Review of “With Marshal Foch”

With Marshal Foch: a British General at Allied Supreme Headquarters April-November 1918
by Lieutenant General Sir John du Cane, KCB
edited by Elizabeth Greenhalgh
published by Helion & Company in 2018
hardback ISBN 978 1 912174 93 5
pages 278 plus index
price not stated on book but appears to be £35
reviewed by Chris Baker

The question of supreme command and military liaison between the allies of the Entente, particularly France and Great Britain, remained a vexed one throughout the Great War. John du Cane found himself thrust into its very centre, taken from his command of XV Corps at a period of great strain during the German Operation “Georgette” on the Lys in April 1918, and remained in position until after the Armistice. As such, he was in a unique position for observation and, to some degree, influence. In “With Marshal Foch”, the late Dr. Elizabeth Greenhalgh has produced an edited version of du Cane’s private personal account of the time.

Imagine the situation: Foch had just been given the job of co-ordinating the French and British forces (it was only in August 1918 that he was given formal supreme command) a a time when the enemy was unleashing overwhelming forces and had already come within a hair’s breadth of splitting the allied forces apart on the Somme. He had a close, tight-knit group of French staff officers around him. None spoke English. du Cane is told to report to him to act as liaison officer with the British: he speaks no French, and although he has been in reasonably senior staff and advisory roles in the past, has been only a corps commander since 1918. The German attack on the Lys is causing much consternation for the British and Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the British Armies in France and Flanders, is privately already becoming frustrated at what he sees as Foch’s resistance to deploying French reserves. On the face of it, du Cane was on a hiding to nothing. His early notes were far from encouraging, for he sensed that Foch didn’t really value having him around  and the inevitable difficulties in communication were a serious barrier. He is, however, on common ground with Foch in that both are artillery men, and he has a happy knack of convincing senior figures that he is level headed and thoughtful. du Cane’s career has at times brought him to the attention of (and to some extent, sponsorship by) British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, CIGS Sir Henry Wilson and original commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French.

“With Marshal Foch”begins with a valuable introduction by Elizabeth Greenhalgh, which helps to set the context. It continues in three parts: a narrative of events in the form of du Cane’s memoir; a collection of letters from Haig to Foch; (the longest section) notes, directives and memoranda, mainly from Foch. This is a subject of great personal interest to me (my MA dissertation was on the Supreme War Council, for example) and I found it quite fascinating. du Cane gradually wins over the confidence of Foch, Weygand and others of the French group and while he inevitably never quite becomes one of the inner circle he is placed in a position of considerable trust and gains enormous insight. The disagreements and tensions between the allies are brought well to the fore, not least the quite fundamental differences about the creation and use of reserves, pooled logistic resources and the best means of exploitation of the rapidly arriving American force. It is, though, also evident that there was common ground and enormous determination to make it all work for sound defeat of the common enemy, despite the differences.

This book is of very considerable merit and I highly recommend it as an addition to the library of 1918 and on matters of command.

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