Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation

Some time back, I engaged my fellow blogger “X Brad TC” with regarding the writings of S.L.A. Marshall.   Most historians have zeroed in on Marshall’s very controversial thoughts regarding the effectiveness of infantry in combat as outlined in “Men Against Fire.”  Others recall Marshall as the father of the modern “after action review” process, indicating either the shortcomings of Marshall’s approach or the great advances made in recording oral history.  On the other hand, I find Marshall’s essays pertaining to combat loads and logistics to be the more intriguing of his work.

Part of One Soldier's "Load"

Marshall originally posted his thoughts on soldier pack loads and logistics in The Infantry Journal and the Combat Forces Journal in the years following World War II.  Later the Association of the United States Army collected these into a single booklet titled “The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation.”  Originally published in 1950, my copy is a reprint by the Marine Corps Association from 1980.   (Ironically, my copy of the book is badly worn and beaten, having been carried along as excess weight on many a field deployment! )

In these essays, Marshall stressed the relation between the weight of the equipment a soldier is expected to carry into combat and the effectiveness of that soldier in combat.  True to his style, Marshall laid the cornerstone to his argument early on:

The machine has made warfare more ponderous but has also given it greater velocity.  In the other direction there has been no change at all.  For it is conspicuous that what the machine has failed to do right up to the present moment is decrease by a single pound the weight the individual has to carry in war. He is still as heavily burdened as the soldier of 1000 years B.C.  (Marshall, page 5)

Thus Marshall identified an over-arching limitation, somewhat a universal governing factor, on logistics and combat mobility – the amount of equipment and supplies an average man might carry into combat.  Obvious points came out early in the writing.  There is no dispute that a less encumbered soldier moves quicker on the battlefield.  However Marshall stepped up another point, which is much less obvious.  “Overloading has never steadied any man or made him more courageous.” (Marshall, page 8)  Perhaps more to the point, “Tired men take fright more easily.  Frightened men swiftly tire.” (Marshall, page 46)   In Marshall’s view, there was a clear linkage between fear and fatigue.  Or perhaps with our present day terminology applied, physical and mental stress have a cumulative effect.

Marshall proposed practical limitations on what soldiers should carry into combat.  The marks set in his essays range between 30 to 40 pounds.   Sounds reasonable, if you are the soldier packing the load.  But what should that consist of?

Ammunition?  Well, drawing on accounts from the World Wars, Marshall contended the average foot soldier arrived on the battle line with up to ten times the number of rounds needed in action.  Field Marshall Helmuth von Moktke (the younger) determined pre-World War I German soldiers required a load of 200 rounds.  In World War I, U.S. soldiers assaulted beaches with 80 rounds plus eight hand grenades.  All too much, said Marshall.  Based on expenditures within the first day of combat, Marshall indicated the load could be cut in half.   And note for effect, Marshall’s ammunition consumption rates match to those mentioned by Whittaker for mounted operation during the Civil War.  However, Marshall would certainly argue against the eighty rounds Whittaker suggested as a trooper’s load.  Then again, Whittaker wrote at a time when horseflesh, not internal combustion engines, carried resupply.

Food and Water?  In a statement that runs against every “take care of your troops” leadership lesson, Marshall contends that troops should carry less than a day’s ration into combat!

… we learned by actual survey on the battlefield that only some three per cent of the men along the combat line touched any food at all in the first day’s fighting.  And that water consumption was only a fifth what it became on the second day and thereafter.  Such is the economy that can be achieved by virtue of a churning stomach.  (Marshall, page 10)

Ouch!  And personally I would contend that hunger factors into physical and to a degree mental fatigue.  Yet on the other hand, did not the Texas Brigade perform quite well in the Cornfield at Antietam in spite of missing breakfast?  Well not many Texans walked away from that fight, so perhaps that is not the best example to serve up.

Granted, much of Marshall’s work is based upon information gathered from World War II.  But as mentioned up front, the ultimate governing factor regarding a soldier’s load has not changed over time.  Thus these considerations certainly applied, in terms of pounds if not actual round counts or number of hardtack crackers carried, to Civil War soldiers.   And no amount of seasoning and training will overcome overloading.  As Marshall pointed out over and over, seasoned troops performed better more often than not because on the march they dumped out the “prescribed” loads, opting for the bare essentials.  Consider that when reading about the marches of Stonewall’s foot cavalry in the Valley, the Army of the Potomac discarding equipment on the march, or the movements of both armies in the last year of the Civil War.

The second half of the essay collection, as indicated in the title, focused upon mobility at a higher level – more operational and strategic.  Again, Marshall makes the obvious conclusions then adds more based on his observations.  Certainly the more equipment and supplies shoveled into a theater of operations places more demand on transportation resources.  In turn, the more logistic support required, the more personnel needed to handle, process, and deliver said supplies.   Such imposes a friction upon the logistical system, taxing efficiency.  In Marshall’s view there was a direct correlation between the cases of Coca-Cola shipped to Europe in the winter of 1944-5 and the suffering of the men at the front for want of proper cold weather gear.

Marshall cited examples of Generals who stripped down their logistical requirements as the standard to adhere to.  But beyond that, he indicated the need for creative and flexible approaches to logistical support.  Like some of the inter-war (1920s and 30s) theorists, specifically citing J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Lidell Hart, Marshall admired the approach of General William T. Sherman in the later half of the Civil War.  He saw the march to the sea as an example of strategic mobility achieved through proper management and balancing of logistical requirements.

From my research, I would add examples that strengthen Marshall’s stance.  Consider General U.S. Grant’s campaigns, particularly the Overland Campaign in 1864.  Grant reduced the baggage trains at the start of the campaign.  He also put pressure upon his logistical team to shift the base of operations throughout.  From Brandy Station-Culpeper, shifting to Fredericksburg, then to White House on the Pamunkey, and eventually to the James River ports.  Unlike predecessors in the East, Grant gained strategic and operational mobility by reducing his trains while at the same time shifting his supply base to adapt to the changing tactical situation.

Consider the orders issued to the Second Army Corps on May 3, 1864, stepping out on the Overland Campaign:

…The men previous to marching will be supplied with three day’s full rations in haversacks and three days’ bread and small rations in knapsacks, and 50 rounds of amunition on the person.  Three days’ beef on the hoof will be drawn by commissaries of divisions and indpendent brigades. (OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part II, Serial 68, page 357)

Then consider the statement attributed by Marshall to General George S. Patton prior to making his breakout from Normandy in 1944:

Gentlemen, I’ve got three days of POL, ammunition and food.  That’s all we need for the start.  It’s up to you back there to get the rest of it up to me. (Marshall, page 102)

In either 1864 or 1944, three days supply was the limit of the combat formation’s organic capacity to carry.  While some contend Patton (and perhaps Grant) did not fully appreciate logistical constraints upon an army.  I would, on the other hand, submit that Patton and Grant understood the principles quite well.  Knowing the limitations of his army’s organic logistic capacity, Patton and Grant challenged their quartermaster and transportation staff to find solutions that met operational demands.

An army may travel on its stomach.  But that does not mean the Army moves from meal to meal.


2 thoughts on “Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation

  1. As a veteran of several wars in several armies, I have found that the forecasting of ammunition consumption in combat by infantry battalions is almost an arcane art. I am especially interested in how units of fire were calculated in WW2 and the 1st Indochina War for infantry battalions, especially French, German and Russian. There should be some good rules of thumb formulas available but where can I find them?

    • Kurt, none that I know of. I’d suggest reading SLAM’s work for a study of the World War II components of your question. As for Indochina, I’m not up to speed on the primary sources of that war. You might also look around for a copy of the “Vietnam Premier.” That was a work circulated around in the later half of America’s involvement in Vietnam. I’ve seen it once in the Ft Benning library (and only then in passing). In short a 50 page “what a leader should know about fighting in Vietnam.” Might well address the issue you are addressing.

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