October 4, 1851
March 20, 1929
Marshal Ferdinand Foch had a great influence on the French military during his lifetime. Head of the national military academy for three years, he led several French regiments in many of the critical battles of World War I. Near the end of the war he was made head of all the Allied armies, and his bold strategies and strong will helped ensure the victory over Germany in 1918. Though many have disagreed with his philosophy and his tactics, Foch is still viewed as the single person most responsible for the Allied victory in World War I.
Dreams of War
Ferdinand Foch was born in the town of Tarbes, at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains in southwestern France, on October 4, 1851. His family was solidly middle class and had lived in the region for generations before Ferdinand and his sister and two brothers were born. Ferdinand's father, Bertrand Foch, was a lawyer and civil servant (a person employed by the government). Strict and demanding, he was not a harsh man, but one who loved his children and expected hard work and good behavior from them. Ferdinand's mother, Sophie, was kindhearted, though like her husband, she believed in teaching discipline and religious devotion.
At a very early age, Ferdinand Foch began to long for the life of a soldier. His mother's father had been a soldier in the army of Emperor Napoléon I (1769–1821), the flamboyant French military leader. Foch reveled in the war stories told by his great-aunt Jenny Nogues, who had been married to a soldier in Napoléon's army. Foch listened for hours while his greataunt told stories of the battles and adventures of the dashing Napoléon, one of France's great heroes. While he learned about the great battles, Foch also learned about Napoléon's strong personality and great force of will, both of which made Napoléon a powerful leader. Napoléon embodied a characteristic that Foch would come to value highly. In French it is called élan, which means spirit and energy plus a little showmanship and flash. Foch would come to believe that élan was one of the most important qualities for achieving military victory.
Because his parents wanted him to have a solid religious foundation, Foch was educated by Roman Catholic monks, first at a seminary near Tarbes, then at St. Michel, a Jesuit college in the town of Saint-Étienne, where his father had gone to work. Foch was always an excellent student, winning prizes and impressing his teachers with his accomplishments. In 1869, he attended the Jesuit school of St. Clement in the town of Metz and began to come closer to his dream of being a soldier.
Metz is in northern France in a region called Alsace-Lorraine; control of this region had long been disputed by France and Germany. In the summer of 1870, when Foch was with his family between school terms, war broke out between the two countries. The school at St. Clement's was temporarily closed, and nineteen-year-old Foch enlisted in the army. The Franco-Prussian War ended in January 1871, but Foch, though ready and eager to defend his country, had never been sent into battle.
He began to understand some of the pain of war, however, when he returned to school at St. Clement's. As a result of the war, Metz now belonged to Germany, and Foch was angered and shamed to see German soldiers striding boldly through the streets of the town he considered to be French. The time he spent in Metz under German occupation left him with a lifelong dislike of Germans, and it renewed his desire to be the kind of military hero who could liberate France.
In 1871, after graduating from St. Clement's, Foch attended the École Polytechnique (Polytechnic School), a military school in Nancy, another formerly French city that had been occupied by Germany since the Franco-Prussian War. Graduating in 1874 with the rank of second lieutenant of artillery, Foch was finally where he had wanted to be all of his life—in the army. He served at various garrisons in France for the next ten years, then decided to continue his education by entering the École Supérieure de la Guerre (War College) in 1885.
In 1895, after serving in a variety of staff positions, including two appointments with the General Staff, Foch returned to the War College to teach strategy. He taught for many years, developing a philosophy of war that was exciting to students and fellow teachers alike. Foch favored an offensive approach to fighting. He still placed a lot of importance on élan and the will to win, but he also taught that flexibility was an important quality of a good military leader and that a commander needs to inspire confidence and a positive attitude in his men. Foch's lectures were so respected that they were collected and published as The Principles of War in 1903 and The Conduct of War in 1904. By 1908, Foch had risen to the rank of general and was appointed head of the War College from 1908 to 1911.
A Military Hero
In 1913, Foch, already at retirement age, took command of the French Twentieth Army at Nancy. When World War I broke out, he did such a good job defending against a German attack there that he was given command of another force, the Ninth Army, which fought in the first battle of the Marne in early September 1914. In that battle and in later ones, such as the first battle of Ypres (October 19 to November 22, 1914) and the battle of the Somme (July 1 to November 13, 1916), Foch's offensive tactics caused the loss of many French lives. His strategy of aggressive attacks did not work well against the Germans, who were heavily armed with the most modern weapons. Other generals began to blame Foch because the war was going badly for France. As a result, Foch's command was taken from him, and he was removed from active service for several months while other generals, such as RobertGeorges Nivelle (1856–1924) and Philippe Pétain (1856–1951), replaced him on the front.
In 1917, Foch was called back to active duty and made chief of the French general staff. He led his troops so successfully on the Italian Front that in March 1918 he was appointed supreme commander of the British, American, and French armies. Though he had some conflict with the American general John J. Pershing (1860–1948), Foch used skill and training to coordinate the Allied efforts, and he masterminded an Allied counterattack against Germany that brought about the end of the war. On November 11, 1918, Foch, who had been promoted to marshal of France on August 6, accepted the German surrender.
Foch was present when the Treaty of Versailles was negotiated to end the war, and he was appointed head of the military committee charged with enforcing the terms of the treaty. He felt that the treaty should have given Germany even harsher punishment to prevent the rise of German military power in the future. Frustrated that his advice was not taken, Foch predicted another European war with Germany at its center within twenty years.
Perhaps fortunately, Foch did not live to see the truth of his prediction. At the age of seventy-seven, he died of a heart attack in Paris on March 20, 1929. He had continued to work for France almost until the day of his death.
For More Information
Aston, Sir George. The Biography of the Late Marshal Foch. New York: Macmillan, 1929.
Foch, Ferdinand. The Principles of War. Trans. J. De Morinni. Reprint, New York: A M S Press, 1970.
Hart, B. H. Foch, the Man of Orléans. London: Penguin, 1937.
Bradley, Dermot. "Ferdinand Foch." In The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography. New York: Harper, 1992.
Fenton, Damien. "Unjustly Accused: Marshal Ferdinand Foch and the French 'Cult of the Offensive.'" University of Waikato History Web page. [Online] http://www.waikato.ac.nz/wfass/subjects/history/waimilhist/1999/foch.htm (accessed May 2001).
"Foch, Ferdinand." DiscoverySchool.com. [Online] http://school.discovery.com/homeworkhelp/worldbook/atozhistory/f/sa202580.html (accessed May 2001).
Hôtel des Invalides, Resting Place of Heroes
When Marshal Ferdinand Foch died, there was not only a solemn funeral mass in Paris, but there were memorials honoring him as far away as London and Washington. Even his old enemies in Germany sent messages honoring him. As perhaps the most fitting tribute, his body was buried in a tomb under the dome of Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, where his boyhood hero, Napoléon I, was also buried.
The Hôtel des Invalides was originally built in 1671 as a hospital for disabled veterans. Its spectacular dome was designed by Jules Hardouin Mansart. The soaring expanse supported on classical columns is meant to represent the power of the nation supported by the institutions of its government.
Eventually the hospital became a museum of French military history, and Hôtel des Invalides has remained one of the most revered of French shrines. Under the dome, several of France's most beloved military leaders have been buried. In 1675, Marshal Henri de La Tour Turenne was buried there, and in 1707, Sébastien Vauban, a famous military engineer, joined him. But perhaps the most honored tomb is that of Emperor Napoléon I. Finally defeated by the British in 1815, Napoléon had been exiled to the British colony island Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. In 1840, Napoléon's remains were brought home to Paris and buried with honor under the dome of Hôtel des Invalides.
The French marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) was commander in chief of the Allied armies in World War I.
Ferdinand Foch was born on Oct. 2, 1851, at Tarbes. His early schooling revealed his "geometrical mind" and mathematical ability. He enlisted in the infantry during the Franco-Prussian War but did not see active service. Resuming his education, he graduated from the École Polytechnique in 1873 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the artillery.
By 1894 Foch had become lieutenant colonel and professor of strategy and tactics in the École Supérieure de Guerre (War School). His lectures were published in two volumes: De la conduite de la guerre (1897; Precepts and Judgments) and Des principes de la guerre (1899; Principlesof War). Foch's doctrine of massive attack attracted much attention. He stressed both philosophical and material aspects of war and emphasized the importance of morale and the will to win. In 1900 Foch was transferred to regimental command and then to staff duty with the V Corps. In 1907 Premier Georges Clemenceau appointed him general and director of the War School, where he remained for 4 years.
At the beginning of World War I, Foch was in charge of the XX Army Corps and fought in Lorraine. Next he commanded the newly formed 9th Army and helped check the Germans in the first Battle of the Marne. Gen. Joffre then entrusted him with coordinating troops and operations in the north during the "race to the sea" from the Oise River to the Flemish coast. As commander of the Group of Armies of the North for 2 years, Foch presided over the Artois offensives of 1915 and the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The disappointing results of the Somme offensive led to replacement of both Foch and Joffre. After a brief interval Foch was appointed chief of the general staff by Gen. Pétain.
In the spring of 1918, when the Allies were threatened by the German grand offensive, Foch became chief commander of all Allied armies in France. He halted the Germans and launched a counteroffensive which drove them back and ended the war. On Nov. 11, 1918, Foch induced the German representatives to accept his armistice terms, including occupation of the left bank of the Rhine.
Acclaimed by the world after the war, Foch received many honors, including election to the French Academy and to the Academy of Sciences. He bitterly condemned the peace settlement for its failure to detach the left bank of the Rhine from Germany. Foch died in Paris on March 20, 1929, and was interred in the Invalides.
Valuable memoirs by Raymond Recouly, a friend of Foch, are Foch: His Character and Leadership (trans. 1920) and Foch: My Conversations with the Marshal (trans. 1929). Leading biographies of the marshal are George Grey Aston, The Biography of the Late Marshal Foch (1929) and Basil Henry Liddell Hart, Foch, the Man of Orleans (1932). Another useful work is Cyril Bentham Falls, Marshal Foch (1939). The postwar Rhineland question is explored in Jere C. King, Foch versus Clemenceau: France and German Dismemberment, 1918-1919 (1960). □