“Peace Fake” – The False Armistice

Among the more curious items now on display in Central Library’s Great Hall, as part of our World War I: My Fellow Soldiers exhibit, is this St. Louis Times front page. The November 7, 1918 extra edition’s bold headline announcing “The War Has Ended” was actually a premature declaration based on an erroneous report out of Brest, France. Of course, the Allies and Germany really did sign an armistice – an agreement to stop fighting – just four days later. How did the earlier blunder, which enjoyed widespread circulation throughout America’s newspapers, resulting in mass jubilation and later disappointment, even occur? According to Roy W. Howard, then president of the United Press news service, “the surprising result was produced by a combination of extraordinary elements.”[1]

As the story goes, a caller identifying himself as a representative of the French War Office, rang up the secure line at the American Embassy in Paris the morning of the 7th. He reported to the operator the “news” of a signed armistice. With Germany in retreat along the Western Front, unconfirmed rumors of a ceasefire were already swirling across France. It seems everyone was caught up in the optimism of the moment, and the message was relayed through various channels, ostensibly without checking its authenticity, until it reached Vice Admiral Henry Braid Wilson, the commanding officer of all U.S. Naval Forces in France. An elated Wilson shared the report with newspaperman Howard, who happened to be visiting the officers at Brest Harbor before sailing for America. With Wilson’s permission, Howard oversaw the transmission of a telegram from the offices of Brest’s newspaper La Dépêche to New York City. Howard surely saw the story as the scoop of a lifetime. The armistice dispatch arrived in the States just in time to roll out noonday editions, prompting cheerful celebrations and even good-natured rioting. Yet, within two hours, word from Paris to Wilson cautioned the original report was “unconfirmable.” A second cable to the U.S., intended to correct the original error was delayed for unknown reasons until the following day.

Admiral Wilson took full responsibility for the mistake, distributing a statement on the 8th, “I am in a position to know the United Press and its representative acted in perfect good faith.”[2] Yet, The United Press and Howard justifiably faced harsh criticism, particularly by the American newspapers that did not print the report.  Served by the Associated Press news agency, which did not distribute the story, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reported, “the American people were fooled” by “the greatest hoax of years.”[3] One headline called it a “peace fake.”[4] However, Howard’s reputation rebounded and he enjoyed a long career in newspaper journalism.

Howard’s complete account of the “fantastic set of circumstances” that led to the “The False Armistice” can be found in Webb Miller’s I Found No Peace: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent published in 1936. In addition, you can read more about the incident and twentieth century newspaper journalism in Newsmaker: Roy W. Howard: The Mastermind behind the Scripps-Howard News Empire from the Guilded Age to the Atomic Age.

Ultimately, Howard believed the call to the American Embassy on the morning of the 7th was made by a German secret agent in Paris rather than a French official. Arthur Hornblow Jr., who served as chief intelligence officer in Brest, and spent much of that day with Howard, was of the same opinion. In 1921, Hornblow shared his assessment in the article, “The Amazing Armistice: The Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report,” which appeared in Century Magazine. If the German Espionage Corp could help create “popular desire and demand among Allied people for the German-sought armistice” by giving them a taste of peace, Allied military leaders would be more inclined to end the conflict swiftly and everyone could return to celebrating – this time for real.[5]

Special recognition goes to library visitors and WWI enthusiasts John and Linda Sproul who noticed the erroneous headline and shared their own research! Remember, your SLPL library card gives you access to a wealth of digitized newspaper articles. I used Historical Newspapers: St. Louis Post Dispatch 1874-2003 for this post. Please come see World War I: My Fellow Soldiers this summer in the Great Hall. To make an appointment to visit Special Collections please call 314-539-0370.

[1] Howard, Roy W., “Premature Armistice: Roy W. Howard Speaking,” in I Found No Peace: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, Webb Miller (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1936), 97.

[2] Ibid., 102.

[3] Associated Press. "Hoax Originated in Cable from the President and Correspondent of the United Press in Paris." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov 08, 1918, 4.

[4] Staff Correspondent. "Peace Fake Hurt War Program, March Says." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov 10, 1918, 1.

[5] Hornblow, Arthur, Jr. “The Amazing Armistice: The Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report,” Century 103 November 1921, 90-99.

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