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As the Great War progressed through 1918, matters seriously deteriorated for the Germans, both militarily and domestically. A series of strategic withdrawals by the Germans probably saved their army from disintegration but was devastating for morale, and by the beginning of October it was evident that Germany could no longer mount a successful defence, let alone a counterattack. There was a threat of a general military mutiny. On the home front there was a grave threat of imminent revolution in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere.

On 5th October 1918 the Germans sent a telegram to the U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, asking him to open peace negotiations – the Germans believing they could negotiate a more acceptable peace treaty via Wilson than directly with the French and English. After a series of telegrams, on 23rd October Wilson demanded the abdication of the Kaiser and told the Germans plainly that peace negotiations were out of the question. He demanded unconditional surrender.

Eventually, by way of a telegram sent on 7th November 1918, acting German commander Paul von Hindenburg requested a meeting with the French commander, Marshal Foch.

The German delegation crossed the front line in five cars and was escorted for ten hours across the devastated war zone of Northern France (perhaps, they speculated, to focus their minds on the lack of sympathy they could expect). They were then taken to Foch’s private train in the Forest of Compiègne.

There was no question of negotiation. The Germans were able to correct a few impossible demands (for an example, the decommissioning of more submarines than their fleet possessed), and registered their formal protest at the harshness of Allied terms. But they were in no position to refuse to sign.

On Sunday 10th November they were shown newspapers from Paris, to inform them that Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated.

Between 5:12am and 5:20am the German dignitaries signed the Armistice in front of Marshal Foch, General Weyland and British Admiral Wemyss aboard carriage number 2419D. The Armistice, which stopped the actual fighting, took effect at 11am that day (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month).

The Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28th June 1919, was the peace treaty that officially ended the Great War. Many Germans felt that the Treaty was unfairly severe to Germany and historians feel that it was this dissatisfaction that later paved the way for Hitler.

Even Marshal Foch foresaw this. After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, he prophetically observed, "This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years."

The carriage in which the Armistice was signed was later put back into regular service with the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits, but after a short period it was withdrawn to be attached to the French presidential train.

From April 1921 to April 1927, it was on exhibition in the Cour des Invalides in Paris.

In November 1927, it was ceremonially returned to the forest in the exact spot where the Armistice was signed. Marshall Foch, General Weyland and many others watched it being placed in a specially constructed building: the Clairiere de l’Armistice.

There it remained, a monument to the defeat of the Kaiser’s Germany, until 22nd June 1940, when swastika-bedecked German staff cars bearing Hitler, Goering, Keitel, von Ribbentrop and others swept into the Clairiere and, in that same carriage, demanded and received the surrender of France.

During the Occupation, the Clairiere de l’Armistice was destroyed and the carriage taken to Berlin, where it was exhibited in the Lustgarten.

After the American advance into Germany in early 1945, the carriage was removed by the Germans for safe keeping to the town of Ohrdruf, but as an American armoured column entered the town the German detachment guarding it set it ablaze and it was totally destroyed.

After the war, the Compiègne site was restored, but not until Armistice Day 1950 was a replacement carriage, correct in every detail, rededicated – an identical Compagnie des Wagon-Lits carriage, no. 2439, built 1913 in the same batch as the original, was renumbered no. 2419D.

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