Logistics! The secret to winning wars! (It’s cool, trust me.)

Zach – Welcome to another exciting episode of Minimum Wage Historian! Today we have what at first glance isn’t a very exciting episode. But rest assured ye seekers of knowledge, it will be quite thrilling!
Anna – Zach, stop being weird.
Zach – Okay.
Anna – Today’s topic is the history of logistics, the science (or art to some) of moving enough men and materiel to the right place at the right time. Believe it or not but this is really what wins and loses wars. The mightiest battles are decided not on the field of battle, but on the roads with the supply trains.
Zach – To discuss this topic we have my co-host, Anna Komemne, first female historian and Byzantine princess. Then we have Hua Mulan, woman soldier of ancient China. Then we have Roman general, Scipio Africanus, defeater of Hannibal. Next up we have Boudica, awesome British barbarian woman general who led a revolt against Rome.

Boudica is here to talk history and kick butt. Not necessarily in that order.

Zach – Then we have Gaspar Correia, conquistador and “historian.” And finally we have Napoleon. Well, he bought us pizza if we allowed him to come.
Napoleon – That is absurd! You bought me pizza for the privilege of gracing your presence!
Zach – And Josephine talked me into it. I don’t know why I keep agreeing to her requests. Maybe because unlike certain Corsican generals, she is charming and quite nice.
Napoleon – Ha! Josephine has no power over my affairs!
Boudica – Why is that? Because she’s a woman? ( Reaches for sword. )
Napoleon – No, because she is stupid.
Zach – I’m telling her you said that.
Napoleon – No! Please don’t!
Zach – Too late.
Scipio – Enough! Let us begin, shall we?
Boudica – I do not take orders from a Roman!
( Boudica and Scipio draw swords. Mulan holds Boudica back and Gaspar taps his 10mm 1911 and everyone sits back down. )
Zach – Who scheduled Boadica and a Roman together?
Anna – You did. When I asked you about it you said you were too busy playing Skyrim and that you’d deal with it later.
Zach – Oh, dear. Did I say that? I must have meant I was too busy researching today’s topic.
Anna – No, you said Skyrim.

Zach – Sorry! I couldn’t resist!
Boudica – I must play this game. It looks like my home!

Zach – Agree to disagree. So….Logistics. When you look at all the wars fought in human history all but a rare few come down not to soldier’s weapons, armor, or even training. Those are all important and can play huge roles in a war, but in the big picture, what wins wars is logistics. Let’s start at the beginning…or near to it.
Anna – The Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittite’s and Egyptians used large baggage trains of wooden carts loaded with everything the army would need. There were as almost as many baggage people as fighters. The horses needed to graze and that took time and space. They also carried feed when grazing wasn’t an option, so that took up space and weight. They also needed to carry extra wagon parts because wooden wagons are prone to break, so that’s more space and weight. Then there’s the driver who also takes up space and weight and also needs to eat. There were also hosts of camp followers, family members, blacksmiths, washerwomen, etc.
Scipio – Ah! But let us move on to Alexander the Great. That man knew how to fight. His reformation of the classic phalanx was pivotal to his success, but he never would have made it as far and as fast if he hadn’t reformed completely his logistics. Instead of huge baggage trains, he had each soldier carry their own food and resupply was by ship. Once he captured the Persian ports he kept his army near the shore and constantly supplied by boat.
Mulan – Interesting how such a small change can effect everything down the line. No carts meant no horses which meant no feed which meant no spare parts which meant no drivers and so on. Sun Tzu in his mandatory “Art of War” talks a great deal about logistics, though he does not use that word. He said that there were five necessary parts of winning a war: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline. Method and discipline are what we would call logistics. Basically this was how to get an army where it needed to go with what it needed to have.
Zach – The first four parts are what we in the modern US army call, METTC, Mission, Enemy, Time, Terrain, Civilians.
Gaspar – Well, Sun Tzu did of course have aliens helping him transport Wu soldiers from place to place so I don’t know how much stock we can put into what he says.
Boudica – Who let him in here? Ignore him. I know I will. When I fought the Romans, I learned that to face them in open combat was undesirable. On the field they were undefeatable. So my forces would attack their supply lines. We’d attack at their weakest points, trying to starve them and demoralize them.
Scipio – I do say that the mindless barbarian does make a point. Starve an army and it cannot fight. When Hannibal invaded Italy, we Romans could not defeat him in battle, so my good friend General Fabian avoided fighting head on. He led Hannibal around Italy for years. He would have been annihilated if he had fought, so instead he let Hannibal’s army run out of food, local support and made them crawl back through the Alps to Spain. Meanwhile we attacked Carthage, but that is another story.
Zach – That is one way the Romans used logistics. Hannibal was so far from home that he had a hard time being resupplied. That wasn’t the only way the Romans used logistics. They also built many roads, roads of such high quality that many are still in use today. Now they didn’t build these roads out of the goodness of their hearts.

In Italy many modern roads are the exact same paths the ancient roads took and some Roman roads are still in use today.

Boudica – Romans have no goodness.
Anna – I must forcibly object! We Romans were trying to bring light to the world and make it a place of peace and prosperity.
Boudica – And instead you brought misery, enslavement and death.
Zach – Let’s save that for a later time, okay? As I was saying, the Roman roads weren’t to help weary travelers or large families going on vacation to Ceasar World, they were built so the armies could travel the breadth of the empire quickly. They had threats from all sides so they had to be able to move legions to where they needed them the most. This was the true reason for the success of the Roman legions. They could move whole armies with everything they needed to where they needed to be. They even invented granola as a way of having nutritious but transportable food.
Napoleon – Even I must admit that the Grande Armee’ used Roman methods and professionalism to move from victory to victory.
Zach – But then the Roman Empire fell and…
Anna – Excuse me!
Zach – Sorry, but then the Western Roman Empire fell and western Europe declined in the arts of war…among other things. But when the Crusades happened the Western Europeans were forced to learn quickly. At first their squabbling herds of smelly barbarians looted and pillaged their way to the Holy Land. This often led to starvation and lack of necessary supplies. When close to the coast the Pisans could keep them supplied by ship, but that wasn’t very regular or often. As the Crusades…
Anna – Crusaders were nothing but uncivilized ruffians: without organization or morality.
Mulan – I don’t like barbarians.

Matilda of Tuscany – Don’t listen to them. They’re prejudiced against us Western Europeans. Besides, we had more style.

Zach – ( My, we have a lot of ill feelings here today. ) So, during the course of the next few crusades, we have rapid advancements in the art of logistics. They became professional at moving large numbers of men and supplies over large distances.
Anna – In history books we read that most armies stopped campaigning during the winter months. This was because of logistics. In winter, the roads were either too muddy or too covered with snow to allow large armies to move through. Spring and summer were called the “campaigning season” for this reason.
Mulan – Now, bear in mind that we do not discuss winning battles. We are talking about winning wars. In battle victory or defeat can come down to one moment of chance or luck, such as Hastings or Sinking the Bizmark. Wars are different.
Gaspar – Or when the Emperor of Mankind fought the heretic Horus aboard his battle barge. It came down to the smallest of moments that determined victory or defeat.

Gaspar – Okay, I love the Horus Heresy books. So sue me.

Mulan – You got that from Warhammer 40k.
( Gaspar thinks while trying to come up with something. )
Gaspar – Okay, so I did, but you have to admit it was pretty cool.
Zach – Thank you, Hua, let’s look at the American Revolutionary War. How did General Washington defeat the mightiest army in the world? He managed to stay in the field and keep his army together. It’s that plain and simple. Washington was able to keep his troops fed (sort of ) and bullets in their muskets. He kept the supply chains going so he never surrendered. It was the British supply lines that were breaking down.
Anna – Now let us go to your American Civil War. The Confederacy continually defeated Federal armies time and time again. So, how did they lose?
Zach – They ran out of bullets, beans and blankets. When they marched into Appomattox they were tired, starving and almost out of ammunition. Few of them had a complete uniform left and all could use some good food. It was their lack of supplies that compelled Robert E. Lee to surrender.
Scipio – Sure, but how did the Confederacy reach this point of defeat?
Zach – Simple, the North strangled them. They blockaded Southern ports and captured the Mississippi. The Mississippi was like the super highway of the time. Once the North captured it, the South couldn’t use it to rapidly transport all manner of supplies. The North won because they deprived the Confederacy of the means of continuing the war. The South had far fewer railroads and many of those railroads weren’t standardized. For example: Florida had only a few railroads but they didn’t connect to any other state and if they had, they’d be different rail sizes so the trains couldn’t use them. Up North they had more than twice the mileage of the South and had standardized before the war started. They were able to move troops and supplies all the way from Main to D.C. in a short period of time. The South had no such option.
Anna – Also, throughout history, sieges were examples of winning by logistics. The side that couldn’t stay fed would leave or surrender. Often a besieging army was the side that couldn’t stay fed or warm while the people inside the city were happy, fed and warm. (See the Venetian History III for an example. )
Boudica – We must also discuss asymmetrical warfare or guerrilla warfare. The guerrillas often don’t have to worry about logistics in the same way. They fight for brief periods of time and then fade back into the population. Meanwhile the large conventional army struggles to keep armed and fed. Guerrillas will attack supply lines and steal food and ammo and deprive the conventional army of what they need to fight. It comes down to a matter of who gives up the will to fight first and not about winning battles.
Mulan – I was reading about you, Napoleon.
Napoleon – Oh? I assume you read how brilliant and undefeatable I am.
Mulan – No, I read about how you invaded Russia. ( Looks around room for Olga. ) The Russians retreated and left nothing for your troops to forage. Scorched Earth, I believe they call it. And Russia is such a vast, desolate place that by the time your army arrived in Moscow your lines were too thin. The Russians left nothing for you along the way and you found Moscow an empty collection of buildings.

Olga – Ha! Look at Frenchies running away! Enjoy the lovely weather!

Napoleon – Well…I…
Mulan – So, left with nothing, you turned back and marched back toward France. When winter hit, you did not have winter clothing or enough blankets. Your army froze to death and starved. Meanwhile the Cossacks were hounding you the entire way.
Scipio – I do say that invading Russia is never a good idea. Did you not read Zach’s post about Alexander Nevsky or the Teutonic Knights?
Napoleon – Shut up! All of you! We speak no more of this!
Boudica – That’s what you get for invading someone’s home.
Gaspar – That invasion of Moscow is a stroke of genius compared to 90% of the Crimean War 1853. It had been forty years of peace without a major battle in Europe and the officers had lost much skill in the art of war. They not only didn’t know how to keep armies supplied or read maps, but they actively scoffed at the notions! They viewed it as unmanly and beneath them.
( Zach sits there utterly stunned that Gaspar said something that wasn’t just coherent but actually true. Anna recovers from shock first. )
Anna – Indeed you are correct Mr. Correia. During the Crimean War, both sides failed in organizing their chain of supplies. We go now to the First World War. Unlike previous wars which were fought for objectives such as cities, rivers, forts or land, this was a war about attrition: the wearing down of the other side. This was a war about who would run out of men, money, food and bullets before the other side. The Germans used U-boats to strangle England and might have succeeded if the Americans didn’t keep them resupplied.
Zach – And during the First Wold War 2.0, also called WWII, its much the same. It was a war about destroying the other side’s means of keeping the three B’s flowing.
Mulan – Three B’s?
Zach – Beans, blankets and bullets. Again, Germany used U-boats to strangle England and the Americans used large convoys of rapidly made cargo ships to send the 3 B’s. These convoy ships that could be made in a hurry were called Liberty ships and were similar to what the Venetian Arsenal made. During the North African campaign, Rommel didn’t leave because he lost too many battles, he left because…(we promised never to use the “H” word.) …the ‘leader of Nazi Germany’ refused to keep Rommel’s army supplied. The American’s bombing campaign was to destroy the factories that kept the German war machine going. They went after Germany’s ballbearing factories and oil refineries. Also, Germany’s famed Panzer and Tiger tanks were very awesome and the Germans boasted that their Tiger can take out 10 American tanks…but there always seemed to be 11. Though the Sherman tank was kind of crappy by anyone’s standards, we were able to make them like potato chips. Crunch all you want, we’ll make more. Meanwhile, those Panzers and Tigers were very hard and complicated to make and they trickled out of the factory while the American tanks pored.

Perhaps the best tank of the war, but Germany just couldn’t build them fast enough because they were too complex and we kept bombing their factories.

Mulan – And the Russians were using the same rifle they used in WWI and had inferior equipment, but they were able to produce TONS of it and kept the supply going. They made so many Mosin Nagants that they still have warehouses full of them. They’re so common that you can find them still in used today. You can buy one for only $100. I own three.
Gaspar – I own one.
Scipio – I prefer the Enfield mkIV
Boudica – I like my Broadsword, and I don’t mean the sharpened iron sword on my hip.

The Broadsword in .308. Made by Crusader Weaponry. This pleases my inner historian.

Mulan – I love my Chinese SKS and AK-47.
Gaspar – I’m shocked that you prefer Chinese weapons.
Mulan – I’m a patriotic person. What can I say?
Zach – And now to fast forward to the first and second Gulf Wars, how was America able to defeat Iraq so easily? Simple, we were able to bring more guns and men to the fight than the Iraqis. Our logistics made the invasions possible assured a victory before a shot was ever fired. The logistics of the US military is astounding. We can move the bulk of our military from one end of the globe to the other. That’s how we can win conventional wars. ( Asymmetrical warfare is another issue altogether. )
Scipio – As the Romans were able to bring our armies to North Africa to defeat Carthage.
Anna – We Romans from Constantinople…
Gaspar – Byzantines.
Anna – Silence! We Romans fought more defensively than our Western Roman brothers and so our supply lines were internal and it made it easier on us.
Mulan – If there’s one thing China is good at it’s…
Gaspar – Food!
Mulan – …moving large numbers of people and supplies. Sun Tzu knew his business and he knew it well.
Napoleon – And what doomed Nazi Germany? Yes, yes, I know. He did not learn from my tragic mistake. What a world I could have made! Germany, once again invaded Russian and found vast wastelands and lethal winters. Logistics defeated Germany.
Zach – Good for you Napoleon. Get it off your chest. Well, I hope you all learned something about the nature of warfare. It’s not about who has the best gun, tank, plane, general or cool uniform. It’s about logistics, getting beans, blankets and bullets to the right place at the right time.

16 comments on “Logistics! The secret to winning wars! (It’s cool, trust me.)

  1. Joe in PNG says:

    The thing that defeated Germany during WWI? England’s blockade of the North Sea made it very difficult for the Germans to get needed foreign supplies. Thus, by 1918 the German people were starving- which made it quite difficult for the troops to keep fighting, and is why the Empire totally collapsed…

  2. Viscount Doran MacCullum, KSCA says:

    Competent tacticians are a dime a dozen, and a really good logistician is worth his weight in gold.

  3. Drang says:

    Don’t they teach you kids nuthin’ these days? “Amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics.” 🙂

    BTW, most nations fought WWII with the same rifle they fought WWI with.

    • Oh, I know, but the Mosin was kinda old even by their standards. (have nothin’ but love for the mosin.) The Springfield, Mauser and Enfield were still in service. But the Russians were lagging behind, but they made up for it with brutally simple and effective and easy to make weapons and equipment.

  4. Joe in PNG says:

    Sometimes a really good general can win in spite of a lack of conventional logistics- Von Lettow in Africa during WWI being a great example.

  5. Joan D'Arc says:

    Look at the Battle of the Bulge! What were the German’s goal in it? To get to a fuel depot to fuel their tanks. Why were the Americans so determined to defend Bastogne? Because it was a transportation hub for resupply for the front line. When I fought the cursed British, I attacked a small army because they had provisions for other British forces. They called it the “Battle of the Herings.” Not a very gracious name to be sure, but a fitting one. It was a battle for for food to supply the armies.

  6. Kristophr says:

    The best tank of the war was the T-34.

    The Tiger I was a too-late response to it.

  7. Ken Harkin says:

    I was led here by Gaspar Correia’s site. While his example from The Horus Heresy was satisfactory I am surprised he did not refer to the far more exemplary invasion of Lyss by Khador under Supreme Kommandant Irusk. That man knew how to transport forces.

  8. Joseph Zieja says:

    Hey guys!

    This site is pretty awesome. I just did an article about logistics in my “military in fiction” series for writers and came across this from someone else’s tweet. Keep up the good work!


  9. John Brown says:

    Boudica is hot with her gothy mascara and blue stripes. I want to be in her army. Except, wait, despite logistics, she sucked when it came to tactics. Alas, the Romans did not. One battle where she showed her suckiness, and that was the end of the war. So long, Gorgeous. Or maybe her men finally went mad with unrequited desire and fevered dreams in which they licked her blue chin. Could that be it? Or could it be said that while logistics fields the army–no army, no victory–if the mighty tail delivers squishy teeth, you might as well throw egg noodles.

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