On Wednesday 6 November 1918, Prince Maximilian (Max) of Baden, German Imperial Chancellor, instructed the Foreign Ministry to inform German newspapers that a delegation had left Berlin for the Western Front to agree an armistice with the Allies. The Wolff Telegraph Agency distributed the news in Germany. Papers in Allied countries obtained it; some published it in their 6 November late editions; most printed it on Thursday 7 November.
Following the press announcement, the German Army High Command sent wireless messages to Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Foch’s Headquarters making arrangements for the delegation to meet him. The German High Command Headquarters were in Spa, in occupied Belgium; Marshal Foch’s Headquarters were in Senlis, to the north-east of Paris.
The French High Command released copies of the Spa-Senlis telegrams to the French press during the evening of 7 November. The ones detailed below are from the front page of L’Écho de Paris newspaper for Friday 8 November 1918. A translation is provided of each message.
THE SPA-SENLIS TELEGRAMS
Each side sent their messages in their own language and in clear Morse code. The Spa Headquarters telegrams were relayed by the main German radio transmitter in Nauen, north-west of Berlin, picked up by the radio station in the Eiffel Tower, Paris, and then relayed to Foch’s Senlis Headquarters.
The time of day that the Germans transmitted their messages is not given in the French newspaper versions; it has to be obtained or inferred from other sources, if possible. The times of day shown on each published message do not necessarily indicate when the message was first received or (in one case) transmitted by the French.
The times stated in the messages are taken to be German times, as transmitted by them. There is no evidence to the contrary, or reason to believe otherwise. But this is not always pointed out – either in relation to these telegrams or as a general guideline – and since French time in November 1918 was one hour behind German time, reading the times as being the same for the French and Germans can lead to confusion.
The First Spa-Senlis Wireless Message – from the Germans.
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.
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.
The telegram was 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!” The intercept was then offered to, and accepted by, the Eiffel Tower radio station for transmission to Foch’s Headquarters. [No times given]
Patrick de Gmeline, Le 11 Novembre 1918: La 11e heure du 11e jour 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)
Erzberger, Oberndorf and von Winterfeldt left Berlin at about 5:00 pm, German time, and travelled overnight by train to Spa, where they would be joined by other members of the delegation at High Command Headquarters. The first Spa telegram was sent therefore while they were on their way to Belgium.
The Second Spa-Senlis Wireless Message – from the French.
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.
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 and instructed Commander Riedinger, head of the Second Bureau at Senlis Headquarters, to have transmitted in clear Morse code from the Eiffel Tower.
See: Patrick de Gmeline, pp193-197.
The Third Spa-Senlis Wireless Message – from the Germans.
German wireless telegram 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.
Marshal Foch recalled that he received this 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.
See: The Memoirs of Marshal Foch, Book II, Chapter XIV, ‘The Armistice’, p466. (New York, 1931) Translated by Col. T. Bentley Mott.
A non-newspaper copy of this third Spa-Senlis message, only recently made available, shows that the telegram 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: Wesserling, mémoires familiales, Stamm, Binder. ‘7 novembre 1918 – 12h – h. allemande. Radio allemand. Commandement suprême armée allemande au maréchal Foch’.
The three delegates travelling from Berlin arrived in Spa at 8:00 am, German time, on 7 November. They and the rest of the delegation left High Command Headquarters for the French lines in a convoy of five motor cars.
The Fourth Spa-Senlis Wireless Message – to the French.
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.
3:00 pm German time was 2:00 pm French time. If Senlis had initially 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 received-time 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. Paris must have picked it up within a few minutes and relayed it without delay.
The other French source is a transcript of the cease-fire message in German written down at the time by Lieutenant Henri Tscherning, whose wireless equipment picked up its transmission. It reads:
Lieutenant Tscherning explained that 1230 meant “12h/30 German time”, W 74 meant the number of words (“Wörter”) and that there are gaps in what he was able to take down. (The telegram message released to the French press has the details, and seems to fill in the gaps, of his 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 newspaper version.
Presumably, he had picked up a repeat transmission of the message 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.
See: Henri Tscherning, lieutenant radio de la 66e Division de Chasseurs Alpins : ‘Comment j’ai appris l’Armistice’, p1 of article in La Liaison des Transmissions. No. 119, 1979.
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.
See on this website: False Report of Signing of Armistice (Section 8); and G-2’s False Armistice Findings.
The Fifth Spa-Senlis Wireless Message – to the French.
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.
A copy of this fifth Spa-Senlis telegram in the Wesserling, mémoires familiales, Stamm, Binder collection shows the time of 5:30 pm in its message. It is not entirely clear whether this was its transmission or receipt time; it seems to be the German time of its transmission. ‘7 novembre 1918 – 17h 30. Le Haut Commandement allemand au maréchal Foch’.
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 taken later 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.
Some General Observations
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.
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.
Versions in German of the first two telegrams exchanged are available online; they appear to be translations from the French published versions and contain no details not shown in the latter.
See: Der 1. Weltkrieg im November 1918: Der Weltkrieg am 7. November 1918. ‘Die Waffenstillstandsunterhandlugen – Telegrammwechsel Hindenburg und Foch’.
2. Amazingly, Charles F. Horne in his “comprehensive … source record of the world’s Great War” (published in 1920) omits 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 fourth message omits the part about the Germans ordering a cease-fire from 3:00 p.m. 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.
3. Stanley Weintraub claims that Marshal Foch responded to the Germans’ “plea for cessation of hostilities”, contained in their first Spa-Senlis 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 second and fourth telegrams (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 response to the first German Spa-Senlis message: Marshal Foch ignored their request for a cessation of hostilities.
And the German wireless message containing the road-repair information was not a response to Foch’s reply to their first Spa-Senlis 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.)
4. 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
(Revised June 2018)