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11-08-2015, 17:44

Joseph Joffre (1852-1931)

General Joseph Joffre was the commander-in-chief of the French army during the first two years of the war. His great achievement during this period was the successful defense of France against the German onslaught in 1914. But he played an equally decisive role in establishing the tragic pattern of subsequent fighting on the western front: offensive operations regardless of cost. To Joffre is attributed the revealing remark that each of his generals needed to lose 15,000 men before he could become a proficient commander! In 1916 his reputation suffered a fatal blow when the German assault surprised him at Verdun and Allied attacks failed at the Somme. The future French leader was born on January 12, 1852, in Rivesaltes, a village near the Spanish border. His father was a prosperous barrel maker. He graduated from the Ecole polytechnique in 1871, and then made his reputation in the army as an engineer. Much of his career took place in France's colonial army in such remote places as Indochina and Madagascar. In West Africa, he added a reputation as a gallant commander to his name by leading a dangerous expedition to take Timbuktu in 1894. Joffre became a major general in 1905, and in 1911 the army's chief of staff, the designated commander in case of war. He presided over the formulation of Plan XVII, the war plan France was to use in 1914. The plan accepted the possibility of a limited German thrust through Belgium, but discounted its dangers. It looked to the decisive success of a French offensive eastward into Lorraine. When the conflict began, Joffre sent his armies eastward according to plan. They were repelled with heavy losses. Meanwhile, as the Schlieffen plan became reality, German forces threatened to sweep around Paris and trap the French army. Joffre, a heavy-set man with an unflappable demeanor, was a center of calm and confidence as France's forces fell backward. He held the Allied armies together even as the British commander. Sir John French, approached panic. Dozens of French generals lost their commands when he found them insufficiently steady or inadequately aggressive. In early September, after building a new army near Paris that could strike the Germans on their western flank, he ended the retreat, then fought and won the Battle of the Mame. In a long-standing dispute, some historians give General Joseph Gallieni, the commander of the Paris garrison, credit for the idea of a counteroffensive at this time and place. More award the major share of the laurels to Joffre, and all praise Joffre 's steadiness during the long retreat southward prior to the first week of September. So long as the French commander remained resolute in those momentous days, Germany's hopes for the success of the Schlieffen plan faded, then died. Even before the close of 1914, however, Joffre's well-deserved reputation for success at the Mame began to diminish. He now sent French forces forward in grim, futile offensives against the Germans entrenched in northeastern France. In 1915, hoping to break through, he renewed the carnage. Meanwhile, more cautious generals like Philippe Petain pointed out the slim chances for success. Since the French held most of the front, and Joffre informally played the part of the overall Allied commander in 1915, his efforts shaped British strategy as well. But his decisive imprint could be seen not only in France and Britain's offensive posture. He also helped to establish the western front as the center of all Allied efforts for the remainder of the war. Moreover, he initiated a pattern of planning for coordinated offensives on both the eastern and the western fronts that was followed in 1915 and 1916. By the close of 1915, Joffre was e?:using his failure to strike a decisive blow by claiming he was "nibbling" away at enemy strength. But it was clear to his critics in the French government that France was suffering intolerable losses, and losses that were less than those the Germans experienced. France's political leaders, notably Georges Clemenceau, were outraged by Joffre's insistence that civilians should not interfere in the conduct of the war. Joffre gave this practical force by virtually barring government leaders from visiting the front. Still, he stood as the hero of the Mame; he could not be ousted. In 1916 Joffre's star fell decisively. He was criticized for leaving Verdun without an adequate number of guns. The French commander had shifted its artillery elsewhere to help his 1915 offensives. But he showed the same calm in the face of German attacks that he had in 1914 in moving to hold Verdun. He considered it a symbol of French military power and resolve. The heavy losses at Verdun made Joffre's position precarious when combined with the failure of the joint Anglo-French summer offensive, which also produced a grim casualty list. The government turned to General Robert Nivelle, a hero of the successful offensive operations in the closing phases of the Verdun campaign. Nivelle promised the decisive victory that had eluded Joffre, and the older general was removed from his command in December. The government softened the blow for Joffre by awarding him the highest rank available in the French army, that of field marshal. But Joffre held no further command during the remainder of the war. He died in Paris on January 3, 1931.