World War I: Marshal Joseph Joffre

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Marshal Joseph Joffre. Photograph Source: Public Domain

 Joseph Joffre - Early Life & Career:

Born in Rivesaltes, France on January 12, 1852, Joseph Joffre was the son of vineyard owners in the eastern Pyrenees Mountains.  Initially educated locally, he entered the École Polytechnique in 1870 with the goal of becoming an engineering officer.  Later that year, with the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War and subsequent French defeats at Woerth and Sedan, Joffre was pressed into active service during the Siege of Paris.

  Completing his education in years after the conflict, he was commissioned into the engineers and later saw extended service in France's colonies.  While abroad, he served with distinction during the Keelung Campaign on Formosa.  Fought during the Sino-French War, the campaign saw Joffre interact with Japanese Lieutenant Togo Heihachiro, who, as an admiral, would win the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.  

Joseph Joffre - Ascent:

Moving through subsequent postings in Africa and Madagascar, Joffre returned to France in 1900 with the rank of brigadier general.  After leading the Thirteenth Brigade, he received a promotion to major general in 1905 as well as command of the Sixth Division.  After two years directing Second Corps, Joffre was appointed to the Supreme War Council in 1910.  The following year, after the resignation of General Victor Michel, Minister of War Adolphe Messimy restructured the French leadership in such a way that the Chief of the General Staff would serve as overall commander in wartime.

  Though Messimy desired to appoint General Joseph Gallieni to the post, the latter declined citing advanced age.  In his stead, Gallieni recommended Paul-Marie Pau and Joffre.  As Pau was disqualified for political reasons, the post fell to Joffre. 

A bit of a surprise choice in that he had never led an army or attended the École de Guerre, Joffre possessed strong organizational skills and surrounded himself with competent subordinates.

  Seeking to instill an offensive spirit to the army, Joffre embraced the attack-minded ideals advocated by Lieutenant General Ferdinand Foch.  Tasked with developing and updating France's war plans, Joffre originally desired to draft a plan for war with Germany that saw French troops attack through Belgium.  Unwilling to violate that nation's neutrality, he and his staff instead developed Plan XVII which called for French troops to concentrate along the German border and mount attacks through the Ardennes and into Lorraine.  As Germany possessed a numerical advantage, success of Plan XVII was predicated on them sending at least twenty divisions to the Eastern Front as well as not immediately activating their reserves.  

Joseph Joffre - World War I Begins:

With the beginning of World War I in early August 1914, Plan XVII moved into implementation.  As the French commenced the planned offensives, the Germans initiated the Schlieffen Plan which called for moving through Belgium to attack France from the north.  In the east, Joffre's troops began advancing against Mulhouse before being held.  As the month progressed, the offensive in Lorraine was also checked by the Germans.  As the opening engagements of the Battle of the Frontiers unfolded, Joffre was slow to realize the threat posed by German forces driving through Belgium and believed that they could be held by Field Marshal Sir John French's British Expeditionary Force and King Albert I's Belgian Army.

  These hopes proved false as Belgian fortresses fell more quickly than expected and French was overwhelmed at Mons on August 23.

Recognizing the growing danger, Joffre ordered a concentration near Amiens and began transferring forces from his right to his left.  Forming Sixth Army three days later under the leadership of General Michel-Joseph Maunoury, Joffre's forces attempted to slow the German advance.  Pressed south, Allied forces began a long, fighting retreat towards Paris. Retreating, holding actions or unsuccessful counterattacks were fought at La Cateau (August 26-27) and St. Quentin (August 29-30), while Mauberge fell on September 7 after a brief siege. Assuming a line behind the Marne River, Joffre prepared to make a stand to protect Paris.  

Joseph Joffre - First Battle of the Marne:

Shifting his new command, Maunoury moved into place west of the BEF at the end of the Allied left flank.

Seeing an opportunity, Joffre ordered Maunoury to attack the German flank on September 6 and asked the BEF to assist. On the morning of September 5, General Alexander von Kluck, leading the German First Army, detected the French advance and began turning his army west to deal with the threat. In the resulting Battle of the Ourcq, Kluck's men were able to put the French on the defensive. While the engagement prevented the Sixth Army from striking the next day, it did open a 30-mile gap between the First and Second German Armies.  

This opening was found by Allied aircraft and soon the BEF, along with the French Fifth Army, quickly sought to exploit it in the First Battle of the Marne. Pressing ahead, Kluck almost broke through Maunoury's men, but the French were aided by 6,000 reinforcements brought from Paris by taxicab. On the evening of September 8, Fifth Army assaulted the exposed flank of the German Second Army, while French and the BEF attacked into the growing gap. With the First and Second Armies being threatened with annihilation, German Chief of Staff General Helmuth von Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown. His subordinates took command and ordered a general retreat to the Aisne River.  In the Race to the Sea which followed, Joffre succeeded in preventing the Germans from turning his left flank but was also unable to get around the enemy's right. 

Joseph Joffre - In Command:

As the Western Front stabilized into trench warfare in the fall of 1914, Joffre, who had become renowned for his calmness in battle, began making plans to expel the invaders from France.  In December, he launched an offensive in Champagne which failed to make meaningful headway despite heavy losses.  Subsequent efforts in 1915 in Champagne and twice in Artois produced similar results.  Known as "Papa Joffre" to his men, he argued with the British over the importance of the Salonika Front as well as agreed to aid in a major offensive along the Somme in mid-1916.  On February 21, Joffre was caught by surprise when the Germans opened the Battle of Verdun.

  A key fortress city, he had stripped it of much of its artillery in order to support offensives elsewhere.  

Responding to the crisis, Joffre fed troops into the battle in a desperate attempt to halt the enemy.  The ease with which the Germans had moved through French defenses in the early parts of the fighting severely damaged the reputation that Joffre had gained at the Marne.  Though the British desired to delay opening the Battle of the Somme to mid-August, Joffre lobbied against this as the offensive was needed to reduce pressure on Verdun.  Attacking on July 1, the British efforts, though bloody, succeeded in allowing the French to recover and counterattack at Verdun.  On December 13, despite the fact that the French were on the edge of victory, Joffre, whose earlier failures had expended his political capital, was removed from his post and replaced with General Robert Nivelle.

Joseph Joffre - Later Career:

Promoted to Marshal of France on the day of his dismissal, Joffre moved into a largely ceremonial role as he retained his popularity with the public.  In early 1917, he traveled to Romania as the head of the French Military Mission tasked with reforming that country's army.  With the entry of the United States into the conflict in April, Joffre crossed the Atlantic in June to meet with American leaders.  That fall, at the urging of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Supreme War Council was formed with the role of aiding in developing strategy and, later, forming armistice terms.  Returning to France, Joffre received an appointment to serve on the council as France's permanent military representative in 1918.  

With the end of the war, Joffre briefly remained in service before retiring in 1919.  Appointed to the Académie française the following year, he moved into retirement and commenced writing his memoirs.  Dying on January 3, 1931 in Paris, Joffre's remains were buried in the nearby Cimetière de Louveciennes. 

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