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General Joseph Joffre - French Army Leader, Overall Commander of Entente Forces in WWI (Great War, European War)

Updated on February 5, 2015

Joffre - His Early Years

Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre, the future general, was born, (some eight months before Sir John French was born at Ripple Vale, in Kent) in a small dwelling-house on the Rue des Religieuses, later to be called the Rue des Orangers, in the ancient town of Rivesaltes, on the slopes of the Pyrenees Orientales, close to the Spanish border. The area around which had long been famous for its vineyards, facing the rising sun and the Mediterranean Sea.

To be more precise, the future Generalissimo was born on January 12th, 1852. His father, Gilles Joffre, was a well-to-do cooper, married to Catherine Plas. Joseph was their first child, born when both of them were twenty-nine years old. Over time he shared the family hearth with ten siblings, but of these only three survived to the time when the Great War began.

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Rivesaltes, France
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Out Hats We Doff to General Joffre - Part 1

Joffre's Early Education

Joseph first went to the local school, from whence he graduated to the college at Perpignan, the capital of the former county of Roussillon; a town with a romantic history. At Perpignan the cooper's son distinguished himself greatly by his proficiency in mathematics and drawing, and by his taciturn nature and disinclination to talk. He was a thinker rather than a talker.

In 1867, at 15 year's of age, Joseph's father took him to Paris where he was placed in a private school. He studied there for two years until he entered the famous École Polytechnique.

He served as a subaltern in the Franco-Prussian War. Until then he was not a lover of the German language, but his war experiences changed his mind, and he mastered the language in double-quick time.

After the war he was a young lieutenant of engineers, and became engaged on plans for the new fortifications of Paris, Versailles, and Montpellier. Marshal MacMahon recognised his abilities whilst visiting one of the forts, and complimented the lieutenant by saying :

""Je vous félicite, Monsieur le Capitaine!"
("I congratulate you, Captain Joffre!" although he was not a captain at the time)

After that, at the age of twenty-two, Joffre was promoted to captain.

Out Hats We Doff to General Joffre - Part 2

Joffre's Service in France and Asia

Following his successes with the fortifications of Paris, Versailles, and Montpellier, Joffre was engaged in the organisation of the defences of Pontarlier, in the Department of the Doubs. Here he found himself in a round of garrison duties, away from the public eye, and promotion seemed far off.

During this period, in 1884, he married, but he was a widower within a year. Now followed an extended spell of foreign service, first in Formosa, where he was employed in trench and fortress work.

During his next draft, this time to Indo-China, particularly Hanoi, Kelung, and Vietri, he fought successfully against the plague, which was rife in the region, using methods not dissimilar to those implemented during the construction of the Panama Canal.

Admiral Courbet, in charge of the French operations, approved of the work completed by Joffre, and gave the young captain the opening for him to achieve the distinction of the Cross of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur).

General Joffre with Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig at the front.
General Joffre with Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig at the front. | Source

Out Hats We Doff to General Joffre - Part 3

Joffre's Military Career in a Nutshell

  • 1888 - Captain Joffre returned to France, after three years in the Far East.

  • 1889 - he was gazetted a commandant and given a Staff appointment. This enabled him to learn valuable insights into the military organisation of French railways.

  • 1891 - he was appointed lecturer on fortifications at Fontainebleau, the finishing school for artillery officers, owing to General Gallieni's favourable reports, it is surmised.

  • 1892 - Autumn - Major Joffre went to Senegal to lay the foundations of the Senegal-Niger Railway.

  • 1893 - he was placed in charge of a supply column sent to the assistance of Colonel Bonnier in the attack on the Touareg stronghold of Timbuctoo. The tribes massacred Bonnier and many of his men. Major Joffre undertook to avenge their defeat. This he did, gaining the approval of the Governor of the French Soudan and the authorities in Paris.

  • 1894 - March - he was gazetted lieutenant-colonel.

  • 1897 - he attained the rank of colonel

  • 1899 - he went to Madagascar to superintend the fortifications of the French naval base at Diego Suarez.

  • 1901 - he was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general because of his satisfactory fulfillment of this work.

  • 1901 - appointed to the command of the 19th Artillery Brigade.

  • 1903 - the General was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour.

  • 1904 - he was given the chief command of the Corps of Engineers.

  • 1905 - he became a General of Division.

  • 1906 - he was appointed to the command the 6th Infantry Division.

  • 1908 - he was Chief of the Second Army Corps.

  • 1909 - he received the insignia of a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour.

  • Soon after he was admitted a member of the French General Staff.

  • 1911 - General Joffre was placed in supreme command of the French Army, on the reorganisation of the French War Office. This was partly due to him having no connection with the notorious Dreyfus case, partly due to General Gallieni's support and General Pau's disqualification due to his catholicism, and partly due to his proved ability as a strategist and organiser.

Raymond Poincaré, President of the Republic, pinning the Military Medal on the chest of Generalissimo Joffre.
Raymond Poincaré, President of the Republic, pinning the Military Medal on the chest of Generalissimo Joffre. | Source

During his visit to the armies, M. Poincaré, accompanied by the Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Deputies, the President of the Council, and Minister of War, first stopped at headquarters to award the Military Medal to General Joffre.

In a very moving and simple ceremony he said:

"Veuillez voir dans cette distinction symbolique, at- il dit, un temoignage de la reconnaissance nationale dans les rudes semaines que vous venez de passer, vous avec consolidé et prolongées, par la défense des Flandres victoire de la Marne ; et grâce a l'heureuse impulsion que vous avec sa donner autour de vous, tout a conspire a vous assurer nouveaux success, une parfaite unité de vues dans le commandement, une solidarite actif entre les armées alliées, un judicieux emploi des formations, une coordination rationnelle des differentes armées."

Rough translation:

"Please see this symbolic distinction as a testament to national recognition in the harsh weeks that just passed, consolidated and extended by the defence of Flanders and victory on the Marne. And thanks to the the happy impulse you give to all around you, everything conspires to you insuring new success, a perfect unity of command in an active solidarity between the Allied armies, a judicious use of training, and a rational coordination of different armies.

Out Hats We Doff to General Joffre - Part 4

Preparations for the Great War

General Joffre's vision of the task ahead of him may be seen in his words, addressed to an interviewer, a few months after his appointment, on a rare occasion he spoke to the Press:

The battles of the future will not be won by commanding generals, but by subordinate officers. The fighting front will extend for hundreds of miles, and the victorious troops will be those that hold out the longest, and are superior in endurance, energy, and faith.” - (paraphrased)

His words were reinforced in November, 1914, when asked how the war was going. He replied:

"Laissez-moi faire. Je les grignette."
(" Leave me alone. I nibble them.")

General Joffre

General Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre
General Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre | Source

Joffre's Strength in Silence

As can be envisioned from the image above, General Joffre was a tall, stout man, with keen, blue-grey eyes, heavy eyebrows, firmly-set mouth, with heavy white moustache. He seemed to take upon himself the unchallenged position of one who knew that the whole of France had unswerving confidence in his abilities.

Work throughout always came first. Ruthless when necessary, witness:

  • his dismissal of five generals and two colonels after the Army manoeuvres in 1913, and

  • equally drastic measures taken by him soon after the outbreak of the Great War.

General Joffre was a just rather than a hard man.

In his home life and socially he was of a gentle, kindly disposition. One observer's estimate being:

"A restful man, he does not talk much. But you never feel that he is silent because he has nothing to say. You feel that it is because he has so much to think about. What he says is pithy and to the point, the result of quiet reflection and study, expressed in quiet, straightforward sentences."

After long years of widowhood, he married a second time in 1905, but by the time of the Great War he had no offspring.

General joffre (second from the right) talking with General de Castelnau.
General joffre (second from the right) talking with General de Castelnau. | Source

General Joffre, French Commander-in-Chief.

To the people of Alsace, August 9th, 1914:

"Children of Alsace! After forty-four years of sad waiting French soldiers are treading once more the soil of your noble country. They are the first workers in the great work of revenge. What emotion and what pride for them! To complete this work they are ready to sacrifice their life. The French nation unanimously spurs them on, and on the folds of their flag are inscribed the magical names of 'Right' and 'Liberty.' Long live France! Long live Alsace!"

On that day, General Joffre sent a division of his soldiers into Alsace. On finding an equal number of German troops entrenched outside the town of Altkirch, the French fixed their bayonets and took the position with the "white arm " with the extraordinarily small loss of about a hundred men. Then they advanced on the unfortified town of Mulhouse, which they took and held until large reinforcements came to the help of the Germans.

To Belgium, August 11th, 1914

"Having been called upon by the most odious aggression to fight against the same adversary, your admirable soldiers and those of France will bear themselves in all circumstances as true brothers under arms. Confident of the triumph of their just cause, they will march together to victory."


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