Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Cooper's Son who Remade the Armies of France

"Let's name him Joseph," said Gilles Joffre to his wife, as they viewed their first child with much pride.

"That doesn't seem to be enough," responded Mme. Joffre. So unusual a baby deserved better treatment, she thought.

"Then how about Joseph Jacques? That's a good, sensible sounding name."

"That sounds well," she admitted, "but still it lacks something: I'll tell you. Let's call him Joseph Jacques Césaire."

"Sounds like a soldier," said the father. "Well, who knows? Perhaps he will be a general some day," Mme. Joffre replied.

So the infant who lay quietly blinking on his natal day, January 12, 1852, was to be known as Joseph to his friends; but tucked away in his name for future reference was Césaire—as the French folk pronounced the name of the great Roman conqueror.

Truly there was nothing very auspicious in the start of Joseph Joffre. His father was merely a cooper in a straggling hillside town of the Pyrenees in Southern France, Rivesaltas—but he was a good  cooper. His neighbors had a saying that is preserved to this day: "Barrels as good as those made by old Gilles Joffre."

The town itself had some six thousand inhabitants, and was situated on the River Agly, about nine miles from the city of Perpignan. The Joffre home was a very plain and humble dwelling set alongside of the cooper shop, and neither better nor worse than its neighbors—but the well-to-do workman of today would turn up his nose at it. Nevertheless in this home were born eleven children, the oldest of whom was the future Marshal of France. And the father continued to live there for thirty years or more.

It is related of him that even as a baby Joseph never cried, but endured his various troubles with silent stoicism. As he grew older, this trait of silence became ingrown; it was alluded to as "Joffre's taciturnity." But as a matter of fact the gift of silence in him as both boy and man did not indicate a sullen or unfriendly disposition. It was merely that he had his head in the clouds. He made a life job of thinking—like the seated statue by Rodin.

As one result of this trait, little is reported concerning his childhood. No anecdotes are related of him at all, except one doubtful story about a fight which he had with a schoolmate. The latter wanted him to stop and take part in some game. Joffre replied that he didn't have time. The other fellow came back with a taunt—and then Joseph "waded in."

He did not have any chums for the same reason, lack of time, and doubtless he missed a great deal out of boyhood from this fact. It is said that in the study hall he would erect a great pile of books between himself and the next boy, so as not to be disturbed. Yet he didn't shine particularly as a student. He was simply busy—thinking.

It was not until he was sent to college at Perpignan, that he really began to take an interest in books, and his favorites were the more solid studies—algebra, descriptive geometry, surveying, and draftsmanship. His bent even at this early day seemed to be civil engineering.

The ambition of every middle-class French home, in those days, was to send a son to the army—have him study to become an officer. Mamma Joffre had not forgotten the Cæsar in her oldest son's name; and in a family conclave it was decided that he should be sent to Paris, to try for the entrance examinations in the École Polytechnique.

Gilles Joffre accompanied his son to the capital, and left him in a private school. Like his son, the cooper was a man of few words; but what he must have done at parting was to clap the boy on the shoulder, and say: "Now, go to it!"

Joseph Joffre did. When he returned to his boyhood's home, only four years later, he was wearing the shoulder straps of a lieutenant, and had seen active service. But this is getting ahead of our story.

There was really nothing else for him to do but to "go to it" here in Paris. He was a big, hulking lad of fifteen, with a bullet head set upon a thick neck and broad shoulders—an awkward figure dressed in ill-fitting clothes. All his life Joffre paid little attention to dress. Here at the awkward age he looked out of place with the well-dressed city boys. They tried to have fun at his expense, but he withdrew into his shell more than ever, and they soon learned to let him alone.

It must have been a lonely life that young Joffre led—but we have no direct evidence that he ever felt lonely. His books and his day dreams seem always to have made up for a lack of human companionship. The other fellows contented themselves with saying of him: "He is too slow and methodical to amount to much."

He did not, indeed, make a specially brilliant record in his entrance examinations to the Polytechnique; but his stumbling block was not mathematics or science, it was—German! He never could abide the language!

Joseph Joffre entered this famous military training school in 1869, at the age of seventeen. Within a few months the school course was broken up by the German invasion, and Joffre with other cadets promptly volunteered for service. Much to the delight of his family, he was made a second lieutenant, attached to the Engineering Corps. His first practical field work was in throwing up fortifications in defence of Paris. But the Germans were not to be stopped by Joffre in their march on the French capital at this time. That was reserved for a later day and another war.

The short but terrible conflict of 1870 over, Joffre returned to college, and graduated therefrom in 1872, with the rank of full lieutenant. One of his classmates of this time was Ferdinand Foch, but if the two future Marshals there became acquainted no story of their meeting has come down to us.

Joffre's first work at fort building had been so well done that immediately upon graduation the government set him to work. The memory of the stinging German defeat was with them stirring them to action. They wanted defenses everywhere. Joffre was employed upon them at Paris, Versailles, Montpellier, and even in faraway Brittany—until he was disposed to grumble at his fate.

"This is all very fine," he said; "but I don't want to spend the rest of my days building forts. I want to command troops and see some real fighting."

It was the Cæsar cropping up in him again.

Without question he was a born builder of fortifications. One day the great Marshal MacMahon came by on a tour of inspection, and was much delighted with a series of defenses he had built near Paris.

"I congratulate you, Monsieur le Capitaine!" he said.

By one sentence he had promoted the young lieutenant to a captaincy.

It was about this time that a fall from his horse very nearly cut short his military career. He was so severely injured that the doctors feared that his mind was affected, and he was sent home for a complete rest.

At home he did not complain—that was not his nature—but he spent several days pacing back and forth in his little upper room. Then came a day when he burst in to the downstairs room where sat his parents, his face beaming—showing the strain which he had overcome.

"It's all right, mon père!" he cried joyfully. "I have solved it. I will get well!"

What he had been doing was to set himself an abstruse and difficult problem in mathematics, in order to see if his brain would respond. It did so, he solved it and thus had no more fears as to his own ultimate recovery.

Another story told by his sister, of these early army days, shows further his power of mental abstraction.

"My brother was always lost in thought," says Mme. Artus. "No matter what he did, his thoughts never left him. Once they caused his arrest as a spy."

It seems that at Vauban, not far away from his home town of Rivesaltas, they were constructing a fort. Joffre sauntered over to inspect it. He was clad in civilian dress and he evinced so much interest in what was going on that the commanding officer promptly seized him for a suspicious character.

"Did my brother protest? Not he. But when they brought him before the military court, his Catalonian brogue was enough to convince anybody as to where he was born.

"'Why didn't you tell them who you were?' I asked him.

"'Too busy thinking about the fort,' was his reply."

One other anecdote of this time has come down to us and is worth repeating. His father had bought a piece of farm land that was badly in need of ditching, in order to drain it properly during the wet season, and irrigate it during the dry. The son sketched out a scheme of cross trenches, but his father demurred—then Joseph exploded:

"Trenches! What the devil! I know all about trenches; trenches are my specialty."

The Great War of later years was to show whether or not this confidence in his own abilities was misplaced.

By the year 1884, his reputation as a builder of trenches and forts was firmly established, although official promotion had come slowly. When Admiral Courbet telegraphed to the Home Office from the Isle of Formosa for a reliable officer to place in charge of this work, Joffre was sent. He spent nearly a year there and it was a year of the hardest kind of work. He could get only indifferent help, so he worked early and late to make up the deficit.

From there he was sent on similar work to the province of Tonkin, Indo-China. Here he practically rebuilt the town of Hanoi, clearing and guttering the streets, draining the neighboring marshes which had made the settlement a pest-hole, and building permanent roads. The town of Vietri was similarly cleaned up.

For these important labors he received the first recognition in nearly ten years. He was given official thanks, and decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honor.

A fellow officer who knew him at this time says: "Captain Joffre was a solidly-built Pyrenean, calm and clear-headed, with a firm walk and a hard blue eye. He seldom smiled and he spoke still more rarely. He never punished except in extreme cases, and then hard. Natives feared him for his silence, but loved him for his justice."

This portrait of him about a quarter of a century before the Great War is easily recognizable in the commander of the later day.

In 1891 he paralleled the career of General Foch somewhat by taking a professor's chair. He was appointed instructor in fortifications at the Military School at Fontainebleau, where he remained for two years. The work did not appeal to him particularly and he is spoken of there as a thorough teacher, but not popular. He had not mingled enough with others to get their point of view.

A welcome change from this was a summons from headquarters to go to Timbuctoo, and help suppress a native rebellion. It was all the more welcome as here, for the first time, he was promised a chance to do some real fighting.

Timbuctoo was then being overrun by the Tuaregs, a tribe of terrible brigands called "the veiled men" of Western Soudan. They had massacred the European settlers, and ended by killing two French officers, Colonel Bonnier and Lieutenant Boiteux, who had recently headed expeditions against them. It was a wild and treacherous land, and the relief expedition would scarcely have child's play of it.

Joffre went at it without the slightest misgiving. Like many another soldier he was a firm believer in "Luck," and here certainly the fates were propitious. He set forth on his journey from Segou, on Christmas Day, 1893, commanding a force of thirty French and three hundred natives. They crossed deadly swamps and dry, trackless deserts. There were some deaths by the wayside, but Joffre pushed on. His progress was slow, as he stopped to make friends with native chiefs, and enlist their aid where possible.

At last they reached Timbuctoo, only to find orders awaiting them to "prepare for evacuation," in the face of a threatening Tuareg army. Joffre for once disobeyed orders, and decided, instead, to attack. He did so, and administered a crushing defeat to the brigands. He followed this up so thoroughly, that the whole district was restored to peace.

Then the soldier gave place to the engineer. He cleaned up the town (in another sense) and returned home.

"Luck was on my side," he said briefly after receiving official congratulations, and the rank of lieutenant colonel. "I might have met the fate of Bonnier and Boiteux, had the Goddess of Good Fortune not attended me."

But those who knew him believed that it was something more than luck.

That Joffre was a fatalist is evinced by another incident of this march in Soudan. An insect's sting had poisoned his left eye so severely that the sight was threatened. The doctor of the force advised him to wear a bandage. Joffre would not agree.

"I could not command my troops if I were blindfolded," he said.

"Then it must be blue glasses," said the doctor.

But eyeglass shops are not found in the desert, and Joffre went on without protection. A few days later a soldier received a packet from home and brought it to him. It was a pair of blue glasses!

"I told you that I was in luck," said Joffre. However, he narrowly escaped blindness, and ever afterward a thin veil-like film covered the injured eye.

One-result of the Timbuctoo campaign was an official report written by Joffre, and afterwards published in book form under the title (translated) "Operations of the Joffre Column before and after the Capture of Timbuctoo." The story is a straightforward soldierly narrative. One French critic recently said of it, apropos of Joffre's election to the French Academy, a rather unique honor: "I defy anybody who knows the pleasure which words can give us in evoking things, to deny that this report is a piece of most effective writing. . . . With Joffre who has no idea or desire to give us 'fine writing,' the effect produced is that of reality itself. The names of the tribes he meets or describes take on a strange virtue, as if we heard them on the spot. Even the French officers' names scattered over a narrative from which all attempt at picturesqueness is banished, produce picturesqueness. . . On the whole he is a primitive, and with all the primitive's simple charm and power."

After the Soudanese adventure, came a trip to Madagascar—this time, more fort constructing, from which it seemed that he could never escape. The problem down there was a vexatious one, due to a do-nothing policy of a predecessor. Things were in bad shape. Joffre arrived, after a long sea voyage, gave one look around, and then things began to happen.

"If men are responsible for this disorder," he said sententiously, "it is easy to suppose that men can restore the needed order."

And the forts and barracks went up in record time.

"We never expected to see that job done," reports one soldier. "The thing was so old that it had cobwebs over it. When Joffre took hold it went up by magic."

They concocted another saying about him, down in that distant island, which was:

"There goes old man System!"

At another time an officer remarked: "Joffre wants what he wants when, he wants it—and furthermore he knows why he wants it!"

In 1901, at the century's turn, and when he was rounding out his half century, his long-delayed promotions began to arrive. He was made Brigadier General, and thenceforth began to forge rapidly to the front. One reason for his slow advancement was that he was no politician or time-server. He never pushed himself forward. And so much of his work was done in remote provinces that the General Staff hardly knew him at all. We remember, too, that he had made no friends at school, who would follow his career, or speak a good word for him in official ears.

When he did at last receive recognition it was upon absolute merit. But when he reached the General Staff, the remark was frequently heard: "Who is this Joffre? We never heard of him."

It was not long, however, before he made his presence felt in Paris official circles. They came to depend more and more upon this stocky, hard-headed Gascon and his opinions. He never minced words and he went to the root of the matter.

In 1911, when the need was universally felt, of a thorough reorganization of the French army—a much-needed house-cleaning—they cast about for some man big enough for the job. In a conference General Pau, a warm adherent of Joffre, shook his single good fist in the faces of the Staff officers, and exclaimed: "There is only one man who can do the job!"

So they sent for Joffre and made him chief of the General Staff, with full power to reorganize. It was well for France that they did so, and fortunate that he had three full years to work before the blow fell, and the invaders were again at their gates.

"No German could be more thorough than Joffre," said one officer. "For him no lasting results can be obtained without the utmost care. He has limitless patience, joined with a wonderful breadth of view. His methods resemble the head of a great business."

In his intricate work of reconstructing the army, he revealed another, and surprising side to his nature. From being cold and aloof, he showed a human sympathy for his men, down to the last private. It was as though the man who had held himself aloof from intimates wanted to take the whole French army into his heart. And the men responded with an affection and a confidence which were later to produce the fine results of leadership in the War. He was no longer "Joffre the Silent," but "Papa Joffre."

Says one writer: "Joffre is the soldier of democracy. That is why he sets America aflame with enthusiasm, as he did France. His thickset frame, firmly knit and vigorous, his clear eyes, which observe you from beneath bushy eyebrows, his firm and kindly mouth, his bristling mustache, the simplicity of his manners, his clean-cut, reserved language,—all that goes to show that there is nothing in him of bluster and affectation. He is truly 'Papa Joffre,' the father and even the grandfather of the poilus. It is the poilu  himself beneath the white panache  of this unique Marshal of France."

When in 1914 the Germans struck, they anticipated an easy march upon Paris—such as that of forty odd years before. But this time a different Joffre stood in their path. In place of the young lieutenant not yet out of his 'teens, they found a grizzled veteran who matched them with methods as thorough-going as their own, but who preferred to control his men by love rather than fear.

"Your French soldiers are brave," said one German officer contemptuously, "but as for discipline—bah! Our legions will brush you aside."

"Our men may not have the machine-like discipline that you affect," was the French officer's reply. "But we replace it with something far better—a love of country that will cause us to sacrifice the last drop of blood."

"But your great Generals—where are they?" asked the other.

"They will make themselves felt in due time. At their head stands one who is yet to fight his first great battle—yet I advise you not to arouse him!"

The world knows the rest of the story of that mighty invasion—how the black, invading line curved onward and inward until it threw its shadow upon Paris. Then when the final blow was about to be struck—the coup-de-grâce as the Germans firmly believed—up from the South came the army of Joffre. It had retreated and retreated, until the moment for its counter-blow.

Now with the precision of a sledge-hammer it struck, and struck again—until the surprised enemy turned and fell back. Paris was saved.

In the gallery of the world's great soldiers, the homely, kindly figure of Joffre may well find place. He seems to occupy a niche quite by himself. He is not spectacular, nor a "hero," but a simple man among men, whose results are built upon a lifetime of patient endeavor.

He is Rodin's statue of "The Thinker" come to life.

Important Dates in Joffre's Life

1852. January 12. Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre born.
1867. Entered preparatory military school, Paris.
1869. Entered Polytechnic Academy.
1870. Volunteered in army to defend Paris against Prussians.
1870. Commissioned second-lieutenant.
1876. Commissioned captain for work on fortifications.
1884. Sent to Formosa to construct barracks and trenches.
1885. Decorated, Legion of Honor, Tonkin.
1891. Professor in military school, Fontainebleau.
1893. Sent to Madagascar on construction work.
1894. Headed expedition to Timbuctoo.
1901. Brigadier-general.
1911. Chief of general staff.
1914. Commander-in-chief, French army.
1916. Marshal of France.