Close by to where we were staying in Vic-Sur-Aisne was a particular place that I was keen to visit so one morning after breakfast I set off alone towards Compiègne and to the Clairière de l’Armistice, a historic site where the armistice of 1918 brought the First-World-War to an end and where just over twenty years later in 1940 Adolf Hitler dictated the terms of the surrender of France.
The site is deep in the Compiègne Forest about forty miles or so north-east of Paris at a railway junction that was quickly prepared in October/November 1918 to enable the German negotiators to meet with the soon to be victorious allies.
It is not a spectacular site, there is nothing grand about it, it is one of those places that you visit because of what happened there not for what you are going to see – two momentous moments in modern European history.
It is a clearing now but in 1918 it was still part of the dense forest. On the site is a memorial stone on the site of the railway carriage where the armistice was signed, a statue of Marshall Foch who led the Allied negotiations and a reconstructed Alsace-Lorraine Monument, depicting a German Eagle impaled on a French sword.
Alsace-Lorraine in eastern France had been annexed to Germany in 1870 after French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, an event that France had never accepted, an open wound, hemorrhaging national pride as it were and 1918 was the date that it returned to France.
“HERE ON THE ELEVENTH OF NOVEMBER 1918 SUCCUMBED THE CRIMINAL PRIDE OF THE GERMAN REICH. VANQUISHED BY THE FREE PEOPLES WHICH IT TRIED TO ENSLAVE.”
There is also a small museum in a rather squat, ugly concrete building with relics and artifacts from the war and a faithful reconstruction of the railway carriage in which the armistice was signed. I’ll tell you why it is a reconstruction in just a minute…
The terms of the Armistice represented a total victory for France and the Allies and abject humiliation for Germany. There was a revolution in Berlin, the Kaiser had recently abdicated and now the country was saddled with crippling war reparations and the ultimate humiliation of occupation. In France this must have seemed like a good idea at the time but it began a process of resentment that twenty years later would become the Second-World-War.
There is nothing so satisfying as rubbing people’s noses in the dirt but generally this sort of satisfaction is only ever temporary.
The Armistice was signed at around seven o’clock on 11th November and came into effect at eleven o’clock – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
What I didn’t know is that whilst we use the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance in France they use the blue cornflower in recognition of the traditional colour of the French army uniform.
The railway carriage immediately became a symbol of the victory, for a while it became part of the official Presidential Train and was paraded triumphantly around the country and then after a couple of years it was taken to Paris and exhibited on public display. Later it was returned to the Forest of Compiègne and the museum site and statues were erected in what was now the clearing or glade.
Fast forward twenty years now and Adolf Hitler is in power in Germany and in 1940 attacks France and the country is defeated and overwhelmed and completely humiliated in a matter of only weeks. Hitler visited Paris to celebrate his victory and then turned his attention to the terms of the armistice. This was the moment in history when Germany took its revenge for 1918.
On his way back to Berlin Hitler stopped off at Compiègne, had the railway carriage moved from the museum to the exact spot where the 1918 armistice was signed and there dictated his terms to defeated France.
When he had finished humiliating the French the railway carriage was moved to Berlin as a trophy of war and a symbol of restored national pride and the Armistice site was brutally demolished by German army demolition experts on Hitler’s orders three days later. The Alsace-Lorraine memorial was ceremonially destroyed and all evidence of the site was obliterated, with the notable exception that is of the statue of Marshal Foch – Hitler intentionally ordered it to be left intact, so that it would be left honouring not a victory but only a wasteland and that he could look over it forever and see that everything that he had achieved in 1918 had been reversed. Germany didn’t just have Alsace-Lorraine it had all of France.
For somewhere so significant in European history it is not a big site, an hour or so is enough to see it all but for me this was not the point. I have visited several places where previously the monsters of history might have walked and breathed, Stalin in Moscow, The Emperor Caligula in Rome, General Franco in Madrid, Maximilien Robespierre in Paris but I cannot be absolutely positive that I walked in their exact footsteps, at the armistice sight in the Clairière de l’Armistice I can be completely certain that I walked across the same piece of ground as Adolf Hitler and that is a slightly uneasy feeling.
Who do you think is the biggest monster in World history…?
Adolf Hitler – 60,000,000 WW2 deaths including 6,000,000 Jews in the concentration camps
Joseph Stalin – 60,000,000 citizens of the USSR in a series of political purges – his own bloody people FFS!
Maximilien Robespierre – 17,000 guillotined in just nine months in the Reign of Terror
Emperor Caligula – Mad, Bad and Bloodthirsty, no accurate data available
Pol Pot – 3,000,000 deaths in Cambodian genocide
Margaret Thatcher – 500,000 miners jobs sacrificed on the altar of political dogma
Michael O’Leary – Breaking the Law by not refunding cancelled flights and because he is a gobshite!
Please feel free to make alternative suggestions…
Back now to Compiègne and to the Clairière de l’Armistice. In 1945 as the Red Army closed in on Berlin the railway carriage was moved for its own protection to a secret site in a forest in Thuringia where it turns out it wasn’t that safe because at some point it was burnt and destroyed. There are conflicting accounts about this, some say that German SS officers destroyed it to prevent it falling into enemy hands, some say German POWs set fire to it as an act of revenge and others that US troops unaware of its significance dismantled it and used it for firewood.
That is why there is only a reconstruction at the museum site.
Anyway, returning to the happier subject of holidays and the innocence of childhood…
… My granddaughter, she knows nothing about war, conflict, genocide, politics, unpleasantness, not even a little unkindness and I hope that she never does…