Section 3: The age of linear warfare

Main purpose:

Building on the discussion of magazines versus forage from the end of the last section, this section talks about why armies in the 1700s seemed so slow, and examines whether this sluggishness was because they needed to be supplied from magazines. The section also looks at instances when armies in the 1700s were able to move quickly, and examines how their commanders did it.

Questions you may need to answer before reading:

  1. Who was Georg Friedrich von Tempelhoff?
  2. Who was von Clausewitz?
  3. Words you may need defined:
    • word
    • word


Van Creveld begins by saying that armies in the 1700s usually moved very slowly, and that all the experts seem to agree that this sluggishness was somehow caused by magazines. However, the exact reason it’s blamed on magazines is unclear. Some of the reasons the experts give are “armies had to move more slowly and cautiously to maintain the lines back to their magazines”, “armies had to wait on slow convoys of supplies from the magazines”, or “armies had to carry ‘rolling magazines’ of their on-hand supplies, and these rolling magazines slowed the armies down”.

Van Creveld thinks all these reasons are kind of bullshit, not only because of things we’ve learned about magazines from the last section, but also because these same experts also seem to agree that the whole point of warfare at the time was to live off the enemy’s supplies (not just supplies captured from the enemy army, but supplies seized from enemy civilians and from the enemy country itself). You would march your army into an offending noble’s country, then use your army to pillage his lands until the sheer cost of it forced him to make some kind of concession to you.

If the whole point of warfare was to NOT use your own supplies, why the hell would an army be worried about magazines, convoys, and carrying their own supplies? It doesn’t make sense. Van Creveld says that he believes magazines were really only needed to give an army an “initial push” to get it into enemy territory where it could start plundering, and the only other time an army would worry about planning its supplies was for a siege (which we probably could have guessed from reading the last section).

Van Creveld gives a great example of how these siege-related supply operations could lead someone to believe that armies of the time were always slowed down by their logistics. He says that Frederick II used a whopping 53,000 soldiers to carefully secure his supply lines in 1757, when he marched the Prussian army into Austria. On the face of it, that makes it look as if it took all the army’s resources just to keep the army alive while it was on the march…it’s like an infantry battalion needing to dedicate three line companies to logistics convoy security just to allow the handful of remaining infantry Marines to operate. However, what van Creveld points out is that earlier in the year Frederick had been forced to abandon his main effort, the siege of Olmutz, because the Austrians had intercepted one of his besieging force’s most critical supply convoys. Knowing that, we can see that the only two reasons Frederick was dedicating so many forces to securing his supply lines were that 1. He planned to engage in siege warfare, and 2. He had learned his lesson from the failure of the siege of Olmutz. If it wasn’t for the sieges, van Creveld says that Frederick could have moved very quickly.

To prove that Frederick could move quickly when he wasn’t bogged down with siege-related supply concerns, van Creveld lists some of Frederick’s most impressive recorded marching performances…they’ll make more of an impression on a Marine than on a soldier, sailor, or airman. 150 miles in 13 days. 225 miles in 14 days. 140 miles in 7 days. 100 miles in 7 days despite having to fight a battle along the way. How did Frederick do it? Easy…he dropped his baggage trains and supplies. If Frederick was able to drop his supplies and march so many miles in so many days, his army must not have needed those supplies while on the march. We can’t seriously believe that his army stopped eating for two weeks while marching 225 miles. And this is exactly what van Creveld is getting at. An army didn’t need organized supplies just to move. Just like in the times before the military revolution, you could still feed an entire army on the march by foraging and plundering, but the army had to keep moving to keep finding forage and plunder. Like we’ve already learned, it was only when an army stopped moving that it got into trouble.

So, keeping in mind how lightning fast an army could move when it wasn’t worried about conducting a siege, why didn’t armies move that fast all the time? Van Creveld says that we also need to keep in mind that during this period a nation’s centers of gravity were its fortresses, so everybody was worried about conducting sieges all the time. Since the object of warfare was to systematically take limited and concrete objectives, like forts and fortified towns, wars were just an endless series of sieges. With so many sieges and so few capable logisticians, it’s not a big surprise that this period’s supply operations are the laughingstock of military historians. If the object of warfare had just been finding ways to force the enemy army to battle where it could be destroyed, and to hell with besieging the fortresses, armies could have been zipping all over Europe all the time...remember that when you read van Creveld’s chapter on Napoleon.

Having established that an army could easily feed itself on the move, van Creveld addresses the claim that waiting on convoys slowed an army down. He describes the “five days system”, a resupply system widely discussed by military historians. It involved coordinating continuous shipments of flour from rear area magazines to forward deployed field bakeries. The five days system was supposedly a problematic system that severely limited the distance at which an army could operate from its base. The maximum distance it worked over was allegedly 60 miles (four and a half days’ movement by wagon, hence the “five days system”). At this maximum distance, half of the flour wagons had to be heading back to the magazines while the other half had to be heading to the front (think of it as a belt carrying flour to the front in a continuous loop), or else the supply of food would be disrupted. Van Creveld dismisses this entire system as an ivory tower myth created by a military theorist who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Van Creveld also notes that the only commander who is said to have even tried to use this system is our old friend Frederick II, and, as we’ve seen, Frederick definitely wasn’t concerned with waiting on wagons. When Frederick was living on forage and plunder alone, he could move as far and as fast as he wanted to.

To show how simple it was to organize supplies for an army on the march, van Creveld describes one of the famous marches of the period, the Duke of Marlborough’s march from the Rhine to the Danube before the battle of Blenheim in 1704. Popular history claims that Marlborough supported his army by cutting a contract for all his food and transportation, and that the contractor, Sir Solomon Medina, took care of everything. Van Creveld says this isn’t entirely true. Apparently, Marlborough originally planned to build up some magazines that would let him move into the field faster than his enemies would expect, but funding problems caused this plan to fall through. Also, van Creveld notes that even if the plan had succeeded, transportation and spoilage problems would have only allowed Marlborough to use those magazines for a very short distance, giving him a brief initial burst of speed that couldn’t be sustained afterwards. Instead of the magazines, Marlborough cut the contract with Medina, whose agents bought the bread from the surrounding countryside along the way. Everything else had to be bought from the troops’ pay, and the units established contracts with all kinds of merchants to support them. Having explained the logistics plan, van Creveld explains the differences between the plan and reality.

Contracts or no contracts, in reality Marlborough just used many of the simple logistics systems we’ve already discussed. He sent letters in advance of the army asking local leaders to ensure that sufficient food was gathered for purchase. When it wasn’t, the troops would engage in some plundering. Marlborough would act shocked at the disorder, then tell the town that he was sending organized foraging parties (which the town was presumably more ready to cooperate with, rather than get pillaged in a disorganized way again). Keeping this in mind, we can see that Marlborough’s march was primarily a system of hastily established markets and purchases, with a fallback plan of pillaging and plundering when the locals couldn’t be convinced to cooperate. In other words, it was pretty much the same set of logistics processes that had gone on before him (and that would go on after him).

As far as magazines, Marlborough only bought or gathered supplies for magazines when he stopped moving. He would reach a camp where he planned to leave a garrison, and then either have supplies transported to the camp or march the army out to get them and bring them back. These magazines weren’t to help him supply his movement forward. As we’ll see in a moment, they were just part of a plan to eventually supply his move back. Having shown how Marlborough actually coordinated his army’s supplies, this brings van Creveld to a discussion of how Marlborough’s entire campaign strategy was driven by logistics.

The campaign progressed in the following way (there’s a map in the book that will give you a better idea of what this all looked like). Marlborough beat the Elector of Bavaria at Donauworth, and the Elector retreated across the Danube to the fortifications at Augsburg. Marlborough pursued him, and set up camp nearby, across the Lech River at Friedburg. This put Marlborough between the Elector and his home country, Bavaria. Marlborough immediately ravaged Bavaria for supplies by spreading out his forces, which “after taking away everything movable, set fire to the rest.” His goal was to starve the Elector’s army to death rather than fight him, mostly because the Elector had been reinforced by a French army and now seriously outnumbered Marlborough.

Since Marlborough had destroyed all the supplies available to the Elector’s east (in Bavaria), all that remained was to destroy the supplies available to the Elector’s north (around Ingolstadt and Ulm). Marlborough carefully moved back through the devastated countryside up to the Danube using the magazines of supplies he had built up on the way down. However, instead of passively sitting around waiting for the food to run out, the Elector raced back to the Danube as well, blocking Marlborough. This completely turned Marlborough’s own strategy against him, leaving him pinned between an army that outnumbered him on one side and the countryside that he had left devoid of any supplies on the other side. It was just a question of time before the supplies Marlborough had pillaged from Bavaria ran out, so he was forced to attack the larger army on the ground of their own choosing, risking everything in the battle of Blenheim.

Getting back to the point after this brief digression about logistics driving strategy, van Creveld reiterates that we can see how easy it was for Marlborough to coordinate his supplies using simple contracts supplemented with requests for compliance and occasional pillaging. He only experienced problems when he halted, and his marching speed was nearly on a par with what Napoleon would do in the next century. Van Creveld closes his discussion of Marlborough by restating that the only reason there weren’t more of these high speed, long distance marches during the period was the constant requirement to engage in siege warfare, a problem we’ve already discussed. In any case, van Creveld’s point in talking about Marlborough is ultimately just to show that it wasn’t difficult to coordinate logistics for an army on the move when siege warfare wasn’t an issue.

Having shown that it was relatively simple to coordinate supplies for an army on the move, van Creveld talks about one of the consequences of that simplicity. Since armies on the move could be supplied so easily, nations initially didn’t see a need to establish any kind of supply corps to support their armies. It was cheaper to use civilian contractors who only needed to be paid during a war. If this seems silly, consider our extensive use of KBR, which is a product of similar thinking.

In any case, the contractors that were hired to act as dedicated supply and logistics personnel were mostly just required for the complicated logistics of sieges and magazines. While moving to and from those sieges, armies needed to forage and plunder to feed themselves. The problem with this is that when you send out a bunch of 0311s to plunder the countryside for food, they don’t always come back, and desertion continued to be a common problem in the massive armies of the time. Using contractors to do this was just as problematic, but due to corruption instead of desertion (van Creveld actually notes a bit later in the chapter that the contractors’ “depredations were such that armies could starve even in the richest territories”). In order to solve these epidemics of military desertion and civilian corruption during foraging parties, the first organized military supply corps was founded by the Austrians in 1783 to more efficiently exploit local resources acquired through forage and plunder. Knowing this, we can say that enlisted logistics and supply jobs (which hundreds of years later would develop into our own 04XX and 30XX jobs in the Marine Corps) were not created for bookkeeping, warehousing, convoys, or calculating. They were created as professional marauders.

Now that he’s painted us this picture of armies not needing to worry about supplies unless they stood still to conduct a siege, van Creveld tries to back up his picture with some numbers. He cites a lot of calculations and figures, and makes a few calculations of his own. His goal is to mathematically prove that an army on the march could almost always find enough food for itself. He also wants to show that, when an army stood still, fodder for the horses would run out before anything else. Based on these proofs, he wants to calculate exactly how long it would take an army to exhaust the food in any given area, forcing it to either move on or start supplying itself with convoys from magazines. You’ll have to judge for yourself how successful he is. Don’t feel bad if you just skip down to the bottom of the page, where he says “lacking exact figures, it is not possible to say just how long an army was able to stay in a given area. All we know is that, whenever a siege was conducted or a camp maintained for long, fodder was invariably the first commodity to run out.” The bottom line is that, even if he can’t quite make a geometric proof out of it, van Creveld’s keeping true to his promise to us in the introduction, and actually trying to keep the discussion rooted in numbers instead of guesswork.

One final issue that van Creveld brings up is how involved the process of support could become once the army settled down in one place, assuming it was able to supply itself. Grinding grain into flour, baking bread, chopping wood, reaping fodder, etc…all of those tasks, which had to be repeated every few days (sometimes every day) just to keep the army alive, could overtake operations to the point that the army just turned into a food producing and food consuming machine as it tried to break even in sustaining itself.

Now that van Creveld has given us some insight into food and transportation, he closes the section by discussing his final area of interest…ammunition. However, at this point in history, supplying an army with ammunition just wasn’t an issue the way it is today, especially compared to supplying an army with food (which, conversely, was substantially harder than it is today, especially when you consider that while transportation issues today are mostly a question of class III to fuel vehicles, back then transportation issues were mostly a question of class I to feed horses). Armies stepped off on campaign with all the ammo they needed, about 100 rounds per cannon, and the most artillery-intensive commanders of the time didn’t carry even twice that much (Frederick II carried 180 per cannon). Ammo consumption was highest during sieges, but not dramatically higher (the planning factors were 4 or 5 rounds per day during a siege in the first half of the 1600s). In closing, van Creveld tells us that not a single one of the period’s military writers, even the ones who claimed you absolutely needed magazines, wrote about ammunition resupply problems.

Questions you should be able to answer after reading:

  1. Question goes here...

Capt Palmer's favorite quote:

"Instead of depriving the enemy of supplies, Marlborough was now faced with starvation once he got through the provisions taken from Bavaria. No help could be expected from the Empire, and though ‘it was thought a very hazardous enterprise to attack such a numerous army, as they were so advantageously posted’, there was little to be done but risk all. Thus, the battle of Blenheim was fought and won."