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Marshal Joffre: The Triumphs, Failures, and Controversies of France's Commander-in-Chief in the Great War Review


Joseph Joffre, commander in chief of the French army in the beginning of WW1, is a controversial figure. The victor of the Battle of the Marne, who saved France from German invasion, and at first known affectionately as Papa Joffre, renowned for his calm and unflappable demeanor. But responsibility is also attributed to him as the man who bore the blame for almost losing the war: it was he who oversaw the disastrous early offensives in Alsace and Lorraine, which cost so many French casualties in the battle of the Frontiers and denuded French troops from the German offensives in Belgium. And while he won the Battle of the Marne, he also launched nearly as disastrous of offensives in 1915, resulting in heavy casualties for little gain, and the defensive preparations for the battle of Verdun were wholly insufficient to withstand the German hammer blow. Not all of these are entirely the fault of Joffre, but Joffre, as the supreme commander of French forces, ultimately is the one who must merit the blame. Marshal Joffre: The Triumphs, Failures, and Controversies of France’s Commander-in-Chief in the Great War, by André Bourachot and translated by Andrew Uffindel, does its best to defend Joffre’s record, both before and during the war, and yields partial satisfaction but fails to completely convince as to Joffre’s laudable record.

Joffre was a rather portly fellow

Joffre was a rather portly fellow

Starting before the war, Marshal Joffre shows Joffre’s origins and his accomplishments, as well as what his military record led to in influence on his military career and style, particularly his lack of military combat command and his cautious, engineer-style method. The preparation for war itself includes Joffre’s efforts to pass the Three Year Law (which increased the conscription period in the French army from 2 to 3 years), and the procurement of heavy artillery or more precisely the lack thereof. This has some very intriguing elements about pre-war French proposals for army reform, but it fails to convince that the 3 year law actually did a significant amount to improve the French army. Other books have commented on that there was too little time for the increase in active strength to lead to a significant change in troop quality, while in the meantime it led principally to an increase in overcrowding in French barracks life. Some of this is hinted at in the book, but it seems to gloss over the negatives of the law and merely praise Joffre for his “achievement” of passing it. Artillery meanwhile, does not mention the various legislative problems of the procurement of the artillery. This would have helped to redeem Joffre, but its claim that the lack of heavy artillery was of limited impact early in the war seems odd: the lack of French heavy artillery led to significant problems in countering German longer-ranged heavy artillery, and of course quickly meant that breaking through defenses became prohibitively expensive or impossible.

Equipment abandoned by the French after the Battle of the Frontiers during the retreat

Equipment abandoned by the French after the Battle of the Frontiers during the retreat

Some other elements are more defensible. It is perhaps unfair to critique Joffre fully for the French aggressive offenses of the early war: it was a trait too broadly shared in the French army and popular throughout Europe for Joffre to be its only arbiter. By contrast, the book points out that Joffre’s regulations, or at least those which appeared under his watch, were more sensible than often assumed, and lacked time to percolate down. But the key point is that there were alternate choices available and these choices did involve a more defensive doctrine and was for this and other reasons turned aside by the politicians. Joffre was not operating in a vacuum, and he was not free to adopt a more defensive and sensible doctrine and deployment, even if he had wished to, and intelligence permitted - another confusing element, to know from where the German attack would come.

1915 was a terribly bloody year, and the French offensives in Champagne and Artois are widely viewed as futile and pointless, which bled the French army white. Bourachot’s defense is mediocre: there were requirements to not let troops while away in line, and the offensive was necessary for learning, while Russia requested assistance via a French offensive. But the French offensives did much to start the dolorous road to 1917 and its mutinies, in the dreadful paradox of the “offensive spirit:” without artillery and equipment, the offensives seemed doomed and it gives no evidence that Russia was truly helped by them. Alistair Horne stated that there were no reprieves for the Russians occasioned by the Germans needing to move away troops, since the French offensives were relatively easily contained. Bourachot could have instead emphasized the possibility of success, since First Artois did see a significant penetration and Vimy Ridge might have been held if fortune had better favored the French.

The attempts of Bourachot to confuse the issue seem notably ill contrived - critiquing Poincarés point that the offensives were a failure, Bourachot asks what would success have been in the context of the limited offensives. perhaps this is a valid question, but it is clear to see that the offensive was a failure. Joffre failed, terribly expensively. He has a point that there is a lack of clarity about concepts of the offensive, but if anything he muddles it further.

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The final nail in Joffre’s coffin was Verdun, where the claim that Verdun did receive attention to its fortifications prior to the German attack, that Joffre was not responsible for disarming the forts, and that he doesn’t bear responsibility for misapplying intelligence about the German offensive falls flat. There was indeed some reinforcement of Verdun prior to the German offensives, and Joffre can be credited with the fact that the scale and nature of the German attack was nearly incomprehensibly powerful and an outer of context problem in its artillery strength for the French, but as Castelnau’s improvements with the creation of a second line show, it was indeed possible to have significantly better performances on the part of the French defenders. The claims of the lack of utility of the forts also seems exaggerated: it was a horrific fight for the French to retake Douamont even if the final capture of the fort was comparatively easy (and the same for the capture of Fort Vaux), while the French defense of Fort Vaux was a horrific battle for the Germans. The resilience of the forts during the battle showed that they could have played a useful role, and while the policy od drawing down garrisons along the rest of the line made sense, Verdun in a salient must surely be ranked as a vulnerable site requiring forts.

There are some excellent details present in the book, and it makes a valiant effort, sometimes substantiated, to defend and rescue Joffre from a severe denigration of his reputation which he has sustained. But it tries to go too far, in defending Joffre on all points, ans tries to paper over mistakes and errors which ultimately must be laid at the feet of the French high command. Joffre’s victory on the Marne can be credited to him, and his diplomatic achievements as the de-facto military head of the Allied coalition as well as his post-Generalissimo role in diplomacy in the United States as well, and these are sadly under covered - but the heliographic side of Joffre in the book falls flat.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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