The Armistice Clearing at Compiègne


Near Compiègne, in the middle of a forest, is one of the most important Great War locations - the place where men sitting around a table decided that the killing would end. For four years men had lived like animals in holes in the ground.  They had endured pain, misery and deprivation as they sat out the lonely nights in the cold and rain. They had killed and they had died. They had killed each other mathematically and mechanically, using slide-rules, artillery and machine-guns.  They had killed each other brutally, in hand-to-hand fighting of the most awful kind.   The war had killed millions and brought whole nations to the verge of ruin.  And in a way, all these events led history towards this little forest clearing near Compiègne - the Clairière de l'Armistice - the Armistice Clearing.  Not many British visitors go there. It is some distance from the British areas of operations and might seem a little out of the way.  There can be no mistaking its significance, though.  

The Road to the Armistice Clearing

Essentially, the Armistice took place because in a deal brokered by US president Wilson, the allied governments - America, France and Britain - agreed that terms for an armistice could be offered as a way to end the fighting and begin the process of ending the war.  By November 1918 Germany was at crisis-point. People were starving, cities like Berlin and Munich were on the brink of revolution and on the Western Front Germany's armies were being slowly but surely forced back towards their own frontiers.  The country had become increasingly difficult to govern and had become, to all intents and purposes, an unofficial military dictatorship under the direction of Paul von Hindenburg. This "silent dictatorship" of military officers could see that Germany was not going to win the war.  They perceived that Germany would become ungovernable should her soldiers in the war zones side with the factions that were already causing such unrest at home. In the generals' view, it was important to end the fighting and bring the army home in good order.  An armistice would at least end the killing, and might allow the withdrawal of the army against a background of negotiated peace settlement, in which Germany would have a voice - a better result than an out-and-out defeat in the field.

As any armistice would be a military convenience in the first instance, responsibility for arranging one rested with Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who had been appointed Supreme Allied commander following the German offensive of April, 1918. Foch decided to tread carefully and did not immediately make the news of the armistice public.  After all, if there was a meeting, it might well come to nothing, in which case the war would have to continue. In such a case, there would be people who would criticise those who had lost the opportunity to end the fighting. Conversely, Foch believed (and he was right) that there might be a stronger body of opinion condemning the idea of an armistice as a weak move. There were plenty of people who thought the right place for an armistice was in Germany, among the ruins of Berlin, following a total German surrender.  Even the mildest opinion might consider a negotiated armistice to be "letting the Germans get away with it". So Foch gave orders for a place to be found where representatives of the two sides could meet in secrecy.  The place chosen was deep in the Forest of Compiègne.

The French army had already constructed railway-lines through the forest in order to operate and supply long-range guns on railway mountings.  It was decided that the representatives of the two sides could arrive there by train, at a place where a siding ran beside the main section of track.  It would be easy to achieve this without drawing too much attention; the area was already remote, and tree-cover would prevent observation from the air.  Thus the little, insignificant railway spur that was to become the Clairière de  l'Armistice - the Armistice Clearing - was chosen.  Foch decided that the Allies' train would wait on the siding, so that the train carrying the German representatives could arrive on the main line.

Having gained the promise of a meeting to discuss an armistice, von Hindenburg next had to find some representatives.  For the leader of the delegation, he chose Matthias Erzberger. Erzberger was a well-known politician who had initially supported Germany's part in the war.  Five weeks into the war, when he was an important assistant to the Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Erzberger had drafted the Septemberprogram - the statement of Germany's war aims which outlined the conditions that would be imposed on Germany's enemies after a German victory.  The Septemberprogram was more a basis for debate than anything else.  It had its opponents and was never adopted, but it was an important document and it was Erzberger who wrote it.

By 1917, Erzberger had changed his opinion about the war.  He saw the deadlock which existed on Germany's war fronts, and realised that it was looking unlikely that the war would end in any territorial expansion for Germany.  The best that could be hoped for, he reasoned, was a negotiated peace and he began to say so.  By 1918, Erzberger was a well-known proponent of a negotiated end to the war, and had probably done as much as any politician to convince the German people that they were fighting a war which they could not win.  Perhaps von Hindenburg thought that the French would be more ready to negotiate with a man like Erzberger than with some blustering, Prussian general.

To accompany Erzberger,  von Hindenburg sent Count Alfred von Oberndorff, from the Foreign Ministry, Major General Detlof von Winterfeldt as a representative of the army and Captain Ernst Vanselow of the navy. They left Germany on November 6th, heading for German Headquarters in Spa, Belgium. Erzberger's papers authorised him to "conduct in the name of the German Government with the plenipotentiaries of the Powers allied against Germany negotiations for an armistice and to conclude an agreement to that effect, provided the same be approved by the German Government."   He had also received a note from the Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, which said, "Obtain what mercy you can, Matthias, but for God's sake, make peace."

They reached Spa at 8.00 a.m. on Thursday, November 7th.  Hindenburg was there, and had arranged for cars to take Erzberger and the others the rest of the way. They set off at noon, and drove until about 6.00 p.m., when local German commanders advised them that the road ahead had been blocked by retreating German units who had cut trees down, to slow down the advancing Allies.  Men had to be sent out to clear the way, and then the delegates were able to continue their journey.  As they got nearer to the front line they passed through groups of tired German soldiers on the march, ordered to the side of the road by their officers. There must have been some astonishment when cars drove past, seemingly in a hurry to get along in the wrong direction - towards the pursuing enemy positions. As the cars were enveloped in the darkness, and the soldiers were called back into their marching formation, hushed voices asked what all this meant.  It didn't take a genius to be able to put together an educated guess.  

Soon the motorcade reached the final German outpost.  Ahead, somewhere in the darkness, were the enemy.  A trumpeter joined the leading car and a makeshift white flag was draped across the bonnet, before the procession moved on again, the trumpeter sounding a call so that those waiting for the cars on the other side would be able to hear them coming.  A hundred metres or so beyond the German lines, the cars were halted by French officers.  It was about 9.20 p.m.  

The French officers climbed into the cars and the journey continued, with the trumpeter still sounding his warning notes. The roads were not so good now, passing through shell-damaged villages until about 1.00 a.m. on Friday, November 8th, when the journey was broken.  The Germans were given something to eat, and arrangements were made for their cars and drivers to be accommodated until they were needed for the return journey.  Erzberger and the others wondered what concessions they would be able to bring with them when they passed this way again, headed for home.

Replacement cars took over as the Germans delegation headed towards the rail-head.  Now they passed through severely damaged areas - the fighting-zones of old, where the deadlocked armies had thrown everything they had at each other, hoping for a breakthrough which never came.  Finally, the cars jolted to a halt and the Germans saw a train, guarded by french soldiers.  They climbed aboard and were surprised to learn from the French railway staff that they were due to travel in what had been the private train of Napoleon III.  The Germans allowed their cold, shaken bodies to sink into the sumptuous regal upholstery and slept as the train took them towards the clearing in the forest at Compiègne.

At 9.00 a.m. the Germans' train hissed to a halt.  On a line opposite, about a hundred metres away, they could see another train of three carriages in which the Allied negotiators were waiting.

The two trains

In charge was Foch himself, assisted by the British First Sea Lord Sir Rosslyn Wemyss.  There were also secretarial staff and an interpreter.  Foch's senior assistant was his Aide, General Maxime Weygand, who started the proceedings when he went across to the Germans' train and invited the German delegation to follow him across to the Allied train.  Wemyss and Foch stood as the Germans entered and Foch asked Erzberger for his credentials.  After Erzberger's papers had been handed over, Foch and his people left the room to examine them and, satisfied that Erzberger did indeed have the authority to make decisions and accept terms on behalf of the German government, the Marshal returned, invited everyone to sit and the formalities of introductions took place.

The Germans in their creased, travel-worn clothes looked at the smartly-dressed negotiators opposite and hoped for some helpful gesture, some invitation to open discussions.  But there was only silence. Foch was savouring the prospect of humiliating not just these Germans, but the whole of Germany itself.  He turned to his interpreter and said, "Ask these gentlemen what they want."

Erzberger, nonplussed, replied that they had been sent to hear the proposals for an Armistice.  

Foch  in turn replied that he had no proposal to set before them.

Von Oberndorff, took over, speaking in French and telling Foch that in his telegram to the German government, President Wilson had announced that if the Germans were to send a delegation, Foch had been authorised to deliver the terms of an Armistice.

Foch announced that he could not disclose the terms of any armistice unless and until the Germans asked for an armistice.  "Do you wish to ask for an armistice?" he asked.

Erzberger replied that he did.

Then Foch nodded to Weygand, who read out the terms.  The Germans listened in stunned silence as the price of a ceasefire was explained. The expected conditions were there, of course -  all German military personnel to evacuate all French territory immediately, including Alsace and Lorraine, all allied military and civilian prisoners to be released - but the other conditions added up to a terrible humiliation for Germany:

All German prisoners to remain in captivity.

The Allied blockade, which had prevented food from reaching Germany, to remain in force.

The allied forces to occupy Germany.

Germany to surrender 5,000 railway locomotives in working order, huge numbers of rolling-stock,  ships, submarines, aeroplanes, 2,500 heavy guns, 2,500 field guns, 25,000 machine-guns, 3,000 trench mortars. (Captain Vanselow, the sailor, wept openly when he heard the requirement that the Germans must also surrender over 70 of the Imperial Navy's ships, six battlecruisers, 10 battleships, eight light cruisers, and 50 destroyers with minimal crews to keep them in good condition, for internment in neutral or allied ports).

The Germans to pay  reparations - in other words, the Germans were to accept all the blame for the war, and pay for all the damage.

No armistice to begin until the Germans had signed agreement to all the terms.

72 hours in which to conclude the matter.

Erzberger's hands were tied. There was little for the Germans to do that night.  The "negotiations" if you could call them that, ended almost at midnight.  It was almost Saturday, November 9th. On that day, they gave written notice of their objections to the terms of the armistice, having been promised a written reply.  On that day also, they heard that the Kaiser had abdicated, that the government had changed.  The Germans must have wondered whether they were still considered to be the representatives of whatever government was then in power. They knew, though, that it made no difference.  Whatever government was in office, it would have to agree to the armistice if it wanted to avoid rebellion and revolution at home.

On Sunday, 10th November, Erzberger received a message from the new chancellor, Ebert, authorising him to sign the armistice. He had also heard from Hindenburg in Spa.  Hindenburg raised a few details which were to do with military and naval "fair play" as much as anything else, but acknowledged that Erzberger must conclude matters, getting the best deal he could. It had become clear that the armistice must be signed, that there was no other course for Germany.  At about 2.00 a.m. on Monday, November 11th., Erzberger sent a message across to the other train, indicating that he and his colleagues were ready to clear up a few remaining points and then sign the armistice document.  They were allowed little room for negotiation but were able to get some figures reduced. For example, the demand for 5,000 railway locomotives couldn't be met, as the Germans didn't have that many locomotives in working order.  The same was true of submarines, and other items.  So the numbers were lowered, but the end result was the same. Germany would be humiliated and stripped of its ability to move supplies around. Erzberger did get the allies to amend the clause about the continuing blockade of German merchant shipping so that it included the phrase, "The Allies and the United States should give consideration to the provisioning of Germany during the armistice to the extent recognized as necessary", but the phrase could mean almost anything.

At 5.12 a.m., the armistice document was signed.  Foch suggested that for simplicity, the time of the signing should be recorded as 5.00 a.m. and this was agreed to.  It was also agreed that the armistice should come into effect six hours later, at 11.00 a.m. the same day. It's pure coincidence that the armistice came into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Foch refused to shake hands with any of the Germans, and simply said, "Eh bien, messieurs, c'est fini, allez."  (Well, Gentlemen, it's finished.  Go.")  There was just time for a photograph before he himself left for Paris with his copy of the Armistice document.

The German delegates returned home the way they had come.

The Allied Side, Marshal Foch in front.

The Armistice Clearing as a Memorial - The First Phase, 1922 to 1940

In the years immediately following the war, the Armistice Clearing was developed as a memorial - a memorial unashamedly dedicated to Victory and Revenge.  The strange thing is that both France and Germany have used the Clairière de l'Armistice as a memorial - both adapting it to their own needs as a memorial to their own victory, their own revenge.  The French/Allied victory came first, of course. In 1922, the work was inaugurated.  In a circular clearing100 metres across, the tracks on which the two trains had stopped were preserved in situ, with stone bollards and chains marking the places where the trains had stood. Between the rails, low stone plaques distinguish between the two trains, one with the words, "Le Marechal Foch" and the other with, "Les Plenipotentiaires Allemands".

Chains and bollards enclose the sections of track where the carriages stood -
the Allied one one nearest the camera, and the German one in the distance,
with a commemorative stone tablet between them.

In the centre of the circle, between the two tracks, a slightly raised paved tablet announced in large letter carved into its horizontal surface,


A translation into English gives, ‘Here, on 11 November 1918, the criminal pride of the German Empire succumbed, vanquished by the free peoples it sought to enslave’.

In 1927 a special building was constructed to contain Foch's carriage, Wagons-Lits Company number 2419D, which had been removed from service, and restored.  This was a little way from the central, circular heart of the clearing, further along the track on which Foch's train stood.  The carriage-house was built over the track, completely enclosing the carriage.  The building also contained a museum, explaining the significance of the carriage and of the whole site.

A monument was erected on the nearby road, opposite a broad, 250 metre-long boulevard cut into the forest, through which the clearing could be seen from a distance.  This was the Alsace-Lorraine Memorial, showing a German eagle lying dead before a sword, with the inscriptions in French "11 November 1918" and "To the heroic soldiers of France, defenders of the Fatherland and of Right, glorious liberators of Alsace and Lorraine".

Looking out over the whole festival of exultant revenge was the figure of Marshal Foch.  The artist seems to have taken his ideas from the famous photograph.  The statue, like the photograph, shows the Marshal in his long coat with his stick in his right hand while in his left he holds the briefcase containing the signed armistice document. The statue, however, shows the Marshal as a dominating, powerful figure with an impressive physique and a heroic pose.

Within the layout of the clearing, the statue of Foch is ever-so-slightly to one side, in a rectangular space of its own. Yet it dominates the whole area as confidently as if it had been in the centre of the clearing.  The stone Foch presides over the Armistice Clearing just as the flesh-and-blood one did.

After the Treaty of Versailles brought the war to an official end in 1919, Foch had said, "This is not a peace.  It is an armistice for the next twenty years". He was right.  The second World War began twenty years later.

The Armistice Clearing as a Memorial -  The Second Phase, 1940 to 1944

In 1940, after the fall of France, Hitler decided to exact his own revenge.  He decided that he would make the French authorities surrender to him in person, at Compiègne, using the same carriage in which Erzberger and the others had been compelled to ask for an armistice.  Hitler had served in the Great War, and like many of his fellow-soldiers, he thought that the armistice of 1918 was a betrayal of the German armies still fighting, a prelude to a negotiated peace which would mark the German soldiers as the losers, even though they had not been defeated in the field and were prepared to fight on.  Political cartoons published at the time had shown German soldiers lining a trench, repelling an attack, with Erzberger, dagger in hand, sneaking up behind them, ready to deliver the infamous "stab in the back". Carriage 2419D was broken out of its protective building and rolled out to the precise spot it had occupied on 11th November, 1918.


On 22nd June, 1940, therefore, Hitler sat in the armistice carriage, in the place where Foch had sat, while one of his officers read out the terms of the second armistice to the representatives of the French government. When this had been done and the French officials had indicated their willingness to accept the terms, Hitler stood and left the carriage, leaving the formalities and signatures to his subordinates in a deliberate gesture of contempt.

Just as Foch had done, hitler posed for photographs outside
Carriage 2419D

A few days later, Hitler ordered the complete destruction of the Armistice Clearing.  Carriage 2419D was taken to Germany as a war trophy, along with the stones forming the large tablet with the inscription referring to Germany's "criminal pride". The Alsace-Lorraine Memorial was also dismantled and taken away. The clearing itself was simply laid waste, the carefully-tended lawns and walkways ploughed up, the decorative trees cut down, the carriage-house demolished. Only the statue of Foch was allowed to remain untouched.  But now Foch's image stood looking out over a devastated wasteland which had once represented his greatest work.  Thus Hitler used the Armistice Clearing as his - and Germany's - memorial to Victory and Revenge.

The Armistice Clearing as a Memorial - The Third Phase, 1944 to the present

The third phase of the clearing's existence brings it up to date.  Compiègne was liberated by French and American troops on 1st September, 1944.  Soon afterwards, German prisoners-of-war were set to work restoring the Armistice Clearing. On November 11, 1944, the citizens of Compiègne held a symbolic ceremony of renewal.  They had put in place a wooden replica of the granite tablet which had been removed to Germany. Nearby, a large fire was lit.  The shame of the occupation and the destruction of the Clearing was burned away.  The Clearing had been purified by fire.

On 8th May, 1945, Germany surrendered, and soon afterwards, the crated stones from Compiègne came to light. They were returned to France, restored and replaced in their original locations, bearing their original inscriptions. Everything was more or less as it was, but for the armistice carriage.

In Germany, carriage 2419D had been on public display in Berlin's Lustgarten, an area near the cathedral which the Nazis had converted into a site for mass rallies.  As the end of the war approached, and the allied bombing of Berlin intensified, it was decided to move the armistice carriage to a safer location in Crawinkel, Thuringia, where it was guarded by SS personnel.  When Allied forces began pushing into Germany, the carriage's guards, under orders not to let it fall into Allied hands, burned it and buried the remains. So in order to complete the reinstatement of the Armistice Clearing, another carriage was obtained, constructed in the same 1913 batch as the original.  This was renumbered 2491D and placed inside a new carriage-house.  Inside it were placed the furnishings, documents and personal items previously displayed in the original carriage, items which had been removed and taken to a place of safety on the outbreak of war in 1939. This done, the Armistice Clearing was re-dedicated on 11th November, 1950.

[Image]       [Image]
The second (present-day) carriage-house and carriage

(The original carriage has not entirely disappeared, though.  Thuringia, where the carriage had been destroyed, had been in the Soviet Occupation Zone immediately after the Second World War, and thus formed part of the German Democratic Republic.  After the reunification of Germany in 1990, it became possible for interested parties to look for remains of the original carriage, and several parts of it have been located and returned to France. Metal parts, of course, might survive a fire and in particular I remember seeing one of the large brass handrails from the original end doorways, on display in the carriage-house museum when I was last there in 2008).

Such was the fate of the Armistice Clearing over the years since 1918.  But what of the two main protagonists of the dramatic events that took place here in that last November of the war?  Erzberger remained in the government, becoming Finance Minister in 1919.  He was unpopular among right wing Germans, who saw him as the man who had brought about their country's humiliation and shame by signing the armistice when the war was still not lost.  Erzberger was murdered on 26th August, 1921, by the Organisation Consul, a right wing death squad. He is buried in the Catholic Cemetery of  Bieberach an der Riss, in the old German state of Baden-Wurttemberg.

Foch died on 20th March, 1929 and was buried in an elaborate tomb at Les Invalides, Paris, close to the tomb of Napoleon, among France's greatest military figures. Towns and villages all over France have streets or squares named after him.

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Tom Morgan

Text Version © Copyright Tom Morgan, January, 2010.

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