Born in Rivesaltes. He was a career soldier, joining the army in 1870. He first saw active service during the Franco-Prussian War but spent much of his career in the colonies as a military engineer. He returned to France and was made commander-in-chief (1911), after Joseph Gallieni declined the post. With the revival of the army and a purge of "defensive-minded" officers he adopted the strategy devised by Ferdinand Foch, the offensive Plan XVII.
At the outbreak of war the French plan clashed with the German Schlieffen Plan, much to the detriment of the French. Joffre helped to retrieve the situation through retreat and counterattack at the First Battle of the Marne. Following the enormous losses at Verdun he was replaced by General Robert Georges Nivelle on December 13, 1916.
Still popular, Joffre was promoted to Marshal of France but his role was little more than ceremonial. He was head of the French military mission to the USA in 1917 and leader of the Supreme War Council in 1918. He retired in 1919.