Ferdinand Foch

Nation: France

Military Leader

Birth Date: October 2, 1851
France Ferdinand Foch Military Leader Cover
I. Birth and Childhood
II. Studies Amid Franco-Prussian War
III. Early Phase of World War I
IV. Allied Commander-in-Chief
V. Last Phase of World War I
[John French Memoirs] Foch in World War I
I. Birth and Childhood
Foch was born in October 1851 at Tarbes, in the south of France. He was the son of a civil servant and an exact contemporary of Castelnau and Joffre both of whom were also born in the south of France. Tarbes lies not far from Pau and Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrennes, and has long been famous for a breed of horses suitable for cavalry.

In the mid-1860s, Foch's father moved from Tarbes to Rodez, almost two hundred miles northeast of the old home. It was quite an uprooting. Tarbes was the ancestral country. The removal was due to the father's appointment as a paymaster at Rodez. Here the family found themselves in a new and quite different atmosphere. Soon afterward they went to Saint-Etienne near Lyons, the father having been appointed a tax collector there.

Halsey, F. W. (1920). Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France and Allied Generalissimo. In The Literary digest history of the world war: Compiled from original and contemporary sources: American, British, French, German, and others (Vol. 10, p. 111). New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
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II. Studies Amid Franco-Prussian War
In 1869, Foch was sent to Metz to attend the Jesuit College of Saint Clement, to which students came from many parts of Europe. He had been there only a year when the Franco-Prussian War began, and he enlisted for the duration of the war. However of this, his first war experience, there is little to relate. Foch was just one of a multitude of young men who rushed to the colors when France called for troops and did what they could in a time of great confusion and disaster.

Just at the time when his fall term should have begun at Saint Clement's, Metz was under siege by the Germans. Its garrison and inhabitants were suffering horribly from hunger and disease. Paris was surrounded. German headquarters had been established at Versailles. The imperial standard, dear to Foch because of the great Napoleon, was lowered and a white flag had been hoisted at Sedan, where the Emperor and his army were in captivity.

In the autumn of 1871, Foch took up military studies at the Ecole Polytechnique in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Paris was then scarred and seared as the result of the German bombardment and the fury of the Communards, which together destroyed nearly two hundred and fifty public and other buildings. The government organized at Bordeaux had avoided the capital and gone to Versailles, recently evacuated by the Germans.

Among the approximately two hundred students at the Polytechnic besides Foch was Joffre, who was his junior by three months and had entered the school in 1869. Joffre's studies has been interrupted by war, and he had now had come back to resume them. After Joffre was graduated in 1872, he went to the School of Applied Artillery at Fontainebleau. Foch, who graduated about six months later, then followed him to Fontainebleau to get the same special training. Both were hard students, tremendously in earnest, both heavy-hearted over the ruin of France, and both hoping the day might come when they could serve her and help restore what she had lost.

When Foch reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he was appointed professor in strategy and general tactics at the Ecole de Guerre. Ten years later, after holding commands in various armies, he was made director of the school.

Halsey, F. W. (1920). Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France and Allied Generalissimo. In The Literary digest history of the world war: Compiled from original and contemporary sources: American, British, French, German, and others (Vol. 10, pp. 111-112). New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
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III. Early Phase of World War I
At the end of August 1914, the great Allied retreat was in progress in Belgium and Northern France, with the Tenth French Division retreating in the direction of Reims. Foch, one day after serving in Lorraine under Castelnau, was walking in front of the Hotel de Ville in the marketplace of Attigny, having just assumed command of a new army expressly created for him. Only a few days later the retreat ended and the Battle of the Marne began. Near the end of the battle the Prussian Guard in a colossal effort smashed through Foch's right and, wild with joy, began to celebrate. When Foch heard of the disaster, he telegraphed to general headquarters a famous message: "My center gives way; my right recedes; the situation is excellent. I shall attack."

Foch then gave his order to attack, with all he cared about at stake. Having given the order to attack, Foch went alone for a walk on the outskirts of the little village where he had established his headquarters, awaiting the issue of that famous stroke at Le Fere Champenoise which was to prove decisive in the conflict.

Foch had demanded a final and sudden effort of heroism from sorely tried troops. He had improvised a skillful maneuver. The Germans had driven themselves into the French as a wedge, until their front had the form of an elbow. Foch, having the genius to turn to advantage a position which appeared wholly favorable to the Germans, slipped one of his divisions abruptly from left to right in such a way as to throw it suddenly on the German flank. The movement took the Germans by surprise and made the battle a French victory. On a smaller scale, it was the same kind of maneuver that Joffre had used in throwing Mannoury's army against the flank of Kluck on the Ourcq, and in each case the result was a French success. The two maneuvers were deciding causes of the German retreat to the Aisne.

After the Aisne battle in the early days of October, Foch, who had been directing an army in the center of the Allied line, was transferred to the French left wing and given a far more important command. All French armies in the north were placed under his orders. He was also accorded the delicate task of achieving complete unity of effort between French, British, and Belgian armies. Foch thus became virtually commander-in-chief of the troops which resisted the German onslaught in Flanders.

Halsey, F. W. (1920). Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France and Allied Generalissimo. In The Literary digest history of the world war: Compiled from original and contemporary sources: American, British, French, German, and others (Vol. 10, pp. 110-111). New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
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IV. Allied Commander-in-Chief
Foch was actually for a time without a command, but it appeared that he was engaged in important duties. During M. Painleve's tenure of the War Office, Foch returned to service on May 15, 1917 as Chief of the General Staff. The public had heard little of Foch in the year which preceded his appointment. The reason was that he had been in a car accident in June 1916, or a short time before the opening of the Battle of the Somme, for which he had been preparing from his headquarters in Amiens.

Foch had been kept on the active list despite nearing sixty years of age. This was by special decree, owing to his services in Lorraine in August 1914, in the Battle of the Marne in September, and in command of the armies of the north from Compiegne to the sea after October 4, 1914.

In 1916, Foch was dealing with various problems relating to the inter-Allied action, but carried out the work in comparative obscurity, first at Senlis, then in eastern France. His duties were the organization of the defenses of Jura in anticipation of a turning movement by the Germans through Switzerland and the framing of plans for Italy in case of an emergency arising from an Austrian offensive.

The formula of an Allied Commander-in-Chief had been mooted for a long time when Lloyd George, speaking in Paris in November 1917 on his return from Italy where Foch was helping to hold the Austro-Germans on the Piave, made public confession of his conversion to the idea. However, national and personal susceptibilities were awakened by the suggestion in London, and this compelled Lloyd George to defer action. President Wilson, at the Allied conference which followed shortly thereafter, at which he was represented by Colonel House, threw the weight of American opinion into the scale in favor of unity of command. Then came the supreme argument in its favor out of the mouths of German cannon thundering past Bapaume and Noyon toward Arras and Amiens. To that argument there was no answer, and especially after Pershing had placed all the American resources in France under French direction in his "all we have" message that will never be forgotten in France.

Foch was soon proclaimed Allied Commander-in-Chief by agreement between Great Britain, France, and the United States. These nations thus made one man their collective agent, to use supreme authority to the best of his ability. All their war resources were at his disposal against the German onslaught. Coincidentally, Foch was the man whose indomitable spirit and infinite resourcefulness years before had appealed so forcibly to Clemenceau during a previous premiership that he had appointed him head of the War College, a post for which Foch was not a candidate. Much of the brilliant work done by the French Army in this war was directly traceable to the spirit which Foch had instilled into it at the War College, and later on the field at the Marne, Ypres, and elsewhere.

Halsey, F. W. (1920). Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France and Allied Generalissimo. In The Literary digest history of the world war: Compiled from original and contemporary sources: American, British, French, German, and others (Vol. 10, pp. 114-116). New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
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V. Last Phase of World War I
The Germans began their last great offensive on March 21, 1918, and succeeded within the next few days in entering Peronne, capturing the Ancre heights, and forcing the French out of Noyon. On March 26th, a conference met at Doullens and the serious situation was discussed. It was then that the Allied operations were placed under the control of Foch and on March 30th his appointment was publically announced.

During the hard fighting in June, when asked what he thought of the situation, Foch replied, "If I had to choose between Hindenburg's cards and my cards, I would choose my own." Foch had bided his time, and when that time came, the day of July 18th, he launched his counter-offensive against the weak point of the enemy's front, the Soissons-Chateau-Thierry line, and followed up that success by blow after blow, carefully organized and relentlessly effective. It was then that the French government decided upon giving the highest order it could to the organizer of the victory - the title of Marshal of France.

As a dominant military leader, representing the military element, Foch exerted great influence at the Peace Conference. He shared with Joffre the honors bestowed by his grateful nation.

Foch had the misfortune to lose a son and a son-in-law in the war. Rene Puaux said of him, "No man is more modest, more simple. Above the indomitable energy which characterizes him there is a tenderness, a grand melancholy. I seem to see him going, alone, to the church at Cassel, when it was deserted, there to meditate on his task and to seek comfort for the great grief of which he never spoke."

Foch, Marshal of France. (1920). In M. C. Darnton (Ed.), Harper's pictorial library of the world war (Vol. 9, p. 153). Harper & Bros: New York & London.
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[John French Memoirs] Foch in World War I
The following in an excerpt from 1914, a book released in 1919 by England's Field Marshal John Denton Pinkstone French. This book was highly criticized for factual inaccuracies, but French's published opinions concerning Foch are pertinent. It was Foch who wrote the short preface for the same book, in which he commended French's leadership.

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The armies under de Castelnau and de Maud'huy, with some cavalry divisions, formed a "group" under the supreme command of General Foch, who was directed also to exercise general control over all the French armies operating in the northern theatre.

No personal record of my share in the war would be satisfactory to me did it not include special mention of this remarkable man and eminent soldier. Like his great friend Henry Wilson in England, he was at one time head of the Staff College in France. Shortly before the war he paid several visits to England. It was on the occasion of one of these that I first made his acquaintance. All the world knows the splendid work he did in the first weeks of the war, and it gave me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction to find myself so closely associated with him in the northern theatre. I hope it is not too much to say that, during this time, our acquaintance ripened into a fast and firm friendship, which has increased and expanded ever since.

I regard General Foch as one of the finest soldiers and most capable leaders I have ever known. In appearance he is slight and small of stature, albeit with a most wiry and active frame. It is in his eyes and the expression of his face that one sees his extraordinary power. He appreciates a military situation like lightning, with marvellous accuracy, and evinces wonderful skill and versatility in dealing with it. Animated by a consuming energy, his constant exclamation "Attaque! Attaque! Attaque!" reflected his state of mind, and there can be no doubt that he imbued his troops with much of his spirit. Of all the generals in this great struggle he most resembled in audacious strategy his great master Napoleon.

Personally I owe a great deal to his invaluable help and cordial cooperation. In the darkest hours of our work together and there were many such I never knew him anything but what I have described bold, hopeful, and cheery, but ever vigilant, wary, and full of resource.

French, J. D. (1919). The last days of the British operations on the Aisne - The northern move. In 1914 (pp. 201-202). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
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