When history came off the rails

A railway carriage in a forest glade in France recaptures pivotal moments in two world wars, writes Kevin Berry

The forest glade where the First World War Armistice was signed has a cathedral-like silence, but a sense of great national sacrifice is not readily apparent from the small museum there. What is apparent is how surrender and victory affected both the Germans and the French. The feeling of national pride and patriotism is palpable, as is shame and humiliation.

This is the clearing where Adolf Hitler came in 1940 to force the French to sign a surrender in deliberately humiliating circumstances. The splendid railway dining carriage in which German generals had surrendered in 1918 was used again.

Hitler spent less than an hour in the glade, sat in the carriage, and then left without uttering a word. French monuments had been destroyed or covered with huge Nazi banners, but a statue of Marshal Foch, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces, had been left intact. Foch was a symbol of the detested French victory and Hitler wanted him to see what was about to happen.

The next day the humbled French generals arrived. German newsreel cameras were already there. It was a stage-managed media event, pomp and ceremony with hordes of photographers and journalists.

The carriage, a potent symbol, was taken back for display in Germany. Many years after the war it was broken up and burned. The story of what happened to it in what was East Germany is still being pieced together, and some fragments of the carriage have been found and restored.

In a corner of the glade (la clairi re de l'armstice) is a small museum built around a railway carriage, not a modern replica but a survivor from the era, the same in every detail and with the original carriage's identification numbers. It is in superb condition, with lovely stained wood, gleaming black iron and shining lamps. Local people had feared what would happen when Hitler's troops invaded, so they stripped the carriage of its furnishings, lamps and ash trays and hid them for the duration of the war.

Inside a table and chairs are set out for the top brass, along with nameplates, pens and facsimiles of the surrender documents.

The museum walls are filled with maps, newspapers, battlefield paintings and photographs of the two surrender ceremonies.

The museum was financed by an American businessman. It obviously has a French perspective on both world wars but there is a concession to US involvement, with displays of American newspapers from 1918. Reading the front page of the Raleigh Times, with its references to "our boys winning over there in Europe", is instructive, as are the reports of the turmoil and confusion in Germany during the days following the Armistice.

The most poignant attraction is a row of period stereoscopes showing three-dimensional grey and sepia pictures of First World War battles. It gives the soldiers in the pictures a chilling reality: they glare at the camera with empty eyes, their faces belong to middle-aged men. The destruction shocks, the landscapes have the quality of nightmare: it feels as though major earthquakes would have been kinder. Dashing pilots stand by their flimsy fighter planes, smiling soldiers surround a crashed German plane - but the pilot is dead. A pretty nurse waves to a French pilot.

Souvenirs are kitsch, everything has the words "L'Armistice" or a picture of the railway carriage on it. You can even buy a model carriage in a glass case, shake it and see a snowstorm.

Compi gne is 76km north of Paris and not too far from France's First World War battle sites. A look at La Clairi re de L'Armistice and its museum makes a fitting finale to a tour of the sites. It is a place where history was made.

La Clairiere de L'Armistice, 6km from Compiegne is open daily except Tuesdays and is closed between midday and 2pm. Admission: 1F for school students, teachers with their union card free, other adults 10F. Tel: 0033 3 44 85 14 18.

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