Marshal Foch's train arriving at Compiègne for the armistice meeting with German representatives, November 1918 (Photo © IWM Q 58432)

100 years ago - breaking news of the 'False Armistice'

Posted on centenarynews.com on 07 November 2018
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Writing for Centenary News, James Smith revisits the story of how premature reports of an end to the Great War flashed around the world on 7 November 1918.

The 'real' Armistice agreement with Germany, signed on Monday 11 November 1918, finally ended the First World War with a cease-fire starting at 11 o’clock that morning.  It was the last of the September-November 1918 armistices between the belligerents, and was celebrated with enormous joy and relief in the Allied countries. 

Four days earlier, on Thursday 7 November, false news of an armistice agreement had provoked similar rejoicing by millions of people across the world. Celebrated in France, Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and probably elsewhere, this was the so-called False Armistice.

The 7 November armistice news was not the cruel hoax some believed it to be, or a piece of fake news – disinformation – put together deliberately to deceive.  It arose in France from information relating to the German armistice delegation then on its way to obtain the Allies' armistice terms from Marshal Foch.  Specifically, from a German wireless message of 7 November declaring a 3:00 p.m. cease-fire. 

An investigation by G-2, the American Army's Intelligence Service, found that a number of officers had "caught" the German message and wrongly taken it to mean that an armistice had been agreed and the war would end at 3 o'clock that afternoon.  

The officers passed on their misconstrued information; it soon reached the American Embassy, military bases around the country and, eventually, the general public.  The French censors in Paris ordered the newspapers not to report what, they rightly insisted, was unconfirmed war news, and instructed regional censors to block its transmission.  The newspapers complied.  Private telephones, military telegraph networks, and word-of-mouth, however, were beyond the censors' reach, and the false news continued to spread.

Cablegrams

From France, it was sent to the United States in two distinct cablegram messages, one to Washington, DC, the other to New York City.  Both arrived before noon on 7 November, local time, which was five hours behind French time. 

The earlier of the two arrived at the War Department in Washington, just before 9:00 a.m., by military wire from Paris.  Sent by Major B.H. Warburton, the military attaché at the American Embassy, it stated simply that the armistice had been signed.  

While the War and State Departments were waiting for verification of Warburton’s news, false armistice information from the other cablegram arrived in New York City, not long before midday, from the port of Brest, on France’s Atlantic coast.  Forwarded from here by Roy Howard, president of the United Press news agency, it stated that Germany had signed an armistice at eleven o’clock that morning and hostilities had ceased at two o’clock that afternoon.

Howard had obtained the news from Admiral Henry Wilson, the commander of US naval forces in France whose headquarters were in Brest.  The admiral had received it earlier, by military wire, from the American naval attaché in Paris, Captain R.H. Jackson.  Believing it to be official, Wilson released the peace news to the townspeople and gave Howard permission to dispatch a copy to United Press in New York.

Celebrations

Howard and Admiral Wilson’s interpreter took the message to the trans-Atlantic cable-head building in the town.  When they arrived, the local censors' office there was empty – the censors were outside celebrating the peace news.  The interpreter therefore took the message straight to the transmission room and had it sent to New York.  Here, the American censors assumed it had been cleared by the French and allowed United Press to release it.  Within a very short time, hundreds of subscribing newspapers were circulating the false peace news, with memorable results in towns and cities across the United States. 

The Brest message crossed the border into the Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Quebec almost as soon as it had arrived in New York (in the same time zone).  It spread west to British Colombia and, from Vancouver, to Australia and New Zealand where it was their morning of Friday 8 November. Celebrations broke out almost everywhere the news circulated. 

Newspapers also reported it, and subsequent festivities, in MexicoCuba and Argentina, where there were expatriate communities from the Allied nations and Germany.  In Havana and Buenos Aires rival demonstrations marked the supposed return of peace, with clashes between the two sides breaking out in the Argentine capital. 

In Britain, false armistice news, most probably from Paris, was sent to the American Embassy in London. The Reuters news agency acquired it and, in a bulletin stating simply that "according to official American information, the armistice with Germany was signed at 2.30", released it to the British press.  Celebrations broke out in England, Wales and Scotland during the late afternoon and early evening, as the news went out onto the streets.   

Reuters did not submit its bulletin to the British censors at the Official Press Bureau. The agency sent it out without their clearance, expecting perhaps that its actions would be condoned later given the news' obvious national importance.  By doing so, Reuters unwittingly made sure that Britain also would experience a False Armistice – as it happened, about half an hour before the false news broke in the United States.

Explaining the false armistice news

Reporting later on the false news, the US Army Intelligence Service, G-2, explained that the 7 November 3:00 p.m. German cease-fire order "was to allow the German Armistice Delegates to get through the lines, and was only local in its scope."  

However, the message, intended for Marshal Foch's Headquarters in Senlis, did not specify that the order would apply only to the front-line sector where the armistice delegates were due to cross.  Because of this, G-2 implied, it was the source of the false armistice news: the officers who intercepted it then misinterpreted it "as being a signal that the Armistice had been signed."  In other words, the officers assumed the 3:00 p.m. cease-fire was general (not merely local) in extent, and must have been preceded by an armistice agreement (signed at 11:00 a.m.?) to end the war.  The report did not name the officers responsible for the error, but it blamed French Intelligence and American Liaison Service officers for spreading it.

An important detail, often not pointed out in First World War histories, is that German time on the Western Front was one hour ahead of French/Allied time in November 1918.  The German 3:00 p.m. local cease-fire therefore began at 2:00 p.m. on the French side of where the delegates crossed the front lines, which helps partly to explain the times of the ending of the war given in the Brest and London false peace messages. 

Other - conspiracy-theory-type - explanations appeared in the United States not long afterwards.  The main one imagined a lone German spy ‘phoning the American Embassy in Paris with armistice disinformation in a desperate attempt to undermine Allied plans to impose punitive peace terms on Germany.  Another argued that an armistice was actually signed on 7 November but then postponed, thereby extending the war and its horrors for four more days, and that those involved tried to hide these events by inventing a false armistice explanation.

Such implausible stories, together with anniversary features in newspapers, helped to refresh American memories of the False Armistice for many years after 1918.  In other countries, where there seems to have been little subsequent interest in it, the False Armistice was probably soon forgotten.  

(NOTE: A copy of the G-2 report, discussion of its findings, and articles on other 7 November 1918 events are available at www.falsearmistice1918.com )

James Smith is a retired history teacher, for whom the False Armistice is a long-standing research interest.

© Centenary News & James Smith

Images courtesy of Imperial War Museums, © IWM (Q 58432)