 

Part of La Dépêche de Brest‘s  editorial about the False Armistice gave offence to the commanding officer of the American Army base in the town, Major General George Harries: the part, noted above, that stated the false news had been received “in all the towns where there were American headquarters”.  The General considered that this implicated the US Army, as well as the Navy, in the release and spread of the peace rumours.  And he insisted that the misleading insinuation be rectified and the fact made clear that “the American Army had been totally uninvolved in, and unconnected with, the dissemination of the false news”. 38

General Harries (a newspaper reporter in an earlier career) was obviously determined to distance himself and the US Army from Admiral Wilson and his 7 November peace announcement from the US Navy Headquarters in Brest.

The General instructed his Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Hornblow, to discuss the matter with the newspaper’s editor, Louis Coudurier.  What transpired at their meeting is not known here; 39  but in its Tuesday 12 November edition, La Dépêche printed a letter to the editor from Admiral Wilson (with translation) in which Wilson outlined what had happened the previous Thursday.

The English version reads:

“United states naval forces in France

E-l-e-v-e-n-t-h November Nineteen hundred and Eighteen

My dear Mr Coudurier

Regarding the premature announcement of the armistice on Thursday last, I would like to say for your information that a telegram announcing the signature of the armistice came to me that afternoon from source which heretofore had proved most reliable.

It was given out by office to our Brest friends that they might share the good news.  Later it was announced that the report was not correct.

Very sincerely yours,

A[d]miral WILSON.”

It would seem that the Admiral had been persuaded to help resolve the complaint raised by General Harries.  His letter, the newspaper commented, “happily closes the little incident that arose last Thursday, and increases – if this is possible – the respect and affection of the people of Brest for their great friend”. 40

 

The letter was squeezed onto a page of the newspaper whose columns (and those of two other pages) were filled with details and stories about the real Armistice – its terms, its effects, its celebration – and the unfolding consequences and repercussions of the end of the war.  Admiral Wilson’s letter, with its reminder about the False Armistice, seems out-of-place there, anachronistic even.  Clearly, events – and readers – had swiftly moved on.

Indeed, in France, as in other Allied countries except the United States, public interest in the False Armistice seems to have rapidly evaporated.  Afterwards, especially in official circles, it was perhaps too much of an embarrassment for it to be acknowledged and recalled as a feature of the triumphant final days of the war.

Twenty years later, at least one journalist regarded it as having been an exclusively American phenomenon – “this American false armistice”.  On the anniversary of the real Armistice, L’Impartial (a Swiss newspaper) printed an article by Jacques Geraud based on Roy Howard’s recently published account of his dispatch of the false news to the United States on 7 November 1918.

“The unforgettable day” the journalist remarked “is the historic 11 November 1918”.  The Americans, however, “should commemorate the 7 November” since this was “the day they heard about, and celebrated, the Allies’ victory”. 41

© James Smith

(May 2018.  Additional text, July 2018)

ENDNOTES

French Newspaper Sources

Many of the newspapers cited are accessible on the BnF Gallica website.  For those that are not, other website details are provided.

The information quoted in English from the French sources cited has been translated for this article by the writer.

Notes

  1. Jean-Jacques Becker, ‘Les Français à l’heure de l’armistice’, in Historiens & Géographes No 321, Décembre 1988, p288.
  2. For example, Le Petit Journal, 7 Novembre 1918, « 5 heures du matin. Edition de Paris », front page coverage ; Le Gaulois 7 Novembre 1918, « (5 h. du matin) », front page ; and Le Matin, 7 Novembre 1918, « 5 heures du matin », front page. The French news agency Havas released the information to the press, quoting the official Berlin announcement of the delegation’s departure from bulletins printed in neutral Switzerland and the Netherlands.
  3. Le Petit Parisien, 7 Novembre 1918, front page, under ‘Ceux qui se présenteront au Quartier Général de Foch’ ; and La Presse, 7 Novembre 1918, front page, under ‘L’Arrivée des Parlementaires’.
  4. See G-2’s False Armistice Findings article on this website.
  5. A. Z. Snyder and M.V. Snyder, Paris Days and London Nights. Chapter XXV, ‘The Fake Armistice’, Letter CLXXI, Paris, November 7, 1918, p366. (New York. 1921) Available online.
  6. The New York Times, November 8, 1918, under ‘French Awaited White Flags. PARIS, Nov.7’. Article available through the NYTimes.com Site Map website.
  7. Le Petit Méridional, 8 Novembre 1918, p2, under ‘Sachons attendre!’
  8. See G-2’s False Armistice Findings article on this website.
  9. Will Irwin, The Making of a Reporter, Chapter 20, pp365-366.  (New York. 1942); and Emmet Crozier, American Reporters on the Western Front, 1914-18, Chapter XXIII, ‘Too Soon the Good News’, pp260-261. (New York. 1959).  There are factual errors in Irwin’s account: he gives 8 November as the date of the False Armistice, and confuses the naval attaché in London with the one in Paris.  Crozier’s later account claims that the British nurse told Irwin that the armistice had been signed at 11:00 am and would take effect at 3:00 pm.
  10. See False Armistice News from France article on this website.
  11. Le Petit Méridional, 8 Novembre 1918, p2, under ‘Sachons attendre!’
  12. The Globe (London), 8 November 1918, p4, under ‘Paris Patriotic Outburst’. Accessible through the British Newspaper Archive website.    ‘Le Régiment de Sambre et Meuse’, a very popular song and military march, dates from the early 1870s and France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.    The news that spread on the streets about Sedan (in the Meuse-Argonne region of the Front) was inaccurate.  On 7 November, the Americans announced that at 4:00 pm the previous day they had taken “that part of the city of Sedan which lies on the west bank of the Meuse” – that is, not the whole city, which was not cleared of Germans until 10th.  It is not known here where the inaccurate version came from. Extract from “AMERICAN official communiqué, Nov. 7, morning”, quoted here from The Times, 8 November 1918, p6, under ‘AMERICANS IN SEDAN’.  In the same edition, on page 5, a report from Paris dated 7 November described the city as being “austerely calm”. (The report is printed under ‘Really?’ on the False Armistice Commentary page of this website.) The Times is accessible through the Gage Cengage Learning Website.
  13. Marcel Berger et Paul Allard, Les Secrets de la Censure pendant la Guerre.  Chapitre XVI, ‘Les Armistices : Le « faux Armistice »’, pp375-377. (Paris. 1932)  The US Ambassador was William G. Sharp.
  14. See G-2’s False Armistice Findings article on this website.
  15. Webb Miller, I Found No Peace. The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent. Chapter IV, ‘Premature Armistice’, p83. (Camelot Press, London. Book Club Special Edition. 1937).
  16. La Dépêche de Brest, 7 Novembre 1918, p3 under ‘Un gros événement’.  Accessible at http://www.ladepechedebrest.fr/idurl/1/18961
  17. Arthur Hornblow, Jr, ‘The Amazing Armistice: Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report’, p4.  Originally published in The Century Magazine, November 1921 issue.
  18. Same, p8.
  19. La Dépêche de Brest, 8 Novembre 1918, front page, second column on the left.
  20. The National Archives (Britain). War Office document in WO95/4017/2.
  21. William Hawkins (United Press, New York City) to Roy Howard (Brest). Cablegram, 9 November 1918. (Paris date-stamp).  See the article Roy W. Howard in Brest on this website.
  22. Same as note 19.
  23. Arthur Hornblow, Jr, p15.  Surprisingly, Hornblow states that “It was impossible, of course, to fool Paris”.  He also claims, p15, that “Holland and parts of Belgium” had it.
  24. See G-2’s False Armistice Findings article on this website.
  25. Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War, November 1918, pp22-23. (OUP, Paperback, 1987).
  26. Amico J. Barone, ‘November 7 [7 crossed through] 11’. Article in The American Legion Magazine, December 1938, pp1-3. Available online at http://www.oldmagazinearticles.comThe German Peace Delegation Crosses the Lines (American Legion Monthly, 1938) 
  27. As note 25, p22.
  28. Pleasance Walker, ‘Trenches and Destruction’. Letters from the Front 1915-1919. An Oxford Woman in the French Red Cross. Edited by Caroline Roaf. (Oxford. 2018) Letter to father, sent from St Quentin, ‘Nov 8th 1918’, pp155-157.
  29. L’Ouest-Éclair (édition de Rennes) 8 Novembre 1918, p3 under ‘Restons Calmes’.
  30. From, ‘La presse locale raconte le 11 novembre 1918’.  Article posted 3 November 2008 on http://www.alencon.maville.com/actu/actudet-La-presse-locale-raconte-le-11-novembre-1918
  31. Le Petit Méridional, 8 Novembre 1918, p2 under ‘Sachons attendre !’  (Sète was spelled Cette until 1928.)
  32. Quotes from Nicholas Best, The Greatest Day in History: How the Great War Really Ended, pp75-76. (London. 2008).
  33. Stanley Weintraub, p22.  And Nicholas Best, pp74-75.
  34. Le Figaro, 8 Novembre 1918, front page, under ‘Le Voyage des Parlementaires’ ; Excelsior, 8 Novembre 1918, p2, under ‘Une Fausse Nouvelle Courut Hier A Paris’.
  35. Le Cri de Paris, 17 Novembre 1918, pp12-13, under ‘CHOSES ET GENS – Les fausses nouvelles’.
  36. Journal du Loiret, 9 Novembre 1918, p2, under ‘Faux bruits, fausses nouvelles’.  Available online from AURELIA – Bibliothèque numérique d’Orléans.
  37. See G-2’s False Armistice Findings article on this website.
  38. 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.  This is a report from Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Laureau, Head of the French Mission to the American Army Base at Brest, to “Monsieur le Commissaire Général aux Affaires de Guerre franco-américaines“ in Paris.
  39. Unfortunately, the report is incomplete: only the first two pages were available when this article was written.
  40. La Dépêche de Brest, 10 Novembre 1918, p3, ‘Une lettre du vice-amiral Wilson’.
  41. L’Impartial, 11 Novembre 1938, in the first and second sheets, under ‘Le mystère du faux armistice. Comment les Américains ont célébré dès le 7 novembre 1918 la fin des hostilités’. By Jacques Geraud [No known biographical details here.]  Accessible on the Archives Historiques L’Express, L’Impartial website, www.lexpressarchives.ch    Roy Howard’s account is in Webb Miller’s book – see note 15.