Great escape: Northern France
Nigel Hutson and Claudia Dowell explore northern France, a region of great peace and beauty, despite being steeped in the history and memories of war
Join Nigel Hutson and our Claudia on a reflective trip to Compiègne, in northern France, where the
World War I Armistice was signed
Standing outside the beautifully constructed wooden train carriage, a replica of the one that saw the signing of the Armistice that ended the Great War, everything seemed so peaceful that I was finding it difficult to comprehend how it all began. This tragic, complicated period in history appeared to stem from the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. This rapidly escalated into declarations of war, embroiling first Europe, then much of the rest of the world. I was learning all about this in a small museum in the Oise Département in northern France, hidden in a forest near the historic town of Compiègne, around 80km to the north-east of Paris.
Signed and sealed
Peering through the carriage windows at the long table inside, I made out the names of six men who were present at the signing. Marshal Foch, Commander-in-chief of the Allied Armies, was in charge of the proceedings, supported by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, First Sea Lord, for the Allies. Representing the defeated forces were Matthias Erzberger, Germany’s secretary of state, president of the German delegation Count von Oberudorff, extraordinary envoy and minister plenipotentiary Major-general von Winterfeldt and Captain Vanselow of the German navy. The stand-in carriage is now displayed in the museum, but the original, destroyed by the Germans in World War II, occupied a clearing in the forest. The location was deliberately chosen by Marshal Foch to keep the negotiations private. The talks to bring an end to the conflict took three days, but it was a humiliating defeat for the Germans, and it was one that was avenged 22 years later, when Hitler insisted that the carriage should be used in the signing of documents to mark the Fall of France in June 1940. For me, it felt important to be visiting here, if only for a short time, before the centenary commemorations of World War I draw to a close on 11 November 2018. So close to the French capital, the Oise region found itself at the heart of the German invasion in 1914. Before my trip here, I am ashamed to say I knew little of Compiègne and the battlefields to the north; but now I was in a room full of wooden stereoscopes, packed with photographic images on glass slides depicting the ghastly reality of the Great War. The 3D images of exhausted, frightened young soldiers somehow had more impact than flat photographs that I had seen before; they became more real. Perhaps that feeling was intensified by the book I was reading at the time: the very personal account of WWI revealed by Vera Brittain in her book Testament of Youth, from her letters to her fiancé, the poet Roland Leighton, who was killed in 1915. The museum holds a copy of the ledger spelling out the conditions of peace, which were eventually to prove so intolerable to the Germans that they are thought to have contributed to the outbreak of World War II. The museum also records the name of Augustin Trébuchon, the last French soldier to die in WWI, killed just 15 minutes before the bugle sounded the ceasefire. It’s heartbreaking, even 100 years on. If only it had been 15 minutes earlier – but then it would only be someone else’s name that President Macron would be honouring on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the centenary of the Great War, and in a different village to that of Vrigne-meuse where Trébuchon had lived. Outside, the clearing holding the train carriage was closed to visitors, no doubt in preparation for the commemorations to come a few weeks hence.
Two World Wars
The museum tells the stories of both World Wars, because this area and to the north was so important during both, as the last frontline before Paris. As you wander through the rooms, past cabinets full of hand grenades and bullets, the devastating effects of war are sobering. The museum is clearly dedicated to these commemorations, rather than a more commercial enterprise – there is no café here, and only a very small shop selling slim volumes about the wars, and it costs just €5 to enter. This seemed to me to set the right tone. But it is inevitably a place of some sorrow, and I needed cheering up. Joining me on this tour was our Caravan Genius Nigel Hutson, and we decided that lunch and the beautiful Château de Pierrefonds should do the trick. It’s just 20 minutes’ drive from the Glade of the Armistice, on the edge of the Forest of Compiègne, and is one of the key attractions in the area. Pierrefonds is a small and pretty town dominated by the beautiful château, whose pale stone and pointy turrets wouldn’t look out of place in the Loire Valley – favourite haunt of French kings – or a Disney film.
But first, lunch, after a visit to the Tourist Office, where we picked up a town map. We were drawn towards the lake, where beyond a large flock of pedalos, we could see a busy lakeside restaurant, l’embarcadère. We sat out on the terrace in the late September sunshine – I tucked into a goat’s cheese salad and watched the antics of the waterbirds. Refuelled, we walked through the town to the castle and began to climb.
Onwards and upwards
There are two entrances to the castle; if you visit, take the one a little further uphill to the right, which is the less strenuous route into the building – as we discovered when we were leaving and passed a group of elderly visitors gamely struggling with the ascent. We took the scenic route to the left that skirted the castle’s walls, and gave us great views across the rooftops to the lake, and entered via the drawbridge. The courtyard is huge – along one side is a portico, whose keystones are quirky carvings depicting folk from different walks of life. At this point, it’s worth mentioning a little of the building’s history. It was built in the late 14th century by Louis de Valois, Duke of Orléans and brother of Charles VI, as a statement of power in his conflict with the Duke of Burgundy. In the 17th century, it was being used as a base by the enemies of Louis XIII – he ordered it to be destroyed. The subsequent
‘We took the scenic route that skirted the castle walls and gave us some great views’
partial ruin was purchased by Napoleon I in the early 19th century and enjoyed fame as a romantic ruin, until, in the mid-19th century, Napoleon III commanded its restoration as an imperial palace. For the project, he employed prominent architect Eugène Viollet-le-duc, who based the design on his idea of what a medieval castle should look like. However, the project ran out of money and the work was not completed. Today, it is a museum. As well as those quirky keystones, there are some wonderful touches to discover here, such as crocodile storm drains, the gorgeous painted ceilings in the state rooms, and what looks just like porcupine wallpaper – I definitely want that in my house! The Order of the Porcupine was an honour established by Louis de Valois.
Above a vast double fireplace at the end of a long room stand nine tall figures: we imagined there would be a pecking order among the courtiers to get close to the warmth of the fire. At the tops of staircases, along corridors, in the towers and outside we came across huge sculptures of lions, as well as griffins and other mythical creatures. For me, this place was a real joy to visit and it came as no surprise that the castle has been used as a location in films and featured as Camelot in the TV series Merlin. My caravan was pitched at Camping Les Araucarias in Carlepont, a shady, wooded site 20 minutes’ drive from the Armistice Glade and 30 minutes from the centre of Compiègne. In the absence of any obvious eateries near the site, I arranged to meet Nigel in Compiègne for dinner. After a brief rest in the van, I headed into town to the Bistrot des Arts, a busy restaurant close to the river, which has a great atmosphere, serves good wine and does a couple of set menus, as well as à la carte. During dinner, we planned the next day’s exploring. The Forest of Compiègne earned its place in history long before the tumultuous events of the two World Wars. This was where Joan of Arc sheltered before she was captured in the town. When I asked in the Tourist Office about the significance of her heroic statue in the gardens in front of the town hall, I received a rather withering look for my ignorance, particularly because she was, of course, trying to save the town from the clutches of the English – oh dear. Today, Compiègne is an attractive, busy town lying at the confluence of the Rivers Oise and Aisne and it has two buildings of particular note, as well as the old part of town, which has some very interesting timber-framed buildings. The town hall or Hôtel de Ville stands in front of a large garden square, packed with flowers, in the middle of which that statue of Joan of Arc stands. The building is an astonishing Gothic creation, erected in the first half of the 16th century. At the centre of its highly decorative facade is a statue of Louis XII on horseback. The town hall’s belfry houses a 14th-century clock, one of the oldest community clocks in France. If you can time it right, try to catch it on the hour, when you will see the three figures at the top of the belfry strike the hour with their mallets. It really is rather spectacular.
The Tourist Office is at ground level and next door is the Museum of Historical Figurines. Toy soldiers don’t hold much interest for me, but I rather wish that I had popped in for a look: the museum is said to hold 100,000 figurines, all arranged in different battles. Instead, we walked to the Imperial Palace of Compiègne. Compiègne was a favourite among the Royals and the Emperors, we discovered. The Palais de Compiègne looks enormous
and it is indeed one of the three largest royal and imperial residences in France, the others being Versailles and Fontainebleau. Built by Louis XV and XVI in the late 18th century, it was looted in the Revolution, and remodelled by Napoleon I and III in the 19th century. Today, the neoclassical building houses the museum of the Second Empire, a car museum and a museum of tourism. Sadly, it was Tuesday, the only day of the week when the palace is closed, so we had to make do with a visit to the gardens. I was partially consoled by the thought of tea in the Rose Garden. But the tearooms were closed, too. Instead, we made our way back into town and found Fleur de Thé, rather aptly on the Rue des Patissiers. Tea and cake were a treat and a welcome break. Our time in the area was sadly brief. Nigel helped me to hitch up the van and we got on the road; we had a couple more stops to make on the way north, before catching the ferry home. First, we were heading to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The Battle of the Somme was one of the bitterest and deadliest of WWI and on the British side, saw the first deployment of inexperienced volunteers on the frontline. On the first day alone, British casualties numbered more than 57,000. Thiepval Memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, is the largest Commonwealth memorial in the world. The names of the 72,337 missing British and South African servicemen who died at the Somme are engraved into its Portland stone. Sadly, we did not have time to visit the museum, inaugurated 100 years after the first Battle of the Somme. We did visit the Connaught Cemetery, which honours more than 1200 Commonwealth servicemen aged 15 to 60 – a lost generation. You cannot help leaving WWI memorials with a heavy heart: it is all too appalling to contemplate, especially because it happened again, just 21 years later. Time to reflect Our spirits lifted a bit as we headed towards Calais and our DFDS Seaways ferry. Priority Boarding (£10 per vehicle) meant we were among the first on board and the Premier Lounge (£12 per person) gave us the pick of comfortable places to sit. As we enjoyed our free coffees and pastries, we reflected on the anxiety the soldiers must have experienced as they crossed the Channel to face the unknown. They were probably as clueless as I was about how the war started and why they were fighting, but volunteered nonetheless, because their country needed them. Just as I felt after my visit to Ypres last year, I was so glad to see the peaceful Oise and Somme of today, and I learned a lot – although there is still much to discover about those very turbulent times.
The Compiègne Memorial is just one of many places for contemplation
you From the castle, get a great view across the rooftops below
TOP Pierrefonds’ fairytale-like exterior MIDDLE The Imperial Palace of Compiègne’s farreaching estate. The portico of Château Pierrefonds’ courtyard BOTTOM Claudia loved the quirky crocodile storm drains. Decorative keystones represent figures from all walks of life
CLOCKWISE FROM MAIN Pierrefonds is a reimagining of a medieval castle. Fine interiors. Griffins guard the stairs
BELOW Paying respects at the Connaught Cemetery RIGHT Thiepval’s renowned Memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens