The Armistice Museum and Memorial is surprisingly little known to the general public – even in France. It’s an important site: it was here that the armistice to end World War I was signed in 1918. In 1940 this was where the Germans accepted the French surrender. It’s tucked away in the peaceful forest of Compiègne in Picardy, Hauts-de-France, far from battleground museums and war cemeteries. And it’s a private museum though with some government support.
The Armistice Museum is not even very well signposted but persevere in your quest; this small but impressive museum has a story well worth the telling.
As you turn off the main road and drive towards the museum, you pass the massive Alsace Lorraine Monument. The statue, located 250 metres down the road from the museum, shows a French sword cutting down the Imperial Eagle of Germany. The sculpture was more than symbolic; it was made by Edgar Brandt (1880-1960), an interesting character who began by designing weapons of war for the French army then became one of the 20th century’s greatest Art Deco ironwork craftsman. He also made the torch for the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris.
Park in the small car park – which is never full – then walk along a path through the trees to the clearing.
The Glade of the Armistice
A statue of Marshall Foch to one side looks down on the clearing. Foch, the supreme Allied commander who united the British, French and American forces is one of France’s great heroes. In 1918 he commanded the successful push back against the German offensive.
Emerging from the woods is a single railway track. It leads to the centre of the clearing and a huge slab in the ground commemorating the place where two railway carriages were brought in 1918.
Ahead between a Remembrance garden and a small tank stands a modest, low, white building with flags on the front, looking rather like a school.
The Armistice Museum
You buy your ticket in a small modest office then walk into the first long room. Nothing prepares you for the sight of the railway carriage that stands marooned here.
You peer through the windows at the carriage. This was where Marshall Foch, accompanied by the allies who included the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, and the Chief of Staff, General Weygand, met with the Germans to sign the Armistice to end the horror that was World War I. It was signed on November 11th at 5.10am though not officially declared until 11am. Armistice Day is officially celebrated at 11am on the 11th day of November.
The choice of the remote Compiègne forest setting was a deliberate one by Foch. It was a simple way of avoiding any intrusive journalists and protecting the German delegation from hostile crowds of French locals.
Graphic Horrors of World War I
It’s in the oval-shaped rotunda, a pleasant light space, where the major horrors of World War I are shown. A series of stereoscopes around the walls are labelled with different themes: the Somme, Verdun, other major battles, the army, the trenches and so on. The images stand out in startling 3D. Some show soldiers just standing around looking bored; others show guns firing, dead bodies, twisted bodies of horses, prisoners with their faces stripped of any expression except defeat, and more.
Then you walk through The Crypt where the names of the battles are carved into a wall behind the flags of the three nations.
You’re taken further into the war with a 3D film. You see more detail leading up to 1918; another film focuses on Augustin Trébuchon, the last French soldier killed during World War I, shot 15 minutes before the Armistice was enacted. It was 10.45am on November 11, 1918.
It reminded me of the Wilfred Owen memorial in North France. The soldier-poet was killed seven days before the end of the war. His mother received his last letter to her, and the telegram of the news of his death on November 11th.
You’ll see a variety of objects scattered throughout the museum: yellowing newspaper articles, photocopies, flags, objects made from shells. There are American artefacts and copies of newspapers from Raleigh, Virginia, describing the progress of the war.
The 1918 Armistice Room has scale models of the clearing and the railway carriage.
Treaty of Versailles 1919
Then you’re in a room explaining the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, signed in Versailles on June 28, 1919 after six months of talks and negotiations.
The Treaty imposed harsh conditions on Germany. It forced the Germans and their allies to take responsibility for ‘causing all the loss and damage’ during the war. Germany had to disarm, give territories away, particularly Alsace and Lorraine, and pay crippling reparations.
The Expansion of the Armistice Museum
The museum was expanded in 2018. The new section covers the years between the two world wars and the events that led to the German attack in 1939. Then you walk through a corridor with two model airplanes above you.
And this is where it comes full circle. In 1940 the Battle of France was lost and the Germans were in Paris. France was about to be divided in two: the German military occupied section and Vichy Frace government section under Marshal Philippe Pétain. This was the unoccupied ‘Free Zone’ that was made responsible for the civil administration of France and its colonies.
Marshal Pétain as prime minister had signed the armistice with Germany on June 22 1940. And of course it was signed in the railway carriage where Germany had signed the 1918 Armistice, symbolizing the Third Reich’s victory over France.
“Through my glasses I saw the Führer stop, glance at the [Alsace-Lorraine] monument…. Then he read the inscription on the great granite block in the center of the clearing: Here on the eleventh of November 1918 succumbed the criminal pride of the German empire… vanquished by the free peoples which it tried to enslave.“
“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.”
Hitler ordered the destruction of the site and the clearing. The Alsace Lorraine monument was dismantled and along with the other monuments were sent to Germany. Interestingly, Hitler saved the statue of Foch and left it where it stands today. The railway carriage was taken to Berlin to be put on display. It was then destroyed; either by air attack in the Ohrdruf prison camp in the Thuringian Forest, or by the SS in March 1945 as American troops advanced into Germany.
Hitler’s revenge was complete.
The Armistice site in 1944
Compiègne was liberated on October 21, 1944, almost exactly two months after the liberation of Paris. In November, General Marie-Pierre Keonig, the best known Free French leader after General de Gaulle who was in Britain, led a military parade in the Glade. The watching crowd included British, American and Polish officials.
The 1945 peace treaty was signed not here, but at Reims in Champagne.
In 1950, the French manufacturer Wagons-Lits donated an identical car to the original to the museum – 2439D. It was opened to the public on November 11.
Armistice Museum & Memorial/Mémorial de l’Armistice
Route de Soissons
Tel: +33 (0)3 44 85 14 18
Open January to November daily 10am-6pm/December daily 10am-5.30pm
NB: With the Covid crisis, the museum does not know exactly which holidays it can remain open. So if you’re wanting to visit on November 11, or between Christmas and New Year, please do telephone the museum in advance.
Admission Adult €7; 7-18 years €7
More Articles on the 20th century World Wars
Here are more articles on World War II in Nord-Pas de Calais
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Centre shows how war graves are looked after throughout the world. Well worth a visit in North France.