I can’t tell you much about the town of Compiegne itself. We probably drove through it to get to where we were heading, but it must have been a ‘blink and you miss it’ sort of a place…and I must have blinked. If you live in the town then please accept my humble apologies. Especially if you think it is a vibrant and buzzing place with something for all the family. May I suggest that in future you have something by the roadside to attract my attention? How about a clown juggling some kittens? That might make me tarry a while.
The place we were heading to, in our blinkered haste, was a clearing in the forest called The Armistice Clearing. This is where, at the end of World War I, Marshal Foch formally accepted the German surrender on the 11th November 1918.
The paperwork was signed in a train carriage and in the clearing there is a big slab of marble in the middle of two railway tracks commemorating where the train carriages of the Germans and the Allies stood on that day.
But for the Armistice Clearing the story doesn’t stop there. There aren’t many locations where you have more than one shot at being a famous place in history. For instance you don’t hear much about the Great Fire of Waterloo or the Alamo Tea Party. However, this particular forest clearing ended paying a big price for setting up monuments commemorating massive German humiliations.
This was when Hitler and his tanks rumbled into France in 1941.
Never mind heading for the naughty joys of the Rue St Denis in Paris, or the fleshpots of murky Marseille. Instead Hitler made straight for the Armistice Clearing. He really wanted to rub French noses in the metaphorical merde by accepting their surrender in exactly the same place that the Germans had been made to surrender after the First World War.
Talk about a sore loser.
Maybe it was the fault of the French. Such had been their Gallic cockiness after WWI they’d built a ‘We Won The War’ museum around Marshal Foch’s coach. You can still see the coach today in the same museum…or rather you can’t, but they don’t tell you that until you’ve paid your couple of Euros to get in.
This is because Hitler nicked the original coach in 1941 and dragged it back to Germany, where they burned it in the Forest of Thuringia when the Russians were invading. A case of ‘if we can’t keep it, you’re not having it either’. The coach in the museum is ‘a very similar one’ made in the same year. This is revealed to you after you’ve listened to about ten minutes of audio commentary telling you what a wonderful place in history the coach occupies.
Anyway don’t let it put you off, you can half close your eyes and pretend it is the real thing. Apparently the interior fixtures and fittings are from the original coach. They were taken out and hidden away before the Germans got there.
However, the far more impressive exhibits in this museum are about thirty stereoscopic viewers displaying original First World War 3D pictures. These are stunning and you do come out feeling as if you were really there.
Unfortunately the museum’s little shop is fairly minging and, apart from a nice line in pistachio ice-creams, there’s no way of taking any souvenirs of these amazing pictures home with you. I reckon the shop would probably have been a lot better if the Germans had ended up running it.
So all that amazing history in this one little place…and I end up taking a picture of a very cross looking cat on a lead. Maybe he’s German.