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11-08-2015, 17:42

Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929)

General Ferdinand Foch was the supreme Allied commander on the western front during 1918. He was elevated to this position in April to meet the dire threat of Ludendorff's climactic spring offensive. Foch coordinated the effective defensive moves by the British and French armies, then, with American troops joining the fray, moved to the offensive in the summer and fall. He proved capable of discarding his prewar attraction for bold offensive operations in favor of the systematic advances that brought victory in 1918. His calm, optimism, and aggressiveness made him the central figure in bringing the final Allied victory. In the aftermath of the fighting, however, Foch was less successful in trying to impose his version of a harsh peace on Germany. The future military leader was bom on October 2, 1 85 1 , in Tarbes, near the Pyrenees. His father was a French civil servant. Foch entered the army as a private during the Franco-Prussian War and received his commission after graduating from the Ecole polytechnique in 1873. He reached the rank of brigadier general in 1907 and, as a major general on the eve of World War I, took command of the important XX Corps. It defended the French frontier at Lorraine against German attack. By then, Foch had distinguished himself in several areas: as a staff officer, as a field commander, and as a teacher at, then director of, the War College. Significantly, his prewar writings and War College lectures had emphasized the desirability of conducing war by means of decisive offensive operations. Foch rose to prominence during the first two years of the war. As the favorite subordinate of French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre, he fought with distinction in charge of the Ninth Army at the Battle of the Mame in early September 1914. There his aggressive leadership helped to hold the center of the embattled French posifion east of Paris. Starting the following month, he commanded a far larger force, the French Northern Army Group in Flanders. He held this command, with its forty divisions, through the summer of 1916, participating in the Artois offensive of 1915 and in the attack on the Somme in 1916. Joffre 's fall from power at the close of 1 9 1 6 combined with the heavy losses Foch himself had incurred at Artois and the Somme to cast a shadow over Foch's prospects. During 1917, his career revived as he became chief of the French general staff. In October, in an important preview of his crucial role the following year, Foch coordinated the shift of six French and five British divisions to Italy. There they helped restore the Italian defenses following the successful German attack at Caporetto. He also found a new patron in Georges Clemenceau, who took office as France's premier in November. The supreme crisis on the western front came in early 1918, and Foch received the task of resolving it. Brilliantly conducted German offensives smashed the British sector of the front near Amiens, and the French commander. General Petain, fell into a state of panic. British government and military leaders pressed for the appointment of a Frenchman as supreme commander to coordinate Allied operations and also to keep Petain under control. Foch insisted, with success, on getting the title "commander-inchief rather than the weaker "coordinator" of operations. In theory Foch was the commander of the 6 million men on the western front. In practice, the French military leader had only two tools at his disposal; both depended on his powers of persuasion and inspiration. First, he could, with the consent of each nation's army chief, distribute reserves to the sectors facing the greatest danger. Concerning French reserves, this meant he could overrule Petain and send these forces where they were most needed. But he had to convince commanders such as Field Marshal Douglas Haig and General John Pershing to send their troops where he thought they should go. Second, Foch could map out the overall strategy for the multinational collection of armies holHing the line in France and Belgium. Thus, starting in July, Foch put Allied forces on the offensive. A series of operations conducted consecutively along different portions of the front wore down Germany's resources. Foch avoided the trap into which Ludendorff had fallen in his offensives: there were no improvised operations or sudden changes in direction designed to exploit momentary successes. Instead, Allied offensives proceeded methodically until they reached their predetermined objectives. Starting in late September, under the urging of Haig, Foch launched a general offensive along the entire western front. German armies, located in a large and increasingly vulnerable salient, found themselves pressed by the British in the west and by the Americans in the south. Meanwhile, French forces pushed forward in several sectors. Foch's strategy both drained the Germans' strength and pushed them steadily eastward. The German government and high command agreed to end hostilities starting on November 1 1 . Ironically, Foch defeated the enemy without achieving the great strategic breakthrough toward which his prewar writings had pointed. Foch drew up the military provisions of the Armistice, thereby crippling Germany's ability to renew the fighting. He demanded both the surrender of huge, quantities of weapons and the establishment of Allied bridgeheads along the Rhine. At the subsequent peace negotiations he urged terms that included surrendering all German territory west of the Rhine to France. Even pohtical leaders like Georges Clemenceau rejected Foch's plans as too harsh. Foch spent much of the remainder of his life completing his memoirs. He died in Paris on March 20, 1929, and the supreme commander's highly regarded account of his wartime career appeared posthumously in 1931.