The Philosophy of General Foch

By Charles Whibley

[The Living Age, August 3, 1918; from Blackwood's Magazine]

The appointment of General Foch as generalissimo of the Allied Forces assures the unity of action which is necessary to victory. The loyal acceptance of his command is of the happiest augury for the future. The smaller jealousies, which sometimes have divided this army from that, and weakened the purpose of all, which is to destroy the enemy, hold no sway in our minds or in our hearts. We are proud of the distinguished soldier, whose talents we share with France and Italy, for we know that he has earned his place by what he has done not only in the field but in the study.

What he achieved at the battle of the Marne and elsewhere is known to us all. The lessons which he learned and taught at the Higher Military School in Paris are the best proof that he has pondered his craft deeply and to excellent purpose. In the lectures which he gave to the young soldiers before the war he reveals himself as an erudite historian as well as a profound psychologist, and a brief analysis of these lectures, interrupted by as little comment as possible, will reveal most clearly the aims and ambitions which he has always kept before his pupils and himself. Although the manifold inventions of modern times have given to warfare a wider scope and fresh materials, General Foch declares that in its conduct it remains obedient to the same laws as in the past, but it applies, these laws with means more numerous, more powerful, and more delicate. For that reason the executive part of war demands greater care on the part of all. And by an apt illustration he makes his meaning plain to all. 'Thus,' he writes, 'at certain epochs, the art of construction in a particular style takes a wider range, which permits the use of new materials and a more highly finished method of work; but for all that, the principles of statics, which govern the architecture of all time, remain unmodified. It is the same with the art of war, even after the latest campaigns. Forms evolve, directing principles are unchanged.'

It is, in truth, with architecture and music, with painting and poetry, that war must be compared. For war is an art, not a science, and like the other arts it has its theory and its principles, or it would not be an art. And being an art, it is infinitely variable. A battle cannot be fought to order any more than a poem can be made to order. Knowledge will give a soldier conviction, confidence, and a faculty of clear decision, as it will give these qualities to any other artist. But the knowledge thus acquired will be applied always to 'particular cases' since in war there are no 'general cases' at all. In other words, the factors of the problem are rarely certain; they are never definitive. The principles are fixed; their application varies according to circumstances. Thus the analogy between the art of war and the other arts is complete.

And if these truths be admitted, it follows that the soldier should give his days and nights to the study of history, to recalling the deeds of his great forerunners. If we had wiser governors, they would go to Plutarch for their lessons in statecraft, and no soldier can face an enemy with composure who has not fortified his mind with the shining examples of the past. So General Foch quotes Napoleon, his master and his hero: 'You can teach Tactics,' wrote the Emperor, 'the arts of engineering and artillery, which are the terrestrial part of the art, as you teach geometry. But the knowledge of the high parts of war may be acquired only by experience and by the study of the history of the wars of great captains. You cannot learn from a grammar how to compose a book of the Iliad or a tragedy of Corneille.' Such is the opinion which General Foch echoes again and again. There is much that a soldier cannot learn in a military school, but history he may learn if he will, and history at any rate can be taught. And at the outset he speaks a word of warning. He tells his pupils not to be led away by the miracles of genius. Genius is a rare quality in this sad world, where we must be content with organized talent when we can get it. As to the divine part, which results from the action of man, that cannot always be understood or explained. You may catch a glimpse of it in historical sketches, painted with large strokes of the brush, after the manner of Alexandre Dumas—a series of extraordinary exploits, unexplained and inexplicable, unless you admit the existence of mysterious causes, some prodigy or fatality, such as the incomprehensible genius of the Emperor or his star. But instruction of this kind leads naturally to fetish-worship or fatalism, to the negation of work, to the in utility of intellectual culture, to idleness of the spirit. You are endowed or you are not. You have the spark or you have not. You must go upon the field of battle to find out. From dreams of that kind there was a rude awakening in 1870, when the adversaries of France were dominated by a general staff formed by the learning of history and the study of concrete cases.

And warning his students against fetish-worship, General Foch thus defines his method of training: 'To understand war, you must go beyond its instruments and materials; you must take account of the man; you must study in the book of history, conscientiously analyzed, armies, troops in movement and in action, with their needs, their passions, their failures, their devotions, their capacities of all kinds. That is the essence of the subject, that is the point of departure for a reasonable study. Or to put the case in another shape: 'Since war is a terrible and passionate drama, let us watch the actors and the scenes which compose it.' Thus General Foch exhorts his auditors: 'Let us study the circumstances in which the actors unfold their talent—time, place, temperature, fatigue, the numerous causes of depression or misunderstanding.' And let it be remembered that this historical instruction does not aim at a platonic result of erudition: it furnishes the soldier's mind with new and certain truths.

A study of history, then, is the basis of a soldier's education. It cannot replace actual experience, which nevertheless is not always to be had. To know the principles and not to know how to apply them will lead to nothing. For true it is that in war deeds come before ideas, actions before words, execution before theory. All that can be said is that a proper instruction teaches the art of command, and forms at last the habit of acting correctly without a conscious process of reasoning. Such is General Foch's justification for the work of the Higher Military School, and the progress of the war has shown that he did not teach in vain. Eloquently he tells his pupils, who have since been asked to be the brain of the army, to learn to think. And they must learn to think and to understand, because war is not a science, and knowledge of itself is not sufficient. General Foch, in brief, never loses sight of the spiritual and moral elements of the great enterprise. He dismisses the common theory that to win an army must have superiority of numbers, better rifles, better cannon, bases, wisely chosen positions, the theory founded on mathematical certainties, as radically false. For this theory leaves out of account the most important part of the problem, that which animates the subject and makes it live, man with his moral, intellectual, and physical qualities. And to illustrate his point, he borrows an image—he is fond of images—from the riding school. To leave man out of the calculation of war is as foolish as it were if, in learning to ride and manage a horse, you were content to study the horse in an anatomical plan, to know the names and places of his organs, and to leave out of account his movement, his life, his blood, his temper, and the necessity of bestriding the living animal. Such is not General Foch's method of teaching. If the military school could not study the reality of the field of battle before the war, at least it could insure its pupils the knowledge which they could apply under the fire of the enemy.

As General Foch says, the directing principles of war never change, even though it assume a new shape and form. And he sees in the French Revolution and in the rise of Napoleon the beginning of a new era in military as in political affairs. Even without smiling approval upon what seems to us a political crime, we may yet accept General Foch's view of a transformed warfare. The war of nations took the place of a war of kings. Methods and objects, of which the old world knew nothing, inspired the new world to an unexampled courage and fury. Thus we arrive at the moral element in war, which General Foch believes to be essential. Since a battle is something far greater than a contest of machinery, he thinks it doubtful whether an army can hope for victory if the soldier be not directly interested in the war, if he be not the appointed defender of a national cause. When, therefore, the age came of national wars all the forces of the nation were consecrated to the struggle. A dynastic interest was no longer an end in itself. Men fought not for the conquest or possession of a province, but for the defense or propagation of philosophic ideas, for the principles of independence and unity, for immaterial advantages of diverse kinds. Thus were brought into play the sentiments and passions of each one of the soldiers—that is to say, elements of force hitherto unexploited. If that be true, then it is a happy omen for the great war, which has unchained the passions of all the world. The Germans are fighting for nothing else than a brutal lust of territory. Many months ago they gave up the foolish pretense of imposing their kultur, now mentioned only in derision, upon the reluctant nations. The Allies, on the other hand, are still fighting for the 'immaterial advantages' of liberty and a happy life, for the right to shape their destinies not to the unenlightened pattern of German tyranny, but in accord with their temperament, habits, and traditions. And since the moral element is all important, the Allies cannot fail.

Perhaps the generalization is too wide and dogmatic. Many a war was fought for freedom or religion before the French Revolution, and the sword has been drawn again and again since for advantages far more, solid and easily expressed than philosophic ideas or, principles of independence. Napoleon himself, even though he appealed to the passions and sentiments of his soldiers, knew that they would not turn a deaf ear to the promise of wealth. Here is his first proclamation, quoted at length by General Foch: 'Soldiers, you are naked and ill-fed; the government owes you much, and will give you nothing. The patience and courage which you have shown amidst these rocks are admirable, but they afford you no glory; no lustre flashes upon you. I wish to lead you to the more fertile plains of the world. Rich provinces and great cities will be in your power, and in them you will find honor, glory, and riches. Soldiers of Italy, will you lack courage or constancy?' After reading these words we must admit that Napoleon's ambition differed little from that which consumes the Kaiser—an ambition to dominate the world; and he held out to his soldiers the bait which he thought would tempt them. Nevertheless, he did take advantage of the nation in arms which he found ready to serve him. Nor did he know defeat until Russia of herself and Spain, under Wellington's leadership, transformed themselves to the pattern of France, and thus arrived at victory. Moreover, France was beaten in 1870 for the converse reason. Napoleon Ill's imperial troops, as General Foch points out, formed in the school of perfect order, method, and regularity, did not harmonize with the levée en masse decreed by Gambetta. And it is with good reason that General Foch boasts that the true Napoleonic tradition is still alive in France. 'We are the successors of the Revolution and the Empire,' he says, 'the inheritors of the art, new-born upon the field of Valmy, to astonish the old Europe, to surprise-in particular the Duke of Brunswick, the pupil of Frederick the Great, and to tear from Goethe, before the immensity of a fresh horizon, this profound cry: 'I tell you, from this place and this day comes a new era in the history of the world."'

But whatever were the sentiments and passions of the soldiers whom Napoleon led to victory, one thing is certain, that under his guidance the military revolution was completed, as General Foch makes clear. 'The immortal Berwick,' we are told, aimed at victory without a battle. The old armies manoeuvred for safe positions with the elaborate skill of fencers. But no sooner did Napoleon take the field than he put an end to the ancient escrime, to the worn-out practices of the eighteenth century. He desired nothing so much as a great battle. He substituted the levée en masse for the minutely and rigidly instructed armies of his predecessors. The spirit of the new art, as Napoleon interpreted it, put an end to ruses, finesse, threats, manoeuvres without, a combat. The sole argument that he knew was the argument of blows alone, of the battle; and for the purpose of victory he employed human material without counting the cost, he spared no force if only it might attain a positive result. And thus it is that the battles of Napoleon are no longer considered as acts of barbarism, but as the sole means of war, taken in its truest sense. In brief, as General Foch says, 'to seek out the enemy's armies, the centre of his power, to defeat and destroy them, to choose for that end the direction and the tactics which lead to it by the quickest and surest road—that is the whole moral of modern warfare.' So it is that 'movement is the law of strategy.' A general must not wait for the shock—he must go and seek it. The possession of territory, the conquest and occupation of strong positions, the taking of places—these secondary. All that matters is a decision by arms.

General Foch is perhaps at his wisest when he discusses the discipline of armies, and incidentally he sketches the duties which to-day he is called to discharge. Now discipline, he says, makes the principal strength of armies. Above all, armed forces are organized and commanded to obey; whether we have to do with armies, corps, divisions, brigades, or regiments, all is unity subordinated. It follows that every chief of these units, in thinking of command, must think also of obedience. Before dictating his orders he must be inspired by those which he has received. And this brings us to a definition of the generalissimo, which General Foch is to-day, the one man in the army who stands above and apart from all obedience. 'The generalissimo alone creates the art, the strategy, in the complete sense of the word; all the others create the tactics, the prose. He alone is the composer and the chief of the orchestra, in which all the others play but a part. Thus General Foch explained many years ago to the military school the high position which he holds to-day in the Allied armies. He is the poet of war; his subordinates must content themselves with the prose. He alone is the composer, the chief of the orchestra. The battle which presently the Allies will win will be his composition, and when at last he conducts his own hymn of victory, the liberated world will hear t with a joyful gratitude.

But General Foch puts a liberal interpretation upon discipline. When he says that all save the generalissimo must obey, he does not make light of obedience. It is not the slavish, unthinking submission of the Germans that he has in his mind. 'In war,' he says, 'it is a difficult thing to obey. Obedience is exacted in presence of the enemy, and in spite of the enemy, in the midst of danger, forced by the menace of the unknown.' And as the effectives increase, and with them times and spaces, the road to travel becomes longer and more difficult. Moreover, the command, in the strict sense of the word, loses its precision. It can always decide upon the result to be obtained, but not upon the ways and means whereby to arrive at it. The arrival of the numerous troops thus dispersed can only be guaranteed by leaving them liberty of action, or, in other words, by intellectual discipline, which shows and explains to all the subordinates the end aimed at by their superior. Thus discipline becomes intelligent and active, or rather initiative. And by this definition General Foch insists upon an absolute cleavage between the German method and the method of the Allies. For the Germans obedience is a mechanical thing. The German soldiers follow their leaders in blind unquestioning obedience. They ask not, and they know not, whither they are going or why. To them the command is a kind of fetish which they worship in ignorant silence, as savages worship their mysterious images. They are driven on to fight not by intelligence, but by fear—by fear of the punishment which follows failure; by fear of an unseen, unrealized power. At home in Germany, as at the front, the same senseless discipline may be observed. Thought is as closely fettered for civilians as action for the soldiers. All the newspapers are forced, at the word of command, to echo the same opinions, to advocate the same measures. And then General Foch tells us that discipline must be initiative, that it must appeal to the character and to the mind; that it must imply an act of thought and of reflection; that it has nothing to do with immobility of intelligence, or the absence of thought, or the silence of the ranks. Or, to cite the General's own words: 'Who says chief means a man of character, that goes without saying; but means also a man capable of understanding, and contriving in order to obey. To the passive obedience of the last centuries we shall always oppose n active obedience, the implicit consequence of an appeal addressed always to the initiative, and of the tactics of small independent masses.' And if victory depends upon this high discipline, then surely will victory fall to the Allies, who have never believed that the whole duty of the soldier began and ended in passive obedience.

And General Foch explains the word by defining what it is not. 'To be disciplined,' says he, 'does not mean that the soldier commits no fault against discipline, that he commits no disorder. To be disciplined does not mean that the soldier executes the orders received in such measure as seems convenient, just, rational, or possible, but that he enters frankly into the thought and into the views of the chief who has given the order, that he takes all the steps humanly practicable to give his chief satisfaction. To be disciplined does not mean to keep silence, to abstain from action, or to do that only which the soldier thinks he may do without compromising himself; it is not the act of avoiding responsibilities, but rather of acting in the sense of the orders received, and for that purpose of finding in the mind, by research and reflection, the possibility of carrying these orders out, of finding in the character the energy to face the risks which the execution of the orders involves. In high places discipline equals activity of mind. Idleness of mind leads to indiscipline just as does insubordination. In one case as in the other the fact is a fault, and therefore culpable. Incapacity and ignorance are not alleviating circumstances, for knowledge is within the reach of all who seek it.' From explaining what discipline is not, he proceeds to define what indeed it is: activity of mind to understand the views of a superior officer and to enter into these views, activity of mind to find the material means to realize these views, activity of mind to realize them in spite of the enemy's attempt to preserve his own liberty of action. And since, as Xenophon has said, 'the art of war is to guard one's liberty of action,' in discipline clearly consists the principal strength of armies.

His theory of the battle follows naturally from his sketch of the generalissimo, his definition of discipline. For him the battle is no regular drama, such as is unfolded on the stage, or even in life, depending upon such variable causes as finish or abundance of details, upon the nature of the personages or the interest of the thesis, nor does it resemble the autumn manoeuvres in the methodical employment of arms, each after its own fashion and in its own zone of action. It is the resultant of efforts, some victorious, others apparently fruitless, which converge, nevertheless, all of them, to the same end: the decision, and the denouement, which alone give victory. Now, modern war, to arrive at its aim, to impose its will upon the enemy, knows but one means: the destruction of the adversary's organized forces. So we arrive at the battle, the only argument of war, the only proper end that may be given to strategical operations, and we begin by establishing the fact that, to accomplish this object, the battle cannot be purely defensive. The results of a defensive battle are exclusively negative: it may check the enemy in his march; it may prevent him from achieving his immediate aim; but it never leads to his destruction, and so is powerless to achieve the wished-for victory. Such a battle makes neither conqueror nor conquered; it is but a game, which has to be begun all over again. It is an offensive, whether it be immediate, or whether it succeed a defensive battle, which alone can give useful results, and therefore every defensive battle must terminate with an offensive action, or there will be no result. An elementary notion, says General Foch, but a notion so darkly obscured in 1870 that the French called those actions victories which merely enabled them to maintain their positions. Action, then, is the primordial law of the battle. Of all faults one only is infamous—inaction.

In what consists the combination of qualities which insures the victory? Is it in the losses which we inflict upon the enemy? Or is it in more and better guns, in the superiority of the materials of war? General Foch says the battle is won by none of these things. 'Ninety thousand conquered men retire before ninety thousand conquering men only because they have had enough, because they no longer believe in victory, because they are demoralized, at the end of their moral resistance.' For General Foch it is a question of moral alone. He quotes with approval the memorable saying of Joseph de Maistre: 'A battle lost is a battle which the army believes to be lost, for a battle cannot be lost materially.' Therefore it is morally that it is lost. But then it is also morally that it is gained, and we can prolong the aphorism thus: A battle gained is a battle in which the army refuses to admit itself beaten. All the evidence goes to prove the capital importance of moral in war. Cardot, Von der Goltz, Bugeaud (with his 'O Moral Power, thou art the queen of armies!'), are of one opinion. 'To conquer is to advance,' said Frederick, and Joseph de Maistre, accepting the statement, asks: 'But who is he who advances? It is he whose conscience and countenance makes the other side retreat.' And General Foch gives it mathematical expression: 'War = department of moral force. Victory = moral superiority in the conqueror; moral depression in the conquered. Battle = the struggle of two wills.'

For our army to be victorious, then, it must have a moral superior to that of its adversary, or the high command must impart it. The will to conquer is the first condition of victory, and therefore the first duty of the soldier; and it is with this supreme resolution that the commander must inspire his men. Thence follows the importance of the generalissimo, the man who has the gifts of inspiration and command. And, as always, General Foch quotes Napoleon to his purpose. 'It was not the Roman legions which conquered Gaul,' wrote the Emperor, 'but Caesar. It was not the Carthaginian soldiers who made Rome tremble, but Hannibal. It was not the Macedonian phalanx which penetrated India, but Alexander. It was not the French army which reached the Weser and the Inn, but Turenne. It was not the Prussian soldiers who defended their country for seven years against the three most formidable powers in Europe; it was Frederick the Great.' And history 'does no less than justice when it gives the praise of victory, the blame of defeat, to the generals who have commanded their armies in the field. For it is in the influence of the command, in the enthusiasm communicated by it, that we must seek and find an explanation for the unconscious movements of masses of men, in these solemn moments when, in General Foch's admirable phrase, 'an army in the field, without knowing why, feels itself carried forward as though it were gliding on an inclined plane.' We can only hope that such a solemn moment may come presently to the armies of the Allies, that General Foch's influence and enthusiasm, communicated to them all, will move them unconsciously to the goal of victory.

Force of soul in the commander, a high moral in the soldier—without these no army can hope to conquer. Or, as General Foch sums it up, 'No victory is possible without a vigorous command, greedy of responsibilities and ready for bold enterprises, possessing and inspiring in all the energy and resolution to go to the very end, without, personal action rendered in good will, without judgment, without freedom of spirit (in the midst of danger)—gifts natural in the highly endowed man, in the general born, advantages acquired by work and reflection in the ordinary man.' But here General Foch speaks the necessary word of warning. A good general does not fight for the sake of fighting. 'If the will to conquer is necessary to engage a battle with any chance of success, the generalissimo is criminal to engage or accept it without the superior will which gives to all direction and impulsion. And if the battle is imposed upon him by inevitable circumstances, he must decide to fight and to conquer all the same.' For let it be remembered that in success or failure we reap the reward of our qualities or pay the penalty of our faults. For in reality, as General Foch concludes, 'the great events of history, the disasters which it records in some of its pages, such as the destruction of the French power in 1870, are never accidents but rather the results of superior and general causes, such as the forgetfulness of the commonest moral and intellectual truths, or the abandonment of the activity of mind and body which constitute the life and health of armies.' That conclusion all will approve; by that test—superior activity of mind and body—we are content to be tried, and we await the issue of the conflict with Germany in tranquil confidence of spirit.

And since it is essential to demoralize the enemy, how, asks General Foch, shall this be achieved? A passage from Xenophon, whom he constantly cites with respect, helps to solve the problem. 'Whatever is,' says the Greek writer, 'the less clearly it is foreseen, the more it causes pleasure or fear. Nowhere is this more plainly evident than in war, where surprise strikes with terror even those who are by far the stronger'—strikes them with that cold terror which descends upon the stoutest heart, freezes it, and persuades it that it is vanquished. And surprise is fatal to an enemy, because it robs him of the possibility of reflection and of discussion. Now the development of the idea of surprise may appear in several forms and shapes. A new weapon of war may insure it, though new weapons are hard to come by. Or a sudden appearance of a force larger than the adversary's may do the work, or a concentration of forces upon a point at which the adversary is not ready instantaneously to parry the blow. But if the method be various, its aim is always to produce the same moral effect upon the enemy: terror, by creating in him, at the swift apparition of unexpected and incontestably powerful means, the sentiment of impotence, the conviction that he cannot conquer—that is to say, that he is conquered. And this supreme blow of unexpected vigor need not be directed upon the whole of the enemy's army. For an army is an animate and organized being. But who says organism says a collection of organs, of which the health and well-being are necessary to the life of the individual, and of which the loss, even of a single one, leads to death. Thus we arrive at the necessity of a supreme blow delivered at one point, since, as Napoleon said, 'it suffices for victory to be stronger at a given point at a given moment'; or, as General Foch sums up the battle, 'a manoeuvre, which aims at the action, intentional, resolute, sudden and energetic, of masses of troops upon a chosen point.'

Thus General Foch believes that the issue of war depends rather upon moral and spiritual than upon material forces. The genius of the commander, united to the soldier's will to win, makes victory certain. That which he has taught in his books he has illustrated upon the field of battle. He is no armchair soldier, content with mere knowledge and doctrine. Rather he is a generalissimo who knows that the lessons which are profitable to-day must be learned in the history of the past. And his own actions justify his method. What he did at the Battle of the Marne will never be forgotten, and with such skill did he apply his theory of manoeuvre about fixed points at the Yser, that he attacked the enemy with six army corps against thirteen, and brought off the victory. Such is the man into whose wise hands the destinies of Europe and the world have been placed; and we know that, when the moment comes to strike the final blow, to plan the surprise which shall strike terror into a demoralized foe, he will triumphantly deliver with all simplicity, brutality, and vigor the decisive attack, which, says he, 'is the supreme argument of the modern battle—a struggle of nations, fighting for their lives, their independence, or some less noble interest—fighting on each side with all their means, with all their passions, masses of men and of passions which it is our business to defeat and to destroy.'

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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