Log In

Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre Edit Profile

commander-in-chief , general , military

Marshal Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre was a French general who served as Commander-in-Chief of French forces on the Western Front from the start of World War I until the end of 1916. He is best known for regrouping the retreating allied armies to defeat the Germans at the strategically decisive First Battle of the Marne in September 1914.


Joseph Joffre was born, the son of a barrel maker, at Rivesaltes in southwestern France, January 12, 1852.


He entered the École Polytechnique in 1870 and became a career officer.


He interrupted his training at the École polytechnique to serve as an officer in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870/1871, then returned to graduate and to enter the regular army. Commissioned in the engineers, Joffre served in metropolitan France until 1885, when he requested duty with the colonial army. He spent most of the next fifteen years in Indo-China, West Africa, and Madagascar. He acquired a burst of publicity in 1894 by leading an expedition through West Africa to reach the fabled city of Timbuktu; and his construction work in fortifying Madagascar developed his reputation as one of the army's leading engineers.

In 1900, then a brigadier general, Joffre returned to France. He advanced to major general in 1905, and the year following received command of an infantry division. By 1910 he was a corps commander and member of the Supreme War Council. Nonetheless, he was a surprise choice for the post of chief of the General Staff to which he was appointed in July 1911. Joffre lacked the General Staff training deemed essential for the job and did not have extensive combat experience, but he was free of embarrassing political links or religious affiliations. His promotions had come in the colonial service, where rapid advancement due to merit, not connections, was the norm. Finally, he was fifty-nine years old, and thus able to serve long enough before reaching mandatory retirement age to provide some stability and continuity at the top of the army's command system.

Joffre explicitly recognized the weaknesses in his own preparation for the post by requesting that General Castelnau, the army's most renowned staff officer, be named as deputy. The most important product of the Joffre-Castelnau team over the next three years was Plan XVII, outlining French strategy in the event of war with Germany. In its final form, it centered on a French offensive into Lorraine, in tune with the offensive tenor of French military thought in the pre-1914 period. Joffre and Castelnau were aware that a German invasion might come through Belgium. In early 1912 Joffre sought permission to move French forces into Belgium to forestall such a German move. This was unacceptable to both the Belgians and the British. Plan XVII thus provided for sufficient French strength around Sedan to parry a German thrust through Belgium. But it assumed, incorrectly it turned out, that Germany lacked the manpower to conduct a sweeping invasion of Belgium west of the Meuse. Nonetheless, Plan XVII expected the French offensive into Lorraine, which could be varied by wheeling two of the French armies northeastward into the Ardennes, to disrupt any German offensive effort.

By mid-August 1914, Joffre had launched his Lorraine offensive. Moreover, in response to news of the German assault on Belgium, General Lanrezac and the French Fifth Army moved northward into Belgium to hold the angle formed by the Meuse and Sambre rivers. As Lanrezac found himself overwhelmed by a German tide and the armies striking into Lorraine met heavy resistance, then counter-attacks, Plan XVII collapsed. The French armies were thrown into headlong retreat. To Joffre's partisans, the French commander in chief then took charge of the situation, holding his armies together with imperturbable calm while he launched a long-planned counterattack against the right flank of the enemy in early September. To equally bitter critics of Joffre, of whom Liddell Hart is representative, Joffre merely drew his armies blindly backward until the intervention of General Gallieni, military governor of Paris, sparked the successful French counterattack and stopped the Germans on the Marne. Recent authors like Isselin have taken a middle position: Joffre had much of the situation in hand, moving his forces westward from the First and Second Armies in Alsace and Lorraine to hold at the Marne, even if Gallieni's initiative determined the exact timing of the counterblow.

The Marne was Joffre's greatest success. Thereafter, the war on the western front settled into bloody stalemate. Joffre tried, with meager results, to force a breakthrough in Artois (May 1915) and Champagne (September 1915). Meanwhile, criticism of his heavy losses and insignificant results mounted in the National Assembly. Deputies were angered at being barred from the war zone, and many were outraged when Joffre fired General Sarrail, a particular favorite of the Radical party.

In December 1915, after Joffre's docile Minister of War Millerand had been replaced by the more independent Gallieni, government leaders attempted to restrain Joffre. Castelnau was brought in to assist that is, to watch over the French commander. Moreover, Joffre was given the responsibility of supporting Sarrail, dispatched at the behest of political circles to create a new front in the Balkans.

In 1916 the calamities mounted up. A prolonged German assault on Verdun started in late February; Joffre had stripped the fortress of its heavy artillery to support his 1915 offensives in Artois and Champagne. In July the French joined the British in attacking on the Somme. For both countries, this soon turned into a prolonged bloodletting for miniscule gains in territory. By December Premier Aristide Briand responded to Joffre's persistent failures. To save his own government he ousted the general, by pretending to promote him to a more responsible position, and then rewarded him with the title of marshal of France.

Joffre played a largely ceremonial role for the remainder of the war, visiting the United States in 1917, for example, to greet France's new ally. Fie died in Paris, January 3, 1931.

Liddell Hart's acid characterization of Joffre as the false hero of the Marne, "a national nerve sedative," has not stood the test of time. Joffre handled a difficult situation at the start of the war with calm, in sharp contrast to his German counterpart, General von Moltke. But with the Marne victory behind him, he had little to offer France. Like General Cadorna in Italy, he justified one bloody offensive after another by the need to support his allies or to nibble away at the enemy. But in the absence of either imagination or great quantities of heavy artillery, such narrow vision simply led to a prolonged national tragedy and, in the not too distant future, the near collapse of the French army.


Joffre was an agnostic in religious views and had been a freemason since 1875 unlike many French generals, who were Catholic (and of the generation educated in the Catholic teaching which had grown up after the Loi Falloux) and therefore suspected of hostility to the Third Republic.


Joffre was generally taciturn and a man of impenetrable calm, sometimes interspersed with furious anger. He would sometimes turn up at a unit's headquarters, listen to reports, and then depart having said hardly a word, to the consternation of the officers he had just inspected. At the time of the Battle of the Marne, he was heavily dependent on his deputy chief of staff, General Henri Mathias Berthelot. Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, thought highly of him. Georges Boillot, winner of the French Grand Prix 1912 and 1913, was Joffre's personal driver in 1914, and Joffre's car tearing along roads became a familiar sight.

General Hubert Lyautey thought Joffre a better logistician than strategist. His major positive contributions in 1914 were his sustained calm under pressure and the calculated reasoning of an alumnus from École Polytechnique, his ruthless dismissal of unsuccessful generals (three army commanders, ten corps commanders and thirty-eight divisional commanders, replacing them with combative men like Foch, Franchet d'Espèrey and more junior at that stage Petain and Nivelle), and his outstanding logistical handling of French infantry divisional movements and artillery ammunition supplies during and after the French retreat of August 1914.

Quotes from others about the person

  • “Doughty writes of the Marne: "Gallieni's role was important, but the key concept and decisions lay with Joffre." Joffre recovered from the initial disastrous attacks into Lorraine and the Ardennes and redeployed forces to the west. He kept his cool when the initial attempt to have Maunoury envelop the German west flank at Amiens failed, requiring a retreat on Paris. While the Battle of the Marne was going on, he handled the problems faced by Foch's Ninth Army at the St Gond Marshes, by de Langle's Fourth and Sarrail's Third near Verdun and by Castelnau's Second in the Nancy area.”