The name of Ferdinand Foch (centre right and standing up in the picture above) is often regarded a contentious one. Like many of the commanders on the Western front, he is often scapegoated for the deaths of tens of thousands of men, his mistakes proving incredibly costly.
However his contribution to the allied war effort in World War One was integral in ensuring allied victory. A determined and incredibly skilled man, Foch would later be proclaimed by writer and former soldier Michael Carver as “the most original military thinker of his generation”.
This article will explore the early life of this military virtuoso, as well as his exhaustive range of military exploits.
Before the War
Ferdinand Foch was born 2 October 1851 in Tarbes near the French-Spanish border. He took an interest in the military from an early age and enlisted as an infantryman in the Franco-Prussian War. After the war Foch trained as an officer from 1871-3. He received his commission in 1873 and became a lieutenant in the artillery.
Conspicuously able from the outset he rose through the ranks relatively quickly. This was in spite of the fact that his brother was a Jesuit priest, which may well have hindered Foch’s progression as the Republican government of France was fiercely anti-clerical.
Foch taught at the military academy in Paris and published influential works on military theory; he was renowned for his advocacy of offensive strategies – strategies viewed with scepticism in France at the time. In 1907 he was made commandant of the École Militaire and, later, of the Staff College.
A physically short man, Foch remained a strong and highly intelligent figure. He was known for his unwavering work rate: historian Denis Winter recounts that, “other than always taking his meals at noon and 7:30pm, he would often work irregular hours from dawn until well into the night.”
The Great War
Foch was General of the French 2nd Army at the outbreak of war and garnered praise for his victories at Nancy and the First Battle of the Marne. In light of his early successes he was commander-in-chief of the Northern Army Group; but after defeats at Artois and the First Battle of the Somme he was transferred to Italy.
Subsequently. Foch was recalled to the Western Front and by 15 May 1917 his reputation had recovered sufficiently that he was made Chief of Staff – a member of France’s supreme war council. He continued to impress and was eventually made commander-in-chief of the allies in Belgium and France.
Being made the Supreme Allied Commander in the spring of 1918, Foch was immediately faced with the renewed German spring offensive (‘Kaiserschlacht’). He won a decisive victory at Villers-Cotterêts on 18 July 1918 which pushed the German High Command toward the realisation that they could not win the war.
The historian Larry Addington heaps praise onto Foch’s strategy, going as far as to state,
“to a large extent the final Allied strategy which won the war on land in Western Europe in 1918 was Foch’s alone.”
After the War
On 11 November Foch accepted the German surrender. He later appeared as a negotiator at the Versailles where he called unsuccessfully for a new French-German border following the course of the Rhine.
He himself was not at all happy with the outcome of the Versailles treaty, prophetically saying, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years”. World War Two started 20 years and 65 days later.
In recognition of his efforts he was made an honorary marshal of the Polish army and field-marshal of the British army. He went on to receive many further accolades and had numerous places and objects named for him.
Foch died on 20 March 1929 at the age of 77 and was buried with full military honours at Les Invalides alongside other notable French military figures including Napoleon.