Compiegne remembers its history

Compiegne City, to the north of Paris, serves as a permanent reminder of the French history of conflict. Today it is a vigorous, busy town that is full of energetic life. Its periods of victory and defeat though still lie beneath the skin. The surviving remnants serve as a reminder of the pointless hostility that has choked France over the last six centuries.

CompiegneCompiegne is a beautiful city surrounded by peaceful countryside. It lies in the region of Nord, pas de Calais, Picardy. It is an attractive place to stop at, visit and reflect on the past. There are many places to hold the visitors attention.

The vast neighbouring and associated forest on the southern edge of Compiegne is home to a simple railway carriage. It is a reminder of design from the earlier days of a transport network. The current one, residing in a museum, is an exact replica of the original. That one was used by France and her allies to receive the signing of the instrument of surrender marking the cessation of the Great War in 1918. Seating provision was arranged each side of a table in the carriage. One end was occupied by French and Allied senior military figures. The other was set out for the defeated German army chiefs to present their signature. Many millions of people had lost their lives and their families during the five years of conflict but the national boundaries had hardly moved an inch.

In 1940 the German nation had received the capitulation of much of France whilst it had also occupied Paris. The enemy nation salivated as they took their revenge. The same railway carriage in the same position in the forest was prepared for the French signature this time. The German military had simply, very pointedly, reversed the positioning of the seating.

CompiegneLater on during World War 2, the carriage was taken to Berlin as a spoil of war. As the Second World War was ending, the carriage was destroyed by the Nazis and buried without trace. An exact replica is exhibited as a reminder of those dark days. Visit the Armistice Museum at Le Francport in the north eastern section of the forest.

During WW2, the German authorities had established a prison camp close to Compiegne. It was used to confine captured Resistance workers, gypsies and French Jews prior to their terrible ordeal that they faced after their removal to Auschwitz. The internment camp has been preserved just outside the City and serves today as a further reminder of that dreadful period. A total of about 40,000 people were deported from the Royallieu-Compiegne camp during that war to suffer their dreadful fate. It is retained as a permanent location for visitors to reflect for themselves. Look for it in the forest on the southern edge of Compiegne.

Compiegne and much of north eastern France was occupied by the German state as well during the Franco Prussian War in 1870. Museums in the town present much of the history from those days. Napoleon led the French army during that conflict. His spirit and contribution to the French state retains a great presence in the City today.

Joan of ArcBefore the Franco-Prussian war came along, France was engaged in conflict during the Hundred Years War with the English. Joan of Arc was leading the French army then and was engaged in clearing the English from Compiegne as part of that engagement. The Burgundians were conspiring with the English during that period and captured Joan close to Place du 54 Regiment d’Infanterie. They sold her to the English for 10,000 francs. Later, she was taken to Rouen, tried, convicted and burnt at the stake.

Twenty years later, in her absence, Joan of Arc was re-tried in the same court room and found to be innocent of all charges of witchcraft and heresy. She was not around of course to receive an apology.

There is a striking statue of Joan of Arc marking the spot where she was captured in central Compiegne.

Compiegne City centre is dominated by the Chateau de Compiegne. Its origins go back to an abbey built in the 10th century. Nowadays the Palace that evolved is very grand and imposing. It was developed by the French royal family as a place of simple enjoyment. The citadel is surrounded by wide open, peaceful and engaging gardens. They are open to the public and are a splendid place for walking and picnics. Louis XIV declared at the time: “At Versailles I am the King, at Fontainebleau a Prince but at Compiegne I am a country man.”

Chateau de CompiegneThe Palace itself is home to museums presenting features unconnected with the times of conflict. There is a fascinating transport museum presenting exhibits from the last hundred years or so. Motor enthusiasts take much interest in it. There is also a museum presenting figurines engaged in artistic, warlike activities that are beautifully exhibited in best French style.

The principal museum in Compiegne is the Museum Antoine Vivenel . It was founded in 1839 and is located separately in rue d’Austerlitz. It features many well known paintings and sculptures and stands in support of classic French culture.

Compiegne is a very splendid city to wander through. Life there today is active, commercial and sophisticated. So many of the symbols though, from the destructive and wasteful warlike history over the centuries, are preserved in the town. The artefacts serve visitors as a reminder of what life was like for so many people in the history that only ended really so recently. To compare them with the contemporary life going on around today in the town is a sobering reminder of what most of us have only just missed.


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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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