Collections: Logistics, How Did They Do It, Part III: On the Move

This is the third part of a three part (I, II, III) look at some of the practical concerns of managing pre-industrial logistics. In our last post, we outlined what ‘foraging’ actually entailed – how armies got supplies both from friendly populations but also from neutral or hostile populations. In particular, we focused on the considerable damage that armies could not fully avoid doing (not that many tried very hard) when moving over the countryside. Because of their limited ability to transport supplies, armies were forced to draw those supplies locally, to the considerable misery of the local rural population. For the average peasant, an army came upon them like a rolling calamity.

I want you to keep that misery in mind because we’re going to shift perspectives here to the perspective of the general in charge of campaign operations, but in the back of your mind you should also be thinking about what the calculations the general is making are going to mean for the underlying populace that will have to endure his decisions.1 This week we’re going to look at those decisions and how the interaction of foraging and marching shapes where an army can go, how fast it can get there and how large it can be. For the most part, because of the limits of space, that is going to mean simply covering the generalities of these concerns (with some models to walk through the interactions); this post is already terribly long and in any event getting much more specific than this is going to essentially require looking at the specific details of individual campaigns.

And before we march onward, if you want to support my logistics, you can do so via Patreon. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

A Good Road

The first concern for the general is to determine the route of march and the options here might be surprisingly limited. Just how limited, I suspect, often comes as a surprise to many modern students of pre-industrial campaigns; these days when we travel we have GPS route-finders that usually give several different possible paths, from highways to back roads. Even in the days before ubiquitous GPS, with a good road map, you could chart dozens if not hundreds of possible routes in a long distance journey. In many games, this freedom of movement is greatly amplified: marching armies, imagined to be no longer restricted to roads, are effectively able to march anywhere not bounded by obvious natural barriers (e.g. the more recent Total War titles, Mount & Blade, and Battle Brothers). Roads may supply a speed bonus (often a quite limited one), but are otherwise optional. Historical armies were far more limited.

Screenshot from Mount & Blade: Bannerlord. The developers have actually added a lot more roads over the past few updats but there are still villages (lower right) completely unconnected by any kind of road or path. There is a speed bonus on the roads but it is small enough that armies regularly cut across country as you can see here.

Armies almost generally had to move over longer distances via roads, for both logistical and pathfinding reasons. For logistics, while unencumbered humans can easily clamber over fences or small ridges or weave through forests, humans carrying heavy loads struggle to do this and pack animals absolutely cannot. Dense forests (especially old growth forests) are formidable obstacles for pack and draft animals, with a real risk of animals injuring themselves with unlucky footfalls. After all the donkey was originally a desert/savannah creature and horses evolved on the Eurasian Steppe; dense forest is a difficult, foreign terrain. But the rural terrain that would dominate most flat, arable land was little better: fields are often split by fences or hedgerows which need to be laboriously cleared (essentially making a path) to allow the work animals through. Adding wagons limits this further; pack mules can make use of narrow paths through forests or hills, but wagons pulled by draft animals require proper roads wide enough to accommodate them, flag enough that the heavy wagon doesn’t slide back and with a surface that will be at least somewhat kind on the wheels. That in turn in many cases restricts armies to significant roadways, ruling out things like farmer’s paths between fields or small informal roads between villages, though smaller screening, scouting or foraging forces could take these side roads.

Via Wikipedia, a detail of the Tabula Peutingeriana or the Peutinger Table, a 13th century copy of a map of the Roman road system of an uncertain date, probably fourth or fifth century. This wasn’t a military map or indeed even necessarily a practical map (it has been suggested that it might have been a display piece), but it gives a sense of the complexity of the Roman road system, constructed initially and principally to enable the rapid movement of Roman troops around the empire. It also gives a good sense of the limited ‘spider’s web’ of good roads between major settlements.

(As an aside: one my enduring frustrations is the tendency of pre-modern strategy games to represent most flat areas as ‘plains’ of grassland often with a separate ‘farmland’ terrain type used only in areas of very dense settlement. But around most of the Mediterranean, most of the flat, cleared land at lower elevations would have been farmland (something you can see fairly clearly in the city maps I’ve included here), with all of the obstructions and complications that implies; rolling grasslands tend to be just that – uplands too hilly for farming.)

The other problem is pathfinding and geolocation. Figuring out where you off-road overland with just a (highly detailed) map and a compass is sufficiently difficult that it is a sport (Orienteering). Prior to 1300, armies in the broader Mediterranean world were likely to lack both; the compass (invented in China) arrives in the Mediterranean in the 1300s and detailed topographical maps of the sort that hikers today might rely on remained rare deep into the modern period, especially maps of large areas. Consequently it could be tricky to determine an army’s exact heading (sun position could give something approximate, of course) or position. Getting lost in unfamiliar territory was thus a very real hazard. Indeed, getting lost in familiar territory was a real hazard: Suetonius records that Julius Caesar, having encamped not far from the Rubicon got lost trying to find it, spent a whole night wandering trying to locate it (his goal being to make the politically decisive crossing with just a few close supporters in secrecy first before his army crossed). In the end he had to find a local guide to work his way back to it in the morning (Suet. Caes. 31.2). So to be clear: famed military genius Julius Caesar got lost trying to find a 50 mile long river only about 150 miles away from Rome when he tried to cut cross-country instead of over the roads.

Detail from map 7.2, “Campaigns of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey” from The Romans: From Village to Empire created by the Ancient World Mapping Center. You can see the Rubicon River (quite small) clearly labeled as well as its relative distance both from Rome (where Julius Caesar was from) and Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul (where he had been the Roman proconsul for nearly a decade).

Instead, armies relied on locals guides (be they friendly, bought or coerced) to help them find their way or figure out where they were on whatever maps they could get together. Locals in turn tend to navigate by landmarks and so are likely to guide the army along the paths and roads they themselves use to travel around the region. Which is all as well because the army needs to use the roads anyway and no one wants to get lost. The road and path network thus becomes a vital navigational aid: roads and paths both lead to settlements full of potential guides (to the next settlement) and because roads tend to connect large settlements and large settlements tend to be the objectives of military campaigns, the road system ‘points the way.’ Consequently, armies rarely strayed off of the road network and were in most cases effectively confined to it. Small parties might be sent out off of the road network from the main body, but the main body was ‘stuck’ on the roads.

That means the general does not have to cope with an infinitely wide range of maneuver possibilities but a spiderweb of possible pathways. Small, ‘flying columns’ without heavy baggage could use minor roads and pathways, but the main body of the army was likely to be confined to well-traveled routes connecting large settlements. But which routes to take? That leads to the next concern…

Carrying Capacity

The general now has to pick the route where the key question is supply (particularly food supply) as we discussed earlier. Because of the ‘tyranny of the wagon equation,’ there needs to be sufficient food and fodder supplies along the army’s route to sustain it as it moves and accomplishes its objectives. Determining what routes are viable is thus a complex calculation (some of the variables of which will only be known to approximation), dependent on how fast the army will move, the local population density, the efficiency with which the army can forage or demand supplies from that population, the time of year, the army’s capacity to carry those supplies, how long the army needs to spend doing actual combat operations (like sieges) at the end of the march and most importantly how large the army is (and thus its need for supplies). Because the army can carry some supplies (frequently around two weeks) these variables mostly function as questions of the ‘rolling average’ which, if they fall below a certain level, will put the army into severe difficulties.

Let’s take our sample Roman consular army as a starting point: a relatively lean army with 19,200 combat effectives, 4,000 non-combatants and 9,800 animals which thus needs 61,850kg of food and hard fodder daily. Such an army might be able to forage 10% of the available food along their direction of march while still moving at speed; for now we’ll say the speed of march is 12 miles per day (we’ll come back to this in a moment, but that pace is not insanely fast but fairly brisk). With a fairly chunky cavalry detachment (2,400 cavalry) the army can probably forage out ten miles in either direction of its zone of march, so it sweeps an area close to 240 square miles per day. If we’re marching right around the harvest we might assume that each person in the countryside has something like 250kg of wheat or equivalent food, including fodder.2 Thus getting the daily 61,850kg required means each day’s 240 mile foraging zone needs to contain at least 618,500kg of grain or a population of at least around 10 per square mile.

Is that good? To get a sense of that we have to get a sense of what kinds of population density were normal in pre-industrial and pre-modern societies in the broader Mediterranean. Luuk de Ligt3 accepts population densities for Roman Italy overall between 70 and 95 people per square mile (his figures are in square kilometers so I am converting to keep consistency), but with tremendous variation inside of that, with dense regions like the ager Romanus and Campania around 110 people per square mile but places like Etruria and Umbria as low as 20. Italy, however, was one of the densest populated areas in Europe in the ancient and medieval periods (the other being the medieval Low Countries); rural population densities in Europe more broadly over large areas will have tended to range from 25 to 50 people per square mile, falling below that in rough upcountry regions (e.g. the population density of Scotland in the medieval period may have hovered between 10 and 15 people per square mile).

So right after the harvest our army of 19,200 effectives can go almost anywhere there is a road or good path and rural settlement. Great! Except of course the amount of food and fodder in the countryside isn’t static. Hay and oats – key sources of fodder for our animals – ripen and are harvested beginning in May, wheat comes in in June or July and barley in between the two. Consequently the available supplies (food and fodder) peak in those months and immediately begin falling. By October perhaps a quarter to a third of that supply is gone (plus by this point carefully stored seed grain is going back into the ground!); suddenly we’re looking at something like only 175kg of food supplies per person in the countryside, which means our army needs a population density of around 15 per square mile. Worse yet, if we plan to winter in the field (that is, we’re not dismissing the army home), we have to think about stockpiling for the conditions in January and February when forage becomes very scarce indeed. Realistically to do that, even with our fairly compact army, we need a population density of 20-25 people per square mile in order to build up winter stockpiles to last through the lean months. At these levels, low density areas with lots of pastoralism and not a lot of towns are effectively off-limits: the army would have to fall back to denser farmland for the winter. And indeed, we see this exact behavior in many ancient armies that stayed in the fields year round that had to fight in less densely settled regions – they campaign in the restless uplands and forests but always with an eye towards dropping back to winter quarters in densely settled river valleys or coasts.

But we’ve made some fairly favorable assumptions about our army: it is fairly fast and fairly compact. We’ll deal with the impact of speed in a moment, but what if our army is bigger? Well, this is initially fairly simple if we assume a constant movement speed: double the size of the army and that doubles the food and fodder requirements which requires double the population density. So a double consular army of 38,400 effectives (plus 8,000 non-combatants and 19,600 animals) requires 123,700kg of food and fodder and thus a post-harvest population density of 20 per square mile over the campaign area, rising to around 40 if the army doesn’t want to have to disperse in the fall. That army suddenly has some fairly severe limits on where it can go outside of the couple of months right after the harvest; routes that run through less densely peopled territory are no longer options for that army.

But what if, instead of doubling the size of our fairly compact army, we assume an army whose non-combatant load looks something more like the Army of Flanders, where the non-combatants of the campaign community might number around half as many as the combatants (and in some cases equal their numbers). Suddenly our 19,200 effectives army now has roughly 30,000 mouths to feed; managing the baggage of the non-combatants probably adds a few animals too, perhaps bringing us up modestly to 12,000 or so. Now we need 77,500kg of food and fodder and thus summer population density of 13 people per square mile and a year round density of 26. Doubling the size of this army doubles those figures, requiring a harvest density of 26 and a year round density of 52 – such an army would either be limited to campaigning in only densely populated corridors or it would have to march divided to sweep a larger area of foraging. As hard as it is to exclude non-combatants from an army, they inflict much the same logistical load as combatants, limiting the operational capabilities of the army to which they are attached.

But that treats the size of our army and the speed of its march as independent variables. Unfortunately for our army, they are not independent variables, rather (with many other factors considered) big armies move slower. The problem is…

Road Space

We’ve dealt with this problem before from other angles, but armies do not move as a theoretical ‘point mass’ like in a physics problem (or how they are represented in many video games), rather their elements take up road space, one after the other. An army on the march is thus not a battle line or a compact mass but a long, snaking series of columns. That in turn has substantial impacts on its rate of movement, because the front of the army has to march past the back at the beginning of the march and the reverse has to happen at the end.

Photo by R.B. Ulrich, detail of scenes 4 and 5 showing Roman soldiers marching with their gear (carried in their packs you can see above them on sticks) over a set of pontoon bridges over the Danube River, from Trajan’s Column. Armies, being very big, take up a LOT of space.

So how much space might an army on the march take up? I’m going to be drawing some numbers here from J.A. Moss, Manual of Military Training (1914), because I happen to have a (well used) copy of the 1917 edition. It calls for a rank distance (the distance between the back of the man in front and the chest of the man behind him) of 40 inches, which is fairly standard; adding in the width of the soldier themselves and their pack each rank takes up around 1.25m (c. 4-5 feet) of road space. Formed six soldiers wide (which will, with minimal intervals, get us to the width of most single-carriage roadways, which what we are likely to be dealing with), our model army’s infantry component (16,800) would have 2,800 ranks to it moving in column.

But we can’t just march the army in one single mass like that. Intervals between units are necessary for control (so that officers can keep an eye on their whole units and ensure soldiers aren’t wandering off, straggling, injured, sick, etc.) and also to avoid ‘accordioning’ into each other as units ‘tailed out.’ Moss (1917) assumes intervals but does not specify them; Lockwood, Organization and Tactics (1895) offers the rule of thumb of allowing an extra 10% road space for a battalion, 15% for a division and 20% for an army corps. So instead of one infantry body of 16,800 men, we can divide it into 35 cohort-sized ‘battalions’ of 480 men each. Each of these battalions thus has 80 ranks taking up 100m of road space, plus an extra 10m for a unit interval to the next unit. Our infantry thus take up 3,850m or 2.4 miles of road space.

Cavalry takes up more space because horses are big. Lockwood offers that each individual horse takes up a depth of 3 yards and a front of around 1 yard (compared to 28 inches for an infantryman), so the cavalry might ride in column four abreast instead of six. Once again we also need unit divisions; for the sake of simplicity we’ll use a rough ‘squadron’ of 100 cavalry (a touch bigger than a typical cavalry squadron but there is a lot of variation here too: the Romans divided their cavalry into turmae of 30 each, which were quite small units), which is going to form 25 ranks of four cavalry each requiring 2.75m of road length (about three yards), so 68.75m plus our interval (10%) makes roughly 75m per squadron. With 24 of these squadrons to make our 2,400 cavalry they take up some 1,800m of road space, or 1.1 miles.

Via the British Museum, a drawing (1625-1664) of an army marching out of a fortress, stretching out along the road out of sight in both directions.

And then we need the baggage, which here is being moved by 5,000 mules and 2,400 spare horses. The mules will be a bit more compact than the horses per animal, but we’re still probably looking at something like 2.25m per mule (and 2.75m per horse) set four abreast on the road. That’s 1,250 ranks of mules (2,812.5m) and 600 ranks of horses (1,650m) for a total of 4,462.5m taken up by the baggage train. In practice while a some of that will be in a large mass in the center of the army (see below), a lot of these animals are going to be split up into small groups at the tail of their units (each infantry ‘battalion’ should have 80 mules – 45m of them – at its tail). With so many possible configurations, it seems tricky to try to calculate open intervals for the baggage train; perhaps (in small bits spread over the army) they might add something like 440m minimum, so their total road length is just short of 5,000m (3.1 miles). As for the non-combatants, our army is quite lean and many of those non-combatants are in practice guiding the mules and the horses; we can include them here for now.

So that’s our army, a snake-like beast 6.6 miles (10,650m) long, winding through the landscape. Now we can think about…

Marching Speed

Unladen human walking speed on flat terrain with long strides is just over 3mph; it will not surprise you to learn that for a large army marching more precision is required. Going back to Moss (1917), he assumes the length of step of the average man is 30 inches (in practice, keeping up with standard march rates and thus standardizing gait is something soldiers will learn by training and experience) and one of the chief jobs of a commander on the march is determining the correct ‘rate of march’ – Moss even recommends the unit commander (at the front since the front unit sets the pace for everyone behind) time the pace every so often to maintain a steady marching pace. The standard paces for marching under loads are between 88 and 110 steps per minute, which come out to 2.5 to 3mph.

The army does not, however, move continuously at this speed. Moss (1917) sets out the guidelines for rest: a 15 minute half after the first three-quarters of an hour (with an effort to do this away from settlements), followed by a 10 minute halt every 50 minutes (adjusted to 45 minutes march and 15 minute halt in tropical or arid climates). In very hot environments, Moss (1917) notes you ought to also halt for three or four hours during the heat of the day (so around 1-3pm in most cases), but we’ll assume we’re not marching in that hot of a climate. But that means our formation, humming along at 3mph is actually only moving every 5 minutes out of 6 or 3 minutes out of 4; that means our actual average speed is 2.25-2.5mph, even though when moving we achieve a 3mph march.

Via the British Museum, a print (1650-1695) by Gabriel Perelle showing officers (on horseback) looking over soldiers (both infantry and cavalry) marching past fortifications. Note the wide intervals between units.

But we also do not move for eight straight hours at this speed seven days a week. Marching soldiers under load straight through the whole day will, understandably, exhaust them; this may be necessary in some cases (where it is called a ‘forced’ march), but it is rarely desirable. After all, the army is supposed to fight at the end of this and has to reach that destination ready for the exertion of battle or siege. Moss (1917) recommends that “as a rule, foot troops do not start before broad day-light; mounted troops, when practicable, about an hour after broad daylight” (1219), in part to avoid losing the valuable rest of the early morning hours and in part because trying to move before the sun is fully up and visibility is best is silly. Now that’s obviously a time that is going to vary a fair bit by latitude and time of year, with anywhere from 10-15 hours of proper daylight to work with.

So let’s say we are on the Mediterranean coast of Europe (I’m picking Marseilles for my times here) in early May. The ‘false dawn‘ is going to start around 4:30 and we’ll have enough light to actually do things by around 5:30 or so; remember options for artificial light here are very limited (laterns and campfires; torches4 are more common in fiction than actual use) so we need actual sunlight to do much of anything. And there are things to do! Soldiers need to wake up, eat breakfast, handle personal hygiene and dress, break down their tents and the camp and fill canteens (the necessity of filling canteens with water in the morning is something I have seen in every infantry marching manual I have ever looked at for obvious reasons), all of which takes time. In the United States army, ‘reveille’ – when soldiers can be expected to actually fall in with units – is set at either 6 or 7 am and its easy to see how this fits as that’s almost precisely the ‘broad daylight’ of marching, while using the dawn hours to get ready. Cavalry needs an extra hour because, of course, the horses.

Via the British Museum a print (1535-6) by Erhard Schon showing several armies marching out of their camps in columns to besiege the city of Münster.

So it’s 7am and we start marching! Well, not quite. Someone starts marching. But the back of the army now has to wait for the entire rest of the army to march past it in sequence. That’s going to take time! Recall our army is 6.6 miles long and moves at 2.5mph; it’s going to take a bit more than two and a half hours before the last elements of the army begin leaving the camp in ideal conditions (this factor shows up a bit less in 1800s manuals because by then it was very common for armies to march divided; this was very rare for earlier armies). So it will probably be almost 10am before the entire army is moving. But now we have our problem in reverse form: the front of the army must stop and set the camp somewhere the back of the army can reach before the sun goes down. Night marches, as Moss (1917) is noting even in the 1900s, are difficult and perilous. So while the sun starts to set around 8:30 or so, we’re going to lose that two and a half hours again on the back end; the front of the army must stop marching around 6pm at least so the rear of the army has time to catch up before sunset.

In practice it is yet worse than this because of course we need to set up the camp again at the other end of the march, which is also going to eat precious time. And while the day gets longer in the summer, soldiers do not magically become supermen of endless endurance in the summer (if anything, as the heat rises, the reverse is true: marches must become shorter) meaning that they need time not merely to set up camp, but also rest, cook food, attend again to hygiene, the maintenance of weapons and equipment and so on. You can get more marching hours out of the day but only by eating up those rest hours which the army needs to be combat fit. This is why, as Moss (1917) notes, “forced marches seriously impair the fighting power of even the best troops” (1225).

So we have perhaps a standard marching day: the army wakes around 5:30-6am. The front is formed up at 7am and properly starts moving (after scouts and screens head out) at 7:30 or 8am, the back starts marching at 10am in the best case; the army halts around noon to eat (long marches on empty stomachs are a recipe for fatigue casualties; I cannot stress enough that while physical fitness and training obviously matter in all of this, heat, dehydration, hunger and exhaustion do not care how many reps you can do and the general has to get his whole army to the battlefield ready to fight). The back of the army probably needs to be making camp by 5:30pm or so (to have time to setup the camp – especially if it is a fortified camp – before nightfall), so that means the front of the army has to stop around 3pm.

So while some part of the army is probably moving at every point between 7:30am and 5:30pm, the actual effective marching time – initially 10 hours minus one for lunch – is reduced by 2.5 to just 6 or 7 hours if absolutely everything went right. At c. 2.5mph average, our army would make 15-17.5 miles in a day. But of course everything isn’t always going to go right; if it’s hot (in summer, recall) our speed drops to 2.25mph and our distance in a day to 13.5 to 15.75 miles. If the roads are bad, we lose yet more time, especially if the roads narrow at any point, forcing the army to stretch out even more. I want to stress we are still mostly working with best-case situations, but we’re already looking at figures right around the 12-15 miles per day that most rules of thumb consider the upper end of long-term sustainable marching base for infantry moving along good roads.

Now let’s fiddle with our assumptions a bit. What if the army carries a lot more baggage? This could be because the army needs to carry more supplies to get past areas where forage options are limited (either by low population or by the presence of enemy forces) or because the army is having to move a large siege train. If we, for instance, remove our mules (so save 2,812.5m of road space, but lose c. 650,000kg of carry capacity) and replace them with 700 heavy wagons (c. 1,000kg carrying capacity per), we can expand our logistics (because we’ve dropped from 5,000 mules to perhaps 2,800 horses and likewise the number of required non-combatants to handle the mules has gone from 3,400 to just 700 wagoneers) and have some space for a heavy siege train. At best we might cram each wagon into something like 12m of road space (American Civil War rules of thumb was 80 wagons to a mile, or each wagon taking up 66 feet or 20.1m), so our new wagon train is now 8,400m long. That’s 5.2 miles of baggage alone, so now our army is a stunning 16,237.5m long (10 miles). In very good roads we might double up the wagons and get down to just 12,037.5m or (7.5 miles).

Which in turn means our ‘lost marching time’ extends from just 2.5 hours to 3-4 hours (be careful not to double-count the loss, subtract either from the front or the back to get the correct number of marching hours, not both), leaving each unit with just 5-6 hours of actual marching, reducing our daily rate of march to between 11.125 and 15 miles per day, under ideal conditions if everything goes right and not one of those seven hundred wagons breaks down (of course the same was true of having not one of 5,000 mules become injured or stubborn as mules are wont).

Likewise, if we take our original army and double its size, either by adding more combatants or by loading it up with more non-combatants (now so numerous that they are not all simply handling the mules but are filling up even more space in the line), that doubles its road length demand out to 13.2 miles. That means our ‘lost marching time’ is suddenly 5-6 hours leaving just 3-4 hours of total effective marching time. Suddenly our army is crawling at between 6.75 and 10 miles per day – under best case conditions! – even though our ‘start’ and ‘stop’ times have not changed at all.

In practice we’re actually still being a bit too nice to our army: we’re assuming they march every day. But while humans can more or less do that, pack and draft animals cannot. In practice for a sustained march these animals need to be rested one day out of six or so or the strain will render them useless in the long term. So our lean, compact army is really moving around 12.5-14.5 miles per day over a six-day average with one day of rest under normal conditions (a bit faster if they push it, a bit slower if they don’t) and our double-sized army could be moving as slow as 5.6-8.3 miles per day.

The key observation here is that everything you add to the army slows it down. A good general has some options to mitigate this (but they all come with risk), but the fundamental rule remains. Adding more baggage to carry artillery or supplies slows the army down. Adding more soldiers to try to improve your chances of victory slows the army down. Adding more non-combatants to the ‘campaign community’ slows the army down, though remember from the earlier two posts, depending on the organization of the army and the expectations of the soldiers, some significant number of non-combatants may be effectively unavoidable.

Sink or Swim

And now that we have our range we can return to some of our independent variables and see how they collide. Recall that during the summer our compact, mid-sized 19,200 soldier army could go anywhere where the population density was at least 10 or so people per square miles.

Now let’s see what happens when we double the size of that army. First, it’s food needs, as we’ve noted, double from 61,850kg to 123,700kg of food and fodder, so the number of people it needs to forage in a day (at a 10% forage rate) goes up from 2,474 to 4,984. And you are thinking, “Yes, we’ve done this math and we know this ends up with them needing around 20-25 people per square mile after the harvest.” Ah, but our forage area has also changed.

Because our army isn’t clipping along at 12 miles per day anymore, it’s slowed down to an average of perhaps 7 miles per day. That in turn means our foraging zone isn’t 20 miles by 12 miles, but 20 miles by 7 miles: we’ve gone from 240 square miles of forage to just 140. So our required population density has actually leap from just over 10 to 35.6 people per square mile, more than three times as high because the increased nutrition demand and decreased speed have compounded. And that is, you will recall, the situation immediately following the harvest. By October that figure is going to have risen to something like 46 people per square mile; the year-round campaigning requirement would be close to 70 people per square mile.

Those aren’t impossible numbers, but they are going to pose the general of this army with some difficult choices. What will not work is overland external supply with more wagons; as discussed the animals eat food and so adding more wagons just slows the army down more and increases its food demands; that’s the tyranny of the wagon equation at work – the army cannot wagon its way out of a foraging pit. One option is to forage more intensively to raise the percentage of food in the countryside the army is pulling in; this poses twin problems. The first is that doing so generally means either slowing down or dispersing foraging parties for more effective searches; the former may be counter-productive, the latter may be dangerous. In either case, foraging beyond 10% is likely to cause fairly immediate and sharp starvation in the countryside; pushing that number higher is going to risk invoking Marshal Villars’ warning from last time, “If you burn, if you drive out the population, you will starve.” Not today, but tomorrow; if the army has to return home through this same route or intends to operate in this area again soon, depopulating it by over-foraging merely delays disaster. Nevertheless, faced with the exigencies of war, many armies did just this, ruining the local population to enable the movement of oversized armies.

Another option is to speed up, thus increasing the foraging area. The march could be lengthened, but that is going to have negative impacts not merely on morale but on combat readiness: after days of regular long marches under heavy loads soldiers will begin to suffer from exhaustion. Instead many generals opt to trim the baggage, trying to get rid of every sort of excess thing; this is common enough that it becomes a sign of good generalship in the ancient world – the good general enforces discipline, compels his soldiers to get rid of everything they carry that isn’t strictly necessary, maintains morale by doing the same himself and then for good measure kicks every unnecessary non-combatant out of the camp. Unfortunately for our general, we’ve already started with a very lean army, by pre-industrial standards, so there isn’t very much fat to trim (which is partly why most actual armies, which were not so lean, marched at speeds that tend to cluster at the bottom of these ranges we’re creating; the other big reason why is we’re assuming pretty good road conditions which will not have pertained generally). However a general can also push an army by lengthening the marching day and raising the pace; doing this for long periods will wear out an army quickly, but for quick, short-term solutions to supply problems (or for rapid operational maneuvering) there is a fair bit of flexibility in daily marching rate. Morale ends up as a major consideration here: motivated soldiers (either inspired by their general or their cause) may push harder on the march, allowing the army to sustain a higher rate of movement, sticking closer to the 10 or 12 miles per day and thus alleviating some of the supply issues.

A third, more complex option is to march divided, splitting up the army to move in several separate columns along different roads which can both move faster (because they are now two smaller armies) and can forage different farmers in different areas. The problem this poses is simple: coordination. An equal sized enemy who remains concentrated could engage one of those armies, win easily due to the 2-to-1 numbers advantage, then turn and obliterate the second army, what is known as ‘defeat in detail.’ To avoid that the general in overall command has to coordinate so that these armies march separately but arrive at the battlefield at the same time. This sounds easier than it is: the general may not know where the battle will be (because he does not know where the enemy army is) and he has to plan (at least) two routes of march which will get both armies to the critical space with a margin for error measured in hours at the end of a march which may be days or weeks (or months!) long. This can be done, but it is very difficult and very easy to completely ruin a campaign with a fairly minor mistake; in practice before 1800 or so, most armies only operated like this if they absolutely had to.5 In practice the threshold where armies end up forced to split up is somewhere above 50,000 effectives, depending on conditions.

Finally there is a fourth option available in only certain circumstances: naval (or river) supply. This is, all things considered, somewhat rare; most ancient and medieval polities were not up to the task of supplying large armies by sea regularly at long distance (though the Achaemenids, Athens, Carthage and Rome all do this at one point or other and if you are thinking, “gee, those seem like some of the highest state-capacity polities in the ancient world” why yes, yes they do.).6 Nevertheless ships and river barges offer an escape from the tyranny of the wagon equation: the food consumption of the crew is effectively trivial compared to the amount that they can move. The result is that an army at a decent port with access to the sea (directly or by navigable river) has access to effectively infinite supply throughput, assuming that the supplies can be assembled and safely shipped. The problem that most pre-modern polities would struggle to do that is a separate issue, but a significant one. One of these days we may come back and talk about Roman naval and riverine supply in more detail.

Underlying all of this is a central fact about armies before railroads: armies are like sharks, they must swim or they will sink.

Now Add Hostile Armies

Now so far we’ve been considering our army moving through a countryside devoid of actual resistance, but of course the enemy gets a vote! Foraging in enemy territory is a dangerous activity; troops that are searching farmhouses or hauling large amounts of supplies (or pillage) aren’t going to be in fighting trim. In many cases they may not even have their weapons and armor (e.g. Liv. 31.2.8; Caes. BG 4.32.5), since working light means being able to shift larger amounts of forage and pillage. Moreover as we’ve discussed getting an army into fighting formation quickly is hard; if your unit is foraging in a village and an enemy unit suddenly attacks, the chances of effectively defense are very low indeed. That’s why foraging parties had to be so large, so that some of the foragers could be on guard while others were doing the actual foraging. The Roman historian Livy has an interesting description of command failures leading to an ambushed foraging party, noting that the commander, Gaius Ampius, had failed both to sufficiently scout the area but also setting up sufficient strong-points from whence armed soldiers could protect and screen the unarmed ones (Liv. 31.2.8).

Of course those sort of arrangements are only going to work against small parties of enemies (like their own foragers and scouts); against the main force of an enemy army those scouts and guards really function just to give the army enough time to retreat and concentrate for a battle. Because of that ‘defeat in detail’ threat, if the enemy’s main field army is nearby and close enough in strength to offer battle, it becomes necessary to keep your own army concentrated; even if you don’t intend to offer battle as situations like that at Pydna show, battle may happen regardless. But of course as we discussed back then, generals here have at best limited and often badly out of date information about the composition of location of enemy forces; a general thus has to balance his need to move and feed his army with the knowledge that the enemy could show up at almost any time.

That starts, of course, with marching formations. We’ve described how it takes time for an army to get moving in the morning, but there’s an additional complication to this: the order of march isn’t itself random. Exact formations vary but there was a fairly standard setup: proceeding the army was often a screening force of scouts (often cavalry), followed by the vanguard (or ‘van’), a combat unit or several marching some distance in advance of the main force, often with minimal baggage. The general himself often moved with the vanguard because that’s where information would be quickest come by. Then came the main body of the army, typically with the baggage train in the middle sandwiched between combat elements (which typically composed the bulk of the army’s infantry). Those combat units might also (as above) have their own smaller baggage trains directly behind them in the marching order or it might all be centralized in the center of the army (the latter was the Roman practice). Finally there was a rearguard, more or less a mirror of the vanguard. That layout ensured the army could respond relatively rapidly to the sudden appearance of an enemy in front or behind. For extra security, light infantry skirmishers with minimal baggage might also be detached as ‘flankers’ moving off the road or along side roads so that the army couldn’t be surprised from those directions either.

Typical advice (this actually comes up in Moss (1917)) is that a commander needs to both rotate which units are in the vanguard and rearguard and that his subordinates need to rotate which part of their command is at the front and back of their units, regulating the pace. There are many silly things in the film Gettysburg (1993), but one moment I just love is Chamberlain’s exasperation on realizing on top of an already difficult morning that his regiment has been assigned to the front of the front brigade in the corps and so has to assign flankers; that rotation would have been regular in most armies. And what would have happened to create this scene, is that the commander of the V Corps (Major General George Sykes) opted to march with his first division in the front, which then its commander (Brigadier General James Barnes) opted to put the 3rd Brigade in front and its commander (Col. Strong Vincent) opted to put the 20th Maine in front and of course its commander (our Professor of Rhetoric, Joshua L. Chamberlain) would in turn have to pick where each of his companies would go. The main concerns for smaller units is that the front part of the unit regulates pace and the rear part of the unit will need to deal with stragglers (including heat and fatigue casualties) as well as keep up pace to avoid the unit ‘tailing out’ too badly as it marches.

Also absolutely fantastic shot composition where we can see the oak-paneled wooden acting of the courier who sounds like he is reading his lines from an index card, but where we can’t see the faces of the characters we actually care about and what they think about this information. Gettysburg (1993) is a film that fills me with conflicting emotions is what I am saying here and that’s before we get to all of the Lost Cause rubbish they inexplicably put in between the scenes involving Buford and Chamberlain.

Foraging opportunities would also be shaped by the enemy presence and this could be a crucial operational concern. Because foraging operations were so vulnerable the presence of a large enemy force could prevent them even if it didn’t give battle. This is often what is happening when one commander ‘bottles up’ another without ever giving battle – by simply saying close to but out of reach of an enemy army, the weaker or more timid force can massively complicate their logistics. Roman efforts against Hannibal in southern Italy after Cannae (so from 215-203) as a master-piece of this kind of maneuvering. The Romans after Cannae had accepted that further direct engagements against Hannibal were unwise, but on familiar ground and close to their own bases of supply, Roman armies could operate freely where Hannibal needed to forage to advance. By simply staying close to him Roman armies could restrict his ability to forage and thus his ability to maneuver at all, forcing him to remain close to his base of support in southern Italy.7 Of course such a strategy only prolongs the conflict, but the Romans had other armies that were chipping away at every other corner of Carthage’s empire.8

Armies in close proximity might still manage to forage by sending out very large foraging parties (e.g. App. Pun. 100, Caes. BAfr. 68; Bohemund’s large foraging party that engages Duquq of Damascus during the Siege of Antioch (1097-8) also seems to be an example) or by pointedly sending their foraging parties away from the enemy force (as with Antony and Octavian’s foraging efforts between the two engagements at Philippi in 42, App. BCiv. 4.122; given the size of the armies this must have been a desperation move to extend their operational endurance; they could not have been permanently supplied on that basis). Still at best the presence of an enemy army might cut the available foraging territory of an army on the march in half, which for armies of even a fairly modest size is going to push the required population above sustainable levels quickly. Of course that is happening to both armies, which is part of why ancient and medieval generals are so confident they can force their enemies to battle once the armies get close: both armies, unable to forage effectively, have ticking clocks in most cases. Exceptions do happen (especially when one army has naval supply), but for the most part the supply situation will eventually compel each army to either fight or retreat.

Absent a full field army, a fortified site (like a castle) with a strong cavalry detachment could achieve similar operational results in restricting enemy forage opportunities. Indeed, as we’ve discussed, this is how castles worked at the operational level: the presence of troops (specifically mounted troops) in the castle made effective foraging or administration of the land around it impossible for any invading force that didn’t also lay siege to the castle. Consequently an army looking to maneuver in the region had to neutralize the castle first or else swiftly march past it into less well-defended farmlands that could be foraged effectively. Fortified cities and hill-top towns (oppida) posed similar problems for Alexander the Great and Caesar respectively: if captured or made friendly (either by alliance or preemptive surrender) they were sources of supply, but such a settlement untaken could create supply deadzones and serious risks in the rear of the army. Indeed the emperor Julian gets himself into precisely this problem with an audacious march into Persia without fully securing the rear (Ctesiphon being too well defended), ending up in a situation where the army could neither safely advance nor retreat. Consequently even when the road was open there was often no alternative but to besiege and take these strong points.

Managing Operations

All of which at last lines up most of the most pressing concerns a commanding general has when considering the march of an army. Of course the general does not have some of this information to the precision we’ve modeled it here: he does not know the exact population density of the regions he is going to march through and instead is probably thinking in analog terms: some areas are ‘rich’ some are ‘sparsely peopled’ and so on (which is to say a wise general is going to want a pretty big ‘margin of error’ on those daily foraging calculations); likewise the expected rate of march over a long period must on some level be an informed guess rather than an exact calculation.

Still, the general has to first select an objective (probably the capture of a major civilian center which will bring with it the countryside it administers), then figure a route of march to get there. He probably has a decent sense of how much food and fodder his army will need but at best an imperfect sense of what is going to be available in enemy territory or where enemy armies might be; that will demand improvisation on the march in response to changes in the army’s food supply. The army’s rate of movement is variable, but while pushing hard can solve logistics problems, it can also exhaust soldiers, deplete morale or involve leaving heavy (but important) baggage behind; marching fast to defeat in battle is a mistake many commanders make (e.g. Marcus Antonius (‘Antony’) at Mutina in 43, Crassus at Carrhae in 53, Antony against Parthia in 36, Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066, Antony at Actium in 31. Antony does this a lot. I confess I have never quite understood his reputation among some historians as a ‘great captain.’).

Indeed it isn’t uncommon to see skilled generals employing a variety of solutions in response to conditions at various points in a campaign. Once again, the reader who wants a vivid example would do well to simply read Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico. Caesar makes a dynamic mix of solutions to supply and movement difficulties, especially since the terrain of Gaul largely cut Caesar off from Mediterranean sources of supply beyond the very beginning of his campaigns. Caesar often divides his army to accomplish multiple objectives or to move quickly (although this comes very close to disaster, e.g. Caes. BG 6.32-42 where Caesar splits his army up and very nearly loses his camp as a result) and as noted always seems to be arriving at rich farm country or prepared stockpiles of supplies just as his own is running out (which in turn is allowing him to move light with minimal baggage and thus move fast, Caes. BG 1.23, 1.34, 1.48, etc). Honestly a good, up-to-date logistics-and-campaign history of Caesar in Gaul really is desideratum.9 At the same time, Caesar’s motivational ability clearly also plays a role: both his ability to get his soldiers to both maintain discipline and push themselves on campaign but also his ability to retain their confidence even during marches where food supplies might seem dangerously low (though it’s not clear if he let them know that; Caesar showed special attention to the days set for regular grain ration distribution possibly for this reason – knowing that missing a day might not cause instant starvation but would cause his soldiers to lose certainty in his leadership).

On the other hand, of course, in a contest against another other thinking humans, victory often depends on riding the line of failure as tightly as possible without going over; Caesar repeatedly comes within sight of logistics disaster when making rapid movements – his famed celeritas (‘speed’) – but always lands on sufficient supplies at the last minute. As you might imagine from how the baggage train slows an army down, a ‘flying column’ with just a few days food can move very quickly, but of course must achieve its objective quickly and return. Once again the element of calculated risk here is very high; when Alexander learned that Darius had been seized by Bessus (330BC) he launches himself in that direction with a flying column with just two days supplies (hoping to capture Darius, Arr. Anab. 3.21.6-10; on this see Engels op. cit. 83). Had functionally anything gone wrong (except for the one thing that did go wrong, which was Darius died before Alexander got to him), Alexander would have been in dire straits indeed.

Caesar was, of course, uncommonly good at this (with Dyrrhachium in 48BC being the one very notable time things don’t quite work out), but that disguises the complex web of calculation, map-reading (or scout-reading) and guesswork that goes into it. Most Roman generals, lacking Caesar’s skill, tended towards more careful and methodical campaigns which were the slow road to a certain victory; one of Rome’s notable advantages was the regularity with which it produced reliable if unexceptional generals who managed the difficulties of logistics and movement fine, if not exceptionally. It takes only a brief glance at the difficulties of Marcus Antonius, Caesar’s protegee, to see why this was valuable: Antony tries again and again to pull off bold, Caesar-like campaigns and really only succeeds once (Philippi in 42). Antony has a reputation in the sources as bull-headed and impulsive in contrast to Caesar’s bold but calculating nature and it really comes out in their campaign abilities; Caesar’s dice always seem to come up just right (too many times to assign to pure chance) whereas Antony takes similar risks and more frequently fails. The difference between their decisions was often very small (indeed, in many cases Antony appears to be taking the exact same risks) but at the ragged edge of the possible in logistics, a slight miscalculation can bring catastrophe.

Still from HBO’s Rome, the Battle of Philippi. Antony, on the left, is enjoying the experience of having a bold lunging march out of safe supply to force a quick victory against his opponent work for the one and only time this gamble will pay off for him. Agrippa (right) is presumably thinking about all of the ways he can exploit this weakness in Antony, a thing he will do in 31 BC.

In the end, I think there is some good sense to Clausewitz’ argument (drink!) that warfare cannot be boiled down to mere numbers – there being too many unknowns – and that what separates a serviceable general from an excellent one is the ineffable quality of being able to instinctively take in the situation and make the right risks, what Clausewitz terms ‘genius.’ At the same time I cannot help but note that for all of the flashiness of Caesar, the Romans rarely had brilliant genius; what they had a lot of was workmanlike generals whose military-political careers (those being conjoined in the Roman world) had prepared them for the difficult administrative task of making the army go, of managing marches, supplies, foraging and so on. Roman elites serves after all first as military tribunes (who frequently led foraging parties), then as quaestors (who managed supplies and pay),10 then later as praetors in command of smaller armies before being consuls in command of big armies (and of course the fact that all of these Roman elites also managed large estates with huge – frequently enslaved – workforces must also have prepared them). A steady supply of solidly adequate generals backed up by a superior military system – mostly superior in mobilization rather than actual fighting – was enough.

Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum you have generals whose over-sized armies seem to wallow, practically paralyzed by the herculean effort to merely get them moving. As a younger student, I always found myself puzzled by this – how hard can it be to just march in a direction? Is the general just lazy? But what I hope you can see in this series is that there is actually quite a lot going on to keep a large army moving. A mediocre general (or a general with medicore subordinates or staff) with a very large army may find themselves overwhelmed by the coordination demands it imposes – who marches where? When? On what roads? How do you make sure they don’t run into each other and that there is enough food locally for each group? Who takes the front? At what rate of march? And what do you do when invariably units that you cannot directly observe (because the army is very big) move slower than you need or get lost? On top of this the general has to be managing the direction of march and also the supplies of food as well as the deployment of foraging parties. The number and complexity of these moving pieces only increases as the army gets larger, while the hours in the day for actually marching decreases as the army train lengthens, and so the army just crawls along, paralyzed by its own bulk.


Consequently, going back to where we began this series, while the general of a pre-industrial army has at best only limited control over how it fights in battle, his control over the army in the marches before the battle is much more extensive and coordination in this phase can shape the battle or siege to come. Because foraging and supply concerns are directly connected to army size, a military system (or individual commander) that is better at managing these issues can push larger armies further out, opening up new opportunities in the campaign space. By contrast a system (or general) that is poor at this kind of thing will be forced to accept either a smaller army or else may end extremely limited in options: either unable travel certain key routes with insufficient supplies or population or else functionally paralyzed by the size of the army itself.

Of course related to this the general mismatch between the size of armies and the states that fielded them in Europe during the early modern period (esp. 1500-1700 or so) made those armies increasingly destructive. As the transition to gunpowder warfare pressured states to deploy larger infantry contingents in their armies, the logistics systems which had worked in the late Middle Ages buckled under the strain, leaving the soldiers in question to supply themselves locally, with the catastrophic results we discussed in part II. Consequently while the increased effectiveness of these large armies was clearly welcomed by their rulers, by the mid-1600s it obviously became clear to European monarchs and their generals that the destructiveness of these forces had become an intolerable hindrance, leading to the (re)establishment of centralized state logistics in Europe which would in turn both motivate and feed off of increasing administrative capacity which in turn leads towards the establishment of the modern administrative state.

Finally, while this last post has been mostly focused on this question once again from the perspective of the general, we must also keep in mind that even well-run armies caused substantial misery among the rural population as they moved. Even an army not trying to cause damage, by pulling in such a massive amount of the local surplus, could push local communities into hardship. At some point we may come back to actual strategies of devastation apart from foraging, but of course if armies could push peasants to the brink merely by being around, they could do even worse if they actually intended to cause damage (though ironically the upper-limit to this sort of damage was often limited by the small size of these armies; administrative capacity cuts both ways and the very things that have made more modern armies capable of causing less damage merely by existing have made them more capable of causing much more damage by intent).

The ‘background noise’ of pre-industrial warfare was thus looted barns and crowded roads; the army had to do these tasks in order to sustain itself on the march, the general had to coordinate these tasks in order to keep the army moving and the rural population had to endure these tasks in order to survive.

  1. I should note, I am going to refer here to our imaginary general with masculine pronouns. Women commanding armies in this period in the broader Mediterranean was not entirely unknown but it was exceedingly rare; even in most societies where women might rule in their own name it was very common for army command in the field to be delegated to a male subordinate (women commanding the defense in the event of a siege was more common, though still rare). Again exceptions exist: Artemisia of Caria, Aisha at the Battle of the Camel, Matilda of Tuscany, etc., but only a relative handful over a very long period with very many army commanders. So it seems reasonable to use masculine pronouns for an occupation that was in this period performed overwhelmingly by males, though that does not erase the small number of women who did command armies, thus this footnote.
  2. Lots of adjustments here: they need 365-person-days of grain to survive per year, but there will also be fodder for animals and some small surplus for sale. On the other hand, the nutritional needs of an average soldier are much higher than the nutrition needs of the average rural person – which after all includes women and children with lower calorie demands (high activity adult male might require upwards of 3,500 calories per day where children, the elderly an less active folks might be below 2,000). I’m working my numbers from a model of a smallholding Roman farming family that I developed for my current book project.
  3. In Peasants, Citizens and Soldiers (2012)
  4. Of the actual flaming kind, not British flashlights
  5. Unsurprisingly, one of the few ancient Mediterranean polities to do this with any regularity and success were the Romans. This comes out very clearly in Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and also in the lead up to the Battle of Philippi, where in the latter case the armies were absolutely too large to march as a single formation. That said the Romans still only did this from time to time; for the far more common use of these kinds of operations in the pre-modern period one must look to the Steppe.
  6. “Why is Athens here?” So the Sicilian Expedition is a really big (and very disastrous) overseas operation, but seems to have dealt with supplies locally. The reports of reinforcements include men, horses and money, but not massive amounts of food. In practice the Athenian army was of a size that could be supported on the relatively rich grain-lands of Sicily. On the flip side, one might argue that provisioning the city of Athens substantially by sea during the Peloponnesian War is a feat sufficient to merit inclusion in this list and I tend to agree; thus Athens’ inclusion.
  7. This effort is treated in detail in P. Erdkamp’s masterful Hunger and the Sword (1998), which is, alas, very expensive.
  8. Which matters, to be clear: soldiers need a ‘theory of victory’ to sustain morale. ‘We bottle up Hannibal here until everyone involved dies of old age’ is not going to inspire anyone to put up with hardship, but ‘We hold Hannibal here while Scipio and his army sock it to the Carthaginians in Spain and Flaccus and his mates slowly reconquer southern Italy’ is much better.
  9. But this, this ain’t it, chief.
  10. At least in the Middle Republic. Caesar’s quaestors seem not to do this, curiously – something that may have to do with Caesar’s manifest near total command and logistics independence on account of being at odds with much of the Senate.

274 thoughts on “Collections: Logistics, How Did They Do It, Part III: On the Move

    1. My first read of that sentence was that it was something to do with flagstones and surface quality. It says only when the next sentence directly referred to surface quality that I realised it was a typo.

  1. Horses did not evolve on the Eurasian steppe; they actually evolved in North America before crossing over Beringia into Eurasia and then becoming extinct in North America.

  2. Given the requirement to follow roads and paths was there ever any attempt to make false ones that didn’t lead anywhere useful, or was that just too expensive and difficult to be worthwhile?

    1. In practice, most roads before the modern era (and by length, most roads today, probably even in industrialized countries) weren’t constructed per se, so much as they emerged from people consistently walking over the same stretches of ground. Making a fake road that doesn’t go anywhere would be rather tricky.

      It’s also twice invalidated by armies’ tendency to acquire local guides, one way or another. On one hand, the guides would know which roads were fake. On the other hand, if the guide was so motivated, they could lead the army down the wrong road.

      1. “Ivan Susanin was a Russian national hero and martyr of the early-17th-century Time of Troubles. According to the popular legend, Polish troops seeking to kill Tsar Mikhail hired Susanin as a guide. Susanin persuaded them to take a secret path through the Russian forests, and neither they nor Susanin were ever heard from again.”

        1. The article says that, if the story is true, they probably froze to death that night. But that doesn’t make sense to me. If they didn’t know how to camp in cold weather, they wouldn’t have survived long enough to meet Susanin in the first place. It makes more sense to me that he got them so hopelessly lost that they ran out of food before they could find their way out of the woods. (With help from the weather, because you have to eat more when you’re cold.)

      2. There’s a Conan the Barbarian story where the guide does just that, into ambush, as revenge for his children’s death

        1. and retreat was nit really an option with the lines blocked by local and and populace nearly openly uprising, recon routinely lost to them or rather not lost but decorated their route of march

    2. An army is going to be led by local guides, who presumably would know which of the roads were useless.

    3. Compared to the costs of building and maintaining a fake road (when most nations maintained at most a very sparse road network to begin with)… It would be a lot less labor-intensive to just wait until an enemy army is about to show up and then start wrecking things. Chopping down trees and drag them across the road is a fairly temporary measure, but moves like triggering landslides, or tearing down or blowing up bridges in an army’s path can really interfere with their ability to march unless they have a sophisticated enough engineering corps to overcome such obstacles quickly.

      1. That remains a factor in modern war; one factor in the battle of Kyiv was the Ukranians demolishing some key bridges and reportedly opening the floodgates on dams. The latter helped render offroad areas impassible to supply trucks,

      2. The Dutch opened the dikes and flooded the country when they were invaded. Expensive to put back together but hell to march through.

  3. So there seems to be an interesting dichotomy at play between cavalry and infantry here, that the horsemen and his very hungry mounts take up the lion’s share of the food requirements compared to the number of combat effectives, but the horseman’s mobility to open up foraging range is also a big component of what lets the host feed itself. Does that dynamic get studies for why certain military systems had the force ratios they did?

  4. This brings to mind the so-called “shadow warfare” of the 10th century Roman armies in defense of Asia Minor against the Arabs. The idea was that you couldn’t hold all of the passes with enough force to prevent an incursion, but you could track the enemy army just fine. By having each thematic force do its own thing, shadowing the enemy army independently of the others and taking care not to be caught by the invaders while staying close enough to prevent them from being able to forage or raid effectively, you limit the damage they can do and shorten their time in Roman territory. Then, once the enemy turns back, your forces rush ahead and combine at the pass that you’ve identified them as using, and confront them in battle there (or preferably stage an ambush), while their stamina, supplies, and morale are at their lowest point, home is just on the other side of the mountains, and they’re laden with spoils.

    1. This was pretty much the Hungarian playbook against later Mongol raids. Only with a network of stone castles to limit foraging and a field force to ambush them on the retreat.

    2. If the Romans were so concentrated that invaders couldn’t disperse to get supplies, didn’t that apply to the Romans themselves? How did their shadowing forces maintain supply?

      1. They’re operating in friendly territory with relatively close access to castles (which, among all the other things they do, serve as food depots and storage points from which you can draw supply)

  5. “One of these days we may come back and talk about Roman naval and riverine supply in more detail.”

    Yes, please! A treatment of the variables involved in water transport, and how they adjust the mathematics already presented, would be a real treat.

    1. My intuition is that they don’t adjust the wagon-equation mathematics, so much as replace (or at least supplement) them. Riverine logistics don’t improve the ability of an army to “forage” the countryside, they reduce or eliminate the army’s need to “forage” locally.

  6. Footnote 1 is a perfect example of the sort of aside that can really only go in a footnote. I love it.

    In many games, this freedom of movement is greatly amplified: marching armies, imagined to be no longer restricted to roads, are effectively able to march anywhere not bounded by obvious natural barriers (e.g. the more recent Total War titles, Mount & Blade, and Battle Brothers).

    This might just be a factor of which strategy games I spent my childhood playing, but I’d point to Civilization as the big example. Roads are a nice bonus, they help you get units from the far corners of your empire to whichever side your current war is on, but they’re frankly unnecessary. This makes some sense when exploring, but less once you start exterminating.

    In practice we’re actually still being a bit too nice to our army: we’re assuming they march every day. But while humans can more or less do that, pack and draft animals cannot.

    Reminder: Humans evolved to walk upright because it let them walk four-legged animals to death. (Standard disclaimer about nothing being 100% certain in paleontology, but I find the evidence pretty compelling. Less-standard disclaimer that we have other adaptations that help with that, but walking upright is much more dramatic than, say, persperation.)

    (caption about Gettysburg (1993)

    I move that someone who knows what they’re talking about do an in-depth, Dan-Olson-style dissection of Gettysburg (1993).

    1. In the Civilization games? I dunno. If you play on large map sizes, not having roads makes it take freaking forever to move large armies across the map unless they travel by ship. Building a big army and sending it across twenty tiles of land to the enemy when most units only move at one tile per turn can involve some significant opportunity costs, even if you’re not directly paying support costs for the units that mean anything (and you might be).

      1. On the other hand, building roads that reach beyond your empire is a major pain in the butt. Maybe less so in Civ 6, since you build roads by establishing trade routes instead of ordering workers around, but back in my day building a road from your hinterland to the enemy’s took a plenty of resource expenditure and, to be blunt, micromanagement, unless you were right next door to each other or didn’t care about losing some workers to roving barbarians.

    2. This podcast discussion came highly recommended and didn’t disappoint; the highlight is arguably the discussion of Longstreet’s character, and how Tom Berenger singlehandedly undertakes the Herculean labor of saving the movie from its Lost Cause baggage by playing Longstreet as “guy starting to realize he’s joined a cult” with a side of “son starting to recognize his aging father’s senile dementia.” (Also the extreme weirdness of Armistead constantly going on and on about how Hancock is his best friend in the world and how much he loves Hancock’s wife, particularly in the tent scene between him and Longstreet, where Longstreet’s skin is straight-up crawling as he listens to this skeevy dork go on and on about his best friend’s wife, then agrees as quickly as possible with as few words as possible to deliver her Armistead’s package.)

  7. An excellent series and leaves a lot of things to think about! Reading all this puts me in mind of EU4 and the supply limits that a province has. Going over those adds to the attrition an army takes, of course, but this series suggests it should also add some kind of creeping penalty to the province thus occupied, eventually leading to lowered development (and thus even less supply capacity in the future!)

    1. My intuition says a big obstacle to that would be the AI not realizing they were despoiling their own provinces/allies provinces/provinces they intended to take. Every new mechanic in a grand strategy game where the AI and player are playing with (mostly) the same rules is another rule the AI needs to account for (unless the devs just let the AI cheat, which is suboptimal).

      1. Even with supply and attrition rules today, the AI is given so many exceptions and bonuses as to very nearly make it a player-hindering-only mechanic. There are some ways for players to take advantage of it, but it almost only applies to defensive sieges in high-attrition provinces. Even that is questionable, because it often won’t apply to the AI anyway.

        Besides, there already is a devastation mechanic where it can take years for provinces to recover. And ti’s fairly well though-out, with some options to more quickly recover after warfare, and good reason to build some castles & etc.

      2. Paradox games have a horrific military model in nearly every way. The limitation is actually being real time rather than turn based. You can make an AI that can handle much more complex systems but not if you need shit to happen and the AI to respond constantly, especially when humans simply pause the game to think things through.

        I mean also Paradox are terrible at AI and mechanics, but proficient in most other areas so that matters but primarily it is an issue of the core game model.

        1. I think you underestimate just how insanely powerful PC hardware is. I’d wager that the limitation with AI is *not* that it’s realtime – there’s absolutely plenty of processing power in a modern PC to run any AI code that designers care to dream up, effectively instantly (ie fast enough that human perceptual limitations cannot tell the difference).

          The trouble usually comes from having to make AI that act believably human-like, using complex systems. The challenge isn’t computational, it’s in the design part.

          1. I’ve read Paradox dev diaries where they discuss concerted efforts to streamline and improve the AI code and tout what speed improvements follow as a result (though a quick Google search fails me at the moment), so I’d say hardware limitations are still a consideration. Not everyone’s running the latest-and-greatest CPU model, after all. (The one in my PC just ticked over 8 years.)

          2. I work on game engines and video games; AI is definitely cpu-limited in general. Also, the best AI models in non-games require hundreds or thousands of GPUs to run.

      3. I wonder whether a ML model could be trained up to be the AI. Supervised learning to imitate a corpus of human play might be easier than RL.

        1. Point 1: You generally don’t want the AI to act exactly like a human would. You want the AI to act in a way that gives the player an engaging experience (whatever mix of fun, challenge, verisimilitude, etc that your target audience wants). That usually requires some behavior that a human player wouldn’t do.

          Point 2: Machine-learning-based AI would be almost literally impossible to debug. Traditionally-programmed AI is all built intentionally and laid out in a way that makes it easy to understand and modify; ML is built algorithmically and laid out in a way that makes it possible to do that.

          Let’s say you gather the data, run the algorithm, and test the result, only to discover that the AI never builds something added midway through testing. (If video games are cars, then you need to start painting them before the chassis is fully assembled if you want to finish the game only a little late and over-budget.) Or if it’s too aggressive and doesn’t give the player room to breathe, or if it’s misjudged the reasons why the players do what they do, or if it ends up with a blend of every kind of strategy implemented poorly. Or even something as simple as “the QA testers we built the algorithm on are really good at the game, and now the AI is crushing players during the tutorial”.

          With a normal, hand-built AI, these are easy problems to solve. (Well, as easy as programming problems can be.) If you’re lucky, you just need to adjust some variables; if you’re not, it’s “just” a matter of writing and debugging a new function to handle an unexpected edge case.

          But with a neural network or something? You’re SOL. Which of these nodes or connections or lines of code are responsible for this problem? How might you change them to fix it? What other behaviors does that nodes/connections/lines influence, and how will they be f*ked up if you tweak it? It’s basically impossible to figure out.

          Machine learning is a powerful tool for solving certain problems. But it’s also a very inflexible tool. (Also one that’s used as an “objective” excuse to continue business as usual.)

          1. I mean, you would just retrain it with a different cost function that was tuned to the behavior you want. It’s impractical to have an AI that takes more than weeks to train, so people don’t do that usually.

            It’s true that machine learning is not used all the time as a method of making AI in games, but this is mostly because:

            a) current state of the art machine learning takes hundreds or thousands of gpus to train and execute, which only Facebook/Google/Amazon have;
            b) machine learning is fairly involved, and game devs are often not that well-versed in it; and
            c) you can often make a video game that people like a fair amount without a particularly smart AI, and sometimes the AI being dumb and predictable is even part of the fun.

          2. Early video games were absolutely trying to act like a human would. This is because early on, there weren’t many proven game genres and there was lots of experimentation. Many developers were inspired by board games, and these are overwhelmingly symmetrical. AI enemies were just artificial opponents. This had its upsides, such as lots of 4X games because developers were optimistic about what can be achieved with programming. Naturally, 4X games are notorious for AI that can’t make good use of all available tools.

            You can make good AI opponents if you restrict your game so that it’s relatively easy to handle. For example Magarena, an almost-MTG game, made a change that it’s the attacker that chooses how defending player’s creatures will block. This simplifies calculations a lot.

            This had to be done because traditional game AI, with exhaustive enumeration and just going through all possibilities and evaluating them, is prohibitively expensive is game is complex. But machine learning can do well with fuzzy mechanics. Keldon AI, a free program to play Race for the Galaxy, is a very demanding opponent and you can learn a few tactics from it. It won’t tell you why it’s doing it, so you have to stop and think why it works. This is despite the fact that it doesn’t know what cards may come up next or (not 100% sure on this) doesn’t know what you have in hand. However, it knows that in a situation like this (14 victory points left to go, such an such cards on the table, 2 opponents…) playing THIS card will have 37% chance of ultimately winning the game, and another card will have 14%.

            I think there are other reasons we don’t see symmetrical AI opponents often anymore. First, it’s much simpler to just make a multiplayer game and throw strangers at each other. Second, there’s performance anxiety and some players are anxious to go toe to toe with a “full” opponent. Better to just smash some silly goblins. There are no accusations of cheating AI if the game is based around smashing goblins. Squad games against zombies, or tower defense games. They’re inherently non-competitive. Players don’t feel judged. These reasons are more psychological. I remember only a few games in recent history that were praised for sophisticated AI, namely: F.E.A.R., Brogue, Catacomb Kids. Maybe Halo?

    2. The first Medieval Total War probably got this sort of thing much more correct than its sequels. Using a Risk board strategic map meant you had to follow predictable paths in marching which meant meeting engagements if both sides were prepared to risk battle. And any hostile army wrecked local infrastructure by marching through it, degrading the value of the province and could totally ruin decades to centuries of careful build up in a place that had changed hands repeatedly. Which in turn, gave besiegers an incentive to do the expensive act of bribing garrisons to hand over the castles because that reduced the destructiveness of the conquest.

      1. Newer total wars have actually tended to restrict movement a lot more (though usually with natural features) partially I suspect to make the AI better able to deal with things. If you look at the Three Kingdoms map for instance you can see how the game kinda funnels you often into fairly limited movements in alot of places)

    3. It does, in the form of the “devastation” province modifier. (Which reduces supply, goods produced, institution spread, and a lot of other stuff). The main source of devastation is looting by armies.

      Unfortunately this is not applied by friendly forces in controlled territory (only hostile ones or owner/allied forces sieging a currently-enemy-controlled province), but as the other comments point out, the AI is dumb enough about needless attrition without having another way to sandbag itself.

    1. That doesn’t eliminate operational challenges, it just shifts them from “pillage enough supplies to keep the soldiers alive” to, say, “make sure you have enough necromancers per unit to stop individual zombies from getting lost and eating local peasants”.

    2. I’ve actually derived a lot of solitary intellectual enjoyment from trying to apply what I know of military theory (mostly from Prof. Devereux) to the armies of the Night King. Issues of morale and cohesion, command and control, logistics and supply can be pretty interesting with an army of zombie types.

    3. It’s not just the food; it’s also being able to go extremely off-road as well, since you can skip the wagon of supplies. In the old game Myth: The Fallen Lords (and its sequels), one nice thing it reflected about undead armies was the fact that they could just cheerfully wade through water that wasn’t extremely deep. Makes for some nice ambush & mobility possibilities, reflected in-game too. Of course, you could presumably still get lost when travelling off the beaten path…

        1. Oh, they’re VERY tired, they just have to march anyway. Explains why they’re so grouchy 😀

          1. “We don’t want to go no more today/ But the Lord of the Lash says nay-nay-nay…. We’re gonna’ walk all day, all day all day…. Where there’s a whip there’s a way!”

    4. The Eberron D&D setting has Warforged soldiers – magically animated constructs that don’t need food or sleep, but smarter and cheaper than the traditional golems who can only obey simple orders.
      Most players/DMs don’t see the point, as they’re not much better than regular human soldiers, but they would give a massive advantage in supply and logistics.

    5. You know all of those small cuts, and bruises you get on a march? The Bilsters on your feed? All of that are small damages. Damages that you can heal. But the undead can’t. And they will add up over time. You turn a situation were you have to forage for food, to a situation were you have to forage graveyards.

      I know the Undead will tell you, every dying person will just swell their ranks. Don’t believe their propaganda!

      1. Indeed there’s the question of whether in your setting the undead aren’t necessarily immune to further decay, in which case they’ll continue to rot until they literally fall apart.

  8. The phrase “all roads lead to Rome” takes on a new dangerous meaning: “All roads [can] lead [an army] to Rome”.

      1. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door…Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?”

      2. At least until you reach the point where the road runs into the ocean and an ancient sign pointing out to sea says “To Beleriand”

    1. Did that not be the truth for the Qin dynasty, the roads from the caüotal were well built , the roads between provinces not so much.

      Which led to problems for the Qin in the civil war

  9. I doubt it would be a good use of the blog’s time, but being a Stephen Donaldson fan, I would love to see an utter dissection of the long march in The Illearth War. Granted, even in the book, it doesn’t go well; Hile Troy marches about a quarter of his army to death, but I suspect even that would be impossible in real life. And the cohesion and morale angles of it would be interesting as well, despite the aforementioned ‘Marched us so hard that 1 guy in 4 is dead even before you take into account actually fighting the enemy’ the army stays fanatically loyal to both each other and to their commanders. Granted, fighting against cannibalistic monsters under the command of an evil godlike entity tends to be a bit starker and more clear-cut than conflicts in real life, but still.

    1. I’ll second this one. Hile Troy was supposed to be a logistics expert! OTOH, he did get to use literal magic to help maintain morale.

      1. Was he? I’m too lazy to go digging through my copy of the Illearth War for an exact quote, but I can distinctly recall Troy worrying about how he’s never commanded a real campaign or even real troops before, and how his expertise is in things like readiness rates and second-strike capabilities. That makes me think his wheelhouse has more to do with allocation of force for a potential nuclear war than actual operational logistics.

  10. Also, second, unconnected thought. It has a lot of other problems, but the early 90s Lords of the Realm 2 seemed to get some aspects of this right. Armies could move off the roads, but they were a LOT slower. (IIRC, all armies had 15 movement points a turn. Going on road cost 1, farms cost 6, and just kind of clear terrain that wasn’t being farmed was 3 or 4. You couldn’t go into forests or mountains at all.) And while the armies didn’t have to move around to keep foraging, they did have to forage, and it could and frequently did devastate a county.

    You could get this especially nasty feedback loop going where the devastation of the county as armies marched through and trampled over things made it impossible to develop the county, even to the point of building a castle. (One castle per county). The castle enabled you to hold on to the county with a much smaller force, and also kept the populace less in the line of fire when someone wanted to attack and seize it. But without a castle, the area is very difficult to hold, which means that it’s going to change hands more frequently and you’re going to have larger armies camping out in the area, preventing the accumulation of food and population necessary to develop the place up, and often driving what civilians still live there to neighboring counties. It was not entirely uncommon to create a dead-zone after a while, where pretty much nothing and nobody lived.

    1. LotR2 with feeding armies on was absolutely brutal. It was so hard to recover if you started losing your cattle. And you could also destroy enemy fields, effectively ruining the county for many years to come.

      1. Honestly, I found that with the extra stresses of feeding armies, I couldn’t afford much in the way of cattle. Grain fields (assuming you have max fertility, which you should) were much more efficient assuming you had enough manpower to bring in the harvest. Since health also tended to cap pop size, it was rare to be able to farm more than 4-5 fields even under optimal conditions. You then needed a couple of fallow ones to maintain fertility, but I’d only put in cattle to soak up “excess” fields after I had all the ones I could comfortably harvest with grain.

  11. Re. how early in the morning light conditions allow preparing for march: Do we have examples where a full moon allowed an extra-early start or an extra-late halt? Or conversely, when heavy overcast cut back effective daylight hours?

      1. Likely yet another one, yeah. And, tying into my other adjacent comment on this thread, I suspect it’s one reason why the relative handful of successful winter campaigns tend to involve relatively much smaller armies that take advantage of their enemy being dispersed and unprepared for combat. Because getting an army of 20,000 men on the road and moving them at any reasonable speed when there’s only 8-10 hours of daylight to work with is hard enough even when the roads are reasonably clear of snow and ice, but an army of 5,000 men is a lot easier to work with… if you can find something decisive and relevant for them to do.

    1. Because of geometry, the full moon is always more or less opposite the sun in the sky. It’s at its highest point (and thus most capable of lighting things) in the middle of the night. If your soldiers get up in the middle of the night, they’re going to be getting exhausted by the middle of the next day, or they’ll already be exhausted because they just worked hard all the way until sunset and now they only got like four hours of sleep. Furthermore, while moonlight is nice and all, it is really no substitute for daylight when it comes to getting important tasks done like “everyone finding their place in line” and “making sure you remembered to pack all the objects you put down yesterday around the campsite” and “not falling in a shadowed hole and breaking your ankle.”

      Successful night operations tended to be the province of much smaller groups that had the time and luxury to prepare their actions beforehand and wouldn’t have to do as much brute force “sort things out” work just to get themselves moving.

      Heavy overcast probably did cut into army marching times somewhat, but the effect would often be masked by some of the things that come correlated with heavy overcast, such as “fog” and “precipitation,” both of which are even worse for an army than the overcast is.

        1. Marching at night is a terrible idea, but marching in “mad dogs and Englishmen” weather may be a worse idea.

          So if you’ve got to get the troops from Point A to Point B somehow without killing them all of heat stroke on the way… You get creative.

  12. I would love to see Napoleon’s Russian campaign dissected from a logistical standpoint. Is there existing literature covering this topic?

    1. Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon shows how Russia dissected Napoleon’s logistics. 🙂

  13. Seems like all of this is an incentive to do the job with as small an army as you think will get the job done. Maybe you could recruit an army of 10,000 if you tried, but if 1,000 is “enough” for whatever purpose you have in mind (driving off raiders?) then just take those guys. They’ll get there faster.

    All this seems to explain a lot about about the anglo-saxon fyrd system. If you’re operating in your own territory, have a small professional force to march around to wherever the enemy has shown up and then a lot of locals you can call on to fill out the army (who being already present as the local farmers, don’t have to be fed until they show up to fight). The viking raiders may be able to match your professionals, but they better gtfo before the fyrd congeals into numbers sufficient to crush them.

    1. And an intruding army is going to find a bunch of fortified towns held by the fyrd behind it. If it besieges them, it is not going to do much raiding. If it leaves them behind, it renders itself vulnerable.

    2. I think the most important point is, it hinders the foragers. If your foraging party is only 50 men strong, half of that unarmed. An area with 100 housholds, 1 in 5 requirered to have an fighting men with arms and armor becomes an dicey proposition. Not unmanageable, but you better get them by surprise, or come back with twice the numbers.

  14. Do you have a link to that book review of yours? I know that you’d have probably put that in the hyperlink if you could, but I do want to shoot the shot here

  15. Three questions:

    How well do these calculations match up with real reports of army speed? Where what armies are at what days ought to be one of the better-documented bits.

    How much does random incidents slow down an army? In Squad Leader the board game I was struck by just how slowly a convoy of trucks could move, but figured it hot stopped frequently by breakdowns or confusion or other things. Were random stops just rare enough to not alter the calculations?

    And finally: can we have a high-contrast version of the blog? My eyes hurt after reading this much grey-on-grey.

  16. You know with how often Bret metions the whole “doing reps does not stop you from dying of starvation and heat” if a actual genuine superhuman solider program actually existed and worked I think that would be the first thing to fix/improve

    1. To an extent, but at the same time, any nation capable of technologically making super-soldiers would have to have advanced technology in enough other ways that feeding soldiers (and for that matter having them march long distances on foot rather than using a truck) wouldn’t come up as often.

      Magical super-soldiers would definitely reflect this. As I mentioned somewhere on the comments threads of this series, you can see this with J. R. R. Tolkien’s elves, to take an early fantasy example. Elves can jog all day without getting tired. Elves have lembas, a kind of super-bread that keeps nearly forever and is so nutritious that you can eat one wafer of it and be good to go for much or all of a day. Combine those two things, and you have an infantry army with virtually unlimited strategic mobility and striking range.

    2. Given that evolution has already built us for long-distance stamina, we’re probably close to biological limits there. Maybe a horse-like digestive system would make them easier to feed.

      You could also do what they did with the clone army in Star Wars: altered brains to make them more disciplined, and faster growth so they’re ready sooner. (Shorter childhood means they don’t learn as much, but they’re trained to be soldiers almost from birth so they know what they need to know.)

      Though, as Simon Jester notes, the state that produces the clone army actually has no good reason to do that; they could use droids (worse but surely cheaper). Also we see “two armies in a big field” type battles even though both sides are capable of blasting the enemy from space.

      1. That horse digestive system is big and takes space. Our ability to discard most of the usual animal digestive system by eating processed food is a big reason we have those performance advantages over horses in the first place!

      2. Well there’s a big difference in endurance from human to human. The Zulu armies were famous for training for endurance and if you really focused on that with a well trained force you could march muuuuuuuch faster than with a bunch of infantry levies of mostly random guys.

    3. IRL super-soldiers wouldn’t be people who are 220 centimeters tall, can run at 50 km per hour or deadlift 500kg. Second only to obeying orders, the most useful trait of a soldier is hardiness and endurance. The ability to keep marching and fighting after a less fit person would have laid down and died.

  17. “what separates a serviceable general from an excellent one is the ineffable quality of being able to instinctively take in the situation and make the right risks,”

    Seems to me that “instinctive” in this sense just means “I don’t know how he worked it out”.

    As with this video demonstrating that:

    a) You have to counter steer in order to ride a bike.
    b) Everyone who can ride a bike does this.
    c) Hardly anyone knows that they do this.

    They learned to do it “instinctively”, but they could not tell anyone to do it like that.

        1. Techne is a skill that has been reduced to an algorithm. You can teach someone to do this, that, and the other thing and be sure that the thing will turn out all right.

          Metis is craft, cunning, and a lot of knowledge that soaked in by observation and can’t be neatly articulated.

          1. Soldiers luck,
            But luck has contninously usually the able

            a short and not good reanslation
            of the word of Motke theElder
            »Über den Ruf eines Feldherrn freilich entscheidet vor allem der Erfolg. Wie viel daran sein wirkliches Verdienst ist, ist außerordentlich schwer zu bestimmen. An der unwiderstehlichen Gewalt der Verhältnisse scheitert selbst der beste Mann, und von ihr wird ebenso oft der mittelmäßige getragen. Aber Glück hat auf die Dauer doch zumeist wohl nur der Tüchtige.

          2. By that pair of definitions, it was the task of Carl von Clausewitz, as of any researcher or educator, to turn metis into techne.

            “Metis” becomes, as “magic” so often does, a five letter word meaning “I don’t know how it works”.

          3. I tend to disagree and instead prefer Clausewitz’ formulation. War is too complex to be reduced to calculation at plausible computing power (remember, you’d have to simulate not only the bodies, but also the minds of the combatants) so it has to be conducted based on ‘feel’ and the simplification of variables. Consequently one cannot be taught the equation of command, but must simply develop the ‘feel’ of it through experience; many people never do develop that feel for it. Thus Clausewitz describing it as ‘genius.’

            Some things are irreducible to techne and thus must remain metis.

          4. Hi Bret. I suppose it depends what you mean by calculation. Take my toy example of riding a bike: surely much simpler than fighting a war (certainly if the war involves cyclists).

            People riding a bike don’t grind through Newtonian equations to decide how far to counter steer for how long before turning onto the desired turn. They would not have the mental arithmetic to do so, even if they knew they were counter steering. Which they don’t.

            But there must be some mental process that starts with the desired turn, and precedes the command to turn with at least roughly the required counter steer. Probably this process depends a lot on feedback and linear extrapolation from prior experiences. Perhaps that is not “calculation” in the common sense of the word, but if a robot bike worked like that, it’s computer would still be described as engaging in “calculations”. But we would still probably say that a human being got a feel for riding the bike.

            Take AlphaGo as another toy example. It’s creators don’t know how it plays Go. They just built it to learn how to do so, and let it play itself. The result is a computational process that can play Go, but we can’t describe how it does so. Nor can it describe how it does so. I suppose we might say it has a feel for how to play Go. It certainly doesn’t calculate everything in advance. To the extent we can work out what it does, and how that helps it win, we can generate explicit ideas about how to play Go better. And that will improve human players feel for Go.

            So. Caesar’s armies were better at judging what sudden moves were logistically possible than Anthony’s. We don’t know why, except that whatever the cause was, it must not have been obvious to Anthony at the time. (It might not have been a matter of Caeser’s judgement, as I suppose it might have been a difference in his subordinates.)

            But in principle, Caeser’s feel for logistics is not unlike AlphaGo’s feel for Go, or a cyclists feel for bike-riding. It must consist of a set of logical processes that could, in principle, be described. (In practice, I’m sure the information we would need in order to do this is no longer available, a couple of millennia later.)

            In the meantime, this very post should increase it’s readers feel for preindustrial logistics.

  18. Remember all the folklore about crossroads. Remember that the Romans and Greeks had a goddess of crossroads. Remember how those expected to rise as malignant undead were often buried at the crossroads.

    This springs from the great peril of taking the wrong way.

    1. “Don’t stray off the track!—if you do, it is a thousand to one you will never find it again and never get out of Mirkwood; and then I don’t suppose I, or any one else, will ever see you again.” -The Hobbit

      1. George Orwell, writing in the days when Britain feared immediate invasion, wrote about how while most traffic signs had been painted over, there were still dangerous numbers of shop signs and the like that bore the name of town.

        Urgent to prevent German soldiers, especially paratroopers, from being able to orient themselves.

        1. This stayed relevant very late – as recently as the 1980s, street signs in Beirut were defaced or swapped to make Israeli operations in the city more difficult.

          It didn’t work very well, because this is an old problem, and like most modern armies the IDF has a dedicated branch (Military Police) for getting signage up and directing traffic.

          Yes, MPs are there for a reason other than dragging drunk soldiers back to base.

          1. There’s a Bill Maudlin cartoon of a guy in a jeep thanking an MP in a completely covered fox hole with an arrow sign pointing down a way

          2. Or the bit from “The Wire” where street signs were turned around to confuse the police.

          3. They still did it in Ukraine this year. The Russians often still move by paper maps. So removing or painting over road signs still hinders the movement of the enemy.

  19. “I confess I have never quite understood his reputation among some historians as a ‘great captain.'”

    Is this a case of good captain, bad general? While at an operational and tactical level Antony seems to have been pretty hopeless, he does seem to have been remarkably good at maintaining morale among his troops, with his armies seeming to refuse to desert him even as his military and political prospects collapse (at various points), and only after Actium does his command ability actually seem to disintegrate. Perhaps a man better suited to junior officership, who was overpromoted…

    Which leads me onto another point, since that raises the question as to why a general as astute as Caesar promoted a man like Antony as high as he did (considering too that Antony was not at that point a particularly valuable political ally), and bearing in mind that Antony was not Caesar’s first choice for the post of magister equites – how would you rate Antony-as-general against Labienus? Labienus’s reputation seems to suffer to me perhaps unduly from what happened at Pharsalus, but I don’t know enough about his performances as a solo general.

  20. I always sort of assumed that the brutality of the Thirty Years’ War was due to ideological radicalization given the context of religious war. It’s interesting to see the relation might go the other way around, and that radicalization may have followed the increased brutality of armies operating under these new logistical strains

    1. It bears remembering that the Protestant Reformation began roughly a century before the Thirty Years’ War even began. By the time things kicked off with the Defenestration of Prague, polarizing conflicts over religion had already been an ongoing problem in Germany and other parts of Europe for as long as anyone had even been alive. It had gotten so bad that in the mid-1500s, the European powers settled on cuius regio, eius religio, which in practice cashed out as “whoever happens to rule a territory can set total control over the territory’s religion and do anything they like to anyone who disagrees with that religion and nobody can stop them,” because the alternative was even bloodier state-on-state warfare.

      Also that the Thirty Years’ War had some serious complexity going on instead of only being a religious conflict, such as Catholic France subsidizing Protestant Sweden to go fight the Catholic Holy Roman Empire.

    2. As with many nominally religious wars, the TYW was always as much political as religious. The trigger point was the Defenestration of Prague and deposition of Ferdinand II, which is generally cast in religious terms (Protestant uprising vs Catholic ruler). But Ferdinand was a well-known Jesuit fanatic, who had persecuted Protestants in Austria, long before he was elected as king of Bohemia and it was lack of political acumen on his (or his governors’) part following his election that prompted the uprising.

      As Simon_Jester notes above, France was a major player on the Protestant side (indeed, after 1635 arguably the protagonist on the Protestant side) despite being a deeply Catholic country with a cardinal running the government. Mercenaries meanwhile were often happy to fight for either side. The Graf von Mansfeld, Frederick V’s main general and one of the leading Protestant commanders of the early stages of the war, was a lifelong Catholic. The Graf von Holzpappel, a Protestant, ended the war as commander of the Imperial (Catholic) army.

      That’s just at a command level. The bulk of the destruction, with consequent depopulation, will have been at a soldierly level, and soldiers rarely believe in their ostensible cause as strongly as do their commanders (although you never know: the radical republican movement in England in the 1640s developed bottom-upwards in the Parliamentary army).

    3. IIRC there was a time when at least one army had mor soldiers from the opposite faith than from his own

    4. There’s some interesting cases of the war becoming less brutal *between combatants*, since armies tended to be a mixed lot even if notionally “catholic” or “protestant” and often made up of the same kind of mercenaries, there was often a degree of professional courtesy offered (up to a point)

  21. I’m not fully understanding why this is an imperative: “So it’s 7am and we start marching! Well, not quite. Someone starts marching. But the back of the army now has to wait for the entire rest of the army to march past it in sequence.” Why couldn’t the order to March be passed along by voice commands in relays down the march column, or music signals, or even mounted messengers? That would allow components to begin march/end march/receive other orders relatively quickly. You don’t have to wait until the guys in front of you move. In modern military drill, we see this all the time; a CO will start the sequence, e.g. “Battalion!” — which alerts the sub-commanders to repeat the command down the line to alert their particular sub-commands (“Company!” “Platoon!” “Detail!” Etc. ) Soldiers stand by or come to attention and wait for the follow-up command — “Forward March!” or whatever. Then that component executes that command. You won’t get a huge column moving in unison, but you could relay orders to the entire column much faster than sitting around waiting for someone else ahead of you to move, or form up, or stop, or prepare for action, etc.

    1. There literally isn’t room for an army that stretches out for miles on the road to line up like that. And you could be underway in the same time it would take. Think of what a large parking lot and its exits are like after a large event.

    2. All of these things play out in miniature every time a modern division formation PT run happens, only to have 10,000 soldiers get together in t-shirts, shorts, and running shoes for a few mile run around the block. A battalion can march in lockstep pretty well, any bigger than that and all of these things are happening.

    3. Because the army doesn’t spend the whole night camped out beside whatever spot on the road they happened to stop marching at the night before.

      You need to keep command and control over the army at night (and remember, most of the officers and NCOs coordinating the force have to go to sleep too). That means gathering the army up into a reasonably compact blob somewhere where they can all sit down, cook some food over a campfire, shake the gravel and sand out of their boots, and importantly where the army’s officers can keep an eye on them.

      So the army doesn’t start as a column conveniently prepared to follow order of march. It has to be converted from a big blob of encamped men who were more concerned with having good access to water, firewood, and a good place to pitch the tent into a column capable of following orders as you describe. Which means the first unit of soldiers has to march out of the encampment and onto the road at 7:00 a.m., and the next at 7:05 a.m., and the next at 7:10 a.m, and… and so on until it’s close to noon before the last units even leave the camp, and only then is the army strung back out into its full order of march, by which point the guys who walked out onto the road at seven in the morning are already footsore, ready for their lunch break, and probably halfway to the army’s destination for the day.

      1. “a big blob of encamped men who were more concerned with having good access to water, firewood, and a good place to pitch the tent ”

        That’s a good description of the Union Army at Shiloh. That’s why Shiloh was the first mass-casualty battle of the American Civil War.

        Defensibility also has to be considered.

        Which, to be sure, aggravates the problem.

    4. Because you want your army to spend the night in a playing-card fort or inferior version thereof so as to not find yourself totally screwed if your enemy says “Hey let’s do a night march and surprise them!” and are thus not formed into a ten-kilometer long column.

    5. Because you don’t start out the morning in a 10km-long line – you start it out in whatever defensible position you camped out for the night in.

  22. I have a question related to the twitter thread on gold currency. In it, you note that weapons and armor were very expensive, far too expensive for a common household to afford. How then, did systems like the fyrd or assidui, where freeholding households were supposed to supply their own weapons and armor, work?

    1. Note that your freeholders are just that – freeholders. They have property already with considerable value (their land), whose production they enjoy directly. That makes them modestly well-to-do rather than deeply poor, making it possible for them to assemble arms and armor as a generational investment which would be passed down to subsequent generations.

      1. It kinda depends on society, and particular structure, but the point about generational weatlh is important: Scandinavian medieval states often had to rely on local levies to fill out the ranks, and complaints about old equipment is pretty perennial.

        There were various attempts to require peasants to keep arms and armour (often fairly extensive lists) and Visby indicates that that it was at least somewhat obeyed (though often these were older models compared to what professionals had)

        That said my impression is that armour would be by far a bigger expense than weapons: Spears and bows were fairly commonly used tools, and while swords were less so they were still important status symbols of a free man. Crossbows later on also seems to have been fairly common for hunting and such, and there seems to be plenty of examples of various more militaristic polearms too. (like sword-staffs and halberds)

        1. Just in metal, your sword is maybe 2 pounds of steel (admittedly, of hopefully high quality) and your spear blade is probably a fraction of a pound, vs. maybe 40 pounds for a mail hauberk even if it’s wrought iron rather than steel. Plus the sheer labor of making and riveting thousands of links.

          1. While there are examples of mail hauberks, most mail pieces we have from peasant militias tends to be for limb or head protection (coifs and sleeves) with coats of plates or brigandine for torso protection. At least that was the case in Visby.

          2. Well, Visby is 1361, right? Late medieval period and transitional armor. I was thinking earlier, especially with mention of the fyrd.

      2. Also, the fyrd for example were (if I remember correctly) one men in every five households. So to arm and armour one men, about 10 two 15 people of working age (+working children, and eldery) were expected chime in.

    2. You’d need a certain level of wealth to be subject to the levy requirement, a point at which you could save up to buy armor and weapons in the way a modern family might save for a down payment on a house. Also IIRC in some systems it would actually be that every N acres would be required to provide a soldier, so if that area was held by six families they’d collectively chip in to arm one person.

      1. Digressing, how do such systems handle causalities? If the provided soldier dies or is sent back without a limb, do they have to supply another immediately, or just have someone else ready next spring? Or is there a longer grace period?

  23. I’d love to read your analysis of Xerxes invasion of Greece in 480 BC. That army was massive and the stories out of Herodotus about drinking rivers dry and taking three days for the entire force to pass the same spot start to make a lot of sense (even if the army didn’t number in the “millions” as stated — modern historians seem to agree on a figure around 200,000, which was still GINormous).

    1. I don’t remember where I read it, but I remember reading someone who pointed out that if we accept Heroduts’s ludicrous figure of about 5 million if noncombatants are included; and we assume a march density equal to that of 19th century German formations and everyone’s in a single column on the road, then by the time that the advance elements of the horde are reaching the Hellespont, the rearguard is still in Susa.

  24. > leading to the (re)establishment of centralized state logistics in Europe which would in turn both motivate and feed off of increasing administrative capacity which in turn leads towards the establishment of the modern administrative state.

    So what exactly is happening here between then and the establishment of the railroads to make an army be able to be resupplied any better than a peak period Roman army? What’s allowing them to get around the wagon problem? We’re getting more bureaucrats, but what are they doing? Establishing supply depots? Having more extractive taxation systems set up so that the troops don’t have to handle the forage part themselves?

    1. >So what exactly is happening here
      >between then and the establishment
      >of the railroads to make an army be
      >able to be resupplied any better than
      >a peak period Roman army?

      Not necessarily much, but remember that to a large extent these states are being compared to the medieval period before them, not to “peak Roman.” A state that was able to match peak Roman capabilities in logistics was quite impressive after centuries of no state coming close to being able to do so.

      But even then- one big difference would be improvements in agriculture permitting higher population densities. By the 1600s and 1700s, most of Europe was more heavily populated than it had been under the Romans, in some cases much more populated. Metalworking was better, making fabric was less labor-intensive, agriculture had grown more sophisticated. If the Romans had a 1700-era technological base to work with, they could have sustained considerably larger armies in considerably more places than they did with their historical 170-era technological base.

      >We’re getting more bureaucrats, but
      >what are they doing? Establishing
      >supply depots? Having more extractive
      >taxation systems set up so that the
      >troops don’t have to handle the forage
      >part themselves?

      To a large extent, probably yes. Setting up depots in places where natural transportation routes (especially waterways make it easy to ship in and stockpile grain. Improving roads, which lets everyone march faster and makes wagon transport more reliable.

      Remember that at least within West-Central Europe, the distances armies move during a given campaign aren’t actually that long. Having a good depot system to base your soldiers from, and strong fortress lines for them to fall back on and to rely on to screen their flanks, can really make a difference. Especially in the kind of war that in practice gets fought and won less than a week’s march from your own bases.

      1. Re. agriculture, the impact of foods introduced from the New World, which simply weren’t available in Roman or medieval times, cannot be overstated. Mention has been made in replies to the foraging article of the role of the humble potato. Another is the peanut, which is not only tasty and nutritious but a legume to boot. Also, the rutabaga only emerged as a spontaneous hybrid-mutation in the 16th century; as James Burke pointed out in “Connections” it freed cattle from the yearly cycle of nearly starving to death each winter and having to be rehabilitated every spring.

        1. Could you imagine how the Roman Empire would function with Potatoes, Peanuts, Black Beans and Squash?

          Their population density would rise far more than before.

          1. I know potatoes are a big deal, like 4x the food of pre-modern wheat, in the same land, but are black beans really an advance over chick peas and lentils? Is squash a big deal for pop density? Peanuts (well, they’re a fatty bean, that’s nice.)

      2. There was also a lot of infrastructure development going on in those centuries, between Rome and the 18th century. Canals and locks made a lot of places independend from the tyranny of the “wagon equation”. Building those and keeping them running takes a lot of administration.

    2. Roads and canals improved markedly over the 18th century – enough to take days off previous travel times. Armies acquired dedicated wagon corps. Centrally-managed biscuit ovens (buy or requisition flour in bulk, bake at convenient location, forward as required). Good maps (really – France was mapped properly only in the late 17th century – Napoleon had lots of maps). Lots more accountants, so better estimates of supply against need. Star fortresses with barracks and depots. And so on.

      1. China had an extensive sophisticated Canal System that allowed them to have the historic Army sizes that they have.

        Canals are crucial for the supply of Armies across the world. Canals must be first built in order to minimize the misery on the locals. As it enables a lot of bulk transport.

        1. First you need geography to enable it. Then you need technology to allow it. And then you need the money to do it.

          Peasants immiserated by your canal-building are still miserable.

          1. To be fair, if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where your grandparents’ generation was miserable building a canal, you’re probably going to be damn glad that your grandparents’ generation built that canal.

            But yeah, there’s a reason lots of places don’t have canals, or didn’t get them until very late in history.

    3. To make an army be able to be resupplied better than a peak Roman army? Nothing. They were not substantially better at Stating than the Romans.

      They were building up from an astonishingly low Medieval level of state capacity. Probably better at collecting taxes and had higher population density toward the later part of that period, though.

      1. To quote OGH:

        “A third, more complex option is to march divided, splitting up the army to move in several separate columns along different roads which can both move faster (because they are now two smaller armies) and can forage different farmers in different areas. The problem this poses is simple: coordination… it is very difficult and [makes it] very easy to completely ruin a campaign with a fairly minor mistake; in practice before 1800 or so, most armies only operated like this if they absolutely had to. In practice the threshold where armies end up forced to split up is somewhere above 50,000 effectives, depending on conditions.”

        The point is that the Romans very rarely tried to pull this off, whereas practically every army in the Napoleonic Wars did so routinely. So the European powers of that era must have had more state capacity than the Romans. They routinely did something that was on the edge of Roman organizational ability.

        As for how they managed it, well, on the face of it:

        a) You manoeuvre using the road system of the invaded country. I’d bet good money the road network in Saxony was a lot better at the time of the Battle of Leipzig than at the time of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

        b) Saxony probably had a better postal service by that time as well: information would flow around the campaign area much more quickly, and in greater volumes.

        c) 1800 is about the time visual telegraphs started to become a big thing. That is a much faster way of moving information than the previous man-on-horseback speed.

        Given armies that did not march much faster than those of Roman times, the increased speed and volume of the flow of information should have made it easier to coordinate the separate manoeuvring armies.

        1. General Sheridan, commenting on the good marching order of the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War, commented on how the roads were very good, and he’d like to see them marching on poor or non-existent roads the Union Army had.

          1. Moltke started planning the prussian railway system for war from 1843 on, after he became chief of staff he reformed the prussian army from Soldiers equipment to educating officers.

      2. That’s not quite true. By the 1700’s european states started to match or exceed roman capacity in a lot of ways. They were still bound by the same fundamental rules, but they’re start to niggle at or improve plenty of the mariginal systems.

        The 1700’s are a bit of an odd case because while state capacity increases dramatically wars tend to be relatively limited until the french revolution, when army sizes explode.

  25. Something this made me wonder was how the United States Army was supplied during the Indian Wars of westward expansion, presumably ahead of the railroads. A very quick google seems to suggest the numbers were simply very small. Usually only about 1000 soldiers or less on the Army side.

    1. I actually have a similar question about long-range caravans; Oregon Trail and Silk Road in particular. They’ll be moving at a faster pace and are much smaller but they’re also going through places where the population density is very low on account of it’s a desert.

      1. Unlike an army, a caravan will consist largely of wagon drivers and/or pack animal handlers (and maybe some guards), so not as tyrannical a wagon equation. The route itself would be dictated by the availability of water holes, and doubtless the ability of donkeys and camels to make do with poor fodder was a factor.

      2. They’re also moving through friendly territory, and are much, much smaller. And. when going through deserts they’re generally sticking to a predefined path along where people live, The trans-saharan caravans (be they trading salt, gold or slaves) almost entirely follow a network of oases for instance.

  26. Would love to have a historical/ fantasy strategy game around this kind of logistics. Not so much the nitty gritty of managing the details, but making decisions about supply and foraging and routes…

    1. I was thinking about this as well. Most games I’m familiar with have you engaging either at the tactics level or the strategy/grand strategy level rather than logistics; none of them require making decisions about which group of soldiers starts out first in the morning and when, and whether you have enough days of supplies to reach your next destination.

      On the other hand, there *are* a number of popular games about logistics, just in the sense of production line building (e.g., Factorio, Satisfactory). Maybe the world is ready for a brilliant game of military logistics where you’re not concerned about actually fighting battles, just about getting the army there in fighting fit at the quickest possible pace.

      1. HOI4 is in a very real way a game about logistics, but it’s modern-ish industrialized logistics on a fairly large abstract scale. Managing production and (when actually fighting) making sure the products of that production actually gets to the army. Obviously not this kind of pre-modern logistics.

        It’s not relaly “realistic” in a lot of ways, but the focus is clearly on producing the stuff you need and ensuring it gets to where it needs to be.

      2. Professionals study logistics, amateurs study tactics because it’s more fun.

        Still I am often surprised by what Excel experts can create, and there are apparently now Excel e-sports contests! So maybe this niche will be filled.

      3. IIRC the massively-multiplayer wargame Foxhole features a logistics system entirely run by players. In that game major battles usually take months to happen simply because both armies need to build up their supply, which involves a lot of player efforts and coordination.

        Of course, it is a multiplayer game – would love to see such system modeled in a single player game.

        Outside the video game industry, the recently developed Levy & Campaign series board game interact with our logistics topic deeply. Every army needs to feed themselves independently; foraging is a must but would also damage the countryside; armies will be forced into battle once they ran out of settlements to forage while having an enemy army sitting in the nearest forage-able location.

  27. One minor quibble: “. . . its [i.e. 20th Maine] commander (our Professor of Rhetoric, Joshua L. Chamberlain) would in turn have to pick where each of his companies would go.” While the marching order of regiments in the brigade would have been rotated, the companies within the regiment should have marched in a prescribed order. I’m looking at my copy of the 1861 US Infantry Tactics, page 7 describes the order of companies within the regiment.

    Also, I get the complaint about Lost Cause stuff in Gettysburg, but have you seen Gods and Generals! The Lost Causerism(?) in that movie is just extreme. Ugh . . . that movie . . .

    Excellent series on logistics, I’ve really enjoyed it.

    1. The Lost Causerism: those films were made from books that were very much of the Lost Cause persuasion. I can understand people finding it annoying; but you don’t have to watch them. For what it’s worth, Gods And generals simply isn’t as good a fillum as Gettysburg. Also, with all those beards, it’s hard to tell which general is which.

      I really like Gettysburg. I don’t expect it to be an accurate depiction of military operations, nor a fair explanation of history. But it’s a pretty comprehensive unpacking of the Lost Cause romantic appeal; that’s interesting, to people like me, who don’t hail from the USA.

      Apparently it used thousands of war-reenactors.

      1. It’s been a while since I’ve read them, but by my recollection the books were not nearly as bad as the films. The scene in Gettysburg where Tom Chamberlain talks to some confederate prisoners is a good example — in the film they give an explanation of what their fighting for that fits neatly with the Lost Cause. However, in the book, “The Killer Angels,” it’s told very differently . . . it’s a joke. Tom is merely relating the event to his brother. When asked what they were fighting for they said they were fighting for their rights (pronounced “rats”) but they didn’t know what those rights were!

        Been a while since I read Gods and Generals, so doing a comparison between it and the film would be hard (and frankly, I’m not that inclined to watch the film again), but my memory of it is that it’s no where near as bad about the Lost Cause. Gettysburg was a more faithful adaptation of the book as far as I can recall.

        I know some of the reenactors who worked on Gettysburg, and I almost participated in some scenes in Gods and Generals, but in hindsight, I’m glad I wasn’t able to do so.

        1. Eh. There’s a difference between “this is why the war happened” and “this is why people were fighting in it.” While Gettysburg does a really lousy job of describing why the ACW happened (slavery), it does a good job of showing why the people are fighting.

          I will also point out that, in rebuttal to the charge of “Lost Cause” romanticism, that the Northern protagonist, Chamberlain, is a dedicated anti-slavery man and that the film presents this as a virtue rather than a defect. Furthermore, no Northern character expresses the very commonly held sentiment among Union soldiers that the war was about preserving the Union and that frankly they didn’t give a care if slavery was still around by the end of it or not, which if I were making a pro-Lost Cause movie I would certainly at least have mentioned.

          Gettysburg’s historiography issues stem less from buying into the Lost Cause than it does from giving everyone a Historical Hero Upgrade.

          1. >>There’s a difference between “this is why the war happened” and “this is why people were fighting in it.” <<

            Could not agree more. I say this a lot. The reasons why wars occur, and the reasons for people fighting in those wars are not necessarily the same (and usually not the same).

            One thing I don't think I've ever seen in a movie, is where a major character is Confederate draftee — as the Confederacy had to institute a draft rather early, they seem to be definitely underrepresented in popular depictions.

          2. Draftees tend to get left out of Civil War movies in general. Complicates the narrative a bit.

            But yes, one of the things that frequently gets left out of Civil War historiography is the fact that the Confederacy not only had to institute a draft a year earlier than the Union did, but also faced far more resistance to it than the Union did. Most Civil War buffs have at least heard of the New York draft riots, but until Free State of Jones came out very few people had any idea that the Confederacy faced anti-draft guerrillas that fought for months or even years.

      2. “You don’t have to watch it” is just about the worst defense for anything. I’d put it a step above the first amendment defense, which boils down to “it isn’t illegal to express this opinion,” but just a step. After all, “you don’t have to watch it” boils down to “It only inflicts its badness on people who see it”. At worst, it’s an admission that it’s terrible; at best, it’s trying to pretend that no movie can be bad.

  28. Keegan’s The First World War has a great introduction to the geometry parts of this in his section on the Schlieffen Plan and the August campaigns, in that interesting intermediate period where railroad armies jumped between rail lines and had to act like foot-and-wagon armies again. Even in those very good conditions – with extremely healthy soldiers (by pre-modern standards), very good maps and reconnaissance, plentiful canned food, and a dense road network – 13-16 miles per day was as good as it got.

  29. If your foragers are cavalry, I can see how you can get a foraging front 20 miles wide. But infantry foragers need time to do the foraging, and to get back to camp at sunset. I can’t see infantry straying much more than a couple of miles from the route of travel, making for a daily foraging area of about 20 square miles. After all, in addition to spreading through the countryside, the foragers have to advance 10 miles, just like the main body, juast to reach camp by bedtime.

    So I can’t see how infantry foraging works at all, for an army of 30,000 on the move, except in very populous regions.

    1. Well, your infantry army has a few choices:

      1) Stick to a very populated area, or a viable supply route such as a river.

      2) Stay out on campaign for no more than a week or two with the food they can theoretically carry in their knapsacks and wagon trains.

      3) Or subdivide into a lot of much smaller chunks advancing on a broad front, each of which sweeps out a strip of countryside a few miles wide and ~10 or so miles long.

      (1) and (2) are very limiting, and (3) invites defeat in detail, especially if you have no cavalry and so can’t scout out ahead of tie that the enemy is massing against one of your foraging columns.

      Which is why, in practice, just about any army that had the option of doing so, had cavalry. Maybe not great cavalry, but [i]cavalry.[/i]

  30. Fantastic. One thing I think worth covering at some point in fantastic depth as you do, is a “turning the camera around”. You do that a bit in this series. However, like the vast majority of war movies the focus is on the army.

    What does this look like for everyone else? How does the local population survive? How do they feel about ostensibly thier own army coming through? The enemy army?

  31. Please forgive me, but this blog IS titled “Unmitigated Pedantry”…

    “…and horses evolved on the Eurasian Steppe….”

    This is not correct. Horses appear to have evolved in North America and spread to Eurasia from there (if I recall correctly “Evolution of Tertiary Mammals of North America” goes into detail). The horses in Eurasia aren’t the original horses, but a relic from the mammalian megafaunal extinction, which in my mind is actually a more fascinating evolutionary story. Horses nearly went extinct, then were saved by humans and underwent a re-diversification to fit into new biomes (farms, cities) and new ecological realities (ie, civilization).

    Equidae is a clade that has a fairly storied history in paleontology. Everyone used to talk about The Evolution of The Horse, talking about how horses gradually lost their toes and became bigger and bigger over time. Then we slowly started to realize that maybe we should look at ALL the Equids, not just the survivors. Turns out this story is completely false. Horses experienced a rather remarkable radiation, then all but the few modern species went extinct. There’s a whole debate about phyletic gradualism vs punctuated equilibrium that this was involved in.

    This doesn’t change your conclusions at all. It merely touched on a nerve that’s still somewhat raw for us Gouldian paleo folks.

    1. And you get fun ecological arguments where advocates of Pleistocene rewilding argue that mustangs and feral burros are a good thing because they serve the function of extinct equines.

    2. While you’re technically correct, it would seem that the later horse species evolved on *American* steppes (or plains), so “evolved on steppe” isn’t wrong. Plus Equus got into Eurasia over 3 million years ago, so even saying modern horses “evolved on Eurasian steppes” isn’t wrong. Especially when the point was that they don’t like dense forest.

      1. 3 million years isn’t that long a time in evolution. It’s around 5% the current lifespan of the Equidae clade. A fairly major culling process appears to have been occurring prior to that, but it’s probably a statistical artifact (horses are relatively large land animals that often lived on erosional surfaces, after all). I’m not sure–I’d have to dig into the fossil record of Asian steppes more than I have–if the horses on the Asian steppes changed much in that short a time.

        And I’m not sure that you can say “horses” evolved on steppes, either. Modern ones live in such environments, but there was a tremendous variety of equids in the past, and I do remember reading about some in forests. If we’re dealing with biomes, modern equids inhabit a fair variety–grasslands, steppes, deserts, mountains, basically any biome where “run real fast” is an advantage, and it’s unclear what biome they evolved in. It would be more accurate to say that modern Eurasian horses adapted to steppe environments. Obviously this doesn’t disprove the author’s arguments; in fact, I’d argue it strengthens them. The horse body plan seems to be incredibly effective on open terrain and incredibly ineffective everywhere else. It’s another, independent line of evidence reaching the same conclusion. And it’s fossils, which makes it inherently better (though I’m slightly biased).

        As an aside, I DID preface my statement that I was being pedantic. It is, for the purposes of this blog post, an incredibly minor point (though one with implications for the evolution of cavalry and the use of horses by humans). It just happens to be a minor point related to a rather interesting (to me fascinating) series of arguments that has re-shaped how an entire field of science views the world’s history.

        1. “Horses split from asses and zebras around 4 mya, and equines entered Eurasia around 3 mya. Zebras and asses diverged from each other close to 2.8 mya and zebra ancestors entered Africa around 2.3 mya.”

          So enough time to evolve modern horses, zebras, and donkeys.

          It’s a million generations or so. Plenty of time if selection pressure is strong.

    3. “Horse” is not a specific taxonomic term, Dinwar. It can refer to the family Equidae, distinguishing “horses” from other odd-toed ungulates, which originated in North America, or to the genus Equus, distinguishing modern “horses” from their extinct cousins, which also originated in North America. But it can also refer to the species Equus ferus, distinguishing horses from zebras and donkeys, or to the subspecies Equus ferus caballus, distinguishing horses from ponies, tarpans, etc.

  32. The fact that it takes more people to support more people really gives Thomas Malthus a pimp slap upside the head. 🙂

    How much difference would it make to marching geometry and the tyranny of the wagon train if they’d had Chinese wheelbarrows: Or the next tech level up – cargo bikes and trikes:

    1. The Chinese wheelbarrow received some discussion in the comments to Part 1 The Problem (see older comments section)

  33. As people are suggesting ways to improve the website, I request an archive with every post listed on a single page. Reverse chronological is usual, but you could group them by theme if you wanted. Some articles are hard to remember and/or find, and everything in one place would make a massive difference.

      1. Tags are useless. Click on ‘video games’ and see what’s not there. We shouldn’t have to deal with sloppy referencing on a historian’s website. 😉

  34. Now I understand why the peasants nearly always had to be forced to maintain their local roads, even though they also benefited from having roads. Given the choice between ‘get to market easier’ and ‘never see an army’, I’d be sorely tempted to spend the effort to dig up the road and plant trees right in the center!

  35. I have an interesting thought. I think that encouraging a Strong Market Economy and the Commercialization of society would incentivize the rise of Canal building, Port building and other forms of Water transport as a result of Investment which is also self-funded. Market economies would tend to want the best most efficient logistics and would grow those supply routes naturally.

    As the Market economy grows. The King should “defend” those Markets from Bandits and Vagabonds and other Criminals stealing from his “Tax cattle”. Enforcing Justice to ensure better Societal Health and subsequent Cultural flowering and Economic Prosperity.

    Because Commercialization is growing their Logistical Network and Logistical expertise organically. Likewise the Economic Strength of those Market Economies can be taxed to support their “protection”.

    This allows those Logistical networks to be utilized in potential future conflicts. Just in case. But it goes to show the interdependency of the Economy and the Military in Complex Agrarian Societies.

    1. Lotta Arbitrary capitalization in this Comment. 😉 More seriously, a few quick observations:

      1) Market economies struggle to deal with the realities of life under pre-industrial material conditions in a lot of places. See Dr. Devereaux’s posts on grain production; much o the population simply does not produce enough surplus to sell, and what surplus there is, is very likely to be necessary just to feed purely local specialists (e.g. blacksmiths and priests) and elites (e.g. the noble whose cavalry are responsible for chasing down any bandits who show up in the area). There is a massive shortage of investment capital, such that even obvious opportunities to do something with an infrastructure project just don’t materialize, no matter how silly it is that people are “leaving money on the table” this way. Don’t assume that investment in that kind of infrastructure actually [i]will[/i] be self-funding when it never worked out that way in practice.

      2) I think it’s a little strange how you treat “Vagabonds and other criminals” as intrinsic enemies of the state. I’m note at all sure that this is an accurate or helpful way to think about the subject.

      1. 1) Agreed. This is partly why my solution involves the removal of parasitic processes(crime) from economic activity and of the States involvement in helping to develop the Market Economy. The economic strength of the society goes a long way of providing the equipment and logistics for the army.

        2)Unless the Vagabonds and criminals are the subjects of the state then they are stealing from the surplus that could be taxed and would enable the people to build up the capital for investment.

        1. See, a part of what confuses me is that you seem to think of obvious ‘parasites’ as being a relevant limiting factor

          The ratio of bandits to peasant farmers in any given subsistence farming economy is never that high. There aren’t giant swarms of idle people extorting food from the farmers, and as a general rule most of those idle people are rich; people who own large estates and/or large amounts of unfree labor in the form of slaves or serfs or whatever.

          These societies weren’t short on food and operating close to the limit of sustainable surpluses at all times because “vagabonds and criminals” were eating enough of the food to be relevant. The local lord in his manor with his armed retainers would be more than happy to kill anyone else taking a noticeable slice of the village’s food without permission, if only because that’s his job and if he doesn’t fight to keep it, he probably gets kicked out of his castle.

          What it came down to was that no matter what you did, investment capital was extremely scarce. Very often, the most profitable thing you could do with investment capital was to use it to equip an army and go plunder a neighboring territory, but that creates its own cycle of violence.

          As a general rule, markets aren’t really stopped from functioning by “thieves and vagabonds.” They’re stopped from functioning by either sheer overwhelming scarcity, or by powerful people shutting the market down because they don’t like the results it might yield.

    2. Three thoughts on this.

      The tyranny of wagons applies to anyone moving agricultural surplus any distance where water transport does not already exist.

      The workforce building a canal functions much like a foraging army. Probably smaller numbers of people but moving much more slowly.

      Maximising agricultural output for market is a high-risk strategy that can really only be mitigated by having access to a market for agricultural surplus that already functions well with good liquidity.

  36. I enjoyed this series as a very nice summary of the nuts and bolts of campaign logistics. However, I wonder if the central thesis of this article – that pre-modern armies were metaphorical sharks that needed to keep swimming or die – needs to be modified or qualified a bit to take account of sieges. For, if the central object of most campaigns is to ‘deliver the siege’, then in the majority of cases the army will indeed plan on stopping swimming for weeks or potentially months in order to actually complete said siege. It would be useful to get a bit more detail on how they managed to do so. The elimination of the need for breaking camp and marching would of course free up time for more of the force to engage in foraging operations, but other tasks like constructing earthworks would swallow up some of the excess manpower, and there would still only be a limited amount of food in the area available for extraction. Siege targets tended to be located in densely populated areas with good food supply networks – cities couldn’t exist otherwise – which would make things a bit easier for the besiegers, but they couldn’t just commandeer those networks overnight; defenders would move as much portable food as possible inside the walls before the siege began, and it’s quite hard to make full use of things like a city’s established mercantile trade routes when you’re deep in hostile territory.

    Of course, I’m aware that often the attackers simply didn’t manage to overcome these obstacles and had to lift the siege when their supplies ran out (pop culture depictions which focus only on the privations suffered by heroic underdog defenders often miss the fact that both besieged AND the besiegers were sitting on precarious logistical timebombs, with victory usually determined by whose fuse was longer). Nonetheless, given that most campaigns were predicated on the possibility of winning sieges in enemy territory, it might be nice to see some sources and calculations setting out how commanders successfully got their ‘shark’ to sit still in order to accomplish this.

    1. This would be a good extension to the series.

      In general, there’s three ways this works:

      1. Deliver your siege close enough to a logistical supply source of your own that you can continue to provision it. I.e. you’re not going to try and capture all of France in one go, you’re going to capture some castles along the border this campaigning season, hold them over winter, then capture the next wave of castles next campaigning season.

      2. Extract the supplies you need from the vicinity of the place you’re besieging, either more or less violently. As you establish a more secure position, outriders and forage parties can venture further afield – they’re returning to a known place each day. If you’ve brought money, you can try to buy in supplies from local extractive networks.

      3. Supply by water – helpfully, a lot of the places you might be wanting to besiege will be on a water route of some kind, since rivers/canals/sea are so important for transport anyway. Water transport is way more efficient and mostly immune to the tyranny of the wagon equation. Arguably this is a subclass of 1. above, but it’s worth calling out explicitly.

      Oh, and perhaps more importantly than all of the rest: just because you’re trying to capture a castle or city doesn’t mean you’re planning to lay siege to it. Ideally for you, you want to capture it by surprise, treachery or open battle _without_ an extended siege.

  37. I was wondering why the Romans kept the system of two consular armies for so long even as the population to draw upon kept increasing. Now it makes sense, the army that a powerful city-state can raise is about equal to the army that can be sustained in the field,

    1. I do note that what you get once state-capacity to raise armies starts to outstrip the ability to supply them is often attempts at multi-front warfare: “One army goes to Italy, one army crosses the Rhine, one army goes into the Netherlands and another guards the pyrenees”.

        1. “King of Kings” was a great thing in the era because, frankly, the only practical way to rule another kingdom was to keep the king, only as your subordinate.

          1. Practically the King of Kings is an Emperor. I think an Emperor is only truly an Emperor if he rules over other Kingdoms with their Royal Families intact and subservient to him.

          2. > Practically the King of Kings is an Emperor. I think an Emperor is only truly an Emperor if he rules over other Kingdoms with their Royal Families intact and subservient to him.

            The Roman Republic ruled over kingdoms with their royal families intact, but the Roman Empire appointed governors instead.

          3. “but the Roman Empire appointed governors instead.”

            Unless the Governors are the Kings themselves subservient to the Emperor. Then its not really fitting of the description of Emperor who is the King of Kings.

          4. Roman governors were not kings. They were bureaucrats hired and fired by the Emperor.

            Modern Jordan has a king, and also some governors. Does that make it an empire? Is every state with administrative divisions an empire?

          5. @Bullseye
            Yes, and no. The Roman Empire had client kingdoms. Sometimes they would be integrated as provinces. Sometime provinces would be released as vassale kingdoms as the situation demanded. See Palmyra as an example. Though an example that did not work out very well.

          6. King of Kings is a truly ancient title (first used in Babylonia). It denotes a great power. Emperor in medieval usage denoted the ultimate secular authority. A lord could appeal to a prince, a prince to a king, a king to an emperor – but the imperial word was final. Hence the French legal dictum that ‘a king is emperor in his own domain’ – ie, no appeal in French domestic matters beyond the king.

  38. typos:

    flag enough – flat enough

    locals guides

    the chances of effectively defense are

    failed both to sufficiently scout the area but also setting up

  39. fantasy: so better intelligence (scrying, talking birds) wouldn’t just tell you where an army was to fight them, it would tell you “no army here, don’t need to defend the foragers from surprises”.

    (Also maybe “the peasants are hiding over here” or “I smell buried food here”)

    1. By the same token, I expect armies with access to magic would have some way of baffling those magical espionage methods. For instance:

      Fantasy often has ways to interfere with scrying, hiding one’s presence; if this is a total blackout rather than just hiding certain people being scryed upon, perhaps they’d find some way to scatter scry-blockers to a great distance. Or perhaps ordinary illusion spells would work, or camouflage. Or perhaps scrying is always a birds-eye-view sort of thing, so all an army needs to do to conceal its presence is find vertical cover.

      Thinking of ways that magic could change fantasy warfare is cool and all, but I prefer thinking multiple steps ahead—about measure and countermeasure and counter-countermeasure, the arm’s race of different groups trying to gain a decisive advantage in their conflicts.

      1. That’s valid, but it’s not the only way either. Magic/fantasy can be pretty limited too. “Make one change, explore the consequences.” Or, “see what consequences a fantasy author left on the table.” Like the talking Ravens (and Dale-line understanding thrushes) of the Hobbit, or Gondolin’s alliance with the Eagles.

        Unfinished Tales says it was possible to shroud against the palantir, but that was a lost art. (Except maybe to Gandalf. Galadriel complained she couldn’t see him outside of her borders, and she had her aqueous equivalent of a palantir.)

      2. Defense and offense do not always progress neatly. Everyone would LIKE to overwhelm against the shiny new defense, or defend against the shiny new offense, but it may be technologically impossible for a time. Possibly short, but still a time.

        No rule it can’t be true for magic, too.

      3. Enchantments have huge implications on the Battlefield. Especially if said Armies are fighting asymmetrical conflicts against Dragons, Trolls and other Mythical Beasts that are far stronger and have far more “Natural Weapons” than the average Human Man.

        All the Armed Men would have to compensate with Mass enchantments of their Weapons and Armor. And Specialized Enchanted Siege Engines for example to fight a massive Dragon for example.

        Mages cannot be everyone or everywhere. So this may have to be taken into account.

        1. Much depends on the details. If you have two human armies and the goddess of agriculture will allow clerics to make food for the defending army and for despoiled peasants but not for attackers — why, all your wars will be with monsters.

      4. [ “I expect armies with access to magic would have some way of baffling those magical espionage methods. ” ]

        Another way of saying, “For every action there is a reaction!”

  40. All of which information here about what it takes just to move an invading force in a hostile environment far from sponsoring metropole makes the first Crusade as an invading armed force even more of a conceptual shock, right?

      1. I think part of what Constance was getting at here is that very few people were likely to expect whole armies native to realms hundreds of miles away to suddenly show up on their doorstep one year when nobody’d been dealing with them in previous years. The sheer amount of management (and pillaging) involved in doing so would be such an obstacle that you just wouldn’t see armies ricocheting across a continent at long distances often.

    1. The first two Crusades had large troop movements by land, but in Europe they were following the major rivers (Rhine, Danube) and once they reached Greece they had the advantage of the Roman (Byzantine) logistics to support them. Friendly territory all the way until they left Constantinople. Even so the first major group marching generally ate everything along the way and caused hardship for those following, who started pillaging, and then the locals started retaliating.

      In the “Holy Land”, what is now Syria to Egypt, nearly all the Crusader forts and cities are on or near the coast where they could be supplied by sea from Cyprus and Italy / Sicily. After the first two nearly all the Crusaders came directly by sea, usually in Italian shipping.

  41. I post my reaction to this series on logistics for the benefit of Doctor Devereaux.
    My reaction is ‘holy ****’, all these guys like Julius Caesar and John Churchill were inventing crap about what great generals they were, to further their political careers in an era before inconvenient journalists or mobile phones, when in fact modern twenty first century mathematical analysis decisively proves that they were lying their ******** off and couldn’t have even done a quarter of what they claimed, because the logistics were totally and utterly impossible. (I particularly like the way that you highlight just how implausibly ‘lucky’ Julius Caesar’s claims require him to have been, time after time after time, Doctor Devereaux.) These guys were faking news centuries before some prominent modern day political figures recently under criminal investigation were even born, and on a scale that is for me frankly breath-taking.

    I’ve been questioning of late just how ‘real’ some allegedly historic events were, and this series has – for me – shown it was ****ing impossible for many of the wars which were claimed to have been fought pre-modern era, to have actually been fought at all, because the armies involved would have starved to death before they got a couple of days over the border of their homelands.
    Okay, in Julius Caesar’s case, I guess he must have been quite a diplomat, since apparently something *did* happen to fold Gaul into the Roman Empire, but fighting must have been (again, as you underscored and emphasised, Doctor Devereaux, the logistics for the supposed ‘historic campaigns’ are mindbogglingly implausible) almost trivial to it.

    And really, just who would have dared question whether Julius Caesar had fought all the battles he pretended to have done, so long as his troops were paid off and any fellow aristocrats in the know had side-deals cut with them to obtain their connivance? Again, in an age long before modern telecommunications?
    Although for that matter, even in the era of modern telecommunications, apparently at least one side in the fighting ongoing in Ukraine at the time of this post is getting away with breathtakingly huge lies to their domestic population and allies about how the campaign is going – showing what a political leader can get away with, even with mobile phones and journalists and the internet all over the place, when inventing stories about how the fighting is going for consumption by ‘friendlies’.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking series. And I thought how it came across to me and my reaction to it would interest you, Doctor Devereaux.

    1. I am seriously questioning how many battles and wars that I had been told had really happened actually did take place? One of the earliest history classes I can remember did in fact have the teacher drilling into us that heads of state and their propagandists have it in their interests to invent stories about how wonderful and strong and successful they are, but it’s been something I’ve been tending to ignore, until recent events in Ukraine, I guess, have shown just what can be done.

    2. You really believe Caesars Solduers and Officers like Labienus would not have shown him a fraud and btw how did he conquer gaul without his campaigns

    3. just who would have dared question whether Julius Caesar had fought all the battles he pretended to have

      A fair amount of people, given that a) he was assassinated and b) tens of thousands of Romans fought with or against him (sometimes both, see Labienus).

    4. “And really, just who would have dared question whether Julius Caesar had fought all the battles he pretended to have done,”

      All of his numerous political enemies. Caesar had a lot of folks who didn’t like him (source: he was stabbed to death by a mob of them) and none of them questioned whether or not he had actually fought and conquered the Gauls.

    5. I think you’ve misunderstood these posts. Our host is telling us it was very challenging to conduct pre-railroad warfare, especially with a larger army. He is not telling us that it was impossible. The leap from “it was challenging to supply an army” to “Roman military campaigns were faked” is a very big one.

      I would add that our host is an expert in the Roman military and he has already read the materials with a critical eye. He has commented a few times when numbers seem exaggerated. He has written before on Caesar’s campaigns and pointed out parts he thinks are a bit misleading (like how an unnamed junior officer was likely responsible for an effective maneuver). If he doesn’t think that Caesar’s campaigns are a total fabrication then I don’t really think we are qualified to disagree.

    6. “I guess he must have been quite a diplomat, since apparently something *did* happen to fold Gaul into the Roman Empire, but fighting must have been […] almost trivial to it.”

      Ah, so he diplomatically plundered Gaul and enslaved it’s people? He must have possessed quite the sweet tongue to talk one tenth of the country into enslaving themselves and giving him enough wealth to finance some of the most expensive public works in the world at the time.

      The silver tongue really pales in comparison to his foresight though. Knowing that his story might be questioned 2000 years later by archaeologists he cunningly built entire towns, scattered countless goods throughout them, burned them down and then convinced their supposed neighbors to integrate these ficticious kingdoms into their oral histories so he wouldn’t be contradicted a generation later.

      Although the real kicker is the time machine he possessed so that he could go back in time many centuries and prevent those neighbors from settling in the prime real estate right next to where they lived so that he would have an empty state in which to place the ruins of his fictitious enemies. I wonder, did he use this time machine to escape assassination? Is Julius Caeser actually alive today?

  42. This series has gone into great detail about how professional and semi-professional armies gather logistics, with both a Roman army and the Spanish Army of Flanders as good examples. However I find myself wondering how marching and gathering supplies was handled in a retinue-of-retinue army. Was it by group, i.e. every duke and baron and lord split off a portion of their forces to forage and only shared it with their own soldiers? Or was there some kind of central authority, i.e. on today’s march Duke Whoever handles foraging and tomorrow Baron That-Guy does it?

    1. Arguably the second I think, but it could easily change depending on time, place and political situation so don’t take my word at face value.
      I study mostly Italian warfare of the Late Medieval/Renaissance era, but its sources aren’t very keen on explaining logistic nuances such as these and I admit I never really asked myself this question. However, armies active in Italy in those years were fairly well organized and disciplined, so I’d incline for a more or less centralized management. Plus, they were almost exclusively made of mercenaries, who had all the incentives and skills to properly loot the lands they travelled: when you read “foraging”, it could probably be better understood as “stealing all that wasn’t nailed down, and some that was too”.

  43. Only somewhat related – but have any of you read the Marching with Caesar series? It’s pretty much what it sounds like – a novelization of Caesar’s military career (and beyond), but from the perspective of a ranker-to-centurion soldier in his army. The narrator is a bit of a Mary Sue character, but I’m still having fun with it.

    I’m about 3/4 of the way thru the second book, to Gergova in Gaul. Really enjoying it so far, and in a lot of ways it reads like a Devereaux post in novel form. There’s a lot of discussion about things like camp followers/merchants, logistics, etc. There’s a lot of talk about foraging and supply generally, though not so much about how it affected the countryside itself.

    For those who’ve read it and actually know something about this stuff that they didn’t just read in Dr. D’s series, I’m curious what y’all think of the accuracy. Seems pretty spot-on to me, or at least I haven’t come across any major howlers like those throughout the Iggulden series.

  44. This module of military study is so interesting particularly so, with the perspectives upon the Roman and Late Antiquity armies, thanks to Dr. Devereaux’s specialty.

    Considering that just feeding an army successfully was such a massive component of a satisfactory military campaign and its commander, when it comes to those of the Romans particularly, got me thinking how this military component of the later Roman state mirrored that of its ruler/s — keeping Rome fed, just the city of Rome alone! This was the rulers’ first obligation, so much so that there were formal, public rituals formed around it in the declining years.

    Further, one starts to wonder if Rome could possibly have been Rome, even during that Roman Optimum Climate era that also began its decline along with the other third century crisis — without the Nile’s miraculous grain production.

    All endlessly fascinating stuff, particularly when studied along with the generally low life expectancy, maternal and infant mortality, all the disease, and then the arrival of the first pandemics.

  45. As far as I understand these articles, Doctor Devereaux is telling me that Caesar’s campaigns were by and large a complete fabrication. The logistics simply do not add up. No man could be that lucky that many times, and that Antony’s own campaigns show the actual only possible outcomes of what happens to a commander who plays roulette with logistics that much, in the pre-railway era.
    I don’t understand why Doctor Devereauc is hammering how utterly impossible it is to support an army of any size on the march, how how improbably ‘lucky’ Caesar, by Caesar’s own account, is, unless his intent is to prove once and for all what a gigantic liar and swindler Caesar was.

    1. Then explain

      Why Gaul became a roman privince and vercingetorix walked in caesars triumph
      why Labienus did not expose causars fraud

    2. As far as I understand

      Which is admittedly not much.

      Doctor Devereaux is telling me that Caesar’s campaigns were by and large a complete fabrication

      Guess what: he’s not.

      I don’t understand

      Yeah, that’s right.

      why Doctor Devereauc is hammering how utterly impossible it is to support an army of any size on the march

      Because he’s not saying that. Our host is saying that logistics for any army on the march are terribly complex and difficult, but not impossible.

    3. Because the point isn’t that Ceasar does the impossible, but rather that he is constantly skirting the edge of that possibility. (in a way that is a mixture of luck and genuinely being good at assessing the risks)

      if Caesar had kept rolling the dice he might eventually have ended up losing: That’s what happened to Napoleon after all, if you keep taking risks chances are at some point you’re going to miscalculate. But If you’re good at it (and lucky enough) you can keep pushing for quite a while.

  46. This is a semi-related question for Prof. Devereaux: During the Imperial era the grain surplus from Egypt was shipped to Rome as, effectively, the personal property of the Emperor which he then could distribute to the city’s poor. Did Emperors reserve part of the Egyptian grain for the legions? It seems like an obvious course of action.

    1. Rome was fed from Egypt, but also Sicily and North Africa. We do know there was extensive movement of basic goods (grain, olive oil) from the Mediterranean area to the frontiers, to feed the legions. Probably largely by rivers, but also drawing on resources along the way. One great incentive fro agricultural states to build walls is that it allows dependable farming right up to the defended line (many fewer raids), so cutting down on supply issues.

  47. Speaking of how castles and forts can deny an enemy’s ability to forage effectively, as well as how they could entrench one’s control in a region, I wonder do we have any comprehensive research (or even games!) about how the gradual “pushing forward” of forts and outposts in the American West facilitate the westward expansion.

    I know there are a large number of forts across the entire west, but most of these forts did not exist at the same time. When the new fortifications were established further and further into the Rockies and the deserts, the old forts in the plains and front range were abandoned. It was like a rolling barrage but with forts. However, I don’t know if there exist some chronological maps about this movement, and I don’t have a clear picture of the whole fort-forwarding process.

    1. This was how I used to play Total Annihilation – advance a protective force to an ore deposit closer to the enemy, build the mine, build fixed fortifications, then move the mobile force forward or sideways to the next resource point and repeat. Enemy mobility was progressively constrained as they lost the ability to operate over more and more of the map. I thought of it as the ‘blockhouse strategy’ from what the British did against the Boers in South Africa.

    2. Presumably the forts were established at a manageable wagon distance from the nearest source of supply (rivers or later railheads) and served as supply depots to allow cavalry to operate so-many days ride from the fort and back. Provided the wagons moved through mostly-safe territory or at most required a precautionary escort, they did not face the same logistics issues as a marching army. It helped that the American West had a low population density of nomads, so frontier forts and settlements only rarely faced huge numbers of attackers.

      1. The demand for the tough buffalo hides for the industrial revolution’s machinery had hordes of buffalo killer-skinner teams out there destroying the people’s sources of shelter, food, clothing etc. They managed that in an astonishingly short period — thus making way for that astonishingly short period of ‘cowboy’ and the te wild cattle range round-ups, and then the inevitable consolidation of ownership of all the lands in the hands of a few — who often also owned the metal extraction mines as well.

        Disease along with lack of nutrition and shelter and relentless assault by higher numbers (higher numbers due to the previous) of the invaders — forts were more for policing than real military endeavor. They often functioned as prisons, more than castles in the old world did. Or, somewhat earlier, protection and regulation, for the fur and hide trade.

  48. I wonder if Northern European armies could use both the longer days and colder weather to their advantage in summer campaigns

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