Fourth Australian Division Memorial – Bellenglise, France
Of interest: The Forest Clearing of the Armistice, Forêt de Compiègne
Location: Compiègne, Picardie, Département de l'Oise. La Clairière de l’Armistice (The Forest Clearing of the Armistice) can be found by taking the N31 out of Compiègne until that road takes a right turn at a roundabout. Here go straight ahead onto the D546. After about two kilometres on a straight road there will be another roundabout. There are now signs for the ‘Rond Point de l’Armistice’.
Latitude: 49.420982 (49° 25' 38" N)
Longitude: 2.829945 (02° 54' 23" E)
La Clairière de l’Armistice (The Forest Clearing of the Armistice)
Near midnight, with white flags flying and a bugler sounding his trumpet with regular four note blasts, the delegation approached the French line near Houdroy. From Houdroy, with a French trumpeter replacing the German, they drove on through devastated countryside to La Capelle to where a train was waiting to take them to a secret rendezvous in the great forest of Compiègne. There, in the dim morning light of 8 November 1918, the Germans could see that they had come to a clearing in the middle of which was a railway siding with two parallel tracks. Opposite their train was another – the headquarters train of the Allied Commander–in–Chief General Ferdinand Foch. With Foch was the leading British delegate on the Allied side, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. Wemyss was well known to Australians as the base commander at the island of Mudros, Greece, from which the AIF had set out for Gallipoli on 24 April 1915.
At 9 am on 8 November 1918, the German delegation was ushered into Foch’s train to a specially prepared dining car in which stood a table with seats for four delegates on either side. After starting proceedings with a salute and curt bow to his enemies, Foch asked them what they wanted. When they replied that they had come to inquire into the terms of an armistice, Foch replied:
Tell the gentlemen that I have no proposals to make.
Quite simply, armistice terms had been prepared between the British and French governments and it was not their intention to allow any but the most trifling discussion on details. The 34 clauses of the Armistice were now read out to the Germans who listened in horror. The fighting was to cease; within 28 days Germany was to be occupied west of the River Rhine with Allied enclaves to a depth of 30 kilometres on the east bank; all occupied territories were to be evacuated within 14 days; large numbers of locomotives and railway cars and wagons, lorries and other war equipment (artillery, aircraft, machine guns etc) was to be handed over; and all cash and gold from occupied banks instantly returned. The British naval blockade of Germany would continue. Hearing these conditions, one of the Germans wept openly. Germany was given 72 hours to accept or reject the terms but, meanwhile, the war would go on.
Eventually, after referring the terms back to Berlin, the German delegates were authorised to sign. In the interim, the Kaiser had abdicated, going into exile in Holland, and a German Republic had been declared with a new socialist government in Berlin. At 5.30 am on 11 November 1918 both delegations signed the armistice, the Germans with tears in their eyes. Erzberger, whose officer cadet son had recently died in a military hospital, spoke protesting what he saw as the harsh conditions imposed on Germany:
The German people, which held off a world of enemies for fifty months, will preserve their liberty and their unity despite every kind of violence. A nation of 70 millions of peoples suffers, but it does not die.
Erzberger, quoted in Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Round The World: The End of the Great War, November 1918, New York, 1985, p.157
Foch, whose only son, Germain, had been killed in action on 23 August 1914, now declared the proceedings over with a ‘Très bien’ and then waved the Germans away with these words:
Eh bien, messieurs, c’est fini, allez.
(Very well, gentlemen, its over, go.)
Instructions were then sent out to all allied units to cease fire at 11 am that morning, 11 November 1918.