WWII

Forêt de Compiègne

On the 11th hour (Paris time) of the 11th day of November, 1918, the Armistice ending World War I went into effect. 

It was in a quiet clearing of the Forêt de Compiègne in Picardy where French commander-in-chief Marshal Ferdinand Foch, on behalf of the Allied Powers, began talks with the Germans. They finally signed the armistice in the early hours of November 11th in Foch's train car, which came to be known and celebrated as the Compiègne Wagon. 

via  Wikimedia Commons  | Foch (second from the right) outside of the Compiègne Wagon, 11 November 1918

via Wikimedia Commons | Foch (second from the right) outside of the Compiègne Wagon, 11 November 1918

On 28 June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, famously signed in the Hall of Mirrors, laid out harsh punishments to Germany. The were required to shoulder the blame for the war, reduce their armed forces, pay hefty reparations, and return Alsace and Lorraine to France. It was regarded by many Germans as humiliating and, along with the Depression, helped set the stage for the Nazi party to take power. 

via  Wikimedia Commons  | The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919 by Sir William Orpen

via Wikimedia Commons | The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919 by Sir William Orpen

Foch, however, did not think the treaty did enough to weaken Germany and protect France. He presciently stated, “This is not a peace. This is an armistice for 20 years.”

Twenty-two years later, in June 1940, the French Third Republic sent word to the Germans that they wanted to negotiate an armistice after the Battle of France. Hitler knew exactly where to hold the signing and had the Compiègne Wagon brought back to the exact spot of the 1918 armistice.

via  Wikimedia Commons  | A still from Frank Capra's film  Divide and Conquer.  Hitler (hand on hip) looks at the statue of Foch before the signing of the armistice on 22 June 1940.

via Wikimedia Commons | A still from Frank Capra's film Divide and Conquer. Hitler (hand on hip) looks at the statue of Foch before the signing of the armistice on 22 June 1940.

via  DIREKTOR  | Hitler at the Wagen von Compiègne

via DIREKTOR | Hitler at the Wagen von Compiègne

General Charles Huntzinger, who led the negotiations for France, signed the armistice on 22 June 1940.


The Forêt de Compiègne is open for visitors. It’s a massive 14,885 hectare park with 600 miles of beautiful trails for hiking and biking. In fact, Joan of Arc hid here in 1430 before being captured in the town of Compiègne. 

There is a replica of the Compiègne Wagon on display—the original was destroyed by fire in German during WWII at the Clarière de l’Armistice (Armistice Clearing).

A couple of other nearby sites include Château de PierrefrondsPalais de Compiègne, and the Museum of Historical Figurines.

Practical Information

Compiègne is located about an hour north of Paris and is easily reached by car or train.  Trains depart multiple times each day from Gare du Nord. The trip is generally around 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how many stops it takes. 

 

The Armistice Clearing is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm (except Tuesdays between 15 September and 31 March). 


I thought I'd share these two intertwined stories set in  Forêt de Compiègne in honour of Veterans Day/Remembrance Day/Armistice Day. I had never heard of the Compiègne wagon before and found it fascinating. It also reminded me that sometimes it's worth taking a look back to re-familiarize myself with history.

It can be easy to think you know everything and to forget to remember. 

One Day in Normandy, Part 6: Le Grand Bunker

After Juno, Henri was insistent that we see a bunker/museum called  Le Grand Bunker - Atlantic Wall Museum in Ouistreham. It was late in the afternoon and the rain started to pick up. We were all exhausted and chilly, but his enthusiasm was enough to convince us to go.

By the time we arrived, the museum was near closing. After we took a look at the tanks and stuff in the front, we entered into a gift shop, quickly bought our tickets, and pushed through a turnstile.

As we walked down a deserted hallway, a small sign in explained the bunker’s story.

The 52-foot (17 meter) concrete tower was on prime real estate surrounded by town buildings and housing just behind Sword Beach. It served as a command center for the German batteries on the Orne estuary.

On D-Day, a British shell hit the bunker and crippled its ability as a command center. The Germans inside, however, were able to stave off Allied commandos.

On June 9th, Bob Orrell, a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, and three other men carried out orders to take the bunker.

Their main obstacle was a huge, armored door.

First, they tried to blast it open using six pounds of dynamite on the upper hinges. That didn’t work.

Next, they used a sledgehammer and a mine bar. That didn’t work either.

It eventually took ten pounds of explosives to break through the door.

As the men walked into the bunker, voice called down, in a flawless English accent, from one of the floors above, “It’s alright, Tommy, you can come up.”

“Bugger off, you come down!” answered Orrell

With nowhere to run, 51 German soldiers and two officers filed down and surrendered to Orrell and his three men.

The bunker is now laid out as it was on D-Day, but there is also a ton of information about the Atlantic Wall throughout the rooms.

Maybe it was the sound of the rain and the fact that we were the only people wandering through, but I found the bunker quite eerie.

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I don’t think the mannequins helped.

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That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, of course. I loved it. If it hadn’t have been for Henri, we never would have come here.

My favorite part was stepping into the lookout/rangefinder room at the top of the tower and really realizing just how much they could see from there. It was nearly a perfect 360 degree panorama.

Just as we were able to reach to top of the bunker and take a good look around, we had to leave.

Back in the car, we three exhausted, yet satisfied, tourists thought the day was over.

But Henri had other plans. Henri always had other plans. Better plans.

And just like that, we were off to Honfleur for dinner.

As usual, it was a harrowing drive. We toured a roundabout at great speed for what felt like an hour as Henri tried to remember which exit to take. I imagine the Vomit Comet produces a similar effect on the ole stomach.

When we arrived, as soon as Henri put the car in park, he was off. This was, apparently, an important mission. A food mission. He stormed through the streets too fast for us to take any good pictures or see any real sites. But we got enough of a look to realize that this was a town that we wanted to see again.

We ate at a tiny, packed place on the harbor. Since we had an early flight the next morning, none of us were adventurous enough to eat anything too exciting.

Henri, on the other hand, ordered a huge seafood platter. I recognized mussels and shrimp. Everything else came in shells that were entirely new to me. I tried to figure out what they were and I filed most of them under: “I don’t know how I feel about putting that in my mouth but I might try it once.” He loved everything.

We were well into the evening when we got back to the car and started to make the long trek back to Paris. It was after 1 am when got back to the city.

The streets were very quiet. It felt like it was just us and the streetlights awake.

Henri, bolstered by a quick espresso stop earlier and his omnipresent zest for both adventure and talking, turned to us and asked, with genuine excitement, if we wanted him give us a tour of Paris.

"Right now?!?"

"Right now."

We sleepily declined. It would be a miracle if we got even two hours of sleep since we still had to pack and be ready to leave for the airport at 6 o'clock. He dropped us off at the hotel and we said our goodbyes.

Looking back now, I wish we had let him take us around. Who needs sleep when can speed through Paris with an eccentric French tour guide at dawn?

So that, in six parts, is the story of our day trip to Normandy. Henri actually stole the show. I think it's really the story of the time we let a kooky tour guide with a barely street legal car and a penchant for raw milk take us for an amazing ride through space and time.

I wouldn’t change any part of it for anything.

One Day in Normandy, Part 5: Juno Beach

Before going straight to Juno Beach, Henri thought we had enough time to make a stop at the medieval Château de Creully. We did not have enough time go to inside, but it was so nice to have a bit of a break from the intensity of the beaches. Château de Creully was originally built at the beginning of the 10th century. It expanded over centuries of use, mainly as a defensive fortress. During the Hundred Years War it frequently changed hands between the French and the English.

Starting on June 7, 1944, the BBC used one of the towers as a transmitter to report on the Battle of Normandy.

While the castle itself was quite beautiful, my favorite part was standing on the back terrace and looking out over the landscape. I’m not sure how much more fantastically pastoral you can get. Do you think the owner of this place would let me hang out, drink tea, and eat pastries at their place for a while?

We lingered around for a little and then made our way to Juno Beach in Courseulles-sur-Mer.

The beach was mostly deserted except for the four of us. By now it was late in the afternoon, the temperature was cooling and it was starting to sprinkle off and on, as if the grey clouds were taunting us.

Juno felt less dramatic than some of the other beaches we saw that day—there are no jagged cliffs jutting out or huge Mulberry harbors strewn across the sand.

But none of that diminished the experience. There were many signs and pictures explaining what happened that day and I was grateful to see them. I think they gave us a better understanding of the D-Day landings than all the other beaches combined (at least from what I saw/stumbled upon).

On D-Day it was the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade’s missions to establish a bridgehead on Juno, contact the British 3rd Infantry Division on Sword, and join with the British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division at Gold. From there, they were to capture the Carpiquet airfield and the Caen-Bayeux railway.

Battling a delayed start, rough seas, strong winds, and a barrage from the Germans, the Canadians successfully took Juno and began to move inland. They captured Carpiquet about a month later.

The 3rd Canadian Division sustained 340 casualties, 574 wounded, and 47 taken prisoner.

Here's a Canadian newsreel reporting on the Canadian involvement in D-Day.

After spending some time wandering around, we decided to take a quick look at the Juno Beach Centre. We did not have enough time to actually go through the exhibits, though. This was a theme of the day: not quite being able to see everything we wanted to see.

Juno Beach Centre
Juno Beach Centre

I fell in love with the monument, a bronze sculpture entitled “Remembrance and Renewal.” I later learned that the artist, Colin Gibson, is from the tiny (no stop lights!) town I used to live in. Small world.

I also loved seeing this inukshuk. If you haven’t seen one before, it is set of stones laid out in an iconic humanoid shape that serves as a landmark, place marker, or communication tool. The Inuit originally used them in Northern Canada and the Arctic for navigation, safe routes, hunting spots, memorials, etc. They have since spread throughout Canada and I’ve seen them a lot in people’s yards or on their mantles. You might have seen one or two during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

It was all a beautiful reminder of remembrance and home.

We all wanted to stay longer and actually see the museum, but Henri was insistent that we had to leave because we might miss the bunker. I was starting to get a little tired of the rushing and was wondering what was so great about this bunker museum anyway.

When we finally got there, however, Henri was right—as usual—and the bunker ended up being an ideal way to end the day. It was a highlight of the trip. But you will have to wait, because that’s for the next post.