On November 11, 1918, representatives from Imperial Germany and the Entente Powers gathered in a railway carriage near the French forest of Compiègne [“Kom-pee-enne”] to sign a historic document. This document, signed at 5AM, declared an armistice or cease-fire between the two powers, to take effect at 11AM that morning. And so at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns of the Western Front – which had been firing since August 1914 and claimed more than 20 million lives – at last fell silent. But the Great War wasn’t over yet. Two months later statesmen and diplomats of the Entente Powers met in Paris to negotiate formal peace terms and determine the shape of postwar Europe. The result was the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919 – exactly five years to the day after the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand which, while nobody, not even his family, cared much that he was killed and many thought it was a major blessing for the country (see our video “What Really Started WWI?), his death was used as the public excuse for the conflict.
The Treaty exclusively blamed Imperial Germany for starting the war and imposed a series of punitive sanctions to ensure it could never again threaten world peace. Germany was stripped of 65,000 square kilometres of territory; forbidden from having an air force, submarines, or a standing army of over 100,000 men; and forced to pay the modern equivalent of $33 billion in war reparations.
Many saw the terms of the treaty as too harsh and humiliating and feared it would simply lead Germany to seek revenge in the future, with French general Ferdinand Foch [“Ferd-in-ahn Fock”] even declaring:
“This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.”
Though Foch was to be proven tragically correct, it is a myth that the burden of war reparations bankrupted Germany and led directly to the rise of the Nazis. In fact, the reparations payments were renegotiated several times between 1919 and 1932 before being cancelled altogether, by which time Germany had paid less than a quarter of the original amount. However, this did not stop Adolf Hitler from exploiting German rage over the Treaty to fuel his rise to power, and when he finally exacted his revenge in the summer of 1940, he made sure the ordeal would be as humiliating for France as it had been for Germany in 1918.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany launched its invasion of Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and 390,000 troops of the British Expeditionary Force were sent to France to bolster French defences along the German border. What followed was a strange period of inactivity which became known as the “Phoney War” or “Sitzkrieg.” Apart from an abortive French offensive into the German Saarland, for eight months all was quiet on the Western Front, and many back home in Britain and France began to wonder whether there was actually a war on. Then on the morning of May 10, 1940, the other shoe finally dropped. In a massive operation codenamed Fall Gelb or “Case Yellow,” German forces simultaneously invaded Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. In an eerie replay of the WWI Schlieffen Plan, German armoured divisions cut through neutral Belgium into France via the ostensibly impenetrable Ardennes Forest, completely bypassing the 450-kilometre long Maginot Line of border fortifications. Under the Germans’ lightning onslaught Allied resistance swiftly crumbled and in only two weeks the Germans pushed the BEF and French Army to the channel coast, where between May 31 and June 4 over 338,000 troops were evacuated from Dunkirk and other channel ports. But for France, the fight was not over yet. On June 5, the Germans launched new offensive codenamed Fall Rot or “Case Red” in order to finish off the rest of the French Army. This time, however, French forces, being closer to their supply lines and more attuned to German tactics, mounted a more effective resistance and inflicted heavy casualties on the German invaders. But it was too little, too late. By June 9 the German Luftwaffe had all but obliterated the French Air Force and began attacking ground forces with impunity, leading to a complete collapse of resistance. On June 14, Paris fell. Two days later, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned and was replaced by WWI hero Marshal Philippe Pétain, who broadcast a radio address to the French people announcing his intention to seek an armistice with the Germans.
It was now Adolf Hitler’s turn to exact his revenge on the French for the humiliation of Versailles. For the signing of the Armistice, Hitler chose the Forest of Compiègne, the exact spot where Germany was forced to sign the Armistice of 1918. The site, known as the “Glade of the Armistice,” had been developed in 1927 into an elaborate memorial commemorating the end of the Great War. Among the monuments erected at the site were a statue of General Ferdinand Foch, supreme commander of the Entente forces; a monument to the soldiers of the French region of Alsace-Lorraine depicting the Imperial German Eagle impaled by a French sword, and small museum housing the original railway carriage in which the Armistice was signed.
The carriage, originally a regular dining car belonging to French luxury railway Compagnie International des Wagon-Lits – operators of the famous Orient Express – had been commandeered during the War as General Foch’s private headquarters. The carriage and the Compiègne siding were chosen for the Armistice negotiations for two main reasons: first, the nearest town had been severely damaged by the 1914 German invasion and its people would have reacted violently to the presence of the German delegation; and second, the woods provided a measure of privacy and dignity for the proceedings. After the war the carriage was returned to its original orders and briefly put back into regular service, but the company soon realized its historic and donated it to the French Army Museum in Paris. There it remained on display until 1927 when it was moved to its custom building at Compiègne. Just a few metres from that building lay the preserved railway siding where the Armistice was signed, the exact spot of the signing marked by a stone slab inscribed with the words:
HERE ON THE ELEVENTH OF NOVEMBER 1918 SUCCUMBED THE CRIMINAL PRIDE OF THE GERMAN REICH, VANQUISHED BY THE FREE PEOPLES WHICH IT TRIED TO ENSLAVE.
The entire site was a brazenly unsubtle monument to Germany’s defeat, and for Hitler, the perfect location to turn the tables on the French. Hitler ordered the railway carriage removed from its museum building and placed on the spot of the original Armistice, and on June 21, 1940 he, along with top Nazi officials including General Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the German Armed Forces; and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, arrived at Compiègne to begin negotiations. American war correspondent Willian Shirer, who was present on that day, described Hitler as he surveyed the site:
“Through my glasses I saw the Führer stop, glance at the monument. Then he read the inscription on the great granite block in the center of the clearing. I look for the expression on Hitler’s face. I am but fifty yards from him and see him through my glasses as though he were directly in front of me. I have seen that face many times at the great moments of his life. But today! It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph. He steps off the monument and contrives to make even this gesture a masterpiece of contempt. He glances back at it contemptuous, angry. Suddenly, as though his face were not giving quite complete expression to his feelings, he throws his whole body into harmony with his mood. He swiftly snaps his hands on his hips, arches his shoulders, plants his feet wide apart. It is a magnificent gesture of defiance, of burning contempt.”
The next day, the negotiations began. In stark contrast to the relative restraint and dignity of the 1918 Armistice, the entire affair was carefully orchestrated to be as humiliating as possible for the French. While General Keitel read the terms of the Armistice to General Charles Huntziger, head of the French delegation, Hitler sat silently in the same seat once occupied by General Foch. After only a few minutes, Hitler abruptly rose, have the Nazi salute, and left, leaving the other delegates to carry on the negotiations. It was a brazen display of disrespect, matched only by the deliberately vindictive language of the Armistice agreement itself. In a snide reference to the despised terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the document’s preamble concluded with the words:
“However, Germany does not have the intention to use the armistice conditions and armistice negotiations as a form of humiliation against such a valiant opponent.”
The terms imposed on France by the 1940 Armistice and the subsequent peace treaty were in many ways harsher than those imposed on Germany in 1919. Three-fifths of northern France was to be surrendered to German occupation, granting the German navy access to channel ports; the French Army disarmed and its soldiers kept as prisoners of war for the duration of the conflict; and the French government forced to pay all costs of the occupation – the equivalent of $288 million per day. In other ways, however, France got off relatively easy. The French Navy was to disarm but not be surrendered, France was allowed to retain its colonial empire, and southern France would remain a nominally-independent “Free Zone” administered by Marshal Petain from the spa town of Vichy. These concessions were borne of pragmatic necessity, for the Germans feared that if they pushed the French too far they would deliver their formidable navy to the Allies and continue fighting from their colonial empire. By maintaining a collaborationist rump state in southern France, the Germans hoped to keep the nation, its fleet, and its overseas forces out of the conflict. Unfortunately, the British were not convinced by the Vichy Government’s assurances of neutrality, and on July 3, 1940 the Royal Navy bombarded the French fleet at its anchorage at Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria to prevent it falling into German hands. The Free Zone was also not to last, for in response to the Allied capture of North Africa, in November 1942 the Germans invaded and occupied the rest of France.
All told, the signing of the Armistice of June 22 took barely 15 minutes. This was followed two days later by the signing of another armistice with Germany’s ally Italy, with the cease-fire finally taking effect at 12:35 AM on June 25, 1940. In the wake of the Armistice, Hitler ordered the entire site at Compiègne razed to the ground except for the statue of General Foch, which was left intact so the great victor of the First World War could preside over a barren wasteland. Meanwhile, the stone slab marking the site of the 1918 Armistice and the Compiègne railway carriage were taken back to Germany as war trophies and displayed in the Lustgarten, a large public park in Berlin. There it remained until 1945, when the intensifying Allied bombing campaign and the advance of Allied troops into German territory forced the authorities to relocate the carriage to the small town of Ohrdruf in the German state of Thuringia, where it was guarded by men of the SS. Unfortunately, as American troops advanced on the town, the SS guards, fearing the carriage would be used for yet another humiliating armistice, blew it up with dynamite and buried the remains.
After the war, the Glade of the Armistice was rebuilt to its pre-war glory by German POWs and re-dedicated on Armistice Day, 1950. With the original carriage destroyed, the Compagnie International des Wagon-Lits donated a nearly identical carriage, built in 1913 as part of the same batch as the original and also part of General Foch’s private train. It remains on display at Compiègne to this day, along with surviving fittings from the original carriage and the pen used to sign the 1918 Armistice.
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Expand for References
Keegan, John (ed.), World War II: a Visual Encyclopedia, PRC Publishing Ltd, 1999
The Compèigne Wagon: One Train Carriage, Two Peace Treaties, Sky History, https://www.history.co.uk/article/the-compi%25C3%25A8gne-wagon-one-train-carriage-two-peace-treaties
Lehrer, Steven, Compèigne, http://stevenlehrer.com/compiegne.htm
The Phoney War, History Learning Site, April 20, 2015, https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-two/world-war-two-in-western-europe/the-phoney-war/
MacMillan, Margaret, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, Random House, 2003
Adamson, Thomas: Hitler in War, Merkel in Peace: a Train Car for History, Associated Press, November 7, 2018, https://apnews.com/article/forests-world-war-i-germany-international-news-france-45ed2aad6c7a4261a92339db16fd3a79
Franco-German Armistice: June 25, 1940, The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/frgearm.asp
The Armistice Memorial, https://armistice-museum.com