Logistics at last
Earlier I’d promised some space to discuss logistics, so this spot right here looks good. I’ll provide a cursory overview of early modern logistics to start off the discussion.
The old saying goes: “Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.” I’m not a professional military man, but if the sources I’ve looked at are any indication, this saying certainly reflects the reality in the early modern period.
Logistics has been around ever since people needed to eat things, but the sustained study of sustenance (or at least the term “logistics” itself) is relatively recent, as our faithful Google Ngram Viewer suggests:
This chart hints at one of the biggest problems with logistics if you’re trying to understand it: it’s a huge concept. Logistics, after all, ranges from the individual soldier munching on a crust of bread to vast economic networks encompassing thousands of laborers providing materiel to the troops. It includes the food, drink, clothing, shelter, weapons and munitions of the soldier and their beasts of burden, but it doesn’t stop there, since it radiates outward to transportation networks, magazine/warehousing systems, and procurement agencies. And of course it also includes the very land in which armies are campaigning, as well as the civilian populace (and their produce) wherever resources are being drawn from, to the fields, manufacturing workshops and natural resource extraction points of whatever countries you’re getting these supplies from. You should also include the fiscal and financial systems that allowed the purchase and delivery of said supplies, perhaps even the tax base and credit mechanisms by which wartime economies were sustained. It’s a product, a system, a process. It encompasses all levels of war, as well as a whole variety of historical subfields. In addition to the history of armies, you also need to know something about the history of governmental bureaucracies and private business networks, of nutrition, of agriculture, of transportation, of economics and finances… So it’s probably not a surprise that lumping all the various aspects of supply under one rubric of “logistics” is a recent invention, even if generals and military planners have been dealing with it for millennia.
Circa 1700 the term “logistics” was used almost solely in a mathematical sense: “the method of calculation by sexagesimal fractions; the fundamental rules of algebra.” But by the late 18C it was being used in the military sense we are familiar with, e.g. Smollet’s The Critical Review or the Annals of Literature (1779) pithily summarized it as “the art of calculating times, powers, distances, and wants.” (FWIW, a 1760 dictionary entry for “logistics” only includes the algebraic definition.) Total speculation on my part, but it seems like the calculations used to figure out how many men needed to make a formation of X ranks and Y files and other such applications of mathematics to military men in space led people to apply the mathematical term of ‘logistics’ to military affairs more broadly, and it expanded from there. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the modern term “logistics” was born during the late Enlightenment, when many were seeking to apply math and science to war, especially when combined with the 18C’s more refined appreciation of the operational level of war (in contrast to the much-earlier tactical application of geometry to fortifications and battlefield formations).
But whether they called it “logistics” or not, people gotta get fed. In the early modern period they didn’t have a lot of staff dedicated to operational planning, usually a quartermaster-general and various subordinates who would scout out locations, routes, supply sources, etc. Depending on when and where, more important were the military administrators (usually civilian government agents) who oversaw the requisitioning and delivery of supplies to the troops – whether these were provincial and army intendants as in France or those beloved Dutch field deputies that kept Marlborough’s armies fed. Most of the time these military administrators were interacting with the people who actually provided the food, private sector contractors – wealthy merchants who had the money, expertise and connections to translate gold stored in London into bread supplied to troops in Catalonia. Yet the centrality of these military administrators and civilian contractors has meant that it has only recently been seriously studied. As Luttwak pointed out in “Logistics and the Aristocratic Idea of War” back in 1993, logistics isn’t as sexy as battle and campaigning. Its main protagonists are pointy-headed pencil-pushers (quill-scribblers?) rather than courageous soldiers and Great Captains. We can see this in one English pamphleteer’s complaint of the Dutch field deputies, who were hindering Marlborough’s battle-seeking with their logistical pedantry: the “Wise states of Antiquity… never took either Philosophers from their Gardens, Porches, or Schools, or Tradesman from their Shops, to command over [generals] …. And this from the very Nature of the Thing, for they very well judg’d, that it was improbable, that Men, whose profession had bent their Minds, and employ’d all their Thoughts, either in Contemplation, and fine Amusements about the Secret and Hidden Operations of Nature, or in the Low and Mechanick Performances of the Hands, or in Buying and Selling, and the little Tricks of little Chapmen, shou’d know when to fight an Enemy, or when to forbear, better than a General who had spent his Life in the Art and Practice of War…. [The Ancients] very well knew, that there is, generally speaking, an Habitual, or at least a Native Fear in Men of a Sedentary or Merchantile Life, which magnifie the Danger to them….” [That an author from the mercantile English nation would be saying this is interesting, perhaps indicative of how they tried to distance themselves from the real “nation of shopkeepers,” the Dutch?]
How exactly all of these individuals and systems worked together is surprisingly tricky, because of the vast network described above, but also because logistical systems might vary from theater-to-theater and army-to-army and decade-to-decade (or even week-to-week), as well as by type of item to be supplied. It’s difficult even for the expert to get a decent overview of early modern logistics because of the paucity of literature on the subject, which is itself a function of the mess that we find when we look at the primary sources. Part of the problem studying logistics stems from the fact that the very subject is so ephemeral:
- Supply is a boring everyday event, and usually went un-noted by most contemporaries unless there was a major problem, e.g. they were running out of food or ammo. Even then, most military memoirs and letters would hardly ever be able to give any kind of quantified description beyond “We’re hungry” or “No bread for three days.” Nice to know, but not that informative about how significant of a breakdown this was, or where exactly in the supply chain it occurred.
- Supply is consumed, so it doesn’t leave behind many artifacts like fortifications or battlefields or weapons (although this last could be included under logistics). You’ve possibly got the ovens, etc., but it’s hard to figure out how much those could theoretically produce, must less how much they actually produced for a given campaign.
- Supply is about large quantities, the number of men being fed or the number of loaves of bread delivered. As we’ve discussed before, it’s really difficult to get good measures of army sizes in the early modern period. This is why you’ll see lots of hypothetical calculations in the secondary literature: “Each soldier was allotted a 3-pound loaf of bread every two days, so therefore for an army of 50,000 men this would require X tons of grain…” As in other areas, many historians rely on a few prescriptive manuals for basic rules of thumb: in my period, Nodot and d’Aulnay are the two well-known French manuals, and everybody still uses Perjés despite his calculations relating to the Hungarian theater particularly. Plus, this may not even include all the camp followers (women, kids…) that often tagged along with an army. Recall also that by the late 17C armies in the Low Countries and other urbanized areas (50,000-100,000 men) were literally the size of large cities, e.g. the Spanish capital city of Brussels. Feeding and moving the equivalent of a town every few days presented a huge strain on early modern systems.
- Supply is also about money, and there too we have lots of gaps in the sources, not to mention all the problems with conversions between various currencies that make it difficult to make valid comparisons from one country or theater to another. In various archives you can find all sorts of scraps of paper with figures on them, but most of those documents are decontextualized, or provide only a specific snapshot in time. We historians are fortunate when we can find summaries compiled by contemporaries, but often these are either theoretical (e.g. budgeted), or only written up when someone is trying to make a point – try to get more money from the government, blame an ally for failing to contribute their fair share, defend yourself from accusations of corruption, and so on. A lot of the sources are fragmentary and intermittent.
- Documents on the civilian administration of the logistical systems are often in different archives, or at least not in the operational correspondence and memoirs that many military historians rely upon. And they aren’t always obvious to interpret without understanding how the system works.
So what kind of documents are you likely to find in the archives that help illuminate logistics? Foremost among them are army numbers: regimental musters, payrolls for officers and men, and sometimes summaries of the total number of troops in a country’s pay. This will at least give you a sense of how many men needed to be supplied – often historians will take these figures and conduct some generic arithmetic to arrive at an army’s ‘needs.’ Elsewhere you’ll find supply contracts with those civilian contractors, and pay scales for the ranks within the army. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have the family papers of one of the civilian contractors. Most voluminous of all will be all those little notices of requests for and receipts of payment that have been collected in works like Britain’s Calendar of Treasury Papers: regiment such-and-such is owed X amount for 12 horses lost on the last campaign, Captain so-and-so is requesting reimbursement for £26 of his own money that he paid for his company’s sustenance at the siege of Douai last year… If you’re lucky, part of it will be summarized for you, like this document:
What have historians learned about the EME logistical system from such sources? I’ll make a few impressionistic thoughts based on my recollection of what I’ve read in the past – I don’t have time now to do a thorough review of the literature.
First, there are a wide variety of supplies needed by an EM army. All of these consumables required a surprisingly complicated system of production and distribution, a whole supply network that many moderns who buy their food in plastic containers from the grocery store don’t appreciate. Bread has received by far the most attention: man may not live by bread alone, yet you’d never know when looking at the literature. Bread was a staple of early modern European life (God’s supposed to give us our daily ration after all), and that starchy product required sowing and harvesting grain, threshing and milling it into flour, then baking it into loaves or biscuit, then transferring it to the regiments, then preparing it around the campfire with whatever other foods (stew) for consumption. On occasion small armies might make their own, getting by using hand mills and portable ovens, but in the more populated theaters (just where the most intense and frequent campaigning occurred), it was easier to rely on the existing infrastructure. Which usually meant magazines (grain warehouses, mills and ovens) established in fortified towns, with convoys of wagons (or boats) bringing the bread to the troops. As the armies got larger, they increasingly had to ship in grain from elsewhere – under William III, for example, the Maritime Allies relied heavily on the Baltic grain trade to feed their cities as well as their armies. The question of where an army gets its bread from has also led to a wide-ranging discussion of the extent to which an army was tethered to magazine supply lines or could otherwise “live off the land” (van Creveld and Lynn sparred on this, for example) – a soldier can’t just pick up a stalk of grain and start chewing on it, unless he’s a hayseed. Historians have also spent all sorts of time estimating how many days’ march you could travel from your magazine base, although more rare are actual measurements coming from real operational situations. This question has some relevance to explaining the differences between early modern and revolutionary/Napoleonic warfare.
Most other food items have been ignored by historians, probably because their local procurement from sutlers or via plunder meant that few records were kept – it would be really interesting if we had a detailed record book of a sutler trailing along behind the army. With greater organization, administrators might even organize ‘market days’ where the local populace brought their produce to the army for direct purchase. From the primary sources I’ve looked at, however, you’ll only see occasional anecdotes: references to particular acts of plunder (the courts martial records are often useful for this); mention of cattle on the hoof; French soldiers hoop-rolling giant Dutch cheese-wheels down the streets; soldiers getting sick from eating too much unripe fruit. This contemporary engraving probably exaggerates the reality only slightly:
Yet for all the talk of bread, I can’t remember seeing anything on liquid refreshment for the troops, other than when troops discover a cellar full of booze and go on a bender. Water quality was pretty iffy back then (though possibly they were used to it) and non-aqueducted cities had major water-carrying trades. Horses must have drunk from whatever nearby water sources they could locate, but I wonder about whether the troops were doing the same – I can only imagine what thousands of soldiers and horses did to (and in) the rivers and ponds along their march routes. I’ve read that most Europeans tended to drink beer or wine, and I would think that most bottled or casked beverages would’ve had to have been sent to the army rather than procured locally. You’d think that would require a fair amount of transport – a gallon of water weighs over 8 pounds and people need at least one gallon per day – but I haven’t looked at logistical contracts on this topic.
The second-most studied logistical requirement was feeding the horses. Even an infantry-heavy army would still use thousands of hungry horses to move the officers, baggage and artillery (not to mention bread convoys). Bread processing might be centralized in certain magazines and the sacks of grain/flour transported there from all over for baking, but given the massive volumes of freshly-cut grass (relative to how much a horse needs to eat – 40 pounds a day?), combined with the fact that horses couldn’t get enough nutrition from a year-round diet of dry fodder, meant that you had to acquire much of your horses’ food locally. Getting fodder for your horses thus required sending out forage parties, which required knowledge of horse care (horse sense?) and knowing what to feed a horse, as well as an ability to estimate how many horses any given field will feed (a point Erik Lund makes). The largest of these forage parties might number several thousand troops with their own guards, and could easily lead to skirmishes. Historians have also noticed the link between fodder and operations. For example: the need for locally-gathered fodder made it possible for an enemy to consume all the fodder in an area, which in turn would eliminate further operations there. This was often given as a reason for the seemingly-random movements of German armies in the 30YW. A more discrete case comes from 1710, where the French prevented the Allies from besieging their desired target of Arras by consuming all the fodder in the area.
Munitions and weapons were required in far small numbers, and also required delivery from rear magazines (unless one confiscated a village’s church bells to melt down into musketballs). Olaf van Nimwegen has pointed out how few rounds of ammunition and ounces of gunpowder Dutch armies in the Spanish Succession went through during many campaigns – sieges were the major consumer of powder and shot, but most armies could manage to fight a field battle with the ammo they had been given at the beginning of the campaign. The supply of saltpeter and the construction of powder mills was important on a grand strategic level, but for most early modern operations munitions were rarely the limiting factor.
The financial side of logistics is probably the most complicated of all, given the labyrinthine nature of early modern finance. By at least the 16C European armies began using bills of exchange for payment in-theater, e.g. promissory notes drawn up in your capital city to be cashed by a business contact in the theater of operations and debited from that creditors’ account – governments relied on the international business connections of private bankers and financiers for this function. This was preferred to the more risky transport of massive amounts of precious metal coinage to purchase supplies abroad. Governments also tried to minimize the specie paid to their troops by taking deductions out of the soldiers’ pay for various items, often including clothing and bread. It’s in such documents that you’ll find terminology that only a bureaucrat could love, terms like “poundage” and “offreckonings.” The amounts disbursed for supply could be quite large, which led to inevitable complaints about spending our money in their countries, not surprising in an age where many viewed trade as a zero-sum game. The English were particularly conflicted about this during Louis XIV’s later wars: happy that their own lands weren’t being despoiled by war, yet angry that English gold was being spent by Dutch middlemen to purchase Flemish (or Baltic) food to feed English troops in Flanders.
Bread, beer, cheese-wheels, hay and cash. So what? Why is logistics important? In addition to the antiquarian interest in understanding how the soldiers lived, the main question most military historians seek to answer through logistics is what effect these supply issues had on EME operations. If necessary, we could invoke Napoleon’s famous stomach-marching army. But the historian’s interest in logistics stretches beyond operations as well. Long before serious academic study was dedicated to the topic, local historians were concerned with detailing the impact of war on their particular communities – contributions and plunder was a large part of this question. By the 1970s we started to get a consensus among academic military historians that logistics constrained EME army movements, and this reliance on magazine systems is often used to explain why so few early modern operations were decisive (Perjés’ ‘crisis of strategy’). Many historians have moved beyond the operational level of logistics within the past few decades, to look at the economic, financial and agricultural/industrial underpinnings of early modern war. This includes historians of military administration exploring how many of these supplies were provided (and paid for) by the government, versus the amount paid for by the regimental officers and generals, versus the amount requisitioned from locals – though we still lack solid numbers for most wars. At its broadest, this question of paying for war leads to a discussion of state formation: how war drove the development of the modern state and how state bureaucracies facilitated the waging of war.
Logistics is a huge topic, even when looking at one country’s efforts in one specific war. You need to know the consumption of the army, but you increasingly need to know both the mechanics and the macro-view. We need to consider which supplies were purchased by whom, provided by who to whom, how, where and when. Like the rest of EMEMH, the study of logistics has expanded significantly since the 1960s, adding more questions even as we struggle to answer the original ones.
Suggested Readings. I’ve put them in chronological order so we can get a sense of how the topic has evolved:
- Various contemporary acts and ordinances about supply, sometimes even published, e.g. England and Wales. An act for the more certain and constant supply of the soldiery with pay; and the preventing of any further oppression or damage to the people by free-quarter or billet Die Sabbathi, 12 Maii, 1649. Ordered by the Commons assembled in Parliament, that this act be forthwith printed and published. Hen: Scobell, Cleric. Parliament. London: printed for Edward Husband printer to the Honorable House of Commons and are to be sold at his shop, 1649.
- Nodot, François. Le munitionnaire des armées de France, qui enseigne à fournir les vivres aux troupes avec toute l’oeconomie possible….. Paris: chez Cusson & Wit, 1697.
- d’Aulnay, Dupré. Traité générale des subsistances militaires, qui comprend la fourniture du pain de munition, des fourages et de la viande aux armées et aux troupes de garnisons, ensemble celle des hôpitaux et des équipages des vivres et de l’artillerie, par marché ou résultat du conseil, à for-fait, ou par régie. Paris: De l’Imprimerie de Prault père, 1744.
- Chenevières, François de. Détails militaires dont la connoissance est nécessaires à tous les officiers, & principalement aux commissaires des Guerres. Paris: Chez Charl. Ant. Jombert, Libraire du roi, pour l’artillerie & le génie, 1750.
- Dublanchy, C-N. Une intendance d’armée au XVIIIe siècle. Etudes sur les services administratifs à l’armée de Soubise pendant la Guerre de Sept Ans, d’après la correspondance et les papiers inédit de l’intendant François-Marie Gayot. Paris: 1908.
- Fortescue, Sir John W. The Royal Army Service Corps: a history of transport and supply in the British Army. London: Cambridge University Press, 1930.
- Redlich, Fritz. De Praeda Militare: Looting and Booty 1500-1800. 1956. Also his German Military Entrepriser.
- Davies, C.S.L., “Provisions for Armies, 1509-1560,” Economic History Review 17 (1964-1965): 234-48.
- Ferguson, Ronald. Blood and Fire: Contribution Policy of the French Armies in Germany (1688-1715). Ph.D., University of Minnesota, 1970.
- Perjés, Géza, “Army Provisioning, Logistics and Strategy in the Second Half of the 17th Century,” Acta Historica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 16 (1970): 7-51.
- Milot, Jean, “Un problème opérationnel du XVIIe siècle illustré par un casualties régional,” Revue du Nord 53 (1971): 269-285.
- Waddell, Louis. The Administration of the English Army in Flanders and Brabant from 1689 to 1697. Ph.D., University of North Carolina, 1971.
- Baker, Norman. Government and contractors: the British Treasury and war supplies, 1775-1783. London: Athlone Press, 1971.
- Parker, Geoffrey. The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
- van Creveld, Martin. Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
- Sturgill, Claude, “Changing Garrisons: The French System of Etapes,” Canadian Journal of History 20 (1985).
- West, Jenny. Gunpowder, Government and War in the mid-18th Century. Royal Historical Society, 1991.
- Wheeler, James Scott, “Logistics and Supply in Cromwell’s Conquest of Ireland,” in M.C. Fissell, ed., War and Government in Britain, 1598-1650 (Manchester, 1991). Wheeler has written several articles on British logistics during the middle of the 17C, including his The Making of a World Power.
- John Lynn, ed., Feeding Mars: Logistics in Western Warfare from the Middle Ages to the Present. Boulder, CO, 1993. This includes a large number of chapters, including Luttwak’s “Aristocratic” mentioned above.
- van Nimwegen, Olaf. De subsitentie van het leger: Logistiek en strategie van het Geallieerde en met name het Staatse leger tijdens de Spaanse Successieoorlog in de Nederlanden en het Heilige Roomse Rijk (1701-1712). Amsterdam: De Bataafsche Leeuw, 1995.
- Lund, Erik. War for the Every Day: Generals, Knowledge and Warfare in Early Modern Europe, 1680-1740. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
- Edwards, Peter. Dealing in Death: The Arms Trade and the British Civil Wars, 1638-1652. Sutton Publishing, 2000.
- Parrott, David. Richelieu’s Army: War, Government and Society in France, 1624-1642. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Rowlands, Guy. The Dynastic State and the Army under Louis XIV: Royal Service and Private Interest 1661-1701. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Stapleton, John M. Forging a Coalition Army William III, the Grand Alliance, and the Confederate Army in the Spanish Netherlands, 1688-1697. Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 2003.
- Cénat, Jean-Philippe, “De la guerre de siège à la guerre de mouvement: une révolution logistique à l’époque de la Révolution et de l’Empire?” Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française 348 (2007): 101-115.
- Robinson, Gavin, “Horse Supply and the Development of the New Model Army, 1642-1646,” War in History 15 (2008): 121-140.
- Bannerman, Gordon E. Merchants and the Military in Eighteenth-Century Britain: British Army Contracts and Domestic Supply, 1739-1763. London: Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 2010.
- Rowlands, Guy, “Moving Mars: The Logistical Geography of Louis XIV’S France,” French History 25 (2011): 492-514.
There are also lots of case studies from the 19C-20C, often with a local history focus or else in specialized military journals. As you can see from the above list, by the 1970s logistics was clearly in the air. By the 2000s however, financial and fiscal aspects seem to have become more dominant, although I didn’t include many of those cites. As usual, my focus is on 17C-18C western Europe (England, France, Netherlands especially), so that’s what I know enough to talk about.
Over the next week or two I’ll try to see if I can get these titles in a group Zotero library.
There’s a nice collection of sayings on logistics here collected by, no surprise, a naval supply group.