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Foch in Command: The Forging of a First World War General Review


Foch was the second most famous French general of the First World War, behind only Pétain - and much of Petain’s fame stems from his later, post-war career, when he became the head of Vichy France, the collaborationist government of WW2. Foch by contrast, ascended to an even higher level than Pétain, becoming the highest ranking Allied general of the war by virtue of being the generalissimo of all Allied forces on the Western Front. His rise from corps commander to supreme commando was bedecked with a dazzling variety of posts along the way, such as chief of the general staff, the the head of the French post-Caporetto mission to Italy, or special emissary to the northern front in Belgium during the race to the sea, as a member of the commission of inquiry on the Nivelle Offensive and of course general. This makes Foch an intriguing figure to examine for his command style and learning curve, as he evolved over the course of the war and encountered challenging situations which he had to react to.

Foch in Command: The Forging of a First World War General by First World War military and diplomatic historian Elizabeth Greenhalgh is a lengthy book indeed, at nearly 600 pages long, necessary to accommodate a career as varied as Foch’s The tone is admirative, portraying Foch as an innovative, scientific, reasonable general, committed to the offensive but determined to have the material and resources to give his offensives a chance at success, unlike many other French generals who were more indifferent to casualties and slower to catch onto that the war had clearly become a war of material. Foch was enthusiastic, energetic, upbeat, and optimistic. This was perhaps his greatest virtue: his ability to inspire, encourage, and rally when the situation was at its darkest, such as at the Marne, Ypres, or the German 1918 Spring Offensives, keeping heads above the water in hard times. Thus, despite being best known as an offensive general, Foch’s greatest triumphs happened for the most part on the defensive, rescuing bad situations.

Greenhalgh manages well the work of showing how Foch learned from previous cases and how this impacted his future tactics and strategy. For example, in Ypres in 1914, Foch was forced to throw his troops into the line in penny packets, due to the desperate nature of the battle which required forces to be committed to staunch the German tide at all costs. This seems to have had a substantial impact on his operations later, during the Spring Offensive. Remembering the chaos and operational difficulties that this piecemeal reinforcement had resulted in before, he chose to not funnel in reserves except in extremis in 1918. His complicated role coordinating troops in Northern France and Belgium also did a lot to prepare him for the supreme commander role of 1918. Both in actual experience as well as in the credit he gained with his allies, making them willing to accept him four years later.

Foch at the Invalides

Foch at the Invalides

Some of Foch’s hypotheticals are unfortunately not explored in the book. For example, Foch preferred an offensive at Vimy Ridge again instead of on the Somme in 1916 - how might this have gone? And his idea of a broad front, 100+ kilometer Somme-style methodical offensive for 1917, in place of the Nivelle Offensive/ It would have been interesting as to see speculation as to how it would have played out. Other books mention other proposals that could have been adopted, such as the dispute between Petain and Foch to prepare for the Spring Offensive, as Foch favored spoiling attacks, while Petain desired the offensive.

But in any case, Foch comes through highly positively in the pages. A good coordinator of men, a firm grasp of strategy and objectives: sometimes too much, such as during the 1918 offensives, when he realized that the only viable German strategic target was the channel ports and the British in an effort to split the French British armies and crush them in separation. This is what led to a major French defeat in the Third Battle of the Aisne, as Foch didn’t believe the Germans would attack in such a strategically direction. Examples like this and others are brilliant at showing the course of Foch’s career, and through his eyes we get a rich portrait of how the war evolved.

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