General Joffre in Africa and East Africa’s false French connection

Going through some Times Literary Supplements of 1915, thetitle General Joffre in Africa caught my eye. What had General Joffre to do with Africa?

It materialises that General Joffre was involved in the occupation of ‘Timbuctoo’, a fact made known in 1915 when a book entitled My march to Timbuctoo was published. One can only assume the text had been written and completed before the outbreak of war in late July/early August 1914 – depending on which European countries one is talking of – and that someone else did the proofing for him … or perhaps finalising the text gave Joffre a chance to reflect on different battles in a different time and whether something from then could be applied to the situation on the Western Front.

I’ve always had the impression that Joffre and Kitchener got on better than Joffre and French or even Kitchener and French for that matter, because Kitchener spoke French which French didn’t. But it seems they might have had a bit more in common, in addition to Kitchener having served for a bit in the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian War.  In 1894, Joffre, then a major, took control of Timbuctoo, a desert city. He was ostensibly in charge of constructing a railway in French Sudan. It would have given the two men, Kitchener and Joffre, something more to talk about – both had been involved in railway construction in Africa.

The current publication was apparently a reissue of a piece he wrote soon after his return which was published in a periodical under the title Operations of the Joffre column before and after the taking of Timbuctoo. Apparently, this is Joffre’s only publication.

Another thing the two senior military men had in common was that they had both led African forces with few white officers. It is not clear which people Joffre was leading against the Tauregs, as the comment is only that ‘His entire force amounted to a little over 1,000, a few of whom were Europeans, while more than half were porters and non-combattants’. Kitchener led an army of Soudanese and Egyptians whom he had trained and handpicked officers for.

The book was thought to be a disappointing adventure-read, it was too official in tone. However, the main interest was thought to be ‘its evidence of unusual gifts of insight, method, and thorougness in the engineer officer who is now Commander-in -Chief in the west.’ Another similarity with Kitchener. The review continues, ‘It indicates high qualities as an administrator, as well as military capacity.’ Joffree also looked at the Taureg economy and ‘intestine rivalries of the Taureg tribes’. The tone and style, according to the reviewer gave confidence in the military command in contrast to the more usual ‘romantic’ take such books tended to have. The read would be of benefit to English readers who wanted to better understand the man in charge in France during the current conflict.

Not being a student of the Western Front or really on French involvement in Africa, I cannot say how much of Joffre’s management was influenced his African experiences. Kitchener definitely brought a bit of African flare to his understanding of war and was one of the reasons he was very reluctant in 1915 to reinvigorate the campaign in East Africa – he knew African wars could become long drawn out affairs stretching lines of communication to their utmost.

For anyone interested in the full review of Joffre’s book, it is available at Times Literary Supplement, 18 March 1915, p93.
For more information on Joffre, B Singer has an article, as does the Historical Dictionary of Mali and Andrew McGregor.

Whilst there is no dispute about Joffre being in Africa, there is some debate over another Frenchman, one who had East African connections … Gustav Eiffel, the man after whom the famous tower in Paris is named, has a little known, albeit questionable, connection with Portuguese East Africa and the First World War. However, many have thought that the railway station in Maputo and the war memorial were designed by him. As this discussion on Maputo’s Casa de Ferro sets out, there is some question over whether these were Eiffel’s creations. I leave you to decide for yourself…


2 thoughts on “General Joffre in Africa and East Africa’s false French connection

  1. Anne, is there any current access to that article on Joffre in Africa? I’ve done some writing on insurgencies in Africa, with Dr. Richard Lobban, and the Tuareg’s were a key piece of one chapter. This is not only in line with what we researched but interesting in that “time marches on but history repeats…” Many thanks, Chris Dalton

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