[This article first appeared in Stand To! 42 January 1995 pp6-12]
The more you study the Great War, the more you can see that it falls into two definite parts - so distinct that they might almost be different wars. The turning point is the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917. The first part of the war was when the great armies - greater than any ever seen before- marched off full of enthusiasm, full of confidence not just that they were marching to victory, but that they would have it very quickly: it would all be 'over by Christmas'.
As we know, to our sorrow, the War was not over by Christmas 1914. What had happened by then was a grimly prophetic foretaste of what was yet to come: the four great European powers, France and Russia, Germany and Austria Hungary, had lost, between them, in the space of those first five months, just under 4.5 million men. Yet the enthusiasm persisted, right down to the end of 1916; but by then the change had begun. Enthusiasm gave way to grim determination; the machines were taking over, science was taking charge. New leaders appeared: Ludendorff, Lenin, Clemenceau, Lloyd George. The old leaders of 1914 to 1916 had all gone: General von Falkenhayn, Lord Kitchener, General Joffre. Joffre was the French Commander-in-Chief who had towered over the Allied war in the west. Our music-halls, with sure intuition, had acclaimed him with the noble couplet,
'Our caps we doff
To General Joffre'
Well, after 1916 there was not much doffing; he was soon largely forgotten. I thought this meeting might be a good occasion to call him back to mind.
Joseph-Jacques-Cesaire Joffre was born in January 1852. Cesaire - Caesar: a very military name indeed for the boy, but I cannot find any military tradition in his family background. They came from a little town near Perpignan, close to the Spanish border, in an area officially known as 'Eastern Pyrenees', but also blessed with the much more attractive name, 'Roussillon', which is also the name of what I consider to be some very appealing wines, and Joffre's father was a cooper - a prosperous maker and repairer of the barrels on which the wine trade depended.
Joffre and his brothers went to school in Perpignan, where he won the reputation of being almost a mathematical prodigy. He duly passed his baccalaureat, the school-leaving examination which hung like a dark cloud over French childhood, far more so than our School Certificate and Matriculation, which some of you will remember without pleasure. But Joffre overcame this hurdle without too much trouble, and then, surprisingly, on his father's insistence, instead of going to one of the nearer lycees like Toulouse or Montpellier, he went to find the best available teaching, at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, which has been called 'the foremost technical training college in France.'
The famous Polytechnique was also one of the two most prestigious military colleges (the other being St Cyr). It was at the Polytechnique that Artillery and Engineer officers received their training, though the School also trained aspirants for the topmost civil engineering posts and the Civil Service. Joffre entered the Polytechnique in 1869; at I6V2 he was the youngest cadet of his year but this being a military school where every entrant was treated as a future officer, his mathematical skill entitled him to the immediate rank of sergeant, so this was where his Army career began.
It was rudely interrupted. The Polytechnique had just broken up for the vacation at the end of Joffre's first year when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. The cadets had to play their part, and the young Joffre was appointed a sublieutenant in a regiment of Engineers, and posted to one of the Paris forts. There he remained for the six months of the war; he did not have to go to it - the war came to him, in very short order. It took the Prussians only two months to lock up half the French field army in the fortress of Metz and bring the other half to surrender at Sedan; and since the emperor surrendered with it, that was the end of the Second Empire. No sooner was that accomplished than the Prussians advanced to Paris, and laid siege to the city on September 19; the Paris forts were in the front line, and remained there until the final surrender at the end of January 1871. Unfortunately, siege warfare can be very boring, and there is nothing to suggest that it was anything but tedious, although very depressing, for Joffre. There are no stirring anecdotes to relate about this period, and indeed, one of his early biographers, looking forward to what he became in another war, remarks:
'It is not one of the least curious paradoxes of modern warfare that, apart from two skirmishes with badly-armed [Arabs] ... the French Generalissimo, as well as most of his German opponents, may die without having actually been in action.'
Joffre returned to the Polytechnique in 1817; like all French officers, he was badly affected by the Franco-Prussian war. It had few redeeming features. For professionals, the French performance in 1870-71 was just a series of humiliations, culminating in the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. The sum total of them amounted to undeniable proof that all was not well, either for the Army, or the country. Like most of his military contemporaries, Joffre brooded on the 'Revanche', the return match with Prussia (now the guiding force of the new German Empire). For a short time his personal fortunes seemed to smile - he was promoted to captain in 1876, which was very quick work in the French Army. But then he stuck; his career entered a doldrum matching the unhappy state of the Army itself as it struggled to comprehend the lesson it had been taught, and above all to revive its morale under the Third Republic. Joffre remained a captain for 13 years, which gave him plenty of time to dwell upon these circumstances.
He had further unhappiness to contend with; his very young wife died when he was barely 32. His treatment for this sad event was - as with many people - travel, but in his case it would be travel in the Army, the Colonial Army, to be precise, on secondment to the Engineering department in Indo-China (now called Vietnam). He was obviously well thought of, because he was appointed to the Legion of Honour, and even had a street named after him by the men of another legion, the famous Legion Etrangere (the French Foreign Legion, whose exploits, real and imaginary, were staple schoolboy reading when I was young).
That was his first spell of overseas duty in the French Empire, one of whose functions was to take men's minds off the Eastern frontier. The historian Pierre Legendre, referring to the French conquest of Tunisia in 1881, shrewdly remarked:
'The Frenchman - and it is a vain hope to change him - always has a trumpet sounding in his ear; if he is not to die of boredom, he must have a little bit of military glory ... In 1880 the rumble of guns could disturb the whole of Europe; the capture of some green flags could calm impatient spirits who dreamed of other trophies to recapture.'
And General de Gaulle, in his illuminating little book, France and Her Army , tells us,
'The desire for distant adventure, as old as race itself, reappeared to offset the discontents of army life. France, consenting or not, played a leading part in the scramble for distant territories.'
But de Gaulle added:
'... these expeditions were in a special class. Neither the enemy, the country, nor the equipment were comparable to those of a European war. No wonder that the "Metropolitan" school hastened to point out that the African Army and the Colonial Infantry were losing their sound principles.'
Here we meet a profound difference between the French and British response to imperial responsibilities. Every regiment of the British Regular Army except the Household troops was liable to serve overseas, and India at the turn of the century had a British Army garrison which normally numbered about 70,000. In France, the colonies and their defence were regarded as attributes of the Navy, the Colonial Army emerged from the Marines and did not even form part of the French Army until 1900. The Army's own regiments only went out into the empire for special occasions - new conquests or the suppression of important revolts, and then returned to normal duty in France. So the gulf between the 'Colonial' and the 'Metropolitan' Armies was deep; their purposes were quite different, their methods were different, their thoughts were different. Except, that is, in particular cases; Joffre was one of these - as an officer of Engineers, he was 'Metropolitan', but when he served overseas, he shared the 'Colonial' experience.
He returned from Indo-China in 1888, with the rank of major. That was a rather more important rank in France than in Britain; the French word for it is 'Commandant', and in the infantry the three battalion commanders of every regiment held that rank - in Britain they would have been lieutenant-colonels. Commandant Joffre's first appointment was to the Railway Service, and then in 1892 he went overseas again. This time his destination was Africa. After another short railway assignment - in this case building one in Senegal - he found himself on the road to the semi-mythical 'city' of Timbuktu, whose wealth and renown was due to it being very close to the River Niger, and therefore, in Joffre's words,
'a great market, or rather a great warehouse where the products of the north and south are interchanged ... Of itself the city produces nothing; its inhabitants live almost exclusively by trade.'
Unfortunately, Timbuctoo was in close proximity to the warlike and predatory Tuareg tribes whose activities were not a benefit to trade, and by the 1890s the place was in decline. Nevertheless, it represented a challenge and temptation to the 'forward school' of French Colonial officers, and in 1893, against the policy of the French Government, an expedition set off for Timbuctoo under a Lieutenant Colonel Bonnier to bring the 'city' under French rule and protection. A supporting column followed him under Joffre. On January 10 1894 Bonnier entered Timbuctoo without a fight, but on the 15th the Tuareg made a surprise attack on his camp; he was killed, with 10 other officers and about half his Senegalese soldiers. The survivors remained in Timbuctoo, to await Joffre's arrival. Joffre learned of the disaster on February 1 and began a forced march to Timbuctoo; his column was very short of food and his exhausted porters had great difficulty in keeping up. On the 7th the column reached the scene of the Bonnier massacre, were they had the sad task of identifying and burying the dead. They took the bodies of 11 European officers and 2 NCOs with them for burial in Timbuctoo, which they reached on February 12. There then followed the laborious but entirely successful punitive operations against the Tuareg tribes and the fastening of French rule on the Timbuktu region, an area which was generously interpreted. That is the bald summary of Joffre's first military success, which brought him the quick reward of promotion to lieutenant-colonel in March 1894, and somewhat later to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honour. Back in France, he wrote an account of his expedition which appeared in the Engineering Journal in 1895 under the exciting title, Operations of the Joffre Column Before and After the Taking of Timbuctoo, later translated into English by the Abbe Dimnet and entitled My March to Timbuctoo, which is rather less off-putting. However, one has to admit that it is difficult to recognise in this terse military text the 'Beau Geste country' and the scenes of the gripping yarns of some of our boyhoods. As the Abbe sorrowfully remarks,
'the reader will see for himself that if the French public had had nothing else than the officer's narrative by which to imagine the difficulties and magnitude of this enterprise it might have passed unperceived.'
But that was typical of Joffre; he would never squander two words if one would do. In this and other respects he was the exact opposite of the English idea of a Frenchman, a pleasant surprise in later years for English officers who had dealings with him.
However, Joffre's achievement did not pass unperceived; only three years after promotion to lieutenant-colonel he became a full colonel at the age of 45. And four years after that he became a general, in 1901. The French Army does not have different names for generals as we do - major-general, lieutenant-general; it has generals of brigade, who wear one star on their cuffs, generals of division, two stars, generals of army corps, three stars, generals of army, four stars, and if there is a marshal, he will wear five stars, but ever since Napoleon I's mass creation in 1804 the French had been chary about marshals.
So now Joffre was a general; only one star on his sleeve, but a general all the same - one of the brotherhood. A certain mystery always surrounded him; he seemed to have materialized very suddenly out of deep obscurity, but the Abbe Dimnet questions that impression, and the surprise that has been expressed at Joffre's subsequent distinction. 'The fact is,' he says,
'that Joffre now ceased to be the obscure Engineer he had been for twenty years, and many a newspaper reader who in July 1914 thought that he saw the name of the Generalissimo for the first time, had in reality seen it frequently mentioned years before, but had had time to forget it.'
That seems to me a very likely thing, and one has to take into account some external factors also. Joffre put up his star almost exactly halfway through the miserable and destructive Dreyfus Case, which, says General de Gaulle,
'offered an ideal opportunity for uniting against [the Army] every shade of ill-will. Everything was present in this lamentable trial to poison public life and fan political passion ... Under the pressure of illusions of pacifism and of the newly awakened distrust of the military mind, the Army began to lose strength and cohesion.'
It was certainly a bad time to be trying to bring a military career to fruition. Joffre was fortunate in having been out of the country - in Madagascar, building fortifications - when the Case first made headlines, and then in having an impeccable Republican reputation. This, and some aspects of his personality, made him a reassuring figure; he was tall, heavily built, with a large frame which he took care to nourish as much as possible. He was fair-haired, round-faced and with the look of a peasant even in uniform, although his background was entirely urban. General Spears, who saw a lot of Joffre during his liaison duties, gives us a good idea of a first impression of him;
'The whiteness of his hair, the lightness of his almost colourless blue eyes, which looked out from under big eyebrows the colour of salt and pepper, white predominating, and the timelessness of his voice coming through the sieve of his big whitish moustache, all gave the impression of an albino .. He looked placid. Placidity and calm were his dominant characteristics. He was impenetrably calm.'
This in itself was reassuring, and so was his absolute aversion to public speaking and to all forms of small talk. He was the antithesis of the familiar 'political general', full of words and outward brilliance, but dangerous, like General Boulanger, who had tried to stage a co u p d 'eta t only ten years before Joffre obtained his star. The French historian Mermeix (his real name was Gabriel Terrail) says that Joffre seemed to experience a congenital difficulty with speech; but when the time came to fill high office, says Mermeix,
'By his level-headedness and his discretion Joffre seemed to be the man of least risk.'
The stars on his sleeve multiplied satisfactorily - a divisional command in 1905, an army corps in 1908, and a large step in 1910. In January of that year he was appointed to membership of the Conseil Superieur de la Guerre with the title of Director of the Services de Tarriere (the Rear Services), and he was at the same time made Inspector of three Army Corps areas in Eastern France . Since the Conseil Superieur has been called the 'supreme organ of military authority in France, and the centre of national defence', we need to know a little more about this body. It had 12 members, all senior generals; its President was the Minister of War, the Vice-President was a general designated as Commander-in-Chief of the northeastern army group in time of war, other generals of the Conseil would be the Army commanders; in peacetime they would be the inspectors of the corps which would later belong to their Armies; all would be collectively consulted on organization, training, mobilization, armaments and operations. The Rear Services, to which Joffre was appointed, underpinned virtually the whole span of these activities. The work of his Directorate fell under two main headings: a) the railways, and b) all else pertaining to lines of communication, which included telegraph and telephone services behind the front lines, roads and motor transport, canal and river transport, law and order in the army zones and much else besides. If you subtracted the Rear Services, the front could not exist. It seems obvious that his already fairly considerable understanding of railways had been a factor in his appointment. He tells us,
'I had already arrived at the conviction that in a modern war of masses the true strategic instrument of the Commander-in-Chief would be the railway.'
His whole career in command would demonstrate the truth of this.
Joffre had been a member of the Conseil Superioir for a year and a half when war with Germany suddenly became an immediate prospect. The occasion has gone down in history as the 'Agadir' Crisis of 1911 or the second Morocco crisis (the first having been in the very early days of the Anglo-French Entente, in 1905). 'Agadir' coincided with two internal political crisis; the first was entirely accidental - produced by what insurance companies call an 'Act of God'. The Prime Minister and the Minister of War were attending an air show on May 21, when an aircraft suddenly fell out of the sky (not an uncommon event in those early days of aviation); it severely injured the Prime Minister and killed the Minister of War. A new Government had to be formed on June 28, with Adolphe Messimy as War Minister. He faced the urgent task of dealing not only with a mounting international crisis of the first order, when the German gunboat P a n th er anchored off the Moroccan port of Agagir on July 1, but also a serious crisis within the Conseil Supérieur de Guerre. The Vice President of the Conseil, General Michel, was found to be at odds with all his colleagues on certain fundamental matters of war organisation and equipment. This was clearly an im possible state of affairs, with mobilisation already being prepared; a critical meeting of the Conseil on July 19 showed that Michel had no support, and two days later, says Joffre,
‘Without further hesitation the Government withdrew from General michel his letter of command
So Messimy's first major task was to replace his Vice-President of the Conseil without loss of time. The international crisis was now at its height: the day Michel was removed was the day that Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, made his famous Mansion House speech, indicating that the British government considered Britain's interests to be 'vitally affected' in Morocco. The possibility of a European war was evidently not remote, and Messimy had to act fast. The man he selected was Joffre. He was not the immediate choice; three other generals had more obvious qualifications, but one by one they disqualified themselves, and on July 28 Joffre became Commander-in-Chief designate for war. You could say that this was when his war began.
The war that threatened in 1911 was postponed - to the relief of many, not least Messimy and Joffre himself. Neither of them could be unaware of the weakness of the French Army at that moment in relation to Germany; at the root of this lay a demographic problem which can be easily demonstrated by these figures: in the 15 years between 1875 and 1890,
- the French population increased by 1.4 million,
- the German population increased by 6.7 million;
- in the 20 years between 1890 and 1910, the French population increased by 1.3 million, the German population increased by 15.5 million.
What this meant was that whereas until 1899 the peacetime effective strengths of the two armies were roughly equal, that equality was now lost, and by 1905 the numbers had swung by over 100,000 in Germany's favour. But in fact the discrepancy was even greater than it appeared; already the annual conscript contingent in Germany was far greater than the Army could absorb, while the French were always scraping their 4 manpower barrel. In 1905 they had changed their conscription law; instead of a call-up for three years in the active army, this was reduced to two years, but service in the Reserve was increased to 11 years, followed by 6 in the Territorial Army and another 6 in the Territorial Reserve. 'Thus' says the Times history,
'every Frenchman from the age of 20 to 45 became liable for service. No exemptions, except on grounds of physical unfitness, were granted ... Thus did the need for self preservation at last compel the French people to accept a system in which military service was equal for all'.
But the problem of mounting inequality did not go away; in 1911 it had grown again to alarming proportions and threatened to become much worse still. Whatever else Messimy and Joffre may have been wishing to do, this was a nettle that would have to be grasped.
When Messimy summoned Joffre to be the Vice-President of the C o n seil, he also informed him that the title was about to be abolished. The functions of the post would remain unchanged: chief command in war, and until then the Minister's Deputy, presiding over the meetings of the C o nseil when the Minister was absent. But his title would be Chief of the General Staff. This was undoubtedly a step forward, adding to Joffre's authority, but it brought with it its own confusions, because the Minister would also enjoy the services of a Chief of Staff of the Army. The officer in question was General Dubail; he would have direct access to the Minister, although he came under Joffre's orders, and when war came he would remain with the Minister and at the Minister's disposal. Dubail's immediate task was the negotiation of the military agreement which committed the Russian Army to a prompt offensive when war broke out. However, it was not a good idea to have two chiefs of Staff, and when yet another Government change brought another change of War Minister, Alexander Millerand succeeding Messimy in 1912, the post of Chief of Staff of the Army was abolished; Joffre remarks:
'In this way all of the powers of the military establishment finally became concentrated in my hands. It was the first time that any such authority had been confided to a single man.'
And so it came about that, in the words of Mermeix,
'Before going to take command of the armies in the field, he had had control of these armies for three years. It was he who had shaped the instrument that he was going to use.'
One could go even further, and reflect that, by virtue of these arrangements, Joffre would exercise five years of unparalleled authority and a degree of responsibility unknown in a democracy. It was as well that his back was broad.
The years between 1911 and the outbreak of war saw constant, devoted effort on the part of Ministers, Conseil Superieur and the General Staff to prepare the Army for the struggle that was visibly approaching. But a decade of mounting anti-militarism and unwillingness to think seriously about war could not be cancelled out and reversed by the stroke of a pen. Much was achieved but much was left undone. The prejudices of democracies are hard to budge, and the very look of the French Army in August 1914 revealed how far it still was from the realities of modern war. The infantry looked as though they had stepped out of the Crimean War, 60 years earlier; the calvary seemed to belong to the battlefields of Napoleon 1. What happened when they met the well equipped, highly trained German Army in its very 20th Century field-grey uniforms is recorded by Sir Edward Spears, who says,
'The sense of the tragic futility of it will never quite fade from the minds of those who saw these brave men, dashing across the open to the sound of drums and bugles, clad in the old red caps and trousers which a parsimonious democracy dictated they should wear, although they turned each man into a target.'
But Eugene Etienne, War Minister in 1913, had decreed that the old red trousers were a symbol of France:
'Les pantalons rouges, c'est la France!'
The case of the Artillery, however, revealed modernity run mad. The French had adopted the Puteaux 75-mm Quick Firing field gun in 1896, and it had put them ahead of all comers. It was still, in 1914, almost certainly the best field gun actually in the field. But it was not, as the French Staff College believed, 'God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost'; certainly, it was an excellent fast firing low-trajectory gun, easy to handle, mobile, and more versatile that some of its supporters deserved. But it did not have divine powers; it could not search dead ground; it was not very effective against entrenchments or fortifications of any kind; its maximum range was just under 7,000 metres; and the ability to fire fast made it an insatiable devourer of ammunition. Yet when the French went to war, some 3,600 75s (the famous soixante-quinzes) were virtually all the artillery their armies had; their heavy artillery in the field amounted to just over 100 pieces, compared with 2,000 in the German armies. Joffre had been disturbed by this lack of heavy artillery even before he took office as Chief of the General Staff. The Germans had produced an excellent 105-mm field howitzer in 1909, and there was nothing at all to match it in France; but when Joffre drew attention to this, his protest was brushed aside. It was a defect of Messimy's reforms that even as Chief of the General Staff Joffre had no authority over the Directors of specialist arms, and certainly not over the Director of Artillery.
In early 1913 the French learned with dismay that Germany was not only largely expanding her army (to the extent of probably outnumbering the French peace time effectives by about 300,000), but also improving its quality by increasing the numbers of officers and NCOs, and in addition speeding up its mobilisation schedules. The French could only respond by restoring 3-year conscription, beginning at the age of 20; this measure (passed in July 1913) had the effect of increasing the French peace strength to 673,000 - still some 200,000 fewer than the German. It was not a popular law: there were riots and even mutinies in garrison towns, especially near the eastern frontier.
The Preamble to the 1913 Bill resonantly stated
'there is something which dominates all contingencies, which triumphs over all hesitations, which governs and decides the individual and collective impulses of a great and noble democracy like ours, namely, the resolute will to live strong and free and to remain mistress of our destinies.'
Well, it was not quite as simple as that; three years is a lot out of a man's life; the demonstrations continued into the late summer, but the Bill was passed both in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate with massive majorities, which was just as well, because as the Military Correspondent of the Times (it was Colonel Repington) wrote at the time,
'the [3-year] Law is France's last card.'
One thing it did, at the last moment, was to make possible the manning of 26 new batteries of heavy guns - 104 guns, few enough, and requiring time to produce them, and train the gunners. That was a clear bonus, but it was part of what was to prove a major handicap: Plan XVII, the French war plan. This has been the subject of so much scorn and criticism, and the substance of it is so full of bewildering detail, that I am going to make no attempt at expounding it now. Very briefly, inspired by the doctrine of the immediate all-out offensive, come what may, it subordinated all the French strategy to that concept. The Plan is succinctly summed up in the short paragraph entitled 'Intentions of the Commander-in-Chief', which simply says,
'Whatever the circumstances', it is the C-in-C 's intention to advance, all forces united, to the attack of the German armies.'
'Whatever the circumstances' ... the mind boggles! As we know, with sorrow, the result was disaster: complete defeat in the 'Battles of the Frontiers' in August 1914, while the German armies swept through Belgium round the left flank of the French. The French Army sustained over 200,000 casualties in that one month - or rather, since the French offensive did not really begin until August 20, in the space of under a fortnight, a rate of loss which Churchill described as 'nearly fatal and never curable'. And for this, clearly, the ultimate responsibility was Joffre's, on his own frank admission, which I have quoted. What was he thinking of? How did it come about?
I think we have to take in some simple fundamentals of military organisation and planning in order to answer that question. In a General Staff, or at a Headquarters, there are a number of departments, each with its own preoccupations: there is an Operations Section, or 'Bureau', usually regarded as the most important, whose function is to draw up plans large or small. There is an Intelligence Section whose function is to provide the information on which those plans should be based - and so on. When a plan is drawn up, it is the Operations Section that does the work; the C-in-C gives a broad instruction, and has veto rights on all that comes forth. This makes him responsible for the Plan - but he has little to do with the making of it, except in special circumstances. When Messimy asked him, in July 1911, whether he would be willing to take the supreme command, Joffre had had understandable trepidations:
‘I objected that my career in the Colonies had separated me during a long period from matters relating to a European war, that I had been associated only during a short time with questions having to do with the conduct of operations, and that other members of the C on seil appeared to me to be better prepared to fill the post.'
Messimy overruled his objection. It was, in any case, not altogether valid; Joffre had, as I said, been a member of the Conseil for a year and a half, concerned with matters ultimately linked with Operations, and he had, in fact, formed certain views of his own. He rightly perceived that the existing Plan, Plan XVI.
'took small account of the violation of Belgium by the Germans, although this appeared as a most likely hypothesis ... Plan XVI was based upon the conviction that the Germans would direct against us a straight blow in [Lorraine].'
When he took up his new duties, Joffre found in the office-safe an alternative plan drawn up by his predecessor, General Michel, which did indeed take fully into account a German advance through Belgium and prescribed a redistribution of the French forces to constitute what Joffre calls
'a sort of cordon running the whole length of our frontier from Switzerland to Dunkirk.'
It put him in mind of Napoleon's sarcastic question when his Chief of Staff, General Berthier, showed him a plan for defending the French frontier in 1808:
'Is the object of these operations the prevention of contraband?'
And Joffre, in 1911, added another question; if the French did spread out their army like a line of Customs posts,
'What assurance could we have that the Germans, having divined our intentions, would not change their plans and march against Paris through Lorraine ...?'
It is not difficult to see now that the problem was, in fact, insoluble; in Joffre's own words,
'I thus found myself faced, on the one hand, with an approved plan which manifestly did not correspond to the hypothesis of the most likely manoeuvre on the part of the enemy, and, on the other hand, with a tentative plan which exaggerated the importance of this hypothesis and thereby incurred most dangerous risks.'
This, then, was the 'special circumstance' of 1914: the problem for France had no solution in France.
At the root of everything, as I said earlier, was the manpower problem. France simply did not have enough troops to ensure a defence of the frontier against full-scale attack. The logic of Plan XVII was to give up all thought of doing so; instead, to attack the enemy with such violence that all his plans and manoeuvres would be dislocated. It required what in the next generation Adolf Hitler would call 'the triumph of the Will'. The offensive spirit would overcome all material weaknesses. It is easy to laugh at this idea. We should make sure we understand the alternative. The French alternative in 1914 was to accept the German initiative, and receive the blows of the greatly superior enemy wherever they might fall, until an exhausted army and a volatile and impressionable population could take no more; and the ultimate logic of that was surrender (as in 1871 and 1940). Logic is a merciless master; the French are often sadly subject to it.
With the hindsight that we happily possess we can see that France's only true strategy was to redress the balance of numbers by invoking her alliances - that was the purpose of General DubaiTs visit to Russia. And in the West there was the Entente Cordiale with Britain and the staff talks by which it had been agreed that an Expeditionary Force would take its place on the left of the French Army 12 days after the outbreak of war. But for either of these interventions to be truly effective, time would be required; would that time be available when the German attack took off? Hindsight informs us that Russia made an excellent early start, but the Battle of Tannenberg had cancelled it out just as the crisis unfolded in France. And as regards Britain, hindsight shows that for her contribution to match the scale of European war would take two years. So we may acknowledge the 'true' strategy, but we have to admit that in 1914 it was quite impracticable.
So it came about in 1914, in the words of another French general who had to look disaster straight in the eye, General de Gaulle, that
'Joffre saw the collapse of all his plans, the refutation of all his information and the invalidation of all his orders. On his staff maps at [General Headquarters] the ever d descending circles and arrow s bore witness to the heavy blows to which his forces were subjected. He learned in quick succession of the setback in Alsace, the extension of the enemy's outflanking movement . . . the failure of the offensive in Lorraine and the Ardennes and the withdrawal [in Belgium ] . . . Every despatch-rider, every telephone message, every officer's report added to the dismal catalogue of reverses . . . '
It was Field-Marshal von Hindenburg, recalling a bleak moment for Germany in 1917, who said 'the art of war is to overcome crises, not to avoid them'.
General Joffre, in August 1914, showed that in this respect he had mastered the art of war. As de Gaulle says,
'At first he had put enough faith in certain preconceived doctrines to base his plan of campaign on them. But, having realised that the remedy depended upon himself alone, he threw over his theories and pitted the whole of his powerful personality against the course of events. Thanks to his common sense, his obstinacy, and his iron constitution, he was able to rise above disaster.'
The British historian CRMF Cruttwell sums it up;
'Joffre . . . showed all the calm of greatness in face of his ruined hopes.'
This was the moment when that 'impenetrable' calm that Spears noted, bore its finest fruit, and Spears illustrated it with a haunting vignette; it was, he wrote, a trait which often baffled Joffre's subordinates:
'At times when expected to speak he did not utter a word. He has been known to arrive at a headquarters, listen in silence to what was said, and step back into his car without opening his mouth, leaving queries, questions and requests for orders buzzing unvoiced in the heads of those he left behind. When this happened the effect was extremely comic to an onlooker.'
Spears was a great onlooker; he had a knack of being at the centre of significant occasions, and he had the good fortune to watch Joffre while he was taking the great strategic decision which did at last resolve the calamity of the frontier battles. The general was sitting on a kitchen chair under an apple tree in the playground of a school which was his headquarters for the time; he rocked steadily to and fro, while Spears watched with fascination:
'I actually saw him on the afternoon that he decided on the Battle of the Marne. Very few people can have ever seen anybody with such a burden placed on his shoulders, with nobody to help, just weighing the pros and cons of this movement and that movement, what orders to issue. It lasted quite a long time, perhaps a couple of hours, and then he got up, his decision was taken . . . and the orders went out that night.'
The date was 25 August; the BEF, on the extreme left, had begun its retreat from Mons, with the French Fifth Army also in full retreat on its right. The serious setbacks which had befallen the French right wing and centre were now outmatched by an even more serious threat on the left - the outflanking of the whole Allied line; and there was a complication, which Joffre exactly describes:
'Now, it was the British alone who could offset this menace, and yet it was precisely this army to which I had no right to give orders . . . It seemed to me necessary above all to place on the left of the British Army French troops to whom I had the right to give orders . . . '
This was what he had been turning over in his mind: making a new Army, finding the troops from other parts of the front, disengaging them, reassembling them with the least possible dislocation, and in so doing change the character of the whole situation. 'My conception,' he says,
'was a battle stretching from Amiens to Reims with the new army placed on the extreme left of our line, outside the British and in a position to outflank the German right.'
Joffre was still a long way from appreciating the full scope of the Schlieffen Plan, but he was on the right road; there would be fresh crises before he could bring his ideas to fulfilment, there would be alterations here and there, but in the main this concept, embodied in his Instruction Generale N° 2, dated 25 August, was the foundation-stone of the Battle of the Marne eleven days later. It was unquestionably Joffre's plan, and no one else's; his Chief of Staff, General Berthelot, disagreed with it, but loyally implemented it when it became an order. There were conflicts of opinion about timing between Joffre and General Gallieni (his old commander in Madagascar twenty years earlier, and now Military Governor of Paris), but the hard facts remain that no-one but Joffre could order the formation of new Armies, no-one else could allocate their troops, and no-one else could launch 'a battle stretching from Amiens to Reims'.
And there was something else that had to be done, which only Joffre could do. The annual manoeuvres of 1913 had revealed beyond doubt grave defects in the ranks of the French Army's higher commanders. Joffre explains:
'Many of our general officers had proved that they were incapable of adapting themselves to the conditions of a modem conflict, and for the good of the Army, they ought to be replaced as quickly as possible by men with more open minds. The war came on before this important work of regeneration in our higher grades could be accomplished, and we started the campaign with a number of incapable com m anders; it was in the full tide of battle and under the pressure of events that I was obliged to effect these drastic changes which I had intended to make in times of peace.'
Between 1 August and 6 September (the start of the Battle of the Marne) 50 French generals of divisional ranks and upwards, including two army commanders, were dismissed. Over 90 generals of brigade suffered the same fate. In his Memoirs, Joffre declares
'upon my conscience that I never did [this] without being firmly convinced that I was acting in the interests of the country's safety. Many of these removals cost me dearly, and I think it will be believed when I now say, as I look back calmly across the years, that never in the course of my whole career did I ever have to perform duty more difficult or more disagreeable than that of relieving from their commands generals - some of them my friends, all of them perfectly honourable men - whose force of character had proved unequal to the rough test of war.'
With these, and other preliminaries (like trying to persuade Field-Marshal Sir John French not to take the BEF right out of the battle) attended to, Joffre delivered his counter-stroke on the Marne on 6 September. By 11 September he was able to telegraph to Millerand,
'The Battle of the Marne is an incontestable victory for us.'
To his Army he issued an unusually emotional Order of the Day, which concluded with these words:
'As for me, if I have done any good I am rewarded by the greatest honour that ever came to me during my whole career, the honour of commanding men like you. It is with deep emotion that I tender you my thanks for what you have done: I owe to you the realisation of that towards which all my energies have been continuously strained for the last four and forty years - I mean the Revanche of 1870.'
This was the peak of Joffre's career, from this moment onwards he was 'the Victor of the Marne'. On the very day that he took his vital decision - August 25 - he had been denounced as an incompetent idiot in the cabinet. Messimy was urged to dismiss him, and when he refused to do so he was forced to resign. Millerand, once more his successor, visited Joffre on 27 August; he was reassured by the General's calm and complete self possession, but he failed to reassure the politicians and the agitation against Joffre mounted. And now he was announcing 'incontestable victory'. The Germans were going back. The Allies were advancing, really advancing, at last. Not surprisingly, Joffre's prestige soared; he became to the Army and to the general public 'Papa' Joffre, even 'Grandpapa' - a role for which it must be said, he looked every inch the part.
The 'Miracle of the Marne' has gone down in history as one of the world's very large events, and rightly. It was much more of a 'miracle' than the now equally famous (at least in Britain) 'Miracle of Dunkirk' in 1940. The extraction of the BEF from France during the disastrous battle of that year - a much bigger disaster than the Battles of the Frontiers in 1914, calamitous though these were - was a difficult task indeed, but it was a task within the powers of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force nevertheless. Despite heavy losses, both were strong enough to do what they had to do. Joffre, in 1914, won his victory with a weaker army, made weaker still by continuous defeat. His personality, his unconquerable will to survive and win, was the essential ingredient; it is impossible to imagine a Battle of the Mrne without Joffre.
And it is impossible to imagine greater heights than he reached by his victory. But after it, the War took on a new look: it settled into the stalemate of the continuous trench-lines, which ruled out manoeuvre for all participants and created a form of war which robbed all generals of their birthright. After 1914 and until 1918 (when movement was restored) the conditions of the new warfare dominated by barbed wire, machine-guns and above all artillery, meant that at the moment when troops were committed to battle
'they almost certainly passed out of the control of their generals. Generals, in fact, became quite impotent at the very moment when they would expect and be expected to display their greatest proficiency.'
It was a hard fate, and harder still for the men who experienced the effect of it and bear silent witness in the war cemeteries today. Joffre was no more able to solve this tactical deadlock without the aid of new technology than any other man - as 40,000 Frenchmen in the Memorial Cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette, and many more in the cemeteries of Artois and Champagne, where the French fought their great battles of 1915, testify. Many of you will probably have heard me say that 1915 was in many ways the worst year of the War, because on every front things had to be attempted when the possibility of success was never much better than slight and often it was zero. When the year began, France had already sustained nearly a million casualties (Britain's were under 100,000). By mid-June the casualty bill was again mounting rapidly, with little to show for it, and Joffre informed Sir John French that it was the general wish in France
'that, given the slightest chance of success, a supreme effort should be made to end the War before the coming winter.'
This now became his clear goal: early victory. There could be no question of waiting, as Britain was forced do, until armies could be formed and a munitions industry created to give them arms. Meanwhile, he uttered an unfortunate response to those who demanded to know what he was doing, and why the War was taking so long; he replied,
'Je les grignote' ('I'm nibbling at them')
It was as unfortunate for him as Mr Asquith's fatal saying, 'wait and see'. By the end of 1915 the French had suffered another 1,430,000 losses. It was an expensive nibble. But to the wonder of many France did not collapse in 1915.
One thing at least had been gained, at the very end of the year: Joffre convened an Allied Military Conference at Chantilly on December 6-8 at which agreement was reached for the first time on simultaneous combined effort by all the Allies which would end the war in 1916, or the early weeks of 1917 at least. It was once more a question of France holding out. The Germans were determined that she should not, and launched their attack at Verdun in February with the explicit aim of 'bleeding the French Army to death.' Joffre's fall really dates from this moment; there is no doubt that he and his staff and other high commanders were taken by surprise, despite warnings from the front. However, the French Army held on once more; it bled - profusely, to the tune of 360,000 casualties at Verdun during the year - but it did not bleed to death. It could not take its intended leading part in the big Allied offensive of the year on the Somme, but the part it did play was large enough to cost it over 200,000 more men. The cost of the whole year was 900,000 - bringing France's total to 3,385,000. It is an unimaginable figure.
The Battle of the Marne was now a long way back. The great victory of the Marne was not forgotten, but it was a faint memory against yesterday's casualty lists . . . or last week's . . . or next week's. Politicians, above all, were asking 'Has Papa Joffre lost his touch?' Was it not time for 'Grandpa' to make way for a younger man? Above all, was it not time for 'Chantilly', the contemptuous short name for Joffre's general headquarters which had the look of an arrogant and altogether too powerful state-within-a-state in the shelter of his reputation, to be taken down a few pegs? Many Deputies and Senators (and even a few generals) believed the answer to all these questions was 'yes, it is time for him to go'.
By December 1916 dissatisfaction had come to a head in both the main Allied countries: in Britain, the Prime Minister, Mr Asquith, was manoeuvred out of office and replaced by Mr Lloyd George: in France, M Aristide Briand, to save his government, decided to remove Joffre and replace him by the rising star, General Nivelle. The machinations in both countries were not pretty to observe - they seldom are. Stage by stage Joffre was driven to the point where, stripped of all useful functions, he had no alternative but to resign, and this he did on December 26. On the same day he was, in the words of the British Ambassador in Paris, 'put on the shelf for Ornamental China', he was made a Marshal of France.
As you may imagine, he was fairly disgusted by all this, but what dismayed him most was the effect of these intrigues upon the War. Joffre was convinced that the Battle of the Somme, despite the heavy losses, had been a major Allied victory. Haig, whose army bore two thirds of the loss, entirely agreed with him. And so did the German High Command, Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
Joffre and Haig had agreed to push the Somme battle to its conclusion as soon as possible - in February 1917. But General Nivelle had a different plan altogether, entailing a delay until mid-April, by which time the Germans had comfortably saved the main part of their army by withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line. Joffre comments bitterly: 'The men who saved them have a heavy responsibility to bear in the face of History.' I believe that is unquestionably true; as we know, Nivelle's plan proved to be a disastrous failure.
These painful events effectively marked the end of Joffre's career. He died in 1931, 79 years old, in my opinion one of the great figures of the War, greatly honoured and regretted by all who knew him and recognised his powerful qualities of character and will.