Compiègne is about 30 minutes from Senlis, about 45 minutes from Paris by car. I had never heard of it before we came to France this year, but our friend Didier recommended that we visit. The village dates from the 6th century, and was called Compendium (“short cut”) in Roman times, as it lies between Beauvais and Soissons. Reminds me of Between, Georgia, which sits between Athens and Atlanta, Georgia.
Beyond the Romans, there’s so many more historic events that have a connection to Compiègne . Napoleon, WWI and WWII, Hitler, and Joan of Arc all came to Compiègne .
Jean d’Arc’s Betrayal
Compiègne is where Jean d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was betrayed and captured by the Burgundians in 1430 during the Hundred Year’s War. She was attempting to relieve the village under siege, but was captured, and sold to the English. That didn’t go well for her and she was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1431. (If you want more of the story, check it out here.)
St. Jean is very big in France and in this region in particular. We saw many plaques, statues, and chapels dedicated to her, France’s national heroine.
The remains of the Grosse Tour du Roi, where Jean was imprisoned are close to the town center and the river. There’s not much left besides a partial tower and a plaque.
A Lovely Park
Parc de Songeons is very close to the Tour du Roi and is a very pretty, small park. If you visit the tower, be sure to detour through the park. You can see some of the arcade arches from the former Jacobins convent.
A Bit About Napoleon (I and III)
The Château de Compiègne was a royal residence, with the current building dating back to the 14th century. Napoleon I had it restored and Napoleon III made it his fall residence. Today, it is a museum with a large collection of First and Second Empire artifacts. We didn’t go into the museum, but if you are interested in those eras, it would be worth the stop.
WWI and the Armistice
Skipping ahead several decades, Compiègne was occupied by the German army in World War I. The Clairière de l’Armistice (Glade of the Armastice) nearby was the site of the signing of the Armistice to end that war in 1918. The signing took place in a train car, just outside the town. This location became a garden and memorial, which evidently was a sore spot for Adolf Hitler. There is a replica of the train car at the memorial garden, along with other statues and monuments to the war’s casualties.
WWII and Compiègne
The memorial to the 1918 Armistice evidently made Adolf Hitler so angry that when the French surrendered in the early days of WWII, he had the signing of the Franco-German Armistice of 1940 performed at the same spot, in the same railway car. The German army proceeded to destroy all the other monuments, including the Alsace-Lorraine memorial depicting the German eagle impaled on a sword. Hitler had them leave the statue of Marshall Foch so he could look out over the destruction, figuratively speaking.
The original railway carriage was taken to Berlin as a trophy, only to be destroyed by the Nazis in 1945. Today, the carriage in the museum is a replica from that same era. The Alsace-Lorraine eagle statue was re-created and re-installed in the clearing after the war ended. In 2018 the town of Compiègne commissioned and installed the “Peace Ring” in the clearing, bearing the word “peace” in 52 languages. More about the Glade of the Armistice is here.
A Dark Chapter, an Important Place
Also during WWII, Compiègne was the location of a POW and relocation camp. Royallieu-Compiègne is now a museum and memorial to the people held there, mostly French Resistance fighters and Jews. It is estimated that around 50,000 people were held this facility — most of whom were deported to work and death camps in Germany. Some were shot as hostages in the nearby forest. Only 4,000 would survive the war. As you approach the entrance, there is a wall of the names of those who were detained at the camp. I was in tears before even entering the building.
I thought that the museum presented this very challenging information with great care for the dignity of the people detained there. You can listen to audio files of various survivors, see videos of the period, and walk through three of the barracks. It was very emotional for me, but I believe it is incredibly important that we, as a society, maintain these sites and hear these stories. More about Royallieu-Compiègne can be found here.
The facility was closed at the end of the war in 1945 and remained closed until the museum opened in 2008. You can read more about the creation of the museum here.