Primary Documents - Marshal Foch's Introduction to Sir Douglas Haig's Republished Despatches, 1919

Ferdinand Foch With the republication of British Western Front Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig's despatches in book form at the close of 1919 a special introduction was attached to Haig's own preface, written by the Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch.

In his introduction (written for the French edition of Haig's despatches) Foch played high tribute to Haig's conduct as British Commander-in-Chief.

Click here to read Haig's preface to his despatches.  Click here to read Haig's first despatch, dated 19 May 1916, which encompasses local operations at St Eloi.  Click here to read an overview of the despatches.

Introduction by Marshal Foch

It has always been the custom for the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in the field to forward to his Government Despatches summarizing the principal periods of a campaign.

Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig has conformed to this practice.  Twice a year on an average, he has prepared a brief account of the most important features of the British operations on the Western front.  His Despatches cover the period during which he was Commander-in-Chief, from the end of 1915 to the first days of April, 1919.

Written with the strictest regard for the truth and scrupulously exact to the smallest details, these Reports are distinguished by their unquestionable loftiness and breadth of view.  The information that they give not only on the operations themselves, but also on the condition of the troops - on the changes made in their training and their formation during the course of the war - constitutes them historical documents of the highest order.

They throw into relief the special character of each contingent that the Empire provided, the unremitting labours of the Staffs, and define their respective merits.  They are a record, in fact, of the work thanks to which all ranks rapidly improved their fighting experience and professional skill, and adapted them to a struggle full of surprises.

They give a picture of the enormous task devolving upon the various services charged with supplying the ever-growing needs of a modern army.

If the facts are sometimes set forth with a light touch, which does not take us down to the underlying causes and some of their results, it is because these Reports, written during the course of the war, and addressed to the British Government, were destined eventually for the eyes of the whole Nation, whose feelings must be considered, just as the enemy must be kept from gathering information of value.

None the less, to read them is to discover how remarkable was the unswerving purpose which fashioned the British Army from 1917 onwards into a magnificent instrument of war.

Its effect can be seen in the training of the troops, in the creation of special services to deal with the increasing number and variety of engines of modern warfare, in the production and transport of munitions to satisfy a demand hitherto unknown, and in the construction or repairing of the lines of communication.

No instrument, however, can produce of itself; there must always be the hand which knows how to use it.  When, therefore, the Despatches are content with telling us that the period of attrition was followed in the natural course of events by the period of decision, that the German armies, exhausted and worn out by the fighting of 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917, were to be defeated in 1918, they do not say why the former period was so long and the latter so short.

Still less do they explain the change in the decisive period when the Allies advanced to victory at the double, only to be stopped by German capitulation at the Armistice.  The results are briefly set forth, their causes are not explained.

All mention of the hand which guided the instrument is omitted.  We may be allowed to make good this deficiency, in which the all-important part played by the British Higher Command is lost to sight.

The period of attrition coincided, in fact, with a period of weakness for the Allies, which was the result of their incomplete preparation for war.  To the battlefields of 1914 the Entente had not brought more than a British Army of six divisions and a French Army lacking in the artillery and munitions required for modern warfare.

With these inadequate means, we certainly did stem the invasion in the first year, but so long as the shortage in our effectives and material was not made good, we were not in a position to undertake the long-sustained Offensive which alone could force a decision by arms.  We were limited to local and spasmodic engagements, and the best that could be done was to endeavour to co-ordinate them as to space and time.

That is the explanation of the poor results obtained up to the year 1917.  Happily for the Entente, the enemy was obliged during these years to cope first with the Russian and then with the Rumanian Armies in the East.

Consequently, he had employed on the Western front only a part of his forces, insufficient to gain a definite victory, or had put into operation, as at Verdun, only a narrow and limited conception of the offensive.

The resulting weakness of the two opposing lines threatened to prolong for some time to come what has been called the war of attrition - that struggle of unmarked and unsustained advantages, which wears out both armies without bringing gain to either - a war without result.  If a war is to end in victory, it must always be given a character different from this.

In the course of this struggle for a decision (a necessary phase be it said), Germany freed herself on the Eastern front in 1917 by means of the Russian Revolution and the Treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest.

And when she turned the mass of her formidably equipped armies, more than 200 divisions strong, against the Western front to deliver the violent and, in the first instance, victorious attacks on the Somme in March, 1918, on the Lys in April, on the Chemin des Dames in May, on the Oise in June, and on the Marne in July, who could perceive the signs of that fatal attrition, or the dawn of victory for the Entente?

Who will forget the danger of fresh enemy advances, along the Somme, to Amiens, to split the British Armies from the French, or towards Saint Omer and Dunkirk, to cut off the British Forces from Great Britain; or towards Paris itself, the heart of France and centre of communications vital to the Alliance?

Where was the advantage claimed from the wastage of the German Armies during the preceding years?  Was there no danger that the conflict of Armies, even Armies of the finest quality like the British, might end in disaster, unless they possessed a Higher Command capable of dominating the situation and controlling the turn of events, able to take the troops in hand again, to reorganize and so dispose them that they might first bring the enemy to a standstill, then attack him with such violence, dash and such repeated blows as were never surpassed?

At every stage, both Higher Command and Staffs proved more than equal to their tasks.  Thanks to the activity they were to display after the German attacks in the spring of 1918, and in spite of the losses suffered, more than 60 British divisions, ten times the number in 1914, were to be kept in fighting order until the end of the year; and their moral was to be better than ever.

Lines of resistance were multiplied before Amiens, Arras, Bethune, Hazebrouck, Saint Omer and Cassel.  Preparations were also made to flood tracts of country, for the ground was to be contested bitterly, foot by foot.  Above all, powerful supplies of Allied reserves were to be kept freely moving in constant play between all the Armies.

Thus it was possible for French troops to relieve the Fifth British Army south of the Somme at the commencement of April, and for seven French divisions to support the Second British Army in Flanders in the same month; for five British divisions to reinforce the Sixth French Army on the Chemin des Dames; finally for two British divisions to assist the Fifth French Army in the Forest of Reims, and two other divisions the Tenth French Army at Villers-Cotterets, and join in the counteroffensive of July the 18th.

Thus it was that, thanks in particular to the activities of the British Higher Command and to their grasp of the needs of the situation, more than 200 German divisions were stopped short in their offensive by a smaller number of Allied divisions, and our defensive proved to be victorious.  The same must be said for the support lent by the British troops to other armies during our actual offensive.

In order to estimate the ardour and endurance of these troops during this final stage, it will be enough to mention the dates and importance of the main events:-

Battle of Amiens. Aug. 8-13, in which the Fourth Army took 22.000 prisoners and more than 400 guns.

Battle of Bapaume. Aug. 21-Sept. 1, Third Army and Left Wing of the Fourth Army; 34,000 prisoners, 270 guns.

Battle of the Scarpe. Aug. 26-Sept. 3, First Army; 16,000 prisoners, 200 guns.

Battle of Havrincourt and Epehy. Sept. 12-18, Fourth and Third Armies; 12,000 prisoners, 100 guns.

Battle of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line. Sept. 27-0ct. 5, Fourth, Third and First Armies, which ended in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line and in the capture of 35,000 prisoners and 380 guns.

Battle of Flanders. Sept. 28-0ct. 14, Second Army.

Battle of Le Cateau. Oct. 6-12, Fourth, Third and First Armies.

Battle of the Selle. Oct. 17-25, Fourth and Third Armies; 20,000 prisoners, 475 guns.

Battle of the Sambre. Nov. 1-11, Fourth, Third and First Armies; 19,000 prisoners, 450 guns.

The effect of these violent and repeated British attacks was greatly enhanced because they were linked up with the actions of other Allied armies, French, American, and also Belgian, who struck blows which told no less powerfully in the general plan of this converging assault, extending from the North Sea to the Moselle.

Never at any time in history has the British Army achieved greater results in attack than in this unbroken offensive lasting 116 days, from the 18th of July to the 11th of November.

The victory gained was indeed complete, thanks to the excellence of the Commanders of Armies, Corps and Divisions, thanks above all to the unselfishness, to the wise, loyal and energetic policy of their Commander-in-Chief, who made easy a great combination, and sanctioned a prolonged and gigantic effort.

Was it not the insight of an experienced and enlightened Commander which led him to intervene as he did, with his own Government on the 24th of March, 1918, and with the Allied Governments assembled at Doullens on the 26th, to the end that the French and British Armies might at once be placed under a single command, even though his personal position should thereby suffer?

In the events that followed, did he not prove that he was above all anxious to anticipate and move in perfect harmony with the general Allied plan, framed by the new Supreme Command?

On this point the Despatches contain gaps which prevent the reader from grasping all the reasons for our victory; truth compelled me to complete their account.

F. Foch

Bulgaria mobilised a quarter of its male population during WW1, 650,000 troops in total.

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