Captain Jack Marriott, seen on the far right of the front row, in the Forest of Compiègne in November 1918. Photo Keystone-FranceGetty Images. World War One — Armistice. Captain J.P.R.

History in close-up: an extraordinary eyewitness record of the signing of the Armistice

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’.

Front row, from left Deputy First Sea Lord, Rear-Admiral George Hope; General Maxime Weygand, Marshal Foch’s chief of staff; First Sea Lord, Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss; Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France and Supreme Allied Commander; Captain Jack Marriott of the Royal Navy. Photo Keystone-FranceGetty Images

Front row, from left: Deputy First Sea Lord, Rear-Admiral George Hope; General Maxime Weygand, Marshal Foch’s chief of staff; First Sea Lord, Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss; Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France and Supreme Allied Commander; Captain Jack Marriott of the Royal Navy. Photo: Keystone-France/Getty Images

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.

World War One — Armistice. Captain J.P.R. Marriott (1879-1938). Typescript letters, letters and original ephemera from the negotiations and signature of the Armistice in the Forest of Compiègne, 7-11 November 1911. Estimate £10,000-15,000. Offered in Books & Manuscripts on 12 December at Christie’s in London

World War One — Armistice. Captain J.P.R. Marriott (1879-1938). Typescript letters, letters and original ephemera from the negotiations and signature of the Armistice in the Forest of Compiègne, 7-11 November 1911. Estimate: £10,000-15,000. Offered in Books & Manuscripts on 12 December at Christie’s in London

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.

Marriott recorded that after the signing of the Armistice, he and his colleagues ‘had a glass of port and went for a walk in the Forest which was wonderfully soothing after our busy night’

Marriott recorded that after the signing of the Armistice, he and his colleagues ‘had a glass of port and went for a walk in the Forest which was wonderfully soothing after our busy night’

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 history.

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.’