A fundamental military truth: An army marches on its stomach

U.S. soldiers conduct a patrol at dusk in Shindand, Afghanistan, in July 2012.


By DAVID CHRISTY | Enid News & Eagle, Okla. | Published: May 4, 2019

When you read of great battles in the chronicles of the historical record for not only the world, but American history, you almost never read of the logistics of warfare.

History has to sometimes gloss over the mundane things in life, covering heroic actions on the field of battle, of great campaigns that changed the course of our history and virtually every nation on this planet.

In American history, hopefully most of you know of great battles like Trenton, Saratoga, Yorktown, Gettysburg and Shiloh, San Juan Hill, the Argonne Forest or Iwo Jima, Chosin Reservoir or Khe Sanh.

The expression "an army marches on its stomach" actually is far more important to the outcomes of great battles, of great military victories and defeats.

You see, it's the nuts and bolts of the things you don't read on the pages of history that determine outcomes.

The saying is attributed to two of the greatest military commanders the world has ever seen: Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte.

I can't say which, but as good a general as Napoleon was, I tend to think he said it and made it popular.

You see, a good general understands that if you can't feed and clothe and supply an army, you cannot win battles or wars.

Of course, Robert E. Lee was able to do some magic with sometimes only the most threadbare of those three essential elements to warfare, but he was the exception to rule, as was Gen. George Washington.

No commander in military history probably can hold a candle to George Washington for doing more with less, particularly since he was going up against the greatest army/navy combination the world had seen at the time of the American Revolution.

Could you go to work, say at building a house, digging ditches or replacing a shingled roof without having eaten a thing for 24 or 48 hours?

Oh, I'm sure a few prevaricators out there would say they could, but it would be more than a little difficult.

Or for that matter, could you march 20 miles carrying a rifle and the various accoutrements a soldier carried into battle over the ages, without having eaten and without water?

Took an extraordinary soldier to do that day in and day out.

Want some examples?

During his long attempt to capture Moscow during his Russia campaign in late June 1812, Napoleon found the nation's capital had been burned and no food.

His starving Grand Armeé of 680,000 men – the largest the world had ever seen – had to retreat back to France, all the while starving and literally freezing to death yard by yard over untold miles of their retreat.

Barely 27,000 of Napoleon's men survived, which also included deaths in the great Battle or Borodino.

It didn't matter how good a fighting army they were – and they were one of the very best in the history of warfare – without food or supplies the men that died along the way became simple individuals just trying to survive.

Think hunger doesn't play a massive role in the winning of strategic battles?

During the American Civil War, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, one of the very best and most experienced generals the South put in the field early in the war, had Union general Ulysses S. Grant right where he wanted him.

On the morning of April 6, 1862 – less than a year after the firing on Fort Sumpter had begun the Civil War – some 40,000 Confederate soldiers under Johnston poured out of the woods near a little log meeting house on the Tennessee River called Shiloh Church, near Pittsburgh Landing.

Gen. Johnston's attack on the unprepared Union soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee is one of the great surprise attacks in military history.

Union soldiers literally stumbled out of their tents to meet the Confederate onslaught, and were driven back nearly to the river.

Yet, in a caprice of war, hungry Confederate soldiers stopped to eat bacon cooking at the fires and tents in the Union camp, halting the attack long enough to give the Federals time to regroup, and Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were able to win the strategic battle the next day.

I get the idea that such a mundane thing as supplying food to fighting men is just as important as bullets.

My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather served as commissary for George Washington's Continental Army that beat the British back in the late 1700s.

It didn't sound to me like a glorious military post, like leading troops into battle.

Yet, without those who supply an army – any army – there can be no war, no victory.

That is history at its most fundamental truth.


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