Foch in the Midst of War


THE most tremendous moment in the life of Ferdinand Foch came on the night of July 14, 1918. He was waiting for the enemy attack to begin. It meant so much, the precise moment of that attack. It meant the success or failure of his plans; the safety of France was at stake; it was the crown of his career, the turn of the tide, perhaps. He knew when that attack was timed to take place. It was the mystic hour of H, which, being interpreted, meant ten minutes past midnight. He had established that fact by spies and prisoners. Only a few hours before, his patrols had caught Germans red-handed, putting the last touches to preparations. But could these indications be relied upon? Were they sure signs of enemy intentions? Of that, he could not be absolutely certain. And so he asked himself a score of times during the long night whether he was right in relying on his information that the attack would take place at the hour of H. Suppose it should break out at another spot, at another time! Or it might be again postponed as it had been nine days before, his Intelligence Department informed him; and for an hour on the sixth he had rained shells of high explosive on enemy positions. These things filled the thoughts of the great chief as he interrogated his watch.

It was the night of the National Fête. A few hours before, the troops of the Allies, poilus and their comrades, English, American, Belgian, and Italian, had defiled in the streets of Paris. Flags fluttered and garlands still swayed in the evening breeze. An atmosphere of festival softened the asperities of war. It was a moment when even the soldier would be off his guard. Foch, who knows the German, knew he would reason thus. Could any opportunity be finer for making the gigantic effort which was to impose a peace of conquest? Assuredly not. That was the pure essence of German psychology.

Moreover, Paris was not merely the core of Entente resistance, but the head centre of the armament of war. Troops moved from it to the Front, trailing their cannon along its roads; railways radiated from it: it was the heart of the French system. Again, it was set in the midst of a vast munition area encircled by ‘dumps’ and drawing its industrial nourishment from the mechanism of war. And it was the greatest fortified city in the world. So unimagined profit belonged to the Boche if he could capture it — prestige beyond compare among the nations of the earth. For beneath the camouflage of feints and secondary strokes, there was ever present in his mind, hardening into a fixed malignant purpose, the humbling of Paris.

Foch knew the undying hate, the unbending ambition of the Hun. It made the hour, the hour of H, pregnant with fate, with the future, indeed, of the liberties of the world.

Foch was brooding over these things in the silence of the night in the unpretentious setting of his headquarters; the plain office, where he transacts the vast business of his military estate, the supreme ruler of a kingdom of millions. Watch in hand, he was counting the minutes.

If only he could anticipate the Germans’ plans by an hour! That was his ardent wish. He would summon the storm, that it might leap and burst in the night, but always responsive to his will.

He sat deeply cogitating as the minutes ticked away. What if he were wrong? he again asked himself; what if no attack were contemplated? if he had been tricked by spies? All these doubts assailed him as he sat weighing possibilities with the fine balance of his mind. Well, his orders had been given — Boom! the first gun had spoken out of the night, from its dark hidingplace; the French counter-barrage had begun. Of course, it might be only a futile demonstration — the planned attack might be elsewhere. Meanwhile, Parisians, late returning from the fête, heard and wondered at the guns. Surely something tremendous was afoot!

The chief’s watch was again consulted. Outside, beyond the shadows, he pictured the Germans waiting and watching: a dozen divisions in the line, as many more in reserve. Presently, new voices arose in the darkness, earthquaking in their stentorian volume and intimidatory force. This time it was the German barrage. It was the sacramental hour of H. The volcano had been touched off and belched flame. It seemed as if the solid frame-work of the earth was rent asunder with dreadful thunder and lightning. This was the German preparation. Soon the field-gray waves would begin to flow over the ground.

It happened as had been arranged. The plan could not be altered at that late hour. It is one of the defects of the German machine, which grinds to powder if all goes well, but which is apt to start and jar if the least obstruction is introduced. Besides, this starting of the French fire was mere guesswork; how could they know what was in the mind of the great Ludendorff ? Moreover, it was not possible that they could resist. Suddenly to change a plan needs a spirit of improvisation, which the Germans do not possess.

And so the waves rolled on, only to break, uselessly, against the front trench vacated by the French, but the range of it accurately registered by the watchful, hungry guns. When the field-gray moved on again, sadly diminished, it found itself barred by the strong defense of the second line. The French had not only anticipated the German time-table but had adopted the Hindenburg plan, which means holding lightly the front line and concentrating in the second.

Nor need we insist on that other surprise that Foch prepared, when, on the third day of the offensive, the tables were suddenly turned and the French attacked with a splendid impetuosity, catching the enemy in flank as he was bridging the Marne. How Foch conquered the initiative is told by a hundred pens. Von Boehn’s army felt the blow just as Von Kluck’s had, when struck by Manoury, at the other battle of the Marne. Mangin, with his Moroccans and part of Degoutte’s army, made a great haul of guns and prisoners on the Château-Thierry-Soissons front; but it would not have been possible, perhaps, but for Gouraud, the lion of the Argonne, the one-armed hero of Gallipoli, who had shone in a hundred fights in Africa against Moor and negro potentate. Gouraud, keeper of the rampart of Rheims (with Berthelot and Degoutte), blocked the road to Épernay and thence the road to Paris.

That other victory of the Marne must need no refreshing in the mind of Foch, so large was his part in it. It was there that he showed his bold spirit in action, showed that he is no slave to rules, but can break them when occasion calls. In defiance of his own teaching he withdrew a division — the famous 42d — in the midst of action, and placed it in reserve, thereby weakening his line. But the case was desperate; it was worth a risk to better it; it could hardly be worse. It was then — before Fère-Champenoise — that he telegraphed toJoffre, ‘Mycentre yields, my right falls back. Situation excellent. I attack.’ And attack he did. The Germans had already installed themselves in the town. Suddenly, an apparently new army appeared in the plain. It was the imperturbable 42d, which had made a détour behind the front and reappeared at the critical moment. It was September 9. On the morning of the 10th, when the order for a general advance was given, the battle was already won. Foch established his headquarters at Fère-Champenoise and, on the premises, captured German officers overcome with wine. Characteristically, they had celebrated their triumph in advance.


Foch is prepared to take risks; he incarnates the fighting spirit of his countrymen, always better in attack than in defense. The slow-grinding waiting period, the uncertainty as to where the blow may fall, is wearing to their nerves. That is not the French way; it was not Napoleon’s. And Foch presents, as no modern soldier has done, the tradition and, perhaps, the genius, of the Great Corsican. For a time it seemed as if his theories had gone awry, as if the war of movement had ceased to be. War had become a sullen, sedentary battle of position. But Foch consulted the past and scrutinized the present until he was convinced that the old style of fighting, with, of course, the new instruments, would come to life again. And so he waited, confident that his hour would arrive.

He is essentially the combatant, — not the passive resister, — brilliant in sudden assault. His temper is of the sort which realizes that there must come a moment when it is absolutely fatal to give ground, when the highest prudence, as well as the highest courage, dictates a stark resistance, anchored to the ground. It is said that he told the King of the Belgians that he would lose his throne if he lost his foothold on the Yser; and everyone has heard of his midnight conversation with Lord French, in which he urged the impossibility of retreat, though the line had been pierced. The situation looked impossible, but Foch not only conjured fears of being overwhelmed by the very vigor of his words, but sent practical aid to the hard-pressed British.

That is the man. At the time of danger, when others despair, a stern unrelenting light shines from the gray-blue eyes which illumine his face. Under their deep arches they seem quiescent until suddenly aroused, and then they flame as with resistless force and resolution. And the spirit within, ordinarily so placid, because controlled by his great intellectuality, leaps to express itself in language of great energy. In these moods of fierceness, of unrelenting character and aim, his officers fear him as if they had affair with a superman. For at moments of supreme responsibility, when the last piece is thrown upon the checkered board, he tolerates no fumbling, no weakness.

Foch and Pétain, commander-in-chief and commander of the French forces, respectively, are an admirable pair: the one all fire and implacable resolve, with a masterly and yet measured serenity, as if there were moments when one must not be serene, and the other full of the colder science of war, a man of method, an economiser of lives. But Foch, also, besides the gleam of purpose, has the quality of kindness in his eyes. They look with friendly interest and recognition on those he likes and trusts, but can be pitiless for those who have incurred his blame. A model chief: strong, resourceful, much given to reflection and solitary vigil, he is yet human and companionable and interested in many things. He is the sort of soldier the French Academy loves to honor: polished and erudite, a savant, an exquisite writer, a man who knows how to lead by force of character and brains, by a just appeal to the higher faculties.

The secret of his mastery lies, I think, not in the splendor of his talents, in the charm and persuasion of his class-room manner when lecturing (as a dozen years ago) at the High War School on strategy and the conduct of battles, but in the strength of his soul. He relies on the ascendancy of mind over matter. That is at the back of all his teaching. Battles are won because of moral qualities and lost for want of them. Nothing could be simpler or more tragically true. It was as if Napoleon were saying in our hearing, ‘Vanquished those who believe themselves to be.’ And the converse is as incontrovertible. He who believes himself to be invincible is likely to prove so in action.

Behind the moral is high principle — deep religion in our general’s own case. He is a devout man, the son of pious parents. His life has been harmonious in its calm studiousness, in its freedom from intrigue, in its broad and lofty outlook. Somewhere he has written an exquisite page about his faith in God, and his consolation as a good Christian. ‘I approach the end of my life with the conscience of a faithful servant, who reposes in the peace of the Lord. Faith in life eternal, in a God of goodness and compassion, has sustained me in the most trying hours. Prayer has enlightened my way.’

One contrasts him with Ludendorff, his antagonist, as well in the field of battle as on the plane of culture and civilization. I have never met Ludendorff, but I have studied his portrait. There is something brutal and forbidding in it; it is that of a man without much soul. That accords with his character, with his mode of making war.

Other commanders may recognize limits beyond which one cannot go, but not so Ludendorff, chief of the German Staff. If the object is attained, everything is permissible, from espionage on an extended scale to propaganda brazenly mendacious or falsely suggestive.

Foch has not the personal popularity of Joffre with the common soldier, but a prestige and renown which in themselves produce a victory. His aspect is a little cold, a little detached, the face lined with thought and care. But the eyes, I have remarked, spiritualize the face and relieve the heavy impression of the jaw. There are will-power and great intelligence written in the facial signs.

For his great office he must thank the genius of Lloyd George, quick to note the lucidity of his comments on the course of the campaign. In frequent conference the British Premier detected the superior mind behind the masterly exposition. At a late moment — the latest, alas! that was possible — he agreed with M. Clemenceau to give Foch full command. Needless to say that that veteran statesman had already realized the power of his countryman. From the moment that unity was established, the result was no longer in doubt. Victory became as certain as to-morrow’s sunrise.

As to the difficulty of conducting operations when each commander had to be consulted and his amour propre propitiated, Clemenceau well described it by declaring with grim humor, ‘Since this war, my admiration for Napoleon has declined. He had only to fight a coalition.’

Foch’s task of fighting with a coalition has aroused his deepest sympathy. The Germans have represented the commander-in-chief as bowed down and overpowered by the enormity of his task. They have drawn a picture of Foch falling asleep over his maps, after several nights of continuous toil. But Clemenceau’s picture of such a general, which he presented to the Chamber of Deputies as a signal proof of devotion to duty, did not refer to Foch, but to a lesser light. Foch, himself, takes care not to be overburdened and to keep his mind fresh for its vast occupations. Nor is he to be imagined as listening to distractingly varied advice of his French, English, and American collaborators. He keeps himself unfettered in his relations with his organism and quietly decides the most intricate matters by resolving them into their primitive parts. Some complain that his methods are too arbitrary, and that he makes mistakes by a too great simplification. Did he not hold too lightly the Chemin des Dames on a recent tragic occasion? Is he not too concerned (insinuate Parisians) in helping the English at the expense of the French? But he has always regarded the Front as one and indivisible, not as belonging to the French, to the English, or the Belgians. That sound conception is part of the clear directness of his thought.

At his own headquarters you will not find a mass of gilded officers, but a staff of half-a-dozen specialists occupied with their departments. This is the simple lever which moves the world of the Allied armies. The advantage of the system far outweighs any likely defects from too abbreviated and sketchy plans. It is in direct contrast with that older system, which at one time prevailed, whereby even matters of diplomacy, affecting distant parts of Europe, were settled, or at least discussed, by the military chief.

Foch has not only the qualities of heart and head for command, but the sort of faith that moves mountains, however blackly set in the clouds. A year ago, Foch wrote that in every difficulty which besets a military leader there is but one sure and fruitful resource — the exclusive cult of duty and discipline. Brave words, which might well embody the fighting creed of a brave man.