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French Marshal Joseph Joffre

Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Joseph Jacques C. Joffre, marshal of France, was an amiable and optimistic man, known affectionately in France as 'Papa.' Until late 1916 he had been the head of the French army, but by the time America was contemplating entering the war against Germany, he was on the shelf.

Long a leader in the coterie of French officers who believed they could defeat Germany by sheer audacity, Joffre had been in command of the French army when the Great War began in early August 1914. While in that position, the French marshal had a profound effect on the course of history. In the first few weeks it seemed that the world was about to witness a repetition of the Franco- Prussian War of 1870, in which the French army was routed, with Emperor Napoleon III actually taken prisoner at Sedan. But Joffre's balance and continual optimism held the French army together, and the exhausted Germans were driven back to a line along the Aisne River. Joffre was hailed as the Hero of the Marne, his name a household word in America as well as Europe.

But that was 1914, and since then fate had not been kind. Once the armies on the Western Front had settled into their prolonged, ghastly stalemate, the luster attached to Joffre's name wore off. He was widely blamed for French unpreparedness when the Germans attacked Verdun in 1916, and the pressure for his removal became strong. He resigned as chief of the French army in December 1916 and was succeeded by General Robert Nivelle. The exalted title marshal of France was then conferred on Joffre; the honor carried a hollow ring. He was perhaps surprised, therefore, when French Premier Alexandre Ribot called him into his office on April 1, 1917.

The premier had an important challenge for Joffre. The United States, he said, was expected to declare war against Germany within the next few days, and if that should come to pass, Ribot would send René Viviani, a former French premier and currently lord chancellor, on an important mission to Washington. Ribot wanted to know if Joffre would be willing to make the trip as a member of the party. The victory of the Marne was still remembered in the United States, and Joffre was still a hero. No Frenchman, no matter how prominent, could represent the French army to the American people as well as he.

Joffre had reservations about accepting. General Nivelle's great spring offensive on the Aisne was about to take place, and excitement was in the air; he hated to be absent from France at that time. He did not take long, however, in accepting. The entry of the United States in the war was a tremendously important event, and the government of France needed to know more about America's capabilities and plans. It might also be possible to guide the new ally in its first efforts. Joffre notified Premier Ribot that he was available, and began making preparations even before the mission was confirmed.

As Ribot had anticipated, the United States Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and by the middle of the month the Viviani mission was organized and ready to go. The French premier did not issue detailed, binding instructions to the members. Joffre was being sent to establish 'a general outline of the policy which will govern the co-operation of the American forces with the Allied Armies.' How he went about it was up to him.

Up to that time, Joffre had devoted little or no thought to the American military situation, so when he began to study the numbers he was struck by the small size of the U.S. Army. Regulars and National Guardsmen together totaled only two hundred thousand men. The force would have to be multiplied many times to be of any value in Europe, where the Allies had nearly four million men on the Western Front and the Germans about 2.5 million.

The easy part of the task, Joffre believed, would be the recruiting and training of the enlisted soldiers; the difficult problem would be the creation of an officer corps. Developing leaders competent to hold their own in battle against a highly professional enemy could not be accomplished instantaneously.

To make American troops immediately effective, therefore, Joffre's first inclination was to urge the Americans to furnish the French and British 'with men instead of armies.' If troops were sent to France organized only into companies and battalions, they could quickly be incorporated into French regiments for training and service at the front. There would therefore, according to Joffre, be 'no occasion for training general officers and staff for the larger units, only captains and majors being needed.'

Joffre quickly discarded that idea, however, because he knew the Americans could never accept it. No great nation, especially the United States, the prescient old soldier knew, would 'allow its citizens to be incorporated like poor relations in the ranks of some other army and fight under a foreign flag.' He therefore determined that he would start from that premise as he entered discussions in America.

The Viviani party left Paris by train on the morning of April 15, 1917, and that evening sailed aboard the French cruiser Lorraine II from the Brittany port of Brest. Two American journalists were aboard, and Joffre, very conscious of how useful the press could be in presenting the French position, successfully set about to win them over. But the nine-day voyage was no holiday. One of the newsmen remarked on how busy Joffre kept his small staff. 'The Marshal,' the reporter wrote, 'is prepared, if President [Woodrow] Wilson should ask, to indicate what, in his judgment, America might do.'

One development cast a pall over the passengers of Lorraine II. The ship's radio room picked up the crushing news that General Robert Nivelle's touted offensive on the Aisne River had floundered, with an appalling loss of life. Joffre owed nothing to the man who had undercut and succeeded him, but the Hero of the Marne was too big to take any comfort in Nivelle's failure. Joffre was grieved, but disaster always inspired him to greater efforts, and he was ever more convinced, as he later wrote, 'that a gigantic effort would have to be demanded of the Americans; what must be done, and without a moment's delay, was to mobilize in the service of the Allied cause all of America's resources….'

On the evening of April 24, Lorraine II entered Hampton Roads, Virginia, where the U.S. Navy's North Atlantic Squadron greeted her. The fleet commander, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, boarded the vessel, along with the popular French ambassador, Jules Jusserand, and the assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a lavish message of welcome, Admiral Mayo declared that being sent to meet this distinguished party was the 'greatest honor of his career.' The brief ceremonies completed, the Viviani party transferred to the president's yacht Mayflower for the trip up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. On the following morning, after the party had stood at respectful attention as they passed Mount Vernon, Mayflower arrived at Washington, D.C.

Down to meet the French party when the vessel docked at the Washington Navy Yard was Secretary of State Robert Lansing, along with a British delegation similar to Viviani's. It was a festive occasion. The shops of Washington were closed for the day, and the whole population of the city, Joffre later wrote, was out to meet the guests.

The two missions in Washington–French and British–both performed dual functions. To the public, their activities appeared to be mostly ceremonial. In that capacity they often acted together, though in a sort of undeclared competition. In public they vied for the headlines, and behind doors they acted as salesmen for their own national viewpoints regarding America's future role in the war. It created an odd situation.

In public, Joffre was the main attraction in the French party. The venerated war hero far overshadowed the mere former premier. In the British party it was the head, Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour, who carried the appeal. A former prime minister, Balfour was a suave and charming aristocrat, but an aristocrat who wore his title lightly, possessed of an acute sensitivity to the attitudes of the American public. His greatest single coup in warming American hearts came about by a caper. He secretly eluded his security guards and sneaked away to enjoy a lunch with a personal friend of long standing, an American not currently associated with the government.

The most memorable public event was a ceremony in which the French and British delegations placed wreaths at the tomb of George Washington at Mount Vernon. The French came as the nation that had rendered the Americans vital aid in attaining American independence from Britain. But George Washington had been born an Englishman. So Balfour paid homage to 'the immortal memory of George Washington…who would have rejoiced to see the country of which he was by birth a citizen and the country his genius called into existence fighting side by side to save mankind from military despotism.'

In the final analysis, however, the French held the trump cards in the friendly competition of public relations. Americans had not forgotten the fact that the French were once our indispensable allies in our War of Independence against the British. Thus Joffre could say in a press conference that 'France and America will see with pride and joy the day when their sons are once more fighting shoulder to shoulder in defense of liberty.' That was a sentiment that not even the most articulate Englishman could completely counter.

Joffre stayed in Washington for ten days, during which time he addressed both houses of Congress individually. On the afternoon of May 4, he began a week's tour of the principal cities of the eastern United States, and the American people poured out their affection. He was an appealing character: His clear blue eyes, young-looking face, and direct manner more than compensated for his sixty-five years and well-rounded torso. His fame was still magic to Americans, and his appearances gave the American people a chance to honor the brave people of France, as personified in him. In St. Louis he endeared himself to democratic Americans by going to a barbershop and unobtrusively waiting his turn for a haircut. He paid his respects to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, and to Ulysses S. Grant in New York. He placed wreaths at statues of Joan of Arc and Lafayette and visited West Point, the American Valhalla of military professionalism. Everywhere he was received with such tumultuous welcomes as to astonish him. It was a fitting tribute to a fine old soldier.

Ceremonies, no matter how important, were only window dressing. The real significance of the French and British missions lay in the series of hardheaded discussions they held with senior American officials in Washington. For Joffre, the most important meeting was the one held on April 27 with Army Chief of Staff Hugh Scott and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Tasker Bliss. They met at the Army War College.

Joffre started out on the line he had conceived while still back in Paris. The Americans, he said, could obviously not take part of the front line immediately. Yet, if they waited until they had mobilized, trained, and supplied a powerful army, they might arrive in France too late to save the degenerating military situation. It would be better, he said, to act now with'such elements as are ready.'

To accomplish that end, Joffre recommended that the Americans form a single unit, even if only a division, to be sent to France immediately to symbolize American participation. Such a division would first go into training in the French rear areas for a period of from four to six weeks. It could then be sent to a relatively quiet sector of the front before being committed to a more active part of the line. The arrival of that unit would be the first visible step on the road to later cooperation.

Joffre did not presume to dictate how the Americans would mobilize, train, and deploy the large force they assumed would eventually turn the balance of power in Europe, but he reiterated his conviction that the biggest problem would lie in the training of new officers and noncommissioned officers. Privates in the ranks, he insisted, were far easier to train, and the French would be very willing to help.

Little of what the marshal said was new to Scott and Bliss. Scott's questions to Joffre, therefore, centered on logistical problems. Could a port of debarkation be allocated to the Americans? What about rolling stock? And above all, what did the marshal visualize regarding the command relationships between the Americans and their allies?

To most of these and other questions, Joffre had at least partial answers. The French had already considered the question of a port of debarkation and recommended the Americans be given La Pallice, near LaRochelle, on the Bay of Biscay. That seaport had both landing quays and an adequate water supply. As for storage space, that could be built. Its facilities, he estimated, were adequate enough to support the one American division he was requesting immediately, but he had doubts about its ability to support the four hundred thousand to five hundred thousand men visualized by the planners. That matter could be addressed later.

Joffre had expected that the Americans would be sensitive about the question of command relationships, so he treated the subject diplomatically. Though it was obvious that the first American troops in France would have to serve under French commanders, he was quick to assure his hosts that the Americans should have an army of their own. It was bad, he emphasized, to divide an army. The Americans agreed.

Before the meeting broke up, Joffre made a special request for'special service' troops and equipment–railroads, automobiles, and trucks in particular, which the French needed badly. Scott saw no difficulty in meeting that need.

While Joffre was conferring with the Americans, so was British Maj. Gen. George T.M. Bridges, a member of the Balfour mission. On April 30, three days after Joffre met with Scott and Bliss, Bridges penned a letter to Maj. Gen. Joseph E. Kuhn, president of the War College, which was charged with planning for the general staff. Whereas Joffre had supported a separate American army from the beginning, Bridges concentrated on appealing for American draftees to fill up depleted British units. Like the French, the British army was striving to maintain its strength by yearly replacements from the new 'class' of recruits, the young men just reaching draft age. That source of manpower, however, could not keep the ranks of the British army filled, and nearly all its units were far below strength. Bridges' solution to the grim situation was to draw directly from the American manpower pool.

Specifically, Bridges urged that five hundred thousand American recruits be sent to England at once for training and integration into British units. The great advantage of this plan would be that almost immediately America would be actively participating in the struggle. In the process, they would be suffering casualties, 'without which,' according to Bridges, 'it is difficult to realize the war.' The Americans were not yet prepared for that kind of frankness, and it, along with Bridges' manner, brought him a cool reception.

Bridges came close to overstepping his bounds in the tenuous ethics of alliances. Despite the premise that 'We are all in the same boat,' he fell prey to making sniffing references to Britain's Gallic ally. He emphasized the question of language, claiming that the French had few English-speaking officers and the Americans would'soon get tired of being instructed through interpreters.' In a possible attempt at humor, and assuming that Americans were misplaced Anglo-Saxons, he said, 'If [you Americans serve] with the French, you would probably want your own food supply also.'

The principle of placing American recruits into British or French units came to be known to the Americans as 'amalgamation.' Bliss quickly detected its unsuitability for the American objectives of bringing its own army into the fight. Bliss foresaw an important political and psychological danger to American interests and rejected the scheme because it would cause 'greatly disproportionate loss of life' without gaining its goal. 'When the war is over,' he wrote to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, 'it may be a literal fact that the American flag may not have appeared anywhere on the line because our organizations will simply be parts of battalions and regiments of the Entente armies.'

On some points, however, Bridges and Joffre agreed. The Americans needed training in modern warfare, and each offered the services of his own nation's instructors. More immediately, both pleaded for a quick show of American force. 'The sight of the Stars and Stripes,' Bridges wrote, 'will make a great impression on both sides.'

With it all, Joffre was the man the Americans listened to. When he departed Washington for his trip around the country, he left behind a paper setting forth his views. When he returned on May 10, he learned to his delight that the War Department had drawn up a memorandum based almost entirely on his recommendations. It called for the organization of a single division, composed largely of Regular Army men, to be sent to France as early as June 1, 1917. Nobody expected the first division to be fully trained in modern warfare. That would take place in France. But all agreed that a recognizable American force should be sent to France immediately.

Joffre's work was done. He returned to France to render his report, having capped a military career with a diplomatic triumph. He had made a great contribution to eventual Allied victory; he had helped the Americans to begin thinking in concrete terms about their specific role in the coming campaigns. He had also uncovered some of the basic problems that would continue to plague American war planning: the very real, often selfish differences between French and British needs and the unique political demands of America as a proud participant in this now truly worldwide conflict.

Marshal Joseph 'Papa' Joffre had planted the seeds that would grow to be the two-million-man American Expeditionary Force.



John S.D. Eisenhower is the author of Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott (Oklahoma, 1999). His latest book is Yanks (Simon & Schuster, 2001), from which this article is excerpted.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2001 edition of MHQ.

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