Joseph Gallieni, 1849-1916

Joseph Gallieni was a French general most famous for the incident of the taxis of the Marne, which saw him move troops from the garrison of Paris to the front line in a fleet of Paris taxis. Most of his early military experience came in France’s colonial empire. After attending St. Cyr (from 1868), he fought in the Franco-Prussian War, where he was taken prisoner.

His colonial career began in 1876 in Senegal. After that he led an expedition to the upper Niger. In 1886 he was appointed governor of the French Sudan. In 1888 he was appointed to the War College, before returning to the empire in 1893 at commander of a military district in Tonkin. In 1896 he was promoted to General and made governor of Madagascar, then a new French possession. While in Madagascar he supported a number of men who were later prominent during the First World War, amongst them Joseph Joffre.

In 1905 he returned to France as commander of XIV corps at Lyons.  In 1911 he was offered the post of chief of the General Staff, but declined it on the grounds of age and upcoming retirement. In May 1914 he retired.

This was a short retirement. In August 1914 he became deputy chief of the General Staff, under Joffre. The two men rapidly fell out. Gallieni was allamred by the German attacks on the fortress at Liège, part of the German advance through Belgium. Joffre was still convinced that no major German forces could be advancing through Belgium, and banned Gallieni from general Headquarters.

On 26 August Gallieni was appointed military governor of Paris. Initially this was a rear-area appointment, for the main fighting was still happening on the frontiers and in Belgium, but the retreat to the Marne was already underway. As Gallieni worked on improving the fortifications of Paris, the Germans were advancing, at first towards the west of the city, but then, as von Kluck’s army turned south and then south east, to the east. This gave the French a great chance to hit the right flank of the German advance.

An anomaly in the French command structure meant that until 2 September Gallieni’s command had been independent of Joffre’s. Joffre had command over all armies in the field, but the garrison of Paris was not a field army. Worse, on 1 September the Sixth Army (Maunoury) came into the area under Gallieni’s command. On 2 September Joffre convinced the government to give him control over Gallieni’s troops.

Both Joffre and Gallieni soon came to the conclusion that the French Sixth Army, by then in the vicinity of Paris, with the help of the Paris garrison, should strike east towards the Germans as they passed east of Paris. They differed on how quickly the attack should be made. Joffre would have preferred to allow the Germans to move further south, but was convinced to attack them on the Marne. Gallieni’s concerns were still for the safety of Paris while Joffre had to take into account the entire front line, and the coordination of any attack from Paris with the movements of the armies rushing west from the eastern front.

On 5 September the Sixth Army struck east from Paris (battle of the Ourcq River, 5-9 September 1914). Von Kluck’s First Army turned west, and there was soon a real danger that the French army on the Ourcq would be crushed, exposing Paris to a direct assault. Gallieni played a crucial part in the battle, moving a number of divisions out of Paris to aid the Sixth Army.

This was the moment that earned Gallieni his enduring fame. Every available form of transport was needed to move the masses of men from Paris to the Ourcq. One large continent of troops were ferried east in a convoy of Paris taxis commandeered by Gallieni – the famous taxis of the Marne.  The line of the Ourcq held, and by turning west von Kluck had opened a dangerous gap in the German line, into which the French and British were able to advance. On 9 September the German retreat from the Marne began. 

Gallieni’s part in the battle of the Marne is controversial. To his partisans he was the man who saved France, forcing Joffre to abandon his plans to retreat to the Seine before counterattacking and breaking up the German advance. To his opponents he was the man who saved the German armies from Joffre’s masterly plan by attacking too soon. If he had waited until the Germans had advanced south of the Marne, and then attacked east from Paris the German armies might have been trapped. Gallieni himself claimed that the same result would have been produced if he had been allowed to send the Sixth Army further north to outflank the Germans.

In the aftermath of the Marne, Gallieni was left behind as the fighting moved away from Paris. He remained governor of Paris for the next year, but was not satisfied in this increasingly irrelevant job. His popularity worried the government, while his opposition to a focus on the western front annoyed Joffre, who refused to offer Gallieni a field command.

In October 1915 Aristide Briand, a friend of Gallieni’s, became premier and appointed Gallieni as Minister of War. Gallieni was initially reluctant, but eventually came to see this post as his route to the supreme command. With that in mind he replaced some of Joffre’s supporters, and moved General de Castelnau to general headquarters as Joffre’s deputy in the hope that he would restrain his superior. Instead Castelnau would become closely associated with Joffre.

Gallieni’s favoured Balkan strategy unravelled with the collapse of Serbia in 1915. In October an allied expeditionary force reached Salonika in Greece, but having failed to support Serbia should probably have been withdrawn. Briand and Gallieni combined to ensure that 150,000 men were kept at Salonika, where they soon began to suffer from malaria. The Salonika front achieved little or nothing until 1918, but at a heavy cost.

Towards the end of 1915 Gallieni made his move for power. He wanted to sideline Joffre, give de Castelnau authority in the field and take over himself as commander in chief. The move was badly timed. Joffre was still immensely popular, and Gallieni did not have the support of Briand. It would take another year of failure on the western front to wear down Joffre’s authority.

Joffre’s prestige was so high at the start of 1916 that it could even survive the disaster at Verdun. Later in 1915 concerned officers had reported the poor state of the defences of Verdun to the government. Joffre’s response was anger over their violation of the chain of command, but his own unwillingness to listen to concerns about Verdun had forced his subordinate’s hands. The German attack began on 21 February (battle of Verdun). The Germans overran a number of the outer fortifications with some ease, and Verdun soon came under serious pressure. Gallieni launched an attack on Joffre’s handling of the situation, calling for his removal.

This was too much for Briand, who was aware that his own position was not secure enough for him to attack Joffre. Instead it was Gallieni who offered his resignation. He remained in office until mid-March, when ill health would have forced him out of office anyway. After undergoing two unsuccessful operations, Gallieni died on 27 May 1916.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 September 2007), Joseph Gallieni, 1849-1916 ,

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