The Problem With Supplies.

by Daniel Russ on October 18, 2011

Hannibal Crossed The Alp With War Elephants And Cattle

The simple but enormous problem of supplying troops  at war is mind boggling. It has been the red-headed stepchild of military science, receiving far less attention than it deserves. But as often as not the ability to resupply troops at battle is far more telling on the out come of wars than what happens at the front. You can have the biggest army in the world, but if they are out of bullets – or water – well pretty soon it’s over.  Military supply lines in general have been a source of great industry and jobs and profit. However the effect of resupply on history itself is forgotten.


We can all imagine that ancient warriors were incredibly tough specimens. Mongols, Spartans, Kossacks, La Grand Armee… Etc. Still, even in 3000 BC, people need water. 40,000 men require 80,000 liters of water a day.


Army Supply Train, Virginia, Circa 1863, By Mathew Brady

Each horse or donkey or mule required 50 liters of water a day. 3000 horses, a modest sized cavalry force, needs 75 acres of grazing grass a day. That said, pack animals and slaves have been part of warfare  since before time. A man cannot march into a new continent and carry all the water he will need on the journey. The same can be said for food, clothing, shelter, and even entertainment. Consider this. The Roman Army marched into theater with its own prostitutes. The needs of a modern army are even greater. Men now need air conditioning. We recently learned that the bill for the equipment and power to air-condition the US forces in the Mideast is roughly $20 billion a year. Consider now also fuel, and the accouterments of repairing complex machinery, the weight of computers and processors. Supply becomes the single biggest effort in warfare.

So what could not be obtained on the way had to be carried. That meant more pack animals and that meant more water. That meant more Horse handlers, and supply personnel and repairmen, blacksmiths and so forth that take bent swords and straighten them. And someone had to cook, and someone had to procure food. Livy wrote that 40,000 Roman Legionnaires needed 1600 blacksmiths and cooks and other personnel to maintain them on the way to battle.


Take for example, cannons. The “Napoleon” 12-pounder cannon weighed just over half a ton. A 20-pounder Parrott Rifle Cannon was almost a ton. Cannons also needed wagons, wheels, leather work, chains, enormous casks of gunpowder; and of course more pack animals. Gunpowder was its own challenge. It not only had to transported it had to be transported carefully. It had to be kept dry. And it had to be guarded. All of this meant that no matter how modern and well equipped an army was, it needed a big baggage train. Baggage trains slow down armies. in a vicious circle that will probably never be totally solved. Imagine the number of horses Napoleon needed to haul 300 cannons from France into Russia.


It was Epamindondas who was famous for winning against the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra; he was the person who actually formalized the flanking maneuver. Instead of attacking your front lines only, send forces around the back to attack your supply train. Then you’ll have to fall back and defend it. And when you fall back I’ll move forward. Today attacking the supply line is most often referred to as Interdiction.


The flanking maneuver, attacking supply lines, is an integral part of war.  Once, the Greeks or the Persians or the Frankish Knights for example would surround a castle and just starve out the inhabitants. When Sherman

Tanks Heading Into South Korea

marched through Georgia, his main military objective was to destroy Confederate rail lines and cut the supplies to the Army of Northern Virginia. It worked. Grant was securing control of Vicksburg because he wanted to cut the supply line up and down the Mississippi so the Confederates couldn’t use it. Ulysses S. Grant’s first command under fire was a supply officer in the US Army during the war with Mexico. A lieutenant in the 4th infantry described Grant offering blandishments. “There was no road so obstructed  but that Grant, in some mysterious way, would work his train through and have it in the camp of his brigade before the campfires were lighted.” In the eastern front in World War II, the German Army group consisting of fifty divisions, Army Group North, required thirty trainloads of supplies a day. When the German 6th Army was surrounded at Stalingrad, Goring claimed he could drop 500 tons of supplies to them a day. On their best day they dropped 10 tons. When the poor Poles were starving in the Warsaw uprising, 117 B-17s dropped supplies that all fell into the hands of the Germans. Supplies and a steady stream of them mean winning or losing in warfare. Even the Romans figured this out established marching camps, store houses of supplies and safe fortifications to stay in- in between campaigns.


The problem of resupply will stay with us forever, until the day no one longs for anything anymore. Or when technology can produce supplies ex nihilo. When that day comes, there will be no more war.


Singular Moments In Line Of Supply History

2000 BC

Egyptians build granaries in Nubia to supply Egyptian Troops.

218 BC

Hannibal crosses alps with cattle.


United States Army Establishes The Quartermaster Corps.

Trains become the primary means of moving armies and supplies in the US.


Trucks revolutionize resupply from England to Russia during the first World War.


North Vietnamese surprise US forces when they successfully resupply heavy divisions without heavy lift aircraft or even clear roads and vehicles. They resupplied the NVA and the Viet Cong through mountainous, thickly verdant and treacherous Laotian jungles. Sometimes this included carrying dismantled heavy artillery in pieces on bicycles.


The United States moved 2000 tanks, 1990 aircraft, 550000 people into Kuwait in just under two weeks.


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