Offensive to excess: the controversial military tactics of Marshal Ferdinand Foch

The life of a forgotten First World War character.

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In last week’s NS political column, George Eaton compared Ed Miliband’s strategy following his fightback speech of 13 November to that of the French general Ferdinand Foch, who said in 1914, “My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent. I am attacking.” Foch made this declaration to the French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, after his famed counterattack on the River Marne – known as “the Miracle of the Marne”.

Foch, promoted a marshal of France in the closing months of the war, is honoured as the victor of the Western Front, the man who accepted the German surrender in November 1918. In July 1919 he did what Napoleon Bonaparte only dreamed of: he led a parade of French troops across Westminster Bridge, to the cheers of a huge crowd. His statue stands near Victoria Station.

There is no arguing with victory, but the record needs closer scrutiny. Of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, he said, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years,” and advocated harsher treatment of Germany. There was always something ultra-doctrinaire about Foch.

His celebrated On the Principles of War, published in 1903, spawned the doctrine of offensive à outrance – offensive to excess: the moral superiority of troops in attack would overcome all opposition. However, Foch himself, a fervent Catholic in an increasingly anti-clerical France, was not notably terrier-like; at least not until he had reached high rank.

Yet his ideas were influential on both sides of the Channel. In 1907, he became director of the French army staff college and de facto principal adviser to the French high command. The director of the British staff college, Brigadier-General Henry Wilson, fell under his spell and when in 1910 Wilson became director of military operations at the War Office, encouraged by Foch, he began systematically to integrate the British Expeditionary Force into French plans. The BEF became, in effect, the sixth of the French armies lining up on the Franco-German and Franco-Belgian borders.

When war broke out in 1914 the Germans trumped moral superiority with firepower, and by the end of the month the French army had suffered over 210,000 casualties. On 23 August, the BEF was likewise mauled in its first encounter, at Mons. The British army did not recover fully from its early losses until the middle of 1918. Foch was only just able to pull off his gamble in the counterattack after the Marne, in part because the Germans overestimated the strength of the allies.

The problem was that Foch had risen to high command without seeing action, or indeed much service, in the field army. He had always been a military apparatchik. Not that he lacked pluck: he enlisted in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, while still at school, but the fighting was over before he reached the front line. Commissioned later into the artillery, he was always one step removed from the reality of hand-to-hand combat.

After the Somme offensive of 1916 he was banished to the Italian front, but then recalled by General Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun (and later Vichy president). When in spring 1918 the Germans launched their huge offensive, the allied war leaders gave Foch overall control of the French and Italian fronts.

On the general’s statue near Victoria is inscribed: “I am conscious of having served England as I served my own country.” There is a terrible irony in those words. 

This article appears in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble