Section 4: 'An umbilical cord of supply?'

Main purpose:

This section sums up the chapter, and tries to finally answer the question of how logistics affected armies from the 1600s and 1700s.

Questions you may need to answer before reading:

  1. Question goes here...
  2. Words you may need defined:
    • word


The section begins with a discussion of the different schools of thought regarding the characteristics of seventeenth and eighteenth century warfare, especially the idea that it was an era of “limited warfare”, and that these limitations were caused by logistics as much as anything else.

Van Creveld thinks this claim that logistics limited warfare is kind of funny, not only because our understanding of 17th and 18th century logistics has barely advanced in the 300 years since those logistics were actually used on the battlefield, but because our own superficial examination of actual 17th and 18th century logistics seems to point us in the exact opposite direction. If anything, it seems more like the square peg of limited strategies (e.g., siege warfare) was just being repeatedly smashed on the round hole of the period’s logistical systems (e.g., forage/plunder and limited magazines/convoys). When commanders decided to maneuver instead of besiege, the logistical systems of the time seem to have let them move far and fast (in the cases of Frederick II and the Duke of Marlborough, for example). How could the common knowledge have been so wrong for such a long time?

Van Creveld blames popular military writers, especially Carl von Clausewitz (but also Georg Friedrich von Tempelhoff), and the hordes of less popular military writers that repeated the same incorrect assumptions about logistics for the next several centuries. In reality, armies tended to live off forage and plunder, so much so that the Austrians founded a supply corps just to help the army loot the locals. Van Creveld then goes over the four conclusions we seem to have come to in this chapter.

First, armies couldn’t move more than a fraction of their supplies via convoys, so they lived off of forage and plunder by default. If it doesn’t seem like armies were very good at this, it’s because their size had increased by an order of magnitude and armies were still in the process of developing an organized administrative process to plunder more efficiently (like the Austrian supply corps). Second, because armies were able to live off forage and plunder, they were capable of moving much faster than is usually assumed. Third, the reason that armies didn’t usually move as fast as we now know they could is that they were always engaging in sieges, which required the slow, complicated logistics that most military historians think of when they think of 17th and 18th century warfare. And fourth, the reason armies usually engaged in sieges was because they were concrete, limited objectives that couldn’t run away from you when you tried to attack them (unlike an enemy army in the field).

Van Creveld then takes a swipe at the preconceived ideas of logistics in 17th and 18th century warfare that he’s so neatly taken apart. He notes that if we sit down and really think about what we’re saying, if an army of 100,000 men had wanted to bring up all its supplies from a base, even rough calculations of the sheer quantities of supplies involved (for example, 180 days worth of fodder for roughly 6,000 horses) would immediately show us how ridiculous it was to ever have believed these armies lived solely off of magazines.

Finally, van Creveld summarizes his conclusions regarding whether logistics affected strategy during the period in question. Yes, but it wasn’t by tying commanders to an “umbilical cord of supply”, as is commonly supposed. It was by forcing commanders to move or starve, and he notes that most of the impressive marches of the period (like we saw from Frederick II) were actually what van Creveld describes as “flights forward” to prevent starvation. Bearing all that in mind, he says we can safely say that the purpose of magazines wasn’t to increase mobility, but just the opposite…to increase a commander’s ability to remain immobile for long enough to complete a siege without starving.

In one last parting shot at the old view of 17th and 18th century logistics, van Creveld says that the “spirit of the age”, in which wars were fought as cheaply as possible and could actually be fought solely to make your hapless neighbor feed and pay for your army for a while, should have given us a clue as to the foolishness of suggesting that 18th century rulers would have paid “even a single thaler that could possibly have been stolen from another” to support their armies.

Questions you should be able to answer after reading:

  1. What is a 'flight forward'?

Capt Palmer's favorite quote:

"That logistics did exercise an influence on the two centuries of warfare under discussion is of course true, but this influence had little if anything to do with supposed ‘umbilical cords of supply’ restricting the movements of armies. Rather, the problem…consisted precisely in that armies, with their hordes of retainers, had grown too large to remain for long at any one place…Under such conditions, some of the most famous marches of the day…really consisted of ‘flights forward’ and were carried out for no better reason than that, since money for magazines was not forthcoming, it was impossible to sit still."