Some Thoughts on van Creveld’s “Supplying War”

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Categories: Modern

Martin van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallerstein to Patton (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007) ISBN 0-521-21730-X

What John Keegan did to the experience of battle in 1979, Martin van Creveld did to the logistics of modern European warfare two years earlier. I finally read this book in May 2021 and am glad that I did, although its perspective is different than mine.

van Creveld lays out a model of logistics which goes like this. Before the late 19th century, armies could easily carry all the ammunition and spare weapons they needed with them, so the main requirements were food and fodder. As long as an army kept moving and was not too large, it could get these things in the area of operations. The main differences between armies were whether they confiscated supplies or purchased them, and whether they got their food from individual villages and farms, hired contractors to collect and deliver it, or obtained it from local towns and governors. So armies could wander around freely but might get in trouble if they had to stop to besiege a town or because enemies had blocked their path. If an army did not want to pay, then it was better to operate in hostile territory than friendly territory, just as Sun Tzu says. In 1870-1871, the Prussian army only consumed 56 rounds of rifle ammunition per infantryman and 199 rounds per gun (p. 102). This was less than the army carried with it when it set out, so there was no need to bring trains of ammunition from Prussia to the army. Outside of North Africa and some Pacific islands, the Axis still relied on local food and fodder in WW II.

By 1914, however, armies needed a continuous flow of ammunition, spare parts, and replacement equipment. Black powder cannons firing roundshot rarely destroyed each other, but smokeless-powder cannons firing high explosives could turn each other into heaps of scrap (p. 111). Europe’s conscript armies had also grown much larger relative to the surrounding populations. As a result, armies in 1914 were tied to their railways in a way which armies in 1870 had not been. The Germans invading France in 1914 and the USSR in 1941 took most of their food from the countryside, but they could not forage enough fuel and spare parts and artillery shells. Because railways were difficult to build and easy to demolish or sabotage, an army supplied by rail ran into difficulties the further it advanced into hostile territory. Motor vehicles were more flexible, but they broke down and needed a supply of fuel, so supplying an army got more difficult the further it advanced from its base. The logistics of the NATO-Afghan war, where almost everything NATO forces require is trucked or flown in to the country, is a culmination of this motorized logistics system. In van Creveld’s view, most armies before 1914 did not need continuous lines of supply back to a home base unless they were stopped and ate up all the food and fodder in their neighbourhood. When horse-powered armies had trouble feeding themselves, they tended to flee forward into areas which they had not yet stripped of grain and grass, not stop or retreat towards their bases (pp. 16, 60, confirm Xenophon Anabasis 2.2.11).

a map of the mediterranean theatre of operations in 1942
The North African Theatre: one of the just about adequate set of maps in “Supplying War.” Benghazi is on the horn of Cyrenaica, Tripoli is further west. Malta south of Sicily provided bases for airstrikes against convoys to Libya.

Structurally, this book consists of seven case studies: one on western European warfare in the 17th and 18th centuries, a second on the 1805 and 1812 campaigns of Napoleon, a third on the Franco-Prussian War, a fourth on the French campaign of 1914, a fifth on Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, a sixth on the German adventure in North Africa in 1941 and 1942, and a seventh on Operation Overlord. This structure suggests that it was aimed at soldiers and military buffs rather than history geeks and that the history before 1914 is there as background to the studies of 20th century warfare. Each chapter has endnotes, with the traditional problem that the page headers give the chapter titles but the endnotes are organized by chapter number and page number so it is hard to find the notes for the chapter you are reading. These independent chapters mention some common themes, such as the trouble of baking and distributing bread or hardtack (“biscuits”) and the tendency of horses to sicken or starve before soldiers. He is also skeptical of the value of detailed logistical planning: his study of the invasion of France in 1944 focuses on how the very detailed plans from allied headquarters fell to pieces once fighting started. He does not say what he thinks allied planners should have done with their time instead, and as one of those planners explained “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” He sees the Axis campaigns in North Africa in 1941 and 1942 as limited not so much by the battle of the convoys or the British aircraft on Malta as by the lack of ports or railroads. All supplies for an invasion of Egypt had to be trucked east of Benghazi or Tripoli along a single coast road, and the Axis simply did not have enough trucks or spare tires to do that effectively. While Rommel blamed his supply problems on “cowardly, inefficient” Italians, he was generously supplied with trucks and fuel, and there were not ports to support a larger Axis force in North Africa. (Tunisia was a French colony, and the Axis were only able to build up there after seizing French ships and colonies after the Allied landings in French North Africa [Operation Torch]). The common themes help connect these otherwise disparate chapters.

Supplying War is an easy read, but it shows its age. Its probably not fair to complain that a book published in 1977 thinks that the sinking of Axis oil tankers at key moments in 1942 was “fortuitous” (p. 200: the Ultra secret became widely known in 1975) and complains about Rommel’s “useless Italian ballast” (p. 196, 201: Rommel was in Africa to keep Libya Italian not to conquer Egypt). But like John Keegan, van Creveld has a very un-world-historical focus on Germany, Italy, France, Britain, and the United States. Readers are expected to know what the “Ems telegram” is and the general course of the Franco-Prussian War. The author sometimes hints that supply would have been more difficult in “Bohemia or Poland” but those are the most exotic places he is interested in. Western European armies needed ovens to bake leavened bread, but what about armies that marched on rice or flatbread or pounded corn? What about places where fodder was plentiful but grain scarce? Its hard to decide how valid his model is outside of its Western European context. Surely an Israeli should know that the world is much bigger and more interesting than the North Atlantic? Also, this is not a quantitative book: numbers are sprinkled through the text as ornaments, not presented systematically. The model which I describe is a verbal model, not an arithmetical model like Donald W. Engels’ model of Alexander the Great’s logistics. A reviewer on Amazon points out that in wars since 1977, armies often have to fight with what they have at the start of the war, so procurement of equipment in peacetime and efficient distribution during the war are often more important than the issues this book focuses on.

van Creveld says that he could not find any logistic studies of many of these famous European campaigns, so its understandable that he focused on wars which were easy to research on one side of the Iron Curtain. His model of logistics before motors is useful, and he manages to make the story of supply exciting. But I still feel that this book could have been more than it is, and that a second edition in the 1990s or 2000s would have made it much more useful in this new century [apparently the second edition from 2004 just has cosmetic changes]. Why do some armies starve amidst plenty and others turn into predators?

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(scheduled 31 May 2021)

4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on van Creveld’s “Supplying War”

  1. russell1200 says:

    I seem to recall that he basically noted that the Germans would load up on Jerry Cans and go slicing forward with their armored units, but that around 300km they would run out of steam. Which worked fine in Poland through France through the Balkans, but didn’t work as well in the larger areas of the Soviet Union or Africa.

    Rommel was so dysfunctional about logistics that it is stunning that he got as far as he did. On the other hand, the Allies dysfunction about operational doctrine (on the ground) just about matched his blind spot. Although in fairness, the situation was a bit chaotic and combat doctrine isn’t easy to fix on the fly.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I liked a paper by Adam Tooze which tried to defend the British by arguing that for the British the army was third priority for personnel, whereas for the Germans it was first. If the clever dilligent guy in Britain is a fire-control officer on a light cruiser, the clever dilligent guy in the USA is running a factory, and the clever diligent guy in Germany is sent to staff college, you get three different types of military. But in 1918 the British army knew how to beat Germans, and somehow they had forgotten by 1939

      I am about to move domain registers and hosts so there may be disruptions of service in the next week or so.

      1. russell1200 says:

        In reading Doughty’s The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-39 you will see that to the extent that the British/French knew how to beat the Germans in 1918, that they applied the lessons so rigidly that it could be said that they “Only knew how to beat the Germans of 1918”.

        Really, as best I can tell, the French did a lot more work on doctrine than the British and at least did think it out clearly. But their command control was so rigid as to make them very ineffective in anything other than a set piece battle.

        Add into it that the Germans would go looking for your weakest area, and mechanization meant that a breakthrough in a less critical area, had the potential to become very critical.

        But as many have noted, the Germans were not all that mechanized. The biggest change was the massive use of wireless at a very low level. All of their tanks (except maybe some Czech?) would have at least radio receivers. So their units tended to act far more cohesively.

        1. admin says:

          I have not read that book, but I’m skeptical of anyone who thinks the end of the Battle of France was inevitable. If that plane with the first German plans had not crashed and forced the boss to admit that winter 1939/1940 was too early to attack, or if Manstein had not got his alternative plan in front of the boss, or if the French had spent their year of phony war training like the Germans were, things could have been different.

          Indy Naidell claims that one of the French officers who was slow to respond to the river crossing at Sedan was appointed to high office by the Vichy regime a few months later. So the Battle of France might have been a Plassey or a Bosworth, where “Soldier of France, be not too bold, / For Reunaud thy master is bought and sold.” Edit: t’was Charles Huntzinger who went from refusing air support and ordering troops to abandon their positions around the Maginot Line at Sedan to becoming Vichy Minister of Defense and signing the first Vichy anti-semitic law until he was killed in a plane crash.

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