Ferdinand Foch

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My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking.

Marshal Ferdinand Jean Marie Foch (2 October 185120 March 1929) was a French general and Marshal of France, Great Britain and Poland, a military theorist and the Allied Supreme Allied Commander during the final year of the First World War.


The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.
One does simply what one can in order to apply what one knows.
What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all of the armies of Europe.
This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.
  • Les avions sont des jouets intéressants mais n'ont aucune utilité militaire
    • Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value.
      • Said in 1911 as quoted Time : A Traveler's Guide (1998) by Clifford A. Pickover, p. 249
    • Variant translation: Airplanes are interesting toys, but have no military utility.
  • One does simply what one can in order to apply what one knows.
    • The Principles of War (1913)
  • Mon centre cède, ma droite recule, situation excellente, j'attaque.
    • My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, excellent situation, I am attacking.
    • Message to Marshal Joseph Joffre during the First Battle of the Marne (8 September 1914), as quoted in Foch : Le Vainqueur de la Guerre (1919) by Raymond Recouly, Ch. 6
  • What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all of the armies of Europe.
  • The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.
    • As quoted in The 32d Infantry Division in World War II (1956) by Harold Whittle Blakeley, p. 3
  • This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.

Precepts and Judgments (1919)

As translated by Hilaire Belloc (1920) Full text online
In tactics, action is the governing rule of war.
There is but one means to extenuate the effects of enemy fire: it is to develop a more violent fire oneself.
Everything in war is linked together, is mutually interdependent, mutually interpenetrating.
  • In tactics, action is the governing rule of war.
    • p. 79
  • To inform, and, therefore to reconnoitre, this is the first and constant duty of the advanced guard.
    • p. 83
  • The laurels of victory are at the point of the enemy bayonets. They must be plucked there; they must be carried by a hand-to-hand fight if one really means to conquer.
    • p. 105
  • Against what should fire be opened? Against the obstacles which may delay the march of infantry.
    The first obstacle is the enemy gun. It will be the first objective assigned to artillery masses.
    • p. 108
  • There is but one means to extenuate the effects of enemy fire: it is to develop a more violent fire oneself.
    • p. 110
  • An army is to a chief what a sword is to a soldier. It is only worth anything in so far as it receives from him a certain impulsion (direction and vigour).
    • p. 138
  • When the moment arrives for taking decisions, facing responsibilities, entering upon sacrifices — decisions which ought to be taken before they are imposed, responsibilities which ought to be welcomed, for the initiative must be secured and the offensive launched — where should we find a man equal to these uncertain and dangerous tasks were it not among men of a superior stamp, men eager for responsibilities? He must indeed be a man who, being deeply imbued with a will to conquer, shall derive from that will (as well as from a clear perception of the only means that lead to victory) the strength to make an unwavering use of the most formidable rights, to approach with courage all difficulties and all sacrifices, to risk everything; even honour — for a beaten general is disgraced for ever.
    • p. 140
  • The distribution of troops devoted to the defence of a place includes a garrison, an occupying force, numerically as weak as possible; a reserve as strong as possible, designed for counterattacking and for providing itself, at the moment it goes into action, with a security service which will guard it from any possible surprise.
    • p. 147
  • To be disciplined does not mean being silent, abstaining, or doing only what one thinks one may undertake without risk; it is not the art of eluding responsibility; it means acting in compliance with orders received, and therefore finding in one's own mind, by effort and reflection, the possibility to carry out such orders. It also means finding in one's own will the energy to face the risks involved in execution.
    • p.
  • In a time such as ours when people believe they can do without an ideal, cast away what they call abstract ideas, live on realism, rationalism, positivism, reduce everything to knowledge or to the use of more or less ingenious and casual devices — let us acknowledge it here — in such a time there is only one means of avoiding error, crime, disaster, of determining the conduct to be followed on a given occasion — but a safe means it is, and a fruitful one; this is the exclusive devotion to two abstract notions in the field of ethics: duty and discipline; such a devotion, if it is to lead to happy results, further implies besides… knowledge and reasoning.
    • p. 150
    • Variant translation: In our time, which thinks it can do without ideals, that it can reject what it calls abstractions, and nourish itself on realism, rationalism and positivism; which thinks it can reduce all questions to matters of science or to the employing of more or less ingenious expedients; at such a time, I say, there is but one resource if you are to avoid disaster, and only one which will make you certain of what course to hold upon a given day. It is the worship — to the exclusion of all others — of two Ideas in the field of morals: duty and discipline. And that worship further needs, if it is to bear fruit and produce results, knowledge and reason.
      • As quoted in "A Sketch of the Military Career of Marshal Foch" by Major A. Grasset
  • In war there are none but particular cases; everything has there an individual nature; nothing ever repeats itself.
    In the first place, the data of a military problem are but seldom certain; they are never final. Everything is in a constant state of change and reshaping.
    • p. 152
  • This absence of similarity among military questions naturally brings out the inability of memory to solve them; also the sterility of invariable forms, such as figures, geometrical drawings (épures), plans (schémas), etc. One only right solution imposes itself : namely, the application, varying according to circumstances, of fixed principles.
    • p. 154
  • The truth is, no study is possible on the battle-field; one does there simply what one can in order to apply what one knows. Therefore, in order to do even a little, one has already to know a great deal and to know it well.
    • p. 175
  • Every manoeuvre must be the development of a scheme; it must aim at a goal.
    • p. 175
  • Men called to the conduct of troops should prepare themselves to deal with cases more and more varied upon an ever-increasing horizon of experience. They can only be given the capacity to arrive at a prompt and judicious position by developing in them through study their power of analysis and of synthesis; that is, of conclusion in a purely objective sense, conclusion upon problems which have been actually lived and taken from real history. Thus also can they be founded through the conviction that comes from knowledge in a confidence sufficient to enable them to take such decisions upon the field of action.
    • p. 199
  • The unknown is the governing condition of war.
    • p. 209
  • Far from being a sum of distinct and partial results, victory is the consequence of efforts, some of which are victorious while others appear to be fruitless, which nevertheless all aim at a common goal, all drive at a common result: namely, at a decision, a conclusion which alone can provide victory.
    • p. 209
  • A war not only arises, but derives its nature, from the political ideas, the moral sentiments, and the international relations obtaining at the moment when it breaks out.
    This amounts to saying : try and know why and with the help of what you are going to act; then you will find out how to act.
    • p. 211
  • The military art is not an accomplishment, an art for dilettante, a sport. You do not make war without reason, without an object, as you would give yourself up to music, painting, hunting, lawn tennis, where there is no great harm done whether you stop altogether or go on, whether you do little or much. Everything in war is linked together, is mutually interdependent, mutually interpenetrating. When you are at war you have no power to act at random. Each operation has a raison d'etre, that is an object; that object, once determined, fixes the nature and the value of the means to be resorted to as well as the use which ought to be made of the forces.
    • p. 214

Marshal Foch: His Own Words on Many Subjects (1929)

Raymond Recouly, Marshal Foch: His Own Words on Many Subjects (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1929).
  • In my opinion the treaty [of Versailles] was a bad one, very bad for us. It assured to us neither of the two things to which we were entitled: reparations and security. I said so to anyone who was willing to listen and to many who were not.
    • pp. 44–45
  • If France has a firm hold of the Rhine, she may be at rest, for she can be sure of reparations and security; without the Rhine she has neither. All that may be offered or given in exchange is valueless, illusory, empty. That is the position I took up immediately. We must have the Rhine line; we want nothing more and will take nothing less.
    • p. 52
  • The Prussian Army has no ideals, no true spiritual strength; neither has the whole nation. All they have is gross materialism. ... The German soul has a place for the glorification of brute force, for the notion of war as a colossal looting campaign. That is all it holds. It is not much.
    • p. 93
  • What you must do is to avoid the outbreak of war; do not tempt nations to become your adversaries. The best, indeed, the only means to this end are solid frontiers and an excellent army.
    • p. 124
  • In dealing with Germany, you should never lose sight of the abominable manner in which she declared and waged the late War. Her conduct during the War was not accidental and unpremeditated. She followed a long-concerted plan. For many years her professors, philosophers and so-called thinkers, inculcated the theory that she was superior to all other countries, and therefore, had the right to do with them whatever she would. The rules of morality, apparently, did not apply to Germany.
    • p. 145
  • All her principles are based on one idea, namely: That right and morality are not the same for all, that there are privileged individuals who may deliver themselves from their shackles. It is a wicked theory; it cannot be too strongly opposed. From head to heel, Germany was tainted with this spirit. It assumed the importance of a dogma. ... The worst means were sanctified by her if used to this end.
    • p. 146
  • There you have a country against which the Allies must take well-defined precautions. It is possible that its republican form of government will profoundly modify the German mentality. I devoutly hope so, but we cannot be sure. A well-organized, militarized Republic, however, might be as great a menace to its neighbours as the old Empire—although as yet we have no proof that the Republic can establish itself firmly in Germany.
    • p. 147
  • At the end of a war that cost them so much in men and money, I believed, and I still believe, that France and Belgium needed strongly-established frontiers to protect them for all time from any possible aggression on the part of Germany. Germany, by reason of her ever-increasing population and the militarist spirit that will always manifest itself—whether she be a republican or a monarchist Germany—constitutes a menace all the greater because there is no Russia to counterbalance her. The only natural barrier between us is the Rhine. Whoever holds its bridges is master of the situation; he can easily repulse an invasion, and, if attacked, carry the war into the enemy's territory. Any other frontier is bad for us, and can give us illusory safety, but not genuine security.
    • p. 173
  • I proposed a solid basis for the new, post-war Europe: Germany permanently bounded on the west by the Rhine, and the Rhine held by a small Allied force; the creation of an independent Rhineland State separating France from Germany, similar to England's creation of Belgium. ... What had we in place of that plan? A scheme for a hypothetical and conditional alliance by which, at best, we could receive no immediate military protection; and a temporary occupation, the main drawback of which was its indecisiveness.
    • pp. 189–190
  • The Rhine is to-day a barrier indispensable to the safety of Western Europe—indispensable, therefore, to civilization. ... By renouncing the Rhine as a natural barrier, we should be conniving at an inconceivable, a monstrous situation. Germany would be able to continue her enterprises as though she had been victorious—the very Germany that has sent millions of human beings to death, the very Germany that planned to annihilate our country and leave her a heap of ashes, the very Germany that plotted to dominate the world by brute force—blood-stained, crime-stained Germany.
    • pp. 192–193
  • I was convinced then—and my conviction has not since faltered—that the Treaty [of Versailles] then in the making, which I was not allowed to modify, was bad for the safety of France. Very bad. It was full of flaws, it was fundamentally wrong, and cannot fail one day to have the worst results. On the day when it is apparent in all its evil, when France perceives that her interests were improperly defended, she will rise in deep anger against those who so imperfectly handled that defence.
    • p. 198
  • I stressed the importance always attached by Moltke to the Rhine question. I summarized his principle thus: ‘The bone of contention between Paris and Berlin is the Rhine; whichever holds the river is certain of dominating the other.’ ... To keep the 1914 frontier open to a menace aggravated by the destruction of Russia, and to expose France once more to the devastation she has suffered during the last five years, would be a crime against our country. There is only one remedy: the occupation of the Rhine.
    • pp. 202–203
  • [T]he treaty [of Versailles]...provided for a fifteen-year occupation of the Rhineland, with retreats every five years. Such a guarantee, I said without mincing my words, was ‘from the military point of view, null; it will merely be an increase of work for the Allied occupation.’ I went on to say that whereas the treaty was non-existent as promoter of our security, it was distinctly bad for reparations. ... I asked who would be judge of the situation if we sought to reoccupy the Rhineland because of an infringement of terms by Germany. The Commission for Reparations would not suffice, I said. It cannot be denied that I was right on this point.
    • pp. 212–213
  • The Rhineland question is controlled by the Rhine. The river is the deciding factor. The master of the Rhine is the master of the surrounding country. Whichever side does not control the Rhine has lost.
    • p. 213
  • I bluntly remarked to M. Klotz, the Finance Minister: ‘With the treaty you have just signed, sir, you can expect with certainty to be paid in monkey tricks.’
    • p. 220
  • [O]ur Allies proposed the disarmament of Germany. It cannot be too often asserted that such a step would give us a mere temporary, precarious, illusory security. It is practically impossible to prevent Germany from arming herself in secret.
    • pp. 226–227
  • Germany is about to join [the League of Nations]. It will be alleged that she conforms in spirit to that of the League. If you hope that she will desire to maintain the frontiers forced on her, which she has never acknowledged in her heart, and which, bluntly speaking, she loathes and yearns to destroy—if you can hope that, you must have more than your share of naïveté.
    • pp. 269–270
  • A four years' war and the subsequent peace have divided Europe into two sections, the winners and the losers. The winners have even less reason to make war than in 1914. Peace will never be threatened by them. Does that hold true also of the losers? Have they resigned themselves to their defeat and the moral and material losses it entails? Who can say? Germany, for instance, was for centuries moulded in character and instincts by Prussia, who regarded war as a lucrative national industry; she will experience much difficulty in changing her mentality and outlook.
    • p. 286


  • The will to conquer is the first condition of victory.
    • The Book of Positive Quotations (2007) by John Cook, Steve Deger, and Leslie Ann Gibson, p. 370
  • Victory is a thing of the will.
  • (perhaps a different and better translation of the same remark) quoted by Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August (Random House, 1962)
  • I am conscious of having served England as I served my own country.


None but a coward dares to boast that he has never known fear.
  • A radish will never stand in the way of victory.
    • As quoted in association with Foch in M*A*S*H, Season 3, Episode 1, "The General Flipped At Dawn"; this seems to be a jocular fabrication.
  • None but a coward dares to boast that he has never known fear.
    • As quoted in association with Foch in Encarta Book of Quotations (2000) by Bill Swainson and Anne H. Soukhanov, p. 338. This quote was actually said by French Marshal Jean Lannes during the Napoleonic Wars.

Quotes about Foch

The supreme courage of Foch saved the situation. This was the greatest moment in his career. ~ David Lloyd George
He corresponded more with the British idea of what a typical Frenchman is like—vivacious, demonstrative, emphatic and gesticulatory. He talked just as much with his hands and arms as he did with his tongue. But whether he expressed himself with hand or voice he always talked well and to the point. ~ David Lloyd George
  • On Armistice Day, the German armies had marched homeward in good order. "They fought well," said Marshal Foch, Generalissimo of the Allies, with the laurels bright upon his brow, speaking in soldierly mood: "let them keep their weapons." But he demanded that the French frontier should henceforth be the Rhine. Germany might be disarmed; her military system shivered in fragments; her fortresses dismantled: Germany might be impoverished; she might be loaded with measureless indemnities; she might become a prey to internal feuds: but all this would pass in ten years or in twenty. The indestructible might "of all the German tribes" would rise once more and the unquenched fires of warrior Prussia glow and burn again. But the Rhine, the broad, deep, swift-flowing Rhine, once held and fortified by the French Army, would be a barrier and a shield behind which France could dwell and breathe for generations. Very different were the sentiments and views of the English-speaking world, without whose aid France must have succumbed. The territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles left Germany practically intact. She still remained the largest homogeneous racial block in Europe. When Marshal Foch heard of the signing of the Peace Treaty of Versailles he observed with singular accuracy: "This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years."
  • France had been bled white by the war. The generation that had dreamed since 1870 of a war of revenge had triumphed, but at a deadly cost in national life-strength. It was a haggard France that greeted the dawn of victory. Deep fear of Germany pervaded the French nation on the morrow of their dazzling success. It was this fear that had prompted Marshal Foch to demand the Rhine frontier for the safety of France against her far larger neighbour. But the British and American statesmen held that the absorption of German-populated districts in French territory was contrary to the Fourteen Points and to the principles of nationalism and self-determination upon which the Peace Treaty was to be based. They therefore withstood Foch and France. They gained Clemenceau by promising: first, a joint Anglo-American guarantee for the defence of France; secondly, a demilitarised zone; and thirdly, the total, lasting disarmament of Germany. Clemenceau accepted this in spite of Foch’s protests and his own instincts. The Treaty of Guarantee was signed accordingly by Wilson and Lloyd George and Clemenceau. The United States Senate refused to ratify the treaty. They repudiated President Wilson’s signature. And we, who had deferred so much to his opinions and wishes in all this business of peacemaking, were told without much ceremony that we ought to be better informed about the American Constitution.
  • I met General Foch... He corresponded more with the British idea of what a typical Frenchman is like—vivacious, demonstrative, emphatic and gesticulatory. He talked just as much with his hands and arms as he did with his tongue. But whether he expressed himself with hand or voice he always talked well and to the point. His high broad forehead and his penetrating eye proved him a man of exceptional gifts. I asked him if he had any message for the British Cabinet and he said, "Tell them there will be no more retreats." I asked him whether I could also tell them there would be any more advances. He hesitated and was evidently perplexed by the question. After a perceptible halt he replied: "That depends on the men and material you will be able to throw into the battle line." He said that the Belgians had been obliged to retreat before the German advance, but his advice to them had been, "If you want to keep your country, dig yourselves into it, and hang on to it!"
  • [On 25 March 1918 there was] a Conference held at Pétain's Headquarters, Clemenceau, Loucheur, Pétain and Foch being also present. Pétain took a very pessimistic view... Foch, who seems to have spoken with energy and determination, took a different view of the situation. He thought the danger of the German push to break in between the French and British in the direction of Amiens was so formidable that risks must be taken in other directions. In his opinion, even more divisions must, if possible, be thrown in, and, by a great effort, this might be done more quickly than Pétain thought possible. It is in an emergency that the real quality of a man comes out. In front of this grave crisis both Pétain and Haig were bewildered and incapable of the action which a desperate situation demanded, but Foch rose to the occasion with the might of a giant. That accounts for the complete change which Milner found in the attitude of both Commanders-in-Chief towards this great old General. They were now anxious to retrace the fatal steps they had conjointly taken on the Versailles decision and to secure the help of Foch to extricate them from the dilemma in which their repudiation of his supremacy had landed the Allied Armies.
  • Haig clearly took a desperate view of the position... Pétain expressed an identical opinion about the same time to Clemenceau, and according to Poincaré was actually ordering a retreat of the French Army to the south. Clemenceau had agreed with Pétain. It would look, therefore, as if the two Commanders at this Conference on the evening of the 24th had come to the same conclusion. The supreme courage of Foch saved the situation. This was the greatest moment in his career.
  • He (Clemenceau) broke off to confide in me sadly that General Pétain was contemplating the retreat of the French Army to the south while the British Army retired towards the north. Pétain, added Clemenceau, had given orders on this basis. Foch confirmed this last piece of information and told me of the order to retreat which Pétain had given. "The President of the Council (Clemenceau)," added Foch, "has only just lately begun to take part in military matters; he had accepted Pétain's point of view, but I declined to take any responsibility for it. I sent M. Clemenceau a note to tell him my views. Common sense indicates that when the enemy wishes to begin making a hole, you do not make it wider. You close it, or you try to close it. We have only got to try and to have the will; the rest will be easy. You stick to your ground, you defend it foot by foot. We did that at Ypres, we did it at Verdun." And Foch stuck to his point with the same energy before Clemenceau, the senator and the deputy.
    • Raymond Poincaré, diary entry (24 March 1918), quoted in David Lloyd George, War Memoirs, Volume II (1938), p. 1740
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