False Armistice: the Cable that Lied to a Nation July 28, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
A story of misplaced joy with, Beachcombing promises, no elephants.
In a world of instant communication it is all too easy to forget how long it once took to get a message from one side of the world to another. Think of the months needed for a seventeenth-century Spanish governor in the hills of Peru to hear about a death of his monarch in Madrid. Or for a French cutter serving in the Pacific in the Napoleonic wars to hear about a surrender. But if it took time for information to make its way around the world, any false information took more time to be put right.
And even in the early twentieth century the telegraph, having reduced the breadth of the world from years to minutes, could still leave entire continents victim to erroneous report.
Beachcombing calls as evidence the fake armistice of 7 November 1918.
As every text book will tell you the First World War ended with the Armistice of 11 November 1918: ‘at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ just in case anyone was in danger of forgetting a conflict that had killed over twenty million.
However, for the United States the war accidentally came to an end on November 7.
The mistake was, in part, an understandable one. The world knew that Germany was crumbling. Austria-Hungary, its only substantial ally, had gone crashing out of the war on November 3 and Germany itself was experiencing a revolution on the home front. The surrender then was just a matter of time…
Given this febrile and expectant atmosphere it was natural too that rumours would swirl around that the surrender was about to be signed or even that the surrender had already been signed. It fell though to all careful journalists to check and double check such rumours before reporting them to their readers.
Enter Roy Howard, president of the United Press Association, on a visit to the American Naval Office at Brest. November 7 Howard was shown into the office of Admiral Henry B. Wilson who had just received a telegram from Paris to the effect that the Armistice had been signed that very morning at 11.00 – this (lying) telegram had reduced a rumour to a fact, possibly because of the constraints of that medium.
Howard asked for permission to use the story, received permission and, thinking that he had the scoop of his life, ran out of the building and sent word from a local telegraph office: Howard met celebrating French servicemen in the street that can only have added to his sense that the story was genuine. Howard added Simms (the name of the head of the UPA’s Paris office) to the telegram and the cable was given a Paris dateline: both facts that added to the message’s authority.
The telegram read as follows:
UNIPRESS NEW YORK PARIS URGENT – ARMISTICE ALLIES SIGNED ELEVEN SMORNING [this morning] – HOSTILITIES CEASED TWO SAFTERNOON [this afternoon] – SEDAN TAKEN SMORNING BY AMERICANS HOWARD-SIMMS
Of course, arriving in the US at 11.56 AM (EST) the news caused an absolute storm.
‘The crowds resolved themselves into informal processions, people forming arm to arm, no one cared who, no one cared where. A melting, exulting, half-sobbing, half-heart-lifting mood seized upon a whole city. Moist eyes looked out above ineradicable smiles. Here and there crowds formed little knots. In front of the Sub-Treasury cheers went up for the Allies. A crowd sang before the Waldorf. At Columbia University, students rushed out of class-rooms, snake-danced on the campus. The Stock Exchange closed at 2.30 instead of 3 – the Curb perforce had stopped at 1. Between 1 and 3 the telephone company carried more calls than in any two hours of its history. The wave of feeling struck every on as it did the barber in Park Avenue who left a customer half-shaved, folded his razor, and exclaimed to his assistant, ‘Finish him and shut up shop. Me? I’m going home to cry with my wife! That’s where I’m going?’’ (Mark Sullivan)
This was not a party that Beachcombing would have wanted to break up.
But even as the news fanned out across the States the government began to counter the rumour become fact.
‘The crowds refused to believe that the Washington denial was genuine, and in numerous instances destroyed copies of the papers which were in the hands of newsboys and newsstand dealers. One dealer on Park Row had 150 copies of one paper, which carried Secretary Lansing’s statement, destroyed’ (NYTIMES, Nov 8).
Beachcombing has only found reliable reports of the false armistice from France and the US. Are there any British or Dominion reports? drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom