Marshal Joffre

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 École 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 École 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, Épinal, 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 Poincaré 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

aëroplanes. 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

the spot."

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.