Feature Articles - Unjustly Accused: Marshal Ferdinand Foch and the French 'Cult of the Offensive'

Painting of Ferdinand Foch On 2 August 1914 the order was given for the general mobilisation of the French Army.  Over the ensuing two weeks just under three million reservists were called to the colours.

An outpouring of patriotic fervour and youthful bravura swept the nation.  Writing on 3 August the poet Charles Péguy exclaimed "Whoever failed to see Paris, this morning and yesterday, has seen nothing".1  The shame of losing the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine would now be avenged and erased.

Indeed, the French Army's opening gambit, Plan XVII, called for a headlong two-pronged offensive into Alsace-Lorraine itself.  An aggressive doctrine making the offensive the sole focus of French military endeavour, offensive á l'outrance, dominated this plan.  French élan would carry the day and sweep the Germans from the field at the point of the bayonet.

It was not to be.  Five French armies shattered themselves in furious assaults against their German foes, who in turn counter-attacked with equal determination.  A reflective Charles de Gaulle wrote of the experience:

"Suddenly the enemy's fire became precise and concentrated.  Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of the shells grew stronger.  Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and the humble corpses.  With affected calm, the officers let themselves be killed standing upright, some obstinate platoons stuck their bayonets in their rifles, bugles sounded the charge, isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose.  In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire."2

The Taxis of the MarneBy the end of August, and with less than two weeks of actual fighting, the French Army had suffered just over 210,000 casualties.This included 4,778 officers, equating to ten percent of the total French officer strength.4

The lesson that moral courage and an attacking spirit alone were not enough to prevail over modern firepower had been brought home at a terrible cost.  In the final few years leading into the First World War the French Army had got it horribly wrong - Someone had blundered and since the end of 'the war to end all wars' many historians and writers have generally pointed the finger at one man: Marshal Ferdinand Foch.

Ferdinand Foch was born at Tarbes on 2 October 1851 the son of a civil servant.  His parents were devout Catholics and this religious devotion was invariably passed on to their sons: Foch was to remain a staunch Catholic all his life.  Accordingly his early education took place in a number of Catholic schools and colleges.

He was attending a Jesuit college in Metz when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870.  Foch immediately volunteered for military service and was posted as a recruit to an infantry regiment (he had been on summer vacation when hostilities began).  However the war ended before he got to see any action and his unit was demobilised.

Foch went back to school in Metz where he found himself completing his studies in a city that was now under German military occupation.  For the young Foch the impact of this first hand experience of the shame and humiliation resulting from France's defeat was profound: He swore to avenge his nation's defeat and was henceforth determined that soldiering would be his life-long profession.

Napoleon IFoch's predilection for a military career had its beginnings in the stories of the Napoleonic Wars told to him as a child by his great-aunt (who was the widow of General Nogues, a man who rose to that rank in the service of Napoleon I).

Additional inspiration came from the family stories of his own maternal grandfather, who had fought in numerous campaigns from the Armée d'Italie through to the Spanish campaign of 1809.  Thus Foch's boyhood was enveloped in an atmosphere of passionate Napoleon-worship.  This background, coupled with the bitter experience of France's defeat, doubtless explains the motivation behind the sustained and diligent academic effort that saw Foch successfully gain admission to both the Ècole Polytechnique, and, in as short a time as was possible, the Ècole d'application de l'Artillerie (the Artillery Training School).

In October 1873 Foch gained his commission and received his first posting (to the 24th Regiment d'Artillerie): Foch's military career had begun.

His career as a peace-time soldier was a largely successful one (bar a couple of politically inspired 'hiccups').  He won quick promotion and numerous staff appointments.  In 1885 he was selected to attend the two-year course at the Ècole Supérieure de Guerre (War College).  Foch finished the course in 1887, and, having come fourth in his class, again received a series of prestigious staff assignments.

In 1895 he returned to the Ècole Supérieure de Guerre as the newly appointed 'Assistant Instructor in Military History, Strategy and Applied Tactics'.  A year later he became the Chief Instructor and was to teach at the school for six years.

Although Foch agreed that actual experience of war could not be surpassed by theoretical teachings, he also felt that the study of military history was nonetheless of vital importance in the education of young officers - especially when the opportunities to acquire such 'first-hand' experience were not readily available: "In peacetime, it [history] becomes the true means of learning war and of determining the fixed principles of the art of war."

Ferdinand FochHowever, in 1900 he was removed from his position as Chief Instructor and returned to regimental duties, a victim of the political machinations that constantly bedevilled the French Army throughout the life of the Third Republic.

It was during this period that Foch collected and revised his lectures out of which he put together two published works, "Des Principes de la Guerre" ("The Principles of War") in 1903, and "De la Conduite de la Guerre" ("On the Conduct of War") in 1904.  By 1905 his 'return from the wilderness' was signalled with his appointment as Chief of Staff to the V Corps stationed at Orleans.

In 1907, at the age of 55, he achieved the rank of General (being made Général de Brigade) and was posted to the General Staff of the War Ministry in Paris.  From here he returned once more to the Ècole Supérieure de Guerre, this time as its Commandent, in 1908.  He retained this position through to the end of 1911, whereafter he was finally given a position of high command - August 1914 found General Foch commanding the XX Corps at Nancy, ancient capital of the Duchy of Lorraine.

In was in front of Nancy, as part of the French Second Army, that Foch was to first prove his mettle as a field commander during the Battle of the Frontiers (14-25 August).  This did not go unnoticed.  At the end of that month a dangerous gap appeared in the French centre and General Joseph Joffre (the French Commander-in-Chief) gave Foch the command of the newly formed Ninth Army, created to plug it.

In the early days of September Foch's unshakeable and confident temperament served France well in the strategically decisive Battle of the Marne (6-9 September).  After this he saw extensive service in Flanders as an army, and then as an army group, commander, until 1916 when he was sacrificed as a scapegoat in the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November).  He was subsequently banished to the Italian Front.

Henri-Philipe PetainBy this stage Joffre too had fallen into disfavour and was replaced as Commander-in-Chief by the flamboyant General Robert Nivelle, who promised much but was to deliver little.

With the dramatic failure of the Nivelle Offensive (16-20 April 1917) Nivelle's fall from grace was swift and he was replaced by the hero of Verdun, General Philippe Petain.

The new Commander-in-Chief immediately recalled Foch from obscurity and made him Chief of the General Staff in Paris.  In May 1918 Foch reached the pinnacle of his career when he was officially given the position of 'Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies'.  When he finally died in 1929, having received the exulted rank of Marshal of France as well as that of Field Marshal of the British Army, his place in history as a military commander and a hero of France seemed assured.

Yet within a generation Foch's reputation had effectively been reversed and, far from being seen as a man who helped France to avert catastrophe, he was now castigated as being largely responsible for it:

"During Foch's six years at the Ècole de Guerre... more than 400 French officers passed through his hands.  Assuming their average age to be 35, on the outbreak of war in 1914 the majority of them would be commanding divisions or brigades or holding senior posts.  There is little doubt, therefore, that his doctrine of pursuing a vigorous offensive under all circumstances was largely responsible for the grievous casualties suffered by the French infantry in the opening battles of 1914."5

Thus wrote General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall in his 1972 book, Foch as Military Commander.  Sir James' passage succinctly sums up the crux of the argument of those who would blame Foch for the French Army's doctrinal folly.  Foch's time at the Ècole de Guerre is an irrefutable fact and logic makes it hard to deny the proposition that those officers who attended it, had to be influenced by the teaching they received there.

Therefore it seems the only element of the critics argument open to contention is the notion that the lectures Foch delivered to those officers emphasised the 'cult of the offensive', offensive á l'outrance, to the exclusion of all else.  A brief examination of some of the key concepts contained in The Principles of War (based as it was on Foch's lecture notes) suggests that this was not the case.

Foch receiving his Marshal's batonIn The Principles of War Foch talks of both strategy and tactics.  By strategy he meant operational strategy as opposed to 'grand strategy'.

By tactics he referred to all the actions that take place on the battlefield itself.  Foch rejected the idea of war as a science as being to inflexible and impractical.

Instead, he preferred the term 'art of war'.  Thus the title of his book was an apt one - An officer needed the guidance of general principles but also had to retain his initiative for assessing any given situation on its merits and then tailoring an appropriate response to it.  Foch did not believe in 'scientific' rules of war, to be rigidly adhered to and enforced regardless of the actual situation being confronted.  It is in this context that the following concepts need to be considered:

  • No strategy can henceforth prevail over that which aims at ensuring tactical results, victory by fighting".  In modern warfare Foch insists that one must always seek the destruction of the enemy army.  He cites the Franco-Prussian War as an example of this: While the French Army tried to fight a war of 'delicate manoeuvre' along almost pre-Napoleonic lines, the Germans remained faithful to this Napoleonic legacy and crushed France.  Foch strongly advocated a return to this concept of the decisive battle: "You cannot push a staunch adversary back by means of a skilfully selected direction."

  • Foch then emphasises the inability of the defensive battle to bring about a decisive result.  "Defensive battle never brings about the destruction of the enemy forces; it never allows one to conquer the ground held by the enemy...therefore it is unable to create victory."

  • Following on from this Foch concludes that the offensive battle must be taken up at some stage if victory is to be achieved.  "The offensive form alone, be it resorted to at once or only after the defensive, can lead to results, and must therefore always be adopted - at least in the end."

  • Foch stresses the importance of morale, or willpower: "A battle won, is a battle in which one will not confess oneself beaten." Thus Foch comes up with the following formula:
    • "War = the domain of moral forces.
    • Victory = moral superiority in the victors; moral depression in the vanquished.
    • Battle = a struggle between two wills."
  • The importance of the commander in determining the outcome of such a struggle is also stressed.  "Great results in war are due to the commander.  He must... be a man, who being deeply imbued with a will to conquer, shall derive from that will... the strength to make an unwavering use of the most formidable right, to approach with courage all difficulties and all sacrifices, to risk everything." Furthermore, Foch feels another key attribute of a good commander is the ability to communicate this will to his men and therefore inspire them.

  • Surprise, "in its widest sense", is the key to "breaking the enemy's spirit." In keeping with his offensive orientated theme Foch cites an "unexpected and extremely violent stroke" as being one way of achieving such surprise.

  • In what is really the only truly mistaken concept contained in The Principles of War Foch promotes the notion of the ability of superiority in numbers in the decisive attack to overcome enemy firepower: "Having more guns we will silence his own; it is the same with rifles, the same with bayonets...".  In the same vein: "Numbers will imply a moral superiority in our favour, owing to the feeling of strength connected with numbers...".  Finally: "Numbers create surprise in the enemy's ranks, as well as the conviction that he cannot resist."

  • However, Foch also reveals himself to be a man of no mean imagination with a number of highly perceptive observations.  Indeed, the first of these appears to contradict his earlier stance on the superiority of numbers: "Infantry is compelled, when advancing, to move under cover, ...[and] utilise all practicable defilades and to follow them for the longest time possible.  ...But these ways of access are easily paralysed nowadays by weak troops occupying points d' appui [strongpoints] and armed with quick-firing rifles, or enfilading with a few quick-firing guns (two or three)." This assessment appears then to recognise the impact of modern small-arms fire to a remarkably accurate degree.
  • In response to this situation Foch basically advocated inter-arms co-operation to overcome it.  Feeling that the infantry and artillery must therefore work closely together, Foch correctly surmises that "the union of both arms has become more necessary than ever."

  • Foch also argued for the universal use of what would later be termed 'suppressive fire' to aid the advance: "Any rush forward must be preceded by a storm of bullets designed to shake the enemy, in any case getting him to ground."

Given these concepts it does not seem possible that Foch would have had anything to do with the simplistic mantras found in the French Service Regulations (Réglement) of 1913, a document that began thus: "The French Army, returning to its traditions, henceforth admits no law but the offensive"6.

This handbook was largely the work of Colonel Louis de Grandmaison, Director of the Troisième Bureau (Bureau of Military Operations), who was an ex-pupil of Foch's.  Grandmaison appears to have seized upon Foch's general principle of the ultimate need for offensive action to secure final victory and turned it into an automatic response, a rule, that would answer every situation, at every level, to be found on the field of battle.

Ferdinand FochFoch had never dismissed the defensive as a valid military response, when and where the situation demanded it, he merely dismissed it as an end in itself.

Foch's principles allowed for defensive measures as an often necessary strategy to stabilise an otherwise unfavourable situation. 

This stabilisation would in turn allow one to regroup ones forces and prepare for the opportunity to take up the offensive action necessary for final victory.  Such 'subtleties' were of no apparent interest to Grandmaison however and Foch has long-since been tarred with the brush of his 'disciple's' misinterpretation of his teachings.

Even if one still deems Foch's writing to have been ambiguous enough to have contributed to Grandmaison's misguided extrapolations, another factor in Foch's defence is the 'time-lag' between his writing and teaching and the onset of World War One.

At the time Foch published his first two books all evidence to date (the American Civil War not withstanding) seemed to suggest that mobile, or open, warfare was still the order of the day.  Air power did not exist.  Motor vehicles were still fragile novelties of the rich.  Cavalry sabres were as prevalent as rifles in the armouries of all the European Great Powers.

Heavy artillery was largely confined to fortresses and was considered an immobile tactical liability insofar as field operations were concerned.  The heavy gun tractors that could make these guns a practical tactical asset on the battlefield were no more than a distant design concept.

The machine gun was the subject of much debate (and confusion) as to whether it belonged with the artillery or the infantry, although neither arm seemed to know quite where to put it within their respective organisations anyway.  New weapons, such as the French 1897 Puteaux 75mm field gun, appeared, if anything, to reinforce the notion that the power of the offensive remained supreme.

Indeed, the extent and power that the doctrine of offensive á l'outrance held over the pre-war French Army can be illustrated by the unbalanced reliance that the French Artillery placed upon light field guns, particularly the 1897 Puteaux 75mm mentioned above.  This famous weapon, universally known as the 'Soixante-Quinze' ('75'), was the first modern quick-firing gun (up to 25 rounds per minute) and its light weight made it extremely manoeuvrable.

French gun crew setting up 75mm gunFrench gunners were devoted to the '75' as they quite rightly expected it to devastate enemy formations in the open.7

However it was not intended, nor consequently suited, for high-angle indirect fire of the sort needed to deal with an entrenched enemy, and its shells were also too light to be effective against such positions in any event.

Yet these capabilities were not considered to be important in the years leading up to World War One and to cater for them with slow heavy guns would impede the advance and freedom of action of French units in the field.

Indeed the low ratio of heavy guns was seen as a powerful symbol of offensive intent and became a source of martial pride - In 1909 the General Staff representative on the Chamber of Deputies' Budget Commission was heard to declare: "You talk to us of heavy artillery.  Thank God we have none.  The strength of the French Army is in the lightness of its guns."8

Thus by 1914 approximately 3,800 '75s' were held by the French Army as opposed to a mere 389 heavy guns, most of which were obsolete fortress and siege designs.9

As for Foch the field commander, he quickly abandoned the doctrine of offensive á l'outrance as practiced in 1914.  Once Foch grasped the nuances of trench warfare, he displayed a flexibility and enthusiasm for new ideas or weapons that might break the deadlock.

He also displayed an unshakeable confidence that with the restoration of mobile warfare the decisive nature of the offensive would in turn be restored (a confidence that was proven to be justified in 1918).  After 1916 he no longer acted as a field commander and so had little influence over operational or tactical matters after that year.

However, in his role as Allied Commander-in-Chief Foch's indomitable will proved invaluable in holding together the Allied 'nerve' in the face of the dramatic German offensives in March 1918, just as it had in the battles of the Marne, Yser and Ypres between 1914 and 1915.

There can be little doubt that Foch lived up to his own stated conception of a good commander - King Albert I of Belgium later said of Foch, "that man could make the dead stand up and fight!"  He can also be said to have held true to his belief in the power of the offensive, though it was restored to him in a form he could not have foreseen when he wrote The Principles of War.

Foch, Lloyd George and Aristide Briand at the London Conference, 1932In the aftermath of World War One Foch was blamed as one of the principle architects responsible for the 'cult of the offensive' that had dominated French strategic and tactical thought in the lead up to 1914, and had resulted in the disastrous 'Plan XVII'.

That this obsession with the offensive existed is beyond doubt.  That it was the catalyst for the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of young French soldiers is also beyond doubt.  What is very much in doubt is the degree to which Foch's writing and teaching contributed to this mindset.

As can be gleaned from the points made earlier, Foch's writings, while emphasising the decisive nature of the offensive in general terms, qualify this emphasis by allowing for flexibility in tactical terms and recognise the need for leeway so as to accommodate technological changes.

Foch was not responsible for the Regulations of 1913 and it is hard to see how his writing can be comfortably reconciled with that handbooks call for the French Army to admit 'no law but that of the offensive'.  But somehow Grandmaison has escaped being made the villain of the piece (an 'escape' that may be partially explained by Grandmaison's death in action during 1915), and Foch has been made wholly responsible for his pupil's misinterpretation.

Foch himself was as aware as anyone of the scale of the butchery that had occurred - his only son and son-in-law, both Captains, were killed in action on 22 August 1914.

Foch salutes Britain's 'Unknown Warrior'His own record as a field commander suggests he was as competent as any, and braver than most, of his contemporaries.

He displayed a willingness to try any innovation, tactical or technological, that promised to get his men out of the trenches once and for all.  Yet, beginning with Liddell Hart and continuing to this day, historians appear to have condemned Foch, on the basis of his written works, as one of those clichéd bone-headed generals intent on fighting the last war and incapable of changing his out-dated ways.

This seems patently unfair and unwarranted.  How one can condemn Foch by citing works that were written by him halfway through his career, holding these up to the practices and conditions of a war that was at least a decade away (and exponentially further away in technological terms) without having such criticism dismissed as unbalanced and ill-conceived defies belief.

Article contributed by Damien Fenton

1 Cited in Paul-Marie de La Gorce, The French Army: A Military-Political History, translated by Kenneth Douglas, (New York, George Braziller, 1963), p. 94. As a reservist Charles Pegúy was called up to serve as a Lieutenant in the 276th Régiment de Réserve and was killed in action on 5 September during the Battle of the Marne.  Georges Blond, The Marne, translated by H. Eaton Hart, (London, Macdonald, 1965), p. 23. 

2 Cited in de La Gorce, p. 102. Charles de Gaulle saw active service as a junior officer with the 33rd Régiment d'Infanterie from 1914 to 2 March 1916 when, wounded, he was captured during the Battle of Verdun.  Jean Lacouture, De Gaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944, translated by Patrick O'Brian, (London, Collins Harvill, 1990), p. 21, pp. 37-41.

3 John Terraine, White Heat: The New Warfare1914-18, (London, BCA, 1982), p. 90. Indeed by the end of September 1914 the French Army had suffered a total of 329,000 casualties - approximately one sixth of the total French casualties for the entire war. Blond, p. 23.

4 Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, (London: Macmillan, 1962), p. 18.

5 General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall, Foch as Military Commander, (London: Batsford, 1972), p. 17.

6 Cited in Barbara W. Tuchman, August 1914, (London, Constable, 1962), p. 44.

7 An expectation the '75' lived up to on a number of occasions during the opening days of the war.  For example at Virton the French VI Corps wreaked havoc when it caught a German corps in the flank with its '75's - A French officer who saw the aftermath of this action reported "[t]housands of [German] dead were still standing, supported as if by a flying buttress made of bodies lying in rows on top of each other in an ascending arc from the horizontal to an angle of sixty degrees." Cited in Tuchman, p.262.

8 Cited in Horne, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, p. 13.

9 Philip J. Haythornwaite, The World War One Source Book, (London: Arms & Armour, 1992), pp. 181-183.

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'White Star' was a German mixture of chlorine and phosgene gas, so-named on account of the identification marking painted on the delivery shell casing.

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