Book Review – Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstain to Patton by Martin Van Creveld

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In this book, Van Creveld explores the impact logistics has had on some of history’s most notable military campaigns across almost three centuries. The book views military history through the prism of military logistics, which at the time (1977) represented an original approach to writing about military history. It looks to redefine the success and failure of military actions throughout history by analysing the impact of logistics on the outcome. Van Creveld’s work places a microscope over the enabling functions of war, namely the sustainment, maintenance and movements of military personnel and equipment. He does however, focus solely on the sustainment of military operations on land, and does not analyse the complexity of supporting maritime and air operations. In addition to this Supplying War does not analyse how the complete logistics architecture, including nationalisation of materiel and the mass production of equipment, shapes a nation’s ability to wage military campaigns.

Inspired by the work of Jomini, Van Creveld defines military logistics as ’the practical art of moving armies and keeping them supplied.’ The Australian Defence Force (ADF) defines logistics as ‘the science of planning and carrying out the movements and maintenance of forces.’ The latter definition paves the way for ADF logistics officers to focus on the science of military logistics: calculating and forecasting estimates for resource consumption, culminating points and replenishment requirements based on raw data. By contrast, Van Creveld’s definition is expressed in terms of the practical art of military logistics: the ability to visualise, plan, forecast and synchronise enabling effects in time and space to enable the execution of military operations. Supplying War is a rendition of military history using an analysis of the art of military logistics to deconstruct the why and how military campaigns have resulted in success or failure, even before engagement with the enemy.

In the age of Napoleon, expeditionary warfare required armies to venture far from their homelands independent of complex supply lines and logistic support. Armies were required to sustain themselves; foraging from the land and leveraging off the resources provided by the local population along their route (acquired willingly or otherwise). Van Creveld emphasised the necessity for large armies to remain mobile and highlights the failures of siege warfare. Specifically the logistic problems that arise when massing large numbers of troops in a concentrated area (such as feeding and sustaining them) after they have depleted the resources which their surrounding provided. The logistical impasses in siege warfare led to the need for garrison forces and establishing supply chains deep within enemy territory, something Napoleon himself only conducted successfully twice throughout his career, at Toulon and Mantua. This is in stark contrast to the way in which warfare and military actions are conducted today. Within the ADF it is inconceivable to think that a deployed force in a foreign land would be required to leverage local resources as the sole means of sustainment. Today, forces are sustained through a complex system of supply chains which stretch across the globe to bring to bear the multitude of resources required to support a modern force.

Throughout the book, Van Creveld speaks to the necessity of logistics staff officers at the highest levels of military command to advise on the feasibility of proposed military actions and their sustainability given available resources. It is critical that logistics staff officers are able to articulate logistical risks to mission, and risk to force, while using the science of military logistics to balance resource allocation and consumption against the commander’s main effort and its many competing priorities. He also highlights the tendency of logistics officers, throughout history, to have bleak predictions as to the sustainability of large-scale military operations. Specifically, how they continually emphasise risks and threats to campaigns based on their analysis, founded on the science of military logistics, rather than the practical application of the art, which can often equal something different. I think this is to say the success of military logistics is founded by those who have mastered its art. However, logisticians should not under do planning; understanding the capability versus requirements is essential in determining the means by which war can be waged, but that science alone is not the determining factor in success, it rests primarily in the art of the execution. 

Van Creveld dedicated a portion of his book to discussing the impacts in which infrastructure, particularly transport infrastructure, has had on the deployment and movement of military forces. He focuses on two main areas within this topic: the road and rail networks that existed in Europe and how they shaped force projection and resupply. Land forces were often compelled to advance into enemy territory along formed roads for two reasons: it enabled the effective movement of wagons, horses, and formed bodies of soldiers to move largely uninhibited; and secondly roads were skirted by towns and villages which were an essential source of food, fodder and supplies. His analysis of the necessity of rail networks for distribution of stores speaks briefly of its advantages, but places particular emphasis on the constraints the use of rail has on large campaigns. Bottlenecking, amassing of personnel and equipment at nodal points, the sheer volume of cargo being moved, and the limited space available to support continual operations made the use of rail a bureaucratic nightmare. Using current day examples of rail operations, I believe this does not talk so much to the use of rail as a transportation method, but rather the extensive support system which is required to facilitate the effective reception, unload, and forward movement of stores at rail terminals. Today, the ADF uses rail mainly to move heavy vehicles and equipment, as it reduces the reliance on our limited freight assets. Rail reduces the number of vehicles on the roads and decreases the number of personnel required to move Army’s equipment. Van Creveld’s analysis focuses on the journey and the complex logistics systems to enable its success. Similarly, the modern complexity of using rail arises not during the rail movement itself, but the loading, unloading and transhipment of equipment at either end of its journey. 

The final lesson I wish to elaborate on is what Van Creveld called ‘the umbilical cord of supply.’ He talks to this issue in specific reference to warfare of the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, where sustainment and resupply limitations inhibited the ability for land forces to advance more than 10-15 miles in a day. As mentioned above, these armies were required to be self-sufficient, gathering all food and required materiel from the land. I believe the limitation of the ‘umbilical cord of supply’ is still relevant on modern operations; although on a much larger scale and across a greater range of materiel requirements. Today, military forces are armed with complex and highly technical equipment, each of which have complicated procurement and sustainment supply chains. The forces Van Creveld addresses are constrained by their surroundings to physically support their ability to advance, whereas modern forces are constrained by the complexity which exists in the global (rather than local) support systems required to sustain operations. The message behind Van Creveld’s analysis however, has rung true throughout the development of warfare. Supply lines and the nature of supply chains have developed to include items such as petroleum, specialised munitions, spare parts and electromagnetic influence, however the tyranny of logistics remains extant. 

Supplying War holds lessons which have been proven – and forgotten – in almost every major military action throughout the ages. Its underlying comparison between the art and the science of military logistics demonstrates the complexities in sustaining a military force, regardless of tactical action or strategic task. Commanders at all levels, and from all backgrounds, will find lessons in this book that will transform their understanding and appreciation of how the design and structure of their logistics system will shape their freedom of action at the tactical, operational, and strategic level. Possessing an understanding of logistics is to understand the means by which military action is achievable. I will leave you with a quote from Napoleon, presented by Van Creveld in the closing chapter of Supplying War, which for me perfectly summarises the key message of this book:

“The more I see war, the more I realise how it all depends on administration and transportation… it takes little skill or imagination to see where you would like your army to be and when; it takes much knowledge and hard work to know where you can place your forces and whether you can maintain them there. A real knowledge of supply and movements factors must be the basis of every leader’s plan; only then can he know how and when to take risks with those factors, and battles are won only by taking risks.” 

About the Author: Joshua Smith is a Captain in the Australian Army and is currently serving at Headquarters 1st Brigade as a Logistics and Transport Operations Officer. He has regimental, staff and command experience within the 1st, 3rd Brigade and 17th Sustainment Brigade.