On 23 August Joffre reported to Adolphe Messimy, the French war minister, that his Fourth Army was pressing into the Ardennes with (he believed, wrongly) local numerical superiority, despite the fact that he had already received reports of French defeats in this sector on previous days. The German Fourth and Fifth Armies were in fact advancing against the French forces in front of them rather than moving westwards as Joffre believed. In his memoirs Joffre later admitted that he had been mistaken (he was also unaware of the fall of Namur and of the extent of the fighting at Mons and Charleroi on his left), but at the time he demanded that the French Fourth Army resume the offensive and provide lists of unsatisfactory officers for dismissal. Messimy fully supported Joffre in his purge of unsuccessful generals, even suggesting that, as in 1793, some of them simply ought to be executed.
Marshal Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre (French pronunciation: [ʒɔsɛf ʒɔfʁ]; 12 January 1852 – 3 January 1931), was a French general who served as Commander-in-Chief of French forces on the Western Front from the start of World War I until the end of 1916. He is best known for regrouping the retreating allied armies to defeat the Germans at the strategically decisive First Battle of the Marne in September 1914.
Joffre was born in Rivesaltes, Pyrénées-Orientales, into a family of vineyard owners. He entered the École Polytechnique in 1870 and became a career officer. He first saw active Service as a junior artillery officer during the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War. After the war he underwent further training at the École Polytechnique before transferring to the génie (engineers). Joffre subsequently spent much of his career in the colonies as a military Engineer, serving with distinction in the Keelung Campaign during the Sino-French War (August 1884 – April 1885). As a major, he led a column from Ségou to Timbuktu in Mali, where he recovered the remains of Lt. Col. Bonnier, who had been killed on a recent expedition. His mission killed over a hundred Tuareg and captured fifteen hundred cattle. He was promoted as a result. He served under Joseph Gallieni in Madagascar and was promoted to Général de brigade while serving there.
Joffre was an agnostic in religious views and had been a freemason since 1875, unlike many French generals, who were Catholic (and of the generation educated in the Catholic teaching which had grown up after the Loi Falloux) and therefore suspected of hostility to the Third Republic.
After returning to France in 1903 to command the 19th Cavalry Brigade, he then moved to the War Ministry in Paris as Director of Engineers in 1904. The next year he was promoted to Général de division, the highest rank in the French Army at the time. Subsequently he commanded the 6th Infantry Division and served as Inspector of Military Schools. Joffre commanded the 2nd Army Corps from 1908 until 1910 when he was appointed to the Conseil supérieur de la guerre.
The Minister of War Adolphe Messimy reorganized the high command of the French Army in July 1911. General Victor-Constant Michel, the Vice President of the Conseil supérieur de la guerre and Commander-in-Chief designate, was sacked after proposing a defensive strategy in the event of war with Germany. Messimy took the opportunity to merge the office of Vice President with the Chief of the General Staff and create a single professional head of the Army. The newly enhanced post was first offered to Gallieni, who declined, leading to Joffre's appointment.
Joffre was generally taciturn and a man of impenetrable calm, sometimes interspersed with furious anger. He would sometimes turn up at a unit's headquarters, Listen to reports, and then depart having said hardly a word, to the consternation of the officers he had just inspected. At the time of the Battle of the Marne, he was heavily dependent on his deputy chief of staff, General Henri Mathias Berthelot. Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, thought highly of him. Georges Boillot, winner of the French Grand Prix 1912 and 1913, was Joffre's personal driver in 1914, and Joffre's car tearing along roads became a familiar sight.
General Hubert Lyautey thought Joffre a better logistician than strategist. His major positive contributions in 1914 were his sustained calm under pressure and the calculated reasoning of an alumnus from École Polytechnique, his ruthless dismissal of unsuccessful generals (three army commanders, ten corps commanders and thirty-eight divisional commanders, replacing them with combative men like Foch, Franchet d'Espèrey and—more junior at that stage—Petain and Nivelle), and his outstanding logistical handling of French infantry divisional movements and artillery ammunition supplies during and after the French retreat of August 1914.
The Joffre class of steam locomotives was a French Decauville design built by Kerr Stuart under contract during 1915 and 1916.
The fall of Bucharest (6 December 1916) not only ruled out a Russo-Romanian attack on Bulgaria, but also made possible a Central Powers attack on Salonika. One of Joffre's last official duties (11 December) was to order Maurice Sarrail to cease his offensive and establish a strong defensive position, from which further offensives might be launched in the Future. To Briand's and Joffre's surprise, Roques, the minister of war, returned from a fact-finding mission to Salonika recommending that Sarrail be reinforced and that he no longer report to Joffre. Coming on the back of the disappointing results of the Somme campaign and the fall of Romania, Roques's report further discredited Briand and Joffre and added to the parliamentary deputies' demands for a closed session. On 27 November the council of ministers met to debate rescinding the decree of 2 December 1915, which had placed Sarrail under Joffre; Briand proposed that Joffre be effectively demoted to commander-in-chief in North-East France, reporting to the war minister along with the commander-in-chief at Salonika, although he withdrew this proposal after Joffre threatened resignation. During the closed session (28 November – 7 December) Briand had little choice but to make concessions to preserve his government, and in a speech of 29 November he promised to repeal the decree of 2 December 1915 and in vague terms to appoint a general as technical adviser to the government. He met Joffre on 3 December 1916—according to Joffre, promising to appoint him Marshal of France and to give him a staff of his own and "direction of the war".
On 1 April 1917 Prime Minister Ribot asked Joffre to go on Viviani's mission to the United States. There was already a similar British mission being prepared, led by Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary and a former Prime Minister. The French along with the British had been preparing to do so since February after the announcement of the severance of diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany, in the expectation that an American declaration of war against Germany was imminent. He was initially reluctant to go as the Nivelle Offensive was underway. On 6 April the United States Congress declared war on Germany. The main Problem for their new army would be training men and, especially, officers. Joffre initially considered recommending the incorporation of US companies and battalions into the French and British armies, but realised that the Americans would never accept this.
Joffre became leader of the Supreme War Council in 1918. When he retired in 1919, he was made a member of the Académie française. He also survived the 1918 flu pandemic. In 1920 he presided over the Jocs Florals in Barcelona, a Catalan literary certamen. He died on 3 January 1931 in Paris and was buried on his estate in Louveciennes. His memoirs, in two volumes, were published posthumously in 1932.
A French aircraft carrier bearing Joffre's name was under construction at the start of World War II but was never completed due to France's rapid fall in 1940.
Joffre left a paper arguing for a separate American force, then on 4 May began a week's tour of the eastern US. In full view of the press, he waited his turn in a barber's shop in St. Louis for a haircut, visited the hometowns of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield, Illinois) and Ulysses Grant, laid wreaths at the statues of Joan of Arc and Lafayette, and visited West Point. He returned on 10 May to find that the US authorities agreed with the recommendations in his paper. The 1st US Infantry Division, mainly regulars, was to be sent at the start of June. On the last day of his visit to Washington, Newton D. Baker, the secretary of war, introduced him to General John J. Pershing, just selected to command the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Joffre told him that "he can always count on me for anything in my power."
On 13 June Pershing, who had landed at Boulogne that morning, met Joffre, Paul Painlevé (war minister), Viviani and Foch (chief of staff) in Paris. Joffre recommended that an American unit be rushed to France to show the flag. 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment was sent, and was reviewed by Joffre and President Poincaré as it marched up the Champs-Élysées on 4 July. Pershing rejected Painlevé's suggestion that Joffre head the liaison group of French officers who were helping to set up his supply lines; Pershing insisted on using the Atlantic ports of Brest, St Nazaire and Rochefort.
On 13 December Briand formed a new government, which that day survived a vote of confidence by only thirty votes. Joffre was appointed "general-in-chief of the French armies, technical adviser to the government, consultative member of the War Committee", with Robert Nivelle as commander-in-chief of the Armies of the North and Northeast. It is unclear exactly what Briand had told Joffre about his role; he commented, "This is not what they promised me," when reading the newspaper on the morning of 13 December and was put out to be described as "general-in-chief" rather than "commander-in-chief." He departed at once for Paris, but was persuaded to accept by Briand. On 17 December, he told the British liaison officer, Sidney Clive, "I am the commander-in-chief and I intend to command effectively." However, he soon found that he had no real power—the acting war minister (Admiral Lacaze, as General Lyautey had not yet returned from North Africa to take up the position) forbade him even to approve units' being granted the fourragère—and on 26 December, the day he was promoted Marshal of France, he asked to be relieved. Joffre was still popular and was the first man to be promoted Marshal under the Third Republic.