On Wednesday 6 November 1918, after weeks of delay, the German Government announced that a delegation was leaving Berlin for the Western Front (hundreds of miles away) to conclude an armistice with Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander representing Germany’s adversaries in the Great War. Germany’s own allies – Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria – had already signed armistices and ceased hostilities on their fronts. And France, Britain, Italy and the United States – the “Big Four” – had already agreed the terms the Germans were to have no choice other than to accept in order to end the fighting on their fronts.
Foch’s headquarters made prior arrangements for the German delegates to cross the front lines in a sector controlled by the French First Army close to the Belgian border. From here they would be taken to a railway siding in the Forest of Compiègne north-east of Paris, where the terms would be handed to them for their signature.
With the German delegation news, it thus seemed that a German armistice and an end finally to the horrendous war (now into a fifth year) were imminent. Indeed, to the immense relief and joy of millions of people in Allied countries, news arrived the day after the delegation announcement that the armistice had now been signed. This was the German-armistice news of Thursday 7 November 1918, which brought about what at the time and afterwards was variously referred to as the Fake/Hoax/ Amazing/Premature and, more commonly, False Armistice of that date.
During the evening of 6 November, the Lobby correspondent of the London Daily News reported that Parliament had been told the German delegates had already crossed the front lines and arranged to meet Marshal Foch. The next morning, newspapers in Britain printed this information, while French newspapers led with personal details about the German armistice delegates and speculation they had already arrived or would soon do so.
In fact, the delegates were still many hours away from the French lines. It was not until 8:20 pm Allied time (the same in France and Britain, and one hour behind German time) that they eventually arrived (in cars) at French forward positions, astride the Chimay-Guise road, between La Capelle and Fourmies. And they did not meet Foch until the following morning, Friday 8th.
However, not long before midday on Thursday, news began to circulate in Paris that the German armistice had been signed. It did not come from the newspapers – the censors stopped them reporting it even though the American Embassy and the French War Ministry seemed to be involved in its dissemination. It spread primarily by military and private telegraph, private telephone and, of course, word-of-mouth.
“Unrestrained joy erupted on the boulevards” in its wake. Paris “bubbled” as it travelled around the city. And the arrival later that day of exhilarating, but equally inaccurate, news that American forces had liberated Sedan (location of Emperor Napoleon III’s surrender to the Germans in September 1870) boosted the “patriotic gaiety, so long contained”. In spite of showers, people paraded around the city singing the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Sambre et Meuse’. All of which seems to have been missed by the Paris correspondent of the Times, whose account of the day there described the city as “austerely calm …. The streets are silent, except for the cries of the newspaper hawkers …. Even the students are dumb”.
Throughout the day the false news spread to other parts of France, Allied military bases around the country, and numerous combat units along the Western Front, including German units. During early afternoon in the crossing-point sector hundreds of German soldiers, some with officers, approached the French lines believing that the war was over and attempting to fraternize. Some were turned back, more than four hundred were taken prisoner.
The news reached Britain around 4 pm. The American Embassy in London had received it (directly or indirectly) from Paris, leaked it to Reuters News Agency, which immediately telegraphed it to the Press Association, which in turn quickly relayed it to subscribers across Britain. Within minutes the news was on the streets in specially printed ‘extras’ and, as in France, spread fast by word-of-mouth, telephone and telegram. Even “the most obscure villages” received it.
There was “jubilation” in England, Wales, and Scotland during the rest of the evening. Ignoring Spanish flu advice about avoiding crowds, people filled gloomy streets and dismal pubs, defied the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) by setting off fireworks (pre-war ones), making loud noises and ringing church bells. Shift workers joined in and essential war-production was disrupted, especially of coal, iron and steel. Reuters and the Press Association were reported to the Attorney-General for spreading false war news which, not surprisingly, was a serious breach of DORA regulations. They came very close to being prosecuted for the “enormity of their offence” and its “costly result”.
Across the Atlantic, just before midday Eastern Standard Time (five hours behind Allied time in Europe) the armistice news arrived at the New York City office of the United Press news agency. It had been sent from the Port of Brest, in Brittany, by Roy W. Howard, the agency’s president. The US naval base there had received it from the American Embassy in Paris, released it to the local newspaper and given Howard a copy of it.
By telegram and telephone, it raced around the United States to over four hundred newspapers, spelling out Howard’s bulletin that a German Armistice had been signed at 11:00 am, fighting had ceased at 2:00 pm, and Sedan had been taken by the Americans. The results were spectacular, and the False Armistice became something of a folk memory there for decades. In New York City, by way of illustration, masses of people took to the streets. Offices and factories shut down; schools emptied; impromptu victory parades and open-air meetings were organised. Billows of ticker-tape fell from Broadway skyscrapers; the Stock Exchange closed early. And to the delight of crowds outside the Hotel Knickerbocker, overlooking Times Square, the great Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso (a resident since 1909) came out onto his balcony and sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.
The default reaction amongst rival news agencies was to lambast Howard and United Press for concocting “the greatest hoax ever sprung on [an] eager public”, as one more restrained headline described his armistice report, and to demand that they pay for cleaning up the mess left behind. Fortunately for them, Admiral H. B. Wilson, the US Navy Commander in Brest, issued a statement admitting responsibility for giving Howard the misinformation.
The news crossed into Canada, and from Vancouver was cabled to Australia and New Zealand (where it was already 8 November) with similar explosive effects on their populations. It also spilled into Latin America – there were small-scale celebrations in neutral Mexico and Argentina, and in Cuba which had followed the United States into the war in April 1917.
Even after official denials of the news were made known, the rejoicing continued in many places. Most people, it seems, just wanted to believe the original report, and “no denials, however emphatic, would have killed the belief in it.” Others, “having started celebrations” felt that “although they were premature, they should be kept up unofficially”. As one New Zealand newspaper explained, the revellers decided to continue celebrating “on general principles”, looking upon the occasion as a “kind of rehearsal of the real thing”.
Altogether, probably several million people thus marked the end of the Great War four days before it actually ended at 11:00 am on Monday 11 November 1918. They were not victims of a hoax, of fake news, or, as some conspiracy theorists later maintained, of a disinformation ploy by German spies in Paris. A US Army Intelligence investigation reported that a 7 November German High Command telegram to Marshal Foch detailing its own arrangements for the delegation’s arrival at the crossing-point had been “caught” by some (unnamed) Allied officers. These, apparently, misconstrued an afternoon cease-fire mentioned in the telegram to signify that an armistice had been signed earlier in the day, and had passed on their erroneous assumption as news. It reached a Deuxième Bureau (French Intelligence) team based in the War Ministry, from where an American Liaison Service officer forwarded it to his Service chief who telephoned it to the American Embassy and other American facilities.
The Americans decided that the French were mostly to blame for spreading the false news. “The facts thus far ascertained”, their investigation asserted, indicated that “French officials originally circulated the rumor”; the War Ministry sent out messages about an armistice “the entire day”; and “members of the French Staff Departments undoubtedly telephoned the rumor to various banks in Paris”. On balance, it concluded, “their dissemination of the news from [their] sources was much more widespread than that through our American sources”.
(The British were not implicated.)
© James Smith