Local history: Nov. 7, 1918 was ‘False Armistice Day’ in Long Beach and the world

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The news trickled into Long Beach on the morning of Nov. 7, 1918, and then it exploded. The Great War was over and the city went wild with near-hysterical joy and celebration.

Long Beach wasn’t the only place that celebrated with abandon on Nov. 7, 1918. Los Angeles soon joined in when that city got the news. Already, New York City was making a deafening racket of jubilation as ship whistles screamed in the harbor and the air was alive with trolley bells, automobile horns and church bells as newsboys shouted “Extra! War is over!” Ticker tape erupted from skyscrapers.

President Woodrow Wilson appeared on the White House portico in Washington and waved at crowds chanting his name while Army planes performed aerobatics over the Potomac. The mayor of Philadelphia rang the Liberty Bell.

Spontaneous celebrations broke out in France, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina.

It was all a mistake, though. A mixup, sparking a day that would become known as False Armistice Day, a premature celebration that brought joy worldwide four days before the ceasefire became official on Nov. 11.

The “news” arose in France from information about a delegation of Germans that was on its way to receive the Allies’ armistice terms. Specifically, the news pointed to a German wireless message of 7 November declaring a 3 p.m. cease-fire.

An investigation by the American Army’s Intelligence Service found that officers had intercepted the German message and had mistakenly taken it to mean that an armistice had been agreed upon and the war would end at 3 o’clock that afternoon.

The officers passed on their misinterpreted information; it soon reached the American Embassy, military bases around the country and, eventually, the general public.

The news came to Long Beach at 9:15 a.m. via United Press wire stating that the armistice had been signed and hostilities had ceased. The War to End All Wars had ended.

Daily Telegram headline on Nov. 7, 1918.

The Long Beach Press phoned the news to the Long Beach Bath House siren as well as the police and fire departments. Harbor boats let loose with their whistles and within minutes the whole city was loudly and raucously celebrating.

Flags were handed out by local shops and automobiles were commandeered and took to the streets with their horns blaring incessantly.

The scattered members of the Municipal Band, at their various homes under influenza quarantine, were quickly assembled and began parading through the streets playing patriotic music as they would for hours that day.

“Block by block there spread the news that November 7, 1918, was the greatest day in the whole history of the whole world,” the Press-Telegram unabashedly reported. “The joyful word was passed along by phone and whistle and shout and then there came the Salt Lake train. The engineer was given the news and he pulled down the whistle cord, leaving it tied down as he pulled out of the station, leaving the whistle blowing from this station to the next. In that manner all the rural districts caught on.”

Shops, banks and other businesses closed their doors and let their employees join the cheering crowds that clogged Pine Avenue. And laws, rules and ordinances be damned. The influenza quarantine went out the window as people poured out of their houses, some similarly ignoring the law against discharging firearms within the city limits as people fired off rifles, shotguns and revolvers in the heart of Downtown. “The old town was wild, figuratively on its hind legs and pawing the air,” reported the Press-Telegram.

German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II didn’t fare well during the celebration as the citizens of Long Beach piled on “Bill” by bringing a miniature coffin of the German leader at rest to the Chamber of Commerce office, declaring that the foot-long coffin was appropriately sized for the way the emperor must surely feel after losing the war.

Further, reported the newspaper, Police Chief C.C. Cole had some German flags that were taken “from a seditious Hun sympathizer by police officers. These dirty rags were burned in Pacific Park.”

A late wire on Nov. 7 stated that, according to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, the armistice had yet to be signed, a fact reported in some late editions, though generally the story was buried beneath the details of the wild celebrations. In New York’s Times Square, celebrants tore apart newspapers that carried Lansing’s denial that an accord had been signed. You could call them denial deniers.

So the parties raged through the night while “over there” soldiers were still fighting in one of the most brutal and barbaric wars in history. Between the fake Armistice and the real one that was signed at 11 a.m. Paris time on Nov. 11, thousands more soldiers died in battle, with 2,738 men dying on the last day of the war.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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