Ferdinand Foch: Biography, World War I & Accomplishments

Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) – the French military commander and strategist who played a prominent role in World War I

Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) was a French general and military strategist who played a critical role in World War I. He is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant military minds of his time and was known for his innovative strategies and tactics. As supreme commander of Allied forces, Foch’s contributions to the Allied victory in World War I were enormous, and his legacy continues to inspire military leaders to this day.

École Polytechnique in Paris and his military training

Foch was born in Tarbes, a town in southwestern France, on October 2, 1851. His father was a civil servant, and he grew up in a family that valued education and hard work. From a young age, he showed a keen interest in military history and strategy and was an avid reader of military literature.

As a matter of fact, he derived great pleasure from listening to stories about his maternal grandfather’s participation in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

After gaining his basic education at the Jesuit school of Saint-Clément in Metz, he attended the École Polytechnique in Paris, one of France’s most prestigious universities, where he studied mathematics and engineering.

Foch was undoubtedly a patriot through and through. This is why he was saddened by France’s defeat at the hands of Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). He had even enlisted in the French 4th Infantry Regiment two years before the start of the war; however, and much to the disappointment of a 17-year-old Foch, his regiment was not called to fight. Following France’s defeat, he, like many other military minds in France and the rest of Europe, became increasingly concerned about the rising influence of a unified Germany.

He later described the few years he spent living in Metz as insufferable as the city had become a German city filled with many German soldiers.

He entered the military school, where he proved himself as a competent cavalryman and technical genius. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1873.

By late 1878, he had been promoted to the rank of captain and had started serving as an officer in the Central Personnel Service Depot in Paris.

Commandant of the War College

In 1873, he enrolled at the artillery corps. Twelve years later, he was appointed a tutor of military strategy at the school. And in 1908, he was appointed commandant of the school. Image: Regimental commander Colonel Foch in his uniform of the 35th Artillery Regiment in 1903

In the mid-1880s, he gained admission into École Supérieure de Guerre, a war college. A decade later, he was appointed a tutor of military strategy at the school. In 1898 and 1903, he was promoted to the ranks of lieutenant-colonel and colonel, respectively.

And in 1908, he was appointed commandant of the war college by then-French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. He was also promoted to the rank of brigadier general (Général de Brigade).

He was indeed one of France’s most leading theorist when it came to offensive strategies. His years of carefully studying every battle of the Napoleonic Wars and the Franco-Prussian War had made him a renowned military thinker of his time.

Some of his works on military theory and strategy were published in “Des Principes de la Guerre” (“On the Principles of War”) in 1903. His admiration of the Napoleonic school of military thought was also evident in “De la Conduite de la Guerre” (“On the Conduct of War”) in 1904.

Over the next several years, he served in a variety of assignments, including a commander of a cavalry squadron.

An admirer of Napoleon’s military strategies

At the prestigious École Supérieure de Guerre, he began to develop his innovative ideas on warfare. He studied the military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte (Emperor of France), the American Civil War (1861-1865), and other conflicts and developed a deep understanding of the principles of war. Foch was particularly interested in the role of technology in warfare and was one of the first military thinkers to grasp the potential of air power and armored vehicles.

Service in World War I

About a year before the breakout of WWI, he was appointed commander of the XX Army Corps in Nancy. He contributed to General Joseph-Jacques-Césaire Joffre’s Plan XVII in 1913. Known as the “scheme of mobilization and concentration”, the plan was aimed at preparing France (from 1912 to 1914) in all spheres to be able to counter any form of aggression from Germany.

He quickly realized that the Germans were planning a massive offensive in the west and developed a plan to counter it. The French military theorist proposed a bold strategy that involved attacking the German army on multiple fronts, using a combination of infantry, artillery, and aircraft.

For example, while serving as commander of the newly formed Ninth Army, he showed nerves of steel at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914. Working alongside his chief of staff Maxime Weygand, he was able to rally his men to resist with all their strength the German invaders. A month later, he was appointed Assistant Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Zone. There he served under General Joseph Joffre. He was involved in the formulation of strategies that helped in the French army taking back control of the Marne at Châlons, where the people of the city lined up the street to welcome him and his men as heroes.

At the start of WWI, General Foch served as a commander of an army detachment. He was involved in the formulation of strategies during the First Battle of the Marne, aiding General Joseph-Jacques-Césaire Joffre secure victory. Image: French infantry charge at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914

“The best general in the world”

Similarly, at the First Battle of Ypres (between October and November 1914), Foch and the French military leadership were able to repel a German attack that was aimed at breaking the French and British lines. His efforts at the battle received stellar praise from British Field Marshal Sir John French, who described the French general as “the best general in the world”. That same year, he was bestowed upon the Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath by King George V.

The Artois Offensive and the Battle of the Somme

The period months of 1915 and 1916 were not good for Ferdinand Foch as his Northern Army Group suffered heavy losses at the Battle of the Somme that raged between July and November 1916. The battle, which involved over 3 million soldiers, resulted in a total casualty of more than a million – either killed or wounded. Military historians opine that the battle was one of the deadliest in modern history. Many of the Allied commanders, including General Foch and his boss General Joffre, received heavy criticisms.

Prior to the Somme, Foch had fought at the Third Battle of Artios (25 September – 4 November 1915), which saw the French Tenth Army take on the German Sixth Army. The battle, which took place on the Western Front, resulted in close to a combined 150,000 casualties, with the French suffering almost 50,000.

Following the poor showing at the Somme, Foch was removed from his command and posted to serve on the Italian front. Joffre was replaced as Chief of the General Staff by Robert George Nivelle, who was later replaced with General Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun.

In 1917, he was promoted to chief of the general staff. He would later become a top adviser to the Allied armies. A few months later, he was appointed supreme commander of all Allied armies.

Chief of the general staff (1917-1918)

His relatively good results on the Italian front brought him back into the good books of the French government in early summer of 1917. He was appointed Chief of the General Staff on May 16, 1917. He carried out a few limited attacks as he and the rest of the Allied forces patiently awaited the entry of the United States into the war.

In late 1917, Foch was appointed by his government to serve military representative at the newly formed Supreme War Council.

Once the Americans had entered the war, the tide turned in favor of the Allied forces. He continued to refine his tactics in the months that followed, and his innovations played a crucial role as the coordinator of the activities of the Allied armies.

Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces

In 1918, Foch was appointed supreme commander of the Allied forces, a position that gave him complete control over the war effort. The position meant that he had attained the title of Généralissime (“Supreme General”). At the meeting of the Supreme War Council in May 1918, he was placed in charge of the Italian Front. He also held control of the Military Board of Allied Supply (MBAS), an agency that was in charge of the logistical support of the Allied forces.

He worked tirelessly to coordinate the efforts of the various Allied armies, and his leadership was critical in the final months of the war.

About a month into the Second Battle of the Marne, he was made a Marshal of France. He worked with Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig of Britain to plan the Grand Offensive in September 1918. That particular military offensive is credited with breaking the German lines and leading to the end of the war.

Armistice of Compiègne

Foch was the one who accepted the request from German for an armistice – i.e. the cessation of hostilities. Known as the Armistice of 11 November 1918 (also known as the Armistice of Compiègne), the agreement was signed at Le Francport near Compiègne in northern France. As Allied Supreme Commander, Foch signed the agreement around 5:45 a.m.

He is credited with writing the actual terms of the armistice, which required the Germans hostilities to an end on the Western Front, and the withdrawal of German troops from west of the Rhine. The Germans were also required to give up warships, aircraft, and other military hardware. All prisoners of war held by the Germans were to be released.

The armistice was signed on a train carriage that came to be called the Compiègne Wagon, which was the personal carriage of Foch. Fighting only ceased when the armistice came into force at 11 a.m. CET (Central European Time) on November 11, 1918.

French general Ferdinand Foch is famed for drafting the conditions after Germany asked for an armistice in 1918. Image: General Foch standing in front of the train carriage )”The Compiègne Wagon” ) where the Armistice of 11 November 1918 was signed. Foch is second from the right.

Did you know?

About two decades later, when Germany successfully invaded France during the Second World War, Adolf Hitler purposely asked for the Armistice of 22 June 1940 to be signed on the train.

Paris Peace Conference 1919 and Foch’s criticism of the Treaty of Versailles

On June 28, 1919, the Allied nations and Germany were able to secure a peace treaty in Paris – the Treaty of Versailles.

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Foch called on the Allies to exact the harshest terms on the Germans so as to permanently weaken them militarily. Foch simply believed that the terms were no way tough enough to prevent the Germans from posing a grave threat to France in the future.

For example Foch was eager to have the Rhineland permanently occupied by Allied forces as he believed that was the only way France would not have to worry about a resurgent Germany invading France again.

The Americans, under the leadership of then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, were not so much in favor of the Allies imposing harsh peace conditions on Germany as that could distort the balance of power in the region.

Describing the Treaty of Versailles as nothing short of “a capitulation” and “an armistice for 20 years”, Foch in a way predicted the breakout of World War II.

Ferdinand Foch's quote

One of France’s national heroes

After the war, Foch became a national hero in France and was widely regarded as one of the greatest military minds of his time. There were some that saw him in similar light as Julius Caesar and Napoleon.

Not only was he praised in France, he was also applauded by citizens of other Allied nations, including in Britain and Poland, where he was honored with the military distinction of field marshal in 1919 and 1923, respectively. This makes him the only French military officer to be honored with a British field marshal.

During his visit to the United States, he was honored with many degrees from some of America’s most distinguished universities.

Death and Legacy

Ferdinand Foch

Tomb of Ferdinand Foch at the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, France. His tomb lies next to Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest military generals in history.

After the war, he continued to write and lecture on military strategy and was a strong advocate for international cooperation and disarmament.

The French general passed away on March 20, 1929. He was laid to rest in Les Invalides (“house of invalids”) in Paris. His tomb lies next to the tombs of some of the most distinguished French people in history, most importantly the tombs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon II, and French general Henri de L Tour d’Auvergne.

The Avenue Foch in Paris was named after the general. There are many other streets across the world that have been named in his honor, including in Melbourne, Australia; Beirut, Lebanon; New Orleans, U.S., and Kraków, Poland.

To this day, many military leaders continue to take a page from the general. His innovative tactics and strategies have been studied by military thinkers around the world, and his emphasis on coordination and cooperation between different branches of the military has been adopted as a standard practice. Foch’s name has become synonymous with military excellence, and his contributions to the Allied victory in the First World War will be remembered for generations to come.

Read More: Top 10 Military Generals of the First World War

Ferdinand Foch: Fast Facts

Ferdinand Foch was a brilliant military strategist and one of the most important figures of World War I. His innovative ideas on warfare and his leadership were critical in the Allied victory,

Born: October 2, 1851

Place of birth: Tarbes, France

Died: March 20, 1929; Paris, France

Buried: Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, France

Major battles fought in: Frist Battle of Ypres, Second Battle of Ypres, First Battle of the Marne, Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, Second Battle of the Marne


French General Ferdinand Foch

Statue of Ferdinand Foch in Victoria, London, England

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