Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Day: 28 June 1919 — Part I, Setting the Stage

When students and researchers write me and ask, "When did World War I end?" I always reply June 28, 1919, the day the Versailles Treaty was signed. In the back of my mind, however, I always acknowledge that my response is not a clean one, that I'm giving an exact five-year window around which they can organize their research and writings. Actually, it was more like what Trotsky called the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk—"No war, no peace." Real fighting continued after the signing of the treaty, including the Russian Civil War and Allied interventions, the Greco-Turkish War, and, later, the Russian-Polish War. Longer term, the ill will sewn by imposing reparations and the stigma of war guilt on Germany through the peace treaty insured implacable resentment by the defeated and their new generation of politicians.

Nevertheless, the signing of the Versailles Treaty was—at the time and still today—the most logical landmark that the war had truly ended. Over the next three days, we present an article by noted military historian the late Charles Burdick, who was an early mentor of mine, describing the events of that memorable day the treaty was signed at the Hall of Mirrors, the final act of the Great War.

The German Representatives Arrive in Paris

The setting was the same as that provided for the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871. The spokesman then was the grandfather of the last kaiser, William II, the imperial refugee now huddled in Holland. The day was the same as that awesome Sarajevo day in 1914 when Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and unleashed the furies of war. The Great War, thus, closed on the fifth anniversary of its triggering event while, concurrently, officially registering the German Empire's demise.

The recently installed revolutionary leaders of the German government had named Dr. Hermann Mueller, lately appointed foreign minister, and Dr. Johannes Bell, the new minister of justice, as their representatives to the final scene of the international drama. Their signatures on the treaty would announce to the world and to history the complete submission of Germany to the victors.

The train carrying the two Germans to Versailles arrived late the previous evening, 27 June. After a substantial delay in passing through the war-ravaged zones of France, the engine and six cars pulled into the St. Cyr station at 11:20 p.m. Waiting there was Colonel Marie Henry, chief of the receiving French military mission, with his staff, and Edgar von Haimhausen, leading a small contingent from the German delegation already in Paris.

Haimhausen initiated the reception by introducing the two German delegates to Colonel Henry and handing over their credentials. Both groups saluted each other without speaking. Colonel Henry broke the uncomfortable silence with, "Gentlemen, will you follow me?"

One of the Germans responded, "Willingly," and the group, under escort, hurried to the waiting automobiles for the trip to the Hotel des Reservoirs in Versailles. Accompanying the official German representatives were 14 minor German officials, interpreters, and secretaries. No one evidenced any pleasure over the hour or the purpose of the visit to Paris.

The caravan hurried through the peaceful streets of a sleeping city. While everyone in the group knew of the portentous events scheduled for the day, the post-midnight silence was serenely peaceful. The night's darkness obscured the numerous placards posted by the mayor of Versailles, Henri Simon, which read,

The great day of Versailles has come. The victorious peace will be signed in the Hall of Mirrors on Saturday, June 28. The government wishes the ceremony to have the character and austerity that goes with the memory of the grief and sufferings of our country. Nevertheless, public buildings will be decorated and illuminated. The citizens will surely follow this example.

All measures to preserve order have been taken by the government: the public is asked to conform to them for the successful outcome of the ceremony.

The day of Versailles will take place as should such a great day in the world's history.

The Treaty Is Delivered
When dawn broke on 28 June no one was in doubt about the import of the new day. This moment, this event, this ceremony marked the termination of so much emotion, sacrifice, and death. The pageantry and glamour of the final ceremonies, the carefully planned settings, and the studied simplicity of the closing act itself could not obscure the vigorous wave of French national pride. The local newspapers proclaimed, "The war was won in France under the command of a Frenchman, " and "The peace is being signed in France under the presidency of a Frenchman." France was once again the center of international attention. Throughout the world, war-weary millions turned to Paris for the final act of a tragic era and the birth pangs of a promised glorious age.

The moment at hand—victory, peace, German defeat—awakened the Parisians to the greatness and the sanctity of the day. By noon a steady stream of automobiles, flowing from all points of the compass, centered on the road to Versailles, the highway once traversed by the state carriages of the Sun King, Louis XIV. French soldiers, waving red flags as evidence of their authority, stood at every crossroad along the way, hurrying official vehicles toward their destination without interference. They followed the ancient route by way of Suresnes, Ville d' Aray, and Picardil. At the corner of the Avenue de Saint Cloud and the Rue Saint Pierre the cars carrying the tricolor proceeded along the latter street to the Rue des Reservoirs and from there to the Place d' Ames. At that point General Charles Brecard, commander of the Sixth Division of Cavalry, and his staff had taken position before the beautiful wrought iron grill in front of the Palace of Versailles. A double line of cavalry troopers, wearing horizon-blue uniforms and steel-blue helmets, the pennants of their lances fluttering red and white in the sun, guarded the streets leading to the palace. More troops stood throughout the palace courtyard, the Cour d' Honneur. The previous Sunday the area had served as a display place for captured German cannon. This day the guns were gone—removed by French officials anxious for a different atmosphere.

There was a veritable bouquet of generals waiting for the delegates: Henri Pétain of Verdun, Henri Gouraud with his flaming red beard, and Charles Mangin, the bloody one. They and a host of others stood in their most colorful uniforms resplendent with assorted decorations. Nearby were battle-scarred veterans for whom this moment held special meaning. Around them swirled a sea of banners, flags, and bunting hanging from the roofs, windows, and balconies outside the fence. Inside the grillwork, the palace buildings stood in somber stateliness, flying only one decoration, the tricolor of France, suspended above the small balcony at the head of the Cour d' Honneur. The French government had decreed that this solitary flag was to be the only banner displayed on the palace itself, in keeping with "the calm and the dignity" of the occasion.

The Crowd Gathers Outside the Palace

By midday, masses of people milled about outside the palace grounds, pushing and shoving against the iron barrier and converging on the entrance. Few members of the crowd heeded the calls of the sentries posted at the gate that "only the red passes permit admittance." The repeated shouts of the soldiers on guard inside the fence to "stand back, ladies and gentlemen" bounced ineffectively off the multitude of men and women who sought admission by every conceivable means. Only the mass itself and the small gates prevented chaos. The secretariat of the Peace Conference had taken great care to ensure that the signing of the treaty would be witnessed only by those who had a share in its making as plenipotentiaries or commissioners. There were several varieties of tickets admitting the bearer to different sections of the palace, although few of the fortunate recipients had any idea as to the significance of their pasteboards. A few ingenious souls had forged entry passes from the tops of cigarette packages embossed with an impressive coat of arms.

1 comment:

  1. That's very well written, with a keen eye to the French sensibility.
    Thank you for sharing, KW.