A week or two back, I mentioned that winter warfare in Europe was restricted by weather conditions, an obvious fact illustrated by the entrenched stalemate that had infested both the Western and Eastern Fronts by mid-December 1914. There were many good reasons for this – weather-related transport problems, the battlefield chaos caused by mud and shortage of daylight hours, to name just a few – but one man was determined to ignore them all. That man was Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French Army’s Chief of Staff and de facto field commander, and he chose 10 December 1914 as the opening day of the biggest Allied offensive of the War to date.
Generally known as the First Champagne Offensive (two more were to follow in 1915 and 1918), it began around the town of Perthes but eventually spread all along the northern and central sections of the Western Front. Intended to remove two German-held bulges (or salients) from the front line, the campaign achieved absolutely nothing during four months of attrition, and cost the French army some 90,000 men. It did provide conclusive evidence that well-constructed defensive positions held an unbeatable advantage in the contemporary technological climate, a fact already quite clear to many observers, but Joffre went on to mount similar offensives with grimly similar results all through 1915. Why?
On the whole I don’t subscribe to the ‘lions led by donkeys’ school of remembrance. Most generals on the Western Front and elsewhere were not brilliant but nor were they stupid. Commanders on both sides were dealing with unprecedentedly huge conscript armies in unprecedented conditions that demanded attack, when the state of military and infrastructural technology made defence the only sustainable option. On the other hand, and particularly during the War’s early stages, some important commanders can be accused of blind faith in military theory, of refusal to accept its manifest failure and of autocratic deafness to alternatives. Nobody fits this unfortunate bill more completely than Joffre.
An engineer with an unspectacular career in colonial warfare behind him, Joffre was a consensus choice as Chief of Staff in 1911. Already approaching sixty, he proved a true, arguably fanatical believer in the French Army’s sacred role as the sword of national redemption, and in its prevailing military doctrine of attack, attack and attack. A stern, magisterial presence, armoured by an utter contempt for politicians and politics, he lobbied aggressively for increased military budgets, purged the Army of ‘defensively minded’ officers and developed an unshakeable faith in the prospects of the Army’s offensive strategy for the inevitable war against Germany, Plan Seventeen.
A natural offspring of fanatically attack-minded strategists, Plan Seventeen assumed that all-out, passionate offensive spirit was the key to victory, and came a spectacular cropper in the early weeks of August 1914. True to his faith, Joffre kept driving his generals forward into Germany, convinced that sweeping conquest was only a sufficiently dashing attack away, until the German invasion of France had all but succeeded to his rear. Luck and German mistakes, along with his attack-minded opportunism and that of senior subordinates, enabled Joffre to save Paris and his job at the Marne in September, a victory for which he took full credit and the mantle of national hero.
After the Marne Joffre was untouchable, and knew it. He dropped any pretext at consulting civilian authorities, deliberately kept politicians and the public uninformed about the military position or his own plans, and took complete control of the French struggle on the Western Front. Charging up and down the front line in his high-powered automobile, swooping on individual units without warning (and often staying for a full, two-hour lunch), he was an autocrat unfettered – and he still believed that total victory was just a matter of attacking the enemy with sufficient verve and audacity. The French term for this was élan, and through the succession of failed attacks that saw fixed trench lines established from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier, Joffre remained convinced that a little more of it would do the trick next time. This was still his view in December.
There can come a point when belief in a theory is no longer a matter of choice, because the consequences of disproving the theory are too terrible to contemplate. It may well be that, having already sacrificed so many lives, Joffre was psychologically incapable of writing them off as a mistake, and it was certainly the case that nobody in Paris or the Army possessed the authority to prevent the Saviour of France from a policy of semi-permanent, all-out offensive warfare. Joffre would fling his troops at German defences again and again, winning nothing and learning nothing, until he was eventually replaced in late 1916, after the ghastly, ten-month carnage of Verdun had exposed his neglect of defensive preparations. Even then his public popularity required the government to promote him to the largely honorific post of Marshal of France.
So yes, the generals deserve at least some of the blame they’ve been taking from posterity, but men like Joffre were a type of officer found at the start of every major conflict: commanders unable to forget lessons from the last war. Their infamy has been compounded by the facts that the previous major war had been forty years ago, that technology had transformed the battlefield in the meantime, and that sociopolitical changes had drastically raised the numbers of potential casualties involved. Even the big difference between Joffre and his peers at the Great War’s command posts – his absolute power to apply the wrong lessons on a stupendously grand scale – was as much a product of peculiarities in French society as of one man’s personal failings.