ARMISTICE IN COMPIEGNE: JUNE 1940
THE FALL OF THE GERMAN EMPIRE: 1918
Toward September 1918 and the fifth Fall of the ‘Great War’, former cultural Europe with all its multi-national history, gastronomy, and classic music was a bleeding land. Every year of that devastating World War would be later characterized, sometimes with more than one attribute. The combat action of 1918 was to be known as the ‘war of movement’. While back in August 1914 and the first months of the conflict, fifty-four German divisions were making their move on the Belgian–Dutch frontier and the French town of Metz, now the Germans had more than 200 divisions on the front around 500 km: an enormous force concentration in world military history. In contrast to such imposing figures on paper, the last big German offensive, which had been initiated in July, was now drowning in mud and blood by virtue of superior Allied forces.
General Erich Ludendorff, though under the formal submission to German Kaiser Wilhelm II, in 1918 was practically the military ruler of the giant Empire, since the actual governance had been under the army. In vivid contrast to the after-war myth (one of the cornerstones of the later Nazi and Hitler’s rhetoric) about the ‘Stab in the back’ strictly in Berlin, the actual situation was much more complex. As early as August 13, 1918, Erich Ludendorff, First Quartermaster General of the Great General Staff, and Paul von Hindenburg, Chief of the German General Staff both held a military briefing. The main issue of the discussion was to be a confirmation that it would be highly unlikely to force the enemy to accept peace by means of the German offensive, and the strategic defense may weaken the French, British, and Americans. The decision was a pure military conclusion as both Hindenburg and Ludendorff were no politicians and made their conclusions as soldiers.
On September 26, 1918, the Allied forces mounted a new massive offensive on the Western front and the date would be later known as ‘Z-Day’ (the less known and rarely mentioned predecessor of D-day in WWII in 1944). In the course of the first forty-eight hours, the American units succeeded in liberating more than 200 square kilometers of the occupied French territory. The outbreak of the attack was pronounced as a triumph, though more than 7000 lives were lost, thus more than 4000 in every day of the combat. Such a devastating figure for the year 1914, was now trivial. In those late days of September 1918 around half a million Americans, 250 000 French, and 90 000 horses massed a small section of the front between Meuse and Argonne. In the same period, the British 1st and 4th Armies advanced toward the positions south of the Arras–Cambrai road.
Apart from purely military events of late September 1918, the end of the First World War was made possible by the speeches of two political leaders. On September 17 Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, delivered his address from the rostrum of the Senate in Paris. The leader of the French government accented to the events of the 1789 revolution and the German siege of Paris in 1870, and once again openly blamed the German Empire for drawing the world into a War. Clemenceau spoke about the devastated towns, millions of dead, and the slave labor within the occupied territories of his country. On September 27 and 6000 kilometers from Paris, American President Woodrow Wilson delivered his own speech inside the New York Metropolitan Opera House. He once again stressed the importance of finding a compromised peace without discrimination toward the defeated. The US president mentioned the planned ‘League of Nations’, an instrument of peace, which should not be dominated by inner alliances. Wilson proclaimed that ‘after the final triumph of justice and fair dealing’ there would be no secret diplomacy. In narrow means, the September 19 speech was a reference to Wilson’s address on January 8 the same year with the well-known ‘Fourteen points’ for settling the War.
The very next day after President Wilson’s speech, on September 28 1918 Ludendorff shared his conviction with Hindenburg, that it is obligatory to seek an armistice with the Allied forces. At 10:30 am, Ludendorff telephoned his representative in Berlin and asked to inform the German chancellor that the military situation leaves no other option than seeking peace. Not only the German army itself was no more capable of conducting an effective war: her allies were now leaving the War. As early as September 14, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the country which had started the War in 1914, sued for a separate peace (separate in contrast to her obligation toward Germany) with her yesterday enemies. On September 29, Bulgaria, a weak ally in the Balkans, signed an armistice with the Allies and Turkey was on the edge of collapse. On that same day during the military briefing held at Spa, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Foreign Minister Von Hintze decided upon a necessity to contact US President Woodrow Wilson and to seek negotiations based on his January points. A moderate Prince Max of Baden was chosen to become a new chancellor and in the course of the next six weeks, while the German army was bleeding on the front, the life of the remaining millions depended on the balance between diplomacy and defensive military means.
On Thursday, November 7, 1918, after six weeks of political maneuvers in order to gain an acceptable peace treaty, the German trenches were filled with incredible news, that the anticipated peace was now a fact. Though the rumors were incorrect and premature on that day, the issue was not far from the truth. One day before, on November 6, German Emperor Wilhelm II gave his permission for seeking direct contact with the enemy in order to get the actual conditions of the possible armistice. General Wilhelm Groener, the successor of Ludendorff since October, stressed that the receiving of the conditions does not automatically mean a complete fulfillment and they still have chances to create a new defense line on the Rhine, in fact, an illusory one. General Groener also opposed Kaiser’s abduction in such an important moment. On the same day, the Germans received the Allied message, that the ‘Fourteen points’ of president Wilson may be in general a basis for the armistice. French Marshal Foch was authorized to receive properly authorized representatives of the German side to communicate on the terms of the armistice.
THE ARMISTICE: NOVEMBER 1918
Though the German High Command sued for negotiations on the possibility of signing an armistice on November 6, 1918, the first crew of the German ‘Armistice Commission’ had been written down a month before, in early October. Initially, the commission was composed strictly of military men, but since the worsening of the situation in the front, the composition of the delegation was to be remodeled and included civil representatives. It is worth mentioning, that after four years of a devastating war, the German high command was to take away the responsibility in regard to the upcoming armistice negotiations based on the enemy conditions. Matthias Erzberger was to become that civil servant to take such a humiliating mission and his name would be so often recalled in the summer days of 1940.
In his post-war memoirs called ‘Erlebnisse im Weltkrieg’ (Experience of the World War, 1920), Erzberger would later describe the call in the late hours of November 6 as a complete surprise, not to say about the offer to lead the negotiations. On that day the German side created unprecedented documents for Erzberger with all necessary powers and authority on behalf of the Empire. Matthias Erzberger was asked to take a train from Berlin to Spa, a Belgian resort town occupied since 1914, the same evening. The town now accommodated ‘Oberste Heeresleitung‘ (Supreme Army Command). By taking a train to Spa, Erzberger already faced a fait accompli in regard to his mission, yet he had no idea of his final destination.
In the early hours of the next day November 7, an army radio operator in the heart of Paris, who had his post at the Eiffel Tower for better receiving, picked up an unprecedented message from Spa, particularly from the headquarters of the German Supreme Command. As the Germans already knew Marshal Ferdinand Foch to be an authorized representative, the message was for him. In this message ‘Oberste Heeresleitung‘ (Supreme Army Command) informed the French, that five German representatives are authorized to take part in the armistice negotiations and they are in wait to hear the instructions. The message was immediately transmitted further to the town of Senlis in Northern France, Marshal’s Foch headquarters at that time. The old Marshal was awakened and in a short time, a reply was sent to the German headquarters in Spa. The German representatives thus should be present at a French military post on the Chimay–Fourmies–La Capelle–Guise road. Upon arrival, they would be received and driven to the place of the meeting with the Marshal.
In regard to the choice of the place for negotiations, the French initially denied the idea to invite the German delegates to Foch headquarters in Senlis. Back in September 1914, when Kaiser’s troops were seizing the town, they were fired at. In retort to such an act, the Germans conducted an act of vengeance by setting on fire more than one hundred buildings in the town center, killing six hostages, including the local mayor. Leaving the idea of Senlis behind from the very beginning, the French High Command was to consider alternative locations for the meeting. The site was to be close to the frontlines and isolated at once, being located next to the sophisticated railway system, allowing two separate trains to arrive in one place: one for the Allies and one for the Germans.
Eventually, the High Command favored an unremarkable nondescript section of the railway line next to the village of Rethondes to the East of the large city of Compiegne. There was an open site in the woods, which had been once cleared for storing artillery shells. In regard to the purpose of the artillery clearing, it included two parallel railway spurs: the one to deliver the munition to the site and the second one to transport the shells and the guns, including the cannons, by means of the railroad rolling stocks. The two parallel tracks, spurs from the main Compiegne line, were established approximately 100 meters from each other.
In those early hours of November 7, 1918, Marshal Ferdinand Foch was not the only man, being awakened by an immediate message. Louis Roux-Durfort, an inspector of the ‘Chemin de Fer du Nord’ (full naming: ‘Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Nord or CF du Nord’), a railway transport company created back in 1845, was also set on his feet by a call, this one from Senlis. The inspector was ordered to find a vintage railway train of the times of the French Second Empire. The French had an idea to find a carriage of the Emperor Napoleon III era to somehow erase one’s humiliation of defeat in 1870 by the Germans. While the issue sounded challenging, ‘Chemin de Fer du Nord’ managed to seek out the train the same day. In consideration of the fact that Compiegne was one of the favorite residences of Napoleon III, ‘Chemin de Fer du Nord’ possessed authentic carriages of the Emperor, including a saloon wagon, two sleeping ones, two second-class carriages, and a restaurant carriage. The highlight of the trains was of course the salon wagon, built as far back as 1860 during the Second Empire. It had a luxury interior with green satin cloth and some symbols of the Napoleon III era, including the ‘N’ capital. The carriage would be destined to live through the century until our times and it is now exhibited within ‘Chateau de Compiegne’.
At the request of the French command, Napoleon III’s carriage was driven first to the town of Chantilly, halfway between Paris and Compiegne, in the late hours of November 7. Apart from doing some cleaning, the carriage was loaded with some supplies, including a vintage cognac and Bordeaux wine from the year 1870: another try to erase the defeat of the past war with Germany. After initial preparations, the train left Chantilly and moved toward Senlis, being welcomed by Marshal Foch in person. As for the German delegation and their way to the site of the meeting, they had to take some time near Chimay, while the engineering unit was to clear the railway line further to the West. The representatives led by Erzberger finally crossed the frontline at 9 p.m. on November 7. At 3 a.m. the next day, the Napoleon III train with closed windows took them to Ternier in the unclosed direction. In the early hours of November 8, the German delegates finally reached an unremarkable open clearing amid the forest.
The Erzberger’s delegation was now to see another train approximately in the distance of 100 meters, with a narrow path between the two. While no journalists or cameramen were allowed to be present during the armistice meeting itself, some general photos of the sites were taken and later preserved for history. Regarding the second train, the French-British delegation arrived at the forest clearing the previous evening by means of Marshal Foch’s personal transport, which included the former restaurant carriage with the 2419D number on its side. Soon after the arrival of the Germans (approximately at 7 a.m.) at the site, they were visited by General Weygand, French Chief of Staff, and informed that Marshal Foch would accept them at 9. am. within his own train nearby. Помимо Erzberger, the German delegation to Rethondes included:
- Major General Detlof von Winterfeld, a son of a Prussian general, was now a representative of the German High Command under the Chancellor. He would outlive the 1940 Armistice for only two weeks, passing away on July 3, 1940, peacefully at the age of seventy-three.
- Ernst Vanselow, a representative of the German Royal Navy. For two months between September and October 1918, he was the captain of the ship called ‘Kaiser’. He Was now wearing his uniform with a golden braid, thus indicating the representation of the Admiralty.
- Count Alfred von Oberndorf, had been working on ‘Foreign’ ministry posts since 1900 in Madrid and Brussels, Vienna, Oslo, and Sofia and was a friend of Erzberger. In Compiegne, wearing civilian clothing, he was now representing the government regarding the questions of foreign policy, thus indicating the presence of the German Foreign Ministry. He would live a long life until passing away in 1963.
- Ferdinand Graf von Helldorff, a son of a landlord, was now a Hauptmann (captain) and served as Erzberger’s personal interpreter to French. Since the mid-1920 he would devote himself to the far-right movement and would join the Nazi party in 1930. During the Third Reich, he would occupy a number of high posts, including the chief of the Berlin police. He would participate in the 1944 July plot and was later hanged.
- Hauptmann (captain) Hermann Geyer, an army man since 1900. After the outbreak of the World War, he was an officer in the German General Staff. He would start the Second World War as the commander of the Army corps in the West campaign against France and retire in 1943. The post-war life of a mayor of a tiny German municipality would not last long until the suicide of the former general in 1946.
The French and British Allied delegation was not much numerous and, apart from Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies, included:
- General Weygand, French Chief of Staff
- Commander Riedinger, Head of the French Intelligence Second Bureau (Deuxième Bureau)
- Captain Mierry, another intelligence officer
- Captain Boutal, Marshal Foch’s personal assistant
- Lieutenant Laperche, Interpreter
- Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, First Sea Lord
- Admiral Sir George Hope, Deputy First Sea Lord
- Captain Jack Marriott, Naval Assistant to the Chief of Naval Staff
- General Desticker
- Walter Bagot, Interpreter.
While the so-called ‘Fourteen Points’ of the American President Woodrow Wilson were to become a basis for the armistice in Europe, no American, neither military nor civilians, was present at the Rhetondes clearing that day.
When the German plenipotentiaries covered the short distance between two trains within the former artillery clearing, moving close file march toward Foch’s train, they saw a long table with four seats with the inscriptions of the names: Erzberg, Winterfeld, Vanselow, Oberndorf. Marshal Foch was polite but severe in his statement that he had nothing to say to the delegates unless they had come to seek peace and were ready to receive the Allied conditions for the armistice. In wider means, the French Marshal humiliated the Germans by understanding that what is at issue here is not negotiations, but the previously approved conditions of the triumphant. We should pay attention to this detail to have a better understanding of the 1940 events. By listening to the conditions at the table, including points regarding future reparations, the German delegation asked for the cessation of fire in order to stop the bloodbath on the front. Marshal Foch underlined, that the cessation would be possible only after signing the armistice documents and the plenipotentiaries had 72 hours either to agree or to continue the war. The whole scene in Foch’s Armistice wagon took nearly half an hour and the Germans left the train for their own one, in fact, the Napoleon III historical piece.
A few hours after the encounter inside the 2419 D wagon, one among the German delegates, Ferdinand Graf von Helldorff, Erzberger’s personal interpreter, left for Spa to deliver the terms of the armistice to the German headquarters, particularly personally to Paul von Hindenburg. Despite the technical discussions in the course of the next three days and an attempt to produce their own version of the armistice treaty, the German delegation was all present at the location toward 2 a.m. November 11. On the previous evening, the Allied High Command already received a German provisional agreement with the armistice conditions. In the course of these three days between November 8 and 11, German Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated the throne and left for Holland. He was invited by General Groener to go to the frontline and die with his men, but the abandoned Emperor refused, and a provisional government with the provocative title ‘Council of People’s Commissars’, was elected in Berlin. As soon as the negotiations resumed inside Foch’s Armistice train car, the full version of the armistice agreement was read off, translated, and agreed, clause by clause, which took a few hours. Regardless of the official German note in virtue of the harshness of some points (which could lead to chaos in Germany), the final signing was finalized at 5 a.m. November 11, 1918.
With the inks on paper still fresh, the Allied representatives issued the cessation of fire on all fronts starting at 11 a.m. French time November 11. The period of validity of the armistice was now 36 days, an agreed time to create the armistice commission for further procedures. Minutes after the signing, all present were served with light meal, alcohol, and desserts and the Allied plenipotentiaries raised a toast for such an event. At 6:20 a.m. Marshal Foch and Admiral Wemyss both left for Paris to present the signed armistice agreement to the French Government and the other members from the French side left as well later toward midday. In regard to the German delegates, they left the forest clearing near Compiegne around 11 a.m. in the same vintage train of the times of the French Second Empire and made the same route to Tergnier as three days before, this time with open windows.
The final document, which was signed in the early hours of November 11, 1918, in the refurbished former restaurant wagon amid the forest clearing near a small French village, included eighteen clauses (articles), for more than Wilson’s agenda. Among obvious clauses like the cessation of hostilities, the German side was obliged to evacuate their troops from the territory of France, Belgium, Austro-Hungary, Turkey, Romania, and Alsace-Lorraine (the latter was one of the main apples of discord in the war). Apart from the obvious clauses, the allied forces were now allowed to seize Cologne, Koblenz, and Mainz. The German army was obliged to give or to destroy (under the supervision) the larger part of their heavy artillery, and to give 2000 planes (they would fulfill 1700), 30000 machine guns (the German side would fulfill 25 000), 3,000 flamethrowers, and the greater proportion of the railway trains and carriages: in total 10 000 locomotives and 150 000 carriages, also 10 000 trucks (they would give 5000). In regard to the fleet, the collapsed empire was now obliged to deliver 10 battleships, 6 battle cruisers, 8 cruisers, and 160 submarines. All prisoners of war and civilians should be freed from German captivity.
The 72 hours for the final coordination of the armistice agreement, which was given to the German delegates on November 8, claimed the lives of thousands of men on the West front. Eventually, the one day of November 11 left behind 11 000 killed in action, wounded or missing on all sides. In contrast to the news of the cessation of fire starting from 11 a.m, some officers purposely conducted the last local attacks. Evidently, the most well-known occurrence was related to the American attack on the village of Stenay, which was initiated after the news of the armistice and finally claimed 300 lives. It is worth mentioning that in regard to the official times of the cessation of fire in WWI as 11 a.m. November 11, 1918, modern historiography knows the names of the last ‘official’ victims by name.
‘Officially’ the last known French soldier, who lost his life in the First World War was Augustin Trébuchon, a shepherd from Lozere and now a Private First class and a messenger of the 415th Regiment. He got a bullet in his head at 10:45 while delivering a message. In historical contrast to the well-known iconic status of this warrior, there was evidence of more late victims on the French side: Auguste Joseph Renault is considered to die at 10.58 a.m. George Edwin Ellison, a miner born in the same year 1878 as Trébuchon, was the last British soldier killed in WWI around 9:30. He was killed near the city of Mons in Belgium, a location of the first battle for the British in August 1914, and buried at the local cemetery just next to John Parr, the first British soldier killed in 1914 and also at arm’s end from the grave of George Lawrence Price, the last Canadian soldier (among 60,661 Canadians killed in WWI) killed at 10:58. Marcel Toussaint Terfve, born in Liege in 1893, died of machine-gun fire around 10:45 and is known to be the last Belgian soldier killed. Henri Gunther of American-German origin from Baltimore is considered to be both the last American and the last soldier killed in WWI at 10:59.
THE COMPIEGNE WAGONG: 2419 D ARMISTICE TRAIN CAR
In contrast to the historical authenticity of the Napoleon III train, it was the second railway transport of the armistice negotiations between November 8 and 11, 1918 which was destined to become a historical landmark. While the saloon carriage with a green satin interior harkens back its history to 1860, the personal train of Marshal Ferdinand Foch was brought into existence as early as 1913. only five years prior to the event within the artillery clearing near Rethondes. This wooden carriage with a steel frame was only one among 22 roughly identical restaurant cars. Every car in the series was numbered from 2403 to 2424 and only the one among them, number 2419 D, was fated to become known worldwide.
The 2403-2424 series of carriages was the creation of ‘Compagnie générale de construction’ (in English: General Construction Company’ or simply ‘CGC’, a mechanical construction company from 1879 with the headquarters and productions facilities at Saint-Denis, a commune neighboring Paris. In wider means, the company was owned by another larger manufacturer known as ‘Compagnie Internationale des wagons-lits’ (in English: International Sleeping Car Company), a service provider for the railway sector since 1872. Founded by a Belgian businessman, the latter was known for creating railways hotels (sleeping and restaurant cars), and buffets within the stations. ‘Compagnie Internationale des wagons-lits’ was not only a creator of the first sleeping and restaurant car in Europe but the initiator of the well-known ‘Orient Express’ from Paris to Constantinople. ‘Compagnie générale de construction’ was one of the CIDWL contractors assigned to produce railway cars, which was well-known that as late as the last quarter of the XIX they were exported to the United States. In 1902 ‘Compagnie générale de construction’ finished the construction of the additional depots in Saint-Denis to expand the production of railway cars and carriages for trams.
The production of a 2403-2424 series of wagons had been a made fact on paper already in 1913, though the actual manufacturing was conducted as early as May 1914. In the same period of time between 1913 and 1914, the same construction facilities witnessed the production of another series of fifteen railway cars. Summing up, toward May 19141 ‘Compagnie générale de construction’ succeeded in manufacturing two series of carriages, 37 in total with 22 among these restaurant cars and 2419 D just one among them, without any distinguishing features. Furthermore, the 2419 D had little dissimilarities from the common practice of railway car production of that time. A metal frame with tie rods for better rigidity was added with a varnished teak wood: a usual practice in the early XX century. The actual production of the series was finished on May 20 and as early as June 4, 1914, the carriages of this family were permitted for use.
As early as June 1914 the 2419 D carriage was sent to the Paris ‘Gare Montparnasse’ station. It was assigned to be used as a restaurant car on the Paris-Saint-Brieuc line. Saint-Brieuc is a town in North-West France in Brittany at the coast of the English Channel and a 350 km distance from Paris. The line between Paris Montparnasse and Saint-Brieuc served by ‘Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest’ (Western Railway Company) had been in use since 1863. It was a common practice to transfer particular wagons from one line to another and in 1915-1916 the 2419 D was used within the line between Paris (the same ‘Gare Montparnasse’ station) and the town of Le Mans, 180 km to the South-West from the capital. A line between Paris and Le Mans is even older than to Saint-Brieuc and was put into service in 1854 as one of the first in France.
With the outbreak of the First World War, civil transport communication lost its priority and in the course of the next two years between 1916 and 1918, the 2419 D carriage was stored in Clichy in the Northern part of Paris. Later, the restaurant wagon, still unremarkable among the others of its time, was put into operation at the Saint-Lazare station, the third busiest in the capital, in the direction of Normandy. The 2419 D carriage was used on the line between Paris and Deauville-Trouville to the East of the Normandin city of Caen. The Saint-Lazare-Deauville-Trouville line was in service since 1863. The station was planned for reconstruction in 1913, yet the outbreak of the Great War abandoned the ambitious plans.
After a brief service at the line to Normandy, as early as October 7, 1918, the 2419 D carriage was requested by the army according to the ‘order of military authority’ issued by the 4th office of the Ministry of War. ‘Le 4e bureau’ (the 4th Office), designated to perform Intelligence service, was responsible for the transport and supplies and operated practical issues related to the orders of the French Chief command in regard to traffic, infrastructure, and cartographic issues. It would be officially dissolved after the 1940 Armistice with Germany. As a part of the wartime requisitions, the 2419 D was assigned to be used as a carriage for officers. In this respect, the interior of the initial restaurant car was to be transformed to fit the new role. Therefore, in October 1918, after a little more than four years of civil transport service, the car was put back to the facilities of ‘Compagnie Internationale des wagons-lits’ to Saint-Denis, the site of its origin, to be reshaped. In accordance with the requests of the military men, the carriage was divided into two rooms. The one was furnished with a long table for the maps in the middle of the space and another two smaller tables on either side. The second premise was added with another two side tables. The former restaurant kitchen was now remodeled to become a room for the typists with their own small tables.
As early as October 28, 1918, after the renovations were finished, the 2419 D Armistice wagon was transferred to be used as a part of the personal train of Marshal Ferdinand Foch. The famous French warlord was promoted to Marshal on August 7, 1918, two months before getting his own train. Apart from 2419 D, the new Foch train included a) another car from the same series 2418 D; b) a sleeping car built as far back as 1888; c) a lounge car from another series with the number 2443 d) two additional cars. The train was tracked by a locomotive 3.843 type of the 232T. The 232-type of a steam locomotive, also known as the ‘Hudson’ type named after the US company, had been used in France, particularly by ‘Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Nord’ (Northern Railway Company, established in 1845). The 3843 type was a part of a series between 3841 to 3860 produced in 1911 by ‘Société française de constructions mécaniques’ (French Company of Mechanical construction, established back in 1898). The locomotive weighed 87 tonnes, was 13.5 meters in length, and had a maximum operating speed of up to 105 kilometers per hour.
In the late hours of November 7, 1918, the delegation of French and British representatives used this train to cover the distance between Senlis and the open site in the woods near Compiegne to meet the German delegates the next morning. As 2419 D had been previously turned into an officer’s car, it was the one to be used as a primary place of meeting within the Foch’s train in the middle of the forest clearing near Rethondes (previously extensively used for ‘Artillery Lourde Sur Voie Ferrée’ or ‘Heavy artillery on railway trucks’) during the negotiations between November 8 and 11. On the morning of November 11, Marshal Foch departed for Paris on this very train.
It is worth knowing that the 2419 D role in peace-making in Europe was not limited to these three days in November 1918. The point was, that the armistice agreement and the cessation of fire in Western Europe had a limited validity of 36 days, and the period was supposed to further negotiations and prolongation. In the course of the next three months, another three meetings between the Allied and German plenipotentiaries took place in the German city of Trier, 300 km to the East of Compiegne. The city is considered to be the oldest in Germany: it was founded by the Celtic tribes as far back as IV century B.C., and three centuries later was captured by the Roman Empire and renamed ‘Augusta Treverorum’. In 1512 the city was known for some time as a seat for the German parliament. Trier was captured by either side (France and Germany) a number of times until the seizing by the German Empire in 1871. In 1918 the American troops seized the city as early as December 1 and it would be left a part of the so-called ‘Demilitarized Zone’ until the German annexation in 1936.
The last of the three meetings in Trier was also not the final act of the 2419 D service for the state, yet the major part of the year 1919 was not in use. As early as August 4, 1919, General Gaston Gassouin, nominally the Chief of the French transport system of wartime in France sent an appeal to André Noblemaire, president of the ‘Compagnie Internationale des wagons-lits’. The General asked the company president to grant the 2419 D wagon to the state for the planned exhibition in Paris. The board of directors of the CIWL company decided to grant the carriage to the state free of charge, though the carriage could be still used for civil transportation as the ‘demobilized’. On October 1, 1919, the owning company and the state signed an agreement, that the wagon, which was for a short time back in the ownership of the ‘Compagnie Internationale des wagons-lits’, was to serve for the sake of France as a museum unit.
It would take another year for the government to take the final decision in regard to the fate of the now-famous train car, which had been already assigned to become an exhibition unit in the main courtyard of the Hôtel des Invalides in the heart of Paris. Throughout 1920 the former 2419 D restaurant car nevertheless participated in less important political events. For some time, the carriage was assigned to Alexandre Milllerand, the President of the French Republic as a part of his personal train. Relatedly, it made only one trip with the President to Verdun on December 8, 1920, and apart from this, was used by the French during the Spa Conference in July 1920.
After the final settling of the future of the museum exhibition in Paris, the now-iconic Marshal Foch carriage was once again sent to the workshops of ‘Compagnie Internationale des wagons-lits’ In Saint-Denis to be once again reconfigured for a museum prop, resembling the interior of November 1918. In the early morning of April 27, 1921 (one alternative source claims April 28) the Armistice Compiegne wagon finally entered the capital, dragged by the so-called TAR truck (Tracteur d’Artillerie Roulante) of «Compagnie des automobiles industrielles Latil». The company was a wartime specialist in transporting heavy artillery, particularly when dealing with the foul bottom. Its transportation across the streets of Paris caused no trouble. The same can’t be said regarding the destination point: the entrance porch of the main courtyard at Hotel des Invalides was narrower than the Compiegne wagon. In order to make the entrance wider, the engineers of the 5th Regiment of the Engineers of Versaille were brought, which was, of course, a matter of concern for the Department of Historical Monuments. Fortunately, the issue was about only a few dozen centimeters and the engineers used only mattocks without any explosion.
Followed by the tow truck dragging the carriage into the courtyard of Hotel des Invalides, a few dozen workers set the new exhibition piece on the previously assembled railway spur. As many of the preserved historical photos reveal, the car was accompanied by guns and cannons: the symbol of the ‘Great War’. Among those units, one could find 21 cm Mörser 10 and 25 cm schwerer Minenwerfer. The latter was one among 1234 guns of a such kind designed by the German company ‘Rheinmetall’ and produced until the end of the War. Another authentic showpiece of wartime was an old gun of the times of the Franco-Prussian war. All guns were placed in order to create an image of the guard of honor in front of the train car.
On that warm day in April 1921, the carriage was put in the inner courtyard of the Hotel des Invalides for the next six years and was to become a desirable place of interest among the Parisians, veterans of the War, and foreigners, including some from Germany. In contrast to its already legendary status, the condition of the carriage, which had been left outside without proper care, was slowly deteriorating. As early as 1926 the open-air museum exhibition at Hotel des Invalides was visited by Arthur Henry Flemming, a Canadian-American billionaire, and a well-known philanthropist. He noticed the poor condition of the historical landmark and agreed to grant 10 000 gold francs (one version claims that the French press appealed to Flemming to make such a contribution) for the restoration of the carriage and for the opening of a unique museum devoted to the 1918 armistice within the clearing near Rethondes and Compiegne.
Another fateful figure, who participated in the fate of the legendary Compiegne wagon was Robert Fournier-Sarlovèze (1869-1937), a professional French polo player, 1st place Olympic champion of 1900, a politician, and a resident of the city of Compiegne. Fournier-Sarlovèze was an elected mayor of Compiegne since 1904 and himself a painter of historical frescoes, who had previously contributed a lot to the preservation of the historical heritage of the city. With his political will and Arthur Henry Flemming’s donation, the famous 2419 D carriage was for the fifth time returned to the workshops in Saint-Denis to be once again restored. A group of women at the workshops spent enough time to restore the historical landmark, while dozens of workers were assigned to build a concrete museum building for the carriage itself within the clearing near Rethondes.
It is worth noting, that the building up of the shelter for the carriage was not a staging ground for the memorial on the site of the 1918 armistice. Paying regard to the official statistics, 469 citizens of the city of Compiegne lost their lives in the Great War (First World War) and for their families, the news of the end of the hostilities was only an epilogue of the grief. Along with that, a site in the forest near Rethondes had already become a site of pilgrimage among the locals. Hundreds of citizens visited the location on foot already in November 1918. For the first little while after the end of the War, the visitors could still see two parallel railway spurs and a wooden table with an inscription: “Tram du maréchal Foch” (Carriage of Marshal Foch) and “Train des Plénipolenliaires” (Train of the assigned delegates) respectively on the sites of the train’s location in November 1918.
As early as June 1919 one and the same Robert Fournier-Sarlovèze, a city mayor of Compiegne, signed a decree for the preservation of the site of the Armistice within the crossroad near Rethondes, which was to include the erection of a memorial, a site of remembrance. For decades since that, the local people would call the memorial site ‘Clairière de l’Armistice’ (Armistice clearing) or ‘Clairiere de Rethondes’ (Rethondes Clearing), though the greatest proportion of them was from the city of Compiegne. The inauguration of the memorial took place on November 11, 1922, on the fourth anniversary of the armistice signing, in the presence of the French combat veterans, and politicians, with Marshal Ferdinand Foch and the President of France Alexandre Millerand the two VIP guests.
On their way from Compiegne, the visitors were to face the ‘Alsace-Lorraine Monument’ made of pink granite, which had been excavated within the French Vosges mountains. The sculpture depicting the sword (The Allies or ‘Antanta’) hurting the German Eagle (The German Empire) was designed by a sculptor and ironworker of Alsace origin Edgar Brandt, the future world-recognized master of art-deco. The Monument has been donated by ‘Le Matin’, a daily newspaper since 1884. The monument was located at the start of the alley 250 meters in length, which led in the direction of the open clearing. The open-air memorial site included two sections of railway tracks with the signs for the trains of two 1918 delegations: the Allied and the German ones respectively. The whole site was dominated by a large granite slab in the center of the clearing with the inscription:
ICI LE 11 NOVEMBRE 1918 LE CRIMINEL ORGUEIL DE L’EMPIRE ALLEMAND VAINCU PAR LES PEUPLES LIBRES QU’IL PRÉTENDAIT ASSERVIR
(Here, on 11 November 1918, the criminal pride of the German empire was vanquished by the free peoples it had sought to enslave).
Summing up the history of the ‘Clairière de l’Armistice’ (Armistice clearing), toward the Spring of 1927 when the famous Foch carriage was finally assigned for restoration and transportation to a new museum in the Western part of the Armistice clearing, the memorial site had been a landmark for four and a half year. Similar to the event back in April 1921 with the arrival to Paris, on April 8, 1927, the iconic carriage was taken out from the courtyard of the ‘Hotel des Invalides’ to be transported to Compiegne and the site next to the Rethondes station. As I have stated above, it made its way once again to the workshops of Saint-Denis for half a year. As a matter of fact, the famous 2419 D railway car reached the site of its future exposition already on October 19, 1927. The official opening of the carriage shelter was set on November 11 to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the Armistice agreement, and the fifth year of the memorial.
Marshal Foch was once again the VIP guest of the ceremony, accompanied by his November 1918 companions and Georges Leygues, a man of different political positions, in 1927 a ‘Ministres Français de la Marine et des Colonies’ (French Minister of the Navy and the colonies). The iconic carriage since that day was to be exhibited within the concrete shelter-like museum next to the clearing itself. Ferdinand Foch passed away peacefully on March 20, 1929, one and a half years after the inauguration ceremony in Compiegne, and was buried within the ‘Hotel des Invalides’ close to Napoleon Bonaparte. Adolf Hitler would visit the site during his one-day visit to Paris in June 1940. In 1937 a statue of the Marshal was erected on one side of the famous Armistice clearing.
HITLER’S AMBITIONS AND THE GERMAN TRIUMPH IN THE WEST IN 1940
None among the key players of the 1918 armistice knew at that time a story of a twenty-nine-year-old ‘Gefreiter’ (corporal) of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment of Austrian origin. For Adolf Hitler, the war was de facto over as early as October 1918, when a hospital train full of wounded and half-blinded German soldiers took him far from the frontline to a military hospital on Schützenstrasse street in Pomeranian city of Pasewalk. On November 9, 1919, the day Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, an elderly pastor announced to the soldiers the news about the fall of the Emperor and the revolution. In decades to come, Hitler, whose blindness after the gas attack near the French commune of Wervicq-Sud, was of psychological, not physical nature, would make a political production of his staying in the hospital. His so-called revelations and the understanding of his predestination, followed by the news of the armistice, would become a part of Nazi mythology.
Despite the fact, that since being eleven-year-old, Hitler had been absorbed by illustrated books about the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 and built his political career and the foundations of the Nazi Party on criticizing the German loss of the War and the ‘Treaty of Versailles’, Hitler never looked at the West as the aim of his expansion of the ‘Lebensraum’ (living space). It is true that he had the desire to eliminate the ‘injustice’ of 1918 (according to his own crooked philosophy), yet he had always had a focus on the East for expansion. The conflict with France and particularly with England emerged because of the refusal of the Western democracies to give Nazi Germany free hand in the East. The political victories, the 1935 Naval Agreement with England, annexations both in the West and East, ambitions in Czechoslovakia, and a seizure of Austria did not prevent the declaration of War toward Germany regarding Poland in September 1939. By not leaving the idea of a union with England for a while, Hitler saw his victory in Poland as a prelude to possible cooperation with England, which would never become true.
As early as January 1939 in addressing his high-ranking officers, Hitler underlined the fact that the ‘stab-in-back’ was impossible in contrast to 1918, as Hitler had united all the state and military functions under himself. Throughout the four years and three months of the First World War between 1914 and 1918, the German army lost 1.8 million lives without getting a victory in the West. In contrast to that and the defeat of the Kaiser’s Empire in November 1918, the army of the Third Reich now got its decisive victory. Starting from April 9, 1940, and the invasion of Norway, the German armed forces conquered not only the Scandinavian country, but also Luxembourg, Holland, Denmark, and what is more important, Belgium and France. The British expeditionary forces were forced to evacuate from Dunkirk and the Royal Navy was not the dominant force in the Mediterranean anymore (which was an illusion). At the cost of 27 000 dead and 120 000 wounded soldiers, Germany conquered Western Europe and demanded the lives of 90 000 Allied soldiers with 200 000 wounded and more than 2 million missing or captured as POWs.
In wider means, the fall of France and the humiliation of the British expeditionary forces in the West since May 10 marked the peak of Hitler’s military and political career at the time, even in regard to the pre-war (European annexations) triumphs. Starting from 1933 and Hitler’s chancellorship, the German high command, many of the officers were combat veterans of the First World War, had been repeating that France was still the dominative force on the continent. Hitler, in contrast to these precautions, had been pursuing his own vision by remilitarization of the Rhineland without French interference, by Anschluss of Austria, and the seizure of Czechoslovakia, the strongest French Ally on the continent. Hitler had made up his mind that Germany should not fear France in the West and be the first to attack.
Following the results of the six-week campaign in the West, Hitler now had reached a triumph, which threw the glory of the military leader of the previous war in the shadow: Moltke, Hindenburg, and Ludendorff during their fifty-two months of fighting. Adolf Hitler was now pleased to hear the comparison of himself with Bismarck, Napoleon, and Frederick the Great, the three warlords Hitler admired. The rhetorics of Napoleon were used by Nazi Germany in the aspects of national military policy, including the necessity of a decisive quick battle of annihilation to win dominance in Europe. By still having an inferior number of soldiers and military equipment in 1940, Germans new tactics of combined involvement of tanks and aircraft, artillery, and infantry all simultaneously in the battle, accompanied by modern means of communication, allowed them to win the initiative. The new way of military thinking made it possible for the Wehrmacht, once again after the exhausting trench war of 1914-1918, to mastermind the War by means of fast decisive attacks, which could crush the enemy both by force and on a psychological level. Along with that, Napoleon’s emphasis on battles for annihilation now meant rather forcing the enemy to stop fighting in local fights than by means of large battles such as Verdun, Somme, and Ypres in the previous War.
For Adolf Hitler personally, the flash-like victories in Poland, Norway, and the West were also the triumph of his regime inside Germany, where he already was a solo undisputed ruler. The German propaganda with Joseph Goebbels atop, was now to describe the War from the point of the personal involvement of the Fuhrer. Walther Heinrich Alfred Hermann von Brauchitsch, nominally Supreme Commander of the German Army since February 1938, now called Adolf Hitler ‘The first soldier of the Reich’ and Wilhelm Keitel, often called by the high-ranking officers ‘laKeittel’ (from lackey) called Hitler ‘The greatest war mind of all times’. The German dictator was now leveling in testimonials as the author of the Blitzkrieg (lightning war) strategy, which of course was an exaggeration. In these fateful weeks of May-June 1940 the propaganda was used to underline the importance of unification of both political and military command, thus once again referencing Napoleon and Frederick the Great.
In order to strengthen his own image as the key person, who had made the triumph in the West possible, Hitler degraded the involvement of his generals. In wider means, no high-ranking officer was to be identified with the victory against France and Britain. It was during this period, that Hitler used to distance himself from the opinion of professional military men: a destructive use case. Adolf Hitler fully acknowledged the fact that he had been only a corporal, a dispatch runner in the Regiment headquarters without a military or college education, and without experience in commanding even the smallest army unit in the Great War. In his well-known post-war memoir, Walter Warlimont claimed that it was the lack of combat experience that made Hitler nervous when something might go wrong, not according to his expectations. As a result of the campaign in Poland and in the West, dozens of German generals received promotions, including the titles of field marshal, the new social status, and even materials awards. Toward June 1940 the great majority of Hitler’s critics in High command were now satisfied with the achievements of the army and grew to believe in the superiority of the Wehrmacht.
On the other side of the issue of Hitler’s competence as a military commander, one should not ignore his contribution to the victory in the West in 1940, beyond the boosted propaganda image. From the date of Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany and since the start of the tournament, it was a new chancellor to be a big believer in the lack of French military dominance, a man who did all in his power to turn this vision into reality. In a broader sense, Adolf Hitler was the man who had taken full advantage of the weaknesses of France and England, in particular regarding the military thinking from the previous War. It is well-established that Erich Von Manstein, a brilliant German officer, was the creator of the campaign plan of attack against France through Ardennes, yet it was Hitler who decided to take advantage of it (Hitler later, of course, tried to highlight his own involvement). It was Hitler who backed the idea of creating panzer divisions in accordance with the new military thinking of such men as Liddell Hart and Heinz Guderian. He lacked military education or commanding experience from the previous War, yet Hiler countervailed this with an aggressive obstinacy, hundreds of hours of reading military books, including those of foreign authors. In wider means, to the extent Hitler would be responsible for the collapse of Germany later, he was responsible for the 1940 triumph.
FELSENNEST- WOLFSSCHLUCHT-COMPIEGNE: MAY-JUNE 1940
Hitler spent the greater proportion of the Western campaign in May-June 1940 outside his accustomed places of residency such as Berlin, Obersalzberg, or Munich. At 4:35 p.m. on May 9, half a day prior to the Wehrmacht advance into France, Belgium, and Holland, Hitler was present at the small Finkenkrug railway station in Berlin. Located to the West of Berlin next to the town of Falkensee, the station was an ideal choice for the secret departure of the German Fuhrer. His personal security, as well as the secretiveness of the departure of his adjutants, secretaries, officers of the OKH, and close surroundings, all were to guarantee the success of the unprecedented military offensive to the West. Finally, exactly at 5 p.m. the Führersonderzug (Fuhrer special train, his mobile wartime headquarters since the start of the campaign in Poland) left the station of Finkenkrug.
Only a few men among the adjutants, personal security battalion, as well as Martin Borman, and Wilhelm Keitel, were aware of the final destination of the train. The civil entourage, including Hitler’s personal photographer Heinrich Hofmann and Christine Schroeder, were in intriguing unknowing. In the late hours of the same day, Colonel Rudolf Schmundt, “Chief Adjutant of the Wehrmacht to the Führer and Reich Chancellor”, made a joke that women secretaries may need sea-sick pills, a hint to Norway, occupied since April. In regard to the actual route, the train charted a course toward Hannover, though at the threshold of June 10 changed the course toward the South-West in direction of Bonn, then passed Frankfurt and Mainz in the East direction and finally at dawn of a new day reached a small station at the town of Euskirchen, an old German country land with seven centuries of History. The whole entourage then was taken to form a motorcade.
In his three-axle Mercedes car, Hitler was accompanied by Nicolaus von Below (Luftwaffe adjutant), Martin Bormann (Secretary of the Deputy Führer under Rudolf Hess), Wilhelm Keitel (Chief of the German Armed Forces High Command). The second small convoy of cars took Heinrich Hoffmann (Hitler’s personal photographer), Rudolf Schmundt (adjutant), Christina Schroeder (secretary), and Otto Dietrich (Nazi Party Press Chief since 1931) and the last one included extensive luggage. They were taken from Euskirchen to a small hilly village of Rodert, 12 km to the South, surrounded by woods and mountains. Hitler finally disclosed to those in the shade that they had just reached his new military headquarters near Bad-Münstereifel in the Eifel Mountains. At 5:30 a.m. when the German army had initiated its conquest in the West, Hitler and his military entourage took their seats at the table in the conference room in the bunker. 30 km from the Belgian border, they could now hear glimpses of the artillery fire. Hitler declared that the anticipated offensive against the Western Powers had just begun. The very same day Winston Churchill would become Prime Minister of Great Britain.
The secret operation of Hitler’s journey from Berlin to his new headquarters called ‘Felsennest’ (The Rocky nest) was codenamed ‘Pfingsturlaub genehmigt’, which can be translated as ‘Whitsunday Holiday approved’ referring to the Christian holiday, which was to be celebrated in Europe on Sunday, May 12, two days after Hitler’s arrival to the town of Rodert. The ‘Felsennest’ HQ was codenamed after the surrounding area, in particular after the hill 300 meters high. above which it was located. The choice of the location was not based on the picturesque panorama, which made everyone admire it. The area was included in the Luftverteidigungszone West (West Air Defense Zone) since the construction of the ‘Westwall’ in 1938 and since then had accommodated anti-aircraft bunkers and premises. Euskirchen train station, as well as the airfield, was close enough (12 km) and a good highway connection of the region was of importance when Fritz Todt and Rudolph Schmundt had chosen the location for Hitler’s wartime headquarters back in September 1939. Hitler made up his mind to use the HQ at Rodern for the Western campaign back in February 1940. Now the area with four concrete bunkers and fortified blockhouses was fenced and guarded with wooden watchtowers.
Regarding Hitler’s personal bunker, it included the main conference room, a sleeping room, a kitchen, a bedroom, and two small rooms for his valet Heinz Linge and personal adjutant Julius Schaub respectively. The other half of the erection was accommodated by Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl, Rudolf Schmundt, and Karl Brandt (Hitler’s personal physician). The bunker had air conditioning and good acoustics. In the early hours of May 10, the day of the great offensive in the West, Hans Georg Von Mackensen, the German Ambassador to Italy, asked for Benito Mussolini to be woken up for reading Hitler’s note about the whole Western campaign. Count Galeazzo Ciano would describe it as ‘the large package of papers’ in his wartime diaries. On May 14 the special train of Heinrich Himmler delivered himself, Joachim von Ribbentrop (The foreign Minister), Hans Heinrich Lammers (Chief of the Reich Chancellery since January 30, 1933), and SS officer Karl Wolf to the ‘Felsennest’ HQ (to the Euskirchen train station and then by cars) to meet Hitler.
Apart from making a few short flights from the Odendorf airfield near Euskirchen, Hitler would stay at the new headquarters until June 6. He conducted his first trip to the front on May 17 by flying to the Belgian city of Bastogne, visiting it, and meeting with General Herd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A at that time. On May 31 made a journey to Bad Godesberg, historically known since the VIII century to meet Dino Alfieri, Italian Minister of Popular culture, and get Mussolini assurances on Italy was ready to declare war against France and Britain. On June 1-2 Adolf Hitler, accompanied by his entourage and backed by Fuhrer-Begleit-Bataillon (FBB) made a tour to inspect his troops.
Hitler got back to ‘Felsennest’ for the next few days, though on June 4, 1940, the greater proportion of OKH staff, as well as the part of Stab/Fuhrer-Begleit Bataillon security forces, would be transferred to a new HQ near Bruly-de-Pesche in Belgium, 175 km to the West from Rodert. The new military headquarters was named ‘Wolfsschlucht’ (Wolf’s Gorge) in regard to Hitler’s habit of calling himself a ‘wolf’ during the years of political struggle in the 1920-1930s. Apart from this, he considered his name Adolf to be a variation of the old German name ‘Wolf’. Being confident in the success of the German offensive in the West, Hitler neglected some obvious security measures in ‘Wolfsschlucht’ by spending a greater proportion of time open air outside the concrete bunkers. Heinrich Himmler, the SS-Reichsführer and the man, who toward that moment in time in 1940 had already been alive to the importance of being next to Hitler, visited the new headquarters on June 8.
On June 10, 1940, Italy finally declared war against France and England. On the one hand, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was now almost confident in the outcome of the War in favor of his ally. On the other hand, he had previously made up his mind to declare war and attack earlier as a response to Hitler’s lightning war. As early as June 13 the headquarters near Bruly-de-Pesche were visited by a rare visitor. Henry von Wiegand was a German-born American journalist, well-known since the Great War as the only US journalist, who was permitted to stay in Berlin from 1914 to 1918. Wiegand was since known as a pro-German author, who had taken the first interview with Adolf Hitler as far back as 1921 when the Nazis were still a minor party even in Bavaria. Now in 1940, Hitler was concerned to keep the US out of the war in Europe as long as possible and an interview with a trusted journalist was important. This meeting resulted in Wiegand’s later articles called “Europe for the Europeans: Adolf Hitler on the international situation during the war in France”. The next day, June 14 the German troops entered Paris for the first time since 1871. Hitler issued a war directive on this occasion and ordered the churches in Germany to ring the bells for three consecutive days. The seizure of Paris was then followed by another symbolic triumph for the Germans: on June 15 they took Verdun, a site of the fierce battle in the previous World War.
On June 17, 1940, on the day of his appointment as a Prime minister of France, Marshal Philippe Petain, the war hero of WWI, used a radio to deliver a speech to the people of France. In his ‘capitulating’ speech the elderly leader of the government called the continuing struggle aimless and on the same day, an appeal for signing an armistice agreement reached Hitler’s headquarters in Belgium. This moment with a German dictator laughing and almost dancing on the road at ‘Wolfsschlucht’, was depicted by a camera and preserved, and later mentioned in the recollections of Christa Schroeder and Wilhelm Keitel. On the same day June 17, Hitler issued two official decrees. The first statement was addressed toward the Wehrmacht and included high-toned words about ‘restoring justice’, taking back the originally German lands into the Reich, and the Swastika flag, which would be forever present within the conquered territories. The second message was aimed at the German people, with the news on Petain’s appeal for peace and the upcoming meeting between Hitler and Mussolini.
Apart from these two messages, Hitler made a personal call to Joseph Goebbels to inform the Propaganda minister about the French capitulation and to instruct him on how the news of the German victory should be covered in the media. During this June 17 telephone call, Hitler informed Goebbels (and the chief of propaganda posted an entry into his diary), that the negotiations between Germany and France would be conducted in the forest near Compiegne. Goebbels’ entry in the diary also included a passage about the cheerful crowds at Wilhelm Platz in Berlin. A memory of the never-ending trench war and two million dead German soldiers were still vivid among the people and this does not come as unexpected, that people in Germany felt relief with the news of the victory. On the same June 17, another unexpected message came from the Netherlands: the fallen former Kaiser Wilhelm II sent his congratulations to Adolf Hitler on the occasion of the victory. The old man still had an idea that he might be returned to power in Germany.
The next day, at 8 p.m. June 18 General De Gaulle made a five-minute-long radio broadcast on BBC, a kind of a counter one to Petain’s, though a very little percentage of the French ever knew about this speech, and De Gaulle at that time. The general made no comment on the current policy of the new government, interpreted the causes of the defeat for France, and asked the French people to wait in the wings. On June 19 he would deliver another speech with more passion and appeal to the French people, who should not tolerate the capitulation and the occupation of French soil. It is worth mentioning that Adolf Hitler was the one, who had previously read the military books of De Gaulle regarding conducting war with the use of fully motorized formations.
On the same day of June 17, fruitful for Hitler and Germany with the events, his personal plane departed from the flying field of Gros Caillou close to the ‘Wolfsschlucht’ HQ, landed in Frankfurt-am-Main, where Hitler’s special train awaited to take him to Munich for the planned encounter with Benito Mussolini. While the German Fuhrer was on his way to the heart of Bavaria, the German command was already discussing (Franz Halder’s diary entry on June 18) the hidden pitfalls in regard to the upcoming shortening of the army from 165 to 120 divisions. Hitler was welcomed in Munich by crowds of people in the streets on his way to the apartment at Prinzregentenplatz 16. Three hours later he was back at the railway station to meet the train with Duce, which came exactly at 2:58, two minutes before the scheduled arrival time. Then the cortege took both dictators to Prince Carl Palace next to Hofgarten park, a temporary place of stay for Mussolini and the meeting itself was to happen inside Hitler’s so-called ‘Führerbau’ next to Königsplatz. It was the same place as in September 1938 during the so-called ‘Munich crisis’. At the same time, in England Prime minister Winston Churchill declared his speech in the House of Commons, appealing for the parliamentary and the nation to fight to see ‘their finest hour’.
The meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini took place one week after the launch of the Italian offensive in Southern France, which, despite the involvement of 32 divisions, had not produced notable results. This fact put Duce once again in the state of a junior partner in the Berlin-Rome axis. Hitler was too absorbed in his thoughts about the oncoming negotiations with France, in order to pay serious attention to Mussolini’s unreasonable claims, once the hostilities would be over. In obvious contrast to Italy’s insignificant contribution to the victory in the West in the course of the previous week, Mussolini asserted claims to Southern France, Corsica island, French colonies such as Tunisia, Syria, Algeria, and Djibouti, as well as the takeover of the whole French fleet and the future occupation of Malta and Egypt after the victory over England. Hitler scored off Duce’s claims, which of course incurred the displeasure of the fascist leader by presenting Italy once again with a fait accompli. In the year to come, the outcome of this underestimated meeting between the two dictators would have its fatal effect during Mussolini’s undertakings in Greece and Egypt. Along with that, Count Ciano made an entry to his famous diary, that on that day he had admired Hitler. Despite the poor outcomes of the meeting, two dictators made an appearance on the balcony of the Fuhrerbau and even signed some postcards.
Followed by an encounter with Mussolini, Adolf Hitler got back to this special train and later to the plane, which took him (once again through Frankfurt and Gros Caillou airfield) back to the military headquarters in Belgium as early as the midday of June 19, 1940. On the heels of the arrival, he held some meetings and issued directives, in particular in regard to his other wartime headquarters called ‘Tannenberg’: he would stay there for a week between June 28 and July 5, 1940. On that day the exact date June 22 as well as the place within the forest clearing near Compiegne, the site of the 1918 armistice, so hated by Hitler since the event twenty-two years before, was brought into accordance. Hitler ordered his officers, particularly Wilhelm Keitel, to prepare a draft of the German conditions of the French surrender, and to prepare the site of the meeting. Back in early June, when the collapse of France was to become obvious, Hitler had already voiced an idea to accept French capitulation on the site of the 1918 armistice. Now On June 19, Hitler ordered Otto Günsche, his trusted personal adjutant to be present at the negotiations to control Hitler’s personal security during the meeting with the French delegates in Compiegne. His height of two meters was to be visible from all sides. Günsche was ordered to shoot any man who may act improperly toward Hitler.
Hitler would spend the following two days between June 19 and 21 at Bruly-de-Pesche by making constant involvement in the writing of the German draft of the armistice agreement, and then of the translation. A team of translators under Paul Schmidt was working all night from June 20 to 21 inside a little Belgian church in the village of Bruly-de-Pesche. The preamble of the document was Hitler’s idea. He wrote it into the draft by pen, which meant no further discussion. While preparing for the meeting, on June 20, 1940, Hitler conducted a meeting with Erich Raeder, the commander of the German navy at that time on the possibility of conquering England. At the same time, Halder and Brauchitsch were discussing the new dividing line in France and the redistribution of the German divisions throughout the continent.
A LONE WAGON CAR IN COMPIEGNE: 1940 ARMISTICE
On June 20 the French government informed the Germans of the list of plenipotentiaries, who were to be present at the armistice negotiation in Compiegne.
Charles-Leon-Clement Huntziger. Born in 1880, Huntzinger had German origins and his family had left Alsace during the Franco-Prussian war ten years before his birth. During the First World War he had served as an officer in the Allied High Command headquarters and since the outbreak of the new War, was appointed first an army commander and later an army group leader.
Léon Philippe Jules Arthur Noël. He was a son of a statesman born in strict catholic traditions, later a doctor of Political and Economic sciences. One of the witnesses of the road to WWII as the former French ambassador to Poland, he was now the representative of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Maurice-Athanase Le Luc. Had neither noble nor privileged ancestry and was a son of a French merchant. From November 1939, Le Luc was a vice-admiral and commander-in-chief of the French Maritime Forces.
Jean Bergeret. A former head of the third office of the Air Force staff and now brigadier general since August 1939.
During the meeting between Hitler and Mussolini on June 18, the Italian dictator claimed that the French representatives should conduct peace negotiations with both Germany and Italy on the same occasion simultaneously. For obvious reasons, the German Fuhrer had zero intention to share the moment of his triumph with the junior partner and Hitler insisted on two separate commissions during the negotiations. Toward the moment, when a list of the French delegates reached Hitler’s headquarters, the planned place of the event near Compiegne had already been under preparation. Already on June 20, 1940, one day prior to the meeting, the German engineers of the organization ‘TODT’ blasted the front wall of the museum, which had accommodated the famous 2419 D carriage of Marshal Foch since November 1927. By using air-operating hammers, they dragged the railway car to the glade in the center of the memorial to the site of the 1918 negotiations. The hole in the wall was temporarily fixed with a panel. Though Hitler openly discussed the place of new peace negotiations in early June, he voiced an idea regarding Compiegne as far back as May 20, when the German forces had reached the sea.
‘1. Kompanie/Fuhrer Begleit Bataillon (The first company of the ‘Fuhrer escort brigade’) was transferred from Laon (Hitler would visit it on June 25, 1940) to Compiegne. The unit was to secure the safety of Hitler during the negotiations and along with the Wehrmacht soldiers, was called to form a guard for honor on the site during the armistice ceremony. Joseph Goebbels signed the instruction, that the infamy of 1918 must be erased but without any direct humiliation to the French side. Since the very 1918 (four years prior to the erection of the clearing) the site had become a destination for pilgrimage among French people: they used to buy cards photographs and other souvenirs from the site of the greatest diplomatic victory.
As for the German delegates at the oncoming negotiations, Hitler chose them personally and the entourage included men from both his inner party circle and the armed forces. Though in his post-war memoirs Hans Bauer (Hitler’s personal pilot) would recall an airfield of Compiegne with the burned remnants of the French planes, the alternative sources claim, the journey from ‘Wolfsschlucht’ was made through the French city of Amiens. The most trusted members of the ‘Fuhrer Begleit Bataillon’ were chosen to accompany Adolf Hitler during this trip. Rochus Misch would later claim (in a book) he was happy not to be a part of the event. After the landing on the airfield, Hitler and his entourage took their places in the Mercedes cortege and at 3:15 the column of cars finally reached the site amid the forest near Rethondes.
HERMANN GORING, the man №2 in the Third Reich and nominally Hitler’s successor (the Fuhrer called Goring his successor in his will prior to his departure to Italy in May 1938). Each of the German delegates on June 21 wore a distinctive uniform, which was to speak for the role in the state and its merits. Goring, the only Reichsmarschall in the state, left the Mercedes with his marshal’s baton: a kind of symbol of power.
RUDOLF HESS was another high-ranking Nazi leader among the entourage. Formally another second man in the Reich, deputy Fuhrer of the Nazi party. Back in the First World War, Hess served on the Western Front in the Bavarian Regiments (the 18th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment was a sister regiment of Hitler’s 16th one), was wounded several times, and decided to be a pilot. As early as October 1918 he joined one of the Bavarian fighter squadrons but had next to no combat experience until the armistice in November. In June 1940 and prior to the journey to the Glade of the armistice, Hess suffered from gastric and cholecyst pains. Two days later he would go to Bad Godesberg, one of Hitler’s favorite places of rest, and be treated by the personal therapist of Heinrich Himmler. As for the latter, who had not participated in the Battles of the First World War at all, Himmler would also visit the Compiegne clearing, yet without direct participation in the event.
In regard to another ‘second man after Hitler’, whose name would be widely known later, MARTIN BORMANN, in those days of June 1940 and before his chief Hess’ flight to England, Bormann had been still a minor figure to be a part of such an event. At the same time, ERICH RAEDER, the commander of the German navy (Kriegsmarine) since 1935, General admiral and minister without a formal title, was present on behalf of the navy: thus a formal rival to Maurice Lu Luc. WILHELM KEITEL would also write a lot in his memoirs about the 1940 armistice event: he was now Chief of the German Armed Forces High Command. WALTHER VON BRAUCHITSCH was another high-ranking officer, Supreme Commander of the German Army, and formally next to Hitler as a Fuhrer in the army. JOACHIM VON RIBBENTROP, Reichsminister of Foreign Affairs since 1938 was another ambitious politician, not a military (yet wearing a military uniform), next to Hitler. One of Ribbentrop’s subordinates, Otto Abetz, an emissary to France was not with Hitler, but also on the site of the clearing down the road. ALFRED JODL would join the negotiations during the two-day armistice arguing, yet he was not in the first ranks of Hitler’s entourage upon arrival.
When the Mercedes cortege made a stop at the entry road to the Armistice clearing at 3:15, those present on the site included journalists. Probably the most vivid account of what he saw, later left William Shirer, first in his article, then in the ‘Berlin diary’ book, and in 1960 in his brilliant ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’. At the same time, Shirer’s reminiscences are only one of the many of that day. Broadly speaking, Hitler’s cortege made a stop well short of the memorial on the road. From that site Hitler, wearing his military uniform with the Iron Cross on his chest and his retinue, came closer to the Alsace-Lorraine monument. While the monument was covered with the German swastika flag, Hitler had been fully aware of the symbolism of the memorial: the righteous sword of the Allies passed the German eagle. Without leaving any commentaries about the monument, Hitler proceeded further down the alley of approximately 200 meters in length in the direction of the center of the glade. In this way, the German dictator reviewed the front rank of each of the units of the honor company on both sides of the walking passage between the trees. Then, by being a good actor in front of the people and cameras, he stood for a few silent minutes in front of the large stone slab in the center of the clearing. The inscription from 1922 declared: “On this site, on 11 November 1918, the criminal pride of the German empire was vanquished by the free peoples it had aimed to enslave.”
Followed by a brief scene in the center of the memorial clearing, under the observation of the press and German soldiers, Hitler finally entered the railway car. Heinz Linge of two meters high took his place at the entrance to the carriage. In order to underline the humiliation of the moment for the French delegates, Hitler took the chair of Marshal Foch in 1918. The long table in the center of the space was also added with half a dozen chairs on both sides for the plenipotentiaries. Once Hitler parked himself, Goring, Keitel, Ribbentrop, Rader, Brauchitsch, and Hess took their seats as well. Paul Schmidt, who had spent the previous night at the translation of the document, took a seat at the head of the table in order to be heard well from any place in the room.
The journey of the French delegation to the clearing amid the forest of Compiegne was less comfortable and much longer than Hitler’s one and reflected the road for the German delegates in 1918. At 10:25 the previous day, June 20, the German high command received an order from Hitler’s headquarters to meet the French delegates on their way from Poitiers to Tours. Franz Halder, the Chief of Staff, assigned Kurt von Tippelskirch to fulfill the order. A son of a Prussian general, Tippelskirch was a prisoner of war for six years between 1914 and 1920 and learned French to a degree of a military interpreter. Major General since 1938 he was now a Quartermaster IV in the Army General Staff, under Halder. Though the French were expected to come to Tours at 5 p.m. on June 20, they finally managed to cross the border in the late hours. Without having a chance to sleep, the French plenipotentiaries were taken to the city of Compiegne as early as 11:30 a.m. June 21. For this reason, Hitler and his entourage came to the site after 3 p.m. Two generals, an admiral, and an ambassador left the cars in the distance from the entry to the memorial next to the Alsace-Lorraine monument, then walked through the alley to the carriage bypassing the German guard of honor.
The French delegates had been informed about the final destination of the journey as early as June 20 and now they were shocked to see the famous carriage of 1918. When the four delegates entered the railway car, Hitler and other Germans got on their feet and after a brief silent pause, again sat down on the table. Similar to the 1918 negotiations, now Germans had no intention to seriously discuss and Hitler wanted the conditions to be read and signed without changes. Keitel was now reading the preamble in German and Paul Schmidt was reading the French translation simultaneously.
As soon as Keitel and Schmidt finished the reading of the preamble, which took around ten minutes, Hitler rose and followed by his retinue, left the carriage without saying a word, leaving Keitel to proceed with the whole document with the conditions. In the same minutes Alfred Jodl and a few German officers, who had been assigned to conduct the negotiations further, took their seats in the famous car. Once receiving the complete list of conditions for the armistice, the French delegates asked for a connection with French headquarters at Bordeaux between general Huntziger and Weygand, the Commander in Chief.
As for Hitler and his entourage, as they came back to the center of the clearing once again, а valet Linge gave a signal for the guard of honor to proceed with the songs. ‘Deutschland über alles’ and “Horst-Wessel-Lied” were now played amid the French war memorial site. By covering the same path to the Mercedes cars on the road, the key actor of the event left the scene to be back again at his ‘Wolfsschlucht’ headquarters at 8 p.m. the same day, June 21. The negotiations between German and French officers with Keitel and Huntzinger respectively made no outcome at the end of the first day and were to be resumed on June 22. At 6 p.m. the next day Keitel voiced an ultimatum to the French delegates giving them an hour to either sign a treaty or terminate the diplomacy. After another call to the French headquarters, Huntzinger agreed to sign the 1940 armistice, which happened at 6.50 p.m. German summertime on June 22. At 7.:06 a happy Keitel sent a short message to ‘Wolfsschlucht’ to Hitler with the news of the signing. Also, Keitel expressed his gratitude to Huntzinger, that he had represented his country with dignity. On the same evening, Goebbels ordered a nationwide announcement on the occasion that the war was over.
The full version of the German conditions for peace with France and the cessation of hostilities included 24 clauses. In accordance with the second article, France was de facto cut into two pieces by a new post-armistice demarcation line, with the Germans occupying Northern France, leaving another part to so-called ‘Free France’. According to clause 6, all heavy artillery was to be given to the German side. In accordance with point 8, the French fleet should be disarmed under German or Italian control: the clause unacceptable for the British and Winston Churchill in particular. The other clauses prescribed, among other things, that the planes should be left on the airfields as well as commercial boats should remain in ports. The French prisoners of War, almost 2 million people, would remain in captivity (similar to their Belgian brothers in arms) and the ‘designated German national’ were to be handed to the German side.
THE FATE OF THE ARMISTICE CLEARING AND THE COMPIEGNE WAGON
While Hitler himself proclaimed that the infamy of 1918 had been erased with the events of 1940, he had contempt for the French memorial site near Compiegne not so much by the old history as by French admiration of the location as a site of pilgrimage. In contrast to his statement to his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann that he admired French devotion to the site, as early as June 21 (on the heels of the coming back to his headquarters) Hitler issued a new directive in regard particularly to the Compiegne clearing memorial.
- The historical carriage of Marshal Foch, as well as the marble stone and the Alsace memorial, were to be taken to Berlin.
- The former sites of commemoration of both 1918 trains were to be dismantled and level to the ground.
- The monument to the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch was spared by Hitler probably to Hitler’s remaining respect to the old war hero and anyone with the title of ‘marshal’ or ‘field-marshal’. On the same occasion, he voiced his wish on the fate of the memorial to Joseph Goebbels, to whom Hitler had a phone call in the late hours of June 21.
Hitler’s order was carried into effect just after both the German and French delegations had left the site of the negotiations in the late hours of June 22. To start with, the German engineers, who had brought the carriage from the museum shelter two days before, dismantled parts of the memorial site. The Alsace memorial, as well as the monumental stone slab in the center of the clearing, were dismantled and loaded onto trucks. The former 2419 D carriage was loaded onto a large transportation truck, which took it to the railway tracks for the first time since 1927, and toward July 5, 1940, it would reach Berlin. On its way to the capital, in Hannover, a few thousand people came to the railway station to witness the unobvious historical landmark.
In the course of its first week in Berlin, the iconic 2419 D carriage was put on display next to the Brandenburg gates for every Berliner to see it. He was later (some accounts claim in the Fall of 1940) also displayed within the museum island of Berlin next to the Altes Museum (The old museum). The engineers built special wooden platforms for the visitors to come closer to the railway car and to be free to watch inside it through the windows. Considering the number of preserved photos of the period, the landmark was appreciated by both Berliners and foreign visitors. For example, as early as 1942 the delegation from Finland took time to see the carriage and took dozens of photos.
As for the further issued works on the territory of the memorial site near Compiegne, the Germans were certain to fulfill Hitler’s order completely. The statue of Marshal Foch was temporarily covered with a kind of a giant wooden box in order to protect it from the explosions within the clearing, initiated to dismantle the memorial. The museum shelter, which had previously accommodated the carriage between 1927 and 1940, was now blown up. The Germans finally leveled the site to the ground by not only digging out and making explosions but also by digging the area across, including the former alley to the memorial clearing. They even cut the trees, under which Hitler’s guard of honor and delegates of both sides had been accommodating themselves from the June sun on June 21-22. The tracks on the site of the 1918 train placement were also dug out and destroyed. Now the empty clearing next to Marshal Foch’s statue was plowed up and laid down with grass.
Despite a few years of exhibiting in the center of Berlin, later the Armistice train car was preserved for some time on a service railway track. As late as 1944 when the capital of Germany had been already exposed to severe Allied bombardments and the celebration of the 1940 victories was not relevant anymore, the famous railway car was evacuated from Berlin. After another transportation by means of heavy truck and railway system, the car ended its way at the small railway station next to the rare known German commune called Crawinkel of 1500 inhabitants in Thuringia 250 km South-West of Berlin. The carriage was now only 7 kilometers from the Ohrdruf forced labor camp, a part of a huge system of subcamps of a better known Buchenwald. Ohrdruf was set up in November 1944 and operated by the SS on the site of the former Wehrmacht grounds toward the Spring of 1945 it had to allocate up to 13 000 prisoners, many working on never-finished Hitler’s headquarters in the area. Thousands were then forced to perform a series of ‘Marshes of death’. It would be liberated by the US soldiers on April 4, 1945, and later visited by Dwight Eisenhower himself.
In regard to the later fate of the famous Foch carriage, the fact is that it burned out in the same month April 1945 as the Ohrdruf was liberated. There are two main versions of burning. The first one is affected and has no documented fact and it claims that toward the end of the War Hitler sent his personal order to destroy the carriage. The SS soldiers from the neighboring Ohrdruf camp theoretically could carry out such an order, yet toward the time of the burning of the 2419 D carriage, the area had been already liberated by the American troops. The second and currently widely accepted explanation says that the carriage burned out due to accidental flame development. Some accounts claim the fire was not accidental and the carriage was put on fire by the liberated prisoners of Ohrdruf to get warm. In fact, there is another version, that the carriage was found in Berlin by the Soviet troops and on October 17, 1946, sent back to France. Despite one inclusion into Soviet archives, this version has no historical ground as another railway car was to be restored within the memorial site near Compiegne. The fourth rare known version, also without factual backing, claimed that the carriage was heavily damaged during the air raid on Berlin in 1945.
Today the guests of the Crawinkel commune have a chance to visit the exact site, wherein in 1945 the famous carriage burned out. There is even a memorial sign with the inscription:
Der legendäre Eisenbahn Waggon von Compiègne in Frankreich war Ort von Waffenstillstandsverhandlungen im I. und II. Weltkrieg 1918 – 1940. 1945 wurde der Waggon hier in Crawinkel zerstört. Frieden / Paix. Zur Erinnerung / En mèmoire 2007.
The legendary Compiègne railway carriage in France was the site of armistice negotiations in World War I and II, 1918-1940. In 1945 the carriage was destroyed here in Crawinkel. Peace. As a reminder 2007.
As for the fate of the memorial, its restoration was put into action half a year before the burning of the 2419 D Armistice train car and the fall of the Nazi regime. The city of Compiegne was liberated on September 1, 1944, and as soon as October 21 the first mass rally of the patriots had a gathering on the site of the former Armistice learning in the forest. On that day a few hundred men cheered the renewal of French dignity next to the preserved statue of Marshal Foch. While the clearing looked like just an open site in the woods, a wooden substitute and a memorial cloth (which had been prepared during the war in wait for the occasion) were put on the site of the former well-known granite slab: the first step in the restoration of the memorial. As early as November 11, 1944, a full-frame celebration took place here in the presence of the French, British, American, and even Polish representatives.
In the course of the coming two years, the French memorial would acquire the former shape thanks to the authorities of Compiegne and by the hands of the German pows. The conducted works resulted in the restoration of the authentic roads and alleys, and the glade in the center was once again covered with gravel. Some of the monuments, which had been taken away to Berlin in 1940, were now restored on the site and inaugurated toward the twenty-eighth anniversary of the first armistice on November 11, 1946.
Starting from that very first commemoration in the Fall of 1944, an ever-increasing number of people were visiting the memorial. Among the most recognized guests were General De Gaulle and Vincent Auriol, the President of the French Republic. At the same time, without the famous Compiegne wagon, the exposition of the Compiegne memorial was not full. As early as September 16, 1950 ‘Compagnie Internationale des wagons-lits’ (in English: International Sleeping Car Company), the original creator of the 2419 D carriage, offered to give another carriage of the same series to be placed near Compiegne. The 2439 D was among those 37 carriages created by two series in 1913-1914. One account claims that it was found in Romania after WWII. 2439 had a similar original design as 2419 and was now assigned to be furnished and fit exactly. It was first brought to the Rethondes railway station by railway and then by trucks to the site of the newly erected museum on the site of the former, which had been blown up by the Germans in 1940.
The fixtures and fittings from the pre-war museum had been hidden by the curator in 1940 and now restored in 1950. The opening ceremony took place on November 11, 1950. It took another forty years until in 1992 the museum collection would be added with the remnants of the famous authentic 2419 D car, given by the citizens of Crawinkel. The parts of the burned Armistice wagon: two access ramps, the chassis, and fragments of decoration were hidden back in 1945 and now are restored within the museum shelter. Since that time the museum witnessed two expansions and later in 2018, the building added 500 m2 of useful exhibition space.
In regard to the second legendary railway car of the 1918 armistice, those of Napoleon III, which in 1918 accommodated the German delegates, it has survived the War and now is a part of a display at the ‘Musée de la Voiture et du Tourisme (Car and Tourism museum) in Compiègne.
THE ARMISTICE CLEARING
In the course of the last seven decades, the restored ‘Clairière de l’Armistice’ (the Glade of Armistice) memorial complex has not experienced significant changes. In 2022 the site would celebrate the 100th anniversary of its original opening back in 1922. The second most common use is still ‘Clairière de Rethondes’ (The Rethondes Clearing) in reference to the Rethondes train station.
The Alsace-Lorraine monument commemorates the French annexation of the lands, known as ‘Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen’ in German and Alsace-Lorraine in French. These territories to the West of the Rhine had been historically debated by France and Germany, though the greater proportion of the local people used to speak German dialects, being at the same time located to the West of the river and thus within the geographically French territories. The growing nationalistic mood in Germany and Prussia cultivated the attitude, that Alsace and Lorraine were to be taken by force. Among other reshapings of the European boundaries after the Franco-Prussian War, the territories were seized by the German Empire in 1871 due to ‘The Treaty of Frankfurt’. As early as the 1870s, and especially after the outbreak of WWI, the demand to return Alsace and Lorraine was the driving motive of the French war effort. The French troops occupied the region already in November 1918 not by the conquest but after the withdrawal of the Germans.
The Alsace-Lorraine memorial was among the key parts of the open-air memorial since its inauguration on November 11, 1922. Along with that, the cost of its construction was not covered by the state but donated by ‘Le Matin’ daily newspaper. Founded by a group of American investors as far back as 1883 with an eye on the British ‘The morning news’, the French newspaper had been boosting its audience for decades. In 1914 and toward the outbreak of the First World War, the daily circulation of the ‘Le Matin’ overtopped one million copies with around 150 journalists like the authors. While being the patron of the erection of the Alsace-Lorraine monument (devoted to the French victory over Germany), toward the 1930s the newspaper took up a far-right attitude, especially after Hitler’s rise in power in 1933. The shift in politics predetermined the decline in circulation, which reached its minimum of 300 000 in 1940. In the late 1930s, the ‘Le Matin’ newspaper advocated pacifism and keeping out of the German annexations in Europe. Following the signing of the 1940 armistice, the newspaper was to become evidently collaborationist and appliance. The very last output would see the light on August 17, 1944, later banned and nationalized by the government.
As for the erection of the monument in 1922, it was assigned to Edgar Brandt, the famous French ironworker of Alsatian origin (through his paternal grandparents). He had opened his first studio in Paris as far back as 1902 and later became national-wide famous as the owner of the art gallery, the manufacturer of weapons, and the author of ornaments across France. The monument was created of pink sandstone from the Vosges mountains and is dominated by a metal composition in the middle. The Eagle (German Empire) is being killed by a sword (France or ‘Entente alliance’) with the inscription in French:
“Aux héroïques soldats de France, défenseurs de la patrie et du droit glorieux, libérateurs de l’Alsace et de la Lorraine.”.
“To the heroic soldiers of France, defenders of the Fatherland and of Law, glorious liberators of Alsace and Lorraine. “
For Adolf Hitler, the Alsace region had its own symbolic and even personal meaning in virtue of the fact that it is here he had been awarded Military Service Cross Third Class in September 1917. The issue of regaining the Alsace and Lorrain regions to Germany was never a driving force of Hitler’s political career since 1919 to the extent of Saar and Danzig. As early as September 15, 1933, in the year of the rise to power in Germany, Hitler sent a personal political note to André François-Poncet, a French Ambassador to Germany since 1931, that ‘the Alsace-Lorraine issue simply doesn’t exist. By presenting himself as a flexible international player, on November 22, 1933, Hitler gave an interview to the ‘Le Matin’ newspaper, the one, which had donated the Alsace-Lorraine memorial in 1922. In his interview, the German chancellor stated that the region (Alsace and Lorraine) is not a matter of dispute between Germany and France and that the issue is easy to be solved by an agreement. In fact, at that moment in time, the Nazis had no military means to voice any aggressive rhetoric toward France. Already in September 1940, three months after the signing of the armistice in Compiegne, 23 000 Jews and other ‘undesirables’ were deported to South France from the region. The citizens of Alsace and Lorraine would be given German citizenship as early as 1942.
Upon arriving at the Clearing of Compiegne on June 21, 1940, Hitler’s motorcade made a stop at some distance from the French memorial complex and next to the Alsace-Lorraine monument. Hitler, who had his Military Service Cross from 1917 on his chest on that day, witnessed the memorial covered with a swastika banner. While he had never been on the site before, the German dictator obviously was aware of the symbolism of the monument and its meaning for the French. In the late hours of the same day, Hitler’s order proscribed the dismantling and taking off of the Alsace-Lorraine memorial to Berlin. Picked to pieces, the Alsace-Lorraine monument spent the whole war in Germany and was found by the Allied troops, packed in boxes, in 1945 next to the Soviet zone in Berlin. The parts of the former memorial were given to the French and it would be completely restored at the former place at the beginning of the alley as early as 1950.
MEMORIAL TO THE FOREST RANGERS
This lesser-known monument, located today in the shadow of the trees on the left hand, while moving from the Alsace-Lorraine memorial in the direction of the clearing, was not here in June 1940. Initially inaugurated on November 4, 1920, at another crossroad near Chene Vert, it was moved here to the Glade of Armistice on November 11, 1995. The memorial stone, known as ‘Monument aux morts de la forêt de Compiègne’ (Monument to the fallen from the Compiegne forest) and honors the memory of the three water and forest rangers of the Compiegne forest (Forets De Compiegne), who was killed in WWI.
CHARLES LOUIS JACQUES ROLLIN, born in 1886 in Jouy-aux-Arches, 250 kilometers to the West of the city of Compiegne, was a captain in the French army during WWI. Rollin was killed on May 4, 1918, during the attack in Northern France, half a year before the end of the War.
LAURENT OLIVIER was born in 1875 in Vermenton in the direction to the South of Paris. During WWI he was the second lieutenant in the 56th Infantry Division and was reported missing in action on April 26, 1915. Before the War Oliver was a guard at the Maison Forestière du Pont de Berne next to Rethondes and Compiegne.
GUSTAVE BRANGE was born in 1877 in Villers-la-Montagne near the Belgian and Luxembourg border. Prior to the outbreak of the ‘Great War’, Brange was a forester near Saint-Jean-aux-Bois, in the Southern part of the Compiegne forest 8 km from Rethondes. Gustave Brange was a soldier in the 6th company of forest hunters and was killed on April 5, 1915.
THE GRANITE SLABS OF THE GLADE OF COMPIEGNE
The undistinguished open site for the artillery storage in the First World War amid the Forest on Compiegne was fated to become a memorial site and a place of memory. Before the opening of the memorial in 1922, the visitors of the site already could witness two signs: “Tram du maréchal Foch” (Carriage of Marshal Foch) and “Train des Plénipolenliaires” (Train of the assigned delegates) on the locations of the delegates trains in November 1918. Since 1922 and later after the restoration of the memorial after WWII, the clearing had been dominated by three monuments.
‘La Dalle Sacree’ or ‘The sacred slab’. It was inaugurated back in November 1922 at the same time as the Alsace-Lorraine monument. The stone in the very center of the open site was once carved from the ‘Vire Bleu’ granite, a material quarried in France and famous for its quality for erecting monuments. It is also known as ‘Bleu de Vire’, ‘Granit Vire’, ‘Vire Blue’, or ‘Vire Bleu Granite’ and was also used for the erection of the Tomb of the Unknown soldier under the ‘Arc of Triomphe’ in Paris. Marcel Mages is known to be the architect of the slab and his name could be seen on the stone.
Back in 1922, the very first authentic version of the slab was added with an inscription in French.
Ici le 11 novembre 1918 le criminel orgueil de l’empire allemand vaincu par les peuples libres qu’il prétendait asservir.
Here, on 11 November 1918, the criminal pride of the German empire was vanquished by the free peoples it had sought to enslave.
This inscription included the words of Jean-Auguste-Gustave Binet, known as ‘Binet-Valmer’. Born in 1875 he was a Franco-Swiss journalist and novelist, a combat veteran of the ‘Great War’, who was wounded three times. In 1919 he was one of the founders of the ‘Ligue des chefs de section’ (League of Section Chiefs and Combatant Soldiers), a far-write anti-communist veterans league, later active in the 1920s. Apart from being an author of the lines on the central monument in Compiegne, Binet-Valmer was also among the advocates of the creation of the ‘Tomb of the unknown soldier’ under the ‘Arc de Triomphe’. In late June 1940, the Germans dismantled the slab from the original site and took the pieces of it to Berlin. The remnants of the authentic blue granite stone were found in the hangar near Berlin after the fall of Germany, brought back to France, and restored on the original site, where the slab is accessible today.
On either side of the central slab, one could find two large stones, once made of the same blue granite as the central slab. The first one with the inscription ‘MARSHAL FOCH’ indicates the 1918 location of the 2419 D carriage with the Allied delegates.
The memorial slab with the inscription ‘Les Plénipotentiaires Allemands (The German delegates) now marks the place where the Napoleon III train for the German plenipotentiaries stood for three days in November 1918, approximately 50 meters distance from the Foch’s train. Back in 1918, there was a narrow path, paved with wooden boards for the plenipotentiaries to cover the distance between two trains. Both granite stones were restored in the later 1940s on the former sites.
Apart from the key memorials made of blue granite, the perimeter of the clearing is accompanied by a number of stone benches, which bear their own inscription with the year and the key battle of the First World War in that period.
1914 LA MARNE
1915 LES TRANCHEES
1916 VERDUN – SOMME
1917 CHEMIN DES DAMES
THE PEACE RING
As early as 2014 and the one-hundred anniversary of the start of the First World War, the local authorities decided to place a new monument within the ‘Clairière de l’Armistice’. It was to be created by the talent of Clara Halter (1932-2017), a sculptor who had been previously well-known thanks to her previous works in Paris and Hiroshima. The new monument was designed as a bronze ring 350 cm in height and 50 cm in width. The word ‘PEACE’ in 52 languages (without using any dead languages) was inscribed around its perimeter. The ring is known in French as ‘Alliance de la Paix’, (The peace alliances), thus symbolizing the multiple alliances, including those prior to WWI. The ring could be found only ten meters from the ‘MARSHAL FOCH’ granite slab.
THE COMPIEGNE ARMISTICE MEMORIAL GARDEN
‘Jardin de la memoria or ‘The memorial garden’ was to become another place of remembrance within the ‘Clairière de l’Armistice’ near Compiègne. It was initially opened to honor the memory of Private First Class soldier Augustin Trébuchon, ‘officially’ the last French soldier killed in WWI, at 11:46 November 11, 1918. Today the garden accommodates a number of monuments. Each of them is dedicated to the War in which France has taken part since 1870 (the Franco-Prussian War) and commemorates the memory of the French soldiers killed in foreign battlefields: Afghanistan, Liban, Algerie, Indochine. Apart from the memorials, one could see a number of plates devoted to the victims of the First World War.
AN ARMISTICE 1918 MUSEUM
As I have stated above, the opening of the first museum took place on November 11, 1927, on the ninth anniversary of the 1918 armistice, in the presence of a few hundred guests, including Marshal Ferdinand Foch in person. For that time, it was rather a shelter for the 2419 D carriage, than a museum with an exposition. Thirteen years later, on June 20, 1940, the engineers of ‘Organization Todt’ blew up the front wall of the building and by using air-operated hammers extended the breach to take the carriage out. Then the hole was temporarily regaped not to spoil the triumphant image of the June 21-22 negotiations on the site, accessible for the cameras and international press, William Shirer among them.
In early July the engineers blasted the building framings of the former shelter for Foch carriage and leveled the erection to the ground. In narrow historical means, in the Fall of 1944, the first post-liberation demonstration on the site of the Armistice memorial could witness only pieces of bricks and an open site. As early as November 11, 1950, the fully restored new building of the museum became the site of the permanent residence of the 2439 D carriage of the same series, as the Foch 2419 D. Since that year, the new erection witnessed two significant expansions. The first one took place in 1992, which turned the shelter into a full-fledged museum facility with new rooms for exhibitions and for the relics of the authentic carriage, now under the glass. The second ambitious renovation became reality in 2018 by adding 500 m2 of useful space at the back. The updated museum today includes a number of rooms, which tells the short history of WWII, of the area near Compiegne, the history of both 1918 and 1940 armistices, and the fate of the famous 2419 D carriage and the museum itself.
FT 17 LIGHT TANK
In front of the museum, every visitor has a chance to see a few unobvious exhibition units, which anyway are worth noticing. The first one on the right side of the entrance is the ‘CHAR RENAULT FT 17’. The creation of this tank is considered among the most important events in the history of the mechanized forces of all time. With a length of 5 meters and 6.5 tonnes in weight, FT 17 was the very first tank with a tank turret, which could spin around for 360 degrees. Such a comparably small size, the engine in the backside of the machine, the driver’s seat in the front, and a low-caliber cannon or a machine gun as a weapon, were considered the gold standard of its time. To the left of the tank, we could see the bronze plate with an inscription: ‘GENERAL ESTIENNE: Pere des chars organisateur de l’aviation militaire’. Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne was a specialist in engineering and a general of artillery. The inscription ‘Père des Chars’ means ‘The Father of the Tank’. In a narrow sense, he was not the creator of the FT 17 model, yet he was one of the founders of the mechanized forces in France and a passionate advocate for the development of tanks. It is worth noting, that as far back as 1919 Estienne wrote a manifesto, in which he foresaw the importance of the coordinated attacks of the mechanized forces and aviation. This fact made him a predecessor of the ideas of the 1930s, later taken by Heinz Guderian in Germany, Liddell Hart in England, Charles de Gaulle in France, and Mikhail Tukhachevsky in the USSR.
To the right of the entrance to the museum, there are another two pieces of military machinery, both worth consideration. The first one to the left is the 77mm FK 96 N.A. (The 77 mm Feldkanone 96 Neuer Art), a German field cannon extensively used in WWI. The second one is the French Canon De 75 mle 1897 with hydraulic buffer (as in FK 96). The use of the hydraulic buffer made it possible to boost the rapidity of fire without a need for constant calibration after every shot. The Canon De 75 mle 1897 was to become the key artillery cannon of the French army in the First World War, later used by some units of the American forces since 1917. Following the annihilation of Poland in 1939, the Germans took as trophies 721 pieces of this cannon, which had been bought in France in the 1920s. In 1940 the new trophies also included some numbers of the Canon De 75. It is worth noting that after losing the initiative in War, as early as 1944 the Germans would use some of the XIX French cannons in Normandy.
STATUE OF MARSHAL FOCH
Ferdinand Foch passed away peacefully on March 20, 1929, ten years after the end of the ‘Great War’. The Marshall was an honorable guest both in November 1922 and in 1927, the latter occasion arranged for the inauguration of the shelter for his wartime carriage, a place of the 1918 armistice negotiations. For years after the death of Foch, his relatives, including particularly his wife, were guests during the annual commemoration of the 1918 victory in Compiegne. In contrast to the tradition of timing the opening to November 11, September 26, 1937, witnessed the opening of the statue of Marshal Ferdinand Foch in the presence of his widow and multiple militaries and civil representatives, who visited the ceremony to commemorate the war hero. The statue was created by Firmin-Marcelin Michelet, a well-known French writer, and sculptor. Both the creator and Marshal Foch were born in the town of Tarbes in South France.
As early as June 20, 1940, during the preparations for the armistice negotiations, the statue of Marshal Foch was left untouched, and not covered with a swastika banner similar to the Alsace-Lorraine memorial. A few days later during the dismantling of the memorials on the site with the use of explosives, the statue was covered with a wooden box. According to one version, Hitler spared the Foch statue for the edification of the French, yet the more credible explanation says that Hitler experienced admiration toward the dead Marshal, on whom he had read so much. In the late 1940s, the statue would stand here alone with the renovation of the whole memorial site as a place of remembrance.
BEYOND THE SITE: DEPORTATION TRAIN MEMORIAL
Approximately at a distance of 4 km from the ‘Glade of Armistice’ and next to the city of Compiegne, there is a lesser-known memorial, related to the history of the Holocaust. Next to a tiny railway depot, one could find the memorial with an inscription: ‘La Stele du dernier train pour BUCHENWALD’ (The sign of the last train to Buchenwald). Two informational boards and the memorial pays commemoration to people, who were deported from the Compiegne area during WWII from 1942 to 1944 and particularly the 1250 people, who were loaded on a train to Buchenwald on this site on August 17, 1944. The city of Compiegne was liberated on September 1, 1944: thus the deportations were proceeding until the very liberation. The previous transports from Compiegne to Neuengamme took place on July 15 and July 28, 1944.
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