The Spa-Senlis Telegrams and the German Armistice Delegation, 6-7 November 1918

On Wednesday 6 November 1918, Prince Maximilian (Max) of Baden, German Imperial Chancellor, instructed the Foreign Ministry to inform German newspapers that, during the afternoon, a delegation had left Berlin for the Western Front to conclude an armistice and open peace negotiations.

The Wolff Telegraph Agency distributed the news in Germany.  The press in Allied countries obtained it mainly from sources in neutral countries; some published it in their 6 November late editions, others during Thursday 7 November.

6 Nov German Press Bulletin

This is the French translation of the German announcement, as published in La Dépêche de Brest, Thursday 7 November 1918.  Here, news of the delegation came from Basle in Switzerland.

Following the announcement, German Army High Command Headquarters in Spa (in occupied Belgium) sent four wireless telegrams to Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Foch’s Headquarters concerning arrangements for the delegation to meet him to discuss an armistice.  Foch’s Headquarters, in Senlis, to the north-east of Paris, sent one reply – to the first German telegram, giving details of where the delegation could cross the French lines.

Copies of the five telegrams were released to the French press during the evening of 7 November by the French High Command.  Those reproduced here are from the front page of L’Écho de Paris for Friday 8 November 1918.

The Telegrams

Each side telegraphed their messages in clear Morse code, in their own language.  The copies of the Spa messages below, therefore, are French translations of the originals in German, as released by the French High Command.  (The English translations provided for each message have been produced specifically for this article.)

The Spa messages went first to the main German radio transmitter in Nauen, north-west of Berlin, to be  broadcast.  The Eiffel Tower radio station in Paris picked them up and relayed them to Foch’s Headquarters.

The time of transmission of the German messages is not given in the French newspaper versions; it has to be obtained or inferred from other sources, if possible.  The French times of receipt shown on the Spa messages do not necessarily indicate when they were received at Senlis Headquarters.  And on the copy of the French reply, the transmission time does not necessarily indicate when it was sent from Senlis to Spa.

The times stated in the messages themselves are taken to be German times, as written by them.  But this is not always pointed out either in relation to these telegrams or as a general guideline to German time and French/Allied time in November 1918.  Consequently, since French time was one hour behind German time, reading the times without being aware they were not the same for the Allies and the Germans leads to confusion.

The First German Telegram to Senlis Headquarters

Echo1

Received 7 November at 0h. 30.  [12:30 am French time]

The German High Command, by order of the German Government, to Marshal Foch:

The German Government, having been informed by the President of the United States that Marshal Foch has been given powers to receive the accredited representatives of the German Government and communicate the armistice conditions to them, has appointed the following plenipotentiaries:

General von Gundel; Secretary of State Erzberger; Ambassador Count Obeurndorf; General von Winterfeld; Navy Captain Danselow.

The plenipotentiaries request to be informed by wireless telegram where they may meet Marshal Foch.

They will be travelling by motor car, with assistants, to the designated place.

The German Government would be happy if, in the interest of humanity, the arrival of the German delegation at the Allies’ front lines could bring about a temporary suspension of hostilities.

Please acknowledge receipt.

Notes:

Danselow should read Vanselow.

The Germans sent this first message around midnight their time, 11:00 pm French time, on 6 November.  Paris received it shortly after 11:00 pm, that is, well over an hour before the time of receipt shown on the published message.  It was relayed to Senlis shortly afterwards.

Erzberger, Oberndorf and von Winterfeldt left Berlin at about 5:00 pm, German time, and travelled overnight by train to Spa, where they were joined by other members of the delegation waiting at High Command Headquarters.  The first Spa telegram was sent therefore while they were on their way to Belgium.

The telegram was also picked up by a British wireless operator attached to Field Marshal Haig’s Headquarters.  The Intelligence Officer who translated it explained: “In a few words, … , it’s Jerry asking for an Armistice!”  [No times given.]

See:

  • Patrick de Gmeline, Le 11 Novembre 1918: La 11heure du 11ejour du 11e mois. ‘Jeudi 7 novembre’, pp192-193. (Presses de la Cité. Paris. 1998).
  • Wesserling, mémoires familiales, Stamm, Binder. ‘6 novembre 1918 – soir. Message intercepté le 6 novembre au soir’. http://www.wesserling.fr (Available since February 2017)
  • Peter Hart, The Last Battle. Endgame on the Western Front, 1918. Chapter 10. ‘Battle of the Sambre, 4 November’, p318. (Profile Books. London. 2018)

The French Reply to Spa Headquarters

Echo2

Reply. 7 November, 1h. 25.  [1:25 am French time]

Marshal Foch to the German Command:

If the German plenipotentiaries wish to meet Marshal Foch to ask him for an armistice, they will present themselves at the forward French positions on the Chimay-Fourmies-la Capelle-Guise road.

Orders have been given to receive them and take them to the place chosen for the meeting.

Notes:

1:25 am French time was 2:25 am German time.

According to Gmeline, the reply was sent to the Germans at 2:30 am and again at 3:00 am French time, after it had first been communicated to other Allied authorities.  1:25 am, apparently, was the time it was sent from Senlis to the latter rather than to the Germans.

Marshal Foch approved the reply, which his Chief of Staff General Weygand had drafted.  Weygand then instructed Commander Riedinger, head of the Second Bureau at Senlis Headquarters, to have it transmitted in clear Morse code from the Eiffel Tower.

See: Patrick de Gmeline, pp193-197.

The Second German Telegram to Senlis Headquarters

Echo3

Wireless telegram in German, received 7 November at 13 hours.  [1:00 pm French time]

From German High Command Headquarters to the Allies’ High Command Headquarters.  The German Commander-in-Chief to Marshal Foch:

The German armistice plenipotentiaries are leaving Spa today, will be here at midday and will reach the forward French positions on the Chimay-Fourmies-la Capelle-Guise road at 5 o’clock this afternoon.

There are ten people in all, headed by Secretary of State Erzberger.

Notes:

The three delegates travelling from Berlin arrived in Spa at 8:00 am, German time, on 7 November.  Around midday, they and the rest of the delegation left High Command Headquarters for the French lines in a convoy of five motor cars.

Marshal Foch recalled that he received this second German message “in the morning of the 7th” – that is, before midday –  and therefore earlier than the received-time of 1:00 pm shown on the published copy.

A non-newspaper copy of it, only recently made available, shows that it was sent out at midday German time – 11:00 am French time.  Its translation differs slightly from the newspaper version and is likely to be more accurate.  It states that the delegates are leaving Spa at midday and will probably arrive at the front between four and five o’clock in the afternoon.  It also mentions the delegation’s car drivers, in addition to the others in the group.

See:

  • The Memoirs of Marshal FochBook II, Chapter XIV, ‘The Armistice’, p466. (New York, 1931) Translated by Col. T. Bentley Mott.
  • Wesserling, mémoires familiales, Stamm, Binder. ‘7 novembre 191812h – h. allemande. Radio allemand. Commandement suprême armée allemande au maréchal Foch’.

The Third German Telegram to Senlis Headquarters

Echo4

Wireless telegram in German, received 7 November at 13h 50.  [1:50 pm French time].

From German High Command Headquarters to the Allies’ High Command Headquarters.  The Supreme Command of the German Army to Marshal Foch:

To allow the German delegation to cross the two lines, an order has been given to stop firing on the front today at 3 o’clock in the afternoon until further orders.  From the German forward positions to the French forward positions, the delegation will be accompanied by road menders to enable the motor cars to use the la Capelle road, which is destroyed.

Notes:

This particular Spa-Senlis wireless telegram was considered by some American authorities to be the source of the false armistice news of 7 November 1918.

3:00 pm German time was 2:00 pm French time.  If Senlis had received this message as late as 1:50 pm (2:50 pm German time), as indicated, it would have given the French only ten minutes’ prior notice of the impending German cease-fire.

It seems likely, however, that the Germans had sent it much earlier than the French 1:50 pm time-of-receipt suggests.  Indeed, another French source indicates clearly that the Germans transmitted it as early as 12:30 pm their time, 11:30 am French time, in which case Paris must have picked it up and relayed it to Senlis a few minutes after 11:30 am.

This other French source is a transcript of the cease-fire message in German written down at the time by Lieutenant Henri Tscherning, a wireless operator who picked up its transmission.  It reads:

transcript

Lieutenant Tscherning explained that 1230 meant “12h/30 German time”, W 74meant the number of words (“Wörter”) and that there are gaps in what he was able to take down.  (The translated message released to the French press has the above details and seems to fill in the gaps in the lieutenant’s transcript.)

He recalled that it was about 1:30 French time, 2:30 German time, in the afternoon of 7 November when his equipment caught the message from the Nauen radio transmitter – twenty minutes before the time of receipt shown on the one published by the newspapers.

Presumably, he heard a repeat transmission of the message originally sent out by the Germans at 12:30 pm their time, 11:30 am French time – well before the announced German afternoon cease-fire was due to start at 2:00 pm French time.

See:

  • Henri Tscherning, lieutenant radio de la 66eDivision de Chasseurs Alpins : ‘Comment j’ai appris l’Armistice’, p1 of article in La Liaison des Transmissions. 119, 1979.
  • False Report of Signing of Armistice(Section 8), on this website.

The Fourth German Telegram to Senlis Headquarters

Echo5

Wireless telegram (in German) received 7 November at 18 hours [6:00 pm French time].

The German Supreme Command to Marshal Foch:

Because of delays, the German delegation will not be able to cross the forward positions at Haudroy, two kilometres north-west of la Capelle, until between 8 and 10 o’clock this evening. 

Notes:

A copy of this fourth Spa telegram in the Wesserling, mémoires familiales, Stamm, Binder collection shows the time of 5:30 pm in its message.  It is not entirely clear, but this is probably the time the Germans sent it – 4:30 pm French time.

Haudroy lies to the north-east not the north-west of la Capelle.

The delegation eventually arrived at the French forward positions at 8:20 pm French time, 9:20 pm German time.  Some sources give one or the other of these times without explanation.

From the crossing point, the delegation was later taken to the railway station at Tergnier.  From here, by special train, they travelled to the village of Rethondes in the Compiègne Forest, north-east of Paris and not far from Senlis, arriving at about 7:00 am on Friday 8 November.  The first armistice meeting took place at 9:00 am, in Marshal Foch’s special train standing a short distance away.

General Observations on the Telegrams

  1. German military records that may contain copies of the Spa transmissions to Senlis have not been located for this article. Many German military archives from 1914-1918 were lost during the 1939-1945 War, and the Spa High Command Headquarters records may have been among them. Versions in German of the first two telegrams exchanged are available online; but they appear to be translations into German from the French published versions and contain no details not shown in the latter.

See:

  • Federal Archives, Freiburg (Department Military Archives), ‘Archival and Other Holdings’. (The author would like to acknowledge here the assistance and time generously given by Michael Ogglesby in attempting to locate German records for November 7 1918.)
  • Der 1. Weltkrieg im November 1918: Der Weltkrieg am 7. November 1918. ‘Die Waffenstillstandsunterhandlugen – Telegrammwechsel Hindenburg und Foch’.
  1. Amazingly, Charles F. Horne in his “comprehensive … source record of the world’s Great War” (published in 1920) omitted from an English translation of the first Spa message the Germans’ proposal for a temporary cease-fire when their armistice delegation reached the Front. Similarly, a translation of the third message omitted the part about the Germans ordering a cease-fire from 3:00 pm to allow their armistice delegation to cross the lines. The omissions seem to be deliberate.

See: Charles F. Horne, The Great Events of the Great War: A Comprehensive and Readable Source Record of the World’s Great War. Volume 6, Chapter XXVI, ‘The Armistice’, pp.396-397.

  1. Stanley Weintraub claims that Marshal Foch responded to the Germans’ “plea for cessation of hostilities”, contained in their first Spa telegram, by announcing a “temporary cease-fire in the [crossing-point] area for the hours during which the delegation would be picking its way through the lines”.  And adds that the Germans “answered that the truce delegation would be preceded by a road-repair company to patch what was left of the cratered La Capelle road.”

The texts of the Spa-Senlis messages referred to make it clear that this representation of them is misleading.  The French made no cease-fire announcement in their reply to the first German Spa telegram: Marshal Foch ignored their request for a cessation of hostilities.  And the German message containing the road-repair information was not a response to Foch’s reply to their first Spa telegram.  It was a notification, several hours later, of their 7 November 3:00 pm cease-fire order to enable their armistice delegates to cross the front lines.  Weintraub omits to mention this fact – the principal feature of the telegram.

See: Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Round The World. The End of the Great War: November 1918. ‘The Dining Car in the Forest’, p47. (New York. 1985.)

  1. On the ‘False Armistice Commentary’ page of this website, there is an item about the Allies’ stance on a general cease-fire before the signing of the German armistice: Marshal Foch and the German requests for a cease-fire.

© English text, James Smith

(February 2018)  (Reviewed September 2020)