SON of a village cooper to Marshal of France — such was the record of Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre, who was born on January 12, 1852, at Rivesaltes on the eastern edge of the Pyrenees. A man from the people and of the people, plain in character as in origin, here was surely the ideal representative of the ‘war to save democracy,’and by him the capacity of democracy may fairly be judged.
It was a family tradition that the Joffres were originally Spanish, their name Gouffre, and that the greatgrandfather of the future Marshal had crossed the Pyrenees as a political exile. He was a merchant, but the business decayed, and Marshal Joffre’s father, as soon as he was old enough to work, took up the trade of a cooper. He remained a simple workman until his marriage, when he inherited a modest competence from his mother, which enabled him to become a master cooper. Joseph was one of eleven children, and was helped up the first rungs of the ladder by the system of State-aided education. Showing a leaning for mathematics and science while at the College of Perpignan, he was encouraged to try for the École Polytechnique, and, after eighteen months’ final preparation in Paris, passed into the Polytechnique at seventeen, fourteenth on a list of one hundred and thirty-two, although the youngest of his ‘promotion.’
This was in 1869, and the outbreak of the Franco-German War the next year interrupted his course. Like his comrades, Joffre was called to active service as a sous-lieutenant and took part in the siege of Paris — serving in one of the forts. At the close of that disastrous war he returned to finish his studies, but, passing out too low to have the option of a civil-service post, he took a commission in the Engineers.
That same year the youth who was destined to be the other great legendary figure of the World War entered the Engineers also — but in the army of France’s future ally. The parallel between Kitchener and Joffre was soon strengthened, for the loss of his wife led Joffre in 1885 to seek distraction in colonial service, where so many of the leading soldiers of France, as also of England, have done their military apprenticeship — a service, moreover, which is a forge of character and leaves also its peculiar stamp on the mind. His reputation already, among his comrades, was that of a reserved and silent man, one who, although a staunch comrade, was neither easy to approach nor easy to move. These tendencies the desert naturally developed.
His first service, however, was in Indo-China; he took part in the Formosa campaign, and later spent three years at Hanoi as chief engineer in organizing the defense of Upper Tonkin. General Mensier, who appreciated his value, brought him back to Paris in 1888 to a post in the directorate of engineer services. The following year he was promoted chef de bataillon in the railway regiment, and later became professor of fortification at Fontainebleau.
In 1892 he was sent out to West Africa, where he was entrusted with the task of building the railway from Kayes to Bafulabe. If the duty seemed prosaic, it was to prove the path to glory. For it was late in 1893 that Colonel Bonnier’s expedition set out to extend French influence to Timbuktu, and Joffre was taken from his railway work to command a supplementary column of one thousand men — two thirds of whom were carriers and followers. Passing up the left bank of the Niger, he joined Bonnier at Timbuktu. His account of this march, afterward published, has no literary or narrative power, but it at least shows infinite care to ensure the supplies of the column and its protection from Touareg raiders. But the five-hundred-mile march would hardly have won him fame but for the disaster which befell Bonnier, whose force was surprised and cut to pieces by the Touaregs. The remnant joined Joffre, who imperturbably decided to continue his march. Such calm disregard of their efforts seems to have nonplused the Touaregs, for he was allowed to reach Timbuktu without serious interference. Here he received orders for recall to his railway building, but disregarded them and, after making his garrison assaultproof, secured the submission of the whole territory. The disaster to Bonnier had caused a sensation in France, so that the news of the way in which Joffre had promptly retrieved it created the greater reaction, and he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and officer of the Legion of Honor.
Recalled to France in 1896 to be secretary of the Commission of Inventions, he was soon sent abroad again — to construct the defenses of DiegoSuarez, in Madagascar, the new French naval base in the Indian Ocean. Here he was under the command of Gallieni, and the contact thus established between the two men was to have a farreaching influence on the destiny of Joffre and of France. In 1900 Joffre was promoted general of brigade, and quitted Madagascar on his appointment to command the 19th Artillery Brigade at Vincennes, whence he moved to the Ministry of War as Director of Engineers. Promoted general of division in 1905, he remained at the Ministry of War for another yar, when he was given command of the 6th Infantry Division, and later of the 2nd Army Corps at Amiens.
In 1910, while holding this post, he was nominated to the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre, whose members are the official advisers of the Minister in peace and the higher commanders designate in case of war. Joffre’s prospective war appointment was that of head of the lines of communication, a post for which his previous career and technical knowledge clearly fitted him. Fate, however, intervened to cast him for a very different role, and one for which his qualifications outwardly seemed to be that he had none. He had come to fifty-eight years of age with hardly any experience in command of troops and no higher study of war. He was suddenly to be raised to chief of a general staff which had only one rival in its intensive — if not extensive — research into the conduct of large-scale operations of war. His equipment was the experience of a single little colonial expedition in early life and a technical knowledge of fortification and railway construction. If he had been able to bring the minds of this staff down out of the clouds, from their philosophical contemplation of the offensive spirit, to the solid groundwork of material conditions, the surprising experiment might have been justified. But in fact he proved merely a solid shield behind which subtler brains could direct French military policy on the path to a crevasse which they had not perceived — because they were too absorbed in military occultism to watch the ground over which their steps were taking them.
How did this astonishing appointment come about? Through a military revolt, none the less powerful because it was waged by tongues instead of arms. It found its leader and prophet in Colonel Grandmaison, chief of the Operations branch of the General Staff. In the existing plan of campaign in case of war against Germany the French Army was distributed in a strategic formation in depth, roughly diamondshaped, which could be manoeuvred against the enemy according to the line of invasion that he took. Its strategy was thus of an offensive-defensive nature, letting the enemy make the first move and then, through the elasticity of the French dispositions, concentrating a powerful mass of manœuvre for a counteroffensive against his advance. But to Colonel Grandmaison this plan was contrary to the French spirit and constituted ‘an almost complete atrophy of the idea of the offensive. ’ Instead of waiting for the enemy to disclose his hand, ‘it is the quickness with which we engage the enemy that guarantees us against surprise, and the power of the attack which secures us against the enemy’s manœuvres.’ Grandmaison summed up his theory by saying, ‘We must not recoil before this principle, of which only the form seems paradoxical: in the offensive, imprudence is the best of safeguards.’ The conclusion was that, whatever the rôle of a force, there was only one mode of action — attack, which meant a headlong assault.
This theory certainly simplified the rôle of the leader, for directly an enemy was sighted he had merely to give the order ‘Forward!’ As General Boucher has told us, if on manœuvres any officer did not thus charge like a bull with lowered head, he was thought to be lacking in ‘nerve.’ The very simplicity of this theory combined with its appeal to the French temperament — an implicit tribute to the irresistible spirit of Frenchmen — to capture the imagination of the army. In the young who would have to stake their own fives the folly was at least tempered with a certain superb audacity, but in generals responsible for others’ lives it was wholly culpable, and the only excuse is that they were afraid of being thought to be failing in nerve through increasing years.
General Michel, Vice President of the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre, and therefore commander in chief designate, almost alone stood out against the tide, but under the existing system his prospective office did not give him power to control the doctrine of the General Staff. This dissociation of those who formed the doctrine — and the plan — in peace from the man who would have to carry it out in war caused a military crisis. As Michel was in a minority of one, the ‘Young Turks’ carried the day, for, dominating the General Staff, they were firmly entrenched in the Ministry of War, where the political chief was a bird of passage, and the vice president of the council an outsider.
Michel was relieved of his post. Gallieni, who had opposed his views, had the good taste to decline, on the score of age and an experience mainly colonial, the succession to the man he had helped to displace. Pau was offered the post, but stipulated that he must be given powers which the Government was unwilling to grant, more especially as his clerical opinions made him suspect to politicians ever haunted by the bogey of a military coup d’état. Gallieni then proposed Joffre; the new Minister accepted the suggestion and, addressing an audience of journalists, declared: ‘ With General Joffre ... I shall strive to develop the doctrine of the offensive with which our army is beginning to be impregnated.’ Joffre was known to be such a good Republican and so devoid of political attachments that the Government did not hesitate to give him the combined functions of Vice President of the Conseil Supérieur and Chief of the General Staff, a duality which endowed him with control in peace and command in war. Heavy in body and intellect, he was obviously no Cassius. (Strange how stoutness inspires the politician with trust.) Screened by his massive frame, and under cover of his all-powerful authority, the ‘Young Turks’ radically refashioned the official doctrine.
‘The French Army, returning to its traditions, no longer knows any other law than the offensive. . . . All attacks are to be pushed to the extreme with the firm resolution to charge the enemy with the bayonet, in order to destroy him. . . . This result can only be obtained at the price of bloody sacrifices. Any other conception ought to be rejected as contrary to the very nature of war.’ To this end the training reverted to the Frederician, aiming at a discipline of the muscles, not of the intelligence, sacrificing initiative, in order, by an incessant repetition, ‘to develop in the soldier the reflexes of obedience.’ The successive tactical regulations issued during the forty-odd years of peace which separated the wars of 1870 and 1914 shed a curious light on the way the memory of pain fades — and still more of its cause. Thus it came about that the first regulations of 1875 were nearest to the reality of 1914, whereas the last of the series was framed for a battlefield on which there were no bullets.
But the delusive basis of the new tactical doctrine was solid in comparison with the foundations on which the new plan of campaign was built. This, the notorious Plan XVII, was based on a double miscalculation. The initial strength of the German Army was estimated at not more than forty to forty-two infantry divisions — whereas there were seventy-two—and, although the possibility of a German move through Belgium was recognized, the wideness of its sweep was utterly misjudged. The Germans were expected complaisantly to take the difficult route through the Ardennes in order that the French might conveniently smite their communications! Based on the idea of an immediate and general offensive, Plan XVII ordained a main thrust by the First and Second Armies toward the Saar into Lorraine. On their left were the Third Army, opposite Metz, and the Fifth Army, facing the Ardennes, which were either to take up the offensive between Metz and Thionville or — if the Germans came through Luxemburg and Belgium — to strike northeast through the Ardennes at their flank. The Fourth Army was held temporarily in reserve near the centre, ready to combine with either the right or the left thrust, and two groups of reserve divisions were disposed in rear of each flank — relegation to such a passive rôle expressing French opinion on the capacity of reserve formations.
General Michel had partly wrought his own downfall, because, foreseeing the wide German sweep through Belgium, he had proposed to swell his forces by incorporating the reserve divisions in the active army. Such an idea was anathema to the ‘Young Turks,’ who held that their cherished offensif à outrance could only be carried out by rigidly disciplined troops whose reflexes would carry them forward in spite of bullets. Thus the way was paved for the great, and almost decisive, opening surprise of the war — for the Germans, in contrast, had not hesitated to build up their attacking mass from an amalgam of active and reserve divisions, and thus obtained a superiority of three to two at the outset. And thus the pit was dug for the downfall of Plan XVII, and almost of France, by the hands of Joffre, guided by the minds of his entourage.
The phrase, if hard, is justified not only by unofficial evidence but by the words of Joffre himself before the court of inquiry which in 1919 investigated the causes of the loss in 1914 of the Briey iron fields — whence came practically all the iron-ore supplies of France. It is, incidentally, a further side light on the narrow outlook of the French command that their plan had not taken into account the defense of their vital economic sources.
No more pitiable disclosure of puppetry has ever been made than in Joffre’s evidence. When asked to produce the plan of campaign, he first replied that he had no remembrance of it, and fatuously said: ‘A plan of operations is an idea which one has in one’s head, but which one does not commit to paper.’ This was so absurd, as well as contrary to the evidence of all the other generals, that the President of the Court expressed surprise that there were no traces of a plan in writing. Joffre replied, ‘There may be some, but it was not I who drew them up.’ He became more and more confused under examination and ultimately said, ‘You ask me a mass of things which I cannot answer; I know nothing about them.’
His slow wits, combined with his inexperience of higher war study, made him a modern Delphic oracle, the mere mouthpiece of a military priesthood among whom Grandmaison was the leading intellectual influence and Castelnau the acting high priest. On Joffre’s appointment, his ignorance of European warfare had been officially recognized by the nomination of General Castelnau as his assistant, and chief of staff in case of war, and although this was subsequently changed to command of an army, owing to political distrust of Castelnau’s clerical sympathies, he remained the chief influence on Joffre until the war came. As it was Pau who discounted the value of reservists, so it was Castelnau who underrated the danger of a German advance through Belgium and neglected the fortress defenses, saying, ‘These strong places cramp me and take too many men. I don’t want them.’
When the war came, a still more astonishing revelation of Joffre’s surrender of his military conscience occurred at the conference of army commanders on August 3, 1914. General Dubail, commanding the First Army, declared that he would need strong reënforcements for his 7th Corps which was to begin the offensive in Alsace. Joffre merely replied: ‘This plan is your plan; it is not mine.’ Dubail, thinking he had not been understood, began to explain his needs, whereupon Joffre, his face beaming with his usual large smile, repeated his words. The conference broke up without further light, and it was little wonder that some of the army commanders were uneasy, asking each other if there was any idea behind the massive forehead of their commander in chief.
Nor did enlightenment as to their own misconceptions come quickly either to Joffre or to his staff. On August 6, when the German guns were battering at the outer defenses of Liége, Joffre informed the French armies that ‘it may be concluded that the Germans are executing a plan of concentration, drawn up two years ago, of which we have knowledge.’ The reference was to a document found by a French officer, when traveling in Germany the year before, in the lavatory of his railway carriage!
Thus, in blind ignorance and supreme disdain for the enemy’s moves, the main French advance into Lorraine began on August 14 — and on August 19 and 20 was broken in the battle of Morhange-Saarburg, where the French discovered to their surprise that the material could subdue the moral, and that in their enthusiasm for the offensive they had blinded themselves to the defensive power of modern weapons, a condition which was to throw out of balance the whole mechanism of orthodox warfare.
Faced with this repulse and the now unmistakable news of a German advance through Belgium, Joffre and Company, Limited, were forced to readjust their plan, which had, it is true, partially allowed for such an alternative. But as the plan only recognized the hypothesis of a German advance east of Liége and the Meuse, and not the wider arc the Germans were actually traversing, the French command were more than ready to believe that the enemy was merely ‘conforming to plan’ — the French plan.
Grasping once again at phantoms, Joffre and Company embraced this idea so fervently that they transformed their counter into an imaginary coup cle grâce. Their Third and Fourth Armies were to strike northeast through the Ardennes against the rear flank of the Germans advancing through Belgium. The left-wing (Fifth) Army, under Lanrezac, was moved farther to the northwest into the angle formed by the Sambre and Meuse between Givet and Charleroi. With the British Expeditionary Force coming up on its left, it was to deal with the enemy’s forces west of the Meuse, and then to converge upon the supposed German main forces in conjunction with the ‘right, fist’ attack through the Ardennes. Here was another pretty picture— of the Allied pincers closing on the unconscious Germans! Curiously, the Germans had the same idea of a pincerlike manœuvre, with rôles reversed, and with better reason.
The worst flaw in the French plan was that the Germans had deployed half as many troops again as they had been credited with, and for a vaster enveloping movement. The French, pushing blindly into the difficult Ardennes country against a German centre supposedly denuded of troops, blundered head on into the advancing German Third and Fourth Armies, and were heavily thrown back in encounter battles around Virton-Neufchâteau. Fortunately the Germans were also too vague as to the situation to exploit their opportunity.
But to the northwest the French Fifth Army and the British had, under Joffre’s orders, put their heads almost into the German noose. The masses of the German First and Second Armies were closing in on them from the north, and the Third Army from the east. Lanrezac, the French Fifth Army commander, alone had an inkling of the hidden menace.
All along he had suspected the wideness of the German wheel, and it was through his insistence that his army had been allowed to move so far north. It was due to his caution in hesitating to advance across the Sambre, to the arrival of the British on his flank unknown to the German Intelligence, and to the premature attack of the German Second Army, that the Allied forces fell back in time and escaped from the trap.
At last Joffre realized the truth, and the utter collapse of Plan XVII. An Olympian calm was his greatest asset, and with a cool resolution, admirable, if astonishing, in face of the disaster to which he had led France, he sanctioned a retirement which had already begun, while he and his staff were evolving a new plan out of the wreckage. He decided to swing back his centre and left, with Verdun as the pivot, while forming a fresh Sixth Army to enable the retiring armies to return to the offensive.
His optimism might have been again misplaced but for German mistakes. The first was the folly of Moltke, chief of the German General Staff, in detaching seven divisions to invest Maubeuge and Givet, and to watch Antwerp, instead of using Landwehr and Ersatz troops as in the original plan. This had been drawn up as far back as 1905 by Moltke’s great predecessor, Graf von Schlieffen, who had decided on the route through Belgium, and whose governing idea had been to mass overwhelming strength in the wide-marching right wing. lie had even welcomed the likelihood of a French advance into Lorraine, and made his left wing there purposely wnak, for thus the action would be like a revolving door — the more heavily the French pressed on the eastern side in Lorraine, the more effectively wroidd the western side in Belgium swung round and hit their exposed rear. Schlieffen’s dying words were: ‘It must come to a fight, only make the right wing strong.’
A more ominous infringement of his plan was when, on August 25, 1914, Moltke decided to send four divisions to check the Russian advance in East Prussia. All these were taken from the right wing, and the excuse afterward given for this violation of the principle of concentration was that the German command thought that the decisive victory had already been won!
Further, the German headquarters lost touch with the advancing armies and the movements of these became disjointed. The British stand at Le Cateau and Lanrezac’s riposte at Guise were also factors in checking the German enveloping wing, and each had still greater indirect effects. For Le Gateau apparently convinced the German First Army Commander, von Kluck, that the British Army could be wiped from the slate, and Guise led von Bülow (Second Army) to call on von Kluck for help, whereupon the First Army wheeled inward, thinking to roll up the French left. The idea of a new Sedan was an obsession with the Germans, and led them to pluck the fruit before it was ripe. This premature wheel before Paris had been reached was an abandonment of the Schlieffen plan, and exposed the German right to a counterenvelopment.
While the French command clung too long to preconceived ideas, the Germans could not cling long enough to any idea. Almost daily during the advance they were changing their minds, — and the original plan, — until on September 4 they definitely abandoned it in favor of a concentric thrust on both sides of Verdun, which was intended to squeeze the French armies as in a pair of pincers. One further factor must be mentioned, perhaps the most significant of all: the Germans had advanced so rapidly that their supplies failed to keep pace. Thus, in sum, so much grit had worked into the German machine that a slight jar would suffice to cause its breakdown. This was delivered in the Battle of the Marne.
The reputation of Joffre is so linked with the drama of 1914 that it is essential to paint his figure against a background of events, but we have here reached a point at which we can break off for a brief sketch of his personal action during the great retreat.
It is beyond doubt that ho did much by his moral — rather than by his mental — influence to repair the shattered fighting power of France. This influence was applied, not by any soulstirring appeal, but by simply visiting the headquarters of his sorely tried subordinate commanders and sitting there, saying little, but conveying such an impression of ponderous and benign calm that they felt that affairs must be favorable elsewhere, however serious was their own situation. By similar intervention he sought to pour oil on the troubled relations between Sir John French and Lanrezac, and to secure some coöperation between their two armies, on the Allied flank, which were each ‘ganging their own gait.’
More disputable is Joffre’s action in dismissing several score of generals, including Lanrezac, during the retreat, which was mainly due to the blind folly of Joffre himself and his staff.
It was bitterly said later that it was fatal to offer suggestions to Joffre and to prove right when he was wrong; that Lanrezac was ‘sacked’ because he divined the German plan; Ruffey (Third Army) because he had proclaimed the vital need for heavy artillery; Sarrail — Ruffey’s successor — because he proposed sending troops by sea to Dunkirk to strike the enemy’s open flank. Although Joffre’s known jealousy of possible rivals lends weight to this charge, it is not the whole truth.
Lanrezac’s is the most famous case. For long recognized as the ablest manœuvre general in the French Army, he, like Gallieni, had distrusted the new Plan XVII, but his observations had no effect. As soon as Liége was attacked he urged that his army should be moved farther to the northwest as a precaution, but was curtly answered ‘that the responsibility of stopping a turning movement [by the Germans] did not rest with him.’ The rebuff did not quiet him, and day after day, as the news of German movements became clearer, he pressed his point. At last, on August 15, he received permission, but still with the promise that he must hold himself ready to march by the Ardennes — to the northeast! But for his insight and insistence the German right wing must have swept almost unopposed to victory; although Lanrezac had moved seventy-five miles farther west he was still overlapped by the German right wing. And in face of emphatic orders Lanrezac, by his refusal to cross the Sambre and attack, alone prevented his army from putting its head into the German noose. The fact that he proved right was not likely to lessen the irritation of the higher command at his importunity and disregard of their orders. All the public evidence strengthens the view that the man who unquestionably saved France was dismissed, at the end of the retreat, for his presumption.
But the intimate evidence of members of his staff raises a doubt. They say that this man, so acute of vision and intelligence during the concentration period, became hesitating and flustered when the German forces were actually met, and lost his nerve as the pressure increased. Did his subaltern impressions of the année terrible of 1870 rise again to flood his mind? It may be significant that he was born in the West Indian island of Guadeloupe. It is at least certain that he only counterattacked at Guise — a tactical victory which had a great indirect effect—under pressure from Joffre. Moreover, his friction with Sir John French made impossible that cooperation between the Allies which was vitally important. At their first meeting at Rethel, Lanrezac acquired such a contemptuous opinion of French’s military knowledge that he never troubled to return the visit and made no effort to maintain liaison — making his plans as if no British troops existed on his flank.
Joffre attempted to reconcile French and Lanrezac, but in vain, and his final step in replacing Lanrezac by Franchet d’Espérey may have been justified by the need for better coöperation and unflinching determination in the forthcoming counteroffensive. It is just also to say that Joffre had a long-standing admiration and personal regard for Lanrezac, and his reluctance during several days to take the actual step of dismissing Lanrezac is supporting evidence that his action was not merely pique.
The curtain was now to rise on the immortal drama of the Marne, that battle so indecisive in its fighting, yet one which by its mere frustration of the German plan changed the whole face and issue of the war. On the morrow of the battle the German armies, although undefeated, had lost the war.
It was natural that an event which caused such a miraculous change in the course of the struggle should be explained by appropriate stories, but the documented records of the two sides now enable us to disentangle fact from fiction. The popular legend was that, following upon a check on the frontier due to mere weight of adverse numbers, Joffre conducted a masterly strategic retreat — reculer pour mieux sauter — and then, after drawing the Germans on to the position intended, launched his premeditated counterstroke at the chosen moment. His order of August 25 was quoted to buttress this legend. It ran thus: —
‘As it has not proved possible to carry out the offensive manœuvre which had been planned, the object of the future operations will be to reconstitute on our left flank with the Fourth and Fifth Armies, the British Army, and new forces drawn from our right, a mass capable of resuming the offensive while the other armies hold the enemy for the time necessary. A new group will be formed in the neighborhood of Amiens. ...'
This order merely discloses a fresh burst of ill-timed optimism, for it was issued at the outset of the forced retreat, before Le Cateau and other rear-guard battles had revealed the full degree of the German pressure. Official orders are commonly worded with a vagueness which will cover the issuing authority in case of failure, but this one spoiled its general airiness by the incautious reference to a concrete locality — Amiens. With the retreat gathering momentum like a rolling stone, this suggested line of resistance was soon passed and the mirage of a French offensive vanished like its predecessors. A week later, on September 1, Joffre issued orders which, while still suggesting airily an ultimate counteroffensive, revealed a different outlook in the concrete details, by directing a continuance of the retreat southward and indicating the line of the rivers Seine, Aube, and Ornain as the possible limit of the retirement. Such a line, well to the southeast of Paris, not only kept the capital exposed but was far from a good jumping-off place for any counterstroke.
But in order to know how remote in Joffre’s mind was the idea of an early return to the offensive we need not rely merely on these orders. There is ample indirect evidence. For on August 30 Joffre — yielding to the pressure of a Government alarmed at seeing him abandon Paris, by his direction of retreat — detached Maunoury’s Sixth Army to reënforce the garrison of the capital. This was the newly formed army that Joffre had assembled near Amiens, and parting with it meant, obviously, parting with any early hope of a counterstroke. For, once his retreat had taken him south of the Marne, he would be too far away for the garrison of Paris to coöperate, even if its independent commander were willing. And on September 2 Joffre rejected the suggestion of Sir John French that the Allies should make a stand on the Marne, saying: ‘I do not believe it is possible to consider a general action on the Marne. But I hold that the coöperation of the English Army in the defense of Paris is the only course that can yield an advantageous result.’
When Joffre’s supporters say that the idea of a counteroffensive was at the back of his mind, the historian can agree! The opportunity was perceived not by Joffre but by Gallieni, the newly appointed governor of Paris, under whose orders the Sixth Army had come. On September 3 Gallieni realized the meaning of von Kluck’s wheel inward, realized that the flank of the German advance had thus exposed itself to a stroke from Paris, and with some difficulty won Joffre’s agreement to such action. Such was Gallieni’s initiative and foresight that before gaining Joffre’s sanction he had begun to reënforce Maunoury and had ordered the latter to make his reconnaissances and dispositions for the advance.
Even then Joffre was slow to comprehend and nearly marred Gallieni’s conception by directing that Maunoury’s attack with the Sixth Army should be made south of the Marne, which would have lost the essential value of Maunoury’s position on the German flank — for an enveloping manœuvre. Fresh arguments on the telephone led Joffre, on the evening of September 4, to adopt Gallieni’s scheme and, in combination with the flank thrust, to order the whole left wing to turn about and return to a general offensive from Verdun westward, fixing the date for September 6. But the delay robbed the attack of immediate British support; despite Gallieni’s direct appeal Sir John French decided to continue his retreat for want of contrary orders from Joffre, and on September 5 he marched southward again. When he retraced his steps on September 6, it was at so leisurely a pace that von Kluck was able to draw off two army corps from this sector to reënforce his menaced flank and check Maunoury’s enveloping move. On the other hand, this lateral ‘stretching’ created the gap in the German front which enabled the French Fifth Army (now under Franchet d’Espérey) to drive in the bared flank of von Kluck’s neighbor, von Bülow, and it was this danger, combined with the feared entry of the British into the gap, which caused the German order to retreat. The onrush of the ‘irresistible’ German war machine, already breaking down, was finally dislocated by this jar.
The most marvelous feature of the ‘miracle of the Marne’ was its evidence of human frailty — for a month the rival commands had been outbidding each other in folly. The popular version, fostered energetically by Joffre’s staff, reveals also how true to human nature is the proverb, ‘All’s well that ends well.’
Nevertheless, in justice to Gallieni’s memory, it is right to emphasize other features. As he had inspired the counterstroke, so during the crucial days Gallieni rushed troops by every possible means — including the Paris taxicab— to back up Maunoury. Joffre, in contrast, not merely failed to mass troops on the decisive wing, — rather he held them back in face of Gallieni’s importunity, — but on the morning of September 8 removed Maunoury’s army from Gallieni’s control and so checked both the flow of supports from the Paris garrison and Gallieni’s efforts to exploit the opportunity of a great victory. And if Joffre had to thank Gallieni for forcing his hand, he had to thank Sarrail, commanding the Third Army, for staying his hand — by holding on to the vital pivot of Verdun in spite of Joffre’s earlier instructions for retreat.
Thus, in sum, the Battle of the Marne was a strategic but not a tactical victory; and, given a respite from the initial pressure, the Germans recovered from their momentary confusion, standing firmly on the line of the Aisne eastward.
Here was reëmphasized the preponderant power of modern defense over attack, primitive as were the trench lines compared with later years. Then followed, as the only alternative, the successive attempts of either side to envelop the other’s western flank, a phase known as the ‘race to the sea.’ The French, however, were always ‘ twenty-four hours and an army corps behind the Germans.’ When the race neared its limit — the Channel coast — Joffre was wise enough to send Foch as his deputy to coördinate the Allied action. With the ultimate, but perilously narrow, success of the Allied resistance at Ypres and the Yser, trench warfare settled in and the whole front from the Swiss frontier to the sea was locked rigidly henceforth. Joffre’s first attempt to unlock this barrier was expressed in the historic phrase, ‘Je les grignote (I am nibbling them).’ If it was certainly no more effective than a mouse nibbling at a steel safe, the teeth it wore down were the fighting forces of France.
When this attrition-of-oneself strategy became unpopular, a variant was tried in the abortive offensives of May and September 1915 in Artois and Champagne. But it was idle to expect from Joffre a quick perception of the new conditions of warfare, far less any lead or ingenuity in divining a solution. When Colonel Carence, head of the Intelligence at the Ministry of War, came to him early in 1915 to plead the obvious need for heavy artillery, Joffre gave him a patient hearing, making no attempt to stem his flow of arguments. At first encouraged, Carence’s tide of argument finally ebbed from sheer lack of response, whereupon Joffre gave him a friendly pat of dismissal and the enigmatic comment, ‘You always loved your guns; that’s excellent.’
I am reminded, too, of the anecdote told me by a French officer, later distinguished, who some years before the war was appointed to the ‘English’ section of the Intelligence at the Ministry of War. Going to pay his respects to Joffre, he was disconcerted by the great man’s prolonged silence. At last, after a series of grunts, Joffre remarked, ‘You are in the English section?’ Further silence; then, ‘Ah, well. They used to be our enemies; now they are our good friends. Goodbye.’ What an oracle!
Here we may turn to study the man in his new surroundings — as created by the trench-warfare stalemate. From his headquarters — the famous G. Q. G. — near the Chantilly race course, Joffre kept one eye on the front and the other — as well as both ears — on Paris, for in a man so devoid of political interests his interest in politicians was as remarkable as his skill in dealing with them, ever alive to incipient intrigues and quick to counteract them through his faithful entourage and press supporters. And to the politicians his personal reticence and sparingness of phrase — here his parsimony was an asset — formed a protective screen which baffled their subtler wits and tongues. He had, too, the political gift of compromise to smooth over a rough period, and several times conciliated opposition by the prompt transfer of an assistant to a distant sphere of activity. Let it be said that the sacrificed ones usually took their demission in good part — for the good of the ‘Company.’ Similarly he made a concession to political demands in 1915 by giving countenance to the Saloniki expedition, which he had formerly opposed. Although this support was superficial rather than genuine, his change of attitude weakened the military opposition to this move, and disconcerted the British General Staff, who were left to play a lone hand in opposition.
If his long tenure of command in face of widespread dissatisfaction was partly due to this native shrewdness, it was due still more to the world-wide prestige won him in popular opinion by the ‘miracle of the Marne.’ For if his attendant ‘priesthood’ had done little to produce the miracle, they were as prompt as their kind to exploit the opportunity and to foster the legend. To the Villa Poiret, the shrine of the ‘Savior of France,’ poured a ceaseless stream of adulation and presents from faithful worshipers in all parts of the world. Pierrefeu, writer of the official communiqué, has opened to us a peephole into the inner sanctuary, disclosing delightful aspects which the contemporary historian is able to confirm and supplement from other members of Joffre’s entourage. How the placid Olympian ‘sniffed appreciatively at this incense,’ shutting himself up to peruse the letters and sample the presents, signing punctiliously the replies in acknowledgment. He was the better able to spare the time because, like a model commander, he left all military details to his staff and only gave the big decisions. His office table was unencumbered by notes or papers, his walls bare of maps — except when, on the visit of a photographer, a supply was hastily brought to festoon the walls and provide a background appropriate to the popular conception.
His hold on the public was enhanced because, although remote, he was yet so akin — the very type of the bon bourgeois. His universal nickname, ‘Papa Joffre,’ was not only witness to his hold on the affection of the people, but symbolical of the picture he presented in the popular imagination. Simple in manner and tastes, he kept a strict check on his household accounts, but relished his meals with all the gusto of a true French rentier, and valued his sleep. His staff learned that it was better to sacrifice duty than to be late for meals, and only in emergency would they dare to rap on his locked door after he had retired to bed — at ten o’clock.
Yet, laughable as these traits may seem in a neo-Napoleonic figure, they had the value of making him a calming influence among a race who tend to be excitable — and calm in emergency, even if it springs from insensibility, is a priceless asset. Moreover, if he was swayed by the nimbler brains of his staff officers in the technique and theory of warfare, he was indisputably master, as dominant as he was obstinate, not only in the domestic sphere but on broad questions of policy. ‘Thrice-armed is he who is forewarned,’ and Joffre, adept at frustrating political threats, was quickly suspicious of rival stars in the military firmament and jealous for his authority.
The Battle of the Marne had barely been launched before he had skillfully checked the opportunity and potential ambitions of Gallieni, the quondam superior to whom he owed his present chieftainship. And he was quick to monopolize the public glory of that victory. But he overreached himself when a year later he sought to settle the growing controversy by a ‘citation’ of Gallieni’s services which was at least a perfect example of faint praise: ‘Placed on September 2 under the orders of the commander in chief, he gave proof of the highest military qualities . . . in facilitating, by all the means in his power, the fulfillment of the mission assigned by the commander in chief to these mobile forces.’ Little wonder that this minimized recognition disgusted those who knew the truth.
This trait, moreover, paved the way for disaster — at Verdun in the spring of 1916. Like Paris, the frontier fortresses were not under the command of the chief of the field army, but instead their governors were directly responsible to the Ministry. During 1915 Joffre, who since the rapid fall of Liége and Namur had no trust in his old love, persuaded the Government to declass Verdun as a fortress, and, having got control, from then on drained it of its men and armaments. This removal of guns continued until a month before the German onslaught, and the casemates were simply used as shelters for troops. It was a grim jest of fate that the forts thus discarded which fell into German hands — Douaumont and Vaux — should have withstood over six months’ intense bombardment from the French, the underground cover intact and not one field-gun turret destroyed.
General Coutanceau, the governor, had not shared this hasty assumption that permanent forts were valueless, but when, before a Parliamentary delegation, he dared to express his opinion, in contradiction to the Army Group Commander, General Dubail, he was not only rebuked but dismissed. Unhappily also the alternative defenses were neglected. Instead of an allround defense, a single trench position was dug, and in rear only one subsidiary trench line was usable. This continuous front the new commander had not enough men or material to garrison, or to keep in an efficient state of repair.
Rumors percolated through to Paris, and in December Gallieni, now Minister of War, wrote to Joffre asking for information as to the defenses, and an assurance that they would be developed. Joffre’s reply might well be framed and hung in all the bureaus of officialdom the world over — to serve as ‘the mummy at the feast.’ Rebutting the suggestions, he continued, ‘ But since these apprehensions are founded upon reports which allege defects in the state of the defenses, I request you to . . . specify their authors. I cannot be party to soldiers placed under my command bringing before the Government, by channels other than the hierarchic channel, complaints or protests concerning the execution of my orders. ... It is calculated to disturb profoundly the spirit of discipline in the Army.’ The Germans were soon to dispel his doctrine of infallibility, as the mutinies of 1917 were to show that the incapacity of generals and their waste of human life are the most potent factor in disturbing the spirit of discipline.
If the claim of Joffre and his supporters to the credit of the Marne, on the ground that he bore the responsibility, be considered just, by that same standard he is convicted for Verdun. Actually his Intelligence branch gave early news of the German preparations, but the Operations branch was so full of its own offensive schemes that the warning fell on deaf ears. Only at t he last moment were adequate reënforcements sent. As the German blow had been intended for February 13, Verdun was only saved by ‘General Rain,’ who held up the attack until the twenty-first. Even when the news of the crumbling front came through, Joffre was not moved, much less disturbed. At last, on the evening of February 24, General Castelnau — who, since his appointment as Chief of the French General Staff, had been sidetracked so far as possible by Joffre’s ever zealous, and jealous, staff—took the initiative and, going direct to Joffre, gained his permission to send Pétain’s Second Army to take over the defense of Verdun.
Still more alarming reports came in later, and at eleven o’clock Castelnau, with greater daring, insisted on the orderly officer disturbing Joffre’s slumbers. Before the great man returned to his bed, he gave Castelnau authority to go to Verdun with ‘full powers.’ And in the months-long struggle which followed, Joffre and Verdun became twin symbols for patient and heroic endurance. But the French defenders lost three men to the attacking Germans’ two, and the drain on the French reserves almost bankrupted their share in the long-planned Allied offensive on the Somme. Although the French fared better than their allies, the bitter cost for small gain of that long-drawn-out attrition battle sealed Joffre’s fate, for he belonged to a nation which because of its more widespread military knowledge was more militarily critical. His star had deserted him; this time he did not acquire borrowed laurels from the brilliant autumn ripostes of his subordinates at Verdun, and the failure to safeguard it originally was now fully known. He had been retained in power through the summer mainly as a symbol to sustain the public confidence. As quick as ever to perceive the signs of the rising storm, Joffre sought to propitiate the angry gods by throwing overboard Foch, who had been in direct charge of the French action on the Somme, and this led to a tempestuous scene between the two. Although the sacrifice was of no avail ultimately, the Government at first thought of securing Joffre’s demotion by the conventional method of promotion. They gave Joffre the new-coined title of Commander in Chief of the French Forces, whose duty would be to act as technical adviser to the Government in the general conduct of the war. This enabled them to bring Nivelle — in public eyes the hero of the Verdun counterstrokes — to G. Q. G. to take charge of the western front as ‘Commander in Chief of the Armies of the North and Northeast.’ But a few days later they changed their minds again, or, perhaps relieved by the absence of public outcry at the first step, gained confidence to make a bolder change. On December 27, 1916, Joffre was definitely retired and in compensation and recognition promoted to Marshal — the first Marshal of the Third French Republic.
Pierrefeu has exquisitely painted the final scene — how Joffre summoned his staff to say farewell, and asked who would accompany him as the three orderly officers to which his new rank entitled him. Only one, the much abused but ever faithful Commandant Thouzelier, raised his hand. Joffre made no complaint, but, when all had gone, turned to the loyal one and, giving him a friendly pat, uttered his favorite exclamation: ‘Poor old Joffre! Damned old Thouzelier!’
And by a paradox of fate the passing of Joffre, combined with the subtle manœuvre of Ludendorff, was to throw out of gear the Allied plan of 1917, leading France to fresh disaster, worse than any of those, save the first, to which his régime had contributed. In retirement, too, his help to the Allied cause was greater than in his activity, for his mission to the United States in 1917 was a triumphal procession, and as a symbol of France unconquerable he inspired Americans both with enthusiasm for the war and with a sympathy for France which for long counteracted the sources of friction.
Joffre’s was not a character which lends itself to an extensive summingup, for his virtues were primarily passive. His passivity, like his silence, was carried to such a pitch that he was one of the greatest of human enigmas. This was an inestimable asset in a world where the myth of the ‘strong silent man’ had not yet been exploded. Reluctant to believe that a man in so great a position could be as simple as he appeared, that his superhuman calm could come from insensibility, his silence from ignorance, even the Allied leaders who met him at close quarters felt there must be unplumbed depths in the apparent shallows.
That he had real strength, or at least solidity of character, is unquestionable, as is also his possession of a shrewd if limited common sense and an instinctive understanding of human nature. And because in a time of emergency outward impressions are more important than reality, Joffre’s stolid calm and obstinate determination had an influence which offset many of his grave blunders. If his brain was as solid as his appearance, lacking in flexibility and imagination, his external effect on the minds of others enabled him to become the rock on which France hold and Germany foundered. Only as the documentary records come to light and the need for moral prophylactics is replaced by the need for reality, so that future generations may profit by the experience of the last, can the historian come to a more penetrating verdict. Joffre was not a general, but a national nerve sedative.