Ferdinand Foch was the most inspired of the Western Front generals in World War I, sometimes to his detriment. He could be almost mystically reckless with lives, initiating attacks when restraint would have served him better or prolonging offensives beyond all hope of success. His own pronouncements had a tendency to catch up with him. Fortunately for his permanent reputation, he will be remembered more for his presiding role in the victory of 1918 than for his sanction of the futile hecatombs of 1915 and 1916.
He was born in 1851, the son of a civil servant. In the summer of 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, he enlisted as a private in the French infantry but never fought. (But he did gain peacetime fame for massing 100,000 men at a review in a rectangle of 120 by 100 meters.) He rose steadily in rank and in 1885 became a professor at the [Eacute]cole Sup[eacute]rieure de Guerre, the command college in Paris that he would eventually head. He was now in his element, and his pronouncements would influence a generation of French officers, as well as the opening events of 1914. Foch wrote two widely read paeans to the offensive, The Principles of War (1903) and The Conduct of War (1905). “A lost battle,” he proclaimed, “is a battle which one believes lost[ellipsis4] A battle won is a battle we will not acknowledge to be lost[ellipsis4] The will to conquer sweeps all before it[ellipsis4] Great results in war are due to the commander.” In argument, Foch tended to win by intimidation and deliberate arrogance–irresistible, perhaps, because he never admitted to doubts.
August 1914 found him in command of a crack, two-division corps on the Lorraine border. While his disciples disastrously pressed offense [agrave] outrance, the apostle of attack soon found himself on the defensive. At Morhange on August 20, the rocklike stand of his Twentieth Corps helped avert a French catastrophe. It may have been the only time in his life–he was just short of sixty-three–that he saw action. Put in charge of the French Ninth Army during the Battle of the Marne, he blocked the German advance at the marshes of St.-Gond. “My right is driven in, my center is giving way, the situation is excellent, I attack,” he is supposed to have said. He probably never uttered these legendary words, but he surely would have done so had he thought of them.
Foch next took charge of the French armies of the north; he now coordinated moves with the British and Belgian armies during the so-called “race to the sea.” If he did not succeed in going on the offensive, he did help check the German drive for the last true prizes of 1914, the Channel ports. Several times he was forced to brace up the nervous British commander, Sir John French, with what his biographer, B. H. Liddell Hart calls “an injection of Fochian serum.” But when the Germans ruptured the line at the Second Ypres in 1915, Foch’s insistence on counterattacks produced only unnecessary Allied losses. Death on an even larger scale was the most visible result of Foch’s Artois offensives in the spring and early fall of the year; casualties approached 150,000. After the Artois the [eacute]lan of the French common soldier, which he so prized, would never be the same.
In 1916, he directed the French part of the 141-day offensive at the Battle of the Somme. He gained more territory and lost fewer men than his British opposite, General Sir Douglas Haig, but the costly lack of a decision seemed to have permanently tarnished his career. Foch was relieved of command. He bided his time, a perfervid phoenix waiting to soar from the ashes, and gradually worked his way back to a position of influence. He had the good fortune not to have played a part in the Allied disasters of 1917.
On March 21, 1918, Erich Ludendorff’s German armies broke through on the Western Front (see Ludendorff Offensive) and seemed ready to split the French and British armies asunder. Desperate prospects demanded desperate measures–and on March 26 the Allied leaders did what they should have done long before: they named a supreme commander. Their choice was Foch. His reaction was characteristic. “Materially, I do not see that victory is possible. Morally, I am certain that we shall gain it.” Foch’s optimism was infectious. He unselfishly lent French troops to the beleaguered British, and the Allies weathered Ludendorff’s unremitting spring storm until American troops began to arrive in significant numbers. By midsummer the worst German threat was over. Henceforth, as Liddell Hart writes, “Foch beat a tattoo on the German front, a series of rapid blows at different points, each broken off as soon as its initial impetus waned.”
By the late fall, the German army was on the point of disintegration. Foch felt that the war had gone on long enough. On November 8-11, 1918, in a railway carriage at a forest siding near Compi[egrave]gne, he personally dictated armistice terms to a German delegation. At last, but not too late, he had learned when to stop.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.