Joseph Joffre was France’s most senior officers in World War One. It was Joffre who replaced the popular Pétain during the Battle of Verdun in 1916.
While in North Africa, he won distinction in 1894 when, as a lieutenant-colonel, he led a column of men across the North African desert to capture Timbuktu. Between 1904 and 1906, he furthered his career by showing exceptional organisational skills as Director of Engineers. In 1911, he was appointed Chief of the General Staff which meant that he was the senior officer in the French Army when World War One broke out in August 1914. By this time, Joffre had gained a reputation as a man who favoured an offensive rather than a defensive strategy. He had weeded out senior officers in the French Army who he believed were defensively minded and replaced them with like-minded men.Joffre was born in 1852 at Rivesaltes in the eastern Pyrenees. He was the son of a cooper and entered the army in 1870 aged eighteen. While still a cadet he showed his leadership potential by taking command of a battery during the Paris Uprising. After this event, he embarked on a number of overseas placements. Joffre served in Indo-China and in North Africa.
Joffre was given the credit for stopping the German advance on Paris and in stemming this advance at the Battle of the Marne. However, he also became associated with the stalemate of trench warfare that occurred on the Western Front and the failure of anybody in a position of leadership to come up with a strategy to end trench warfare.
Joffre gained a reputation for not panicking in difficult situations and despite all the horrors that the French soldiers endured in the trenches and at battles like Verdun, he was nicknamed “Grandpère” by the soldiers. He did lack tactical and strategic imagination which did ensure that trench warfare continued – but other military leaders like Douglas Haig and Eric von Falkenhayn were also considered to be like this and they were all probably the products of the military schools that they attended. Their military education certainly could not have visualised the mayhem of trench warfare.
However, Joffre did lose credibility by the failure of the breakthrough at the Somme. This battle had been touted as the “final push” for Berlin but was deemed to be a failure. Whereas Verdun was seen as a French triumph in that the city did not fall, the Somme was costly in terms of lives lost and seemingly gained little. In December 1916, Joffre was promoted to Marshal of France and General Nivelle succeeded him as commander-in-chief of the French Army. In 1917, Joffre was appointed president of the Allied War Council and in the final months of the war, Joffre was involved in ceremonial duties as opposed to any strategic ones. Between 1918 and 1930, he held a number of posts at the Ministry of War.