Armistice in the Compiègne Forest, France

Tomorrow, 11 November – Armistice Day, is observed and commemorated differently around the World today. In France it is a national holiday, and most if not all communes will hold ceremonies at their monuments aux morts where they will remember their forefathers who fought and died for their country during World War I.

This bronze sculpture of a sword that strikes the Imperial Eagle of Germany is set in Alsatian sandstone and inscribed “To the heroic soldiers of France – Defender of Fatherland and of Right – Glorious liberators of Alsace and Lorraine”, photograph by Mark Wilson.

Armistice Day, as we all know, marks the end of World War I, the day the Germans surrendered to Allied forces. Armistice was signed, by the various signatories representing the Allied forces and the Germans, between 5:12 AM and 5:20 AM, Paris time, and surrender was scheduled for 11 O’Clock that day, 11 November 1918. This was the hurried result of what was a desperate and pressured process that had begun towards the end of October when German leaders realised defeat was imminent. After a flurry of telegrams between the German command and Allied leaders, the threat of revolt breaking out throughout Germany forced the issue.

The German delegation was taken to a secret location, and in the Allied Commander-in-chief, Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s private railway carriage the final details of the Armistice agreement were thrashed out for three days. That secret location was the forest of Compiègne.

Photograph by Mark Wilson.

Still today the exact spot in the forest commemorates the signing. Slabs of granite mark the spot where the Foch’s carriages stood, and where the carriage occupied by the Germans stood.

Foch’s train went back into service, but in November 1927 it was returned to the exact spot where the Armistice was signed. The carriage was placed in a specially constructed shelter, known as the Clairiere de l’Armistice. There the carriage remained until 22 June 1940 Hitler, Goering, Keitel, von Ribbentrop and others marched into the Clairier, and in the very same carriage the Nazis demanded and received the surrender armistice from France.

Photograph by Johnny Rooke.

The Clairiere de l’Armistice was destroyed during the Occupation of France during World War II, and Foch’s carriage was taken as a trophy to Berlin. But in the dying days of the Third Reich, Hitler ordered the SS burn the carriage and destroy the ashes – nothing was to be retrievable. But on 11 November 1950 a replacement carriage – itself built in 1913 at the same time Foch’s carriage was built and correct in every detail – was rededicated on a restored Armistice site in the forest of Compiègne.

Compiègne is only a 50 minute train journey to the north from Paris’s Gard du Nord. There are around 20 trains a day. For anyone visiting this great European city, Karen has written produced a great summary of all best things to do in Paris, as included on the Europe a la Carte blog. Beside the Armistice memorials in the forest of Compiègne, there is also the spot where Joan of Arc was finally apprehended. And besides the forest there is the Château de Compiègne, the seat of the Second French Empire – but that will have to be the topic of a future post.

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About Thomas Dowson

Hello, I am Thomas Dowson - a freelance writer and archaeologist living in Normandy, France. My field of expertise is prehistoric art - such as the cave paintings in the Dordogne and South Africa. But I am becoming passionately interested in France more generally, and Normandy in particular, and what this country and one of its very well known regions has to offer people with all sorts of tastes and desires. In 2005 I exchanged a university archaeology lecture room for a Bed & Breakfast in Normandy. More recently I started the Archaeology Travel website; sharing my expertise and love of archaeology and travel with others who also want to explore the many different pasts around the World.