The greatest leaders in history are often men who for the larger part
of their lives have been almost unknown. Poor, simple in their habits,
but loyal and true of heart, they have risen from obscurity to
positions they alone could fill, and then through their devotion and
achievement have become the heroes of the people.
Lincoln, the greatest example and inspiration to American hearts, was
in his youth su
h a simple and obscure person. The Pilgrim fathers, the
early pioneers in the West, the great inventors of the hundreds of
improvements in the world of business, travel, and communication, were
nearly all of them unknown for the greater part of their lives, but
were men of true hearts and of strong purposes.
Unattractive, ungainly in appearance, unpopular save among those who
knew him well, but with the strength of will and soul born of the
simple, true life he had lived, Lincoln rose step by step to seats of
power until he sat at length in the highest of all. By that calmness
and vision which belong to such great men, Lincoln saved the nation
from failure and corruption. He must have foreseen the great nation
into which the United States might grow, if only he could rescue it
from the terrible ravages of war and reunite the people with one
strong, common soul.
Marshal Joffre is holding the golden miniature Liberty Statue
presented to him when he visited New York City in 1917
Copyright by Underwood & Underwood, N.Y.]
We Americans, by thinking of such a leader as Lincoln, may more clearly
appreciate what it meant to France in this World War to follow on to
victory with such a leader as Joseph Jacques Joffre.
Marshal Joffre was born in 1852 and lived for years in Rivesaltes, a
little town near the boundary between France and Spain. His ancestors
for generations had been farmers, and his father was a cooper by trade.
The boy was a sweet-tempered, modest, intelligent, blue-eyed, and
blonde-haired youth. He suffered somewhat from his school-fellows, as
any boy does who is popular with his teachers. But he was industrious,
wide-awake, and interested in a great many things, mathematics probably
being the subject in which he excelled. Trained by thrifty peasant
parents, he acquired regular habits which were valuable to him all his
life long. Even in this World War, when great responsibility pressed
upon him, he rarely failed to retire by nine or ten at night and to
rise at five in the morning. Before six each morning, he was out for a
short, brisk walk or for a ride on his horse.
When he was only fifteen years old, he astonished his parents by
announcing his intention to try for entrance to the Ã‰cole Polytechnique
in Paris, a great training school for military officers. Such a plan
seemed, not only to his parents, but to his many friends, much too
ambitious for a barrel-maker's son. But he insisted on trying the
examination and passed fourteenth in a class of one hundred and
thirty-two. His sister, for whom Joffre always had a great affection,
declared that he would have secured a higher rank if he had not passed
such a poor examination in German, a language for which he evidently
had a strong dislike. Those who have seen his examination papers say
that they are models of neatness, clear thinking, and accuracy.
Because of his high standing, Joffre was made sergeant of his class at
the Ã‰cole Polytechnique. This honor, which made him responsible for the
order and behavior of his own classmates, was rather an embarrassing
one, for he was not of a domineering nature, and was besides the
youngest boy in the hall. He found great difficulty in exercising his
authority over these dozen or so lively youths, though he was destined
one day to be given command over more than three million men.
By hard work he made good progress in his studies. But he did not
finish his course, for in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out.
Joffre, but eighteen years of age, was made a sub-lieutenant in a Paris
fort. That terrible year left its impression upon him for life. He felt
the greatest agony at the loss of beautiful Alsace-Lorraine--a part of
his own beloved country, taken by the enemy. From that time he lived
with one hope--that he might some day be of service in setting right
that wrong, in getting back for France that which had been stolen from
her. He once said, "I have seen 1870. I have given my life utterly to
see that it did not happen again." Thus, it has been said: "The formula
for Joffre is easy to find. It is a number; it is a date; it is 1870."
What he saw at that time shaped his purposes for the future.
Joffre is not only a thinker, but a man of action. He thinks hard for a
time, and then feels compelled to put his thoughts into action. The
story is told of how Confucius, upon leaving a funeral service,
presented his horse to the chief mourner. When asked why he did so, he
replied, "I wept with that man and so I felt I ought to do something
for him." Joffre thought long and hard and then wanted to do
After the war of 1870, he went into the engineering corps of the army
and for fifteen years served well in building barracks and
fortifications. Then he asked to go to Indo-China where France was
waging a colonial war. He was commissioned a lieutenant, and at the end
of three years returned a captain, with the Legion of Honor.
He was made a member of the staff of administration of the engineering
corps, and while in this service it was said of him: "Joffre is good
at all jobs. He will be good for the big job some day."
In 1892 he went to Africa to build a railroad. While working at that,
news came that Colonel Bonnier and his party of Frenchmen had been
attacked and many of them massacred by the natives near Timbuctoo.
Joffre organized a rescuing expedition (which has ever since been held
up as a model), took possession of Timbuctoo, and subdued the tribes;
then went back and finished his railroad. When he returned to France
this time he was a colonel, having risen one degree in the Legion of
After three years he was sent to Madagascar, where he built such
excellent defenses that upon his return he was made head of the French
military engineering corps. He then had the task of preparing the forts
of France. He built the forts of Belfort, Ã‰pinal, Toul, and Verdun, all
of which victoriously withstood the German attacks in the World War.
By this time, Joffre was a general. He practiced at handling troops in
the field until he knew all the tactics in moving great bodies of men.
He became chief of such matters as transportation, armament, and
Yet all this time Joffre was almost entirely unknown among the French
people. Quiet, almost shy, a man of few words, he was not one to call
attention to himself. Only those who were close to him knew him and
his great ability. Late in life he had married a widow with two
beautiful daughters. He lived with them very quietly in Auteuil in the
suburbs of Paris. Here the great chief loved to gather his family about
the piano and enjoy their companionship and an evening of music. He
could often be seen mornings, walking with his two beloved daughters.
Always he was a kind, thoughtful, gentle, often silent man, and, being
silent, he had also the virtue of being a good listener. For he hated
empty words, though he talked long enough when he had something to say.
He spoke with the greatest simplicity, however, and was always very
gentle and courteous in his manners.
The officers of the staff of eleven men who directed the military
affairs of the country, of which staff Joffre was a member, valued and
esteemed him highly. It was from among the men of this staff that a
commander in chief would be chosen in case of war.
But when the time came in 1911 to reorganize the army and appoint a
commander in chief, the minds and hearts of the French people turned
toward General Pau, the one-armed hero of the Franco-Prussian War.
While they were eagerly waiting to applaud his promotion, they were
informed that General Joseph Joffre had accepted the appointment.
General Pau had refused the position, saying, "No patriotic Frenchman
has any right to accept this when such a man as Joffre is available."
Joffre had a great deal of opposition to face. Unpleasant comments were
made, and worse than all, France herself was filled with all sorts of
political and social evils.
Germany, as all France knew, was planning to dash across the border,
and that before very long. But Joffre determined that, should his
country be attacked from beyond the Rhine, it would be defended.
Joffre was now fifty-nine years old with his blonde hair and eyebrows
grown white. His large head, square face and jaw, his great and
powerful frame, suggested strength, vigor, and a marvelous ability for
leadership. His first act was to place General Pau, whom he recognized
as a very able man, in the next highest command.
Assisted by President PoincarÃ© and Millerand, Minister of War, he set
out to reform the army. There prevailed a system of spying, by which
officers were privately watched and reported for disloyalty upon the
least suspicion. Joffre destroyed this system entirely and announced
that all officers would be appointed purely on the basis of merit. He
dismissed several generals, some of them his own personal friends,
because they were incompetent. They were generals who were either too
old, or who could not act quickly and efficiently in the field, even
though they were good thinkers. This caused him some unhappy hours, but
he did it for France. He promoted men who successfully performed their
duties. He made excellent preparation in the new departments created by
modern science and inventions,--telephones, automobiles, and
aÃ«roplanes. Altogether he put system and order into everything, aroused
a soul in his army, and created a new spirit in France.
A year before the war came, Germany had 720,000 men ready to march into
France. Joffre, with remarkable skill, raised his army in numbers to
about 600,000. Even so they were greatly outnumbered, but Joffre knew
that all depended on their ability, for the first few weeks, to
withstand the expected onrush of German troops. So he organized them
carefully, and best of all, put into their hearts the belief that
"there is something which triumphs over all hesitations, which governs
and decides the impulses of a great and noble democracy like
France,--the will to live strong and free, and to remain mistress of
our destinies." This spirit in Joffre and in the other French leaders
made France powerful in those first fateful days. It was the same
spirit which Joffre later imparted to his men on the eve of the Battle
of the Marne, the spirit which made that battle result in victory for
France. As the men on that September evening gathered about their
officers and listened to the reading of Joffre's message, Joffre's
spirit itself took possession of every one of them.
"Advance," the order read, "and when you can no longer advance, hold
at all costs what you have gained. If you can no longer hold, die on
Joffre was careful not to make any decisions until he had thought the
question over deeply, but once made, his decisions were immediately
carried out. When he ordered a retreat, he knew the reason, and his men
trusted him and followed his orders implicitly. The people of France,
too, came to love and trust this great general of theirs.
When the German army, fairly on its way to Paris, suddenly met the
greatest defeat Germany had known since the days of Napoleon, the
villagers near Auteuil, where Joffre had his home, came and covered the
steps of his house with flowers. This was the first tribute of the
people to the man who had saved the nation, and it showed their
confidence in the future of the country as long as it should rest in
the hands of Joseph Jacques Joffre.
Thus, from the unknown man who in 1911 had been exalted to a great and
responsible position, Joffre quickly became known and loved by all the
people of France as "Our Joffre." He was later retired from active
service with the highest military rank, Marshal of France.