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General Ferdinand Foch, Commander French Ninth Army, Great War (First World War, WWI) 1914

Updated on February 5, 2015

Foch - First Soldier In Europe

Ferdinand Foch's name should have endured when many men as well or better known at the period will have been forgotten.

His is the rare case of the student who was able to put his life-long theories into successful practice, to bring, for example, as much severely logical intelligence to bear on the art of war as the best of the German generals, and to adopt and to beat them in their favourite methods of "spear-head attack," with the great and outstanding difference and distinction that genius ever displays against even the most highly trained talent.

Reviewing the first year of the war, a careful critic declared that General Foch

"... had some claims to be considered the first soldier in Europe."

La Vie du Marechal Foch

Famous French leader: Foch (right), Joffre (centre) & D'Urbal (left)
Famous French leader: Foch (right), Joffre (centre) & D'Urbal (left) | Source

Foch - A Subaltern in the War of 1870-71

1851

  • Ferdinand Foch was born in the same year as General Joffre, and was a native of the same part of France, the Pyrenees.

General Foch entered the world-conflict with the ease and grace of a young man; he was slim of figure, rapid and precise in speech, with piercing grey-blue eyes.

He was a man capable of translating thought into action in an instant.

He studied for the Army at Fontainebleau.

1870 to 1871

  • he first saw service as a subaltern in the Franco-Prussian War, taking part in the fierce fighting round Sedan.

1877

  • at the age of twenty-six he was given a captaincy in an artillery regiment.

A Staff appointment followed, then an artillery command at Vincennes.

1896 to 1901

  • he was professor of strategy and tactics at the Ecole de Guerre.
  • No one man did more to fashion the pattern of the contemporary soldier of France.
  • Some of his lectures were published, notably those on " The Principles of War," "The Conduct of War," and "Tactics of the Battlefield."
    They quickly reached the status of military classics in every European country.

1903

  • General Foch became a colonel.

1907

  • he became a general.

1907 to 1911

  • he was Commandant at the Ecole de Guerre and a member of the French General Staff.

Later he held the Governorship of Nice ; then he was appointed to the command of the Eighth Army Corps at Bourges.

1912

  • he was head of the French Mission which attended the manoeuvres of the British Army.

When war broke out he was commanding the Twentieth Corps at Nancy, where he was frequently the host of officers of the British Staff.

His first opportunity for putting his theories to the test came in Lorraine.

General Foch
General Foch | Source

Foch - Victor of the Marne

1914

  • early September
    in command of the new Ninth Army, General Foch came into touch with the enemy near Sezanne, and after, with masterly skill, conducting a three days' retirement between Sezanne and Mailly, he was able to turn upon the foe, and, by driving a wedge between the forces of Von Bulow and Von Hausen, and smashing the Prussian Guards opposing his centre into the marshes of St. Gond, he contributed materially perhaps more than any other individual commander to the crucial victory of the Marne.

  • At the Battle of the Aisne, Foch greatly distinguished himself in the fighting around Rheims.

  • Then began the co-operation between him and the British Commander-in-Chief, to which Lord French's official despatches bear eloquent witness, when Foch was in control of the French forces operating north of Noyon and Compiegne.

A dramatic story is told in this connection.

1914

  • November
    in the early hours of a grey morning, when the British were being hard-pressed, and it seemed as though prudence directed a retirement, General Foch is reported to have broken into the deliberations with the remark:

" The Germans have sixteen corps in front of us; with yours, we have only ten. If you retire, I shall have only eight. I give you my word as a soldier, I will die rather than retire. Give me yours."

General French listened in silence.

Then he grasped General Foch firmly by the hand.

The understanding was mutual.

The thin British line held its ground, though every available unit was called into the fray.

But in the end, the Germans suffered one of the most sanguinary defeats in their history.

1914

  • December
    during his first visit to the western front, King George invested General Foch with the Grand Cross of the Bath.

General Foch
General Foch | Source

Foch - Leader on the Somme

1915

  • May
    after the first battle of Ypres, when his co-operation with the British undoubtedly saved Calais, and the battle of Soissons, which again left him with a greatly enhanced reputation as a strategist, General Foch directed the French offensive between Arras and Lens.

1916

  • July
    General Foch's activities during the ensuing twelve months fully justified General Joffre's action in entrusting him with the conduct of the French operations on the Somme, when, with re-created armies, and the aid of General Fayolle, he organised the great thrust at Peronne.
    This thrust provided an admirable object-lesson not only in the unity of action in the French command, but of the general superiority of French tactics and French patience.

It became generally known during the fighting on the Somme that General Joffre had fixed upon the little town of Peronne as an objective as far back as the date of the German stand on the Aisne.

But, despite their spies and all their elaborate schemes for gaining intelligence, the enemy were successfully lulled into a feeling of security.

The country round Peronne was left alone until the hour had struck for the allied offensive.

Then Foch knew the man for the work - General Fayolle - an old colleague of his in Artois, and one who had also fought with Petain in Champagne.

Foch & Clemenceau

Foch's Favourite Maxim

One of General Foch's favourite maxims was

"Find out the weak spot of your enemy, and deliver your blow there."

"But suppose, general," remarked an officer of his Staff, "that the enemy has no weak spot?"

"In that case," was Foch's terse reply, " make one."

Although born with the brain of a mathematician, General Foch never made the Teuton mistake of regarding war as an exact science.

He never lost sight of the mental and moral factors essential to victory.

He proved himself a philosopher as well as an exponent of strategy and tactics.

For an officer he maintained that discipline meant a thorough apprehension of an order ; in other words, not the execution of orders in so far as they appear suitable or reasonable to the officer to whom they are given, but just "… action in the sense of orders received."

As for the men in the ranks, he made it his care consistently to get into personal contact with as many as possible, to find out and remove merely irksome and useless regulations, and, to the fullest extent of his power and opportunity, to improve the health and general well-being of all under his command.

Ferdinand Foch

Foch's Admiration for the British Soldier

An old friend of Lord French, he entertained before the war the highest belief in the splendid fighting qualities of the British soldier.

During the British Army manoeuvres in 1912, already referred to, he said to Sir John French,

Your cavalry and artillery are excellent. Your infantry ? Well, I would sooner fight with it than against it."

Two years later, to the day almost, when he was visited at Doullens by the British Commander-in-Chief, he recalled the words he had spoken at Aldershot, adding :

"I did not imagine then that the time would so quickly arrive when we should be fighting side by side ; but now that it has come, and now that I have had more than one opportunity of proving the worth of your splendid soldiers, I can repeat and amplify all I then said, and with tenfold emphasis."

The British, on their part, soon learned to appreciate at their proper worth the great gifts and compelling personality of the French generalissimo's right-hand man.

!/3 General Foch

3/3 Marshal Foch

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