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Historical Military Logistics

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"Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics."
- Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC

 

 

Weaponsman linked to an interesting article about the British logistical problems during the American Revolution.  It had never occurred to me before, but seemed obvious in hindsight that supplying an army across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century would have been... challenging.  What's more surprising is not the difficulty of the endeavor, but how good a job the British ended up doing.

 

 

 

When war erupted in the American colonies in 1775, the British Army was unprepared logistically. Compared to the logistics organization of the rebelling colonies, the British logistics system was, on the surface, the epitome of efficiency. Faced with a 3,000-mile line of communication across the Atlantic Ocean, Britain ensured that its soldiers were reasonably well equipped and never starved. Indeed, a logistics feat of this magnitude would not be repeated for over 150 years, until the Allied invasion of North Africa in World War II.

 

Any boy howdy am I glad I wasn't born back then:
 

 

 

 
Initially, quality control was lacking. Flour barrels were frequently 5 to 6 percent lighter than the contractor advertised, and a 200-pound barrel of meat or pork could be short as much as 20 pounds. In one convoy in 1775, five ships departed with 7,000 barrels of flour; on arrival in Boston, 5,000 of those barrels were condemned. So instead of 12,000 men having bread for 5½ months, that particular shipment was consumed in only 47 days! In 1778 alone, flour deficiencies amounted to over 640,000 pounds—enough to feed 20,000 soldiers for over a month. An attempt was made in 1776 to ship hard biscuits instead of flour, but the result was not promising: at best, rotten biscuits were mixed in with edible ones. The commissaries also were guilty of leaving good food to spoil on the docks, due either to mismanagement or lack of transportation.

 

Forget massed deployment of Ferguson rifles, or uzis from the future or any other alt-history wank.  If you wanted to go back in time and make the British empire unstoppable in the late eighteenth century, slip them the secrets of modern preservatives.

 

 

The voyage from Cork to America was long and dangerous for man and animal alike. As one officer of the Guards testified, "There was continued destruction in the foretops, the pox above-board, the plague between decks, hell in the forecastle, the devil at the helm." Many soldiers became sick and even died from scurvy and smallpox. To cite one example, out of a contingent of 2,400 German soldiers who left Europe for New York in 1781, 410 were sick upon arrival and 66 were dead. Many horses suffered a similar fate. In 1777, live horses were thrown overboard as a "humane alternative" to watching them die from hunger and thirst; they had been provided with only 3 weeks of forage for a journey that lasted 40 days in good weather.

 

 

Or germ theory.

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Forget massed deployment of Ferguson rifles, or uzis from the future or any other alt-history wank.  If you wanted to go back in time and make the British empire unstoppable in the late eighteenth century, slip them the secrets of modern preservatives.

 

 

Or Potatoes since it's entirely possible to live off them alone and can be stored for relatively long period of time.

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Per the article they tried potatoes:

 

 

That the Treasury was trying to do its best for the army was undeniable. In October 1775, the department undertook a remarkable effort to supply the army in Boston with enough quality fresh provisions to last through the winter, so that the soldiers would be well fed and rested for a spring campaign. The firm of Mure, Son & Atkinson was contracted to furnish enough fresh food to fill 36 ships. According to Bowler—

 

Besides the usual beef, pork, bread, [peas], and oatmeal, they loaded on board . . . some 500 tons of potatoes, sixty of onions, fifty of parsnips, forty of carrots, and twenty of raisins, as well as 4,000 sheep and hogs and 468,750 gallons of porter . . . Considerable care attended all this. The contractors noted that they had gone to great trouble to determine the best method of storing potatoes, and they were loaded very gently into the ships "so as not to bruise them." Onions were packed in hampers for the same reason, and as the several tons of sauerkraut being shipped would not have completed the fermentation process, each cask was fitted with a spring-loaded pressure relief valve. Finally, in recognition of the perils of shipping livestock, a premium of two shillings and sixpence was promised to the masters of the transports for each animal delivered alive.

 

All this hard work was for naught, as one of the worst storms in years struck the convoy. Many of the ships were forced to turn back to England, others were diverted to Antigua, and still others spent weeks sailing up and down the eastern seaboard of America waiting for the weather to break while their cargoes rotted. American privateers also took their toll.

 

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