Logistics Prior to 1914

Men need to eat (and so do horses).


The last year of posts here have dealt with the operational art of war mostly as epitomized by Napoleon's first campaign in Italy.

They dealt with where units under particular commanders were at different points in time and to a degree with what strength they had. They gave short shrift to the sort of shape the men in those units were in and to issues of how they were to be supplied with necessities.

This despite the correspondance of Bonaparte and his officers making it clear through abundance and tone that these were major concerns of theirs. The same was certainly true in Spain. Perhaps less so in the Germany of 1813, but remember the local Prussians in that campaign had been largely disarmed, and both the French and Russians were fighting far from home after already having had their resources stretched after a desperate year long campaign.

Secondary works often only give passing significance to questions of logistics, but there is a saying "Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics."

That's probably a bit too pat. I'll go into why I think so in greater detail below.

First I'd like to get to the meat of the matter.

Things changed with the coming of the Industrial Revolution and technological society. Men (and women) are much the same, and cultures, societies, and states have probably changed less than we like to think, but the practicalities of our interaction with the material world have changed drastically.

The last couple of hundred years saw the first major new roads since those the Romans built, canals dug, and the invention of both the railroad and the airplane.

It also saw the introduction of mass produced clothing and footware and the invention of both canning and refrigeration.

Even disregarding the widespread adoption of cars and trucks after the Second World War these are huge changes.

Before the First World War food, drink, and fodder were the main needs of an army. These were almost entirely requisitioned from local resources by some means.

The strategic results of these facts might seem counter intuitive. They meant that an army of any size had to stay on the move as it would exhaust local resources if it stayed in one place too long.

How long an army could sit in one place depended on the productivity of the area, for which population density was usually a good proxy.

The defensive value of mountains lay not so much in the aid their physical properties lent the defense as the fact an army could not be long sustained in them. An army had to pass through them quickly before it starved. Any hold up might be fatal. Any barren area, any region of low productivity or one that had already been exhausted, possessed similar properties.

The taking of fortified places, seiges, necessarily meant large forces sitting in one place for some time. The issue became one of who had the best supplies. Often it was not the beseiging force. It was tremendously expensive to ship in food and fodder. Away from water courses it might be impossible.

The importance of naviagable water courses cannot be exaggerated. It was the only economic way by an order of magnitude or more to transport bulk goods and to do so over any distance. Moreover productive areas normally lay in river valleys.

The need to feed their men was a constant constraint on the actions of all generals. At times they'd initiate manouvers primarily for the purpose of moving into new undevestated areas and seizing the wealth of provisions there. This was true as recently as Lee's excursions north from a North Virginia that'd been stripped clean into a still rich and unplundered Pennsylvania.

Sun Tzu advised that an army should move into an enemy's territory and supply itself from its foe's resources as quickly as possilble. It was advice that would be followed by Europeans that had never heard of him for the next 2500 years.

To try and understand pre-WWI campaigns without understanding the above factors is like watching a play in which there are invisible walls seperating the actors. Ones the audience does not know of, but which the actors must avoid.


Martin van Creveld literally wrote the book on "Supplying War". He is rather scathing in the introduction to the book about why this is. He points out that even when authors deign to mention the importance of logistics to a campaign they rarely follow up with any adequate detail or rigor. He specifically mentions Napoleonic warfare, the Schlieffen Plan, and Rommel's notorious problems with supply.

Only his first two chapters of the seven in his slim initial work of 1977 actually deal with the period we're interested in. The third chapter deals with the transitional 19th century and follow on ones with the world wars. The world wars could themselves be considered transitional as the axis powers, Germany in particular continued to depend for must of their strength upon horsedrawn supply to infantry divisions that moved on foot. The pure armor and mechanized units being spearheads that frequently outran the bulk of the army.

In those first two chapters van Creveld managed to revolutionize the thinking of military historians. In the postscript chapter he added to his second edition he avowes that if he'd known what he was doing he might have never attempted it.

He writes: "Sometimes I feel like the traveler who, having lost his way in a blizzard in a moonless night, unwittingly walked across a frozen lake. Looking back and realizing what he had done, his heart stopped beating and he dropped dead."

He began that journey by describing the situation in the late 16th and early 17th century. Basically soldiers were mercenaries expected to supply themselves out of their pay. "Always provided the treasury sent money and that the officers were honest in distributing it, the system could work well enought as long as the troops were stationed more or less permenantly in some well populated place."

For armies on the move it was different. "[N]o logistic system of the time could sustain an army embarked on operations in enemy territory. Nor, indeed, was the need for such a system felt prior to our period. From time immemorial the problem had been solved simply by having the troops take whatever they required. More or less well-organized plunder was the rule rather than the exception."

Things changed in the extended 17th century. "The period from 1560 to 1660 has been described as 'the military revolution' and as such was characterized above all by the immense growth in the size of Europe's armies." A little later van Creveld restates the point; "Europe's armies multiplied their size many times over between about 1560 and 1715."

Quantity has a quality of its own. The results of this growth in army size were literally devestating. The old system ceased to work. "The size of armies was now too large for it to be successful." So: "As a result, the armies of this period were probably the worst supplied in history; maurading bands of armed ruffians, devestating the country side they crossed. "

Interestingly enough having established the extended 17th century as a period of significant change van Creveld states something that was likely true for all of history prior to the 20th century. "[T]he most striking fact is that armies, unless they were more or less permenantly based on a town, were forced to keep on the move to stay alive." Perhaps not an issue for very small forces, but undoubtedly a very acute one for very large ones.

In any case this is a point armchair generals might keep in mind when questioning a historical commander's dispersal of his forces, particularly in poor country or country that had been previously fought over for a period (admittedly maybe the same thing).

In the first chapter of his book van Creveld deals with the entire period of the Thirty Years War up to the Napoleonic ones. He counts Bonaparte's earlier campaigns in Italy and elsewhere more as a continuation of 18th century warfare than anything new. He dates true Napoleonic warfare from 1805, he writes: "It may be that no fanfares greeted Napoleon's decision of 1805 to go war against Austria. However, in the annals of military history, his campaign marks the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century."

Oddly though his description of Napoleon's march to the Rhine is logistically not much different from that of Marlborough's of roughly a hundred years before. He makes the point explicitly in the following words writing of the Grande Armee that: "[I]t's supply system resembled that of Marlborough in that provisions were accumulated in advance along its route, the only difference being that the Duke paid in cash and not in paper receipts."

In a quick but densely detailed description of warfare and logistics starting with Maurice of Nassau, and touching on the campaigns of Sully, Gustavus Adolphus, Wallenstein, Tilly, Louis XIV, and on to Marlborough, Prince Eugene, and Frederick the Great, van Creveld covers some significant changes in armies and their methods of waging war, all with the intent of outlining logistical constraints that remained true throughout.

To reiterate, armies needed food and fodder before all, and they obtained that locally by some means of plunder however organized. This meant armies had to stay on the move to stay fed, but could not move quickly if they also wanted to have time to forage. If an army had to stay in one place, the main reason being in to conduct a seige, special very expensive measures had to be taken and it became a race to see who would starve first. In such cases water transport became crucial as it was the only way large amounts of supplies could be moved over anything other than very short distances.

Martin van Creveld sees the distinguishing characteristics of eighteenth century warfare, the large armies, the many sieges, the few battles, as being the result of improvements in the art of fortification that rendered the taking of fortified places a lengthy process requiring large armies. The avoidance of battle he saw as a consequence of the expense and difficulty of replacing the trained professionals that made up those armies. Sovereigns might not have cared for their soldiers but they valued them.

He explicitly rejects the conventional image of eighteenth century armies as being slow and cumbersome because of their dependance on awkward supply lines.

To summarize in his own words: "Given the enormous effect that 'the shackles of supply' and 'the tyranny of logistics' are supposed to have exercised upon strategy in this period, it is a curious fact that research into the actual methods by which armies were supplied and kept moving has not to date advanced far beyond what was known 150-200 years ago."

"A detailed examination of the logistics methods employed, however, shows the whole of this picture to be absolutely without foundation."

"Clausewitz notwithstanding, eighteenth-century armies lived off the country as a matter of course and at least one of them - the super-scrupulous Habsburg army - even organized a special supply corps with precisely this objective in mind. As a consequence, eighteenth-century armies were capable of marching performances much better than is usually acknowledged".

This is just the start of van Creveld's heresy. It is the stage he sets for his assertion that Napoleon's armies did not achieve their success due to revolution in the organization of their logistics.

He writes: "It was, in fact, his inversion of the relationship between sieges and battles - between the relative importance of the enemy's fortresses and his field army as objectives of strategy - that constituted Napoleon's most revolutionary contribution to the art of war. Early in the eighteenth century, Vauban counted 2000 (unsuccessful) sieges but only 60 battles during the previous two centuries. Napoleon, however, conducted only two sieges during his entire career, and his experiences in feeding the army round Mantua demonstrated that solving the logistic problems of siege-warfare was far from easy even for a Bonaparte. As he wrote to his stepson in 1809, 'the method of feeding on the march becomes impracticable when many troops are concentrated'. Hence it was necessary, in addition to requistions from the immediate neighbourhood, to have supply convoys coming in from places farther away. That 'this [combination] is the best method' Maurice de Saxe would have readily agreed."

Rather van Creveld explains "Napoleon, in short, realized that it was the eighteenth-century predilection in favour of siege warfare that led to endless logistical difficulties. As he himself was able, thanks to the size of the forces under his command, to do without sieges he rendered the logistic apparatus of the eighteenth century largely superfluous.

Van Creveld believes that the ancient logistical constraints on warfare remained in place up until the first few months of the war in 1914. It was then that ammunition needs served by railroads connected back to factories began to dominate warfare and that motor vehicles began to increase in importance. This was a revolution completed in the aftermath of WWII.

The Great Divide; 1914

There is no doubt that railroads made some difference to warfare in the 1860s and 1870s. Just as they did in the opening moves of the World War One.

Van Creveld is at pains to demonstrate that the difference was restricted to strategic deployments, the initial mustering of armies and the follow up after the mobile phase of campaigns. In the case of the American Civil War it allowed the moving of Corps between theatres. What it did not do was effect mobile operations in the field.

As had been the case since time immemorial the primary needs of armies in the field were food and fodder. As had been the case throughout history these were procured primarily from the immediate locality of field armies. The new railroads were not capable of keeping up with moving armies. After the initial phase of a mobile campaign moving armies had to resort to the old methods of staying supplied.

As he summarizes in his own words: "The difficulty with railways was that, once active campaigning got under way, they had trouble keeping up. Reconstructing a damaged line, let alone building a new one from scratch, was usually a prolonged and complicated affair. Until this was done armies had to manage as best they could. Because their most important requirement (by weight) still consisted of food and fodder, this was something they were usually able to do."

This changed beginning in 1914. For the first time after the mobile phase of the war food and fodder were not the primary supplies required by a fighting army. Ammunition, then weapons, then motor vehicles, plus the petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL) and spare parts they needed, all items manufactured far behind the front began to dominate supply needs. They were not items that could be found locally by and large, some capture of enemy supplies or requistiong of civilian ones might occur for some items but it was wholly inadequate. Armies became dependant on items brought from the rear via established lines of communication in order to be able to keep fighting.

In van Creveld's own words: "[T]he conflict that ... ushered in the modern age was World War I. The period from 1870 to 1914 saw tremendous advances in military technology, particularily the rise of the magazine rifle, machine guns, and, above all, quick firing artillery. Though railways also made progress in terms of both numbers and carrying capacity, they were unable to keep up with the new logistical demands that these machines made or the massive increase in the size of armies. ... [A]lmost all the supplies an army required - around 90 percent - now consisted of factory-produced items which could only be procured far in the rear and, once this had been done, had to be transported to the front."

With World War I we move into the modern age of globe spanning logistical networks and in which the necessities of day to day life come from a multitude of distant locations. This is world in which we live, and which we take for granted as does a fish the water it swims in. It is a different world than that that prevailed for most of history, and it is not our subject. It's mentioned here to highlight the need to exercise some imagination and in order to understand that earlier world.

To that same end three examples of campaigns before WWI follow. I've attempted to use first hand accounts when possible. Additionally only one of them, the 1812 campaign in Russia significantly overlaps the examples van Creveld used in his book. Even in that case I've tried to emphasize different details. I'm less concerned to prove the need to depend on local supplies and not long supply lines from the rear than van Creveld, and more concerned to illustrate the genuine immediacy of material needs the men on the ground felt.


Grant at Chattanooga

The first example here is largely after our period but I include it because it was while reading Grant's memoirs in regard to this campaign that I first came to appreciate the restraint logistics placed on pre-modern warfare and how counter intutive to naive preceptions they were.

Two things about the account that follows shocked me. One just how short and inffectual a supply route overland not using railroads or rivers was. Two, how an army didn't have to be surrounded and cut off to start severely suffering from supply restraints.

The context is Rosecrans' Union army having been severely defeated by Bragg's Confederate one at Chickamauga on the 19th and 20th of September 1863. Rosecrans was forced back on to a static defense on the Tennessee River at Chattanooga. Rosecrans' army being in desperate straits Grant the recent victor at Vicksburg was called in.

Grant found that Rosecran's army was effectively under siege. I remember being surprised by this as the Union army was certainly not surrounded. Let's have Grant explain in his own words.

"All supplies for Rosecrans had to be brought from Nashville. The railroad between this base and the army was in possession of the government up to Bridgeport, the point at which the road crosses to the south side of the Tennessee River; but Bragg, holding Lookout and Raccoon mountains west of Chattanooga, commanded the railroad, the river and the shortest and best wagon-roads, both south and north of the Tennessee, between Chattanooga and Bridgeport. The distance between these two places is but twenty-six miles by rail; but owing to the position of Bragg, all supplies for Rosecrans had to be hauled by a circuitous route north of the river and over a mountainous country, increasing the distance to over sixty miles."

"This country afforded but little food for his animals, neary ten thousand of which had already starved, and not enough were left to draw a single piece of artillery or even the ambulances to convey the sick. The men had been on half rations of hard bread for a considerable time, with but few other supplies except beef driven from Nashville across the country. The region along the road became so exhausted of food for the cattle that by the time they reached Chattanooga they were much in the condition of the few animals left alive there - 'on the lift.' Indeed, the beef was so poor that the soldiers were in the habit of saying, with faint facetiousness, that they were living on 'half rations of hard bread and beef dried on the hoof.'"

"Nothing could be transported but food, and the troops were without sufficient shoes or other clothing suitable for the advancing season. What they had was well worn. The fuel within the Federal lines was exhausted, even to the stumps of trees. There were no teams to draw it from the opposite bank, where it was abundant. The only way of supplying fuel, for some time before my arrival, had been to cut trees on the north bank of the river at a considerable distance up the stream, form rafts of it and float it down with the current, effecting a landing on the south side within our lines by the use of paddles or poles. It would then be carried on the shoulders of the men to their camps."

"If a retreat had occurred at this time it is not probable that any of the army would have reached the railroad as an organized body, if followed by the enemy.

And so Grant describes the desperate plight of a static pre-modern army that had to supply itself overland in graphic and down to earth terms.

A number of points here are worthy of note. That the animals starved first and crippled both the armies fighting power and its logistic capability is one. That the priority was food but that even with virtually unlimited supplies of it in non-perishable form just a few marchs away the army was on short rations was another. The need for clothing and footware to need replacing after a reliatively short period is still another. Also constant is the need for fuel for cooking and heat. The only traditional lack he does that Grant does not touch on was drink. Apparently between them the river, local streams and wells provided enough drinkable water. Either that or Grant simply missed the issue.

Bonaparte in Italy

Bonaparte's letters in Italy and those of his subordinates all touch on all these points. Adequate meat and drink in addition to the necessary daily bread was a constant preoccupation of theirs.

When French troops were dispersed to quarters and not on active campaign they handled their own needs, adequately as long as they were in rich enough country. Their commanders did not have to worry much about it. On campaign conducting activer operations it became a different matter, supplying their troops so that they could fight and would not disperse to loot for sustenance was of acute concern to the French commanders.

The campaign in Italy may have lasted from the Spring of 1796 to that 1797 but from a logistical prespective it is best understood as a series of shorter campaigns each of one to three weeks, and separated by periods of recuperation.

The first campaign was the defeat of Piedmont which lasted from about April 10th to the 28th. Just over two weeks.

The second campaign was that to take Lombardy which lasted from about May the 5th to May the 15th. Just over a week.

The third campaign was that that to push Beaulieau's field army back and invest Mantua. That began on May the 22nd and lasted until about June 4th. Again about two weeks with more hard marching than hard fighting.

July 1796 saw the French attempting to lay siege to Mantua. Siege operations are off topic for this essay and any event the resumption of field operations percipatated by an Austrian counter offensive under Wurmser put paid to the French siege operations.

The fourth campaign was the defeat of Wurmser's first attempt to relieve Mantua. This occuppied the period from July 29th to August 6th, just over a week. Admittedly a week that say both a lot of hard marching and hard fighting.

The fifth campaign say Wurmser's second effort to relieve Mantua defeated and lasted from September 2nd to the 15th. Again roughly two weeks.

The sixth campaign was Alvintczy's first effort to relieve Manuta. A close run thing it lasted from about October 22nd to November 23rd. A full month or roughly four weeks. It should be noted the first week of this was basically an unopposed approach march by Alvintczy in fertile country. After that both Alvintczy and Davidovitch in the north demonstrated a stop and go pace of operations. They did not remain continuously on the offensive. The true core period was from around October 27th to November 15th a period of just over two weeks. Also it should be noted that the French remained firmly based on Verona a major city with good water connections. Just the same the Austrian and French armies were both throughly used up after this campaign.

The seventh campaign was Alvintczy's second effort to relieve Mantua. It lasted from January the 7th to the 16th, although follow operations took place on the 24th and 27th. At the outside only roughly three weeks and more truly the major part of the action lasted just two weeks. It is generally conceded the supply difficulties that Alvintcy's main attack from north suffered contributed significantly to their defeat at Rivoli on the 15th.

The eighth and final sub-campaign was Bonaparte's exploitation of his taking of Mantua and therefore Northern Italy. Operations began on March the 10th and lasted until April the 7th. Overall roughly a month but once more for the majority of troops the first week was taken up by a long approach march and fighting did not begin until March 16th. After that came a major pause between March 25th and 28th followed by another several days of hard fighting. Given his precarious logistical situation with his army in the midst of the Alps Bonaparte was glad indeed that the Austrian's granted him an armistice.

In every one of these cases Bonaparte was at pains to carefully arrange his logistics prior to operations and to complete those operations before his logistics became impossible. This will be clear from the following excerpts from his correspondance.

Crossing the Alps April 1796

Even before he'd reached the forward units of his new Army Bonaparte ran into supply problems.

From Bonaparte's letter of March 28th to the Directory. "The four departments of the arrondissement of the army have not paid either forced loan or contributions in corn, nor supplied the forage required by the law of the 7th Vendemiaire, nor begun to furnish the third horse. These administrations are extremely slow in their proceedings ; I have written to them, I have seen them, and I am led to hope for more activity in matters so essential to the army."

"One battalion has mutinied; it refused to leave Nice, upon pretext that it had neither shoes nor money."

But Bonaparte writes: "The army will henceforth eat good bread, and will have butcher's meat, and it has already received some advances on its arrears of pay." and in fact if Bonaparte had greater success than his predecessor it was partly because his patrons in Paris ensured better supplies and even some back pay for the troops. Not enough but sufficient to improve troop morale significantly and make the coming operations practicable.

On the 30th of March Bonaparte ordered "Fresh meat shall be given out five times in a decade. The battalions which have had salt meat to-day shall have fresh to-morrow; and those which have had fresh meat one day shall have salt the next. The administrations of the army and the workmen of the shops shall take meat all together." This was an improvement for the Army of Italy which had not even been guaranteed its daily bread let alone meat fresh or otherwise every day. Note a decade was the ten day period the revolutionary French intended to replace the old week, so five days out of ten is half of the days in the period.

For all that van Creveld assures us weapons and ammunition posed few logistical problems it seems from a letter of the 1st of April written by Massena to Bonaparte that these were deficient at this time. To quote "I have long been applying for the muskets and bayonets of which the two divisions of the advanced guard are deficient. We want at least 2,000 muskets : have the goodness to order them to be sent to us."

One of Massena's advance guard's two division leaders, Laharpe, writes on April the 8th that "The firing has ceased; the enemy is retiring; the troops are worn out; we have no cartridges left. If the enemy attacks this evening, or by daybreak tomorrow, I shall be obliged, in case none arrive, to retreat without resistance." later he continues "It is impossible to delude one's self any longer. The soldier ill-fed, and without shoes, cannot resist new fatigues if he is attacked. All are under arms, and all will be so for the night. Under this circumstance, I shall not return to Savona, but I recommend to you the gorge which runs down to Albisola: if not watched, we might all be culpable. I think the troops at Stella too weak, I learn this moment that the enemy is again making a movement : he appears to be assembling for a fresh attack. We are just out of cartridges: if an attack is made, our resistance cannot be long." So began a movement that in retrospect often appears a brilliant walk over.

Laharpe in fact did receive at least some of the cartridges he needed and first held his position and then went on to help win the battle at Montnotte. However, according to Martin Boycott-Brown at least some of those cartridges were deficent he writes "his letter also revealed the worrying discovery that some of the troops had been issued with cartridges made with sand."

Massena's own letter announcing this critical initial success had the following sting in its tail "My troops have received no bread : I know not whether any has been found at Vado. which he wrote from Montnotte on April 12th.

These complaints were nothing new he'd written on April 7th before the assumption of operations that "The salt meat causes many disorders : it is time for this unwholesome food to be discontinued. We are in urgent need of shoes. We are in want of arms. Notwithstanding all these wants, the troops are well disposed, and I doubt not for a moment that you will make a brilliant campaign."

The problems do not appear to have been restricted to Massena's advance guard out on the end of a long supply line.

As this order from Bonaparte makes clear the troops were being fed in large part from local requisitions just as van Creveld asserts. Bonaparte wrote on April the 4th from his HQ at Oneglia that "The general-in-chief orders a contribution of 400 sacks, the assessment to be made in the valley of Oneglia, and a contribution of 200 in the ci-devant marquisate of Dolce-Aqua. He charges General Casalta with the levy of the said contribution, orders such villages as shall not have obeyed the requisition within twenty-four hours to be fined 100 francs in cash for each sack not furnished."

Bonaparte makes clear that the entire army is suffering in his letters to the Directory. On April the 6th he writes from Albenga that "The army is in a state of frightful destitution. I have still great obstacles to surmount, but they are surmountable. Want has authorized indiscipline, and without discipline there is no victory." On April the 8th he writes again from Albenga that "I have found this army not only destitute of everything, but without discipline, and in a state of perpetual insubordination." He complains in the same letter that the treasury does not send all the promised money and some of the bills of exchange it sends are protested.

We also have letters from both Serrurier and Augereau about their difficulties.

On the eighth of April Serrurier writes from Ormea that "Corn arrives very slowly: I have difficulty to provision Garessio, whither I must nevertheless march the greater part of my troops: by the statement of to-day there are in that place but seven quintals of flour; this makes me uneasy. There is meat for a few days for the hospitals - that is all. There are to-day but eight quintals of hay in the magazine of Ormea; so that horses as well as men are reduced to half allowance." This all before the campaign has even truly started.

Rusca, commanding a brigade detached from Augereau's division, writes from Souvelti on April the seventh that "I have few cartridges at Bardinetto : some ought to be sent, as well as brandy, the troops being in bivouac, without covering and without shoes, and the cold very sharp. We can have at Bardinetto 3000 rations of bread per day, ovens and mills, including Galissano.".

Matters did not improve in the initial weeks of the campaign. Augereau writes from Meridano on April 15th that "I learn, through the medium of the order of the day, that shoes are to be delivered to the divisions of General Massena and Laharpe. Nothing is said about mine, which is in extreme want of them. I beg you to send me the shoes I am in need of as speedily as possible. The convoys of provisions destined for my division reach me with difficulty, because there is allowed an escort of two men only, who are unacquainted with the roads and lose their way."

Laharpe's and Massena's division had their problems too. Laharpe writes on the same day, April 15th, from La Brochetta, that "Notwithstanding your promises, general, the troops are without bread; they are sinking under fatigue and inanition. Send us something—at least, some bread and a little brandy ; for I am fearful of being a prophet of disaster; but, if we are attacked to-morrow, the troops will fight ill, for want of physical strength."

On April 17th Serrurier writes from Bagnosco that "There are no provisions in the magazines of Ormea and Garessio: we are living from hand to mouth. It is the same in regard to forage."

On April 19th Laharpe has some happy news from Dego "We received last night bread and spirits, so that we have been enabled to give out a whole ration for to-day." Still it is interesting that actually receiving full rations for a day is worth mentioning as notable in a battle report. It is also interesting that the French found it worthwhile to scrounge muskets and cartridges from the defeated Austrians. The repeated mentions of brandy, spirits and footware are also intesting. It seems the French didn't like to drink the local water and that their shoes were either initially lacking or wearing out very quickly.

Bread does seem to have remained the first and primary requirement. Serrurier writes on April 20th from St.Michel that "Several corps have been without bread for these three days: the soldiers abused this pretext to abandon themselves to the most horrible pillage. The corps have somewhat rallied, but there are still wanting a considerable number of men, who have gone off to get provisions in all possible ways. I am ill seconded by the officers, who pillage too: they were drunk yesterday, like the others."

Laharpe writing from Cairo on the same day, April 20th, makes a long and impassioned plea for supplies; "I have come hither, general, to ascertain the state of our provisions ; there is the same penury everywhere. Unless we receive bread to-night, we shall be without an ounce to-morrow, and, should it even arrive, there would not be sufficient to give a quarter of a ration to the three brigades and to the cavalry. All the agents, store-keepers, and otliers, in all the administrations, are making requisitions at random: the peasants of these parts are absolutely ruined: the soldiers are destitute and their leaders disconsolate: rogues only are enriching themselves. There is not a moment to be lost, general, if you would save the army, if you would not have us be considered in Piedmont as men worse than the Goths and Vandals, Punish the knaves severely; reduce the number of those public bloodsuckers; whom one never sees exerting themselves for the benefit of the army, but is sure to find wherever they can profit by disorder. Since the 23rd of last month, the 69th has received but two rations and a half; and the others have suffered in like manner. It is not possible to repress the men in this miserable state: your army is about to be worn down by disease, and, whenever we march, by the Barbets: for it cannot be doubted that the inhabitants, driven to despair, will arm and slaughter every French straggler. Above all, general, it is urgent that you should put a stop to that host of illegal requisitions; or, if they must continue, it would be better to assemble the inhabitants, shoot them, and then finish plundering, for it comes to the same point; they must be starved to death. Bread ! bread ! and again bread !" Note, April the 20th was the 1st of Floreal in the revolutionary calendar so when Laharpe writes of the 23rd of last month he means a date about a week in the past. All in all this missive from Laharpe is a summary of the acute problems concentrated pre-modern armies would encounter in less productive areas.

Fortunately for Bonaparte his main force under Serrurier, Augereau and Massena managed to not just push out of the mountains into the fertile plains at this point, but also to capture considerable enemy suppplies. The situation is very fluid but we now hear much less about supply problems from these generals.

Laharpe left to guard the armies northern right flank in mountain and hill country is less happy. He continues to complain of discipline completely breaking down due to a lack of essential supplies.

By the 29th of April Laharpe's situation appears to have improved a little, he writes from Crevanzano "Adieu, general: cartridges, if possible, shoes and bread, and my first letter shall inform you that the first division is behaving as well as the others; I give you notice, however, that, if cartridges do not arrive to-day, I shall be obliged to wait twenty-four hours; which would be a great misfortune and occasion us considerable loss." On the same day more "One ration of bread has arrived in the space of four days. The bivouacs are hard. This position is good: it connects me with Alba, and brings me nearer to it: but if it were not so good as Nielle, I should be forced to come to it, for the sake of having some slight succours for the support of the soldiers. The smallness of the ovens and the distance of the mills render it impossible for us to provide a sufficiency for our subsistence, let us be as industrious as we will. Have pity on us, general — I ask for nothing but biscuit, cartridges, and shoes. I am expecting news of the Austrians every instant; I tremble for fear they are evacuating. If that is the case, I shall endeavour at least to pursue them, were it only to prevent, if I can, the destruction of their magazines."

So just to be clear a division required grain, mills to make it into flour, ovens to bake it into bread. It also required cartridges, muskets to replace ones that broke, and shoes for the feet of the soldiers. Without these items being supplied by regular means the troops would loot for what they needed, an inefficient process detrimental to military effectiveness which also would raise the local inhabitants against an army. In poor areas or ones where the army had been present for awhile the troops would still starve, first becoming sick and too weak to be effective.

The Taking of Lombardy May 1796

The campaign to take Lombardy occurred along a major waterway (the Po) and in very rich country with a number of wealthy cities. The armies were mostly dispersed and did not remain in any one place very long. Supply problems under these circumstances were minimal. Indeed not only was Bonaparte able to requistion adequate provisions from the cities of Lombardy he was able to demand considerable contributions in cash. At Milan at the end of this phase of the campaign he was actually able to pay the Army of Italy in full for the first time in years. It might be that this novel experience did as much to cement his army's loyalty to him as anything that happened at Lodi.

Just by way of illustration that something was always wanting Bonapare wrote from Acqui on May 1st to Faipoult to "Send off immediately 6000 pair of shoes for Tortona." He directly references the richness of the country and how foraging there should be no problem in Correspondance #293 in a letter to General Augereau on May 1st. He also mentions they found all the magazines of the Sardinian army at Coni. (Corrs. #281)

As an indication of the relative richness of the country Bonaparte goes so far as to say all are getting fat in a letter to Carnot on May 9th (Corrs. #366).

The Investment of Mantua June 1796

The march to invest Mantua again took place through rich country with many wealthy (Brescia and most notably) cities. The armies did not stay in any one place too long, or conduct any extended forced marches. At the end they captured fortress towns with good water communications (Peschria and Verona). Supply problems were minimal.

The Repulse of Wurmser's First Attempt to Relieve Mantua August 1796

Wurmser came close to cutting Bonaparte's communications at Brescia and forced him to abandon Verona, although the French did manage to hold on to Peschiera and re-take Brescia. They were in rich country but constant forced marches didn't allow for proper foraging. That the marchs often ended in cities or large towns where provisions could be found already concentrated likely ameloriated this problem some. Nevertheless this contest ended with both sides throughly worn down, many senior officers as well as troops sick. Bonaparte is supposed to have ridden five horses to death, and other senior officer's petitioned for compensation for lost horses. If their animals suffered so badly one must imagine the other animals of the army suffered as badly.

The Defeat of Wurmser's Second Attempt to Relieve Mantua September 1796

This campaign saw forays deep into the Tyrol. Although communications along the Adige and on Lake Garda likely helped some, as the presence of large towns (Trent) likely only the brevity of this campaign prevented it from being a disaster. Troops stationed on mountain heights away from valley bottoms and the associated water courses complained of poor supply on a number of occassions.

Arcola, Alvintczy's First Attempt to Relieve Mantua Narrowly Defeated November 1796

Alvintczy's main advance was through rich relatively unscathed territory with substantial towns and cities in it (Padua, Bassano, etc). The French were based on Peschiera and Verona. Only Davidovitch's supply lines were doubtful and the Adige ran back to Trent in his case. It is interesting that Bonaparte's strategy seemed to consist of stalling Alvintczy's main army before the gates of Verona for a lengthy period of times while threatening his communications. Supplies for the troops may not have become pinched in this operation but that is not to say logistics did not play a part in the decisions the generals fighting it made.

Rivoli, Alvintczy Makes the Last Attempt to Relieve Mantua January 1797

This last attempt by Alvintczy to relieve Mantua saw the main thrust come from the Tyrol. It also saw a portion of that force cut loose from dependable supply lines via the Adige in the hope of regaining them at Rivoli, something the battle there prevented. The loss of that battle by the Austrians was at least partly due to the fact their rations had run out. It is interesting that the main relief column for Mantua under Provera approached from the east in the plains not from the mountains in the north. Again logistics were critical in shaping operations.

The March on Vienna March and April of 1797

With the exception of Joubert's force and Massena's division at times most of the decisive first phase of this operation took place in the rich plains. These operations went quickly and ended with the capture of the Austrian bases, especially the rich seaport of Trieste. Bonaparte crossed the mountains and established himself at Klagenfurt and Laibach, large places in fertile valleys as expediously as he could manage. Just the same he was doubtless extremely pleased when the Armistice of Loeben allowed him to return to the plains of northern Italy.

Napoleon in Napoleon in Russia

The two interesting points about Napoleon's march into Russia, are, one; that his army started taking significant losses long before it reached Moscow, and, two, that those losses were not due to cold, disease, or lack of food so much as thirst.

As Zamoyski writes "Due to the sparseness of the population there were few wells, and the ponds and ditches contained only brackish water." Vossler's first hand account confirms this: "Our drink consisted - not even of inferior spirits or at least wholesome water, but of a brackish liquid scooped from stinking wells and putrid ponds." As a result the Grand Army's infantry were severely afflicted by a variety of diseases.

The units on the flanks of the march, and the advance guard did not suffer too badly but the troops immediately behind the advance guard were often unable to find drinkable water and suffered immensely in the summer heat.


That reality is more complicated than van Creveld presented it should be no surprise. There were times when ammunition and weapons had to be brought from rear bases. Food and fodder were not the only needs of men in the field. Drink (whether water or 'eau-de-vie'), clothing and shoes were sometimes necessities that could not be found locally. Also bread meant not just wagon loads of loafs, but sacks of grain, mills to grind them and ovens for baking all of which involved more organization than simple looting by small bands of ruffians.

Still his fundamental insights that armies lived largely on food and fodder locally procured and that this meant they had to stay on the move, and that sieges were the main strain on any logistical system and essentially races to starvation, remain valid.



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