06 December 1915 – Chantilly

Located in the quiet Parisian exurb of Chantilly, l’Hotel du Grande Condé has served as Grand Quartier Général (General Headquarters) for Field Marshall Joseph Joffre since the Western Front turned into an extended stalemate more than a year ago. This morning, a convoy of motorcars arrives by way of the town’s main street to discharge a motley collection of generals and officers representing the armies of Britain, Italy, Russia, Serbia, and Belgium. Joffre, who was formally appointed Supreme Commander of the French Army five days ago by the new government, has convened the three-day meeting to discuss a unified strategy to defeat the Central Powers — one which necessarily makes him the de facto commander in chief of all the allied armies. On hand for the conference is French President Réné Poincaré, who is filmed with Joffre on the steps of the hotel’s grand entrance.

Joffre has two main goals for this gathering, which reprises a similar collaboration this summer. One is to coax the British into reversing their strategic efforts to abandon the Greek base at Salonika, a decision that Lord Kitchener coaxed Prime Minister Aristide Briand into accepting during a meeting in Paris two days ago. Word of that ‘betrayal’ has sparked negative public reactions in France, which has been a stalwart champion of their Serbian allies and remains so now, even though the Serbian Army is retreating from their own country into the ignominy of exile. But as the discussion begins shortly after 9 AM, talk turns first to Joffre’s plan for a simultaneous offensive in the new year.

In principle, the idea makes perfect sense: the Central Powers will ideally be unable to move forces from one front to another, taking such tremendous casualties in the aggregate that Berlin will be forced to sue for peace even without a breakthrough. Major offensives against Austria-Hungary in the Alps, the dual monarchy and the Germans in the east, and the Germans in the West will begin as close together as practicably possible. Reflecting the new ‘attrition doctrine’ of sustained industrial warfare, Joffre’s plan requires the British Army to keep taking over more of the line, thus freeing up French soldiers for offensive action, while also making local attacks to keep up the pressure until the big, united push. Sir John French, the ironically-surnamed British commander whose relationship with Joffre and his French allies remains icy, is present to resent his lot, but less than two weeks remain in his increasingly-controversial tenure.

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An exterior view of the building in peacetime

Russian Chief of Staff Mikhail Alexeyev has a counter-proposal which takes into consideration the vast differences between Eastern and Western Fronts: his army is bigger than theirs, but must fight along a much longer line; the lower troop density, and material production limits in Russia, prevent the Russian Army from fielding machine guns or heavy artillery in the numbers now appearing in Artois and Flanders. A grand offensive is still possible next year, but it will take his army longer to prepare for theirs. Perhaps the western allies could distract Germany first, so as to draw away their strength?

Before it is wrapped up, the conference synthesizes a plan very much like Joffre’s while accounting for Russia’s challenges. The plan will not come off quite as planned, however, and not because of political ill-will or mistrust, but because of enemy action — and public consequences. Joffre’s name is already attached to political turmoil in Paris, and while it has resolved in his favor for now, he will deservedly bear the brunt of the blame for the failure of his strategy.

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Joffre (right) with General Douglas Haig, who will take over the British command in France, at Chantilly