Ferdinand Foch

Ferdinand Foch

Ferdinand Foch was a critical French military commander during World War I. He joined the infantry during the Franco-Prussian War, eventually becoming head of the war college.

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Named commander of the XX Army Corps at the outbreak of World War I, Foch helped secure victory at the First Battle of the Marne. With the French and English armies in danger of splitting, Foch took command of the Allied forces in March 1918 and withstood the Ludendorff Offensive. Later that summer, his victory at the Second Battle of Marne facilitated the end of the fighting. Foch was named a British field marshal and marshal of Poland among his post-war accolades.

Ferdinand Foch was the most inspired of the Western Front generals in World War I, sometimes to his detriment. He could be almost mystically reckless with lives, initiating attacks when restraint would have served him better or prolonging offensives beyond all hope of success. His own pronouncements had a tendency to catch up with him. Fortunately for his permanent reputation, he will be remembered more for his presiding role in the victory of 1918 than for his sanction of the futile hecatombs of 1915 and 1916.

He was born in 1851, the son of a civil servant. In the summer of 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, he enlisted as a private in the French infantry but never fought. (But he did gain peacetime fame for massing 100,000 men at a review in a rectangle of 120 by 100 meters.) He rose steadily in rank and, in 1885, became a professor at the [Eacute]cole Sup[eacute]rieure de Guerre, the command college in Paris that he would eventually head. He was now in his element, and his pronouncements would influence a generation of French officers and the opening events of 1914.

Foch next took charge of the French armies of the north; he now coordinated moves with the British and Belgian troops during the so-called "race to the sea." If he did not succeed in going on the offensive, he did help check the German drive for the last true prizes of 1914, the Channel ports. Several times he was forced to brace up the nervous British commander, Sir John French, with what his biographer, B. H. Liddell Hart, calls "an injection of Fochian serum." But when the Germans ruptured the line at the Second Ypres in 1915, Foch's insistence on counterattacks produced only unnecessary Allied losses. On an even larger scale, death was the most visible result of Foch's Artois offensives in the spring and early fall of the year; casualties approached 150,000.

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