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

Monday, August 1, 2016

Somme Skeptic: Ferdinand Foch

One victim of the Battle of the Somme was the man destined to become – in 1918 – the most important of the Allied generals, Ferdinand Foch.  In a recent article, Australian military historian Elizabeth Greenhalgh discussed how this came about.

Foch, May 1916

Appointed to command the Northern Army Group from its inception in 1914, Foch had the additional task of acting as Joffre’s ‘adjoint’ or deputy and also of coordinating French action with that of the Belgian and British armies. In 1916, as commander of the Northern Army Group, General Ferdinand Foch was responsible for the major French contribution to the Battle of the Somme.

Affecting Foch’s role in the Somme battle was his own thinking and his relationship with Joffre. He did not consider the Somme to be the right sector for an operation of any magnitude; he did not believe that he had the material means to carry it out successfully; his strategic thinking was beginning to diverge from that of his C-in-C whom he believed was becoming increasingly tired. Foch’s experience of the 1915 offensives had convinced him that the key to success lay in guns, lots of them, and especially lots of heavy artillery. His notebooks leave no room for doubt about what came to be known as the ‘scientific method’. In order to carry out a successful attack, he argued, each army corps should have 100 heavy guns – that is to say 3000 guns for the 30 corps. This required that the output from French factories be about 125 per month whereas it was lower than 100. If the French were to be ready in 1917, this situation must improve immediately and certainly for 1916 will not give any results.

1916 proved a frustrating year for Foch; the tensions between allies and within the French Army had not been resolved. First, Joffre had overridden Foch’s preferred sector for the 1916 campaign and imposed the Somme. Next, because of his ‘scientific’ calculations, Foch knew that he did not have the necessary guns and munitions to achieve a great success; he would have preferred to hold and wait for French industry to produce what was required. Then, Verdun reduced even the limited means at his disposal and imposed a secondary role for the French on the Somme. Foch could only try to be patient as the British edged their way forward to the original second German defensive position throughout July. The weather had proved a further frustration as a very wet summer in Picardy turned the battleground into a muddy quagmire, so that by October men were wading forward to attack with mud up to their thighs.

On 15 December, Foch was sacked from his command of the Northern Army Group. Even more frustratingly, Haig’s reward was a field marshal’s baton. The circumstances of Foch’s removal are somewhat mysterious, but it is clear that there was a campaign of denigration mounted against him and Joffre had not defended him. Joffre too had lost the confidence of the government and the parliament and he was promoted to a shadowy powerless position, from which he resigned. Foch was furious, but he had the sense to bend before the storm and obey orders. He would not be long in the wilderness.

Source:  "General Ferdinand Foch and the French Contribution to the Battle of the Somme," by Elizabeth Greenhalgh, British Journal for Military History, Volume 2, Issue 3, July 2016 
Download the full article here.

1 comment:

  1. His sack was ultimately his good fortune. He had the good luck not to have played a part in the Allied disasters of 1917.