Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre

The French marshal Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre (1852-1931) was supreme commander of French armies in World War I until the end of 1916.

Born on Jan. 12, 1852, at Rivesaltes in the eastern Pyrenees, Joseph Joffre graduated from the college of Perpignan with high honors in mathematics and then entered the École Polytechnique in Paris. In the Franco-Prussian War he served in the army during the defense of Paris; afterward he resumed his education and in 1872 entered the engineering corps of the army. He worked on the fortifications of Paris and at the age of 24 was promoted to captain.

The death of his first wife led Joffre to request transfer to Indochina. He took part in the occupation of Formosa in 1885 and served for 3 years as chief of engineers at Hanoi. In 1892 he was sent to Senegal to build a railway, and in 1894 he led the successful attack on Timbuktu. Transferred to Madagascar in 1897, Joffre constructed the naval base of Diégo-Suarez and was subsequently made colonel.

Returning to France, Joffre won rapid promotion, becoming major general in 1905. In 1911, amidst the outcry after the second Moroccan crisis for unity of military command, Joffre was appointed to the combined functions of vice president of the Higher Council of War and chief of the general staff of the army. Under his auspices the Higher Council of War prepared Plan XVII, a campaign plan for possible war against Germany. Joffre believed that victory depended on preparedness and that national resources, brain power, and moral energy had to be oriented and organized in advance toward victory.

At the beginning of World War I, Joffre assumed command of all French armies, and on Dec. 2, 1915, this was reconfirmed by granting him the title of commander in chief. France hailed Joffre as a hero after his victory in the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, but disillusionment with the failures of 1915 encouraged attacks by Joffre's rivals and enemies. A dispute arose over the fortifications of Verdun between Joffre and the minister of war, Joseph Galliéni. When those defenses, still incomplete, failed to hold fully the German offensive in February 1916, a further confrontation between the two resulted in Galliéni's resignation. However, dissatisfaction with Joffre's management continued and grew, strengthened by the poor success of the Somme offensive and concern over the Germans' Verdun offensive. Therefore, in December 1916 Joffre was replaced by Gen. Robert Georges Nivelle.

Joffre remained in Paris as technical adviser to the government and was given the title of marshal of France. In December 1918 he was elected to the French Academy. Joffre spent his last years preparing his memoirs; he died on January 3, 1931.

Further Reading on Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre

Joffre's account of the Timbuktu expedition is My March to Timkuktu (1915). A contemporary evaluation of his career is in Charles Dawbarn, Joffre and His Army (1916). Jere C. King, Generals and Politicians: Conflict between France's High Command, Parliament and Government, 1914-1918 (1951), illuminates the political strife that eventually resulted in Joffre's loss of command.