Who agrees with Rommel?
July 12, 2013 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Rommel said, "The battle is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins." Can you direct me to any military historians who argue that many wars, including the Second World War, were won not by superior strategy, leadership, and fighting ability, but by overwhelmingly superior resources?
posted by markcmyers to Law & Government (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
"The Pope! How many divisions has he got?" --Joseph Stalin
posted by seemoreglass at 9:38 AM on July 12, 2013

"An army marches on its stomach." --Napoleon
posted by seemoreglass at 9:40 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Isn't there an implicit assumption that this is, more or less, true due to the fact that armies from Napoleon to present day have made efforts to disrupt supply trains and depots miles behind enemy lines? That is to say that any commander making the decision to disrupt a supply line basically supports the idea you're asking about?

I guess if you're looking for direct quotes and such then you should start with something like this one, attributed to Napoleon

“An army marches on its stomach.”

This link goes into pretty decent discussion on the topic as well.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:41 AM on July 12, 2013

There's a book called Supplying War that would be a good jumping-off point.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:43 AM on July 12, 2013

Amateurs talk Strategy, professionals talk logistics.

Discussion here: Fighting Talk
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:44 AM on July 12, 2013

Another book on the subject: Military Logistics and Strategic Performance
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:46 AM on July 12, 2013

See this link
posted by Busmick at 9:52 AM on July 12, 2013

The notion that the North won the US Civil War due to resources, rather than generalship, is pretty much the standard view (note resources at the end).
posted by Chrysostom at 10:01 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

IIRC, there was said to be a line above the doorway to the Frunze which said something like "Logistics draws the line beyond where generals dare not tread", or something to that effect.

van Crevald: Supplying War
Lynn: Feeding Mars

Quotes on Logistics:

“Every unit that is not supported is a defeated unit.”
-- Maurice de Saxe, Mes Reveries, XIII, 1732

“Gentlemen, the officer who doesn’t know his communications and supply as well as his tactics is totally useless.”
-- General George S. Patton, USA

“The war has been variously termed a war of production and a war of machines. Whatever else it is, so far as the United States is concerned, it is a war of logistics.”
-- Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, in a 1946 report to the Secretary of the

“A sound logistics plan is the foundation upon which a war operation should be based. If the necessary minimum of logistics support cannot be given to the combatant forces involved, the operation may fail, or at best be only partially successful.”
-- Admiral Raymond A. Spruance

“Throughout the struggle, it was in his logistic inability to maintain his armies in the field that the enemy's fatal weakness lay. Courage his forces had in full measure, but courage was not enough. Reinforcements failed to arrive, weapons, ammunition and food alike ran short, and the dearth of fuel caused their powers of tactical mobility to dwindle to the vanishing point. In the last stages of the campaign they could do little more than wait for the Allied advance to sweep over them.”
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower, British Army Doctrine Publication, Volume 3,
Logistics (June 1996) p. 1-2

Specifically World War II:
Ellis: Brute Force
Tooze: Wages of Destruction
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:05 AM on July 12, 2013

The general who led the logistics effort for Desert Storm wrote this book about it.

He also spoke at my college graduation, as it happens.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:07 AM on July 12, 2013

In military philosophy, it seems widely argued that The Art of War argues for this in its treatment of fighting a war on enemy territory.

Also not a historian but Neal Stephenson seems to conceive of this through the entirety of Cryptonomicon (a science fantasy work about the importance of logistics and encryption in the carrying out of World War II).
posted by kalessin at 10:08 AM on July 12, 2013

Maybe it was in Cryptonomicon, but I recall an account of German POWs in WW2 becoming more and more demoralized as they were transported further behind Allied lines and saw the infrastructure and supply lines they were riding past [and fighting against].
posted by chazlarson at 10:16 AM on July 12, 2013

I've seen a quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower that goes "The Jeep, the Dakota, and the Landing Craft were the three tools that won the war."
posted by Gelatin at 10:16 AM on July 12, 2013

Maybe it was in Cryptonomicon, but I recall an account of German POWs in WW2 becoming more and more demoralized as they were transported further behind Allied lines and saw the infrastructure and supply lines they were riding past [and fighting against].

I don't know about Cryptonomicon, but if memory serves me correctly, legendary WWII war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote that very thing in one of his articles after the successful US invasion of Africa.
posted by Gelatin at 10:20 AM on July 12, 2013

While I can't find a source for the quote, the saying "Spare parts is what wins wars" was very common in the Pentagon from Desert Storm through Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It may have a much earlier usage, but that's when I heard it often. (And that may be a sub-clause to the logistics quotes above)
posted by k5.user at 10:46 AM on July 12, 2013

Logistical Quotations
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:47 AM on July 12, 2013

Chazlarson, that is from "Brave Men" by Ernie Pyle, talking about Germans captured in Italy.
A great many German soldiers captured in Italy still felt that Germany would win the war. That is, they thought so at the time they were captured. But as they were brought to the rear they were astounded to see the amount of Allied equipment and supplies along the roads and in the fields. Some of the more sensitive ones were actually crying when brought to collecting points — overwhelmed by the sudden realization that we had enough stuff to beat them. The examiners said that by the time the prisoners reached the rear areas, seventy-five per cent of them were doubtful of Germany's winning.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:51 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Former DOD staff and current history grad student here. This is the commonly held view, although there are some exceptions (as with anything). The companion view is also that the state of the nation's industry also plays a key role, although this was more of a differentiation point during the early years of the industrial revolution (when one nation was able to quickly manufacture weapons when another one wasn't). You can read some of Williamson Murray's books to get a good analysis of this.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:01 AM on July 12, 2013

I'm reading Rick Atkinson's The Guns at Last Light, which chronicles the Allied push into Western Europe from D-Day to the end of the war in Europe, and this has been a theme of that book (and, as I recall, his whole "Liberation Trilogy").
posted by cheapskatebay at 11:50 AM on July 12, 2013

Regarding the American Civil War, Winfield Scott was commanding general of the US Army at the beginning of the war, and his plan for the war (known as the "Anaconda plan") was precisely to surround the South and starve them out.

But Lincoln wanted a knock-out punch, so he spent a couple of years switching from one battlefield commander to another, hoping to find someone who could give him a decisive victory. He never found it, and eventually turned to US Grant, who won the war exactly the way Scott had originally planned it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:05 PM on July 12, 2013

"Ma'am, I got there first with the most men." -- Nathan Bedford Forrest (often erroneously cast in dialect as "fustest with the mostest", an invention of a New York Tribune article in 1918).

This is practically a truism. "Some of the most commonly cited principles [of war] are the objective, the offensive, surprise, security, unity of command, economy of force, mass, and maneuver." It's very arguable, of course, that generalship and strategy and tactics are necessities for the weaker of two opponents and luxuries for the other.

By the same token, modern guerrilla warfare (and even more extreme as an inversion, terrorism) often turns this advantage on its head, reminding us of another truism -- that war is "politics by other means".
posted by dhartung at 4:38 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's interesting that the examples given which generally support the premise imply the war in question won't be fought on home ground. I think there's a needed corollary: never get involved in a land war in Asia.

Which should hold both literally and metaphorically.
posted by glasseyes at 5:33 PM on July 12, 2013

Niall Ferguson argues in Pity of War that Germany waged a better war than the Allies in World War I. They lost because German soldiers starting surrendering in greater numbers then could be replaced in the Summer and Fall of 1918. This was not, Ferguson argues, due to Germany's inability to continue the war, but more from the perception that the Allies had basically infinite human resources with both the British Empire and America's entry to the war.

(There were other factors; mainly that Allied propaganda convinced their own soldiers that they would not be safe if they surrendered, which simultaneously convincing Germans they would be treated humanely if they raised the white flag.)
posted by spaltavian at 8:33 PM on July 12, 2013

Some examples:
- The Trans-Siberian Railway's single track meant that it was hard for the Russians to resupply during the Russo-Japanese War.
- In both World Wars, Germany industry and population suffered greatly from the British blockade. In WWI, in Britain and France, female life expectancy remained close to pre-War level; in Germany, starting in 1916, the death rate rose quickly (ref). In WWII the blockade meant that Germany was almost always short on fuel; by December 1944, they would have needed to capture allied fuel depots to reach the objectives of the Battle of the Bulge.
- The role of the Voie Sacrée at Verdun.
- Arthur Currie's successful taking of Passchendeale: preparation and materiel, not élan.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:37 PM on July 12, 2013

Historian Saul David looked at this assertion in a series he did for the BBC called 'Bullets, Boots and Bandages - How to really win at war'. You can find most of it on Youtube.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:01 AM on July 14, 2013

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