World War I Armistice Day in France

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The Public holiday commemorates the Fête de la Victoire when the Armistice after World War I was signed on the 11 November 1918. Official ceremonies and military parades take place on the 11 November, in the same manner as Americans celebrate Veterans’ Day. Find out more below on World War I Armistice Day in France!


Background of the World War I Armistice Day

Assault in Chemin des Dames

Assault in Chemin des Dames (1917)

In 1914 Germany invaded the north of France through Belgium. A Western Front was established across the north of France and for almost four years, France and her allies fought against the advance of Germany.

In November 1918, Germany was considered defeated. Although France was victorious, WWI was in a way a defeat for the country. More than 1,400,000 soldiers and civilians were killed, over 3 million were hurt, the rich départements of the North were devastated, the mines in Nord-Pas-de-Calais were made unusable and the factories destroyed.


World War I Armistice Day or the Armistice of Compiègne

On the 11 November 1918, an agreement was signed between the Entente Powers (France and Britain) and Germany. Although we generally talk about a victory for the Allied and a “defeat” for Germany, it is important to note that Germany did not surrender.

The warring parties agreed to a ceasefire to come into effect at 11 am on 11 November 1918:

“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”.

The signature of Armistice in Rethondes.

The signature of Armistice in Rethondes.

This painting by an unknown author shows from left to right:

  • German Admiral Ernst Vanselow,
  • German Count Alfred von Oberndorff (1870 – 1963) of the Foreign Ministry,
  • German army general Detlof von Winterfeldt (with the helmet),
  • British Royal Navy Captain Jack Marriott (Naval Assistant to the First Sea Lord),
  • Matthias Erzberger, head of the German delegation Center party member of the Reichstag (1875 – 1921),
  • British Rear-Admiral George Hope (Deputy First Sea Lord),
  • British Admiral of the Fleet Sir Rosslyn Wemyss (First Sea Lord),
  • in standing position Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch (1851 – 1929), and
  • French general Maxime Weygand (1867 – 1965).

Until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on the 28 June 1919, the two sides were still in a formal state of war. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in the prestigious Hall of Mirrors of the palace, officially terminated the war. It requested that Germany hand back Alsace and the département of Moselle to France.

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles © French Moments

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles © French Moments

It was torn up by Adolf Hitler when he became dictator of Germany in 1930s for the conditions of the Treaty were deliberately set out to humiliate Germany.


The Armistice Clearing of Rethondes

Armistice Clearing at Rethondes © FCY - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Armistice Clearing at Rethondes, the historic site of World War I Armistice Day © FCY – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Armistice Clearing is situated in the forest of Compiègne, 7 km from the centre of Compiègne near the hamlet of Le Francport. It is known in French as « la Clairière de l’Armistice » or « la Clairière de Rethondes » from the name of the nearby village.

The green and sandy clearing is the historic site of the signature of the WWI Armistice which took place on the 11 November 1918.

During WWI, the clearing was used as a rail siding for rail-mounted artillery. For the Armistice meeting, Foch’s private train was secretly assembled by the French at Rethondes. The warring parties met on a special railcar which once belonged to Napoleon III.

Following the Battle of France (10 May-22 June 1940), Hitler had the French sign their capitulation inside the same railcar and on the same spot on the 22 June 1940.

This photo taken on 22 June 1940 shows left to right: Joachim von Ribbentrop, Walther von Brauchitsch, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, and Adolf Hitler in front of the Armistice railcar.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-M1112-500 / CC-BY-SA

Hitler at Compiègne. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-M1112-500 / CC-BY-SA

Later, the car was taken to Berlin before being destroyed by fire by SS troops in Crawinkel, Thuringia in April 1945 by order from Hitler.

A faithful replica was replaced at the clearing in 1950 and can be visited at the Armistice museum. Recently remains of the original car were discovered and were returned to the glade where they have been displayed since 1995.

The statue of Foch in 1940, Bundesarchiv, Bild 121-2027 / CC-BY-SA

The statue of Foch in 1940, Bundesarchiv, Bild 121-2027 / CC-BY-SA

The memorial site also includes a statue of Marshal Ferdinand Foch and the monumental Alsace-Lorraine Memorial representing an Allied sword pinning down an Imperial German eagle.

A memorial slab marks the exact location of the original railcar that was used for the Armistice meeting. A commemorative plaque reads in French:

“Here on the eleventh of November 1918 succumbed the criminal pride of the German Reich… vanquished by the free peoples which it tried to enslave.”

Armistice Clearing - site of Foch railcar © FCY - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Armistice Clearing – site of Foch railcar © FCY – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons


World War I Armistice Day and the Forest of Compiègne

Compiègne Forest © P.poschadel - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Compiègne Forest, a historic site of World War I Armistice Day © P.poschadel – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Armistice Clearing is located in the vast and ancient forest of Compiègne which extends over 14,414 hectares between Compiègne and Pierrefonds, some 60 km north of Paris. Entirely located in the Picardy region, it is made up of oaks, beech and hornbeams. With a succession of hills, streams and valleys, Compiègne forest offers kilometres of tracks for ramblers and cyclists.

The grand royal Palace of Compiègne and its extensive gardens are located at the western edge of the forest.


WWI Memorials in France

War Memorials commemorating the events and the casualties of WWI were erected in thousands of villages and towns throughout France. It is estimated that 36,000 memorials were set up in France between 1920 and 1925. The memorials are often found at the centre of an important town square with the inscriptions: “à nos morts(to our dead). In many cases, names of soldiers killed during WW2 were added to these monuments. On the morning of the 11 November, the mayors, local authorities and occasionally military dignitaries pay tribute to those fallen during the two World Wars at the memorials. They assemble to place a wreath of blue-white-red flowers on the town’s memorial.

11 November ceremony in Maisons-Laffitte © French Moments

11 November ceremony in Maisons-Laffitte (World War I Armistice Day) © French Moments

On that day in Paris, the President of the French Republic attends a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe. Under the arch he would traditionally lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Soldat Inconnu) at 11am which is followed by the observance of two consecutive minutes of silence. The first minute is dedicated to the soldiers and civilians who died during the conflict and the second to these left behind: widows, orphans, wounded…

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, Paris © French Moments

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe at World War I Armistice Day © French Moments

The eternal Flame of Remembrance placed on the grave echoes that of the Vestal Virgins in Rome which was extinguished in 394 by Barbarian raids. It remembers the soldiers killed in the war who were never identified. Since 1923, the flame has been rekindled every evening at 6.30pm by associations of war veterans.

On the grave is inscribed:

“ici repose un soldat français mort pour la patrie 1914–1918″
(“Here lies a soldier who died for his country 1914-1918″)


The symbolic of the blue cornflower (Bleuet de France)

Bleuet de France for World War I Armistice Day © French Moments

Bleuet de France for World War I Armistice Day © French Moments

In France, the blue cornflower (Bleuet de France) is associated with the memory and solidarity rather than the red poppy worn in the Commonwealth. The Bleuet de France remembers veterans, victims of war, widows and orphans. The blue cornflower means delicacy and refinement in the language of flowers.

Similar to red poppies, blue cornflowers continued to grow in the devastated lands of the Western Front and were often the only touch of colour visible amidst the mud of the trenches.

The Bleuet was also associated to the Poilus (French WWI veterans) of Class 15 who were born in 1895 and fought in the battlefields of Chemin des Dames. They were nicknamed as such because of the deep blue colour of their brand new uniforms.


World War I Armistice Day: English-French Vocabulary

(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective and (v) for verbs

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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