Marshal Ferdinand Foch's train arrives at Compiègne for the talks with German representatives, 6 November 1918. The next day, mistaken reports flashed around the world that an Armistice had been signed (Photo © IWM Q 58432)

The False Armistice - 7 November 1918

Posted on centenarynews.com on 27 May 2017
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In a special article for Centenary News, James Smith tells the 'forgotten' story of how news broke prematurely of an end to the First World War.

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, concluded that some French Deuxième Bureau intelligence officers and American liaison officers at the Ministry of War in Paris 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 their news to other French and American military personnel; 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 Mexico, Cuba 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 deliberately bypassed them and 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

The US Army Intelligence Service, G-2, explained that the 3:00 p.m. cease-fire the German wireless message of 7 November announced "was to allow the German Armistice Delegates to get through the lines, and was only local in its scope."  

The message, for Marshal Foch's Headquarters in Senlis, certainly did not specify that the cease-fire would apply only to the front-line sector where the armistice delegates were due to cross.  And was, G-2 implied, the source of the false armistice news because it was misinterpreted by the French and American intelligence officers "as being a signal that the Armistice had been signed."  In other words, the officers had assumed that the Germans' 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. 

G-2 did not point out that German time on the Western Front was one hour ahead of French time, and that the 3:00 p.m. local cease-fire therefore began for the Allies at 2:00 p.m. This important detail explains in part the afternoon times given in the Brest and London messages for the ending of the war. 

Other, conspiracy-theory-type, explanations appeared in the United States not long afterwards. The main one imagined a lone German spy telephoning 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: The G-2 report is in: United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919. Volume 10, Part 1, The Armistice Agreement and Related Documents. 'False Report of Signing of Armistice. November 9, 1918', pp. 46-47. (Washington. 1991)

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)

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