Book Review – Pure Logistics: The science of war preparation

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Pure Logistics: The science of war preparation by George C. Thorpe

In this book, LTCOL George C Thorpe, USMC, does that which has really not been done before – contemplate the theory behind military logistics. Thorpe does this due to the fact that he leans more toward the Jomini theory of overall warfare whereby logistics is seen as one of the five pillars for the conduct of war along with Strategy, Grand Tactics, Engineering (in the context of fortification) and Minor Tactics; as opposed to Clausewitz who believed that war was strategy and tactics, and anything not involved in war was subservient to war. Early in the work, Thorpe poetically states that ‘Strategy is to war what the plot is to the play; Tactics is represented by the role of the players; Logistics furnishes the stage management, accessories, and maintenance. The audience, thrilled by the action of the play and the art of the performers, overlooks all the cleverly hidden details of the stage management’. This analogy gives an important framework to the book and the theories defined within.

Pure logistics, as defined by Thorpe, is ‘merely a scientific inquiry into the theory of logistics – its scope and function in the science of war, with a broad outline of its organisation’. This is in the context of logistics as a whole, with the missing piece of this theory being applied logistics which examines the finer details and conduct of logistics throughout the conduct of military operations.

It is important to note when examining this book and the relevance of its theories that Pure Logistics was published in 1917 and as such, does not encompass the lessons learned from WWII and beyond. The term ‘logistics’ at this time of writing also encompassed what the Australian Army defines now as ‘Combat Support’ roles within logistics, or ‘Combat Service Support’. In doing so, he considers the importance of communications, military police, engineers and intelligence services in the overall provision of logistics. Another reflection of the era in which the book was published is the omission of any mention of an Air Force.

Despite the age of the book, there are many enduring lessons in ‘the science of war preparation’. Those include the use of staff officers at formation headquarters from every logistic Corps, headed by one staff officer well versed in logistics to provide a strategic perspective in tying in an overall concept of logistics to support the operation. The head of this cell, be it the modern day Regimental S4, Brigade DQ etc. is responsible for understanding the conflict and ensuring that the provision of logistics supports the plan or where this is unachievable, making the combat commanders aware of the logistical constraints.

A lesson tied to the effective construct of logistical staff officers is the requirement to have ‘each charged with the initiative in his department, instead of waiting for instructions from the commander-in-chief.’ Thorpe uses the example of Napoleon when discussing the requirement to have trust and give authority to logistic staff officers, stating that ‘although Napoleon had enormous staff, there was not that decentralization of authority that is necessary to obtain large production of results in the several departments’. This concept is reinforced when Thorpe looks at the American civil war and the positive influence that General Sherman had on ‘securing the exercise of initiative and cooperation’ with his chief logistical staff. 

Although this concept had yet to be named ‘mission command’ over a century ago, its use is timeless. Like mission command, the concept of what is commonly referred to as ‘the strategic Private’ is explored by Thorpe, whereby he explains that ‘there may be occasions when the stupidity of the lowest subordinate may lose a battle upon which the fate of an empire hangs’. Thorpe explores this concept when discussing intelligence and the amount that each rank is required to know for the effective conduct of military operations. Thorpe uses this discussion to also further his argument for the overall education of soldiers. It is stated that ‘the members of the fighting personnel must have something more than training; feelings must be ‘educated’ in order to give patriotic impulses and to develop the appreciative faculties’. The overall professional military education of solders has received growing emphasis from the Australian Army from the release of the Ryan Review, the launch of websites such as The Cove and the direction from commanders at all levels for taking the time within the Regimental battle rhythm for education. 

The enduring lessons and themes within the book are numerous. A main thesis throughout the book is how to best prepare for war through the consideration of logistics. Thorpe explores concepts such as the establishment of ‘advanced bases, sheltered in islands in distant seas’, of which we have seen large military powers construct in recent years. Thorpe also discusses the requirement for ‘end-to-end’ logistics, from contract and manufacturing of equipment utilised throughout the spectrum of conflict to remediation post conflict as the responsibility of the logistical staff in peace time and during conflict. 

Early in my career as a logistician I regularly found myself in debates with my combat corps counterparts arguing that logistics was the focal cog of military operations. This was a reflection of my own arrogance and self importance. I found that reading this book reinforced a lesson I have been learning from sitting back and watching commanders, generally CO’s and higher who are in supporting roles, about the place of logistics at the military table. That is to say that logistics does have a place at the table, however it is as an enabler to military operations. Combat commanders should have an understanding of the theory of logistics, or to use Thorpe’s phrasing, an understanding of ‘pure logistics’, however a combat commander should not need to spend time on logistics that should otherwise be dedicated to the operation itself. This can only work when the combat commander has, as part of her or his staff group, a competent logistics officer who is well versed in all facets of the ‘applied’ portion of logistics.

Having a deep understanding of the basics of logistics is fundamental to enabling a commander as a principle staff officer. Balancing attaining this deep understanding with the requirement to study and understand the theory and conduct of military operations as a general service officer and developing as a leader and a commander is difficult. As a junior officer, balancing this triad can seem overwhelming however a lesson I have learnt from this book, from my other readings and discussions with peers and commanders is that if you are trying and are dedicating to the effective conduct of military operations, this development will occur.

My main take-away from this book as hinted at above, is that the mission is of paramount importance. As a logistician, in order to ensure mission success, I need to have a deep understanding of the application of logistics and how to communicate that effectively to enable the combat commander to concentrate on the strategy and tactics of the conflict. 

Jess Ward is a currently serving Australian Army Officer with over a decade of experience. Jess has commanded within Combat Brigades, on Operations and as an instructor. Jess has been published in ‘Winning Westeros: How Game Of Thrones explains modern military conflict’ as well as several professional military education websites. Jess curates The Bookshelf. Follow Jess at @JessPixWard