(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the autumn of 1918, the war started to go very badly for Germany and her allies. Not only were they beginning to be defeated in the field, but also the armed forces were refusing to obey orders and alarming acts of rebellion with Socialist and Communist overtones were erupting throughout the country. The end was drawing near, and steps were being taken to provide for the belated abdication of the Kaiser and the peaceful transition of power to a republican government. A cease-fire had to be arranged quickly, not only to save lives on both sides but also to halt the complete disintegration of the German state.

This novel, based loosely on the historical record, traces the Germans’ journey through the lines of battle to the conference the preparation of the two delegations, and their meetings in a railway carriage in a forest clearing near the town of Compiegne, a few miles north of Paris.

The delegations, surprisingly small, and narrow in their representative range, are what interest Thomas Keneally most. The Allied group is thoroughly dominated by its chairman, the French Marshall Foch, who is confident that he can “will” the Germans to accept severe terms. He is accompanied by Maxime Weygand, who is hardly more than a messenger boy for Foch, and by two English naval officers, Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss and Hope, who are intent on one thing: destroying the German army.

The German quartet is somewhat more colorful. Matthias Erzberger, their leader, is not a military man but a politician who has been trying to get Germany out of the war for some time, and he sees his appointment as a punishment for his failure to support the war effort. He will bear the stigma of having signed away Germany’s freedom. His delegation is not much help. Count...

(The entire section is 728 words.)