Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine stalled in early March, I see some people on old and social media who are latching onto the fact that Russia still occasionally takes a new village in eastern Ukraine. Isn’t winning a war all about advancing?
Back in February, as the evidence grew that Putin was about to commit the great mistake, journalists were sharing stories like this:
Dmytro Skatrovsky said he had not been notified by text but had turned up anyway outside the Svyatoshynskyi recruitment centre, in western Kyiv. He spent three years in the army and took part in the 2014 battle to evict separatists from the port city of Mariupol, he said.
“I’ve bought two sniper complexes with good optics,” he added. “I’ve also ordered a drone on Amazon. It hasn’t turned up yet.” Skatrovsky said a group of friends had chipped in to get the rifles – at a cost of $10,000 (£7,370). US contacts had paid $2,300 for the drone, he said.
Over on corporate social media, I see some people who are amazed and offended to see a wide range of kit in photos from the war in Ukraine, ranging from the latest and most fashionable rifles to Maxim guns on steel carriages and – well, I have not personally seen the 1903 Springfield rifles, and the WW II vintage Panzerfaust may have been stolen from a museum. I am not sure if that is as unusual as they think: the German army which invaded the USSR in 1941 has been described as a military museum on wheels, one of the machine guns in the Citadel at Halifax was removed from the museum collection circa 1991 because the Army needed it again, and an American National Guard veteran claims that his unit invaded Iraq in 2003 with old M3 grease guns last produced in 1945. In fact, if you looked at a random army sometime in the past few thousand years, I think you would see just such a diversity of arms, some bought from private sources, others made in rough workshops, others donated, and yet others purchased by the state.
I added this map to my previous post on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it is worth studying. War in Ukraine has to be supplied by rail. One reason why many people much more knowledgeable than me did not believe Putin would actually invade was that the Russians had plenty of tanks and aircraft but not the trucks they would need to supply such an attack:
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.
Quite a few people interested in ancient warfare know an article by one F. Maurice on the water and roads at the Hellespont. After reading Herodotus’ story that Xerxes marched through the area with 1,700,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, and 20,000 charioteers and camel-riders and hiking around the countryside in summer, he argues that an army of 150,000 soldiers, 60,000 noncombatants, and 75,000 animals is the absolute maximum that could have been fed and watered in the area (paragraphs 10, 21, 33). I think this was the Major-General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice who was forced out of the British Army for political reasons in 1918, became a journalist and an advocate for veterans, and died on 1 May 1951. People cite it because he was an experienced staff officer who had walked the ground and talked to classicists like J.A.R. Munro. Its full of details such as that the British Expeditionary Force of 72,000 men, with railroads for supply but just horses for transport, needed 20 square miles for its camp in 1914 (the cavalry were stationed elsewhere and the motor vehicles had not yet arrived). But its certainly not the last say, and while he was talking to British classicists, a retired Bavarian general was preparing a study of the same problem and addressing their arguments.
One Robert von Fischer (d. 1937) commanded the 1st Royal Bavarian Landwehr Division in France from September 1914 to December 1915 and received the honorary title of Bavarian General of Infantry in 1917. He had similar military credentials as Maurice: he commanded a division on the Western Front for 16 months, Maurice served in the Tirah Expedition in Afghanistan, the Boer War, and briefly on the Western Front. And after examining the whole route and the problems involved, he felt that the Persian army was probably no more than 40,000 soldiers strong.