On 11 November 1918, the French and British allies accepted Germany’s surrender and, between them, signed the armistice that ended the First World War. The signing took place in a railway carriage in the middle of the picturesque woods of Compiègne, fifty miles north-east of Paris. The humiliation of that event ran deep into the psyche of Germany, and none more so than in Adolf Hitler, at the time a corporal in the Imperial German Army.
On 22 June 1940, Hitler, now the German Führer, got his revenge – it was the turn of the French to surrender, and Hitler made sure that it was done in the most demeaning circumstances possible – in exactly the same carriage and in the same spot as the signing twenty-two years earlier
The Fall of France
Following the 1914-1918 war, the French built a defensive 280-mile long fortification, the Maginot Line, all along the Franco-German border as protection against a future German attack. In May 1940, the Germans rendered it obsolete within a morning by merely skirting round the north of it, through the Ardennes forest. Because of its rugged terrain, the French considered the forest impassable. Reaching the town of Sedan on the French side of the Ardennes on 14 May and brushing aside French resistance, the Germans pushed forward, not towards Paris as expected, but north, towards the English Channel, forcing the French and their British allies further and further back. In 1916, the Germans had failed to take Verdun despite ten months of trench warfare; in May 1940, it took them but a day.
Elsewhere, Hitler’s armies were enjoying victory after victory – the Netherlands capitulated on 15 May, followed two weeks later by the surrender of Belgium. Allied forces, with their backs to the sea in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, were trapped. But the Germans, poised to annihilate the whole British Expeditionary Force, were inexplicably ordered by Hitler to halt outside the town. Between 26 May and 2 June, over 1,000 military and civilian vessels rescued and brought back to Britain 338,226 Allied soldiers. But not without scenes of panic, broken discipline and soldiers shot by their officers for losing self-control. Meanwhile, Hitler’s generals watched, puzzled and rueing an opportunity missed.