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Days before the end of the First World War, Canadians celebrated in the streets. But it was thanks to fake news




It promised to be the biggest scoop of Roy Howard’s life. The Great War was over. He had chased the rumour all day in the French city of Brest, but now he finally had it on the record from a high-ranking naval official. It was Nov. 7, 1918. The war was not over, but Howard had reason to believe that it was. As the president of the United Press wire service, he sent the good news back to New York, sending the continent into a frenzy of false joy, sealing his name in the history books forever: Roy Howard, the man who broke the false armistice — or as he liked to call it — the premature armistice.

It was a fluke that it made it through the censors, but it seemed legitimate when it landed in New York just before noon. Reporters at rival agencies tried to match it in vain. Had they missed the story of the century? There was no official confirmation from the U.S. government, but once the first tentative reports hit the streets at lunchtime, people didn’t return to work. The party had begun.

Allen Edward Cuthbertson, a Toronto businessman and amateur photographer, grabbed his camera and went downtown to capture the city when the news of the armistice reached Toronto on Nov. 7, 1918. The report, based on the United Press wire service, was incorrect, but cities around the world reacted with great joy before learning the deflating news that peace had not yet been reached.
Allen Edward Cuthbertson, a Toronto businessman and amateur photographer, grabbed his camera and went downtown to capture the city when the news of the armistice reached Toronto on Nov. 7, 1918. The report, based on the United Press wire service, was incorrect, but cities around the world reacted with great joy before learning the deflating news that peace had not yet been reached.  (Ontario archives)

Toronto newsrooms received the United Press bulletin aroundthe same time. Word began to spread by telephone, telegram and word of mouth. People poured out of offices and factories and gathered in front of the Star, as they often did when news was breaking. There was no official confirmation, but “never before,” the Star wrote, “has the city been so deeply stirred.”

Allen Cuthbertson grabbed his camera. The 30-year-old had taken over his family carpet company at the beginning of the war and knew downtown well. He climbed to the top floors of the city’s tallest buildings at King and Yonge. From his perch, he saw the ticker tape catch on the hydro and streetcar lines. There were horns, whistles, pots, pans, laughter, shouting, singing, every noise, all at once. People were blocking traffic and dancing on the sidewalks.

“For the first time in its history,” the Star noted in its evening edition, “Toronto today might be symbolized by a Cheshire cat that has the greatest grin in the world, the smile that won’t come off.”

The next morning, Toronto and much of North America woke up to a terrible hangover. Soldiers were still advancing. Through a series of coincidence and confusion, the false armistice had grown from rumour into a “fact.”

In their evening edition, the Star acknowledged the mistaken report, but they called it “the wildest orgy of pleasure ever witnessed in Canada, and unequalled in the history of the Queen City.”

The Associated Press, the great rival to the United Press, called it the “greatest hoax of recent years.”

James Smith, a retired history teacher from England, had taught this time period for decades, but never learned about the false armistice until he picked up a book at a second-hand shop six years ago. He was fascinated and began to dig through archives and old newspapers to parse the conflicting information, mystery and intrigue.

“I became quite angry that nothing had been picked up about it in British history books,” he said. So he created his own website.

Details of what happened that day vary depending on the narrator. The following is drawn from telegrams, letters and accounts from Roy Howard’s personal archives, held at the Media School of Indiana University.

By the end of the First World War, the United Press was still considered an upstart in the newswire game. Created in 1907 by American newsman E.W. Scripps, the ambitious and talented journalist Roy Howard had been president of the service since 1912, and he and his reporters worked hard to expand their coverage of the world and to be a bona fide competitor of The Associated Press (founded in 1846).

Howard had just finished a business trip to South America when he arrived in Paris in fall 1918. Although he was an executive with connections, he was also an accredited war correspondent. It was no secret that the war would be over soon. The Germans had been talking about an armistice since October, but the Allies wanted unconditional surrender, and kept pushing eastward.

Howard, 35, was planning to sail home from Brest, a major telegraph hub and military port on France’s west coast. When he arrived on the morning of Nov. 7, the official who picked him up at the train station asked if he’d heard the “grand news.” The war was over.

Roy Howard, of the United Press, is seen here in Verdun in 1918. Some say "he was the right man in the right place, at the wrong time."
Roy Howard, of the United Press, is seen here in Verdun in 1918. Some say « he was the right man in the right place, at the wrong time. »

Howard knew that if he could confirm the rumour, he’d have a head start over any reporter filing from Paris, given the “slowness and inefficiency” of the French telegraph lines, and the fact that Brest was right on the coast with a direct line to New York. The reputation of a newswire was made on quick, accurate coverage of history-defining moments like assassinations and elections. (To this day, The Associated Press notes: “Over the past 170 years, we have been first to inform the world of many of history’s most important moments, from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the fall of the Shah of Iran and the death of Pope John Paul.”) United Press reporters had worked hard to prove themselves during the war, and Howard had that same drive.

“I doubt whether anyone other than Roy Howard could have got that story out of Brest,” Smith says. “Most people who write about it say he was the right man in the right place, at the wrong time.”

As he walked around the U.S. naval base with a military escort, official confirmation proved elusive, but drinks and toasts “To the Armistice!” were not. Howard was worried that his advantage over Paris was slipping away.

Luckily, or unluckily, as it turned out, his breakthrough came that afternoon. Admiral Henry B. Wilson, the commanding officer of the United States naval forces, had received a telegram from Paris. The war was over.

Howard asked if it was official.

“Absolutely, right from headquarters — right from Paris — I just got it a few minutes ago,” Wilson told him.

Wilson was planning to send the news to a nearby French newspaper, and he had no problem allowing Wilson to share the news with readers back home in the U.S. He even sent his French-speaking confidential secretary with Howard to “expedite the dispatch” at the cable office.

Howard stopped at the office of the French paper nearby so the message could be typed. It was mistakenly given a Paris dateline, and then it was sent at 4:20 p.m. Brest time.

Would he go down in history as the man who broke the story? All around him people were already going “bugs” at the news. Even the thrifty French merchants were giving out bottles of wine. Howard had no idea his story had quickly cleared censors, and similar celebrations were kicking off across North America.

Over the years, Howard told the next part of the story — the moment the nightmare dawned — a bit differently. In a 1918 letter to a colleague, he said he found out after dinner when he was at the French newspaper office. In his 1936 account, it was more dramatic: he was dining at Brest’s liveliest restaurant with intelligence officers, and before he could even order a cocktail, a messenger came in with the horrifying update from Adm. Wilson.

A later investigation by U.S. military intelligence would determine the false armistice had become “official” through a game of broken telephone between American and French military circles in Paris.

Capt. H.J. Whitehouse, the acting director of the Liaison Service, which acted as a go-between for different branches of the American forces, as well as other Allied forces, had “reliable and authentic” information that the armistice had been signed. One of his men, Capt. Stanton, had received the information from a French officer. American intelligence officers were doubtful — they hadn’t heard anything from their senior contacts, and they tried to quash the rumour all day. They informed headquarters that it should be treated with “greatest reserve.” But an attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Paris had already sent a telegram to Washington, and it was talked about as a fact at “the American Club luncheon” in Paris. In this climate, a naval intelligence officer wired the news as “authentic” to Adm. Wilson in Brest, who told Roy Howard.

(The same investigation figured the root cause of the rumour was a temporary, very localized ceasefire planned on Nov. 7 for a peace delegation — telegrams had been intercepted and misconstrued.)

“It’s fascinating because it gives a real insight into the absolute chaos and confusion in communication from the front and between newspapers at the time,” Smith says.

A stunned Howard hoped the censors had killed his story. He filed another bulletin, hoping to correct his mistake, but in a cruel twist, that version was held up by naval censors.

His original report, he would later learn, had been helped along by the presence of Wilson’s confidential secretary, and an erroneous Paris dateline that suggested it had already been cleared by the American censor there. Also, Howard noted, the censor’s room in Brest was deserted when he and Wilson’s aide were there. Everybody was partying.

In Paris, the censors had been able to rein in their local papers from publishing reports, Smith says. In England, the false armistice news had actually made it there 20 minutes earlier than the U.S., via the American Embassy in London, he says. Reuters must have had a contact there, because it was issuing special bulletins. Very quickly, the British Foreign Office issued a “cautionary note” to tell the agency it wasn’t true. “Reuters within 20 minutes issued a disclaimer saying ‘Cancel that,’ but it was too late,” Smith says. It was evening in England, and people were lighting fireworks and ringing the church bells, both violations of wartime restrictions.

Back in North America, doubt had crept into newsrooms, but not the streets. AP had no confirmation from its war bureaus. In Washington, the State Department issued a denial, to little effect. “News services and correspondents that questioned the authenticity of this bulletin were ridiculed,” Howard later wrote. The world wanted a good time and a “twenty word news bulletin furnished the detonating spark,” he wrote.

The Star had a tight afternoon deadline. “Up to the hour of going to press no official confirmation had been received,” it wrote on the front page, which had stories of people dancing in the streets. The paper was published for 5 p.m.: “Unofficially reported armistice is signed,” the front page read.

The Telegram, also an evening paper, took a different approach. “Germany has not yet signed a surrender.”

The Globe, with a later deadline for a morning publication, was measured. It included stories about the quiet celebrations in homes over the “peace news,” and how the jubilation in Hamilton was not dampened by the denials. In one story — aptly headlined, “Tell me, is the news official?” — a reporter visited soldiers in a military hospital. “It’s the old mothers I’m thinking of,” one soldier said. “I’ve always thought that peace, if it did come, would be a big strain, and now if they’re disappointed,” he trailed off. “You learn a lot about women’s patience lying here, Sister.”

The most fascinating element, Richard Schwarzlose wrote in The Nation’s Newsbrokers: The Rush to Institution from 1865 to 1920, was that readers were “willing to trust their emotions to a few lines of newsbroker bulletin — and do it all over again four days later when the real armistice was signed.”

Roy Howard was having a very bad week back in France. The general manager in New York sent him a telegram that reached him Nov. 9. The United Press had held firm to the story as long as it could. But in the message, every line was worse that the last, all capital letters and no punctuation.

“Your original Paris flash received published everywhere exactly as sent … Announcement yesterday caused greatest demonstration American history daylong nightlong opposition services papers attacking Unipress viciously … Impossible overestimate seriousness incident which unparallelled all newspaper history”

The best thing to do was get an explanation out. Howard scrambled to figure out what went wrong.

“I’m still a bit groggy from this jolt,” he wrote to his Paris bureau chief. “I am fully conscious of what it has done to us in America.”

Adm. Wilson, who had sworn the news was official, felt pretty bad. He said that Howard had acted in good faith.

“Of course he has no idea of what the thing means to us, but he could see that it was a bad mess and he came all the way through to do everything within his power to undo the damage,” Howard wrote.

Howard replayed the scenario in letters to colleagues and friends: “There would be nothing for me or any other newspaper man to do except just what I did.”

The public seemed to understand. In their minds the war was over, and they accepted the mistake in “good spirit,” he wrote. But other journalists, led by The Associated Press, were calling the United Press a “nefarious” outfit who should be made to pay for the clean-up, and Howard a traitor to his profession and country.

“Indignation burned like a brush fire in the columns of those virtuous paragons of American journalism which had not printed the report,” Howard wrote.

A bird's-eye view captured by Allen Edward Cuthbertson in downtown Toronto on Nov. 7.
A bird’s-eye view captured by Allen Edward Cuthbertson in downtown Toronto on Nov. 7.

In Toronto, the Tely was feeling quite virtuous. When the real armistice was signed, it was the first to report it. “First as usual, with the truth,” it said, including a drawing of Star publisher Joseph Atkinson riding a star through the sky, his hair askew, and in his hand a “fake armistice bulletin.”

When the official records of the State Department were declassified in the early 1930s, Howard was cleared of blame. In a telegram sent on Nov. 8, 1918, Edward House, the U.S. diplomat at the centre of peace talks, said that if there was any fault in the matter, it rested with an American official in Paris and the “French official” who passed along the rumour.

In 1936, writing in a colleague’s book, Howard wondered whether that “French” official might actually be German.

“The Germans wanted an armistice desperately — and wanted it quickly,” he wrote. “They were faced with starvation, anarchy and civil war. Time meant everything.”

The Germans knew the Allied military leaders would keep pushing so they could be “ruthless” with their terms, but families everywhere wanted peace, and “if these nationals could just be told that an armistice had been signed … it was reasonable to suppose that their joy would be so great that no power would risk continuance of the war.”

Smith, the retired history teacher, says that the German spy theory was first outlined by American intelligence officer Arthur Hornblow, who would later become a Hollywood producer dabbling in screwball comedies, film noir and musicals like Oklahoma. Hornblow was in Brest that day, and spent some time with Howard. Smith thinks the spy theory was a cover-up for the “huge blunder,” but it can’t be proven either way. “If there were originally any German documents about the spy activities, a lot of the German activities during the First World War were destroyed during the Second World War in bombing,” he says.

Smith subscribes to the theory outlined in the U.S. military documents — that a telegram for a temporary ceasefire was misunderstood.

He is amazed by the way the false armistice persisted as a “folk memory” in North America. President Truman noted it in a 1951 speech and mentioned Roy Howard by name. F. Scott Fitzgerald dropped it into a book. “Everybody experienced it. Thousands and thousands of them, even to the extent of saying, ‘Oh, he was born on the false Armistice Day,’ ” Smith says. But in England, the story quickly disappeared.

Howard, who was a major shareholder in United Press, had worried the mistake would cost at least “a quarter of a million” worth of damage, but there was no lasting financial impact.

Smith says some editors and newspapers wouldn’t “fully trust” the United Press bulletins until they saw The Associated Press reporting on the same, but Howard went on to have a long career. He became chairman of the board of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, but he continued to report, travel the world, and interview world leaders.

He never lived down the false armistice, but he seemed to have a sense of humour about it. Once, while giving a speech at a dinner, someone heckled him. Smith says that Howard was quick and good-natured with his reply: “Hey, you listen to me. I stopped a war at one stage, you know.”

Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs


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