The Armistice, or Boxcar Follies

November 11, 2006

The United States used to celebrate the Armistice at 11 am today. Two minutes of silence every year hearkened back to 1918, and the end of the most horrible war in the history of the world. The Armistice seemed a pretty exciting development at the time. But some signatures in a boxcar on a freezing cold dawn in France couldn’t really solve the madness that has forever plagued civilization. 11 November should be remembered as the Day of Temporary Solutions.

The German officers met a French delegation at a secret spot in the Compiegne forest. They arrived on a train that carried them through the apocalyptic French landscape, which had been devastated by years of trench warfare. Once-proud industrial cities like Munich were on the brink of chaos and Kaiser Wilhelm would soon abdicate. The Germans prepared to give up the War to End All Wars. The terms of surrender were tough, though. The papers asked Germany to decommission more submarines than they had in their whole fleet.

The Armistice went into effect at 11 am, and the French felt confident. They erected a symbolic monument in the forest depicting a French saber stabbing through an imperial German eagle. Nearby lies the inscription HERE ON THE ELEVENTH OF NOVEMBER 1918 SUCCUMBED THE CRIMINAL PRIDE OF THE GERMAN REICH, VANQUISHED BY THE FREE PEOPLES THAT IT TRIED TO ENSLAVE. And then came the Twenties, when lots of people really believed that the Last War had been fought.

Allied Supreme Commander Marshal Foch wasn’t convinced. He called the Treaty of Versailles “a treason,” and wanted to stick it to the Germans with something harsher than a mere fifteen-year occupation. The mustachioed warrior/statesman prophetically quipped, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.”

Could the French Army’s supplest mind have known how right on he was? Maybe Marshal Foch really understood that war doesn’t just end when a convenient stopping point arises. Anyway, a bronze likeness of Foch on horseback was added to the forest where World Peace had ostensibly been born.

Twenty-two years later, just two short years behind schedule, Adolf Hitler chose this same boxcar in the Compiegne forest for a French surrender on 19 June 1940. Just as the French delegates started to speak, Hitler swaggered out of the car, mocking his enemies. The Nazis razed the forest, effectively beginning the French Occupation and annihilating what was left of the Armistice. The proud statue of Foch on horseback was left intact to honor a land that had been again laid to waste. And the boxcar was hauled away to Germany and burned by the S.S.

That war tapered off too. And then a replica of the original boxcar moved into the Compiegne forest, and it still sits there today. The Armistice is still a holiday in many countries. 11 November was the day that an optimistic timetable was set for sanity to finally take hold. We’re still waiting. The false boxcar is a monument to war waxing and waning, but, so far, not ending.


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