In November 1918 the Engineer in charge of the North Region Railways: Arthur-Pierre Toubeau, was instructed to find a suitably discreet place which would accommodate two trains. By coincidence on the outskirts of Compiègne in the forest of Rethondes lay an artillery railway siding. Set deep within the wood and out of the view of the masses the location was ideal.
Early in the morning of the 8th November a train carrying Maréchal Ferdinand Foch, his staff and British officers arrived on the siding to the right, nearest the museum. The train formed a mobile headquarters for Foch, complete with a restaurant car and office.
At 0700 hours another train arrived on the left hand track. One of the carriages had been built for Napoleon III and still bore his coat of arms. Inside was a delegation from the German government seeking an armistice.
There were only a hundred metres between the two trains and the entire area was policed by gendarmes placed every 20 metres.
For three days the two parties discussed the terms of an armistice until at 0530 hours on the 11th November 1918, Matthias Erzberger the leader of the German delegation signed the Armistice document.
Within 6 hours the war would be over.
Initially the carriage (Wagon Lits Company car No. 2419D) used by Maréchal Foch was returned to its former duty as a restaurant car but was eventually placed in the courtyard of the Invalides in Paris.
An American: Arthur Fleming paid for its restoration, and the wagon was brought back to Rethondes on 8th April 1927 and placed in a purpose built shelter (Since destroyed).
Numerous artefacts were obtained from those who had been involved in 1918 and the car was refurbished to its condition at the time of the Armistice.
At the entrance to the avenue leading down to the memorial site is a monument raised by a public subscription organised by the newspaper Le Matin.
The monument is dedicated to Alsace Lorraine and consists of a bronze sculpture of a sword striking down the Imperial Eagle of Germany it is framed by sandstone from Alsace.
The Clairière was inaugurated on 11th November 1922 by President Millerand.
The two tracks are marked to show which was which. In the photo the French one is closest. Between them is an enormous granite block recalling the Allied and American Victory.
On the 26th September 1937 the statue of Maréchal Foch was unveiled in his presence.
Two years later war broke out again and on 21st June 1940 the carriage was brought out of its shelter and replaced exactly where it had been located in 1918.
The following day France signed its own capitulation.
Hitler was determined to remove the stain of 1918 from the face of France and had the entire clearing gutted.
The carriage shelter was demolished, the trees cut down, and the roads and walkways dug up.
The carriage itself was whisked away to Berlin.
The great central memorial block was also removed by the Germans and was discovered in Berlin at the end of that war.
The monument to Alsace and Lorraine was likewise crated up and taken back to Germany.
Foch was by now dead but Hitler had his statue left in place, looking out across the rubble of his achievement.
Following the liberation of the area on 21st October 1944, work began at the behest of the local people of Compiègne to repair the memorial glade.
On the 11th November the liberating commander: General Koenig (surely ironic) presided over a military parade which was followed by a symbolic burning of the clearing. It had been purified.
It would take six more years to return the memorial to its pre-1940 condition.
The centre block was replaced in its original position and the monument to Alsace-Lorraine returned.
On 11th November 1950 the Clairière was re-dedicated.
Housed in a museum building is a carriage similar to that used by the negotiators.
The original carriage was taken back to Berlin and put on display until 1943. With the advance on Berlin in 1945 the Waffen SS initially moved it into Thuringia and then finally destroyed it by fire.
Fortunately a replacement (car No.2439 D) which had also been built in 1913 was found and it is this that you can view today. The exhibits inside the carriage, though, are the originals, having been removed at the beginning of the Second World War.
There are two display rooms behind the carriage giving details of the events behind both armistices. To compliment the displays there are numerous viewing posts with a large collection of 3D photographs.
A short but interesting guide book is available in English, French and German. It is well worth the couple of Euros even if it is a little dated in its style.
To the left of the entrance is an F-17 tank built by the Renault company. The F-17 was the first tank to have a revolving turret and is thus the great-grandfather of all modern tanks. It is named after the founder of the French Tank Service: Jean-Baptiste Estienne.
|Open||Wednesday to Monday|
|15th October – 31st March||0900 hours to 1200 hours|
|1400 hours to 1730 hours|
|1st April – 14th October||0900 hours to 1230 hours|
|1400 hours to 1800 hours|
|Sadly you are not allowed to take photographs within.|
The village of Rethondes where Foch and Weygand would spend the evening of the 10th is only a short distance a way. A small but very pretty village perched on the side of the Aisne River it has a number of memorials in connection to this armistice as well as a monument to an American Aircrew which crashed over the village in 1944.
For more information about the French Tank Services.