Friday, 11 November 2011

The Tale of a Railway Carriage

Armistice day is upon us, the day to look back and give thanks and honour those that have laid down their lives in the service of their country during and since The Great War.  

The 11th November 1918 was the day that two opposing sides met on the outskirts  of Compi├Ęgne in the forest of Rethondes to finally end the bloody conflict that later became known as the First World War.  This was the site of an artillary railway emplacement chosen because it could accomodate two trains and it was discreetly hiden within the forest away from prying eyes.  The French and British arrived on early in the morning of 8th November in a train that formed a mobile headquarters complete with a restaurant car and office.  The Germans arrived a little later at 7:00am in much grander fashion, their train including a carriage that had been designed and built for Emperor Napoleon III and still bearing his crest.  For three days the negotiations continued until at 05:30am on the 11th November the Germans eventually signed the Armistice document in a converted restaurant car owned by the Wagon Lits Company; wagon number 2419D.  By 11:00am all hostilities ceased.

Monument to the liberation of Alsace and Lorraine
I could write at great length about any number of topics at this point but, and some of you may find this strange, I've chosen to look a little deeper into the fate of wagon number 2419D.  2419D was built in 1913 just a year before the war began and was owned by the Wagon Lits Company, the same people who ran the Orient Express.  The wagon was coverted to a mobile office which made it ideal for the armistice negotiations.  After the Great War 2419D was put back into service as a regular restaurant car and operated as such until being placed in the courtyard of the Invalides in Paris, the resting place of Napoleon.  In 1927 the carriage was restored using money provided by the American Arthur Fleming and returned to the forest of Rethondes where it was placed in a purpose built shelter.  A number of artifacts were obtained from those who had been involved in the signing of the Armistice and the car was refurbished to same condition as in 1918.  The carriage became part of a grand memorial at the site of the German defeat.  At the entrance to the memorial stand a monument depicting the German Imperial Eagle slain by a mighty sword with the inscription "To the heroic soldiers of France Defenders of Country and of Right Glorious liberators of Alsace and Lorraine".   Inscribed flagstones in the ground at the center of the memorial read "Here on 11 November 1918 the criminal pride of the German Empire was brought low, vanquished by the free peoples whom it had sought to enslave".  In 1937 a statue of the French general Foch, who presided over the signing of the Armistice, was unveiled at the memorial site with Foch attending the unveiling ceremony.

Just two years later war broke out across Europe again and in 1940 the Germans managed what they had failed to do in 1914-1918 and captured Paris forcing the French to sue for peace.  For Hitler, who had fought in the trenches during the Great War, the signing of the Armistice was seen as a betrayal and a humiliation to the German people.  He ordered that wagon 2419D should be taken from it's protective shelter and placed in the exact spot the the agreement had been signed.  Inside the carriage Hitler himself presented the terms of surrender to the French delegation and within 15 minutes the whole process was complete.  2419D was taken away to Berlin, a kind of war trophy, and the memorial site was destroyed.  The statue of the now dead Foch was left in place so that he could look down upon the destruction as a symbol of his countries defeat.

There are two versions of what happened to 2419D in the closing stages of the war.  One tale tells us that it was destroyed in a British bombing raid of the German capital in 1944.  The other says that once it was clear to Hitler that Germany would be defeated that he ordered the destruction of the wagon in case it was used again to humiliate his beloved Germany.  Whatever happened the carriage no longer exists however the memorial in Resthonds was restored and a replacement carriage (2439D) built at the same time as the original was placed there.

For the Fallen

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Laurence Binyon


  1. Where does this come from, the internet I am sure. I do find it very interesting though!

  2. Most is from books, things I've read in the past and from documentaries. The internet just gets used to fill in the details.