French Marshal Ferdinand Foch's Horizon Blue Tunic with Medals

Portrait of Marshal Ferdinand Foch on Horseback by Edmund C. Tarbell, 1921 (Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-102295)

This horizon-blue tunic was tailored for Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929). Three rows of embroidered oak leaves adorn the collar, matching the design worn on the Marshal's kepi, and general-rank loops decorate the shoulders. The cluster of seven stars featured on each sleeve serves to further identify this tunic as belonging to a Marshal of France. The Médaille militaire (Military medal) and Grand-Croix de la Légion d'Honneur (Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor) are attached to the left breast. A Marshal of France is not a military rank, but a bestowed title. General Ferdinand Foch received the decoration on August 6, 1918.

With the uniform is a Marshal's baton made on the 20th anniversary of his death. It is nearly identical to the baton presented to him on August 23, 1918, shortly after he was bestowed the title Marshal of France. The baton is wrapped in blue velvet and features 30 gold stars. The text on one end reads, "Hommage au Maréchal Foch" (French: Tribute to Marshal Foch) while the other end reads, "Terror Belli Decus Pacis" (Latin: Terror in War, Honor in Peace).

Marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929)

Marshal Ferdinand Foch was born on October 2, 1851, to a religious Catholic family. In his late teens he attended officer candidate school in Nancy but left at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). He enlisted as a private but never served in combat. After the French surrender he returned to school in Nancy. There, he came into contact with German occupying forces and developed an ardent anti-German French nationalism. This nationalism and desire for revenge motivated him throughout WWI.1

Foch developed as a military mind and scholar. He continued to receive promotions, despite the anti-clerical sentiments of the French Third Republic. It was also in this atmosphere that Prime Minister George Clemenceau appointed Foch to the Ecole de Guerre (War College) in 1907.2 In his post at the Ecole de Guerre, Foch taught his belief that military success was tied to moral strength and the will to achieve victory. He emphasized this idea, stating, “If defeat comes from moral causes, victory may come from moral causes as well.”3 His “offensive spirit theory” called for attacks under any circumstance and at all costs, with an emphasis on considerable artillery support and an allowance for strategic fluidity at the unit level.4 Foch was not alone in his thinking, as the French military translated this belief into an all out attack strategy. This strategy proved costly throughout the war, both strategically and numerically. The French scheme favored a singular massive offensive movement to destroy the bulk of Germany’s regular forces as they crossed into the Lorraine. The French command never anticipated Germany would commit the bulk of its forces north, violating Belgian neutrality and avoiding the Lorraine almost altogether.5

At the beginning of WWI, Foch commanded the XX Corps. His first major battle took place at the defense of Nancy in August of 1914. Foch was chosen for command of the defense because he attended officer candidate school in Nancy, making him well aware of the terrain. French forces retreated into the hills, and Foch successfully repulsed all further German advances through the Lorraine.6 Foch was again tapped to lead at the Battle of the Frontier. Hundreds of thousands of French troops were killed by superior German use of machine guns and artillery. French soldier’s morality and courage did little to save them from faulty French tactics used against sophisticated defensive networks and the deadly machine guns.7 The Battle of the Frontier exposed the weakness in Foch’s strategy and proved that winning the war would require more than courage and unrelenting attack.

During the Battle of the Marne in September of 1914, Foch, then in command of the Ninth Army, again held his ground. After stopping the German advance, Foch ordered an aggressive counterattack, and forced German troops to retreat across the Marne River.8 German attacks continued and Foch was promoted to commander of Army Group North. There he took command of an international army of French, British, and Belgian forces and with great difficulty oversaw another defensive position against a tactically and technologically superior German attack at the Battle of Ypres. His success, however, is predominantly tied to the actions of Belgian sappers, who opened the flood control gates at Nieuport, creating a natural barrier that stopped the German advance.9

On May 15, 1915, Foch went on the offensive with the Northern Army at Vimy Ridge. He ordered a six-day artillery barrage, but the reinforced German lines quashed his offensive. The Northern Army lost over 102,000 men in the process, while the Germans lost only half of that. The offensive warfare strategy continued to be ineffective against the artillery and machine gun emplacements. The cost, as always, was human life.10 A second attempt at Vimy Ridge in September of 1915 was even more costly. The casualties were astronomical – 100,000 French, 60,000 British, and 65,000 German casualties were recorded.11 The intractable situation continued to plague the Entente even as the French military began to learn from its deadly mistakes. Foch commanded the French forces during the Allied Somme Offensive in July of 1916. Because Germany reinforced along British lines, Foch’s French forces were able to achieve almost all of their objectives. In a departure from his past decisions, Foch ordered his troops to march in small groups and abandon the line configuration for the first time. Unfortunately, the French assault was only a small part of the greater offensive and the British assault was not nearly as successful, limiting the possible gains.12

After two years of costly failures the French government reorganized its command structure and placed General Robert Georges Nivelle as Commander-in-Chief. George Clemenceau appointed Foch to serve as the French Army’s Chief of Staff on the Supreme War Council, thereby removing him from command and keeping him from interfering with Nivelle’s new strategy.13 Foch soon returned to the field in May of 1917. He served as General Philippe Petain’s chief of staff until the collapse of the Italian defenses at Caporetto, at which time Foch was dispatched to Italy where he oversaw the dispersal of allied reinforcements and support.14

In the spring of 1918 German forces on the Western Front began a massive offensive that, for the first time since 1914, threatened to penetrate the Allied lines and jeopardize Paris. The disorganized withdrawals of both British and French forces in the face of the German advance created great concern among the allies. French and British forces parted along national fault lines with each country’s commanders making uncoordinated autonomous decisions that allowed the Germans to march deeper into France. Furthermore, Europe began receiving American troops, who also needed to be coordinated and dispatched. All of the Allied nations expressed a desire to appoint a single allied commander, while agreeing that the commander would need to be French, as the French employed the most men in the field and controlled the largest portion of the line.15 The Supreme War Council, a committee of civilian and military leaders from each Allied nation, met at the town of Doullens – close enough to the frontlines to hear the artillery – in March of 1918 to select a supreme allied commander. Although the “Hero of Verdun” Louis Philippe Petain was considered for the position, his pessimism and reluctance to defend the frontline discouraged wide scale Allied support.16

The British Commander-in-Chief, General Douglas Haig, supported Foch’s candidacy. Haig knew of Foch’s willingness to fight and valued this quality. Foch was also a good friend of Henry Wilson, Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, giving him even more of a diplomatic advantage. At the time Foch was better received by the British Army than the French. British General Beauvoir de Lisle said upon meeting Foch in 1916, “we looked upon him as the greatest soldier in the French Army.”17 Foch famously promised at the conference, “I would fight in front of Amiens. I would fight in Amiens. I would fight behind Amiens.” His dedication to defending more than just Paris even impressed British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Foch was easily confirmed. His responsibility was to “(coordinate) …the action of the Allied Armies on the Western Front.” Haig would be the British Commander and Petain would be the French Commander.18

Foch ordered that all further retreats were to cease and ordered Petain to send French forces north to fill the gaps in the British lines. He stated that the Allies would defend both the channel ports and Paris – not one or the other as strategists had planned.19 Although the British and French forces were slow to comply, Foch’s confidence earned him further esteem when he was given the power to order counterattacks when appropriate.20 After months of successful defensive maneuvers and the addition of hundreds of thousands of fresh American troops every month, Foch’s allied forces ended the 1918 Spring Offensive, and the Germans began a tactical withdrawal soon after. As more and more German deserters and prisoners piled up behind Allied lines, Foch detected Germany’s weakness. In late July 1918 he organized and committed to a full offensive that he ordered to continue unabated, no longer allowing German forces to reorganize in the face of advances.21

After months of continued Allied assault and a revolution fomenting, the German Army and State was drained of all possible options and sued for peace on November 7, 1918. Foch immediately ceased the offensive stating, “I am not waging war for the sake of waging war… If I obtain through the armistice the conditions that we wish to impose on Germany, I am satisfied. Once this object is attained, nobody has the right to shed one more drop of blood.” Foch then demanded personal oversight of all armistice negotiations and Clemenceau reluctantly agreed.22 At Compiegne, Foch and the rest of the Allied armistice delegation waited in a rail car for the German negotiators, Catholic Centrist and prominent war critic Mathias Erzberger and German General Detlef von Winterfeldt. Foch presented the Germans with strict cease fire terms, which included the dismantling of all German materials capable of continuing the war. At 5:12 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the German delegation agreed to Foch’s hard-line demands. World War I had finally ended.23

After the war Foch continued his military duties. He sourly rejected the Treaty of Versailles because it featured no provision for the permanent occupation of the Rhineland and fortuitously stated, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”24 Regardless, he administered the terms of the treaty in 1920, but factional French military squabbling and Foch’s belligerent nationalism continued to frustrate both the Allies and the French. His popularity dwindled and he pursued no political career after leaving his military post. He died on March 20, 1929.25

Marshal Ferdinand Foch with Allied Delegates after the Compiegne Armistice, November 11, 1918Statue of Marshal Foch erected near the site of the November 11th signing

Left: Marshal Ferdinand Foch (second from right) and Allied delegates shortly after signing the armistice at Compiegne ending WWI, November 11, 1918 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-038-29).

Right: Statue of Marshal Foch erected near the site of the November 11th signing. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 121-2027).

France World War I

Description by Jordan Winter
Marshal Ferdinand Foch by Daniel Roberts