One of the most fascinating memorials to the First World War is in a place where there was no fighting and there are no graves.
The Glade of the Armistice is in a wooded area outside Compiegne, France, about 60 kilometres northeast of Paris.
It is the site of the signing of the armistice that ended the fighting 100 years ago this Sunday. And this Saturday, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will visit the site together to commemorate the signing, just as citizens from all the nations who took part in the First World War have done every Nov. 11 since that fateful date in 1918.
However, all week there’s been a steady stream of tourists. Tour guide Mark Riddleford took a group from Australia through the park Tuesday.
“It’s a great stop off place to talk about the tremendous events that happened here almost a century ago,” he says.
By November 1918, it was clear Germany was losing the war. The losses on the battlefield were piling up, and there was political strife at home. Word was sent that it was prepared to surrender. The French headquarters was in a city that had been brutally seized in 1914, and there was fear the German plenipotentiaries wouldn’t be safe.
“In 1914, they had taken hostages and machine-gunned down the mayor,” says historian Bernard Letemps. “They had burned down the two main streets and the train station. There was no way to have them there.
The remote forest was chosen because it was away from the public.
The French train arrived the night of Nov. 8, and the German train arrived the next morning. The negotiations were held in a dining car on the German train.
The armistice was signed Nov. 11, just after 5 a.m. It would come into effect at 11 a.m. — or as most school kids know today, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
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After the war, the railcar spent several years in Paris as an exhibit at a museum but was later brought back to Compiegne. It was housed in a special museum on the site of the armistice signing, as part of the Glade of the Armistice park.
The story of the park is just getting started. While it was in the Glade of the Armistice that the First World War was laid to rest, the events of Nov. 11, 1918, amid these peaceful trees sowed the seeds of the even bloodier conflict to come.
Adolph Hitler had been a corporal when the armistice was signed. Twenty-two years later, he was the leader of Nazi Germany.
In 1940, Hitler’s army invaded and controlled France. When it came time to surrender, Hitler was looking for revenge.
The railcar was pulled out of the museum and put back in the exact place where it had been in 1918. France surrendered to Germany in the exact same spot, and at the same table, Germany had surrendered to France.
A few days later, Hitler ordered the park destroyed. Most of the monuments were dismantled and taken back to Germany.
The only monument left standing was a statue of French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French military leader who’d forced Germany’s surrender years earlier. The statue was left overlooking a wasteland.
“It was as if to say, ‘Corporal Hitler has beaten Marshal Foch,’” Letemps says.
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The museum was blown up, but not the railcar. It was taken to Berlin and put on exhibit.
In the final days of the Second World War, with the Allies closing in, the railcar war destroyed by fire. Some have said it was accidental. Others have argued it was because German leaders didn’t want to be forced to surrender in it again.
The park was eventually rebuilt with a replacement railcar — one that was built at the same factory and at the same time as the first one.
The items on display inside are actually original from the 1918 railcar. They were hidden by someone at the outbreak of the war and protected.
There is a sad aspect to the signing of the 1918 armistice. Instead of making it official immediately, it called for the fighting to end at 11 a.m., allowing hostilities to continue for another six hours.
More soldiers died on the last day of the First World War, than on D-Day in the Second World War. At 10:58 a.m, in a Belgium village about 230 kilometres north of the Glade of the Armistice, a sniper’s bullet would take the life of Pvt. George Lawrence Price of the Saskatchewan North West Regiment.
He would be the last Canadian soldier to fall in the war.