My feet hurt… just thinking of marching

Dimitri’s Sunday post on marching has me reminiscing.

Back in “Lieutenant School,” us budding Patton-types received a complete rundown on planning marches. Now one might thing marching just involves putting one foot in front of another. But, the Army put together a manual, FM 21-18, just in case we forgot all that instruction and needed the reference.

As with any military operation, there are the “planning considerations” that doctrine writers must drum into the minds of future staff officers. The standard rate of march, by the book, for a foot column was 2 mph. While soldiers can certainly march faster, the loss of effectiveness is directly proportional to the speed of march. Soldiers tire quicker when marching faster (duh!). Since we are still working of version 1.0 of Homo sapiens sapiens, I figure that general consideration held true in 1862 also.

As for practical application of foot marching, I was lucky in my military career. I served mostly in mechanized or armored units. We didn’t march unless something broke down. My one tour with a “light” unit was early on when I was young, fit, and conditioned. At later duty stations, our foot marches were simply part of the mandatory unit training requirements. In my days, the Army injected misery into the training cycle with great joy. So we marched 10 or 15 kilometers just so the unit could check a box on a training report. Still my experience gave me plenty of blisters compare with to those Civil War blisters.

Although I cite those marches as an example of the “mandatory training” mentality that prevailed in peacetime, I do believe the marches were practical at the basic level. The bare requisite of combat power is the ability to shoot and move. So long as the soldier has a rifle and a pair of feet to slide into the boots, he’s a measure of combat power. (Give him a radio …. heck he’s a lord of war!)

But as I said earlier, most of my days were in units which planned to ride into combat. Our “planning” considered miles-per-gallon (actually gallons-per-mile) of JP-4 fuel. Back 150 years ago it was horseflesh. While the Army doesn’t have current manuals that speak to marching with horses, it did in the past. The last batch of those were published in World War II – FM 2-15 Cavalry Field Manual.

The “book” says cavalry can march at a rate of 6 mph, or triple that of foot soldiers. But… and this is a but overlooked by many… that rate stands for “Cavalry on good roads in daylight under favorable conditions, with well-seasoned men and animals….” The manual further refined that conditional further down suggesting, “… these elements can maintain march rates of 4 miles per hour for the walk and lead and 9 miles for the trot for marches of normal length.” In other words, not a constant 6 mph, but rather on average through intervals of walks and trots.

Oh, and let’s put emphasis on “well-seasoned” and “favorable conditions” here. Figure Equus ferus caballus has not evolved significantly since 1862 (although arguably the riders are dumber now days). So the 1941 manual carries the same considerations as that applied in the Civil War. That said, there’s a lot to keep in mind when assessing the march rate of cavalry – age of the horses, weather, terrain, time of day, and so on. I won’t bore you with the details of horse tendons, sweaty saddles, or road grades. Scroll through the paragraphs enumerated in the manual. Not that I’d advocate the manual over practical experience here. Rather that I see precious few of us who have practical experience, and that manual was written by a collection of well worn cavalrymen. Probably something we should at least roll around a bit.

There’s a tendency to equate the tactical mobility (at a gallop) to the operational mobility of cavalry (at the walk). Can we really say cavalry could march twice as far as infantry in a given day? Or, given less-than-seasoned troops and animals and a less-than-favorable condition, was the measure of “a day’s march” a bit closer? Again considering the operational level, not tactical.

That old cavalry manual from 1941 provided a truism:

A successful march is one that places troops at their destination at the proper time and in effective condition for combat.

Good advice for any future general. Or… at least something for the historian to consider.


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