Veteran’s Day is celebrated in the United States on November 11th in honor of the armistice that ended World War I. The armistice was signed at ‘the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ (November 11th, 1918). The treaty was signed in a railway car – the Compiegne Wagon, named after the town where it operated; but first, Steam Giants wants to thank every Veteran out there for your service to the country.
It is hard to understate the importance of railroads during wartime. From early use like The Mississippi during the American Civil War to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, railroads have been used to transport troops and supplies in active war zones as well as aid in other war efforts away from the front lines. One of the most famous pieces of wartime railroad equipment wasn’t a locomotive, but a dining car named the “Compiegne Wagon”.
The Compiegne Wagon, originally known simply as #2419D, began its story in 1914 when the car was built for Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) in France. The CIWL, also shown as Wagon-Lits, was known for its long haul train service, the most famous being the Orient Express. Once in the CIWL fleet, #2419D served the operator as a dining car even as World War I was underway.
In the summer of 1918, #2419D found herself unable to avoid war any longer as the car was commandeered by the French military.
War, Treaty and a Museum
Under control of the French military, the car was transformed into an office for Ferdinand Foch, who served as the “Supreme Allied Commander” of the Allied forces during the war, who used the car as mobile headquarters.
When it came time to negotiate an armistice, Foch and Allied forces met with German delegates on #2419D in the forest of Compiegne, France, instead of Allied headquarters, a fact that many Germans considered a sign of disrespect. Nevertheless, the German Empire signed the armistice on the Compiegne Wagon on November 11th, 1918, signaling the end of World War I.
Following the war, the car actually resumed diner car service for the CIWL. But thanks to post war sentiment, the car was donated to the Army Museum in Paris. #2419D, which was known as the Compiegne Wagon following the war, was returned to Compiegne following a request by the town’s mayor.
The car underwent restoration and then was placed on display in a museum at the Glade of the Armistice, a French war memorial built where the armistice was signed. In fact, the display location was just a short distance from where the car was located when the war ended.
Ego Brings a Second Treaty to Compiegne
When the armistice was signed in 1918, there were mixed reactions as some felt it was punitive against civilians while others felt that it did not weaken the German military enough; two factors that helped the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.
The Compiegne Wagon may have been a symbol of pride for France; but to Hitler, it was a reminder of the failed regime and a symbol of the embarrassment and hardship that Germany faced following the end of World War I.
France declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939 following the German’s invasion of Poland. Less than 10 months later, the French sought to surrender to the Axis powers. In addition to war related demands, Hitler had a specific demand for surrender: the treaty had to be signed exactly where the 1918 treaty was signed in the same dining car.
It was not enough that the car was located at the Glades of the Armistice. At Hitler’s direction, the car was removed from the museum and relocated to the exact location of the 1918 signing. Following the signing, the Germans transported the car to Berlin for public display.
Compiegne Wagon, Destroyed but Not Forgotten
The Nazis would use the Compiegne Wagon for the next few years but she would not make it out of the war. While there are conflicting reports, most historians believe that the car was destroyed by the Nazis in 1945.
As the world was rebuilt and memorials were built following World War II, the loss of the Compiegne Wagon was a devastating blow for many. In 1950, CIWL donated another car from the same series as #2419D. The new car, originally numbered #2439D and subsequently changed to 2419D, was also part of Ferdinand Foch’s mobile headquarters during World War I and is an exact copy of the original Compiegne Wagon.
Today the ‘new’ Compiegne Wagon sits near where the original once sat on the Glades of the Armistice grounds in France. Although not a locomotive, she remains a clear reminder of the importance of railroads during wartime and how they impacted history.