Joseph Joffre, one of France’s most influential military leaders, played a significant role in shaping the outcome of World War I. The commander-in-chief of the French Army during World War I from 1914-1916 became an iconic symbol of French resistance for his defense against the German invasion on the Western Front. However, his reputation was tarnished over time following his removal as commander in 1916 and subsequent criticisms from military and political leaders and historians.
Early Life and Military Career
Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre was born on January 12, 1852, in Rivesaltes, France. The son of a cooper-turned-wine merchant and the third of 11 children, he attended the prestigious engineering school École Polytechnique, under the French Ministry of Defense, taking a break to volunteer in the army during the Franco-Prussion War.
He returned to school after the war and, upon graduating, continued his studies as an engineer officer, specializing in artillery and demonstrating an aptitude for military strategy and tactics.
Joffre joined the French Army in 1871, where he served as an engineer officer at Formosa, Tonkin and Madagascar, gaining experience in colonial campaigns. He rose through the ranks, and, in 1911, at age 59 (considered young for the appointment), he was appointed commander-in-chief of the general staff of the French Army, charged with leading modernization and reorganization efforts.
World War I and the Battle of the Marne
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Joffre was credited with formulating and implementing France’s military strategy known as “Plan XVII.” The system focused on launching aggressive offensive attacks against Germany to recapture French territories seized by Germany during the Franco-Prussion War. Joffre believed that the French troops’ elan–or spirit–would carry them to victory.
During Germany’s advance on Paris, the Battle of the Marne took place from September 6-9, 1914. Joffre, leading French and British forces, launched a massive counteroffensive using the Plan XVII strategy, and, despite being outnumbered and suffering heavy casualties, they successfully held the French front line.
The Western Front battle led to a trench war stalemate that would continue through the war’s end. But it also marked a pivotal victory for the Allies and a turning point in the war, forcing Germany to turn its attention to the Eastern Front. Joffre’s leadership in halting Germany’s advance at Marne made him a national hero, earning him the title “the Victor of the Marne” among both soldiers and civilians.
Casualties and Criticism
After Marne, Joffre played a significant role in developing France’s trench warfare tactics and other strategic operations. However, Joffre’s leadership came under fire with massive casualties piling up, as well as the costly and ill-prepared defense during Germany’s attack on Verdun in February 1916.
The Battle of Verdun, lasting from February 21 to December 18, 1916, was the bloodiest and longest single battle of the war, lasting almost a year. Although the French ultimately fended off the surprise German offensive, both sides suffered nearly 400,000 casualties each.
In December 1916, General Robert Nivelle replaced Joffre as commander. Still, despite his removal, he remained a hero among French citizens who referred to him as “Papa Joffre,” and he was to the role of marshal of France, a mostly ceremonial position.
In 1918, Joffre was elected to the prestigious French Academy, the renowned institution responsible for preserving the French language. He also took part in advisory roles and missions, including a visit to the United States in 1917 to rally support for the war effort. During his visit, Joffre delivered a short speech to Congress, saying only, “I do not speak English. Vivent les Élats-Unis” (Long live the United States.). The New York Times reported his words were bookended with shouts of “Joffre! Joffre!”
During a December 1918 speech at the French Academy, attended by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, he paid tribute to America’s participation in the war.
“History does not record a more marvelous achievement than that of millions of men voluntarily breaking away from their peaceful pursuits to cross the seas, where lurked death, to come thousands of miles from their country and give up their lives for a noble, cause, a great ideal,” he said.
Joffre retired in 1922 and died January 3, 1931, at age 78 in Paris. His two-volume memoir was published posthumously in 1932.
“Profile: Joseph Joffre,” by Lara Marlowe, May 14, 2014, The Irish Times
“Marshal Joffre: The Triumphs, Failures and Controversies of France’s Commander-in-Chief in the Great War,” by Andre Bourachot, Translated by Uffindell, A. (Hbk. Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley ed.).
“Joffre Dead at 78 After Brave Fight; Six Days in Coma,” January 3, 1931, The New York Times.
“France: Jofrre,” TIME.