Saturday, 7 April 2012

On Logistics

There is an old aphorism that states, in terms of military activity, that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. Given the great deal of difficulty which modern armies experience in getting into and out of theatres of war, this does seem to be true. The logistical tail of even a relatively small combat force is, in modern armies, huge.

This, of course, has a major knock on effect, in terms of speed of deployment, supply lines and security. One of the aspects of the modern campaigns in Afghanistan are the vulnerability of the supply lines from outside the country to the borders, and also, naturally, within the country itself. One of the factors, I think, in persuading the Russians to quit was the difficulty of resupply and the frequency of convoy ambush.

This is not a modern phenomenon, as I’m sure you know. The French had significant difficulty in Spain. Wellington could shut himself up behind practically impregnable defences, supported by command of the sea, and simply wait for the French armies to run out of supplies and, therefore, be forced to retreat. And that doesn’t say anything about the painful fiasco Napoleon engineered in Russia.

Now, on a tiny scale, I do some vegetable growing. The idea is to get some fresh air during the summer (rather to sit here looking at the garden). One of the things I’ve noticed has been how much effort is required to produce even a small crop. What I produce is by no means sufficient to supply a person even for a week, and that is with modern amenities such as slug repellent and finely honed composts.

I concede that there are probably economies of scale, so if I planted a whole field of, say, cabbages, and looked after them properly (i.e. stopped the slugs before they started), then, at the end of the season, I would probably have a large-ish number of cabbages, possibly enough to feed a company for a week, if they like cabbage soup.

Even modern, peace time, logistic chains can break down, though. There was a recent story on the BBC News site about a tarragon crisis. Apparently, you cannot buy tarragon in UK supermarkets at the moment, because the foreign (I think Spanish) growers have had a bad season, and British supplies have not kicked in yet. Indeed, I’m sitting next to a pot of tarragon seedlings as I type.

All this has set me thinking a bit more about generalship and logistics. An army of, say, ten to fifteen thousand men must consume a fantastic amount of food, let alone anything else. The Persian army invading Greece before Plataea is, after all, reported by Herodotus to have drunk several rivers dry. That may be hyperbole, but the pressure on resources that such a force, even if it were ‘only’ twenty thousand strong, would place on those parts where it passed would be massive.

I seem to recall reading an argument that, towards the end of the Thirty Years Was in Germany, the armies became much lighter, and more cavalry and musketeer focussed. It was claimed that this was because the lands being fought over were so devastated that only lighter, faster moving and smaller armies could survive. Mind you, some also argued that this was because of a shift in tactics, so the claim is not so clear cut.

In the English Civil war there was also a trend towards cavalry dominated armies, at least on the Royalist side. This does not seem to have been strictly tactical, but more to do with the fact that infantry are expensive and became difficult to recruit, while cavalry are much easier to retain. While the Parliamentary side had slightly less trouble with this, examination suggests that their logistics were very much centred on some major civilian contractors in London. Without the financial clout of the city, and the control of the sea, the Parliamentary cause would have struggled much more. Mind you, given those facts, you have to be quite impressed that the King lasted as long as he did.

What effects does this have on our wargaming?

It has to be admitted that the usual reply is ‘not much’. The battle is the thing; we are, after all, amateurs, and the thing is that logistics is dull as ditchwater. But it need not be; I’ve referred before to a very simple system of controlling reinforcements which led to some surprisingly realistic results. I’m sure I recall that there are some rules out there for logistics, although mostly they are not used. Even the incorporation of supply lines, with suitable penalties for having them cut would increase our sensitivity to the problem, if not solve it.

Obviously, some people will complain at that and argue ‘the game is the thing’, and to some extent that is the case. But to focus on the battle and tactics alone is to miss out on a large chunk of the constraints and concomitant opportunities which did present themselves to the original generals. Attention to the state of supply of the armies could determine the course of the battle and explain some of the tactical and strategic factors.

For example, the battle of Plataea happened because the Persian cavalry got between the Greeks and their water supply. On a grander scale, the Ottomans were besieging Vienna because they had a series of logistical bases all the way back to Constantinople. They were there because they could be, while the Austrians did not have such a logistical base. Similarly, the Holy Roman Emperor hung on against Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War because Wallenstein had a massive logistic support and distribution base behind him. Wallenstein was not a particularly brilliant general, but a large army, well fed, has a quality all of its own.

Finally, consider this. We tend to rate generals as good or bad by their battlefield performance. I’ve noted before that generals do not make many decisions actually on the battlefield. The true measure of success of a general is, therefore, their ability to get an army to the field of battle in a reasonable condition to fight at all. Maybe all generals who fought battles should therefore be rated as good.

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