The port of Shuaiba, Kuwait. (Photo Credit: Spc. Monte Swift, US Army)

The port of Shuaiba, Kuwait. (Photo Credit: Spc. Monte Swift, US Army)



 

Most people giving any thought to the subject, even people in the regular militaries of various nations, have a reasonably uniform view (assuming that they give it much thought at all) of the unit supply section: a view that ranges from people working in a massive order-pulling facility, ever obsessed with numbers, to a group of somewhat sad-looking, possibly "shifty" characters, ready to either steal something, or sell stolen goods under the table. As with most things, the truth is somewhere in between...although both extremes certainly exist.

Fresco of a Byzantine soldier from Hosios Loukas (St. Lucas) monastery in Boeotia, Greece.

Fresco of a Byzantine soldier from Hosios Loukas (St. Lucas) monastery in Boeotia, Greece.

Historically, dedicated supply and logistics (the people who actually move supplies around a region or country) sections are relatively recent inventions. In Europe, after the fall of the final Roman Empire, it wasn't until the Thirty Years War that Western armies saw the benefit in maintaining dedicated supply services as part of their regular establishments. In the Middle and Far East, the practice waxed and waned, depending mostly on the military acumen of the ruling dynasty of the moment.
At first, given the level of technology, there was no serious need for storing supplies or materials beyond non-perishable food, and possibly some unique pieces needed to build siege machinery. While there is anecdotal evidence of some towns and villages engaging in large-scale production of armor and personal weapons, most pre-gunpowder armaments were produced on an individual basis by skilled artisans. As a result the "logistical tail" of a campaigning army tended to be very small, especially if the army in question could stay close to either a navigable waterway or ocean coastline. Armies - even ones with a dedicated supply train - that attempted to campaign for too long away from navigable waterways tended to quickly succumb to either the enemy or nature.

The men of Ghent capture and pillage Grammont (1380)

The men of Ghent capture and pillage Grammont (1380)

Looting, however, has always been a pervasive characteristic of war, right up to the present day. In eras where regular pay was an alien concept, the allure of gaining riches through looting enemy towns was a vital component of recruiting troops. After the mid-17th Century, however, increasingly large armies had a difficult time satisfying the need for loot - there simply wasn't enough valuable loot to go around. As a result, France led the way (as early as the 15th Century) in establishing a permanent force structure for its army, with permanently established units and regularly paid troops.

"Looting", however, began to take on a different character, as cannons and muskets became the dominant weapons of the battlefield. Unlike the average sword or spear, cannons and muskets were comparatively expensive weapons, and simply throwing them away was frequently seen as a waste. Likewise, gunpowder and lead being what they were, capturing ammunition became an effective way to keep an army supplied, especially given the nature of land-based linear warfare tended to keep ammunition expenditure relatively low.

Hohenfriedeberg - Attack of Prussian Infantry - 1745

Hohenfriedeberg - Attack of Prussian Infantry - 1745

Towards the middle of the 19th Century, however, developments in firearms technology created an as yet unseen situation: national armies, swollen to vast sizes since the rise of the "people's revolutionary armies", developed an internal arms industry that manufactured "national weaponry", weaponry that used unique and proprietary ammunition that could not be easily translated into other nation's weapons. This resulted in captured weapons being either destroyed outright, or given away to troops as trophies; enemy weapons were only re-purposed in times of dire need.

This situation persisted until about 1950, when another shift began.

With the advent of the Cold War, the world largely divided into two power blocs. Fully expecting another major war, the two blocs began to get their respective members - by one method or another - to standardize their ammunition, if not their weapons. Over the next forty years, this resulted in military weapons being standardized into seven basic calibers: 5.56, 7.62 Russian, 7.62 NATO, 7.62R, 9mm Parabellum, .45ACP, and 12 gauge shotgun ammunition. These seven cartridges account for at least 85% (at the low end) of military weapons in current or envisioned use. Consequently, military weapons skills translate very well, throughout the world.

However, other aspects of modern military equipment - namely, its comparative expense - increasingly became an issue. As a result, looting the enemy dead for basic field equipment, rather than souvenirs, returned with a vengeance.

Likewise, while modern, "first world", army supply systems are extremely good at getting troops all manner of replacement equipment, slow-downs and delays happen; this is part of what von Clausewitz referred to as "friction" in war...

...Which brings us to modern supply services.

While most people, as previously stated, regard their supply services with a somewhat bemused aire (especially if that person has never seen combat first-hand), there is another aspect to Supply sections that few know about - and if they do know of it, they prefer not to think about it:

Salvage.

Salvage operation, GRS personnel and other QMC troops are gathering, selecting, grouping, and saving anything of value after the battle. Any item still serviceable, anything that could still be reused, repaired, and reissued, was salvaged. Picture taken at Lierneux, Belgium, December 1944. Source: US National Archives

Salvage operation, GRS personnel and other QMC troops are gathering, selecting, grouping, and saving anything of value after the battle. Any item still serviceable, anything that could still be reused, repaired, and reissued, was salvaged. Picture taken at Lierneux, Belgium, December 1944. Source: US National Archives

Although it is not often done by United States or British forces in the modern day, one of the most critical functions of Supply services in second-line (and lower) armies revolves around recovering, repairing or refurbishing, and reissuing equipment, whether that equipment was captured from the enemy, or is recovered from one's own dead and wounded troops.

 

 

 

This is an aspect as vital as it is usually overlooked. War leaves mountains of detritus spread over the countryside. For countries fighting a war on a very restricted budget, innovative supply sections become among the most important parts of an armed force, as recovered weapons and ammunition can be swiftly put "back in the fight" against their former owners.  It is for this reason, that many - if not most - supply sections keep a large supply of laundry detergent handy - uniforms recovered from casualties (friendly or otherwise) are rarely usable instantly. Likewise, as Western forces  discovered to their chagrin in both Iraq and Libya, failure to secure the massive amounts of war material modern forces can accumulate, provide a nearly endless stream of capability to forces that, sixty-odd years previously, would have quickly disintegrated for lack of supply.

But this aspect is also a factor for the burgeoning "prepper" or "survivalist" movements in the US and Britain: in the event that any of their various predicted disasters should occur, recovered equipment - not stockpiles - is what will keep them going. In any disaster (whether man-made or natural) that a local, regional or national government cannot recover from, access to previously available supplies will force any group to scavenge on an almost daily basis to survive, let alone maintain a sense or hope of "normalcy". The "bandit" or "reaver" aspect of prepper and survivalist thought - eagerly reported on with breathless mirth by the popular media - also factors in conjunction with combat salvage [.pdf link], as defense against such bands quickly assumes a nature more in tune with counterinsurgency warfare.

At the end of the day, supply and logistics is far more than simply flipping through a catalogue, filling out a form and waiting for the guy in a semi.



 

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