The end of the beginning

We should have planned to spend more time in Compiègne today. Besides being beautiful, there is enough history here to have kept us busy for a week. 

Our focus was on the end of the first World War. In a glade in the middle of a forest outside Compiègne, the Armistice was signed that put an end to the war in 1918. On a small siding in a rail car used by Marshall Foch, both sides met, and the documents were exchanged. However, there was one problem that day. Marshall Foch himself did not deign to appear. And the Germans never forgot the slight.

The train became an exhibit and the glade became a symbol of French triumph. Flash forward to 1940, when another ‘peace’ was signed – the capitulation of France to the Germans, supposedly leading to peace.

Symbolism is important. Hitler insisted that treaty be signed in the same rail car, with the sides reversed. And he did not appear for the signing. But he reviewed his troops before the event, and made his decisions about the site. Every memorial was  to be destroyed or removed, except for the one of Marshall Foch. Hitler wanted his image to tower over the devastation remaining and the revenge of the Germans.

The rail car was shipped to Berlin, where it sat on display till the end of the war, when the Germans destroyed it. Two monuments were later returned to Compiègne – the centerpiece of the glade, and a monument to the people of Alsace-Lorraine, built in 1922. The central flag stone’s inscription amused Hitler, till it was proven true, again. It said: “It was here on 11th November 1918 that the criminal pride of the German Empire succumbed, defeated by the free peoples it aspired to enslave.”

The site was restored after the next war, a similar rail car installed, and furnished with remaining memorabilia.

This is a very touching and sad place. And, as we have several times on this trip, we shudder to think we are walking on the same ground where Hitler had strutted.

But there is even more sadness to the town of Compiègne.

This is the city where Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians, who then sold her to the English. She was leading an action to overtake them as they gathered to capture Compiègne. Her force was outnumbered, and began to retreat to the city wall, with Joan at the rear. The next moments remain a source of scholarly debate. The city gate closed before all the French defenders could return. This was either a reasonable action to prevent the Burgundians from entering the city after they had seized the end of the bridge; or an act of betrayal by Compiègne’s governor, shutting off any escape possibility for Joan of Arc on that day. We may not know what really happened that day, but we all know what happened next.

She is honored with a statue (within the city walls, this time) facing the lovely Hôtel de Ville. And she was present on our table at a wonderful lunch we had on the river, just yards away from where the fateful drawbridge once stood.

A charming town, with many stories to tell.

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