World War I: Marshal Ferdinand Foch

General Ferdinand Foch
General Ferdinand Foch. (Public Domain)

Marshal Ferdinand Foch was a noted French commander during World War I. Playing a key role in the First Battle of the Marne, he later became supreme commander of Allied forces. In this role, Foch received the German request for an armistice.

Dates: October 2, 1851 – March 20, 1929

Early Life & Career

Born October 2, 1851, at Tarbez, France, Ferdinand Foch was the son of a civil servant. After attending school locally, he entered the Jesuit College at St.

Etienne. Resolving to seek a military career at an early age after being enthralled by stories of the Napoleonic Wars by his elder relatives, Foch enlisted in the French Army in 1870 during Franco-Prussian War. Following the French defeat the following year, he elected to remain in the service and began attending the Ècole Polytechnique. Completing his education three years later, he received a commission as a lieutenant in the 24th Artillery. Promoted to captain in 1885, Foch began taking classes at the Ècole Supérieure de Guerre (War College). Graduating two years later, he proved to be one of the best military minds in his class.

Military Theorist

After moving through various postings over the next decade, Foch was invited to return to the Ècole Supérieure de Guerre as an instructor. In his lectures, he became one of the first to thoroughly analyze operations during the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian Wars.

Recognized as France's "most original military thinker of his generation," Foch was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1898. His lectures were later published as On the Principles of War (1903) and On the Conduct of War (1904). Though his teachings advocated for well-developed offensives and attacks, they were later misinterpreted and used to support those who believed in the cult of the offensive during the early days of World War I.

Foch remained at the college until 1900, when political machinations saw him forced to return to a line regiment. Promoted to colonel in 1903, Foch became chief of staff for V Corps two years later.

In 1907, Foch was elevated to brigadier general and, after brief service with the General Staff of the War Ministry, returned to the Ècole Supérieure de Guerre as commandant. Remaining at the school for four years, he received a promotion to major general in 1911 and lieutenant general two years later. This last promotion brought him command of XX Corps which was stationed at Nancy. Foch was in this post when World War I began in August 1914. Part of General Vicomte de Curières de Castelnau's Second Army, XX Corps took part in the Battle of the Frontiers. Performing well despite the French defeat, Foch was selected by the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joseph Joffre, to lead the newly-formed Ninth Army.

The Marne & Race to the Sea

Assuming command, Foch moved his men into a gap between the Fourth and Fifth Armies. Taking part in the First Battle of the Marne, Foch's troops halted several German attacks. During the fighting, he famously reported, "Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding.

Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack." Counterattacking, Foch pushed the Germans back across the Marne and liberated Châlons on September 12. With the Germans establishing a new position behind the Aisne River, both sides began the Race to the Sea with the hope of turning the other's flank. To aid in coordinating French actions during this phase of the war, Joffre named Foch Assistant Commander-in-Chief on October 4 with responsibility for overseeing the northern French armies and working with the British.

Northern Army Group

In this role, Foch directed French forces during the First Battle of Ypres later that month. For his efforts, he received an honorary knighthood from King George V. As fighting continued into 1915, he oversaw French efforts during the Artois Offensive that fall.

A failure, it gained little ground in exchange for a large number of casualties. In July 1916, Foch commanded French troops during the Battle of the Somme. Severely criticized for the severe losses sustained by French forces during the course of the battle, Foch was removed from command in December. Sent to Senlis, he was charged with leading a planning group. With the ascent of General Philippe Pétain to Commander-in-Chief in May 1917, Foch was recalled and made Chief of the General Staff.

Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies

In the fall of 1917, Foch received orders for Italy to aid in re-establishing their lines in the wake of the Battle of Caporetto. The following March, the Germans unleashed the first of their Spring Offensives. With their forces being driven back, Allied leaders met at Doullens on March 26, 1918, and appointed Foch to coordinate the Allied defense. A subsequent meeting at Beauvais in early April saw Foch receive the power to oversee the strategic direction of the war effort. Finally, on April 14, he was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies. Halting the Spring Offensives in bitter fighting, Foch was able to defeat the German's last thrust at the Second Battle of the Marne that summer. For his efforts, he was made a Marshal of France on August 6.

With the Germans checked, Foch began planning for a series offensives against the spent enemy. Coordinating with Allied commanders such as Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and General John J. Pershing, he ordered as series of attacks which saw the Allies win clear victories at Amiens and St. Mihiel. In late September, Foch began operations against the Hindenburg Line as offensives began in Meuse-Argonne, Flanders, and Cambrai-St. Quentin. Forcing the Germans to retreat, these assaults ultimately shattered their resistance and led to Germany seeking an armistice. This was granted and the document was signed on Foch's train car in the Forest of Compiègne on November 11.

Postwar

As peace negotiations moved forward at Versailles in early 1919, Foch argued extensively for the demilitarization and separation of the Rhineland from Germany, as he felt it offered an ideal springboard for future German attacks to the west.

Angered by the final peace treaty, which he felt was a capitulation, he stated with great foresight that "This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years." In the years immediately after the war, he offered assistance to the Poles during Great Poland Uprising and the 1920 Polish-Bolshevik War. In recognition, Foch was made a Marshal of Poland in 1923. As he had been made an honorary British Field Marshal in 1919, this distinction gave him the rank in three different countries. Fading in influence as the 1920s passed, Foch died on March 20, 1929 and was buried at Les Invalides in Paris.

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