Born in Rivesaltes near the Spanish frontier, Joseph Joffre studied at the [Eacute]cole Polytechnique. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, he fought in the defense of Paris. Commissioned in the military engineers, he served mainly in colonial postings in Formosa, Tonkin, and the Western Sudan. In 1903, he returned to France from Madagascar to command the Thirteenth Brigade, three years later the Sixth Division, and finally in 1908 the Second Corps at Amiens.
His limited command experience and the fact that he had never attended the [eacute]cole de guerre, virtually required for those who aspired to senior rank, made Joffre a surprise choice for commander in chief in 1911. He owed his promotion to his proven organizational abilities and the fact that his main rivals were eliminated for reasons of age or political opinions. Joffre’s main prewar achievement lay in strengthening the Russian alliance.
The opening battles of World War I in 1914 showed Joffre’s war plan–Plan XVII–to have been based on flawed tactical and strategic concepts, and to have ignored enemy intentions. To be fair to Joffre, the demands of alliance politics, respect for Belgian neutrality, and a misplaced faith in offensive power shared by all armies desperately limited his options.
The victory won on the Marne in September 1914 was undoubtedly Joffre’s crowning achievement. As the first French general in a century to defeat a German army, Joffre became a national hero, which, for better or worse, ensured his position as commander in chief for the next two and a half years. But he began to accumulate enemies in the Chamber of Deputies as the resolve and refusal to panic that had served him well on the Marne in 1914 hardened into stubborn pursuit of futile and bloody offensives in Artois and Champagne in 1915. His tardy response to the German buildup before Verdun in early 1916 further undermined his credibility. Promoted to marshal of France in December 1916, Joffre performed only perfunctory duties for the remainder of the war. He spent the postwar years mainly on writing his memoirs.
Joffre’s historical reputation suffered in the post-World War I years at the hands of military historians such as Sir Basil Liddell Hart, who saw him as a sphinx without a riddle, a tabula rasa who absorbed the imprint of offensive-minded “Young Turks” in the General Staff, with disastrous results. Modern historiography has been slightly more gentle, if only because it has sought to place Joffre more in the institutional and intellectual context of his time. His ability to rectify the numerous shortcomings of the French army before 1914 was circumscribed by republican politicians reluctant to accord the commander in chief the authority needed to resolve bureaucratic and technical disputes in the army. Though his 1915 offensives were costly, it is equally true that, until the French army mutinies of 1917, no French commander who failed to assault the German lines in France would long retain his post.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.