Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, March 19, 2015

100 Years Ago: It's 1915, What Is Ferdinand Foch Up To?

My center is giving way, my right is in retreat; 
situation excellent. I shall attack.
Foch at the Marne, 1914

After the Western Front was established, the French commander-in-chief, General Joffre, did not believe he had any choice but to keep attacking the enemy now occupying big parts of his nation. Also he could not afford to let his most important allies, the Russians,  to believe – for even a second – that the French were less than determined to hold up their end of the alliance. So in 1915, in violation of the military principles of mass and concentration, the French went on the attack just about everywhere on the Western Front. Joffre would unfortunately be quoted describing this disastrous strategy as "nibbling away at the enemy." France would suffer 1.9 million casualties during 1915, worse than the coming year with Verdun. 

Newspaper Photo of Foch from the War

There is a piece of the Western Front, running north of Paris to the Channel, principally entailing the department known at the Pas de Calais. The heart of the Pas de Calais is a district known as Artois, the largest city of which is Arras, about 110 miles north of Paris. Just north of Arras are a series of ridges known as the de Lorette Heights. A chap named Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew something about battlefields in France, once said, "Whoever dominates the de Lorette Heights commands France." This was validated, by the way, in 1940, when the last big effort of the Allies to stop the German Panzers was defeated in the shadow of these ridges and the Germans quickly got to the Channel and turned on Paris. France soon fell.

A similar situation was very close to developing in 1915, because in the late stage of the 1914 campaign, known as the Race to the Sea, German forces had occupied the two key positions on the heights, Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy Ridge. But in 1915 the French had their "fightingest commander" deployed there. His name was Ferdinand Foch. 

After the Marne, Foch had been sent to coordinate efforts to counter German flanking efforts to the north of Paris and succeeded admirably. For the 1915 campaign he turned his focus almost entirely on the great threat to France in the Artois and the de Lorette Heights.

Before the war he had been among foremost proponents of a strictly offensive approach to war. In 1914, though, his big achievements  — ironically — were standing on the defensive on the Marne and in Flanders. The situation in Artois, on the other hand, gave him the opportunity of taking the offense once again. He relished the opportunity with big hopes for a super-breakthrough to drive the Germans from the homeland. Unfortunately, he demonstrated over a year of trying that — like every other general of 1915 — he had no formula for breaking through the trenches.

There was constant fighting  in Artois throughout 1915. Notre Dame de Lorette heights fell to the French in a May operation, but Vimy Ridge was held by the German Army until April 1917. Its capture, of course, most remembered as the greatest achievement of the Canadian forces in the war. The German Army, however, realizing the importance of the area would hold on nearby until October 1918 when it was finally forced to evacuate the Pas de Calais.  

Dead French Soldier and German Trench at N.D. de Lorette

Except for that Canadian victory, the Artois and de Lorette Heights are one of the neglected battlefields of the Great War in most English-language sources. For some reason they lack the "sex appeal" of Flanders or Verdun for historians. However, consider this — on the crest of Notre Dame de Lorette rest the remains of 40,000 Frenchmen in France's largest war cemetery, and alongside them is a massive new elliptical monument, something in the character of America's Vietnam Memorial, with the names of all the combatants of all nations who fell nearby listed. There are 580,000 names on that monument, including some Americans, ten times the number on the Vietnam Memorial.

Foch would command the northern tier of French armies through 1916's Battle of the Somme, after which he was exiled to the Italian Front for a short time. However, in 1918 France would need a fighting general once again and Foch would be called upon. We will cover those activities in later installments.


  1. Even today the importance of the heights is demonstrated and why the French, Germans, and British tried so hard to take and hold them.

  2. I am looking forward to following your blogs on Ferdinand Foch.

  3. When the enemy occupies your land, there is little choice but to go on the offensive and continue until it is liberated. The enemy has chosen your course and both sides must pay with lives or capitulate. A sad fact on nation states that are the hallmark of the 20th century... and now to the 21st...