Whoops, False Armistice

tely 1918-11-08 celebrating crowd

The Telegram, November 8, 1918.

Having endured over four years of war, Torontonians were ready to cut loose as November 1918 dawned. As the Central Powers collapsed, there was a feeling that the Great War could end at any moment. The recent wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic had curtailed public gatherings, keeping people at home. All everyone needed to hear was that an armistice had been signed.

tely 1918-11-08 afternoon spectacle

Around noon on November 7, the Toronto Star posted a bulletin in the window of its office at 18 King West based on a United Press report that the war was over. Within an hour, people poured into the streets to celebrate, making as much noise as possible. Workers left their posts. Streetcar conductors barely made attempts to collect fares. Courtrooms emptied. Preparations were made to burn effigies of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

star 1918-11-07 toronto swept

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1918.

Problem was, an armistice had not been signed. The city’s other newspapers took a more cautious approach and waited for further confirmation. By the time the Star’s 5 p.m. edition hit the streets, it noted that earlier reports were unofficial. Though the news that it was a false alarm filtered to the streets, the celebrations continued. If the war didn’t end that day, reports that Germany was collapsing into chaos gave the impression it wouldn’t last much longer.

As the Mail and Empire framed the day:

Dame Rumour has been responsible for numerous announcements in the past four years of bitter struggle with Germany that have brought anxiety and anguish to many hearts, but none has had more widespread results that that which emanated from the office of an evening newspaper yesterday and placed Toronto in the midst of a torrent of frenzied celebration…Never before in the history of Canada has such a scene of indescribable exultant frenzy occurred as that which reigned in the streets of Toronto for more than ten hours. Judges of the Supreme Court, men learned in the law and staid and sober-minded businessmen discarded decorum and reserve in the contagious whirl of joy and joined in the universal paean of victory. The streets presented the appearance of a mammoth carnival with multitudinous vari-coloured streamers and ribbons hanging out from the windows of skyscrapers and adjacent buildings and showering onto the heads of cheering and jubilant humanity below.

tely 1918-11-08 munitionettes photo

The Telegram, November 8, 1918.

At least one death was attributed to the excitement. William Gloyns had finished stringing flags onto the the front of the D. Pike Awning Company’s office at 122 King East when, according to the News, “heart failure, accentuated by the excitement of the hour, seized him and he fell in a heap.” He was rushed to St. Mike’s, but died soon after. His wife told authorities that Gloyns had a long history of heart trouble, so no inquest was called.

world 1918-11-08 page 2 toronto crazy with joy

Toronto World, November 8, 1918.

Among the other stories that day:

  • In the Beaches, two Boy Scouts organized a victory parade, gathering over 200 children. At Waverley Road, a confectionary owner tossed candies to the kids, while a grocer gave them apples.
  • In Earlscourt, a window sign in a grocery store read “The Kaiser and his breed are beaten. We are so excited about it we cannot sell groceries. We will perhaps open again tomorrow morning.”
  • People who were ill left their sick beds to join the celebrations downtown. I’m a great deal healthier than Germany is at present,” one man told the Telegram.
  • At least one car was seen dangling a dead turkey from the top of its windshield.

globe 1918-11-08 swift cyclone of elation

The Globe, November 8, 1918.

The Star’s competitors jumped on the paper for sharing the United Press bulletin. Here’s how the News presented the initial report…

news 1918-11-07 front page

..and how it framed the story the next day.

news 1918-11-08 front page how toronto was fooled

Toronto Daily News, November 8, 1918.

The News‘s editorial page stated that “The Toronto Star boasts that its special dispatches appeal to the imagination” The paper also wondered if “unreliable news agencies” would be banned from Canada as the Hearst chain’s had been earlier in the war.

tely 1918-11-08 anti-star front page

The Telegram, November 8, 1918.

The Telegram tore into the Star, with two editorial pages blasting the paper for perpetrating a cruel hoax. The excessive degree of outrage reflected the near-pathological hatred editor-in-chief John “Black Jack” Robinson displayed towards the Star. Throughout the main editorial, “counterfeit news” appears repeatedly, and the piece goes as far as to suggest the incident would give German leaders a boost.

The editorial begins with an itemized tally of the number of soldiers from Toronto who had died (4,585 total), been wounded, or gone missing since July 18. It initially shares blamed for the cruel fake armistice story among several competitors and United Press.

Toronto’s broken hearts and mourning homes were the victims of an unexampled cruelty. That cruelty had its primary origin in the cold-blooded sensation-mongering of the United Press News Service. That cruelty was perpetrated upon the people of this city by the news columns and bulletins of the Toronto Star, aided and abetted by the bulletins of the Mail and Empire and the Globe.

Next, an argument that was the incident was a blot on the good name of the newspaper industry:

ETERNAL VIGILANCE IS THE PRICE OF ACCURACY. The United Press and the Toronto Star have made the newspaper business look like a disreputable trade. A newspaper should be diligent in the effort to verify the foundations of its statements as an individual is diligent in the effort to tell the truth.

Given the number of dead/injured soldiers from Toronto, the Telegram felt that:

A combination of stupidity, negligence and cupidity must explain the Toronto Star’s cruel and heedless circulation of the “news” manufactured in the counterfeiter’s den that calls itself the Paris headquarters of the United Press.

The final paragraph screams a torrent of anger, that may have been a wee excessive, if only for the use of all caps.

A true newspaper is not immune from HUMAN ERROR. THE ARMISTICE HOAX WAS AN EXAMPLE OF INHUMAN ERROR. The perpetrators of that cruelty and stupidity have made decent newspapers ashamed to be published in the same country as the sensation mongers and rumour pedlars who TORTURED THE HEARTS OF WOMEN, DEFILED THE HOLY ALTARS OF TORONTO’S GRATITUDE, AND SPOILED THE MOST SACRED MOMENT OF TORONTO’S LIFE.

tely 1918-11-08 more attacks on star over false alarm

The Telegram, November 8, 1918.

Another half page was devoted to criticizing the Star and further editorializing, as well as showing how the Telegram was only interested in printing facts.

tely 1918-11-08 economic cost of fake news

The Telegram, November 8, 1918.

Here’s a surprise: if you think “fake news” is a term from the Trump era, here’s a sidebar showing how the “fake news” destroyed productivity for the day. Elsewhere in the paper, an account of how the story broke in New York used the headline ‘STORY OF NEWSPAPER CRIME” and subhead “COLD-BLOODED CRUELTY.”

tely 1918-11-08 womens page on false alarm

The Telegram, November 8, 1918.

There was even coverage on the women’s page.

Methinks the Telegram protested too much, and this incident presents a good example of the holier-than-thou attitude it often displayed in its war with the Star. Besides, compared to newspapers which published the United Press bulletin, the Star’s presentation was muted. Compare the Star’s front page on November 7…

star 1918-11-07 front page

….to the New York World….

new york world 1918-11-07 front page

…or, closer to home, the Hamilton Spectator.

hs 1918-11-07 front page

In the end, the citizens of Toronto had some fun while letting loose pent-up frustrations, and the false armistice served as a dress rehearsal for when an agreement was signed four days later.