It was humiliated, like the rest of France, by its defeat by the King of Prussia in 1870, but his decision to be crowned Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors (La Galerie des Glaces), on 18 January 1871, was particularly devastating. This event led to Versailles being chosen for the peace settlement which was to symbolise France's revenge at the end of the First World War.
To some extent, this decision had been made during the meetings of the Allied Supreme War Council, held in Versailles on several occasions in 1918. Under Marshal Foch's leadership, the military commanders of the various Allied powers began to coordinate their operations on the western front: a first in military history. Their meetings took place at the Trianon Palace Hotel on Boulevard de la Reine in Versailles, which had just been built by René Sergent. It opened in 1910, offering all the latest mod cons! And it was here that the Armistice of 11 November 1918 was drawn up, which was then signed in the famous Glade of the Armistice in Rethondes.
Of course, it was also here that the Allied ambassadors met to draft the peace treaties. A significant number of nations were involved, which meant that not every representative could stay at Trianon Palace. We know, for example, that the British delegation stayed in an elegant property called the Roman Villa, in the Glatigny area, north of Versailles. But logistical challenges were nothing compared to the Allies' difficulty in agreeing on the conditions to be imposed on the defeated countries. In April 1919, after many long months of hard work, they finally managed to meet with German state officials, to present their conditions for peace.
This delegation arrived at Chantiers station by train from Belgium on 30 April. Its members were divided across a number of Versailles hotels that could host them, including the famous Hôtel des Réservoirs – Madame de Pompadour's former private mansion, which was then one of the most luxurious hotels in town – as well as Hôtel Vatel and Hôtel Suisse, which have sadly since disappeared, located in a small area near Rue des Réservoirs, to facilitate communication, protection and surveillance. For a month and a half, senior German officials could be found in one of the hotels, while junior staff stayed in the others, including secretaries and other assistants, as well as journalists approved by the German state. Although under surveillance, they were all free to travel into town. However, to judge by the tone of the local press, which was of course subject to war-time censorship, they did not receive the warmest of welcomes.
On 7 May 1919, during a formal meeting at Trianon Palace, the German Foreign Minister received the huge volume of peace conditions imposed by the Allies. The French Prime Minister Clemenceau chaired the meeting, in the room of this hotel which is now named after him. President Wilson sat to his right, followed by representatives from Italy, Belgium, Brazil, Greece, Portugal and Serbia. On his left was Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, before the representatives from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Japan, Poland, Romania and the brand-new Czechoslovakia. It was a poignant reminder of the scale of the conflict. To avoid exposing their disagreements before the defeated nation, the Allies decided that there would be no spoken discussions. After receiving the peace conditions, the German delegates had a fortnight to make any comments, in writing only, which would receive a written reply. Germany would then have to accept the conditions, or there would be a return to war on 23 June.
Germany protested in vain against this authoritarian approach. With its mission accomplished, the German delegation left on 16 June. On the night of 22-23 June, the German state, worried about the internal consequences of a return to war, accepted the peace conditions. The French Ministry of the Interior immediately sent a telegram to all of the mainland and colonial state prefects, asking them to mark the victory with celebratory gunfire and the ringing of all the church bells across their regions.
All that remained was to organise the festivities, which people busied themselves with for several weeks, without saying a word. The date chosen was 28 June, the anniversary of the Sarajevo attack that had sparked the conflict. Exquisite carpets were borrowed from the Mobilier National, and a beautiful Louis XV desk was placed in the middle of the Hall of Mirrors (La Galerie des Glaces), carrying a gilded bronze inkwell and a pen holder of gold and precious stones, produced for the occasion by the jeweller, Vever.
On 28 June, while crowds of people crammed into the Place d'Armes in front of the Palace, and with every inch of Versailles covered in decorations, the Hall of Mirrors (La Galerie des Glaces) itself became thronged with people. Prime Minister Clemenceau gave a short address, after which the Germans, followed by the Allies, signed the now famous Treaty of Versailles.
Despite the public jubilation, the peace treaty signed on 28 June 1919 was an unjust peace, deliberately humiliating for Germany. It sowed the seeds of the terrible conflict that broke out just 20 years later.
A few months later, in the neighbouring towns of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Neuilly-sur-Seine and Sèvres, separate treaties were signed with the other defeated powers: Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey. For Hungary, their treaty was also signed at Versailles, in the Grand Trianon, on 4 June 1920.