During the last seven months of World War One, Ferdinand Foch served in what was then a unique position: the acknowledged commander of all Allied forces. For most of the war, such a role would have seemed unthinkable, but Foch performed it well. Foch was many things: an influential theorist, a capable strategist, and an inspiring leader, but above all, he was a gifted communicator with fellow commanders, able to bridge international rivalries and guide his colleagues to victory.
Foch began his military career in 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War began. Born in 1851, he was certainly the right age to take up arms in the nation’s defense, but in fact, he did not serve in combat. Having missed the taste of battle in 1870 and 1871, but choosing to remain with the Army for his career, he built up a fine career as a peacetime soldier. He gained some practical experience in the artillery, but then made a name for himself as a teacher and theorist at the War School (Ecole de Guerre). In 1903, he confirmed this role in French military history with the publication of “Principles of War.” In part, this book dealt with the psychology of war, but its most influential tenet lay in its emphasis on the attack. As a theorist and teacher, Foch therefore played a substantial role in the cultivation of a cultish devotion to the offensive in the French military.
In 1913, he assumed command of the prestigious XX Corps. He rose quickly, being placed in command of Ninth Army on August 28, just before the Battle of the Marne. His sector was among the hardest hit during the battle, be he endured in keeping with his psychological approach to battle. In the end, it was the will to win that counted the most, and to support that will, he committed troops that many other commanders would have held in reserve. Later, he would say of this approach, “The day will be carried by the side which holds out longest. Battles are won with remnants.” It certainly held true at the Marne.
In recognition of Foch’s ability, General Joffre made Foch his representative in the north. Before the post was formalized in January as command of the Northern Army Group, it was first tested by the German offensive that became the First Battle of Ypres. Here Foch would serve until the end of 1916, but it was a time of stalemate and general frustration; it is also worth noting that Foch served in precisely the theater where British and Belgian efforts were also immediately relevant to his own fortunes, but at that time, coordination among the forces was poor. Significantly, Foch participated in the Battle of the Somme, one that was both strategically and tactically meant to be a joint effort. The battle was fought primarily to give the French some relief at Verdun, and it was to be carried out at the juncture of French and British sectors. It failed, however, to achieve most of its goals, and this, combined with the deterioration of General Joffre’s own position, saw Foch reassigned.
In 1917, he received an opportunity to revive his career when Marshal Petain, the savior of Verdun, tapped him for the role of Chief of Staff in the French Army as he assumed the role of Commander in Chief on May 15. In this capacity, he consulted on several occasions with the Italian leadership, but most famously in November 1917, after Italy’s grave defeat at Caporetto. The new Italian Chief of Staff, Diaz, pledged to maintain the fight even if he needed to retreat to Sicily; Foch suggested that Diaz focus, for the time being, on the defense of the river Piave, where the front line then stood. While Foch could be direct and even sharp-tongued, he proved a good choice for coordinating the efforts of multiple armies, a vital skill as the Allies scrambled to shore up Italy’s flagging efforts. The creation of the Supreme War Council was an important step in facilitating such coordination.
March 1918 brought the beginning of the great German offenses. Their scale drove home the need for united command on the Allied side, and on March 26 (the sixth day of the attack), Foch was empowered as coordinator for the Western Front by the Supreme War Council. On April 3, at the end of the first German offensive, he was officially named commander in chief. All of the Allied powers, including the United States, were in agreement on this, although in practice, the American General John J Pershing represented the greatest challenge to Foch’s authority; Pershing wanted to ensure that the American Expeditionary Force came into its own before the end of the war, and only slowly made concessions to the larger needs that Foch presented.
Foch had identified Amiens as the chief priority; as the German attacks began to flag in the middle of July, Foch called for a series of limited offensives to clear bulges in the front line and protect French railroad connections.
With these small offensives successful, the Allies were able to begin the fight for Amiens in August, the first of the Allied offensives of the late summer and fall of 1918. For the Germans, this offensive alone was considered the decisive defeat in the war, with all subsequent fighting serving only to determine the timeframe and nature of a peace settlement. In September, Foch turned his attention an effort to degrade almost the entire German line in France and Belgium through a series of seemingly separate attacks. These attacks were meant to seem unrelated, in order to foil German efforts to respond in any systematic way; of course, such an effort requires a higher level of coordination. These attacks, including the famous Meuse-Argonne battle, nearly expelled the Germans from French territory and recaptured about a quarter of Belgium.
In October, Germany began to press for a peace arrangement, and in November, Foch agreed; the meeting proved to be a private affair between the German delegation and Foch, accompanied by a British admiral. There was to be no negotiation, only a set of terms that would be accepted or not. As it happened, the Germans accepted those terms, and fighting ended on November 11; to Foch’s disappointment, however, the subsequent peace treaty was not as harsh as he would have liked. He chose not to pursue the matter through politics, deciding instead to retire, although he has captured the imagination of future historians with another of his famous quotes, this one predicting another war in twenty years.
While the accuracy of his timeframe is startling, this need not be seen as proof that his position on the Versailles Treaty was correct, or even that he was especially foresighted. It might be noted that his vision failed him at times, such as when he denied that the airplane would have any military significance before World War One began. Rather, it should be remembered that his military career began with the Franco-Prussian War and ended with World War One. During the entire time in between, France ached to avenge itself on Germany. If the peace treaty were insufficiently harsh, Germany would be able to return the favor much sooner.
During the last decade that remained to him, Foch enjoyed much honor. Most notable of these was the bestowal of a Field Marshal’s rank in the British Army. While this act was not without precedent, it is exceptionally rare, even more so for the fact that Foch had never served in British uniform during his career. He was quick to point out, however, that he had certainly served the British cause during World War One. He died in 1929, and so he never saw the future war that he had predicted; his greatest legacy, perhaps, was the joint Allied command structure that worked so well under General Eisenhower during World War Two.
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