Ferdinand Foch was a French general of the First World War, who was appointed as the first supreme commander of all Allied troops during the German offensives of early 1918 and who masterminded the great series of Allied attacks that eventually ended the war.
Unlike many of his contemporaries of the First World War he did not attend St. Cyr. Instead he attended the École Polytechnique from 1871-1984, after a brief delay caused by the Franco-Prussian War, in which he enlisted as a private. After leaving the École, Foch joined the artillery as a lieutenant, and rose rapidly through the ranks. He attended the War College between 1885 and 1887, graduating near the top of his class, and returning as a teacher between 1895 and 1900.
In 1900 he left the college to take up a minor field command. During this period he published his first book, The Principles of War (1903), in which he emphasised the importance of determination and a will to victory on the part of a commander and the power of the offensive. With hindsight these views look rather naive, but they could be supported by an examination of the Franco-Prussian war.
The book was popular amongst his colleagues, and Foch continued to rise. In 1907 he was made chief of staff to V corps and promoted to brigadier general. In 1908 Clemenceau, then Premier for the first time, appointed him to command the War College. In 1911 he was promoted to major-general and given command of a division, then in 1913 he was given VIII corps.
At the outbreak of the First World War Foch was commander of XX corps, based on the border with Lorraine. During the battle of Lorraine he led his corps to Morhange and back (battle of Morhange, August 1914). This was either an example of a skilful determined advance, or a dangerous failure to obey orders that exposed the flank of Castelnau’s army to German attack. Whichever it was, the French invasion of Lorraine soon ended in failure as the Germans counterattacked, and Castelnau was forced back to Nancy. Foch played an important part in making sure that Castelnau defended the line of the Meurthe (battle of the Grande Couronne of Nancy, 25 August-11 September).
Foch was not present for most of this battle. On 28 August Joffre promoted him to command the new Ninth Army, filling a gap between the Fourth (Franchet d’Esperey) and Fifth (Langle de Cary) Armies. This army played a vital but un-dramatic part in the first battle of the Marne, holding of a series of German attacks on the right of the French line (4-9 September). While the French counterattack was made further west, if the line had crumpled to the east the battle would have ended in a German victory.
Foch’s next move came during the Race to the Sea. As the fighting moved north into Artois (first battle of Artois, 27 September-10 October 1914), Castelnau and Maud’hoy began run into trouble. Maud’hoy reported that he would soon need to retreat from Arras to avoid being trapped, and Joffre was worried that Castelnau might retreat to the Somme. On 4 October Foch was made Joffre’s deputy, and appointed to command all French forces in the north. Here his determination and his ability to motivate his new subordinates helped to stabilise the line, as did his control of all French reserves in the area.
In January 1915 Foch was created commander of the Northern Army Group. During 1915 he directed the two Artois offensives (second battle of Artois, 9 May-18 June and third battle of Artois, 25 September-30 October 1915). These offensives achieved little or nothing, but did convince Foch that it was no longer possible to achieve the decisive breakthrough in a single attack,
In 1916 Foch commanded the French armies during the first battle of the Somme (June-November 1916). The French advanced further than the British, and suffered fewer casualties, but Foch’s fate was now linked more to that of Joffre than to his own activities. In December Joffre was replaced by General Nivelle, and Foch was moved from his army group command to head a study group at Senlis.
This was the low point of his wartime career. During the first half of 1917 he spent most of his time creating contingency plans, with no direct impact on the conduct of the war. One of these contingency plans would play an important part in Foch’s return to high command. In May 1917 Nivelle had been replaced by Pétain, who employed Foch as chief of the General Staff, still a planning role, but a much more important one. Then in October the Germans and Austrians attacked at Caporetto and the Italian line collapsed. This was one of the scenarios that Foch had studied at Senlis, and so he was dispatched to Italy to help encourage their resistance. He was able to put his plans into effect, moving French and British divisions into Italy, where they helped to stabilise the Italian line.
The next step in Foch’s rise to supreme command was the return of Clemenceau as Premier. This gave him a friend in the highest of places. He was also respected by the British and by Haig. The crisis on the western front began on 21 March, with the first of Ludendorff’s five great offensives (second battle of the Somme, 21 March-4 April 1918). This attack threatened to split the British and French apart. Pétain began to talk about retreating to defend Paris, abandoning the link with the British.
On 26 March an Allied conference took place at Doullens. Haig agreed to serve under the overall command of Foch, having fought to preserve his independence since being promoted to command the BEF. The new Generalissimo had the authority to coordinate the operations of the British and French armies. On 3 April his powers were expanded to give him strategic direction to the armies, although both Haig and Pétain retained the right to appeal to their national governments. On 14 April he finally became Allied Command in Chief, with full authority over the British, French and Americans. Crucially, in June Pétain lost his right of appeal. He would only gain command over the Belgian army in September – the situation there was complicated by the presence of King Albert in the field as head of state and commander in chief of his armies.
Foch didn’t play a massive role in repelling the German offensive on the Somme. His appointment came in time to prevent Pétain from retreating, but the German offensive faded in the face of determined resistance and increasingly long and slow supply lines. However, as Foch’s powers increased his ability to coordinate the response to Ludendorff’s next four offensives increased with them.
Foch gained his real fame in the last hundred days of the war. The allied counterattack began with the Champagne-Marne Offensive (15-18 July 1918), launched by General Mangin, also returned to favour after falling from grace in 1916. The Germans were forced to abandon their final offensive, and withdraw from the Marne salient. Foch then began a series of attacks designed to iron out the Amiens and St. Mihiel salients. With the success of these attacks, Foch planned for a general assault on the Hindenburg Line. This began at the end of September (Meuse River-Argonne Forest offensive of 26 September-11 November, battle of Flanders and the battle of Cambrai-St. Quentin, 27 September-9 October 1918).
These attacks pushed the Germans out of their great defensive position, and forced them into a retreat back towards their borders. While Foch began to plan for a 1919 campaign, the German high command admitted they had lost, and pressed for peace. On 11 November 1918 the fighting ended.
In the aftermath of the war Foch alienated Clemenceau, arguing forcefully for an even harsher peace that was eventually agreed at Versailles. As a result Foch’s influence faded, and he decided not to press his cause by entering politics. By the time of his death in 1929 Foch was an honorary field marshal in the British Army, a marshal of France and a member of the Académie Française. He was the best French general of the First World War, with the vision to coordinate a massive three pronged offensive using British, French, Belgian and American troops. He learnt from his failures in 1915 and even during the Hundred Days did not relying on achieving a breakthrough. That Haig was willing to abandon his long-defended independence says much about Foch’s qualities.
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