The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War

By Alexander Meddings
The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War

It’s impossible to write about the First World War in good terms. As wasteful as it was preventable, it all started with the assassination of a relatively obscure Austrian archduke on June 28 1914. None could have known that this assassination would ignite a political tinderbox, wrapped tightly in a barbed web of impossible alliances, and lacquered in layers of chauvinistic arrogance and diplomatic incompetency. The scale of the war’s slaughter and the sluggishness of its commanders to adapt to its technological demands popularized the phrase: “lions led by donkeys”. But there were some generals whose brilliance shone out even through the gas clouds and shellfire of the war’s front lines.

Ferdinand Foch at Lafayette’s statue, 1917. Maritime Quest

Ferdinand Foch

“My center is in retreat, my right is giving way. Situation excellent. I am attacking.” Whether or not Ferdinand Foch ever spoke these words, so often attributed to him, may be a subject of doubt. But apocryphal or not, the pugnacious, all-out-offensive philosophy they convey captures the essence of the man perfectly. Ferdinand Foch was a firebrand, a standard-bearer of the “no retreat” mentality. If you were unfortunate enough to be a French infantryman serving under him in the early stages of the war, he was also—one can only assume—a devil in uniform.

Foch was a staunch defender of the power of the offensive (a subject on which he’d written two widely-read treatises as Military Professor at École Supérieure de Guerre). And if there was just one thing he had more conviction in, it was himself. In this respect, Ferdinand Foch stood in stark contrast to his counterpart Joseph Joffre. The latter was calm and reassuring; his steadfast resolution at the Battle of the Marne in 1914 almost certainly preventing the capture of Paris and, most probably, the war’s immediate conclusion in the West.

The strength of Foch’s self-conviction led to remarkable inflexibility. He incurred appalling French casualties at Ypres in October-November 1914, at Artois in late 1915 and at the Somme in late 1916. So why, you might ask, does he deserve a place among the war’s best generals? For a start Foch was the French journeyman of the First World War, an immensely decorated soldier at the center of command from beginning to end. His experience might have been more of a quality if, like other generals of the war, he’d learned from it. But, controversial though it might sound, perhaps Foch’s best quality was in fact his stubbornness.

Foch’s famed obstinacy, which he used to just as good effect with his allies as he did with his enemies, certainly cost lives. But if we’re to judge him for his ability to bring the war to a conclusion, then we must also regard it as a virtue. And although we enter into the realms of counterfactualism when we say that he saved more lives by crushing German resistance in the Spring Offensive than he lost before, we do have to say that after being appointed generalissimo of the Allied Forces in March 1918 he certainly fulfilled his responsibility by bringing about a conclusive allied victory.

Assessments over Foch’s virtuosity as a general have waned with each passing generation. In the initial postwar euphoria he was placed on the same pedestal as Caesar and Napoleon. But as the nation came down from its high, this appraisal came to be replaced with questions: why such inflexibility, why such intransigence, why such needless death? This view belongs more to written, rather than monumental history however, and as a mark of national respect for saving France in her direst time of need, Foch’s body rests at Les Invalides in Paris, interred in a resplendent tomb in a wing adjacent to France’s last great emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.