In a time of trouble and in a world full of worries, the ONLY safe ship in a storm is Leadership
By DAVID McCONNACHIE
World War I – August 1914
In August 1914, the world was shocked by the ferocity with which the German army launched their offensive to start World War I. Delivering an almost flawless execution of an envelopment strategy (“The Schlieffen Plan”), the German army rolled through Belgium and into France within weeks of the first shell being fired from the monstrous Krupp giant cannons. By the end of August, it appeared that the French and their Belgian and British allies would be forced to surrender under the onslaught of a better prepared enemy that they seemed incapable of stopping.
As the German army neared Paris, the spiritual home of revolutionary democracy, neared so close in fact that the commanders of the German advance units could see the church spires of the outlying suburbs through their monocles and spy glasses, a last gasp effort was made by the French high command to stop the assault on the banks of the Marne river. Units on leave were shuttled to the front in a fleet of Parisian taxis. Soldiers, only recently bank clerks and shop-keepers, were handed rifles and told to follow their officers into battle. And there was battle, a horrific battlefield spanning many miles of ‘front’ and hundreds of small rear-guard actions fought by the desperate defenders.
The threat was real, it was looming ever closer and the threat demonstrated itself to be of a ferocity that had never before been experienced. Many French field commanders buckled under the pressure, abandoned their troops with fleeting cries shouted over unturned shoulders (“sauve toi” or ‘save yourself’) and some argued for a complete and immediate capitulation in the face of the challenge.
And then there was Ferdinand Foch. In the midst of the Battle of the Marne, a new army group was formed from the remnants of previously-defeated units. Foch was appointed its Commander. It wasn’t a great time to start a new job – within a week, and with the whole French Army in full retreat, Foch was thrust into his moment of leadership. Only a week after assuming command, he was forced to fight a series of defensive, rear-guard actions to prevent a German breakthrough. It was during this advance through the marshes at St.-Gond on the Marne that he is said to have declared:
“My centre is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.”
In truth, it probably wasn’t the best time to launch an offensive attack. But this wasn’t an offensive action; it was a desperate act meant to ‘hold the line’ and ‘flatten the curve’ of the German army’s devastating impacts. It was also a moment when the entire French nation and its national allies needed someone to recognize that the time was right for out of the box solutions to stop a seemingly unstoppable foe. Something had to be done; doing nothing was tantamount to waving the white flag of surrender. At this moment, when the haze of the battle obliterated the best-laid battle plans, a leader needed to lead – and Foch answered the call. It was actually not THE action that saved the French Army from ignoble defeat in September 1914 but it was one small act of leadership at a time when leadership was desperately needed – and it had an incredible impact ‘on the rest of the story’.