Today is Remembrance Day and I was recalling my recent visit to northern France. Here’s part one.
When I visited the Armistice Wagon in the forest outside Compiègne, France, I could think of few places in modern times with more history per square inch. It was the location for the signing of the WWI armistice. It was here where Hitler staged the signing of France’s surrender in 1940. (And in nearby Compiègne, on May 23, 1430, Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians, then sold to the British.)
The time of my visit was a rainy, somewhat cool June morning. It lent additional gravity to an already serious place. Near the entrance is the memorial erected by WWI French soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine who fought to recapture the disputed territory. The memorial depicts a sword impaling the vanquished German eagle. It was removed by the conquering German forces in 1940 and stored in crates.
The whole site is known as the Armistice Glade. On the side opposite to the Alsace-Lorraine monument is the building that houses the famous Wagon Lits Company coach, marked #2419D (more on that later). It was in that car where hostilities officially ended 11:00 a.m. Paris time, November 11th, 1918 (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month). Today, visitors can tour the small building that houses the coach.
It was here in this secluded spot that the French delegation, led by Marshall Ferdinand Foch met with the Germans, led by Mattias Erzberger (Ezberger was later killed in 1921 by a right-wing German faction for his ‘betrayal’ of Germany). The victorious allies were represented only by the French. No British, Canadian or American delegates were in attendance.
These arrangements, according to Canadian scholar Margaret MacMillan constituted a mistake. She states in her excellent book, Paris 1919, that “The mistake the Allies made, and it did not become clear until much later, was that, as a result of the armistice terms, the great majority of Germans never experienced their country’s defeat at first hand. Except in the Rhineland, they did not see occupying troops. The Allies did not march in triumph into Berlin as the Germans had done in 1871.”
After the war, the coach went back into service for a brief period, before it was put on display in Paris. It was returned to Compiègne in 1927.
John Ecker | Pantheon