I’m often inclined to act the apologist for military commanders during the First World War. Utterly stymied by the state of contemporary weapons and transport technology, they have been used by posterity as scapegoats for a war it regards as disastrous. For long-winded versions of the argument just put ‘donkey’ into the site search engine and read on, but for now I want to talk about a side-effect of posterity’s disdain: the Great War’s shortage of hero commanders.
The Black Prince, Napoleon, Marlborough, Grant, Cromwell, Eisenhower, Zhukov, Gustavus Adolphus, Wellington, Nelson, Giap… off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other major war that hasn’t bequeathed a few high-ranking military greats to posterity, but scan around the First World War’s major belligerent powers and who do you find?
You find Ataturk. As father of the Turkey that emerged from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Ataturk’s military and political exploits were raised by the new state’s propaganda to a status comparable with the great commanders of any war. Otherwise, the field is barren. The USA wasn’t at war for long enough to give Pershing or anyone else a shot at demigod status, and Italy didn’t really have any victorious commanders, while the British Empire’s military leaders were quickly – and, it would seem, permanently – dismissed as donkeys. Russian and Austro-Hungarian head honchos were damned to disgrace or obscurity by the inheritors of their fallen empires, and with the exception of Hindenburg, an inert figurehead never regarded as militarily relevant by any informed observer, Germany’s war leaders soon suffered the same fate.
That just leaves France, where the relationship between posterity and First World War military superstars is a little more complicated.
Unlike the conflict’s other big players, France faced a fight for its very survival from the start of the War. By that time French popular and political culture had been obsessed with the nation’s army for several decades, a reaction to past failures that amounted to a passionate, often critical expression of militarism, very different from but hardly less pervasive than that so routinely associated with Germany. To put it mildly, both situations tended to encourage the creation of national heroes, and the permanent threat of the invader at the gates dealt most revered among them an extra trump against posterity’s revenge – because they became ‘saviours of the nation’.
The ‘saviour’ at the Marne in 1914, General Joffre, remained an untouchable hero for more than two years of repeated failure, carried out with spectacular arrogance, before he was replaced at the top in late 1916, by which time the ‘saviour’ of Verdun, General Pétain, had taken his place as the nation’s favourite hero commander. Pétain cemented his status by ‘saving’ the French Army (and by extension the nation) when it mutinied on the Western Front in April 1917, but a year later his reputation was losing some of its gloss, though only in high places.
Pétain’s great acts of salvation had been defensive in nature – shoring up both Verdun and the Army – and since the mutiny he had been principally concerned with saving French lives, refusing to commit the Army to anything more than a minor supporting role in offensives on the Western Front. Naturally enough, this attitude preserved his popularity among the troops and did no harm to his public reputation, but by the spring of 1918 Allied commanders and political leaders were desperate to be rid of him.
Haig, Pershing, Lloyd George and Pétain’s own prime minister, Clemenceau – all men whose hopes for their own legacies depended on winning the War as quickly as possible – were all convinced of the need for much more aggression from the French Army. The saviour could not, of course, be sacked as its c-in-c – but they could bypass him. On 14 April 1918, after several months of preparatory manoeuvres, they did just that, appointing French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of Allied armies on the Western Front, and in the process enshrining a rival ‘saviour of the nation’ in their own image.
Few observers of French military life, least of all the man himself, doubted that Foch was the aggressive general for the job. Well into his sixty-seventh year in April 1918, he had been preparing for the role since the early years of the century, when his hugely influential works on military theory introduced the concept of ‘offensive spirit’ to French military thinking.
Regarded as stunningly original in contemporary France (though heavily influenced by the relatively little-known Clausewitz) and intended to reverse the defeats by Prussia in 1870, Foch’s ideas laid great stress on tactical flexibility and strong artillery support for attacking infantry. His many supporters took them further, extending them into a call for attack at all costs, with disastrous consequences for Foch’s first attempt to save the nation but very positive effects on his reputation and career.
By August 1914, Foch was in command of the French Army’s elite XX Corps, part of General Castlenau’s army in position for the invasion of Germany through Lorraine. While the invasion was collapsing around him, Foch put his ideas into action, conceiving and executing a counterattack that halted the German advance on Nancy. He was rewarded with promotion (on 28 August 1914) to command a new Ninth Army at the Battle of the Marne, where he again counterattacked to prevent a German breakthrough.
Now firmly established as a national hero, but inevitably in the shadow of Joffre the saviour, Foch took command of the Northern Group of French armies on the Western Front in October, and from the following January the appointment was extended to include British and Belgian forces in Flanders. Never really able to tell British (or Belgian) commanders what to do, his authority hung on direct control of French reserves in the sector, and his reluctance to commit them (particularly at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915) earned him a reputation among BEF commanders for wasting lives. At the same time he alienated successive French governments with his demands for greater aggression and his support for politicians prepared to display said aggression, notably Clemenceau.
Foch remained in the post until the end of 1916, when he was replaced in the wake of Joffre’s belated sacking, his fate sealed by opposition to what he called the ‘Verdun tactics’ of the new pretender to the saviour crown, General Nivelle. After leading a mission to plan future Anglo-French cooperation on the Italian Front, he returned to the Western Front as chief of staff to the new c-in-c, Pétain (of course), after Nivelle’s dismissal in May 1917. Restoring his reputation took longer, but he cracked it during the autumn, impressing politicians and Allied commanders with his coordination of Anglo-French intervention in Italy after the Austro-German Caporetto Offensive had driven the Italian Army to the brink of collapse.
The success saw Foch appointed, with strong British backing, as French Permanent Military Representative to the new Allied Supreme War Council, established in November 1917 as a means of exerting Anglo-French authority over the disputes and decisions of Italian field commanders. In Western Front terms, the position saw Foch taking part in (and agreeing with) decisions made at the very top of the Allied command structure, but unable to impose them on his cautious superior in the field. The Council finally lost patience with the situation once the German Spring Offensive of March 1918 made it imperative that the British and French on the Western Front were singing from the same hymnbook. Promoted over Pétain’s head, Foch became the Western Front’s supreme commander on 14 April, and his jurisdiction was extended to include the Italian Front in June.
The new saviour of France had been installed, and would go on to end the War in what amounted – by the standards of this conflict – to a blaze of glory. Once the German Army’s advances in France had been halted, his enduring commitment to ‘offensive spirit’ would finally come into its own, chiming nicely with the needs of Haig, Lloyd George and Clemenceau, driving the Allied armies forward when it mattered most, and earning him universal admiration in the immediate post-War era as the architect of Allied victory.
So the French, in stark contrast to their allies, emerged from the War boasting two fully-fledged hero commanders (or saviours of the nation) in Pétain and Foch – but neither managed to hold onto the halo. Pétain’s concern to save French lives took him over the line into infamy in 1940, when he agreed to become head of the Vichy regime, and Foch’s religious commitment to aggression against the nation’s enemies persisted into the 1920s, by which time his Draconian approach to punishing post-War Germany had seen him dismissed by all but the most right-wing opinion as a fanatical, anachronistic warmonger. Ah well, Ataturk it is then…
I’ll just end this rambling, essentially pointless post with an apology for coming up with something so bland and taking so long about it. I’m afraid that’s what happens when the demands of exterior wood treatment reduce a body to one solvent-fuelled paragraph a day. And they say trench warfare’s tough…