On Thursday 7 November 1918, what US Army Intelligence called a “False Report of Signing of Armistice” spread from Paris to other parts of France and other Allied countries. 1 [End Notes] It provoked peace celebrations by millions of people around the world four days before the actual day – Monday 11 November – on which the war ended. Those events quickly became known as the False Armistice and the date as False Armistice Day (particularly in the United States).
According to the few accounts about it in Britain, this country was hardly affected by the False Armistice because cautious newspapers held back from reporting the 7 November armistice news. For instance, Arthur Hornblow, a former American Intelligence officer, wrote in a 1921 magazine article that although the news arrived in London the British papers, “with one unimportant exception”, doubted its credibility and refused to print it. 2 Many years later, historian Stanley Weintraub stated that the news “seeped into military camps” in Britain, but the London press “prudently sat on it”. 3 And Nicholas Best more recently claimed that the false news “leaked out” but only “a few people in Britain exulted”. 4
These assessments, however, are inaccurate because the false armistice news was widely reported in Britain and had an impact throughout the country: there was most certainly a British False Armistice on 7 November 1918. 21
The following account of it is drawn largely from newspaper items that appeared (for the most part) between 6 – 9 November 1918 – little seems to have been written about it in other sources either at the time or later. Indeed, it seems to have been completely overshadowed by the real Armistice, quickly forgotten about, and virtually excluded from the nation’s general historical record of events during the last few days of the Great War. 5
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT, 6-7 NOVEMBER
German Armistice Delegation News: Fact, Speculation, and Misinformation
During the first week of November 1918 there was growing optimism in Britain that a resounding Allied victory, an armistice with Germany and the end of the war were close at hand. Two separate newspaper reports about a German armistice delegation, published at the end of that week, boosted such hopes.
The first informed readers that the German Government had sent representatives to the Western Front “to conclude an armistice and take up peace negotiations”. It named (incorrectly in the event) two generals and two admirals as the delegates. This momentous news appeared in the German press during the afternoon of Wednesday 6 November, and in British and other countries’ papers that same evening and the following day.
Commenting on the development, many newspapers speculated persuasively that the German Government had probably already received the Allies’ armistice terms and – facing imminent military collapse in the West, Bolshevik-inspired mutiny in the navy, political upheaval and widespread social disorder at home – had instructed the delegates to accept all the terms and end the war as quickly as possible when they arrived.
The second report also appeared in some Wednesday evening editions, and again in Thursday morning and early afternoon papers. It announced that the German delegates had actually reached the front lines (British in some versions, French in others), been allowed to cross and were due to meet Marshal Foch’s armistice delegation during Thursday morning. As the Lobby correspondent of the London Daily News related, the information had reached Parliament “within a minute or two of … being received in official quarters” and had brought members together “in the Lobby” to discuss this “new and dramatic situation”. 6
Most people who were aware of these reports were probably hoping, perhaps even expecting, to hear – sooner rather than later – that the armistice had been signed without any delay and the war was finally over. When such news did break on Thursday afternoon, they could not therefore have been greatly surprised by it. Indeed, they readily believed it, all-the-more so as it came from Reuters, the highly regarded “news agency of the British Empire”.
However, the report about the Wednesday evening crossing of the front lines was completely false: the German delegates had not reached – could not possibly have reached – the Western Front so soon after leaving Berlin that afternoon. Even when the Thursday armistice news started circulating the delegates were still on their way, with several hours yet to go before they crossed into France. And their first meeting with Marshal Foch did not take place until the morning of Friday 8 November.
A combination of a few facts about the departure of a German armistice delegation, some convincing suppositions about it, and false news about its arrival thus preceded the announcement of the Thursday 7 November German-armistice news. A combination that in effect served to prepare the public for the False Armistice.
The Reuter False Armistice Bulletin: Its Release, Spread, and Retraction
The news reached Britain from France. It arrived at the American Embassy in London (probably from their embassy in Paris) sometime before 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoon. Reuters acquired it and around 4:00 pm sent it – by telegram – to the Press Association and some of the London newspapers. The message stated simply: “Reuter’s Agency is informed that according to official American information the armistice with Germany was signed at 2:30”. The Press Association circulated it to its mostly provincial members who then released it to the public, as did a few London papers.
Armistice ‘extras’ and ‘specials’ (mostly pre-prepared) appeared on the streets with remarkable speed, and the news spread rapidly thereafter, passed on by word-of-mouth, telephone, telegram, and workplace siren alerts. As the Gloucestershire Echo observed, even “the most obscure villages” received it. 7
However, no more than twenty minutes after the bulletin went out, Reuters sent a follow-on message urging the newspapers, without explanation, to “suppress” it. A little later, a communiqué from the Foreign Office warned that “up to 3.30” it had received no information about the signing of an armistice with Germany, and advised the press not to give “credence” to the Reuter report until “an authoritative statement” had been made.
The warning did not deny that a German armistice had been signed, only that there was no official confirmation of one having been signed. Later in the evening, however, the Press Association circulated unambiguous official denials which offered insights into the current situation, though not location, of the German delegation: “at 4 o’clock this afternoon the German emissaries had not even reached the French lines”; and “up to five o’clock the German representatives had not even presented themselves to ascertain from Marshal Foch the Allies’ terms”. In other words, the armistice news was definitely “not in accordance with fact”. 8
Anyone recalling the earlier report that the armistice delegation had crossed the lines on Wednesday evening would have realized now that it too had been totally untrue.
Neither Reuters’ retraction nor the Foreign Office’s warning, however, failed to stop the false news spreading: “it was absolutely impossible to overtake tidings for which everyone was waiting with so much anxiety”. 7 By early evening, it had reached most parts of Britain.
FALSE ARMISTICE DAY IN ENGLAND, SOUTH WALES, AND SCOTLAND
Circumstances in Britain did not favour spontaneous celebrations in response to Reuters’ armistice bulletin. The ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic was debilitating millions, and killing thousands, of Britons at the time. When the news was released, it was already getting dark and there was thick November fog in some areas. Under Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) regulations and other wartime restrictions, main roads, streets, and town centres were poorly lit in the evenings. And many activities that usually featured in peace celebrations were prohibited. For example, lighting bonfires, setting off fireworks, ringing church bells and making loud noises had not been allowed since the start of the war.
Moreover, public houses and bars in hotels and clubs were closed when the news broke just after 4:00 pm, and depending upon the local licensing rules, would not be open until 6:00 pm or 6:30 pm, and then for only two or three hours. When they did open, most would have been unheated or under-heated owing to a severe shortage of coal, despite coal-rationing, affecting all parts of the country. Because of wartime reductions in output, many were short of beer and spirits, which were by then much weaker to curb intoxication, while steep increases in duties had raised prices to unprecedented levels. And to top it all, customers were not permitted to buy drinks on credit or to treat other people to a drink.
Nevertheless, the news prompted a good deal of “jubilation” all over Britain. Ignoring flu advice about avoiding crowds, people filled the gloomy streets and dismal pubs, took risks with DORA by enlivening their celebrations, as did some newspapers by reporting that large numbers of Allied servicemen from local bases took part in the revelries. And even after the official refutations began to spread, many people refused to go home. Convinced that the armistice news was “only premature” and “hostilities would quickly cease”, they lingered late into the night hoping for confirmation that the war was over. 9 As the Bristol-based Western Daily Press told its readers “everybody believed the original story, and no denials, however emphatic, would have killed the belief in it.” 10
London and the South East
London was “filled” with “manifestly premature” peace rumours on 7 November, the Times newspaper remarked the following day; rumours, the London correspondent of the Plymouth Western Morning News reported, that had caused “great excitement” throughout the capital, with newspaper vendors being “literally stormed” by crowds wanting to learn what was happening. 11
The London Globe quickly posted the news in its window and attracted large numbers of cheering people. “In a surprisingly short time”, it and the Evening News had “rushed out special editions” that were “eagerly snapped up” as soon as they appeared on the streets. These, however, contained no more information “than was in the bulletin”. 12
From the Globe building, no doubt travelling in different directions by word-of-mouth, the news reached the Savoy Hotel just a short distance away in the Strand and was greeted by guests there with a “roar of exultation”. 12 Captain James Churchill-Smith, an Australian recently arrived on leave, was told the news and noted briefly in his diary for that day: “News of Peace [came] through – great excitement, but only a rumor”. 13
It entered Parliament “almost immediately after questions [in the House of Commons]”, and “for the rest of the day the House was but scantily attended, as members were waiting about to gain confirmation of a story which spread rapidly through London. It was strange how calmly they accepted the report.” 14
Describing scenes in central London that evening, the Derby Daily Telegraph’s correspondent sent the following graphic account for the Friday issue:
“The rumour … spread through London from lip to lip early last night with amazing rapidity. Vast crowds from the Government offices in Whitehall heard it as they left business, and an unparalleled rush was made for the newspaper ‘pitches’. Within five minutes every paper on sale had been snapped up, and men stood empty-handed until fresh piles arrived. Then a great struggling mob almost fought for copies. The men ladled them out as fast as they could pick them up, giving no change. Supplies had been doubled or trebled, but they were quickly exhausted. Soldiers were conspicuous among the purchasers. A dark, thick November fog almost blotted London out of view, but people gathered round the street lamps to read what was said about the armistice and the story of the German naval mutiny ….” 15
Tension in the capital was “very great”, according to the Manchester Guardian correspondent. “Women weeping, men running, and in every stores or office that one went into the whole place seemed suddenly to have become vocal. It was an extraordinary change after the general quietude of these places in the war.” The news seemed to be “too big even for Whitehall” where “in official quarters” the tension “took the form of silence and waiting, for no one liked to prophesy.” 16
Later editions of papers provoked even “greater scenes of excitement”; but in these “all there was to read was that the report had been cancelled”. 17 Indeed, it was not long before the Globe removed the bulletin from its window, and both it and the Evening News called in their ‘specials’. 12 They sent out “messengers … in cars and on cycles to recover [them] – or such of them as had not been sold, at quite uncontrolled prices, to eager buyers.” 14
The Globe explained in its “Final Night Edition” of 7 November that the armistice report, supposedly based on “official authority”, was no more than a rumour that had reached “a Foreign Embassy in London”. It now pointed out that “geographically” the German delegation could not “yet have met Marshal Foch and … capitulated”, something it and many other papers had evidently not considered until the Foreign Office issued its refutal. The next day, ignoring its effects in London and other parts of Britain, the paper reported how “extraordinary demonstrations” had occurred in New York and Washington after the false news arrived in the United States. 19
London’s False Armistice lasted only a short time; but while it did the “more volatile Southerner” certainly “began to let himself go” according to one Lancashire paper. 20 A “moment of excitement” producing “a flash of rejoicing” is how one London resident described it. Obviously disappointing, it nevertheless lifted Londoners’ spirits and boosted their morale: it had the “effect of stirring the sluggish pulse of the people” who now “walk more briskly and exchange light hearted banter as they jostle each other.” 12
Elsewhere in the South East, the news reached at least two aerodromes: one in the Hounslow area of West London; the other in the Manston area of Kent.
In Hounslow, US airmen training at Hounslow Heath Aerodrome created a “hot time” for the local residents. During the afternoon, “through their own official wire”, the Americans received information about the success of General Pershing’s forces at Sedan, followed a short time later by the armistice news. A “strong contingent” of them made up their minds to “wake up the district” – which they “did effectually”. To the “intense entertainment” of the local people – who came out “in force” to witness the spectacle – the “Yankee visitors in khaki” paraded around the town centre with flags, drums, fifes and bugles, playing “all kinds of music”. 22
Meanwhile, servicemen at the Manston RAF aerodrome in Kent were also celebrating. Here, however, the festivities were confined to the camp and became distinctly unruly. The armistice news undermined discipline amongst the Observer School servicemen there: orders from officers were ignored, beer was stolen from the base canteen, taken away and drunk in the huts. Apparently, order was not restored until the following day when the men stopped behaving “like beasts”. 23
The South West
Papers released the false armistice news in Gloucestershire, Devon and, presumably, other parts of the region.
The Gloucestershire Echo “at once circulated [it] widely” in a special “stop-press edition”, but did not subsequently report how the armistice message and then its retraction affected people in Gloucester itself and other urban areas in the county. But its following day’s edition spoke of revelries throughout Thursday night in the market town of Stroud, a few miles south-east of Gloucester in the Cotswold Hills. The celebrating here, it seems, was mostly the work of Australian Flying Corps servicemen from an aerodrome near to the village of Minchinhampton.
The servicemen decided to celebrate the peace news by travelling down to Stroud. According to the Echo, the townspeople’s “customary equilibrium” had not been disturbed by the arrival of the news in the afternoon; but “wild scenes” followed later in the evening when about two hundred Australians “invaded” with their band. Apart from “several members of the fairer sex”, however, most of the locals seem not to have joined the celebration, even though the “lively din” went on through the night until early the next morning. 24
In its Saturday 9 November issue, the weekly Gloucestershire Chronicle – “The County Conservative Organ” – noting that armistice “rumours were current in Gloucester on Thursday afternoon” – went on to claim that they had been “quickly blown into thin air” (presumably by the official denials) and congratulated the public for reacting with “wholly admirable calmness”. 25 It is not clear, however, whether “admirable calmness” referred to how the people of Gloucester reacted on 7 November, because this particular Chronicle item seems to be taken from a wholly inaccurate short statement in the London Daily Mail’s Friday 8 November issue alleging a national “indifference” to Thursday’s false news.
How the armistice news affected people in Gloucestershire as a whole, therefore, is unclear. But farther to the south-west, the port of Plymouth’s two sister newspapers gave quite detailed accounts of what happened there, in the cathedral city of Exeter, in other parts of Devon, and in parts of Cornwall.
The Western Morning News explained that the Reuter bulletin reached Exeter not long after 4:00 pm and spread “like wildfire”; the “greatness of the news” seeming at first “to overwhelm the people”. Large crowds soon gathered in the main streets, “parties of children paraded, singing patriotic airs” and a general “good humour prevailed”. But proposals to ring the cathedral bells were “very discreetly” turned down by “the authorities”, who wanted “official confirmation” of the news first.
The crowds grew as the evening wore on, though they had by then stopped celebrating. Waiting in the dark “for two or three hours”, they were hoping for some delayed official confirmation that the armistice news was true after all. Eventually, the newspaper posted the official refutal in its windows. People received it “in an admirable spirit of patience”. 26
Plymouth, to the south-west of Exeter, witnessed similar scenes. “All classes of the community flocked to the centre of the town” on hearing the news. Crowds surrounded the newspaper building “in the afternoon and throughout the evening” hoping for more information; traffic was disrupted and “almost impossible”; but there was “general good humour”, the “attitude … one of pleasant anticipation”. Apparently, a “further unconfirmed [armistice-signed] report” and another “subsequent contradiction” arrived “about 10 o’clock”; the crowds greeted the report “with great enthusiasm” and considered the contradiction to be “merely a postponement”. 27
From the town centre, people would have been easily aware of what was going on a short distance away in Devonport, the harbour and Royal Navy Dockyard area of Plymouth, where the news seems to have been celebrated very loudly. Vessels in the harbour set off their sirens and hooters and discharged “rockets”. Convinced the news was true, those with the authority here did allow the church bells to be rung, adding to the “general din”. High spirits prevailed, particularly “at the places of amusement” where there was hearty singing of patriotic songs. Warnings that the peace news was unconfirmed were eventually circulated, but people refused to believe them and “openly derided” them. 26 How long into the night Devonport and the rest of the town carried on celebrating was not reported.
The Western Evening Herald noted that in addition to the armistice news, rumours had also reached Plymouth that the German High Seas Fleet had surrendered. “The crowds hummed like hives of bees beneath the newspaper windows …. The telephones hardly ceased wanting to know for many hours, calls coming from [several named places around Devon and Cornwall] etc, not to speak of local and Service rings. But there was no foundation for what they wanted to hear, and some were inclined to discuss and argue the matter, so certain were they.” 28
The Midlands and the North
Local papers around the industrial Midlands and North of England stated that the armistice news arrived in Birmingham, Blackburn, Derby, Hartlepool, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Nantwich, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Rochdale, Sheffield, and Stoke-on-Trent. But information about what happened in the region on 7 November is sparse.
In the West Midlands, for instance, Birmingham papers offered just brief allusions such as: “the events of yesterday” and “the spread of unofficial reports”; “yesterday rumour had another field day”; and “there was a false alarm yesterday afternoon”. 29 How people reacted to the news – whether they left their homes and workplaces to fill the streets and towns, started celebrating, or just took it all calmly and awaited further information – was not covered.
In the East Midlands, the Derby Daily Telegraph, providing a little more information, recounted that the Reuter message – “the great hoax” – had “gripped the town and spread like a prairie fire” in a matter of minutes. People clamoured for newspapers “as they will probably never clamour for them again”. And later, when they heard the peace news had been denied, they refused to accept that the war was not over and “laughed at” the contradictory messages which then “had to be withdrawn from circulation”. For the people of Derby, the newspaper claimed, the whole affair had been a “very disagreeable … very bitter experience”. 30
In the North West, the news arrived in Nantwich, in Cheshire, as the local newspaper was putting together its Friday 8 November edition. And in Liverpool in time to be mentioned in the local Echo’s ‘Last City’ edition of 7 November. The Northern Daily Telegraph, with a 7 November headline “Grand News If True”, cautiously informed Blackburn, in Lancashire, that the war was over assuming “the News which reaches us this evening is correct”. And it spread quickly around Rochdale where, despite “a sense of intense relief at the thought that the long-drawn-out agony was over”, the rejoicing that greeted the news was “of a subdued order”. 31
In the North East, the announcement “obtained wide currency” in Newcastle-upon-Tyne; was released in Hartlepool just before the arrival of the follow-on cancellation; and confirmed rumours which the Sheffield-based Yorkshire Telegraph and Star claimed had been “flying about very freely in the earlier part of the day”. Ignoring the excitement it probably caused in Huddersfield and its surroundings, the local Daily Examiner described the armistice news as just another “lying jade”. Thick fog in Leeds perhaps helps explain the absence of newspaper reports of any outdoor gatherings and excitement there. The Hull Daily Mail carried the news in its late afternoon edition of 7 November but said nothing about its effects on the city and port. It did, however, tell readers how similar news had affected people in New York and Washington, DC, and urged them to wait for an official peace announcement from the Government “before permitting themselves to rejoice”. 32
IN SOUTH WALES
The Reuter bulletin caused a “great wave of delirious delight, reminiscent of the Mafficking revelry of the Boer War days” as it “swept over the whole of South Wales” on 7 November. In Cardiff (not yet Wales’ capital city) a “long-sustained blast at 4.30 p.m.” on the siren of the local Evening Express newspaper suddenly alerted the city, and almost immediately afterwards a special edition of the paper, carrying the message in its “Stop Press”, went on sale in the streets. There was “an eager rush” to buy copies.
As the news spread, “thousands of people poured into the city” from the suburbs, on foot and by tramcar, in an “ever-increasing throng of revellers”. The centre and main streets were soon filled with cheering, singing, flag-waving people and noisy processions and parades; at least two bands played patriotic music and “popular refrains”. Servicemen – “Doughboys, Tommies, and all in naval or military uniforms” – were cheered and “ovated”. The “Yanks” in particular “became prominent among the street revellers” and a number of American officers, driving around in a motorcar, delighted the crowds with renditions of “Oh Johnny” (a popular American song of the time).
It is not clear when the Cardiff papers received the warnings about the armistice message or when they made them known to the crowds. But a meeting of the Trades and Labour Council that evening accepted the news as being “official”. And as “the evening wore on” people continued to throng the streets. Indeed, there were “great crowds” in the city centre “until a late hour”, especially in the vicinity of the Angel Hotel where the US Navy had its headquarters. (The hotel was renamed the USS Chatinouka. 33 )
By this time, however, it is most likely that the crowds were hanging on hoping to hear confirmation from the Americans that the armistice news was true and the war was indeed over. Even “the most authoritative circles in London”, the Western Mail claimed to have been told, were expecting “good news” and regarded the situation as “hopeful” until quite a “late hour on Thursday evening”.
Similar “peace celebrations” occurred in “all the principal centres in South Wales”. In Abergavenny, ignoring the chief-constable’s threat to prosecute him, the local mayor ordered the church bells to be rung “to proclaim the armistice”. In the Rhondda Valleys, to the sounds of hundreds of “sirens and hooters”, masses of people “jubilating to their hearts’ content” gathered outside and marched around “all the evening through”. In Merthyr Tydfil “detonators” were discharged as cheering crowds awaited the arrival of the “late paper train”; in Neath, where “huge crowds filled the streets”, rockets were produced and fired into the air and “even a few ancient cannon were discharged”; while in the coal mining area of Ystalyfera, to the north of Neath, someone brought out fireworks and set them off, creating “such excitement” as had not been seen “since the relief of Mafeking”. With huge processions and bands, and “the hostelries [everywhere] well patronised”, Britonferry, Skewen, Llanelly, the Mumbles and “many other places” were “en fete”. 34
The town of Swansea, however, was not one of them and seems to have been the regional exception. Further west along the coast from Cardiff, people there – if the local press is to be believed – mostly remained calm about the armistice news: they kept their “sanity” on 7 November.
By implication, this was the result largely of an effective containment of the Reuter bulletin by the Cambria Daily Leader and the town’s other local newspaper, the South Wales Evening Post.
The Daily Leader received the armistice news not long after 4:15 pm, rushed out “a few dozen” issues announcing it before Reuters’ follow-on telegram arrived, and then promptly halted the distribution. All but seven of the releases were eventually retrieved. In a “happy circumstance”, the Evening Post was able to cancel its impending release of the news as soon as it received Reuters’ retraction. When the Foreign Office warnings arrived, around 5:30 pm, they were “at once” circulated. 35
By this account, therefore, the two Swansea papers managed to forestall any widespread dissemination of the false armistice news from their own editions. But they could not prevent Cardiff papers (possibly the South Wales Echo and Evening Express) spreading it around the town “for hours after we knew of the contradiction … giving a message we knew to be untrue”. The reason, the Daily Leader suggested dryly, was that for the Cardiff papers “apparently the interval of time between the receipt of the [Reuter] message and the order to stop it was greater [than] with some other journals”. 35
Nevertheless, most people seem to have accepted the local newspapers’ warnings, for their “general disposition was to remain calm and doubting”. There was “some very mild mafficking on the part of little bodies of juveniles” but “the elders” showed commendable “restraint”. On the whole, Swansea seems to have avoided the “bitter disappointment” that “other parts of Wales” felt at having been so “misinformed”. 35
(No doubt to the bemusement of its readers, the weekly Merthyr Express, covering the Merthyr Tydfil and surrounding areas, announced on Saturday 9 November that Germany had signed an armistice two days earlier “at 2.30 p.m.”, that there was “Peace Once More”, and that “now we can breathe freely.” The following week’s edition ignored the error and presented a two-page feature on the Monday 11 November real Armistice.) 36
As well as the peace celebrations on 7 November, South Wales newspapers drew attention to what were seen as serious economic consequences arising from Reuters’ armistice bulletin. For, as the news spread, people not only left their homes to celebrate but also their places of work. In “scores of shops, factories, and works of all descriptions” they “downed tools”, disrupting whatever productive activities they were engaged in.
At the Dowlais iron and steel works, close to the docks in Cardiff, “the furnaces were allowed to go out”, reducing output there “for some days”. In “the several works” at Neath, “labour was immediately suspended”; and in Newport and elsewhere night-shifts were cancelled “in many industrial concerns”. The following day – Friday – miners from “the Main and other collieries around Skewen and Neath Abbey” stayed at home and works in Britonferry were “still idle”. The effect on coal production was “particularly serious”, in the opinion of the Daily Leader, “in view of the already grave [national] shortage of coal”. The Ministry of Shipping agreed, blaming Reuters’ armistice announcement “in certain Cardiff newspapers” for the loss of “about 50,000 tons of coal” for export shipment at a time of “serious arrears on all coal programmes”.38
It is highly likely that similar disruption and losses also occurred in England and Scotland as a result of the false armistice news. But newspapers in the industrial Midlands and the North gave little information about anything that may have happened there on 7 November (as previously noted). And papers in Scotland (below) also seem to have been reluctant to mention such matters. Reported or not, however, the economic consequences were a major reason why the Reuter news agency and the Press Association subsequently faced prosecution for releasing the armistice bulletin to the papers.
The bulletin caused “a tremendous sensation” in Edinburgh. Like many papers in Britain, the Edinburgh Evening News lost “not a moment in publishing it”. But, as in other places, almost as soon as the news started selling on the capital’s streets, “instructions arrived to cancel [it]”. What else may have happened in the city neither it nor the Scotsman (also published in Edinburgh) decided to report; but both described how Americans reacted when they heard the false armistice news the same day. 39
Across the Firth of Forth, the “absurd rumour” circulated late into the night in Kirkcaldy and Burntisland, and the “curious went to bed wondering if [the morning] newspapers would contain anything substantial”. The town of Falkirk, about thirty miles north-west of Edinburgh, was gripped “very badly” by the “peace-declared fever”. The rumour persisted – the evening newspapers failing to “kill the canard” – and “an air of expectancy” kept many people in the poorly lit streets waiting in vain for an official confirmation of the end of the war. But any celebrations that may have occurred there are not mentioned. In Motherwell, south-west of the capital and a few miles south-east of Glasgow, the local weekly paper noted, without any elaboration, that the armistice news had arrived just as workmen were finishing for the day and “was received everywhere with the greatest enthusiasm”. 40
In Aberdeen, on the coast far to the north-east of Edinburgh and Glasgow, the local paper rushed out a special edition announcing the armistice news, which then spread “throughout the whole city” before it was able to print the Foreign Office warning about it. By then, people had “entered enthusiastically into rejoicings over [the] end of hostilities”, though there was also “a certain disappointment” that the Germans were likely to escape “the horrors of invasion and the terrifying air warfare” they could expect from a prolongation of the war. The general excitement “ran high” well into the evening as people “thronged” the streets and crowded around the newspaper offices in Broad Street waiting for more information. When news did arrive – “shortly after nine o’clock” – it was that the German armistice delegation had not yet arrived at the front lines. Even then some waited “until close on midnight … on the off-chance of hearing later news”, before finally accepting the disappointment “philosophically”. 41
How people in Glasgow and its districts reacted on 7 November is not certain – the city’s Daily Record and Mail did not report it. But presumably from its perspective as “The All-Scotland Newspaper”, the paper observed that although “many well-intentioned people were provoked into premature rejoicings” neither the Reuter message nor its “rectification” had caused “any appreciable demonstration in the large centres of population”. It felt that most people viewed the news not as being “perverted”, but merely as “premature”: an “intelligent anticipation” of “the inevitable and triumphant end” just a few days away. All of which, it concluded, provided yet another “proof” of “our national phlegm”. 42
Several other papers promoted the idea of the False Armistice as a rehearsal for what they decided was a rapidly approaching genuine one. But many felt that the British public had been needlessly misled, their hopes and spirits raised one minute only to be dashed the next. The false armistice report, they asserted, was a “piece of very bad work” about which people had every “right to be affronted”. 43 And they were quick to name who they assumed was to blame for what had happened.
BLAME FOR THE FALSE ARMISTICE IN BRITAIN
At the time, when the US Army was fully engaged in the Allied offensive forcing the Germans back along the whole Western Front, any explicit public criticism of the Americans over the false armistice message would have been unthinkable. Indeed, regardless of circumstances, adverse press comments about the actions of any of Britain’s Allies would have been considered disloyal. They would probably also have displeased the censors.
Newspapers therefore refrained from asking questions about the details of the armistice message. The most a few said about it were brief remarks such as “the report emanated from the American Embassy in London”; “the original statement was inaccurate and was due to a mistake at the Embassies”; “[it] was a misunderstanding of a message in high American quarters [in London]”; and “how the alleged ‘official’ American message got out remains for the present a mystery.” 44 Most, however, avoided mentioning it.
Papers that commented on Reuters’ part in the events expressed surprise that, as two Scottish ones put it, “the most reliable foreign news agency in the world” had been associated with “an erroneous message on a matter of such momentous concern”. 45 But they did not criticise it for releasing the American news. In fact, Reuters’ sound reputation, affirmed by many, served for some to justify their own readiness to rush the bulletin into print. As the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star explained, the report “seemed to us, and to anyone familiar with dealing with news, to be absolutely reliable, and on the strength of this [we published it]. We regret that any of our readers should have been misinformed through us, but really this was not our fault.” 46
It was assumed that the fault lay with the Official Press Bureau in London, the country’s wartime censors, who were readily accused of being responsible for what had happened on 7 November. The “false alarm yesterday afternoon,” declared the Birmingham Daily Gazette, “is blameable to the stupidity of the Press Bureau.” Their “ineptness”, the Western Times implied, was the reason the so-called “official American message” had been “put on the wire” in the first place. 47 Taking it for granted that the armistice report had “passed the official censorship”, they decided that the Bureau must have approved it for publication without bothering to confirm it with the Foreign Office or War Office. 48
The Press Bureau censors, however, had not blundered. As it happened, they did not see the armistice bulletin before Reuters telegraphed it to the Press Association. Entirely legitimately under the wartime so-called ‘voluntary press censorship’, Reuters issued the news without first submitting it to the censors for approval.
Nevertheless, in a normal course of events on 7 November the censors would still have seen the unsubmitted bulletin before it went out, checked its details, found them to be wrong and blocked its publication. And there would have been no False Armistice in Britain. This is because, under the cable censorship regulations, press telegrams sent within the country from one newspaper to another, containing information specifically about the war, had to be diverted by Post Office Telegraph Service clerks to the cable censors at the Official Press Bureau.
The telegram from Reuters to the Press Association was a press telegram; the message it carried was clearly about the war. It should therefore have been forwarded straight to the censors. But it was not. Instead, clerks at the Central Telegraph Office in London immediately transmitted it: Reuters’ American-sourced armistice misinformation bypassed the Official Press Bureau.
Had the news been true, Reuters and the Press Association would have enjoyed a memorable scoop over their rivals; as it was, by circulating what turned out to be false war news they broke DORA Regulation 27 prohibiting the publication of “false reports” or “false statements”. This, and the adverse effects on industrial production attributable to it, led the directors of the Press Bureau to report the two agencies to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). He in turn referred them to the Attorney-General. But it was eventually decided not to take the agencies to court.
Reuters and the Press Association were thus spared prosecution. Instead, they received a stern rebuke from the DPP for what they had done.
For its Telegraph Service clerks’ crucially important failure to divert the Reuter bulletin for censorship on 7 November, the Post Office received a letter of complaint from the Press Bureau directors.
To the editors of newspapers that had published its bulletin on 7 November, Reuters’ manager wrote a “strictly private & confidential” letter the following month setting out what had happened. He assured them that the agency had “acted in entire good faith” but, he confided, it had been “misled” by “American authorities [who] were in the same position”. 49
© James Smith (September 2017) (Reviewed September 2020)
- See ‘The G-2 (SOS) Report on the False Armistice News’ on this website.
- Arthur Hornblow, ‘The Amazing Armistice. Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report.’ Century Magazine, November 1921, p15. (USA). Hornblow was stationed in Brest (France) in November 1918.
- Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Round the World. The End of the Great War: November 1918, p38. (USA 1985). His account of the False Armistice in the opening chapter of his book is the first by a professional historian. It deals with various aspects of the story, drawing extensively on a range of sources.
- Nicholas Best, The Greatest Day in History. How the Great War Really Ended, p71. (London. 2008).
- Newspapers cited below are ones with content relevant to this study on their digitised pages available to date. Most were accessed through the British Newspaper Archive and the National Library of Wales online newspaper collection (Welsh Newspapers Online). The London Timesand the Daily Mail are available through Gale Cengage Learning sites. For copyright information, consult the websites. http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk http://newspapers.library.wales
- The Western Mail(Cardiff), 7 November 1918, p2, under ‘LONDON LETTER’; and p3 under ‘ARMISTICE DELEGATES CROSS THE ALLIED LINES’. The British Parliamentary Archives appear not to contain any records of the receipt of the report or its discussion in the Lobbies: result of an enquiry by the writer in March 2017.
- The Gloucestershire Echo, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘PREMATURE ANNOUNCEMENT CAUSES WILD EXCITEMENT’.
- The Evening Express(Aberdeen), 7 November 1918, p3 under ‘STOP PRESS NEWS’; and 8 November, p3 under ‘REUTER EXPLAINS’. For a more detailed account of these events see, James Smith, ‘Reuters and the False Armistice of 7 November 1918’. The Baron, Archives. 6 April 2017. http://www.thebaron.info/archives/reuters-and-the-false-armistice-of-7-november-1918
- The Northampton Mercury, 8 November 1918, p5 under ‘CLOSE TO THE END’.
- The Western Daily Press, 8 November 1918, p3 under ‘LONDON LETTER’.
- The Times, 8 November 1918, p7 under ‘Suspense’; and the Western Morning News, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘OUR LONDON CORRESPONDENT’.
- Alice Z. Snyder and Milton V. Snyder, Paris Days and London Nights. ‘Letter CLXXII, London, November 7, 1918’, pp367-368. (New York. 1921)
- Captain James Churchill-Smith Diary 1918: ‘Transcript of entry for 7 November 1918’, p38. PRG 1159/1/3. Government of South Australia State Library, Centenary of Anzac, 2014-2018.
- The Westminster Gazette, November 8, 1918, p3 under ‘Our London Letter’.
- The Derby Daily Telegraph, 8 November 1918, p3 under ‘Scenes in the Street’.
- As reported in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘DAILY JOTTINGS’.
- The Western Morning News, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘OUR LONDON CORRESPONDENT’.
- The Globe, 7 November 1918, p1 under ‘NO SURRENDER YET’; and 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘A LITTLE TOO SOON’.
- The Rochdale Observer, 9 November 1918, p4 under ‘NOTES AND COMMENTS’.
- For an overview of the False Armistice (also referred to as the Premature/Fake/Hoax Armistice) see James Smith, ‘The False Armistice 7 November 1918’ at https://webarchive.loc.gov/all/20181107222154/http://www.centenarynews.com/
- The Middlesex Chronicle, 9 November 1918, p7 under ‘VICTORY CAKE-WALK’. The newspaper did not divulge that the Americans were airmen from a local aerodrome.
- Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Round the World, p24. (New York. 1985). The information is from a letter, dated 8 March 1978, written by E.E. Seeder to Alan Haydock “of the BBC”. ‘Chapter Notes’, p 427.
- The GloucestershireEcho, 7 November 1918, p4 under ‘REPORTED SIGNING OF ARMISTICE’; and 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘ARMISTICE CELEBRATION AT STROUD’. It is assumed here that the Australians were airmen from the Minchinhampton base. See ‘Minchinhampton Aerodrome in 1918 and Curzon Felix Hamel’ at https://community.stroud.gov.ukfor some background details.
- The Gloucestershire Chronicle, 9 November 1918, p4 under ‘CITY & COUNTY NOTES’; and the Daily Mail, 8 November 1918, p2 under ’THE WHITE FLAG PARTY’.
- The Western Morning News, 8 November 1918, p5 under ‘RUMOURS NOT CONFIRMED. EXETER AND PLYMOUTH SCENES’.
- Same. It is possible the “10 o‘clock” report alluded to another confusion arising from confirmed news that the German delegation had finally crossed the French lines during the late evening.
- Western Evening Herald, Friday November 8, 1918, p3 under ‘Notes of the day’.
- The Birmingham Mail, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘Waiting Patiently’; the Birmingham Post, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘Waiting for the End’; and the Birmingham Gazette, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘WAITING FOR THE EVENT’.
- The Derby Daily Telegraph, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘NOTES ON CURRENT EVENTS. The Great Hoax’.
- The Nantwich Guardian, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘THE FINAL PHASE’; the Liverpool Echo, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘TO-DAY’S RUMOUR’; the Northern Daily Telegraph, 7 November 1918, cited here from ‘How Blackburn Celebrated Armistice Day 1918’, cottontown.org. Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council digitisation project; the Rochdale Observer, 9 November 1918, p.4 under ‘NOTES AND COMMENTS’.
- The NewcastleDaily Journal, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘GERMANY’S FATEFUL HOUR’; the Northern Daily Mail, 7 November 1918, p4 under ‘THE ARMISTICE’; and the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘By the Way’. The HuddersfieldDaily Examiner, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘GERMANY IN EXTREMIS’. Fog in Leeds is noted in the Yorkshire Evening Post, 8 November 1918, p5 under ‘Leeds Tram Tragedy in the Fog’. The Daily Mail (Kingston upon Hull), 7 November 1918, p4 under ‘ARMISTICE REPORTED SIGNED’; and 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘THE DELEGATES ARRIVE’, and p4 under ‘A Premature Rejoicing’.
- See ‘Cardiff Time Line’ http://www.cardiffians.co.uk
- As reported in the Western Mail(Cardiff), sister newspaper of theEvening Express, 8 November 1918, p5 under ‘SOUTH WALES SCENES’, and 14 November 1918, p5 under ‘ABERGAVENNY BELLS’; the Cambria Daily Leader (Swansea), 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘SCENES IN THE DISTRICTS’; and the Llais Llafur newspaper, extracts here from Ystalyfera Ystradgynlais and District 1914- “Ystalyfera Notes”, 16th November 1918, p188. www.ystradgynlais-wargraves.co.uk/ystalyfera-ystradgynlais-ww1-full.pdf;
- The Cambria Daily Leader(Swansea), 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘THE CONTRADICTION’ and ‘FEELING AT SWANSEA’.
- The Merthyr Express, 9 November 1918, pp6-7; and 16 November 1918, pp7-8. British Newspaper Archive.
- As reported in the Western Mail(Cardiff), 8 November 1918, p5 under ‘PEACE CELEBRATIONS IN ALL PARTS’; and theCambria Daily Leader (Swansea), 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘SCENES IN THE DISTRICTS’ and ‘THE CONSEQUENCES’. The Ministry of Shipping comments are quoted here from: The National Archives, HO [Home Office] 139-37-156 , letter dated 8 November 1918.
- The Edinburgh Evening News, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘THE REPORT IN EDINBURGH’ and ‘AMERICA AND THE RUMOUR’; and the Scotsman, 8 November 1918, p3 under ‘EXTRAORDINARY DEMONSTRATIONS IN NEW YORK’.
- As reported in, the (weekly) Fifeshire Advertiser, 9 November 1918, p3 under ‘BURNTISLAND NOTES AND NEWS’ and p4 under ‘THE END’; the Falkirk Herald, 9 November 1918, p2 under ‘JOTTINGS OF THE WEEK’; and the Motherwell Times, 8 November 1918, p5 under ‘Armistice Signed Yesterday’.
- From virtually identical reports in the Aberdeen Daily Journal, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘THE ARMISTICE RUMOUR’ and ‘Scenes in Aberdeen’; and sister paper the Evening Express, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘Great Excitement in City Streets’.
- The Daily Record and Mail, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘PREMATURE’; and p5 under ‘ARMISTICE AT HAND’.
- The Yorkshire Telegraph and Star(Sheffield), 8 November 1918, p2 under “By the Way”; and the Derby Daily Telegraph, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘NOTES ON CURRENT EVENTS’.
- The Edinburgh Evening News, 8 November 1918, p4 under ’YESTERDAY’S CURIOUS MUDDLE’; the Evening Despatch (Birmingham), 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘A MISTAKEN REPORT’; the Staffordshire Sentinel, 8 November 1918, p3 under ‘LAST NIGHT’S UNFOUNDED REPORT’ (quoting the Manchester Guardian’s London correspondent); and the Cambria Daily Leader(Swansea), 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘A MYSTERY MESSAGE’.
- The Evening Express(Aberdeen), 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘ARMISTICE REPORTS’; and the Edinburgh Evening News, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘THE REPORT IN EDINBURGH’.
- The Yorkshire Telegraph and Star, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘By the Way’.
- The Birmingham Daily Gazette, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘WAITING FOR THE EVENT’; and the Western Times(Exeter), 8 November 1918, p12 under ‘ARMISTICE RUMOUR’.
- The Edinburgh Evening News, 8 November 1918, p4 under ‘YESTERDAY’S CURIOUS MUDDLE’; the Birmingham Daily Gazette, p2 under ‘WAITING FOR THE EVENT’; and DerbyDaily Telegraph, 8 November 1918, p2 under ‘The Great Hoax’.
- For more about these events see James Smith, ‘The Press Censors and the Reuter Armistice Bulletin of 7 November 1918.’ In The Baron, Archives, 10 July 2017. http://www.thebaron.info/archives/the-press-censors-and-the-reuter-armistice-bulletin-of-7-november-1918