from the book ‘Among the Ruins’, 1915
'a Visit to General Joffre'
by Spanish Journalist Gomez Carillo, 1915


A Spanish View

two coverpages from French magazines


January 15, 1915

It is really extraordinary that a legend should have arisen and should now obtain without contradiction from anyone, of a taciturn, mysterious, and lugubrious Jofïre. Daily, ever since the war began, his biographers have affirmed that there never was such a silent, reserved personage. Even his orderly officers, they say, hardly know the sound of his voice.

I repeated all this, like the rest. But when I found myself before the original of this strange, sombre portrait, I felt inclined to laugh both at my comrades and myself as I looked at the frank, good-tempered face of the Generalissimo. There is nothing alarming in this face but the bushy white eyebrows, so thick that they might have served Rafïet as a superb pair of moustaches for one of his proudest grenadiers. The rest is at once sturdy and refined. The hands, with the daintily polished nails, are almost feminine; the green eyes, with their emerald reflexions, softened by depths of liquid tenderness, are full of refinement, as is also the profile, in spite of the somewhat swollen and purplish complexion and the heavy white moustache. And the General's manners are pre-eminently refined.

Seeing us enter, accompanied by the colonel who had undertaken to present us, he left his armchair and advanced to meet us. He had a pleasant word for each of us. To our senior member, the editor of the 'Journal de Genève, he spoke of M. Feyler's articles, praising them as the best and the most accurate that have appeared dealing with the situation of the belligerent armies; to Sims, the American journalist, he said a few words about Yankee energy; then he stopped before me, and the accent with which he uttered the word "Spain" suggested his own semi-Spanish origin.

"When I hear the Catalan or Castillian dialect," he had said the night before to Colonel Echague, "I seem to be listening to the language of my soul."

He said "Spain" once more to me, and I know not why I fancied that there was a note of distress in his voice, as if the echo of that Gallophobe clericalism which has already penetrated into France seemed to him a kind of fratricidal treachery. But the touch of melancholy was gone in a moment. With a man of his strength and vigour, confidence is always the dominant note. Turning to my friend J. France, the King's Commissary, as we call him, he gave me an opportunity of observing his athletic corpulence, and I admired his square shoulders, his wrestler's torso, his bull-neck—all, in fact, that with his delicate features constitutes the characteristic contrast of his race. There is no doubt that the Generalissimo of the Allies is the perfect type of the Pyrenean mountaineer, capable, like Roland's victors, of hurling whole rocks with their arms, and also capable of bowing gallantly to some lady retailing the highly spiced stories of the "Heptameron" in the shade of an embattled wall. Looking at him, I recalled, not the generals I had lately seen, nor the greatest modern warriors, but the Comte de Foix' gentlemen, Ernaton- Bourg-d'Espagne, Guillonet de Salenges, Barbazan, Montang de Saint-Basile, and all those magnificent soldiers who combined sagacity with courage, and who, after a day's fighting would amuse themselves by carrying on their shoulders loads of wood that no donkey could bear.

"The marvellous thing about him," say the officers who surround him, "is his power of endurance."

The old counsellor Pierre de Marca, who wrote the "History of Pyrenean Heroes," would not have been astonished at his perpetual expeditions along a battle-line of seven hundred kilometres. These mountaineers, indeed, seem to be carved out of the granite of their peaks. At this very moment God alone knows whence this man, who changes his quarters every three days, has come, or whither he is going. The horses we saw at the door, covered with sweat and foam, must have been his. His officers, though they are young, looked weary. He, however, walked up and down from one end of the room to the other, talking and gesticulating, as fresh as if he had just got out of bed.

A few days ago the Generalissimo's sister, who still lives in her little house at Rivesaltes, and like Monluc's mother "sees from her window the two great brother kingdoms, France and Spain," said to a journalist of Bordeaux:

"We come of a noble Spanish family," adding a moment after: "Our father was a cooper."

These words, which seemed so anomalous to the Bordelais, explain the contrast we noted in the personality of the great soldier. There is something of the noble Spaniard, grave, proud, and haughty, in his bearing and his look. His. hands are like those which stand out ivory white against black velvet doublets in certain pictures by El Greco. His eyes have extraordinary depth, the kind of depth which in old races seems to come from the profundity of centuries. But at the same time his heavy walk, his athletic neck, and his huge shoulders are uncompromisingly plebeian.

And if those who know him are to be trusted, this double nature is also manifest in his soul, which is apparently very simple and even a little rough and rudimentary, but which has unexpected traits of charming delicacy and tenderness. His sister speaks of him, of his simplicity, his kindliness, and his fame with an enthusiasm not unmixed with astonishment. "What!" she seems to be saying, "our dear Joseph, who comes here every year to play cards with us, help us to tend the vines, and tell us stories about Africa, is the greatest man in France? Who would have thought it!"

Few generals, in fact, can have had so little superficial brilliance as Joffre. When Pau recommended "that he should be appointed Vice-President of the Higher Council of War, the President of the Republic did not even know his name. Later, when the European conflict broke out, the whole world asked, on hearing of his nomination: "Who is this man?" For his life, which has been marked throughout by the constant and obscure labour of the toiler, as well as by a sort of aristocratic aloofness, has been lived in absolute quietude. During the war of 1870 he served as a sub-lieutenant in one of the forts of Paris, and after peace was signed he returned to the Polytechnic to complete his engineering course. When he left the school with his two stripes as a lieutenant, he began his career as a constructor of fortifications. In Africa, in Asia, wherever France has built fortifications, the patient and vigorous will of the great Catalan has left its mark.

"Nobody can make trenches like Joseph," said his sister. "Those he dug with his own hands to prevent the inundation of the vineyards are still to be seen in our father's orchard."

Then she added:

"When he became a general, one of the youngest generals in France, his friends no longer dared to call him 'thou.' "

Here again there is the same combination of pride and simplicity.

In the town-hall at Meaux, where Joffre received us, of course he talked of the war.

"We didn't want it," he cried; "we didn't even think it was possible. The responsibility for it is terrible. There is not a single Frenchman who would have been capable of letting loose such a pandemonium. History never foresaw such a colossal struggle. But as it has been forced on us, so much the worse for our enemies. The country will do what is necessary to obtain victory."

There was a brief silence. An energetic movement of the right hand, which seemed to be seeking a point of support for the fist; then a clear look which enveloped us all, and finally a dry, vibrating phrase:

"This victory is ours."

Yes, the phrase was not "will be ours" as several of my colleagues have written, but "is ours." I still hear the syllables, I still note the tone, I still see the fire of his green eyes. With his steadfast faith, impassable and unshakable, the Generalissimo foresees the gigantic sum of the long struggle. He had foreseen the reverses of the early days; and although he does not say so, we divine that when he said France did not want war, and had not even deemed it possible, he was thinking that she was not altogether prepared for it. A democracy cannot act like an empire, and manufacture cannon without the knowledge of the people, nor create regiment after regiment without the authority of the Chambers, nor fix the date of a future attack without a manifestation of the national will. But when the democracy is France, it will find at the supreme moment of peril, those moral and material elements that other nations, apparently stronger, could never improvise. In the year 1870, which resembles this only in the blood it has seen spilt, the country, without arms and without leaders, when Metz had fallen and Paris was invested, yet managed to organize that army of the Loire which gained the victory of Coulmiers in the midst of disaster. To-day, after a strategic retreat, during which the formidable nucleus of defence was being formed, the first great encounter on French territory was a magnificent triumph. After the Battle of the Marne, the whole world looked forward as to an approaching reality, to the defeat of Germany and the prospect of a new Europe, no longer living under the obsession of a menace of war, rising and falling like a tide at the caprice of two Emperors. But Joffre did not wait for the first visible success before feeling confidence. The mobilization and the unity of the country had been enough for him. And this was why, when others doubted and the nerves of the nation were quivering, he, calm as ever, continued to say:

"Victory is ours."

He does not seem even to share the anxiety which makes the Allies in general wish for Russian triumphs to hasten the progress of the war by weakening the Germans, the Austrians, and the Turks. Captain M., a writer on the staff of the ‘Illustration’, said to him a short time ago:

"The necessity of reinforcing their Oriental line will oblige the Germans to withdraw some troops from France."

Without a moment's hesitation, Joffre replied:

"I have not the slightest wish to see any diminution of the forces against which we are fighting. The Russians will advance more rapidly if all continues as it is at present. I will undertake to force back what I have in front of me. There is no need to hurry without good reason."

In all circumstances the Generalissimo manifests the same patient confidence. A few days ago, when he went to Alsace to induct the French officials who were to organize the administration of the reconquered territory, he made the following speech to the representatives of the Alsatian population:

"Our return to this territory which has been for forty-four years in the power of Germany, is definitive. We are once more reunited, and for ever. France brings you, together with the liberty she has always represented, respect for your beliefs and customs. I am France and you are Alsace. I bring you the kiss of France."

It would be flattery to say that his speech is eloquent. Although he is neither silent nor taciturn, he does not attach a very great importance to words. He speaks clearly, seeking definite terms, and punctuates his speech with broad, vigorous gestures. His right hand seems to grasp ideas, to press them and squeeze the essence out of them, to offer it at last with a precise gesture to his auditors. Everything takes the form of action with him. Lightnings flash from his keen eyes, sparkle, illumine his thought, and then disappear as if to feed the inner fire of his meditations. His austere face seems hardly to know the soft repose of smiles.

During a visit paid to him by Parisian journalists, a photographer asked leave to take his portrait.

"I don't like being photographed," he said, "but I must not refuse you. Only make haste."

The journalist-photographer, rather disconcerted, could not get his camera into order at once.

"You are not so clever as the Queen of the Belgians," said the General, seeing his embarrassment. "She photographed me in a moment. You should get her to give you a lesson."

Every one laughed except the General, who, serious and patient, continued to gaze at the camera.

When the operation was over, fearing no doubt that he had mortified the poor reporter by his words, he went up to him and asked to have a proof of the portrait sent to him.

The editor of the Journal de Genève, with his dignified Protestant gravity and his precise eloquence, seemed to please him best among our company. He addressed him in particular, asking if we had been interested by our pilgrimage among the battle-fields.

I took advantage of a momentary silence to tell him I had read in the American papers that the Spaniards of Buenos Ayres and Montevideo had opened a subscription to present him with a sword.

Something like the shadow of a smile, a quarter smile, appeared under his white moustache.

Then turning to the Swiss pastor again, he assured him of his wish that we should see everything and understand everything.

"We," he adds, "are not afraid of the light. What we are doing may and ought to be published. The whole country has armed itself with admirable enthusiasm. If we have any difficulties, they are caused by the numbers of old or weakly men who ask us to take them as soldiers, and whom we are obliged to refuse. Say what you have seen, it will be the greatest service you can do us. Our moral forces are immense, and you know Bonaparte has told us that victory is a matter of moral force. The world does not know France well."

So saying, Jofïre turned to the journalists on his right: an American, a Scandinavian, and myself. And as his words cannot apply to my friends, whose countries pay perpetual homage to French heroism, French enthusiasm, and French solidarity, I imagine it to be for Spain, "his" Spain, that he speaks thus. Remembering his words to Colonel Echague, I understand the grief of this man, the representative, not of a political party, but of a race and an ideal, when he remembers that the men of the country nearest to his heart, his compatriots, we might say, are not all unanimous as they should be in supporting, at least by sympathy, if not by arms, the cause his troops are defending. Noting his severe expression, I long to say to him: "Great Liberal Spain, thinking Spain, the Spain of Perez Galdos, of Blasco Ibanez, of Romanonès, of Melquiadès Alvarez, the Spain that is neither snobbish nor Carlist, the Spain that incarnates the true soul of to- day and to-morrow, will always see in France her chosen sister." But have I any right to make solemn declarations to him?

Still addressing the editor of the Journal de Genève, the great chief went on to speak enthusiastically of soldiers, officers, and simple civilians alike.

"It is they who win battles," he said, "not I. The Generalissimo's part is almost played when he has established his line of attack and disposed the armies that are to fight in due order. Then all depends upon which troops show most resistance, most tenacity, most faith in their ultimate triumph."

Then making the familiar gesture with his right hand once more, he added:

"Victory is ours, there is no doubt about it."

One of my colleagues, referring to the Battle of the Marne, the scene of which we had just visited, said:

"You know, General, you have won the greatest battle of modern times."

"What I do know," he replied, "is that I shall soon have earned permanent peace in a little house in the Pyrenees."

This phrase, in which all the Parisian journalists found an evidence of simplicity and modesty, has a deeper significance for me. I do not imagine the " little house " of his dreams as a warm, peaceful retreat, but as an eagle's eyrie among the rocks. When once peace is established, what indeed would the victor want in Paris? Worldly honours are not of his kingdom. Seeing him without plumes, or gold lace or crosses, or vanities of any kind, one divines that all his energies are concentrated on his inner life, and that his only material needs are activity, movement, and muscular effort. Four centuries ago he would have shut himself up, his battles over, in some dark manor-house, where he would have rivalled the comrades of his sufferings and his glory in hardihood. Now, his one desire is to return to his native place to live with the memories of sublime hours. And perhaps, as he cannot imitate Ernaton Bourg-d'Espagne and Montang de Saint- Basile, he will busy himself in the intervals of his gallops among the mountains, in writing "Commentaries" on his own life, after the manner of another compatriot, Monluc.


see also: Madame Joffre - the Generalissimo's Wife / Guy Arnoux - Marshall Joffre :14 Illustrations
/ a British View

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