1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Supply and Transport, Military

SUPPLY AND TRANSPORT, MILITARY. In all ages the operations of armies have been influenced, and in many cases absolutely controlled, by the necessity of providing and distributing food, forage and stores for men and horses. In modern history these supplies have become more and more varied as weapons developed in complexity, power and accuracy of workmanship. In proportion, the branches of an army which are charged with the duties of "supply and transport" have become specialized as regards recruiting, training and organization.

The predatory armies of the middle ages not only lived upon the country they traversed, but enriched themselves with the plunder they obtained from it, and this method of subsisting and paying an army reached its utmost limits in the Thirty Years' War. During the last stages of this war Germany had been so thoroughly devastated that the armies marched hither and thither like packs of hungry wolves, every soldier accompanied by two or three non-combatants --camp followers of all sorts, mistresses, ragged children and miserable peasants who had lost all and now sought to live by robbing others under the protection of the army. An English traveller, as early as 1636, twelve years before the peace of Westphalia, reported that at Bacharach-on-Rhine he had found "the poor people dead with grass in their mouths," and that a village at which he stayed "hath been pillaged eight-and-twenty times in two years, and twice in one day."

From these horrors there followed a revulsion to the other extreme. Unless ordered by higher authority for political reasons to sack a particular town or to pillage a particular district, the soldiers were rigidly kept in hand, rationed by their own supply officers and hanged or flogged if at any moment an outbreak of the old vices made the example necessary. After 1648 there were very few districts in Middle Europe that could support an army for even a few days, and the burden of their sustenance had to be distributed over a larger area. Thus, at the mere rumour of an army's approach, the peasantry fled with all their belongings into the fortified places, armies soon came to be supplied from "magazines," which were filled either by contract from the home country or by inducing the peasantry --by means of good conduct and cash payments-- to bring their produce to market. These magazines were placed in a strong place, and if one was not available, a siege had to be undertaken to meet the demand. Moreover, soldiers in Marlborough's time were not as easily obtained as in the Thirty Years' War, and they had to be housed and fed comfortably enough to make it worth their while to stay with the colours instead of deserting. From these and similar conditions there grew up a system of supply and transport usually called the " magazine system," under which an army was bound, under penalty of dissolution, to go no farther than seven marches from the nearest fortress, two days from the nearest field bakery, and so on. When an 18th-century army foraged for itself it was because the regular supply service was interrupted, i.e. when it was in extremis. But the relative rarity of wars in the i8th century, the habit of demanding nothing from the inhabitants of the country traversed by an army, and the virtual exclusion of the people from the prince's quarrels, gave Europe a century's respite in which to recover from the drain of the Thirty Years' War. And therefore, when the French Revolution came, the attempts of the armies of old Europe to suppress it without robbing a single Frenchman of a loaf of bread proved futile, and soon the national army created by the Revolution, unencumbered by tents, magazines and supply trains, swept over southern Germany and Italy. The Revolutionary armies differed indeed from those of the old wars in this, that they did not devastate wantonly, nor did they murder for the sake of loot. But they were merciless in their exactions, and, moreover, the tides of their invasions flowed in particular channels, so that the greater part of the invaded country escaped. This had a considerable, sometimes even a predominant, influence on the strategy pursued, a retreat along their own lines of communication being often in fact avoided by the French as being the worst fate that could befall them. Napoleon, however, systematized the wasteful and irregular requisitioning that his predecessors had introduced, and in his hands the supply service, like all else connected with the art of war, underwent a thorough reform. His strategy[1] in the offensive passed through two distinct stages-- (a) the swift and sudden descent into the theatre of war, and (b) the close grouping of his armies in view of the decisive blow. The first stage was characterized by extraordinarily swift movement, complete independence of all trains (other than the reserves of ammunition) and thorough exploitation of the food resources of the traversed zone. If the troops suffered, as well as the inhabitants, this did not shake the emperor's purpose in the slightest. If all the disorders which are the natural consequence of ill-regulated requisitioning --that is, marauding-- cost the army 50,000 men, he had foreseen the loss and taken 50,000 men more than he needed for the battle. But the second stage, which as a rule involved three or four days' occupation, without considerable movement, of a restricted area, required other measures of supply. In this the army lived upon magazines, which were filled from the captured supply trains from the available supplies in the area, and from the resources accumulated in requisitioned vehicles close to the head of the routes followed in the first period. These resources were collected in the towns within this concentration area, and placed "out of reach of an insult" (that is, made safe against raiders) with a garrison and field works to supplement the town walls and gates. From this centre of operations Napoleon never allowed himself to be severed, whereas to the preservation of the route between France and that centre of operations he gave very little thought and assigned few or no troops, and most of the confusion of strategical thought since his time has been due to the general failure to perceive the essential distinction, in Napoleonic practice, between a centre of operations and a "base."

In the 19th century, however, there came the inevitable reaction. Purely political wars, and the consequent indifference of the inhabitants to the operations of war, produced as before a return to the system of cash payments and convoy supply, especially in the Austrian army. As regards Europe the introduction of railways enormously facilitated the supply and transport service, and campaigns were neither as barren nor as prolonged as they had been under the old conditions. The French and British armies did not, at least to the same extent, wage political wars, but their ceaseless colonial warfare imposed upon them the magazine and convoy system, and habituated them to it. The French, in 1870, stood still in the midst of the rich fields of Lorraine, and as a prolonged halt is fatal to the system of living on the country, it would have failed, even had it been tried. The Germans, on the other hand, levied requisitions, civilian transport, and contributions in money in accordance with Napoleonic tradition, though (owing to the existence of railways) with much less than Napoleonic severity. Their system has been accepted as the best for European warfare by all the great powers, whose organizations and methods of transporting and issuing supplies are the same in principle.

This principle is based on the Napoleonic distinction between supplies required during an advance and those required during a concentrated halt. The British Field Service Regulations (1909), pt. ii., lay it down that "the system of subsistence should be elastic and readily adaptable to every situation as it arises," but that it must always be based on the rule that "all mobile supplies are to be regarded as a reserve" for use when neither local nor line-of-communication resources are available. As a general rule local resources should be used before the line of communication is called upon, and last of all the call is made on the mobile supplies in the hands of the fighting units. During a strategical concentration or a long halt "the resources of the immediate neighbourhood cannot be expected to support the troops. At such times they may be supplied from field dépôts established at convenient centres, and filled with supplies that are obtained by purchase or requisition and collected by requisitioned or hired (civilian) transport." During an advance, on the other hand, "by far the most advantageous method is for the troops to be rationed by the inhabitants on whom they are billeted... This method should be employed whenever possible."

The extent to which it can be employed varies considerably with the place and the season, but the British and all continental armies have their own "rules of thumb " or rough generalizations based on experience. General Lewal (Stratégie de marche, p. 47) says that in a country of ordinary fertility, with 70 inhabitants to the square kilometre, or 180 to the square mile, 10.000 men can be subsisted for one day on an area of 22 square kilometres or 81/2 square miles, or 1200 per square mile. General Bonnal in his Sadowa gives 36 square miles as sufficient for the maintenance of an army corps (30,000-35,000) or about 1100 men to the square mile during the assembly period, but only on condition of helping out local resources by special supplies from the base. The British Field Service Regulations state that ordinary agricultural districts of Western Europe, not previously traversed by troops, will support a force of twice the strength of the population for a week at a maximum. This would mean exacting fourteen rations from each inhabitant, but the incidence of the burden is spread over several days. A practical rule therefore would seem to be, in a district of 200 inhabitants to the square mile, to allot 1400 men per square mile for a flying passage of one day and 400 for a stay of one week, the resources of the country being more thoroughly and systematically exploited in the latter case. A British division (combatant column only) closing up to half its marching depth at the end of the day would require 12 square miles, and as its depth would be about 55 miles, its front or width would perhaps extend for only a mile on either side of the route. It is quite possible to move two divisions for several consecutive days on the same road, living on the country exclusively, subject to the condition that the second should halt on the areas which the first has passed through without stopping. In continental armies the rule is, in fact, "one army corps (=2 British divisions) on one road."

During the period of concentration, however, even if in movement, a modern army will necessarily be supplied in somewhat the same way as Napoleon's. The billets will be allotted "without subsistence," and the regimental reserve supplies will be called upon to ration their men, while all around the occupied towns and villages the supply officers and their mounted escorts will requisition food and vehicles to bring the food into the concentration area. In view of this, "supply officers will be sent on with cavalry or mounted brigades to investigate the resources of the country ahead of the main body, and if possible to collect supplies at suitable points." Only commissioned officers and, as a rule, only those officers to whom the power is expressly delegated are entitled to carry out requisitions, though in an emergency a commander of any rank may obtain from the inhabitants articles or services by requisition and on his own responsibility, which responsibility may mean answering to a charge of "plundering " before a court-martial. On purely requisitioning work direct contact between the troops and the inhabitants is to be avoided.

Generally, then, a British regiment operating in Europe would be fed, during an advance, (a) by the inhabitants who provide the billets, without the necessity of a supply officer's intervention, (b) by the regimental reserves, which would be filled up as they were emptied from the field dépôts, of food-stuffs requisitioned by the supply officers, or (c) on emergency by direct requisitioning. During a concentration it would be fed (a) in the first instance by "billets with subsistence," as in an advance, (b) in so far as this was insufficient, by regimental, brigade and divisional reserves, which would refill partly from the lines of communication and partly from the field dépôts created by the requisitioning supply officers. Thus, as regards food and forage, the British Regulations --though it was not until 1909 that they appeared-- are based on the fundamental principles of Napoleon that strategy must be the master, not the servant of supply, and that this mastery is most complete when --by means of "billets with subsistence "or by means of field dépôts of requisitioned food-stuffs-- an army makes itself practically independent, as regards food, of its lines of communication.

The general organization of the supply service in Great Britain, calculated for a campaign under European conditions, is as follows: There are dépôts of various kinds and "mobile supplies." The former are classified as (a) base dépôt, which is the great reserve magazine that collects all resources that come from outside the theatre of war; (b) intermediate dépôts (filled from the base or by local requisitioning) at intervals along the line of communication, which serve principally to feed the troops posted on the line of communication and those passing along it to the front, but can also be used as an "overflow" magazine if the base dépôt is full, and as a means of bringing reserves nearer to the front: (c) advanced dépôts at the head of the line of communication, which serve as the expense-magazine, issuing to the "mobile supplies" what these need to enable them to supplement local resources; (d) field dépôts, frequently alluded to above, which are small temporary dépôts (filled by requisitioning) in the immediate neighbourhood of the front, and from which, in preference to their own mobile reserves, the troops draw supplies if the inhabitants do not furnish them directly in the billets; field dépôts may also be utilized for storing local supplies surplus to the immediate wants of the army. The mobile supplies "are classified as follows: (a) Regimental, which are carried partly by man and horse in the ranks and partly in "regimental transport" vehicles, and consist of the current day's ration and the "emergency ration" of compressed food (which is never to be used except in an extremity) on man or horse, and a complete ration for every man and horse on the ration strength of the unit, with an extra "grocery ration" and some compressed forage in the vehicles, (b) Column, which are carried in the Army Service Corps "supply columns" of the division and carry one day's complete ration[2] and one emergency ration per head of men and animals --these are in a sense mobile field dépôts and depend either on requisitioning or on the advanced dépôt of the line of communication, (c) Park, which are carried in "divisional parks" that move a day's march (often more) in rear of the divisions and comprise a last mobile reserve of three days' rations of food and forage for the troops.

In warfare in savage or undeveloped countries the conditions are far less favourable, and each case has to be dealt with on its merits. But, in general, such warfare always necessitates an almost complete dependence on magazine supply. There are few or no "billets with subsistence" or "field dépôts" which are the backbone of the supply system in European warfare, and the regimental and column supply vehicles have generally such difficulty in keeping touch with the advanced dépôt of the line of communication that the striking radius of the army is strictly limited to the position and output of the line of communications. Moreover, the difficulty --even the principal difficulty-- is the transport of the supplies obtained from the line of communication. The alternative, which has often to be adopted by "punitive" expeditions, is to carry all supplies for the calculated duration of the movements with the troops, but the penalty for this freedom to move is either slowness of movement --the fighting troops regulating their pace by that of the supply vehicles or pack animals-- or a disproportionate number of "useless mouths" or non-combatants who must be fed. Altogether, the supply difficulty in expeditions in the Sudan, or West Africa, or on the Indian frontier infinitely outweighs all difficulties of country or enemy. Moreover, paradoxical as it may be, the triumphant surmounting of these difficulties has its disadvantages as regards European warfare. Generals and supply officers who have always dealt with the maximum of difficulty find it almost impossible to bring themselves to deal with easier conditions. In 1805 Mack vainly sought to teach the Austrian soldier how to live on the country in the Napoleonic fashion. In 1806 the Prussians starved in the midst of riches, in 1870 the French moved as slowly and kept themselves as closely concentrated as desert columns in Algeria, and so deprived themselves of the resources of their own country.

Military transport --other than water and rail-- may be classed in respect of the means employed as draught and pack, and in respect of its organization and functions as transport on the line of communications and transport in the field, the latter being subdivided into first line and second line. The British army, on account of its frequent expeditions into undeveloped countries, makes a large --in the view of many, far too large-- use of pack transport, for which mules, camels and human carriers are employed. But in European, and to a large extent in other warfare, horsed transport is by far the most generally used. Mechanical transport (generally either traction engines with trucks or motor lorries) is, however, superseding horse draught to a considerable extent in second-line transport. The vehicle usually employed for military transport is the "General Service Wagon," a heavily-built springless four-wheeled vehicle drawn by six or four horses according to circumstances, which weighs empty about 18 cwt., and allows of a maximum load of 30 cwt. There are also four-horse "limbered wagons" consisting of body and limber, weighing 13 cwt. empty and 43 cwt. fully loaded, and lighter two-wheeled carts which can take 13-15 cwt. load.

As regards organization and functions, road transport is used on the line of communications to supplement the railway, and consists of locally hired or requisitioned vehicles worked by the Army Service Corps, or by civilian personnel under A.S.C. control. Transport with the field units is, as has been said, divided into first line, which accompanies the fighting troops, and second line, which follows them at a distance. Both lines are, as a rule, manned exclusively by the A.S.C. (or regimental details in the case of regimental transport) and composed of regulation-pattern carts and wagons. The first-line vehicles include ammunition wagons and carts, tool carts, engineer vehicles and medical vehicles. All baggage and store and supply wagons, as well as a proportion of medical, ammunition and engineer vehicles, form the second line.

  1. H. Camon, Guerre napoléonienne.
  2. One day's supply of meat is usually taken with the column "on the hoof."