- from 'T.P.'s Journal of Great Deeds of the Great War', October 24, 1914
- 'General Joffre'
- The Enigma of the War
A British View
a photo portrait and a magazine cover
The great soldier, on whom France has staked her fortunes, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. It is part of his charm; it is one of the reasons why he inspires so much confidence. It is evident from the little that is known about him that he is not one of the advertising soldiers. He has not sought the limelight; he has made few speeches; he has never figured in any of those political manifestations which get soldiers' names into the newspapers and raise them to the position of saint or devil in the mad passions of political partisanship. I understand from some who know him that he has always declined to have anything to do with party politics, with those secret cliques that are the confusion and the destruction of real military efficiency; he has hid behind no aristocratic petticoats. He has been all his life a simple soldier; a soldier and nothing more, a soldier and nothing outside that.
His Personal Appearance
As I look on his photograph, that is the impression he gives me of his personality. He is stout, rather too stout for perfect condition; the face is full and round; the moustache, perfectly white, is somewhat long; the jaw is square and strong; the eyes are a steely blue; the nose is broad in the nostril. In some respects the face is one I should class as belonging to the same family as that of poor Campbell-Bannerman: strong, good-humoured, essentially bourgeois. He is a Tommy Atkins, though a Tommy Atkins of genius, so far as the impression of his appearance is concerned. A domesticated married man, living on his pay, in modest surroundings and the tranquil atmosphere of a simple soldier's home, he has probably had no real interest in life outside his family except that which centred round the barrack.
A Man of Science
But let it at once be added that this typical-looking, plain soldier, this soldier and soldier alone, is also a soldier who has been trained in the schools of science, and has been able to subject the knowledge of the books to the test of practice. He is a Polytechnian, which, everybody acquainted with French military life know, means that he is a man who has "sapped" to use an English popular phrase who has had the severe mental discipline of mathematics, of engineering, of all that application of severity of thought and of scientific method to the art of war. Severely logical, coldly and dryly reasonable, a little self-conscious of his superiority through his scientific methods over the average man, spelling out his conclusions without any guiding law behind him; cold, superior such is the Polytechnian as he appears in a score of French novels and French plays. And, therefore, do not imagine because he comes from modest blood and still remains the rough and even plebeian soldier in appearance, that this French General has not imbibed all the last words of scientific thought with regard to his profession.
His Modest Blood
He does come from modest blood, certainly. The best description I have read of his family history is in one of those little and brilliant thumb-nail sketches which Mrs. Crawford, the famous correspondent of Truth, so often gives in that journal. This is what she wrote :
"His family belongs to the Eastern Pyrenees. An auctioneer founded it about a hundred years ago. This ancestor went from village to village in a showman's van laden with goods. They were trumpeted by him as bargains. 'J'offre such or such an article at such or such a price,' he cried, when he drew up in the mayoralty square or market-place of burg or village. He began at a high figure, and went down gradually. His Catalan name proclaimed him a foreigner, and he adopted the nickname country folks had given him of Joffre le père Joffre.
"The General on whom so much good hope is fixed had in boyhood a passionate fondness for bathing in the clear waters of a rather deep and impetuous Pyrenean gave. His. parents, fearing he would be drowned, locked him up in a second-story room at night, and kept him under guard in the daytime. The youngster pined and fretted. He then proceeded to act, went to the press where his mother stored her house linen, and took out the strongest and longest sheets he could find to make with them a ladder whereby he could escape from his bedroom at dawn and have his river bath and swim. This went on for some time. But one morning the 'ladder' gave way, and he broke his thigh-While the limb was in splints he acquired a taste for study, was glad to go to school at a lycée, chose the Army for his career and the Engineers for his special branch."
Of the Napoleonic Type
Here, then, we have an officer that belongs rather to the Napoleonic than to the present era. Divorced from the government of their country, through their opinions. Catholic and monarchical, the aristocracy of France has still held on to its place in the Army, and many of the French officers accordingly belong to the upper classes. But Joffre comes from the same roots as the children of innkeepers, and the sailors, the Murats and the Massénas, who grew to be the greatest generals during the Napoleonic wars.
In the Fighting Line
I have said that General Joffre had plenty of opportunity of testing the theory of war in the realities of war. He was just between eighteen and nineteen when France was in the agony of the disastrous War of 1870; and when the siege came on, he was employed not as an engineer, but as a young artillery officer, and he took part in the defence of the capital. Then, when the work of reconstructing France, after the terrible lessons of the War, began, he was sent to improve the fortifications of Paris. He did his work well. Marshal MacMahon, then President of the Republic, took notice of him, and made him a captain at the early age of twenty-two. Verdun had also to be improved; and again the young Captain of Engineers was sent to re- create that guardian of the East of France. This was still the scientific side of military life; but Joffre was the man to want to know all sides of his profession. So he got to Tonquin, built more fortresses, then went into the fighting line, and saw the other side. He found service also in all kinds of the small expeditions which became frequent as France was building up her great Colonial empire. He was in Madagascar; on the Gold Coast; penetrated to Timbuctoo. Then, returning to France, he steadily worked; steadily made way; became the youngest General of Division in the Army; and, finally, his choice as Chief of the Staff was unanimous. There were no political papers to disparage or to hound him down; he had kept out of that foul maelstrom of political controversy, in whose refracting medium no man's merits have any chance of universal acceptance.
Not Grimly Taciturn
This Southerner, who can hold his tongue, is yet not grimly taciturn by any means; it is impossible to expect taciturnity from a man who comes from the exuberant South. He has spoken on professional platforms about the problems of war, and he has spoken very candidly. I was told by a Frenchman that even two or three years ago he frankly told his audience and perhaps it didn't quite please them that an offensive campaign at the start of the War with Germany was not the best plan for France. I believe he even went the length of saying that, in such an offensive, the advantages on the side of the Germans would make them too powerful a candid statement that fluttered many over-confident breasts. This gives the key to his methods in this War. I am told he was dead against the forward expedition into Alsace an opening of the campaign more defensible on sentimental than on strategic grounds. It is to him is due the quiet awaiting of the opportunity for the advance of the French troops; it is he who has kept up that combination of offensive- defensive movements which patient and scientific generals have so often found more successful than the bold and audacious offensive. And he is dead against the useless and wasteful loss of his soldiers' lives. And these are probably the reasons why the Germans, but lately at the gate of Paris, are now, by skilful entrenchment, by occasional attack, by keeping open lines of retreat, trying with apparent futility to burst the iron walls that Joffre and France and England are coiling round their doomed and beaten army.
see also: Madame Joffre - the Generalissimo's Wife / Guy Arnoux - Marshall Joffre :14 Illustrations
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