Capital Collections’ new mini exhibition provides an interesting snapshot in time of one of the most important places in the political landscape of 20th century Europe: the Armistice Clearing deep in the Compiegne Forest in France where it was decided the hostilities should cease on the Western Front.
The happenings there in the early hours of 11th November 1918 brought peace to Europe but ultimately set into motion a series of events which would scar the face of the continent for years to come.
As it became clear the Allied Forces were to be victorious in the Great War the question of where to negotiate and ultimately sign an armistice became a pressing one. The responsibility for obtaining an armistice agreement was entrusted to Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander in Chief of the Allied armies.
It was decided that negotiations would take place on a remote railway line in the Forest of Compiegne in Picardy. This lonely outpost was chosen to maintain secrecy as the armistice was pressing yet fragile and if negotiations failed fighting would continue. Moreover, Foch knew that public opinion may be against the move. Many saw it as weak and unnecessary to give any concessions to an all but defeated German force.
The opposing delegations met in Foch’s luxury railway carriage. Terms were offered which would be devastating to Germany. Amongst other sanctions, Alsace and Lorraine were to be handed to the French, the entire naval fleet was to be surrendered to the allies and Germany was commanded to pay huge monetary reparations to France. In short, Germany was to accept all responsibility for the conflict. Just after 5 am on the morning of November 11th 1918 it was done.
Foch, without shaking the hand of his opponents, left immediately to take the armistice to Paris. He would later say ‘This is not Peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.’ This statement proved prophetic as it was in 1939 that World War Two broke out to devastate Europe anew.
After peace returned to the French countryside the once inconsequential clearing in Compiegne became an important location for the French people. It became a memorial to the deed. Monuments were erected to Foch himself, to the peoples of Alsace and Lorraine and to the destruction of the German power. The site on which the train stood that fateful day was marked out for posterity. Later the carriage itself was returned to the spot and an ornate carriage house was built around it to serve as a small museum.
However the clearing’s role in history was not over. In 1940 France was once again threatened by German Forces and quickly fell to the might of the Reich. Hitler, who had been a soldier in WW1, sought to humiliate the French at the very place Foch had humiliated the German people in 1918. The French surrender was signed in the carriage which was then taken to Germany as a victor’s trophy. The monuments were dismantled and the carriage house razed to the ground. All that remained was the sculpture of Foch to eternally survey the desolation of the shrine to his greatest achievement.
Today the Armistice clearing has been restored to some of its former glory. Monument stones stolen by the Nazis have been returned and a new carriage house encloses a perfect replica of the original train, which was burned by SS soldiers in 1945.
View the full exhibition on Capital Collections.