The remarkable memoir of British naval officer Jack Marriott, who recorded with unerring detail the people and events of a few historic days in a French forest in November 1918
A forest in northern France: ‘a typical November day, cold and damp’. Two
railway carriages stand 200 feet apart. At precisely 9am,
as agreed, six men emerge from one and make their way along
the temporary duckboard path that has been laid over the
boggy ground. ‘I have never seen a more miserable lot of
men,’ thinks one of those watching.
The group is led by Matthias Erzberger, the son of a postman
from southern Germany. Our witness records that he is ‘fat and
bloated-looking, double chin, scrubby moustache, wears pince-nez’.
Beside him is Count Alfred Graf von Oberndorff from the German foreign
ministry: ‘a polished gentleman’. Just behind them is Admiral Ernst Vanselow, a naval officer who ‘does not look at
all like a sailor, more like a pork butcher’.
Waiting at the door of the second carriage is a French general,
who bows stiffly, alongside a 38-year-old British naval officer, Captain Jack Marriott, who is mentally recording every detail of
these events. It is Friday 8 November, 1918 — the German delegation
has arrived in the Forest of Compiègne, about 60 km north of Paris, to sign the Armistice
that will end ‘the war to end all wars’.
On 12 December Christie’s will offer for sale Marriott’s
extraordinarily detailed accounts of the events of the following few days. Marriott was one of only four British participants
in the Armistice negotiations, and the notes and mementoes
he kept summon up the scene with wonderful clarity.
There were the moments of accidental comedy: as the German
delegation approached, the French chief of staff was suddenly
paralysed by a point of etiquette — how, ‘from a point of
view of courtesy’, do you receive the representatives of
a country with whom you have been engaged in a war of unprecedented
destruction for more than four years?
The Allies asked the Germans for their credentials (to prove
they were the legal representatives of the German government), but Marriott wryly notes that ‘it was lucky the Germans did
not retaliate’, as they had not thought to bring any.
There are also the lost details of history — that the Great
War was prolonged by a whole day because the German party
had failed to bring a code with them by which they could
send the Armistice terms back to headquarters by telegram. As a result
the papers had to be sent back across the front line by motorcar,
a process which took 36 hours.
Then, when Captain Marriott tried to phone Buckingham Palace
to inform King George V about the Armistice, he was almost
defeated by the primitive telephone technology: ‘The line
was dreadful and I must have been cut off about 30 times.’
There are the human vignettes, too: the junior German representative
taking the Armistice terms back to his government with ‘a
bottle of beer in each pocket and crying his eyes out’.
It had been immediately clear to the Allied party that the
German delegates, caught between absolute military collapse on the front and starvation and revolution at home, would
accept almost any terms.
And so, after three days of cursory
negotiations, at 5 o’clock in the morning, Marshal Foch,
Admiral Wemyss and the four German delegates signed the document
which declared an end to a war which had killed an estimated 17 million military combatants
and civilians. The guns would fall silent
exactly six hours later, at 11 o’clock on the eleventh day
of the eleventh month of 1918.
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The men filed out of the railway carriage. The Allied party
would return ecstatic to Paris, where Foch and Wemyss ‘danced
ring-a-ring-a-roses’ around the Elysée Palace with the French President, Georges Clemenceau; the Germans would make their despondent
way home to a nation in a state of meltdown.
Captain Marriott took one last look around. On the table where
the Armistice had been signed lay a sheet of blotting paper,
the ink from the signatures still soaking into its fibres.
Marriott slipped it into his file, and years later added it to his small collection of keepsakes from his brush with
His memoir ends on a remarkable note of calm understatement:
‘We then had a glass of port and went for a walk in the Forest
which was wonderfully soothing after our busy night.’