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).
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?
(scheduled 31 May 2021)