Section 1: The tyranny of plunder

Main purpose:

This section shows how armies got bigger in the 1600s and 1700s, and discusses how their greater size made it impossible to just live off of forage and plunder all the time. More and more, armies needed to plan their logistics in advance.

Questions you may need to answer before reading:

  1. What is a tercio?
  2. Who was the Duke of Alba?
  3. What was the Thirty Years War?
  4. Who was Gustavus Adolphus?
  5. Who was Wallenstein?
  6. Who was Louis XIV?
  7. Who were the Habsburgs?
  8. Who were the French Huguenots?
  9. What was Rocroi?
  10. What was Malplaquet?
  11. What is a sutler?
  12. Who was Maurice of Nassau?
  13. Where is Brabant?
  14. What is an intendant?
  15. What is a commissionary?
  16. What does en lieu mean?
  17. Who was Sully?
  18. Who was Henry IV?
  19. Who was Ambrosio Spinola?
  20. What does a la mean?
  21. What is the bastion?
  22. Who was Charles VIII?
  23. What does col gesso mean?
  24. What was the "Dutch failure to relieve Eindhoven in 1586"?
  25. Who was Maurice, and what was the siege of Ostend?
  26. What are lasten?
  27. Where are the Maas, Rhine, Lek, and Waal rivers?
  28. Where is Flanders?
  29. Where is Guelderland?
  30. What is a half-cannon?
  31. What is a field piece?
  32. What was the Estates General?
  33. Where is St. Truijen?
  34. Where is Grave?
  35. What is a Kartouwen?
  36. What is a Murbracker?
  37. Where is Peenemunde?
  38. Who was Conti?
  39. Where is Pommerania?
  40. What does it mean to "expand" a supply base?
  41. Where are the Elbe and Oder rivers?
  42. Where is Brandenburg?
  43. Where is Magdeburg?
  44. Where are Kustrin and Spandau?
  45. Where is the confluence of the Wartha, Oder, Spree, and Havel rivers?
  46. Who was the Elector Georg Wilhelm?
  47. Who was Oxenstierna, and where is Werben?
  48. What is a thaler?
  49. What was the victory at Breitenfield?
  50. Who was Tilly?
  51. Where is Vienna?
  52. Where is the Rhine?
  53. Where is Bohemia?
  54. Where is Saxony?
  55. Where is the Wurzburg-Frankfurt-Mainz area?
  56. Where is the Danube?
  57. Where is Bavaria?
  58. Where are Nuremburg and Augsburg?
  59. What is the Lower Saxon Circle?
  60. Where is Donauworth?
  61. Where is Furth?
  62. What was the victory over the Swedes at Alte Feste, and where is Alte Feste?
  63. Where is Naumburg?
  64. Where is the Halle river?
  65. What were Gustavus Adolphus' "impossibly grandiose dreams about a concentric advance by five - or even seven - armies on Vienna?"
  66. Words you may need defined:
    • adduced
    • impedimenta
    • extracurricular
    • protracted
    • confluences
    • debouching
    • transcended


Van Creveld begins by saying that the size of armies increased continuously between 1560 and 1715, with only a short pause from 1635 to 1660. During the pause, Central Europe had been so totally devastated by the Thirty Years War that it couldn't sustain such big armies anymore. Van Creveld lists some examples of what was considered to be a really big army at different points during this period, starting in 1567, when a really big army was 10,600 men, and ending in 1709, when armies could be up into the hundreds of thousands.

After showing how big the armies became, van Creveld talks about the consequences of having such big armies. He explains that armies developed enormous logistics tails of support vehicles and civilians that tagged along with them (50%-150% of the size of the army itself). He also explains that most soldiers had no home outside the military, so they brought everything they owned on campaign.

Van Creveld moves on to the details of how commanders kept these massive armies supplied. He starts with the simplest situation, supplying armies when they were just sitting around in garrison. Since the companies and regiments of the armies were pretty much just mercenaries, the national governments really didn't feel they owed them anything other than their basic pay. Because of this, the soldiers were expected to use their pay to buy whatever they needed (food, equipment, weapons, clothing, and occasionally even ammo). Since the soldiers were responsible for their own supplies, you barely needed to worry about logistics at all. All you needed to do was have an intendant set up a local market, create some policies for quality control and price control (to make sure the prices didn't go crazy and your soldiers didn't get cheated), and it was Miller time.

This system worked well enough to do business, but van Creveld points out a few potential problems with it. For instance, what happens when the treasury doesn't have the money to pay the army? What happens when the treasury sends the money, but the officers embezzle most of it? And finally, what if the market has a shortage of some critical item? If you think some captain or master guns with a bit of money put away would just buy up all of those items that he could, then re-sell them to the junior guys at some kind of ridiculous mark-up, you're starting to understand what a pain in the ass this system could be. It may be hard for us, as modern Marines, to imagine the consequences of such severe problems, which our own support system virtually guarantees we'll never experience, but we've seen modern instances of some of these problems while working alongside the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, and Afghan National Security Forces. But van Creveld says that this is nothing...if you think these are serious problems, just wait until you see the problems with supplying an army when it actually left its base and marched somewhere. This brings Van Creveld to methods of supplying an army on the move.

Only the biggest merchants from the market would decide to follow an army on campaign, and their wagons just added to the size of the army's logistics tail. Also, they could only supply the army for so long before their stocks ran out. Because of these limitations, in addition to relying on merchants who would follow the army, you needed a separate way to supply your army when it wasn't in garrison.

Van Creveld starts with supplying an army on the move in friendly territory. Armies in friendly territory could try to set up the same arrangement they had in garrison. That is, they could send officers in advance of the army to organize markets which would sell the soldiers their supplies. However, these markets could only sell what was on hand in the area, so if your army of 30,000 men had to stop marching in the middle of nowhere, good luck setting up a market to support them. A second method of supplying the army was "quartering"...forcing local inhabitants to house soldiers, who were, at least in friendly territory, usually expected to pay for what they consumed (which didn't always happen). Without getting into details, quartering was bad enough that our Founding Fathers explicitly banned it in the Third Amendment to the Constitution. In fact, the Second Amendment was probably just their stab at preventing the need for a standing army which might someday require quartering. Now that van Creveld's discussed supplying an army in garrison and an army on the move in friendly territory, he moves on to the last piece of the puzzle, supplying an army in enemy territory.

Van Creveld points out something interesting about supplying an army in enemy territory...nobody had a good way to do it, because it wasn't something that commanders had commonly needed to worry about before. Before the military revolution, armies weren't big enough that this frequently became a problem. You could just move to your objective, forage and plunder in a more or less well-organized way, then eat whatever food you turned up. Since commanders couldn't always feed their increasingly large armies by forage and plunder, there were what can best be described as "losses of good order and discipline" (soldiers raiding and pillaging at random, mass desertion due to starvation, etc). The initial solution to these problems? checkages. Since the troops had to get their supplies, and since the cost of those supplies was included in a soldier's pay, why not just have the government provide those supplies on a more regular schedule and take their cost out of a soldier's pay in the first place? This isn't a bad idea, but it brings van Creveld to another problem...between the army's need to pay for soldiers and supplies, whether or not the soldiers' pay was being checked, just who was paying for all this stuff?

Since governments weren't capable of properly planning how much food their huge, impressive armies required (much less how to get that food to them), you really couldn't expect them to be able to figure out either the total cost of maintaining those armies or how to reliably move enough money to keep the men paid. During this period, Spain, the richest nation in Europe, was bankrupted by military spending three times in forty years, and van Creveld points out that by the end of the Thirty Years War only one of the warring nations could still pay its troops. But if armies had addressed the government's failure to provide food by acquiring it from the locals, why not extend that same solution to pay? Van Creveld says that this was the purpose of Wallenstein's system of "contributions", which allowed an army to pillage the absolute hell out of an area while still maintaining good order and discipline.

The contribution system involved the army arriving somewhere and extorting money from the locals, but in an organized and systematic way. The money would then be given to the army's disbursing officer, who would use it to pay the men, fund administrative requirements, etc. This sounds horrific, but you need to appreciate it from the "good order and discipline" point of view. Yes, the locals were being robbed blind in the same way they had been since the Dark Ages, but the army remained internally ordered and disciplined, so it was a slightly lesser evil (i.e., it's better to be robbed by an organized army and left in poverty than to be robbed by a disorganized army and left homeless, maimed, or dead). The troops received regular pay from the disbursing officer, and, since plundered money and food could be exploited in a more organized and even-handed way, desertion was a slightly less severe problem.

Also, though van Creveld doesn't really talk about it, Wallenstein didn't just do this in enemy territory. He did it in his own country as well, and he had some interesting reasons why. The first and most obvious reason was that it ensured regular pay, giving a commander room to breathe if the national government suddenly couldn't pay the troops. The second, more interesting reason, was that Wallenstein thought it was stupid to invade an area and rob the conquered people blind, since it would plunge them into abject poverty and cause them to revolt a few months or years down the line. He thought it would be more just and humane for the home nation to bear at least part of the cost of the war, and "improve atmospherics" as we would say today. Wallenstein had good intentions when he came up with this idea, but van Creveld says that contributions were so horrible that Europeans were still fighting to prevent their recurrence even 75 years later. Van Creveld then moves on to a discussion of siege warfare.

Right now, you may be thinking "wait a what if they solved the problem of paying the troops? Screw siege warfare and get back to the point! Did they ever solve the problem of feeding armies when they were on the move?" Van Creveld says that, in all honesty, nobody could solve the problem of getting food to the troops at the time. Armies were so big that feeding them by forage and plunder would now only work when the army was on the march, so armies literally had to march or die. If armies weren't sitting peacefully in garrison with their more or less well-organized markets, they had to continuously move to new areas that could feed them or they would starve. When they stopped moving, they quickly got into trouble. That's where van Creveld is going when he starts talking about siege warfare...when armies moved into enemy territory and HAD to stop moving (to conduct a siege, for example), how could they supply themselves? Not very well, as it turns out.

Van Creveld starts his discussion of sieges by pointing out that sieges were not simple operations, even with the constantly improving gunpowder weapons. You couldn't just blast down your enemy's outdated castle walls with your cannons. Though van Creveld doesn't discuss it in detail, the invention of effective cannons had caused the tall towers of the Middle Ages to be replaced by low, thick, dirt fortresses reinforced with brick and stone. These forts, called "star forts" due to their shape, meant that sieges could last just as long as they had in the past. As more and more towns were fortified like this, siege warfare (and the logistics of siege warfare) became extremely important. What good would it do if you marched your grand army into your enemy's country, but he just sat in his well-stocked fortress waiting for you to exhaust all the food in the area and leave before your army starved? As a result, successful wars required successful sieges, and successful sieges required successful logistics.

Having established all this, Van Creveld sums up the first part of the section. First, armies typically didn't have supply lines for anything...they just took what they needed wherever they went (in terms of pay, food, etc.). Second, armies were so big that they could only support themselves in this way if they continued to move to new areas with more stop moving meant starvation, which would cause the soldiers to either go wild or desert (probably both). Third, keeping these first two points in mind, there really wasn't a need for an army to keep in contact with its base or higher headquarters. You could just take your army and roll out on your own, after which it almost didn't matter what you did since your army would be sucked into the electric football game of stumbling around looking for food. On the other hand, as long as you were moving to new sources of food, there wasn't anything limiting where you could go, since there was no way that your army could be cut off from anything (except maybe new recruits, and van Creveld notes that there were historical operations conducted to cut armies off from sources of recruitment). But even if supply and communications didn't place any limits on where your army could go, transportation definitely did. This brings van Creveld to his discussion of rivers.

Van Creveld says that armies needed to be conscious of rivers, not so much because it was hard to cross them, but because, as siege warfare created a need to make armies self-sufficient for longer periods (e.g., during the actual sieges, when they were stuck in one place), armies suddenly needed a way to carry a lot of heavy supplies with them (or a way to get those supplies transported to them from somewhere else). It was easier to float all that junk down a river than to have it loaded on wagons and pulled by horses. A big advantage of moving supplies by water was that it didn't create as many additional requirements as moving them by land. For instance, if you need to move three tons of fodder to feed your horses and you decide to move it by wagon, you've just added a bunch of wagons that require additional horses, all of which now require their own fodder. Ships don't present that same problem. Also, since ships carry a lot more supplies than wagons, you don't need nearly as many of them to do the job. Even better, a commander who knew how to use the rivers for transportation could dramatically raise his army's speed and engage in meaningful strategic maneuvers.

To illustrate the powerful effect of rivers on supply and transportation, van Creveld talks about the successful campaigns of Maurice of Nassau. Van Creveld also illustrates the importance of staying near the rivers by talking about a case in which Maurice left the rivers and actually took the time to coordinate overland supply lines for his army. Unfortunately, Maurice made a miscalculation about how much food was available. Making matters worse, his planned shipments of food were smaller than he thought they'd be, and some of his subordinate units wasted their share (both still familiar situations to modern logisticians). Eventually, he had to abandon his campaign and retreat to the rivers before his army starved.

Van Creveld ends his discussion of rivers by talking about how armies were also forced to use the rivers for transportation because of the constantly increasing weight of artillery. Van Creveld says that moving artillery was one of the defining logistics problems of the era, then describes just how heavy artillery could the case of one type, five and a half tons per gun, pulled by thirty horses each, and the horses were considered consumable supplies due to their frequent death by exhaustion. He also mentions some contemporary attempts to make artillery lighter, including Gustavus Adolphus' famous "leather gun".

Van Creveld concludes the section by saying that the three "fundamental logistic facts of life" that he's identified for this period can shed light on the career of Gustavus Adolphus, who is widely considered the greatest general of the age (his fans have included Napoleon, Patton, etc.). Van Creveld is doing this in order to show that when people talk about how great a strategist Gustavus Adolphus was, his strategy wasn't the product of anything but his logistical situation. You'll have to judge how successful van Creveld is for yourself. A pretty glaring problem in his argument is that, after talking about how little a commander had to worry about his lines of communication, he talks about Gustavus Adolphus working to prevent his lines of communication from being cut. In van Creveld's defense, it seems likely that Gustavus Adolphus is an exception because he was a king trying to run his country while leading an army in the field at the same time.

Van Creveld sets up the next section by saying that later commanders would try to find ways to prevent logistics from affecting their strategies so much.

Questions you should be able to answer after reading:

  1. During the "military revolution" from 1560 to 1660, what changed the most about armies?
  2. What was a way to supply an army in garrison in the 1600s and 1700s?
  3. What was a way to supply an army on the move in the 1600s and 1700s?
  4. Why were rivers useful to commanders in the 1600s and 1700s?
  5. What are Van Creveld's three "fundamental logistic facts of life" that he claims commanders from the 1600s and 1700s had to plan their strategies around?

Capt Palmer's favorite quote:

"Here the army remained for the next two months, Gustavus Adolphus and Wallenstein each doing his best to starve the other out. As it was, the latter proved more adept at this kind of operation; by early September, the King was forced to march, no matter where. It is a telling comment on the state of the seventeenth-century art of supply that Wallenstein's troops, even though they had just won their first victory over the Swedes at Alte Feste, were too sick and hungry to follow up."