The wood is primeval. Prehistoric relics indicate human presence in the area of the Compiègne Forest since time immemorial. Beech, oak, and hornbeam trees sheltered game in Roman times. Since then, the forest has been the hunting ground of kings and emperors, the playground of princes and princesses, as well as a battleground. Julius Ceasar fought the Gauls beneath its canopy. Merovingian kingdoms Austrasia and Neustria exchanged blows between its stout trunks.
During three days in November 1918, the ancient forest served as secret meeting place for negotiators of two warring sides seeking peace. A delegation for the German Empire arrived November 8. The Allied delegation was led by the supreme commander, French General Ferdinand Foch.
Negotiations took place in a railcar, arranged for the purpose, positioned in a secluded glade near the French village of Rethondes, a hundred kilometers (60 miles) north of Paris. General Foch chose the site to keep journalists at bay and to avoid distractions.
Playing from a position of strength, Foch presented himself to members of the German delegation on the morning of the 8th, gave them a document listing the terms of a ceasefire, and told them they had 72 hours to sign it. He would return only once more.
The terms were strict: withdrawal of all German forces back to pre-war borders, plus evacuation of the Rhine Valley on Germany’s western flank; surrender of all military equipment (artillery, machine guns, ships, aircraft), including trains and trucks; renunciation of two earlier treaties with Russia and Romania, and restoration of booty taken from Russia, Romania, and Belgium. All infrastructure of evacuated territory was to remain intact, and the naval blockade of Germany would continue. The terms included no concessions by the Allies.
Hopeless as was their military position and with worsening social conditions at home, the Germans had no choice but to agree to the terms.
Between 5:12 and 5:20 a.m. on November 11, four members of the German delegation and a leading Allied representative signed the armistice. General Foch entered, examined the signatures, and, after adding his own mark to the document, departed for Paris. According to the conditions of the ceasefire, fighting would end within six hours.
In the Sommedieue sector, Carl E. Haterius, 137th Regiment Band, recorded the scene in his journal. Private Benjamin Franklin Potts, Company M, must have been within earshot. Through the journalist’s words, we may relive the moment with our ancestor:
“At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, hostilities came to an end from Switzerland to the sea. Early that morning from the wireless station on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, there had gone forth through the air to the wondering, half-incredulous line the Americans held from near Sedan to the Moselle, the order from Marshal Foch to cease fire on the stroke of eleven.
“On the stroke of eleven the cannon stopped, the rifles dropped from the shoulders, the machine guns grew still. There followed then a strange, unbelievable silence, as though the world had died. It lasted but a moment, lasted for the space that the breath is held. Then came such an uproar of relief and jubilance, such a tooting of horns, shrieking of whistles, such an overture from the bands and trains and church bells, such a shouting of voices as the earth is not likely to hear again in our day and generation. When night fell on the battlefield, the clamor of the celebration waxed rather than waned. Darkness? There was none. Rockets and a ceaseless fountain of star-shells made the lines a streak of glorious brilliance across the face of startled France, while, by the light of flares, the Front and all its dancing, boasting, singing peoples was as clearly visible as though the sun sat high in the heavens.” (Haterius 181-182)
The ceasefire was prolonged three times before the final agreement, which included a clause that placed the blame for the war and all its ramifications on Germany. The intent was to prepare a legal case for war reparations, but when Germany signed the treaty on June 22, 1919, it humiliated the German people as well. Ratified on June 28, the Treaty of Versailles would bring the first of the world’s two great wars to an end.
After a time in a museum at Les Invalides in Paris, the railcar in which the signing took place was moved back to the site in the Compiègne Forest, which became an historic monument and place of pilgrimage for tourists and survivors of veterans and war dead.
There, in the same secluded glade in the primeval forest, in the same railcar originally chosen by General Foch, another armistice would be signed twenty-two years after. June 22, 1940, Adolf Hitler chose the site for the formal surrender of France to Nazi Germany.
Reminiscences of the 137th U. S. Infantry by Carl E. Haterius, Topeka, Kansas: Crane & Company, 1919
My great grandfather, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his wartime experience. His family has only his discharge paper and a few anecdotes.
One hundred years later, I’ve discovered a few documents that bear his name. From draft registration to discharge, I’m following the paper trail of B. F. Potts’s journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.
December 22—Cruel Days in Sampigny
April 23, 1919—Return Aboard the Manchuria
“Well, Daddy, what did you think about France?”
“It's a very muddy place.”
As the Great War thundered across the fields of northern France, ten million American men, ages 21 to 30, signed their names to register to be drafted into military service.
“I, Benjamin Franklin Potts, do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever…”
“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it!”
In his first ocean voyage, B. F. Potts crossed the submarine invested waters of the North Atlantic in a convoy of steamers escorted by a warship.
Grandpa owned matched pairs of horses. Him and the boys [Ben and his brothers] cut and snaked logs out of the wood to the roads. He got a dollar a day plus fifty cents for the horses.
“Some of the guys disobeyed orders, went into the town, broke into a bakery, and stole all the bread and baked goods…”
The battle of Saint-Mihiel (September 12-15) would be Pershing’s first operation as army commander. He assigned the 35th to the strategic reserve, whose purpose is to replace a weakened unit or to fill any gap in the line created by the enemy.
“Private Potts, how tall are you?”
The soldier, looking into a button of the captain’s coat, says, “Five foot three, sir.” The wide brim raises.
On the front now, the 35th was in range of artillery fire, and enemy planes made nighttime bombing raids over the countryside.
On the left, the 137th would take the “V of Vauquois,” a formidable network of trenches, zig-zagging from the hill’s west flank to the village of Boureuilles, a mile away.
The gun jumps, the earth shudders, a shock wave shatters the air and accompanies a roar that bursts between the ears. Powder fumes permeate the air. Explosions count seconds across unending darkness.
…up until 7:40 a.m. when the rolling barrage ceased, we can follow Private Potts’s movement across the battlefield.
Scrawling in a notepad, the commander tears the sheet, folds it, and thrusts it into the runner’s hands.
“Potts, take this message to brigade. Tell them we need artillery now. Go!”
“Let him lie in an artillery shower all night, if you must. But do not disturb a soldier’s sleep, sir, with your orders that change from one minute to the next!”
By morning’s end, the intermingled 137th and 139th regiments gained 500 meters and dug in before Montrebeau Wood. Through the woods and German machine-gun nests and sniper fire, the men fought in the afternoon.
“When I asked him [Grandpa Ben] if he killed anyone, this is what he told me…”
As the men would destroy one machine-gun nest, other enemy gun crews were setting up on both sides of their skirmish line.
In the morning of April 6, 1917, the day the US declared war on the German Empire, American army troops seized the Vaterlund at its mooring in the Hoboken harbor.
When the digging was done, they dropped into the trenches, exchanged shovels for rifles, and pointed them north.
At 3 a.m., October 1, the 35th Infantry was the fourth of Pershing’s nine front-line divisions to be relieved from the front.
“…he was near the spot where a shell landed and was buried under dirt.”
“Ben had been told that his brother, Roy, had died. Then he ran into someone who said, I just saw your brother over at so-and-so medical. So he went to get a pass…”
The German army was retreating before the Allied advance on the Western Front, and talk among the troops was of an end to the war, of peace, of going home.