Gateway to the Classics: Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by Donald A. Mackenzie
Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by  Donald A. Mackenzie

General Joffre

General Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, is usually referred to among his country-men as "Silent Joffre". He never utters an unnecessary word, but what he does say is worth listening to. In appearance he is not very soldierly, and certainly not at all like Kitchener. He is of short stature and somewhat stout, and he has a habit of thrusting his hands into his pockets. In civilian attire one might mistake him for a shrewd and prosperous city business man who has spent much of his time at a desk. His jaw is broad and resolute, his nose prominent, with wide nostrils, and his grey-blue eyes are as kindly as they are penetrative. He has heavy, pondering lips, over which droops a large white moustache, and deep lines seam his broad forehead. You can see at a glance that he is a man accustomed to think deeply and long. When he smiles his face beams with unaffected good humour.

There is nothing about him to suggest the popular idea that all Frenchmen are gay and light-hearted. The grave, silent Joffre is a modest man of simple habits and manners. But he is "as hard as nails", as the saying goes, and always "wide awake".

The great general is a man of humble origin. It is said that one of his ancestors, a century ago, was a travelling pedlar in the Eastern Pyrenees, who used to go from village to village driving a van with all kinds of household wares. Because he was in the habit of shouting "J'offre ", which signifies "I offer ", he became known as "Joffre", and his descendants adopted the nickname as a surname. If this story is true, the Joffre family must have had no cause to be ashamed of their connection with the honest broker of village fame.

In boyhood General Joffre was regarded as being of rather daring and reckless character. Bathing was his favourite recreation, and he won among his fellows a great reputation as a diver and swimmer. But his feats alarmed his parents, and especially his mother, who feared he would some day meet with a grave mishap. It was his custom to have a plunge in a river near his home every morning before breakfast.

He was ordered to discontinue it, because he could not be prevailed upon to keep out of danger. "Some morning you'll be drowned," his mother exclaimed nervously. "I have never heard of such a foolhardy boy as you are."

The lad fretted under the restriction, and at length began to steal out of the house before anyone was up. So he was put to sleep in a room in a second story of the old-fashioned country house, and his mother locked him in every night. The river was strictly forbidden. "He can't be trusted," declared his mother; "he seems to enjoy risking his life."

But young Joffre was difficult to restrain. He soon hit on a plan to have his morning dip unknown to anyone. Securing an old sheet, he tore it up and made a "rope ladder "of it. He went early to bed, and woke with the lark. In the grey dawn he lowered his ladder from the window, clambered down it, and ran to the river-side. Then he had a cool plunge in a deep pool, diving headlong from a jutting rock, and swam about where the current was strongest as nimbly as a seal. Those who had occasional glimpses of him in the water were not surprised that his mother should feel nervous. After his bathe he did not wait to dry himself, but scampered home across the fields and climbed up his ladder to his bedroom before anyone in the house had wakened up.

These exploits went on for a time, until one morning the frail ladder snapped, and the boy fell heavily into the garden and broke his leg. He lay there for nearly two hours before he was discovered. "Oh, my dear, foolish boy," exclaimed his mother, "I knew something terrible would happen to you one day! Will you never be warned?"

His mother's tears hurt him more than his injury. So he resolved to be obedient to her wishes in future. To please her he began to study seriously, and when he was going about on crutches he got into the habit of reading a good deal.

"After all," his mother remarked to a friend one day, "this accident he has had may be a blessing in disguise."


General Joffre.

At the same time she felt that her son had better have experience of strict discipline. He had been so wayward and determined and cunning that she feared he would return to his bathing exploits again. So the boy was sent to a college sooner than was intended, and before he had ceased to limp as he walked. He made good progress, and was looked upon as a lad of great promise. In time he decided to study for the army, and, like Kitchener, showed a preference for the Engineers. The ambitious spirit he had displayed in rivaling the feats of other boys in river bathing was then given a more serious turn. He determined to acquit himself with distinction in his military studies, and he certainly did so. Young Joffre was pointed out as an example to his comrades.

Before he was nineteen the war of 1870 broke out between Germany and France. He took part in the defence of Paris, and learned much by bitter experience regarding the military needs of his country. After the French capital fell, and peace was declared, he did useful work in connection with the reconstruction of the city defences, and was promoted to the rank of captain at the age of twenty-two. He was already marked out as a young soldier of great promise. It is of special interest to know that as an Engineer officer he had to do with the rebuilding of the famous fortifications of Verdun.

Subsequently he saw much active service in the French colonies. He took part in expeditions in Cochin-China, where he overlooked the erection of forts, and in West Africa. He also performed important duties in Madagascar and Algeria.

His promotion was rapid and well deserved. Ultimately, after his return home, he became the youngest general in the French army. His interests were entirely bound up in his profession. He studied the art of warfare continually, preparing himself for the struggle with Germany, which, he felt fully convinced, was bound to come in his own lifetime. In politics he took no part. When he appeared on a public platform he spoke simply as a soldier, and never feared to be frank regarding the seriousness of the coming conflict. In the army he was known as a reformer. He cared nothing for display. He worked hard for efficiency. His belief was that French soldiers were too apt to trust to their daring and fearless methods of attack. He wanted to have them trained to maintain a tenacious and enduring defensive, so that they might wear down the enemy and strike hard when they got them at a disadvantage. At manoeuvres he displayed great ability as a strategist who did the unexpected and outwitted his opponents. Nobody ever knew what Joffre's next move would be. He always showed himself strongest where his opponents thought he was weakest. Everyone admired the clever manner in which he handled large forces of men. The army and the public learned to place entire confidence in the silent, determined, and watchful General Joffre. His character has been well summed up by one of our own public men who paid him a visit at the seat of war. "General Joffre", he said, is not only a great soldier; he is also a great man.

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