Great War Commanders: Joffre, a Victorian Frenchman

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Great War Commanders: Joffre, a Victorian Frenchman

Marshal Joffre /

Marshal Joffre /

Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre was born in 1852, at the beginning of the Victorian epoch in Britain. He eventually became a Marshal of France, but first came to France’s notice when he took part as a very junior officer in the (weak) defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Having survived Bismarch’s onslaught he went on to serve in the French colonial service.

In 1911 at the age of fifty-nine he was appointed Vice-President of France’s Higher War Council, which was responsiible for planning warfare. Joffre’s main plan, which he reiterated to the council innumerable times was, in case of war with Germany to launch an immediate offensive across the Franco-German frontier. It was a good plan, and France had a bigger army, but being vice-president of anything is of little use.

When Germany inevitably attacked throuigh Belgium, Joffre, though thwarted in his main strategy went immediately on the offensive (which was his forte) and sent a third of the French army to attack in the Lorraine and the Ardennes. But the attacks failed.

Joffre had the reputation of being taciturn and slow-moving, but he always stayed calm in a crisis, an outstanding trait in any soldier. The French troops were driven backwards with horrible losses, but Joffre managed in the heat of battle to transfer soldiers from his own right wing to form ‘fresh’ armies on the left, enabling him to mount a counter-attack at the Battle of the Marne (q.v.) where he won a decisive victory.

When French intelligence services informed him of a German plan to force a way through to the Channel Ports, he was able to make one his (comparatively) quick moves, and stop the Germans at the first Battle of Ypres (q.v.). But both his most important offensives, in Artois and Champagne failed, and by the end of 1915 the French had suffered over two million casualties; among these nearly 600,000 were dead. He became Commander-in-Chief

When Verdun (q.v.) was assaulted Joffre did not wish to divert armies from the already planned and accepted offensive on the Somme (q.v.) but historians claim he was forced to do so by French politician Aristide Briand. Joffre accepted his fate and fought well, deploying his few reserves with skill to contain the German attack, but Pétain and others got the credit, as so often happens. Politician Briand then carefully eased Joffre out of his high-ranking position in November, by making him a Marshal of France. This splendid-sounding rank did not have in the twentieth century the same significance (or powers) as it had in the fifteenth century. Joffre decided to take no further part in the Great War, a fact that can surprise no-one.

By | 2012-08-29T11:34:54+00:00 August 29th, 2012|British History, French History, German History, World History|0 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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