Ferdinand Foch was a French military leader who served as supreme commander of the Allied armies during the final months of World War I. He played a pivotal role in the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the conflict. Recognized for his strategic insight and leadership in turning the tides for the Allies, he was appointed the prestigious title of marshal of France in August 1918.
Early Life, Education and Military Career
Foch was born October 2, 1851, in Tarbes, France, the son of a civil servant and grandson of a French soldier. He attended a local school and, at age 20, enlisted in the French Army, serving as a sub-lieutenant during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, but saw no action.
Following France’s defeat, he graduated from the prestigious École Polytechnique military academy in Paris and, in 1885, continued his training by enrolling at the École Supérieure de Guerre (known as the War College), graduating as a commissioned lieutenant. Foch returned to active duty in 1901, holding commands in various French regions and steadily rising through the ranks.
He returned to the War College as a major in 1895, serving as a professor. His lectures, “On the Principles of War” and “On the Conduct of War,” were published in 1903 and 1905, respectively. By 1908, with the rank of brigadier general, he was named the school’s commandant, building on his reputation as an influential military strategy expert.
“Victory equals will," Foch wrote during his tenure, Time reported in 1926. "Victory goes always to those who deserve it by the greater force of will. . . . A battle won is a battle in which one will not acknowledge oneself beaten."
World War I
By 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Foch, in his 60s, had already been assigned command of the French XX Corps at Nancy and led troops to stop Germany’s advance at the Battle of the Frontiers (August 1914). His success prompted General Joseph Joffre, France’s commander in chief, to appoint him to helm the Ninth Army, which helped win the First Battle of the Marne.
Joffre promoted him to assistant commander in chief, and, after coordinating strategies among the French, English and Belgian armies in battles at Ypres, Somme and others, he was named chief of the General Staff of the French Army in May 1917, a position that put him in charge of military coordinations along the Western Front. A year later, with Germany seemingly headed for victory, Foch was made commander in chief of the Allied armies.
On March 26, 1918, responding to the deteriorating situation of Germany’s Spring Offensive on the Western Front, Allied leaders, including British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Premier Georges Clemenceau and British and French army commanders, appointed Foch supreme commander of the Allied armies. "He could not have done more for us had he been one of our own generals," Lloyd George said of his appointment.
Foch’s leadership during the Second Battle of the Marne (July 15-August 6, 1918) proved to be one of his most significant battles as supreme commander. A crucial turning point in the war, the Allies’ coordinated and integrated counterattack halted Germany’s advance.
The Second Battle of Marne marked the start of a series of successful Allied counter-offensives, known as the Hundred Days Offensive. The Allies pushed the German Army back and weakened its defenses, ultimately ending the war.
To recognize his leadership, Foch was appointed the prestigious title of marshal of France, the nation’s highest military honor, on August 6, 1918. He also received marshal titles from Great Britain and Poland.
Post-War and Legacy
Foch played a pivotal role in negotiating the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, signed June 28, 1919, which formally ended the war and imposed significant military, territorial and economic obligations on Germany. However, Foch was critical of the treaty’s terms, controversially saying it was not harsh enough on Germany and that its leniency could lead to future conflicts. "This is not peace,” he said. “It is an armistice for 20 years."
Following the war, Foch continued to serve France as a prominent figure in both military and diplomatic capacities. He served as president of the Inter-Allied Military Commission, charged with enforcing the Treaty of Versailles. He was also elected to the Académie Française in recognition of his contributions to military, literature and culture.
Foch died on March 20, 1929, in Paris at age 77, from complications from influenza and pneumonia. His tomb resides at the Dôme des Invalides in Paris, near that of Napoleon Bonaparte. His memoirs were published in 1931.
“He rose to his greatest moral heights when, putting aside the possible glory of marching his victorious troops into Berlin, he declared at the time of the Armistice that all the objects of the war had been gained, that the Germans had made a complete surrender, and that he could not tolerate the thought of sacrificing the lives of perhaps 100,000 soldiers in order simply to make a military triumph more ostentatious,” The New York Times reported the day after his death.
“Marshal Foch,” The New York Times.
“Foreign News: Foch Philosophy,” Time.
“Ferdinand Foch,” Pritzker Military Museum & Library.
“Marshal Foch Is Dead In Paris at 77,” The New York Times.
Foch in Command: The Forging of a First World War General, by Elizabeth Greenhaigh, Cambridge University Press, 2011.