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Joseph Simon Galliéni Edit Profile

general , governor , military

Joseph Simon Galliéni was an outstanding French general during the Franco-Prussian War; the military governor of Paris during World War I, ably defending that city from German attack in the first Marne battle; and an effective French colonial soldier and administrator, establishing and ruling French colonies in both Asia and Africa.


Gallieni was born in 1849 at Saint-Beat, in the department of Haute-Garonne, in the central Pyrenees. He was of Corsican and Italian descent. His father, born in Pogliano Milanese, had risen from the ranks to be a captain.


He was educated at the Prytanée Militaire in La Flèche, and then the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, becoming a Second Lieutenant in the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment before serving in the Franco-Prussian War.


In 1876 Gallieni began thirty years of distinguished service in France's colonies. The young officer served in Senegal until 1879, then led an important expedition to the upper Niger. In 1886 Gallieni, then a major, governed the French Sudan. A tour of duty at the War College followed in 1888, but Gallieni soon returned to the colonies. He took command of a military district in Tonkin in 1893, and his service in Indo-China led to a promotion to the rank of general in 1896. Between 1896 and 1905 Gallieni governed Madagascar. He stamped out indigenous resistance in this new French possession, then established a model colonial administration. By now France's most renowned colonial commander, the governor general of Madagascar helped advance the careers of able subordinates like Joseph Joffre and Hubert Lyautey.

Gallieni's military career took a sharply different turn in 1905. He returned to metropolitan France to assume command of the XIV Corps at Lyons. The new military environment led the old colonial soldier to rely heavily on young staff officers to help him adjust. Gallieni was offered the post of chief of the General Staff, the senior position in the peacetime army, in 1911. He declined, pointing to his impending retirement and relative inexperience in the métropole. He offered the names of Pau and Joffre.

The outbreak of the First World War came three months after Gallieni's retirement. He was recalled to active duty, named Joffre's deputy, and designated to take over as commander in chief if Joffre were killed or disabled. His former subordinate saw Gallieni as a threat as well as an unwelcome ambassador for the war ministry. Gallieni became alarmed at the German attack on Liège, but Joffre rejected his warnings and refused to allow Gallieni at French general headquarters. On August 26 the energetic and frustrated Gallieni was appointed military governor of Paris by the War Ministry. With an outlet for his untapped abilities, he threw himself into preparing the city's decrepit fortifications for an impending siege. Gallieni commanded the city and its garrison during the crucial period that followed, his authority enhanced by the government's hasty departure to Bordeaux on September 2. The Sixth Army, General Maunoury commanding, had been formed by Joffre for a blow against the German flank in late August. But the rapid enemy advance pushed it southward from Amiens. It came under Gallieni's control on September 1, but Joffre convinced the War Ministry to put the Paris garrison, along with Gallieni's newly acquired field army, under Joffre's supervision the following day.

Gallieni exchanged messages with his former subordinate on September 3. The Paris commander stressed the need to defend the capital and the dif-ficulty of conducting field operations with the territorial forces that constituted much of the city's garrison. Joffre responded by suggesting that the more reliable units of the Paris forces be used to attack eastward when the French army resumed the offensive. Gallieni seized on this still vague intention. He alerted Maunoury and, on September 4, ordered the Sixth Army to move eastward toward Meaux the next day. The crucial interchange took place between Gallieni and Joffre on the evening of September 4. Aerial and cavalry reports had confirmed that the Germans were crossing the Marne to the east of Paris.

The German right flank stood open to Gallieni. Joffre intended to order a general offensive on September 7, but he had not yet issued corresponding orders. To Gallieni, this was intolerable vacillation. He telephoned Joffre to urge an attack on September 6; the Paris garrison would strike the Germans north of the Marne; the British army was to attack northward from its positions south of the river. Joffre agreed. That night his staff issued orders calling for a general offensive on the date Gallieni had demanded. Joffre took direct control of the Sixth Army on September 8. Deprived of his field command, Gallieni continued his efforts to fortify Paris. Meanwhile, he rushed all available forces to help the hard-pressed Maunoury hold on the Ourcq. One division arrived by way of the famous "taxicabs of the Marne," a fleet of Parisian vehicles commandeered by Gallieni. Pinned down by the Sixth Army and threatened by the advance of the British and French armies south of the Marne, the Germans went into a general retreat on September 9. Gallieni later claimed that a strategic triumph would have been in hand had he been allowed to retain the Sixth Army to outflank the German right north of the Marne.

Partisans of Gallieni, notably B. H. Liddell Hart, have called for the old colonial general to receive the lion's share of credit for the German defeat. They laud Gallieni for pushing an indecisive Joffre into the offensive that destroyed Germany's hopes for a quick victory over France and an early end to the war. Gallieni himself argues that Joffre's intention of retreating to the Seine and then turning to attack the Germans was unrealistic: the French forces would have become even more disorganized; the Germans would have smashed them before a position on the Seine could be set up. Joffre's partisans reply that Gallieni's premature attack saved the German army from complete catastrophe: the Germans were entering a hopeless trap south of the Marne when Gallieni, in effect, warned them of their peril. Neither scenario was played out. Gallieni's supporters have the undeniable advantage of pointing to at least a partial victory the German retreat from the Marne which was the result of Gallieni's initiative.

Gallieni remained military governor of Paris for another year. Rumors circulated within the government that he had ambitions to take over as a military dictator. The cabinet's unseemly flight to Bordeaux and Gallieni's popularity with the Parisian population gave these murmurings some plausibility. Gallieni heatedly denied them. His interests focused on the military conduct of the war, and his restless interlude away from the fighting was marked by friction with Joffre. Gallieni spoke out as early as November 1914 on the dismal prospects for a strategic victory on the western front. A Balkan campaign offered more promise. Both views were anathema to the commander in chief. Gallieni had friends in high places, notably the vice premier, Aristide Briand. Their efforts to gain him a suitable field command met Joffre's immovable opposition. Gallieni wanted an army group, either the northern one or the one at the center of the fighting front. These went instead to Generals Foch and de Castelnau, respectively.

In December 1915, Gallieni attempted to reshape the French High Command: Joffre was to be pushed aside; de Castelnau was to control field operations while Gallieni combined the roles of war minister and commander in chief. This ambitious undertaking ran into opposition from Briand and President Poincare. Whatever Joffre's failings, his popularity in France and his prestige among the British government and army commanders made him indispensable. Moreover, Gallieni was sixty-six years old and in poor health. He seemed no candidate for this overwhelming set of responsibilities.

Briand realized an open repudiation of Joffre would destroy the government. He swung momentarily to Joffre s defense. Gallieni offered his resignation. At the urging of Briand and Poincaré, he agreed to hang on briefly to preserve the illusion of a united government. But in mid-March, he was ready to resign, his health in ruins. He endured two surgical operations, then died in Paris on May 27, 1916. The last news he received from the front reported the German capture of Fort Douaumont at Verdun. Gallieni was posthumously promoted marshal of France on May 7,1921.


When Briand took over as premier in October 1915, he offered the War Ministry to Gallieni. Briand had to overcome Gallieni's poor health and reluctance to serve in a civil position. Briand, the "Easterner," persisted; he needed a popular and like- minded war minister. Gallieni, in turn, hoped to reshape the French military effort and perhaps to become de facto commander in chief. He succeeded in removing a number of Joffre s subordinates; and de Castelnau was dispatched to general headquarters to serve as Joffre's deputy. In reality de Castelnau was expected to restrain the commander in chief s penchant for futile offensives on the western front. Briand and Gallieni inherited a disintegrating situation in the Balkans: Anglo-French forces reached Macedonia in October 1915, but too late to meet their aim of bolstering Serbia. Gallieni's military expertise had to give way to political exigencies. He supported Briand's policy of maintaining a force of 150,000 troops at Salonika too few to have a strategic effect but a sop to the parliamentary critics of concentrating all resources in the west.

Gallieni's diaries (an invaluable and candid record of the government through military eyes) reflected a steady disillusionment with Briand. The Verdun crisis brought Gallieni's dissatisfaction to a head. First, he found himself situated uncomfortably between the contending parties. Government leaders, warned in late 1915 by field officers of Verdun's weakness, urged corrective action. Joffre responded with an uproar over this violation of the military chain of command. The German avalanche struck on February 21, 1916. Two weeks later Gallieni presented his cabinet colleagues with a sharp attack on Joffre's negligence at Verdun. This he placed into the larger framework of Joffre's unwillingness to accept direction from the government. Gallieni called for bringing the military leaders under effective control. True, some would object; but these were to be dismissed.