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Biography Joffre, Joseph Jacques Césaire (1852-1931)

Woodcut made by Hermann Paul
(French artist and cartoonist 1874-1940)
General Joffre (left) with some members of his staff: 
general Langle de Cary and general Guillaumat

'Papa' Joffre was the dominant figure in the French military in the first part of the war, his large and avuncular figure and stolid determination providing an air of security at a desperate period in the nation's history. Of comparatively humble origin (the son of a cooper), he served in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-1871, made his reputation in the colonial campaigns (he led an expedition to Timbuktu in 1894) and as a military engineer; though he was an somewhat surprising choice as chief of the general staff in 1911, but was generally acceptable for his lack of political and religious affiliations. With Castelnau's assistance he formulated Plan XVII, though the detractors would claim that when its failings became obvious it was Galliéni who saved the situation on the Marne. Nevertheless, Joffre imperturbable demeanour and determination did much to stabilise the situation, and his ruthless pruning of the staff was of benefit in raising the quality of the army's leadership.

After the Marne battle, with costly but ineffective attempts to break the German line, his reputation declined, and his political enemies first sought to check his freedom of action by appointing Castelnau to 'assist' him, and finally (December 1916) Prime Minister Briand sacrificed him to preserve his own government, removing him from operational command by promotion and appointment as Marshal of France; thereafter his role was largely ceremonial despite his presidency of the Supreme War Council. Joffre's apparent disregard for the casualties arising from his offensives, and his unwillingness to accept political control, both served to undermine his position; but he always retained popular support as the saviour of France on the Marne, and the government backed him as long as they did partly to please the British, with whome the relations were very cordial.

(Source: Philip J. Haythornthwaite - The World War One source book)

Back to: Phase 1 - The preparations before the Battle