Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Schoolmaster in War

To wait until one is sixty-three years old before even smelling powder—and then to find oneself in command of the greatest allied army that the world has ever seen—such is the remarkable story of the French General, Ferdinand Foch. His life, like that of more than one famous soldier is a bundle of paradoxes, or contradictions, but prove once again that "truth is stranger than fiction."

Those of us who know and love Dumas's swashbuckling hero, D'Artagnan, will remember that he was a Gascon and always spoiling for a fight. Foch was another Gascon who passed threescore years of his life peacefully enough—but when he did get into the fight at last, it was a "corker"!

The Gascony of France and Spain—for it is in the Pyrenees separating the two countries—has produced some famous men, other than Foch—and D'Artagnan. In the fighting days of the Republic and the First Empire, it gave to France Murat, Marbot, and Bessieres. From Gascony at a later day came "Papa" Joffre to do his sturdy bit in saving France.

The ancestral home of the Foch family is on the Garonne River, among the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here the river is hardly more than a trout stream threading its way down the wooded slopes or murmuring through the valleys. It is just such a spot as any boy would like to call "home."

The father of Ferdinand Foch had been born here during the days of the First Empire, when the fame of the Corsican was ringing around the world—and had consequently been christened Napoleon. He married the daughter of one of Bonaparte's officers, Colonel Dupre, and the family were naturally ardent loyalists. To Napoleon Foch and Sophie Dupre were born four children, a daughter and three sons, and the second son was christened Ferdinand. The father at this time had entered the French civil-service, and in 1851, when Ferdinand was born, was at Tarbes in the Upper Pyrenees, as secretary of the prefecture.

The family name of Foch does not sound French, and as pronounced in Gascony with a hard guttural sound it is more like German. It would seem to indicate that in an earlier day the ancestors had lived on the Rhine. Up in northern France they have softened the name to sound like "Fush." The meaning of the name is said to be "Fire"—and certainly the Germans kindled a greater fire than they could quench, when their invasion produced the quiet leader with this flaming name.

Napoleon Foch did not rise very high in his official positions. His work was chiefly clerical and caused him to remove from one town to another. He did not want to lose sight of his boys, by placing them in an academy, but kept them with him, placing them in first one public school and then another, as he was compelled to move. The first school that Ferdinand attended was the old college at Tarbes, where he remained until ten or eleven years old. The family home at Valentine, in the country, was always visited in the summer and other holiday seasons, and here the youngsters had many a romp. Their father on his infrequent visits home would enter into the sport like one of them.

A favorite excursion was up one of the neighboring hills to a cliff known as the Bout du Puig, which commanded a wonderful view up and down the valley. Here they would take their lunch and feel like true mountaineers.

From Tarbes, the family moved to Polignac, where Napoleon Foch was Public Treasurer. After Ferdinand and his brothers had attended the school at this place for a time, they removed to the town of Rodez—and another school.

In these early days Foch was on a par with the average schoolboy, neither better nor worse, if local records are to be believed. He did, however, win an honorable mention at Tarbes for good work in the general course, consisting of geography, history, Latin, and theology.

At twelve he began to show a decided bent for mathematics, that sine qua non  of the successful soldier. He had also developed into a great reader, but preferred history to works of fiction. One of his chief military heroes was, quite naturally, Napoleon, and he must have taken part in imagination with the charge of the Old Guard at Waterloo, or thrilled at the tale of Austerlitz. But never in the wildest flights of his imagination could he have dreamed of commanding a far greater army than was ever assembled under the eagles of Napoleon.

In 1867, at the age of sixteen, another changer came in his schooling. His father was stationed at St. Étienne near Lyons, and Ferdinand was entered at St. Michel, a Jesuit college near by. Here he studied for his university examinations, and made his choice of a life profession—and it is not strange to note that he decided to be a soldier. The choice made, his future studies, as is the way in French colleges, were planned to follow specialized lines. It was not alone necessary to choose the army, for example,—one must select a certain branch of the army. Foch's aptitude at mathematics led him to take up the artillery.

The principal school of this branch of the service was the École Polytechnique, at Paris, but a stiff entrance examination was required here. So Foch decided to do preliminary work at St. Clement's College, Metz, a training school with a high reputation.

In those days the city and fortress of Metz were on French soil. This was just before the short but memorable Franco-Prussian War, but already the air was rife with rumors of an impending conflict. The French, however, were undisturbed. They thought, and expressed the open opinion that it would be fought out on the other side of the Rhine, and that the peace terms would be dictated in Berlin.

Metz! How much history does the name suggest in the light of the Great War! If the young artillery student could have foreseen the backward and forward swing of the pendulum, as exemplified in that ancient city, how his blood would have quickened!

The summer of 1870 arrived. Ferdinand Foch, a well-grown lad of nineteen, went home to St. Étienne on his first vacation. It had been his first year away from home, and there must have been a joyful reunion. But over the vacation season hung a war cloud. In the middle of July, France was persuaded to declare war. Her first great clash with Germany was on.

The news, however, was not displeasing to Ferdinand. He had supreme confidence in the ability of the trained French army to subdue the "Prussian militia." All France had been soundly fooled as to the extent of the German preparedness. Foch thought of Metz as the starting point of the war which was to wage its victorious course eastward. But the reverse soon proved to be the case. From Metz the Germans drove westward into France. The school at St. Clement was transformed into a military hospital. Ferdinand remained at home watching the turn of events with surprised eye.

When the defeat at Sedan came, in September, it seemed to him like the end of the world.

Then came the frantic call from Paris for new troops. Young Foch was one of the first to respond to this appeal. He could do his bit, at any rate, and once the Second Army was assembled, the invader would see! But alas! he was destined to do no fighting. For four months he remained with his regiment, a high private in the rear ranks, doing drill and garrison duty until peace was declared.

The war was over. France had concluded a shameful peace but one that was forced upon her. This sort of war had brought bitter disillusionment to a host of French boys, and they always thought in their hearts of the day of reckoning which must come later on—and hoped that they would be alive to see it. Such must have been the dream of Foch, the "sleeping firebrand."

For the present, there was nothing for it, but to doff his uniform and take up his studies again. The college of St. Clement had ceased to be a hospital and was again full of classrooms. But over the old fort floated a strange flag—the black, white and red emblem of Germany, and German officers strutted everywhere on the streets. The French signs over the shops and on the street corners were rapidly disappearing. Soon came an official order from Berlin forbidding the teaching of French in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. The work of benevolent assimilation was begun.

Foch privately shook his fist at the broad backs of the swaggering conquerors, and set to work at his studies with renewed vim. French or German, the old Jesuit college was going to aid him in his task of becoming a soldier—and then his country would have one more recruit at any rate!

We are not surprised to find, therefore, that he passed his entrance examinations with flying colors, and in November, 1871, donned his uniform as a cadet in the École Polytechnique. This building, like the one at Metz, still bore evidences of the recent war. During the siege of Paris it had been used as a hospital; and in the civil war which followed the peace, when the Empire was overthrown, it had been through severe fighting. Shell holes were still to be seen in its roofs and walls. But such scars seemed to make it still more what it was in name, a military school. Foch already felt like a soldier.

Among Foch's fellow students were two others who were destined to play a part in the World War. One was a cadet named Rufy, who was destined to become a General, in command of the Third Army of France, during 1914. The other was a short, stocky fellow, who came from the Gascon country near Foch's home, and who had been more fortunate than he in seeing some actual fighting during the recent war. He had been in command of a battery of guns during the siege of Paris, and had also taken a physical part in the fighting. Foch looked at this strapping cadet, and then at his own much slighter frame, and a feeling akin to envy came over him, as he may have said to himself:

"If only I could have got into it like that fellow Joffre!"

During the second year of his work here, in 1873, it was announced that, as the army was short of officers, the course would be shortened for the more advanced students, so that they could receive their commissions as soon as possible. Among the students who were granted this honor were Joffre and Foch—the former choosing the engineers, and the latter the artillery. As a special aid in completing his course, Foch secured a transfer to the Artillery School at Fontainebleau.

Here he felt more at home and in more congenial surroundings. He was out of the city with its clamor and clang. Always a country boy at heart, he recalled his beloved St. Étienne in these parks and hills. He had always been fond of horseback riding, and now he had full opportunity of perfecting himself in this art. The daily canters kept his body sound, his brain clear. He came out third in his classes, a highly creditable mark, and received his commission as a sub-lieutenant. He was a soldier at last.

As a reward for his scholarship he was informed that he might choose any post where he would prefer to be stationed. He selected Tarbes, his birthplace, and the town nearest his home. Truly, the fates were kind!

Two years were spent with the garrison at Tarbes, in a round of regimental duties. Then the routine began to pall upon him. He wanted something approaching active service. He had perfected himself in artillery maneuvers; and during his four months as a volunteer in the War, he had drilled in the infantry. So he now applied for transfer to the third branch, the cavalry. His love of horses may also have influenced this desire.

He received the transfer and spent a year in the Cavalry School at Saumur. On completing this course he was given a commission as Captain, and placed in command of a field battery, in Brittany. This transfer marked the beginning of a new era in his life. From being a Gascon, he was now about to become a Breton. He spent so many years of his life in Brittany, that in later years he called his soldiers "my brother Bretons."

Another reason for his change of sentiment was his fortunate marriage to a lady whom he met at Rennes, where his regiment was stationed—Mademoiselle Julie Bienvenue. Her name means "Welcome," and to the lonely and possibly homesick soldier, her advent must have been welcome indeed.

He bought a home in Finisterre, that wild, rocky, well-wooded cape which juts out into the Atlantic. It was an old manor house set in the midst of an estate which from the outset spelled the word "home" for him. There were long sloping meadow lands flanked by stately trees and hills beyond. The old house itself with its somber gray walls and quaint dormer windows seemed always to have nestled here.

Such an idyllic setting, away out on the most sheltered spot of France—far removed from the tramp of an invader, or the other changes which came to the central provinces of France—while pleasant in the extreme was hardly the fitting environment to produce a soldier, a real fighting man. It might produce a fine preacher, or artist, or poet, or farmer—but not likely a famous general.

But Foch did not yield to the blandishments of his new home to the extent of vegetating here. His active mind was looking continually forward. He could not rest content with mediocrity, or a merely comfortable living. "Do what you ought, come what may" was his guiding motto. He applied for admission to the École de Guerre, a higher school recently established for staff officers, but admission to its walls came by favoritism or political pull, and it was many months (1885) before he gained admission.

The course which he took required two years to complete—years which kept him away from home, but were worth while. He graduated as fourth in a large class, and better still had made some valuable acquaintances here. His professors and classmates soon recognized in this quiet, studious Artillery Captain a man worth watching—one who would do in an emergency.

The next eight or ten years were filled with the usual routine of an army officer in peace times. He was transferred from one post to another for periods of two or three years, but always it was active field service which he liked, rather than the routine of office duty. He established a brilliant reputation for horsemanship and cavalry tactics which later were to be of advantage.

But still he had never seen actual warfare, nor heard the bullets whizz about his head. He was an academic soldier, and seemed destined to remain one for the rest of his natural life when, in 1895, he was appointed Assistant Professor of Military History and Strategy, in the École de Guerre, the college from which he had last graduated, a few years before. The faculty had not forgotten him. It was an honor in a way, but Foch doubtless debated long before he accepted it. It meant the giving up of the freedom of his broad outdoors.

He was a major by this time; and after a few years of lecturing, he was made full professor, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The work in his classes was highly important. This being a post-graduate school, the men to whom he lectured were not cadets but trained soldiers, many of them seasoned veterans. They would have instantly detected any flaw in his teaching. The impress which this college professor then made upon the future heads of the French army was destined to have a profound and far-reaching effect. In the years to come, when France and the civilized world was in search of a leader big enough to measure up to the crisis—they turned to this quiet college professor!

Foch won his position as "the most gifted and original of the professors in the École de Guerre" by no trick or sensational methods. He spoke in an even, almost monotonous voice, using few gestures. But his speech was clear-cut and precise. He reminded his hearers of a scientist dissecting a foreign body, as he expounded the clash of armies or the turning points of battle. He had, in fact, precise knowledge of an event in which he had never actually participated. He had analyzed war and resolved it into its component parts, as though it were heated in a test-tube. And how exact were his theories, later events were to show.

In 1901, Foch returned for a time to active service, being given command of the 29th Regiment at Laon. After the classroom routine, the change was indeed welcome. A few months later we find him stationed again in his beloved Brittany, with the rank of Colonel. But promotion had come slowly. During these years he prepared his class lectures for book publication, forming two volumes, the first being his since-celebrated "Principles of War," and the second "The Conduct of War." In these books he proved himself a master of terse, epigrammatic statement. There did not seem to be a superfluous word in them. They were favorably received by military critics everywhere, and still further established his reputation.

But it was not until 1907, when Foch was fifty-six, that he at last received the rank of Brigadier General, with an assignment to the General Staff at Paris. With this belated appointment it seemed that the tale of his military career was told. Fate had more than one surprise in store, even then, however.

The position as head or Director General of the École de Guerre was vacant. A keen rivalry arose among several Generals for the appointment, but Foch did not present his name. He belonged to the wrong party, the Clerical, or Church Party, and the Anti-Clericals were then in power. Clemenceau was Premier, this being his first term.

One day Foch was surprised by being invited to dine with the Premier. When he arrived he was still further surprised to note that he was the only guest. The "Tiger" did not broach the subject of the invitation until the coffee cups were cleared away. Then he said abruptly, and apropos of nothing that had gone before:

"I have some news for you, General. You are appointed Director of the École de Guerre."

"But I am not a candidate, sir," replied Foch, taken completely by surprise.

"Possibly not," replied the Premier drily, "but you are appointed nevertheless, and I am sure you will do good work there."

"I thank you for the honor," said Foch with some embarrassment, "but aren't there—difficulties? I am a Churchman, you know."

Clemenceau laughed.

"Probably you are not aware," continued Foch, finding it difficult to proceed, "that one of my brothers is a Jesuit."

Clemenceau laughed again.

"I know all about it, and I don't care a rap," he answered. "Mon Général, or rather, Monsieur le Directeur, you may consider yourself appointed, Jesuit or no Jesuit. We need men of your stamp to train up officers in our army."

Foch held this responsible position for several years just preceding the Great War. Whether he saw it or not, lowering upon the horizon, he bent every effort to making the command of the French army fit, ready for any emergency. He had never forgotten the dreadful invasion of his boyhood days. With him the teaching of preparedness was almost as sacred as religion.

And when the Great War at last descended, Foch was like a shining sword in its path, one that had never been allowed to rust in its scabbard. The story of his dogged perseverance and his brilliant strategy has been fully told in the annals of war. Two or three strongly characteristic points yet demand mention. He was a firm believer in the element of surprise; he out-guessed the enemy. And he never knew when he was beaten.

"The weaker we are, the more important it is for us to attack," is one of his famous sayings.

At the Battle of the Marne, when his corps was hard pressed at a critical salient, he telegraphed Joffre:

"My left flank has been driven in. My right flank has been driven in. Consequently nothing remains but for me to attack with my center."

And attack he did, hurling back the surprised Teutons and aiding Joffre to turn the invader, and save Paris.

Foch, in brief, is a soldier of the intellectual type. His headquarters when at last he was made Marshal of France and Generalissimo of the Allied forces, resembled a classroom more nearly than the center of a vast and far-reaching activity. There was no bustle, no confusion. Orderlies pored over papers and presented reports quietly. The commander looked them over with keen appraising glance, then issued orders without raising his voice. But that very quietness and precision pronounced the doom of Germany. It was a triumph of science over brute force.

If in America we have had a "schoolmaster in politics," the French have had a "schoolmaster in war"—one who taught the Hun a lesson!

Important Dates in Foch's Life

1851. October 2. Ferdinand Foch born.
1862. Entered school, Tarbes, France.
1867. Entered Jesuit College of St. Michel.
1870. Volunteered in the Franco-Prussian War, but saw no service.
1871. Entered the Polytechnic Academy.
1873. Second-lieutenant in artillery.
1878. Captain. Married Julie Bienvenue.
1885. Entered École de Guerre, a college for staff officers.
1891. Major in artillery.
1900. Lieutenant-colonel. Professor in École de Guerre.
1905. Director of École de Guerre.
1914. General, in command 20th corps.
1917. Chief of general staff.
1918. Commander-in-chief of Allied forces.
1918. Marshal of France.