Remembrance Day 2018: Where to go and what to see in Compiègne, Picardy, where

Standing outside France’s Musée de l’Armistice, I’m surprised to find so few people visiting the spot where the First World War officially came to an end. Here in the middle of Picardy’s dense Compiègne forest, rain drips from the giant oaks and browning beeches.

An avenue up to the museum opens into a wide clearing in which, 100 years ago, Allied and German leaders met in a railway carriage to bring an end to the brutal war that left 9.5 million soldiers dead and more than 21 million wounded.

While the memorials elsewhere in northern France show the sheer scale of this loss, this newly renovated museum, which reopened in March, tells the story of how the war ended.

Here in a remote siding, chosen because the railway line linked France and Germany, two trains – one for the German delegation, the other for the Allies – drew up on parallel tracks to begin what would become four days of negotiations. The outcome was the signing of the Armistice at 5am on 11 November, which stated that at 11am, all fighting would cease.

A place in history

The museum shows how the war affected the French, while a row of wooden stereoscopes, packed with 800 3D photographic plates, depicts the brutality of the fighting. There are elaborately worked shell casings, carved and moulded by soldiers passing the time between action. I wonder how they must have felt creating something so beautiful amid such despair.

But it is the replica of the railway carriage where the Armistice was signed that lies at the heart of the museum. The story of the carriage’s fate helps explain how, rather than an anomaly, the First World War was a chapter in the long sweep of Europe’s violent history.

Each of the German, British and French delegates’ place settings is marked at the table, including one for France’s formidable Supreme Allied Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch. He left the carriage only once in four days – to attend a church service. Peering through the windows, you realise how claustrophobic a setting it must have been.

In 1922, the clearing was made into a memorial and the original railway carriage placed beside it, along with statues of all the Allied leaders, and a sculpture depicting Germany’s eagle cut through with a sword. The triumphalism, today, seems ill-conceived. Yet at the time, the French mood was one of revenge – not just for the destruction wreaked on their country by the Germans, but for the humiliation of losing the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which saw Napoleon III captured, and 139,000 French casualties.

A building with tudor beams in Copiegne.

After the Armistice was signed, the peace agreement was sealed with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. Marshal Foch considered it too lenient and is said to have warned: “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” Through more of the museum’s displays, we learn how he was proved right.

Compiègne came to the forefront during the Second World War, as well. The Armistice was seen as shameful by the Nazis, and Hitler picked this exact spot – and the same railway carriage – for his own “armistice” in 1940, in which France surrendered to Germany. The carriage, which had been preserved in a shelter, was replaced on the rails for his 15-minute visit to sign the paperwork. Apparently, he didn’t say a word during the ceremony – but left orders on departure for everything to be destroyed. Everything, that is, except for the sculpture of Marshal Foch. His statue was to be left to survey the humiliation.

The railway carriage was taken to Berlin to be put on display, later ending up in Ohrdruf concentration camp, where it was burned. All that remains are two pieces of charred wood that were returned to the museum in the 90s.

Lest we forget

Later that evening, I sit on the terrace of the Villa Chatelet, a B&B five minutes away, chatting with hosts Alix and Philippe. Their home was built for the composer Léo Delibes in 1886, and since then, it – and the land around it – has borne witness to the many conflicts in the area.

In the candlelight, Philippe brings out a bowl full of bullets. “This one is from the First World War,” he says, holding one up into the light to show its markings and shapes. “And this is from the Second.” He pours more into the palm of my hand. “We found them all in the garden.”

The lights of Compiegne, France.
The lights of Compiegne, France.

Alix shows me the names scratched on a doorframe by the US soldiers who occupied the house after the Second World War. “They must have been bored,” she chuckles. While momentous events in history occurred just down the road from the villa, and people gather each 11 November to pay their respects, these small remnants of a horrific period in history seep into everyday life: a constant reminder that it should never to be forgotten.

When to go

Compiègne Forest is compelling at any time of year. To appreciate the atmosphere in which the Armistice was signed, go this winter. For outdoor activities, such as cycling and walking, hang on until spring.

How to get there

It’s an easy drive – just over two hours – south from Calais. Eurotunnel has returns for £128 for a car and up to nine passengers. Compiègne is an hour by train from Paris Gare du Nord.

How to get around

The museum is easiest to reach by car, but you can also take a taxi or bus from Compiègne.

Where to stay

Villa du Chatelet is a few minutes’ drive from the museum. Alix de Lauzanne is a trained cook and her evening meals are sublime. Doubles from €120 (£105), B&B, villaduchatelet.com.

Where to eat

Les Ferlempins – which means “the rascals” – is an excellent restaurant run by two brothers. Three-course menus produced from local ingredients start from €37 (£32), lesferlempins.fr.

What to do

The Imperial Palace and gardens dominate Compiègne and are fascinating to visit – tour the historic apartments where Louis XVI and Napoleon III resided, as well as the Museum of the Second Empire, with its jaw-dropping stately ballroom, and the amazing collection of classic cars and antique carriages.
Visit the impressive 16th-century Hôtel de Ville and its belfry, with its moving figures, and an interesting little museum of “historical figurines”, which detail moments in French history including the Revolution and the two World Wars.
Also in the Compiègne Forest is the gigantic Château de Pierrefonds, a fairy-tale castle built for Napoleon III and used in the filming of the BBC’s Merlin.

Ask a local

Hotel owner Alix de Lauzanne

“Just outside Compiègne is the Confrécourt Quarry: old limestone quarries, which soldiers used as a refuge. While there, they carved amazing frescoes and sculptures into the rock, of fighting scenes, chapels, dedications to those killed, and regimental crests.”

More information armistice-museum.com, compiegne-tourisme.fr