All the Tsar’s Men
Why Mobilization Can’t Save Putin’s War
HISTORIANS and biographers often emphasize the greatness or deficiencies of their subject by a comparison or parallel with others. A statesman is another Bismarck, Cavour or Gladstone -- or the reverse; a general is another Caesar, Napoleon or von Moltke -- or the reverse. Pushed very far, such comparisons may be unfair to both sides. The merits of one are exaggerated and of the other depreciated. Greatness is always the subject of uncritical admiration or of hyper-critical detraction. Success is accepted as the standard of excellence. But the stature in history of Bismarck or the elder von Moltke is not lessened merely because the policies of both went down in the great defeat of 1918.
Marshal Foch was above this. No one felt more keenly than he the dreadful humiliation of 1870. But in his teachings in the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre he showed a real greatness of mind in presenting the elder von Moltke's theory and practise of war as a model for imitation by the French General Staff. He knew that many causes may contribute to victory or defeat other than the relative merits of opposing commanders, and that the rarest qualities of military genius may be shown in defeat, -- Lee in his last campaign in Virginia, Napoleon in 1814. In the last year of the war I and others heard him express admiration of his German opponent. When the armistice terms were in preparation, in speaking of the enemy's retreat he said, "It is being magnificently conducted." He judged the merits of his opponent by what he accomplished under adverse circumstances beyond his control. He himself showed the same genius in his retreat from Morhange in 1914 as he did in his last campaign in 1918.
The true standard of excellence is absolute rather than relative. By that I mean the comparison of the man, as it were, with himself, of the sum total of his life with the results of the successive periods of its development, to see whether its brilliancy is erratic or whether mind and soul have been imbued with a persistent ideal to which all their energies have been consistently devoted. Such a life is the summation of many ideas springing from one ideal. It suggests the French philosopher's definition, "patience is genius;" it implies the ability and the disposition to take infinite pains, to add little to little until the sum becomes great. There have been many brilliant but erratic generals who failed in genius because they lacked that kind of patience.
But, after all, that definition only tells us what a man of genius, in any walk of life, does, not what he is. A certain man has a tireless industry and a capacity for taking infinite pains; he has the highest intellectual powers that might give him a conspicuous place in almost any pursuit, as Marshal Foch might have been a distinguished mathematician or engineer instead of a great general; he has an extraordinary faculty of original creation, a power of intuition which seems to act spontaneously, independently of conscious will, and which -- at least in the case of a great commander -- enables him to read the mind and soul of his adversary and to determine, as it were by inspiration, the moment and place for some action which reveals his genius but does not tell us what it is. Carlyle described such a man as "a great, deep soul, with the afflatus and impetuous tide of vision and impulse rushing on him he knows not whence." In one of his books -- classics in a military library -- Marshal Foch said that the foundation of successful leadership is a knowledge of history combined with experience. That means knowledge of the experience of others combined with one's own. Yet there are men in history, renowned for their military genius, without previous experience of their own and with little knowledge of history. He himself, without practical experience, revealed his capacity for command in 1914 as much as in 1918.
Many Americans know the personality of Marshal Foch -- our soldiers in France, others who saw him when he visited the United States. They saw a face at times grave, stern perhaps, eyes that seemed to see something far beyond his immediate presence. How could it be otherwise with a face that reflected such memories, devastated fields of a land every inch of which he loved, ruined towns and cities, throngs of black-robed women and little children weeping for those he himself had seen die?
My first impression of him was in the blackest days of the war, in November of 1917. The American Mission had just arrived in Paris to take part in the great Inter-Allied Conference of eighteen nations. I called on him at the headquarters of the Chief of Staff of all the French armies. It was in the east front of the gray mass of the Invalides, in the center of which and not far away lay the remains of the first Napoleon, beside which he himself now rests. Afterwards it seemed to me that the very air he then breathed must have carried some inspiring influence from that tomb. I had been told that I would meet a man grave, even stern, reserved with a stranger like myself, who would listen but say little. I found him in a room simple even to bareness in its furnishing -- a desk, free of papers, at which he sat; a few chairs; a long table for the examination of maps, -- scarcely anything else. Once or twice his personal chief of staff appeared for a moment from the only communicating room. No orderlies, no groups of officers, nothing indicated that this was the chief headquarters in a war of many nations, nor that a short motor ride from that room would bring one into the midst of millions of armed men close-locked in an almost daily battle, on the result of which hung the fate of this man's country who sat at the desk before me.
As I noted details during the subsequent conversation, I saw an erect, well-knitted and athletic man of medium height, perhaps five feet seven or eight inches tall, head well up, even thrown slightly back, above the squared shoulders; the whole figure seemed unconsciously to take an attitude expressive of firmness and resolution. He wore the regulation breast and waist belt of polished tan leather, puttees and shoes instead of boots and spurs, and was garbed in the well-known uniform of horizon-bleu with two rows of ribbons on the breast and no insignia except the tiny stars on the sleeve indicating the grade of major-general. The face was grave but not stern, with -- as for a moment it seemed to me -- a tinge of sadness, yet often lighted up with the flash of a peculiarly winning smile. It was darkened by exposure but with a slightly ruddy glow; smooth, save for grizzled mustaches, and deeply marked with lines of thought; nose aquiline, finely chiselled; lips full, firm and compressed; a powerful chin; sparse, graying hair; a forehead broad and high and, deep-set beneath high arched brows, large gray eyes. In repose, at least, they seemed gray, but in moments of deep emotion, especially when the spirit of contest was strongly aroused, they flashed with a tint of steel-blue. It was the face of both student and man of action. Its mobility of expression showed quickness of thought; and in conversation the short, staccato-like sentences, each word instantly yet carefully chosen and leaving no doubt as to his meaning, indicated that thought would be followed by rapid, unflinching decision. There was no sign, then or afterwards, even at times of intense feeling, of that kind of mental excitement which blurs the faculties and obscures the vision of a distant goal by exaggerating momentary, harassing circumstances.
He asked about American preparation; examined our schedules of expected progress; said nothing about the details but touched on the key-points and spoke of the Allies' need of assistance, as he thought their man-power about exhausted. He expressed great admiration for the American troops he had then seen, and for General Pershing. Of this I had felt sure, for the contact of two such strong men could not fail to inspire mutual liking and respect. He had just returned from the Allied conference at Rapallo in Italy and he reviewed the military situation as it appeared after the defection of Russia and recent reverses in Italy. Neither then nor at any time thereafter in my presence did he or any other French officer touch upon the possibility of a commander in chief. It was a delicate subject, as all knew that in a war in France such a commander would have to be a Frenchman. So far as I know, the French left the matter for others to broach; as, in fact, at the last moment they did -- a moment when there was none but one Frenchman in the minds of all. But he did speak of the necessity for an Allied General Reserve for use in the crisis then approaching. This afterwards became a burning question. His urgent recommendation was approved by the four governments concerned, but was not carried out. If it had been the disaster of March 21 it might have been another story. He did not speak, and I am sure did not think, of himself as the commander of this reserve, though he knew that the man who controls the general reserve in battle is in essential respects the commander in chief. As an expert tactician he was thinking solely of the reserve itself.
A few days later I saw the man of action. On November 29 the Inter-Allied Conference appointed several committees to report on important subjects, among them one on Maritime Transport. I could not learn that it was charged with any special duty to consider the need of tonnage to transport American troops, on which everything depended if we were to speedily increase our military effort in France. I then told General Foch of the grave situation which the highest British officers had told me in London might result in the spring of 1918 if America could not double her proposed effort, and which they were told was impossible without more tonnage than was then in sight. I asked him if he agreed with the British view; he replied, with emphasis, that he did. I then said that I believed it was up to him to make this view known where it might bring results. "Good," said he, "let's go to it," and he then asked General Pershing and General Sir William Robertson, British Imperial Chief of Staff, to adjourn to a more convenient place for discussion. There in a few minutes was drawn up a memorandum,[i] signed by the four and transmitted to the proper quarter, which resulted in the Maritime Transport Committee subordinating as far as possible all other interests to the provision of tonnage for American troops. More was accomplished in an hour there than in the previous month's conferences.
Turn from this personal glimpse of the man to some of the salient features of his life. As the twig is bent, so shall the tree grow. His earliest training was in a home not unlike that of an ancient Roman in its almost stern simplicity. Parental authority was absolute and none disputed it. The bending of the twig showed that the authority was wisely exercised. Here he began to learn that intellectual discipline on which, in his later training of French general staff officers, he laid so much stress. By this he meant, not a blind subservience to the will of others, but such an absorption into oneself of the spirit and intent of one's commander that, when the moment for action comes, all the subordinate's physical and mental energy, all his concentrated will power, will be used in making good the purpose of that commander. It is this that in war often makes a bad plan succeed, while the lack of it as often wrecks the best one. He learned in early youth and always believed that this intellectual discipline is the result of moral training and development; that in this moral development of man's nature is the surest origin of loyal and intelligent obedience. This training made him a deeply religious man. He preached his views not in words but by the practise of his life. The Church was unfortunately associated with a political party. He disliked politics. He judged political leaders regardless of creed and solely as they were loyal and able Frenchmen. The only outward and public sign of his deep, abiding faith and loyalty to his beliefs was seen at the moments which he daily devoted to silent prayer, kneeling at the altar of some little village church wherever he happened to be, perhaps deserted and in the presence of no priest. Yet as parties adverse to the Church were generally in power he, like some other good soldiers, suffered in advancement. Slowness of promotion did not make him indifferent; he used it to study his way to success.
The underlying idea of the French method of elementary intellectual training is not the mere acquisition of facts to be stored in the memory but to train the mind to think about facts. In a related group of them the student is made to see the problem involved and to understand that its solution depends upon accuracy of analysis and a statement of the conditions in logical sequence. It was under this rigid teaching that Marshal Foch gained in his youth a fixed habit of orderly thinking which gave him the power of rapidly analyzing the facts observed on a line of battle or in the wider field of a campaign, and of quickly reaching a decision.
When his elementary training was completed he received his first commission, not long after the war of 1870-71. He then became a teacher of others but his own self-teaching never ceased. Passing through the regular grades, he attained some years before the Great War the highest rank then possible, that of a division commander. It was a period of quiet, persistent, non-spectacular preparation. He slowly built up a reputation among his own military comrades, but was little known in foreign services except, perhaps, to some British officers after the strengthening bonds of the Entente brought leaders of the two armies into closer contact. His abilities became gradually known to French political men, among them M. Clemenceau. In 1907, though the appointment was not popular with his party, M. Clemenceau selected him to command the École Supérieure de Guerre. His association with this school for the advanced training of staff officers, for a total of some ten years at different times between 1894 and 1907, left an indelible impression on the General Staff, and his teaching of the doctrine of war powerfully influenced the spirit of the army and the entire people when war came in 1914.
His active career had begun shortly after the French military system had been completely wrecked in the war of 1870. The spirit of the time demanded a new army to be raised under the German system of universal service. The army must be larger in order to train reserves composed of the entire able-bodied male population. France had been dismembered, leaving a new eastern frontier to be fortified. All this was work requiring years to complete and had to be accompanied by a modification of the railway system and the creation of establishments to produce new and unlimited supplies of war material. For a time, therefore, war plans looked only to an almost passive defense, surrendering large areas to an invader and awaiting his approach in a selected defensive position.
This mental attitude of the army and the people gradually changed with the consciousness of increasing strength. The change was powerfully aided by the teachings of Marshal Foch to successive classes of officers at the War School. It is not known whether he took actual part in the preparation of the almost yearly war plans of the General Staff, approved by the government, which show this change; but they reflect his spirit. Yet the latest plan, the one with which France began the war, while it is instinct with his ardent spirit, certainly does not reflect his teachings. Some misunderstand the real meaning of what he taught. He was addressing himself to a people, a government, an army, that for years had thought it possible only to await attack within their fortresses and behind their field entrenchments. That was the very spirit of defeat in advance, and it was that which he sought to combat and overcome. Only those who understood him could rightly sum up his doctrine of war in his own oft-quoted words, "To make war is to attack and attack." Those who lay stress on such catch-words have said that he did not believe in the German doctrine of trying to force an enemy to conform to one's own strategy according to some plan worked out in advance. On the contrary, he taught that an initial plan, based on as accurate a knowledge as possible of all the conditions, was an absolute necessity. What else was the object of his constant injunction to "take the initiative" except, having a good plan of his own, to disrupt that of the enemy by a prompt movement and then to put his own into execution? None knew better than he that in war as in chess the contestant who forms the better plan is the one who can read his opponent's mind; otherwise the very promptness of his move to gain the initiative may best serve his opponent's plan. And none knew better that a good plan at the beginning of a war must be based on accurate deductions from the observed facts of the many preceding years of peace. He talked and wrote much about the "will to conquer." He did not mean that this will should impel a commander, on the exercise of whose judgment everything depends, to act unsupported by this judgment. But when the battle is on, whether by deliberate choice or because forced by the enemy, then there must be such a will to conquer on the part of every one as not to admit the possibility of defeat. He believed that mere mental power untaught to use itself is of little practical value; the mind must be taught to observe quickly and correctly, to reason accurately, and to state conclusions clearly and concisely. To him that meant the essence of education. A commander must communicate his will in orders that cannot be misunderstood -- the first essential if his subordinates are to be inspired with his own will to attain the object. But a commander's own spirit of attack must not lead subordinates to attack contrary to the spirit of his plan, because a local victory may wreck that plan This is what he called "lack of intellectual discipline" and which he abhorred.
In all his work at the École Supérieure de Guerre he strove for the formation of an intellectual élite in the leadership of the French army. It is said that opposition and professional jealousy impeded his efforts. Some thought him a military pedant, a man who could write entertainingly and instructively but who could not act, who could think wise thoughts and express them well in the leisure and seclusion of his library but who was not likely to think clearly and decide wisely in the emergencies of war. But apparently his critics were really few because when war came the high command of the army was saturated with his views and was assisted by a staff, largely trained by him, which had no equal.
When the French armies were concentrated in August 1914 on the eastern frontier, General Foch commanded a corps in one of the two armies on the extreme right which were to begin the execution of the initial war plan. This plan had been approved by the government the year before. Perhaps some day his Memoirs will reveal whether he had any part in its preparation. In the absence of such information it is difficult to believe that he was in any way responsible; though, following his own teaching, he subordinated himself to superior will and devoted all his fiery energy in the attempt to make it successful. The plan was based on three assumptions which violated his teaching that it ought to be based, if not upon exact knowledge, at least upon reasonable probability as to existing conditions. The assumptions were: first, that the French force would be equal, perhaps superior to the German; the latter in fact was larger by a good half; second, that there would be no invasion through Belgium; third, that the main attack would come through the Ardennes.
It is true that in a book published fourteen years before, embodying the substance of lectures previously delivered at the War School, he gave in detail his military reasons for believing that the invasion would not come through Belgium but through the Bavarian Palatinate as in 1870. He accepted the plan and the reasons for it used by the elder von Moltke in that year as an ideal model for use under the same conditions, and believed that the German staff was still guided by it. At the time he held these views they were well founded. The conditions in 1900 were the same which confronted von Moltke in 1870. In 1900 France had no assured allies. Foch's plan at that time had in view a war between France and Germany alone. While discounting its probability, he admitted the possibility of the invasion of Belgium. He therefore advocated, not the plan which was unfortunately afterwards adopted of stringing out a line of armies on a wide front, but of massing the armies for rapid deployment in either direction.
Some time before 1914 the politico-military situation had radically changed. Russia became an assured ally, England a probable one, with Italy neutral. On these new conditions the German plan was based; the French plan did not give them due weight. Russia's attitude foretold the attack by way of Belgium. The Germans allowed from six to eight weeks for the Russian power to be available. Therefore France must be beaten within about six weeks or the war would be lost. An advance from the Bavarian Palatinate meant a frontal attack on the line of French fortresses supported by their field armies, and involved a long delay. The Belgian fortresses and forces offered a weaker tactical obstacle. The true object of French attack was obviously the time limit of six weeks self-imposed by the Germans. Could the French have imposed on them a somewhat longer delay it is conceivable that the war might have ended within the year instead of dragging its bloody length over four more. It seems probable that Foch's plan of massing the French armies at the outset instead of deploying them would have made this possible. We do not know whether when the French Government approved the war plan in 1913 it made any change in what was proposed by the General Staff, in order to comply with the universal demand for the prompt occupation of the Lost Provinces. It is possible; but, if so, it again ran counter to Marshal Foch's teachings. He maintained that surprise was an essential element of such a plan. Yet the advance into Alsace-Lorraine was the very thing that the Germans anticipated and prepared for, as the defeat at Morhange showed.
Marshal Foch's subsequent career is a matter of history for all to read. The great ability he had shown in the first unfortunate battle and retreat led to his being given command of the newly created army that held the French center in the following battle of the Marne. His brilliant service here placed him in command of the French troops, with the task of coördinating their movements with those of the British, in the "race to the sea." This ended in permanently blocking the German advance and saving the Channel ports. Then followed two years of trench warfare, at the end of which political intrigue relieved him for a short time from his command, until in May 1917 he was appointed Chief of Staff of the French armies. In November of that year he also became the military representative of his government on the Allied Supreme War Council, then just created. It was on his urgent recommendation that this Council ordered the formation of an Allied general reserve to meet the approaching crisis of the war. He would have been the virtual commander of this reserve. Army commanders, who would have to contribute divisions, did not understand what initial disposition he would make of it and raised obstacles which could not be surmounted up to the time of the great disaster of March 21. It had been to prevent this very disaster, which in discussions of the situation he had predicted would occur somewhere on the line, that he had demanded the formation of an independent reserve. And it was this disaster which made him generalissimo. After that there was no longer any question of a reserve because he could then do as he liked. This however may be said; had the reserve been created in time to do what he intended it to do the crisis of March probably would not have developed to the point when a generalissimo became necessary in the minds of all.
It is not to be supposed that as Allied Commander in Chief he made no mistakes. That can be said of no one. But it must be remembered under what limitation he worked. The first Napoleon, no matter how many foreign troops he had under him, was a dictator liable to no possible interference from any government. Marshal Foch's position was far more difficult. Political leaders limited his powers by a proviso giving national army commanders a right of appeal to their respective governments in any case which they might consider an extreme emergency. This was a political necessity and he accepted it without question. The British people and government would probably have vetoed -- or caused a delay that amounted to the same thing -- any order removing a considerable part of their army from its position between the enemy and the Channel ports; and so with the French in respect to the position of their army and Paris. As he so often said after the war, he commanded by persuasion. If he could not persuade he had to yield. This may explain -- probably nothing but his own Memoirs will ever show -- the unpreparedness of the Allies to meet the German "drive" of May 1918. In the final campaign there was some criticism of seeming delay in taking advantage of what were apparently favorable opportunities of attack at one point or another. But he allowed nothing to interfere with his ultimate plan of a final simultaneous drive of all the armies from assured points of departure which would turn the enemy's flank as well as break his front. This brought the war to an end before his plan in its entirety could be executed.
Marshal Foch became supreme commander at a moment when, as an English historian has said, "The General in chief had been found; but on that Tuesday morning it looked as if presently he might have no armies to command." During the seven months that followed, in which he directed the movements of six million men in an almost continuous battle with a still very powerful enemy led by skilful and resourceful generals, he won the reputation, which has already gone into history, of a great general. I believe also that these months showed him to possess that unteachable ability to foresee the future -- to read his opponent's mind -- in a moment of emergency to instantly perceive, and with unflinching resolution to seize, the right time and place for decisive action -- to inspire others with the spirit of his own will as though it had been their own -- which will give him in history a place not only with generals of great technical ability but also with those endowed with the rare and undefinable quality of genius.
[i] Referred to in Mr. Clemenceau's letter quoted on pp. 308-9, Vol. III, "Intimate Papers of Colonel House."