A false armistice cablegram to the American Embassy in Britain
Sunday 3 July 2022
This article is a follow up to those on the same topic filed on 6 April and 10 July 2017. The author is a former history teacher and examiner in history. In retirement, he pursues his own historical research interests, of which the 7 Novemer 1918 false armistice is one.
The false armistice news reached Britain sometime before 4:00 pm on 7 November 1918, that is, well before it reached the United States in Roy Howard’s cablegram from Brest.
US Navy Headquarters in London received the news from France, passed it to the American Embassy which leaked it, and Reuters released it to the British press. By 4:00 pm it was being reported that, according to “official American information”, an armistice with Germany had been signed at 2:30 that same afternoon. Within minutes Reuters learned that the news was unconfirmed and immediately withdrew it; but the retraction failed to stop its amazingly rapid spread across England, Wales, and Scotland where premature peace celebrations went on late into the evening.
There is evidence that helps explain how the armistice news reached the American Embassy and was acquired by Reuters. It comes from a letter the bureau chief of the Associated Press in London, Robert Collins, sent to Jackson Elliott, the Associated Press News Department chief in New York City. In the letter, Collins admitted that he had a part in the publication of the news.
He explained that he had contacts in the Embassy (then situated in Grosvenor Gardens) who telephoned on 7 November to tell him the American Naval Attaché in Paris, Captain Jackson, had sent information that an armistice had been signed with Germany. A staff member cabled the information to the News Department, describing it as an “unconfirmed rumor”, which “seemed about what it was worth” in the circumstances. A little later, Collins passed it on to the “Reuter editor”, cautioning him that Associated Press was handling it “most guardedly”.
News that Germany had signed an armistice was not entirely unexpected in London on 7 November, which perhaps explains why “a few minutes afterward the Reuter ticker” released the news, stating that it had been received in “American official quarters”. Shocked, Collins rushed to the Reuters office, told them he thought they were “making a mistake”, and persuaded them to cancel the news. He did not have to go far to do this (the Associated Press offices were in the same building as the Reuters offices at 24 Old Jewry) and the “kill” went out “seven minutes after the message”.
Ending his letter, Collins confided to Elliott that the Embassy “lied like troopers later, and said that they had received nothing of the kind”; he also assured him he did not “give away” his Embassy contacts. The only person to blame for the blunder, he claimed, was the (unnamed) Reuters editor: he “made [the] mistake” when he became “over excited” on hearing the armistice news. Because he had passed the news on to Reuters, Collins felt “in part responsible for [its] publication”; but the “guiltily responsible” person, he insisted, was undoubtedly the Reuters editor (probably SC Clements, Reuters ‘manager and secretary’ at the time).
It is not certain that the Embassy complex did receive the false armistice news directly from US Navy Headquarters in Paris: it may have arrived indirectly via US Navy Headquarters in Brest. Admiral Wilson remarked in a letter to Josephus Daniels that “Our own messages went out [to Daniels at the Navy Department] over our own direct lines to the U.S. Naval Headquarters in London.” 26 So, if the armistice news Brest Headquarters allegedly transmitted to Washington, DC, on 7 November (see above) travelled via the London Headquarters (also in Grosvenor Gardens) it would have been picked up there and reported to the Embassy building close by. And this may have been the armistice news that was leaked to Robert Collins.
(If the Jackson armistice message did go straight to London from Paris, then Emmett King probably transmitted it: he was the operator who sent it to Admiral Wilson in Brest. And both telegrams would have arrived at their respective destinations at around the same (Allied) time in London and Brest.)
But whether the news went to Grosvenor Gardens directly from Paris or indirectly via Brest, it remains a mystery why British newspapers reported that an armistice with Germany had been signed at 2:30 that afternoon, rather than at 11:00 that morning as stated in the Jackson Armistice Telegram; and similarly, why the Jackson news of a 2:00 pm ceasefire and the taking of Sedan by the American Army was omitted. Perhaps the information from Collins’ contacts became garbled somewhere along its route from the nearby Navy Headquarters to the Embassy (by telephone or courier most likely) and from here by telephone to him; or perhaps the press release put together and rushed through the Reuters “ticker” was the source of the error.
In the report the US Army’s G-2 produced on the false armistice news, there is nothing about its spread to Britain from France and no evidence that enquiries were made into it. ■
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