Joseph Joffre was the French commander in chief at the start of the First World War, responsible for the French victory on the Marne in September 1914. He was an engineering officer and student of the École polytechnique. While a student he served as an officer in the Franco Prussian War.
In 1885 he received the first of a series of appointments in the French empire, serving in Indo-China, Africa and Madagascar. He returned to France in 1900 as a brigadier general. In 1905 he was promoted to major general. In 1910 he was a member of the Supreme War Council, the body that would provide the commanders of French field armies during a war.
Joffre rose to prominence as chief of the General Staff. His appointment to that post, in June 1911, came at the same time as a re-organisation of the French command structure. Prior to 1911 the chief of the General Staff had been responsible for the peacetime training of the army. In wartime command of the field armies would be held by the members of the Supreme War Council (Conseil Supérieur de Guerre), with the vice-president of the council serving as commander in chief. In 1911 the then vice-president, General Victor Michel, resigned. The Minister of War, Adolphe Messimy, abolished the post, and upgraded the post chief of the General Staff so that he would take the supreme command during any war.
His first choice for the new post, General Gallieni, turned the appointment down on grounds of age. Gallieni suggested either Joffre or Paul-Marie Pau be offered the post. Pau was disqualified by his active Catholicism, and so Joffre was appointed to the post. He had little or no experience of staff work, and so requested General Castelnau to be his deputy. However he was considered to be a good republican, and tended to promote on ability rather than political connections.
One of his most important duties was to keep France’s war plans up-to-date. He first favoured invading Germany via Belgium, where the flat terrain and closeness to the English Channel would favour operations. The biggest problem with this plan was that while the Germans were willing to violate Belgian neutrality, the French were not. The plan that was in place in 1914, Plan XVII, called for the French army to concentrate on the border with Germany, and launch two attacks into Germany – one through the Ardennes and one into Lorraine. The plan relied on two assumptions. First, the Germans would be forced to send at least twenty divisions to the east – in 1914 they only sent nine. Second, they would not be willing to use their reserve divisions in 1914. If these two assumptions had been correct, then the Germans would not have had enough troops to defend their common border with France and launch an invasion through Belgium.
In the event the Germans used their reserves and moved the vast majority of their troops to the west. The French invasion of Lorraine was repulsed (battle of Lorraine, 14 August-7 September 1914). As news reached Joffre of German troops in Belgium, he moved his third and fourth armies into the Ardennes, still believing that any German troops were in southern Belgium (battle of the Ardennes, 20-25 August). Finally, he moved troops to the Sambre, hoping to stop the Germans there (battle of the Sambre, 21-23 August 1914). These moves failed to stop the Germans, and the French and British were forced to fall back in a rapid retreat towards the Marne, east of Paris.
Joffre’s role in the events that led to the French victory on the Marne is disputed. One school of though gives all the credit for that victory to General Gallieni, claiming that he was responsible for launching the counterattack that stopped the Germans and forced Joffre to contribute. Gallieni was certainly willing to take some of the credit for the victory, but his death in 1916 has robbed us of his more considered post-war reflections.
Supports of Joffre see him as the architect of the victory on the Marne. In this version of events Joffre stayed calm during the crisis, controlling the retreat from Belgium while shifting troops from the First and Second armies on the eastern border. He saw the chance for a counterattack and took it, forcing the Germans to retreat.
What is not in doubt is that Joffre’s calm played a significant role in ensuring the French General Headquarters did not collapse into chaos in 1914 in the way that it did in 1940. In the period before the battle of the Marne Joffre made sweeping changes to the French high command, replaced thirty four divisional commanders, seven corps commanders and three army commanders, replacing elderly political appointees with younger more competent men.
Joffre’s reorganisation of his armies gave the Allies a clear numerical advantage on his left wing. The three German armies of their right wing, with 24.5 divisions, now faced nearly twice that many Allied divisions. Further east the French armies had orders to hold their ground. Meanwhile, nearer to Paris the two rightmost German armies (First Army, von Kluck and Second Army, Bulow), were drifting out of von Moltke’s command. Kluck was ordered to move west to protect the German right wing. Instead he continued to move south. Bulow’s army was now one day’s march behind Kluck’s. A gap was opening in the German line.
That gap was widened during the battle of the Ourcq (5-9 September 1914), the first phase of the first battle of the Marne (5-10 September 1914). This saw the French Sixth Army attack east from Paris, aiming at the flank of Kluck’s army. He responded by moving his army to face west on the Ourcq. Although the fighting here tended to favour the Germans, behind Kluck the British and French advanced into the gap. By now Kluck and Below were not passing information back to Moltke, and all strategic command was gone. On 7-8 September Moltke sent a representative (Hentsch) to visit Kluck and Below, with authority to order a retreat if needed. By the end of 8 September the Germans were retreating from the Marne.
This was the high-point of Joffre’s career. The Germans pulled back to the Aisne, and held off repeated French attacks. During the Race to the Sea, Joffre was able to stop the Germans getting around his left flank, partly by appointing General Foch to be his deputy in the north, but he was unable to turn the German right flank. The war settled down into the static futility of the Western Front.
During 1915 Joffre launched a series of unsuccessful offensives against the German lines in Champagne (First Champagne, 20 December 1914-17 March 1915, Second Champagne, 25 September-6 November 1915) and Artois (Second Artois, 9 May-18 June 1915 and Third Artois, 25 September-30 October 1915). Despite their failure, he remained popular in France and could not be replaced. During 1915 he removed most of the heavy guns from the fortress of Verdun, to bolster his offensives and ignored warnings about the poor state of the defences. When the German attack began (battle of Verdun, 21 February-18 December 1916), Joffre’s popularity was still so high that he could not be removed. Instead a series of other commanders lost their posts, in some cases (such as General de Castelnau) despite having had no responsibility for the disaster.
By the end of 1916 Joffre had finally used up the credit earned on the Marne. He was promoted away from the front line, created a Marshal of France, and spent the rest of the war in symbolic duties. He died in 1931, still the subject of much controversy over his role in 1914.