In 1979 General Robert H. Barrow, then the commander of the US Marine Corps said that amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. When I read that sentence I immediately had to think about medieval armies and how logistics were handled in the Middle Ages.
So in the following, I would like to talk about the logistics of medieval warfare and how medieval armies supplied themselves while on a campaign.
A medieval soldier needed 2,2 lb (1 kg) of grain per day as well as additional supplies like arrows. Horses needed 11 lb (5 kg) of grain per day. The supplies were either looted from the enemy’s lands (which was only a short-term solution) or had to be brought with the army in the baggage train. Carts that could transport up to 1102 lb (500 kg) and that were pulled by horses or oxen were the most common way of transporting the supplies.
Let`s take a more detailed look!
The logistics of the baggage train of a medieval army
One big problem in warfare until this day is that everything that is needed on the campaign has to be brought along. And that was not any different for medieval armies. As soon as a medieval army had left friendly territory it had to be supplied by the baggage train (although looting was also an option, but more on the problems with that later).
The baggage train had to transport all supplies that a medieval army could possibly need during the campaign. That included food, clothes, weapons, lots of arrows, but also materials to build siege equipment or even wood to build bridges.
Needless to say that organizing the baggage train was of high importance. But in order for the baggage train to actually move, it did not only need streets or crews who cleared a way but also carts that were either pulled by horses or oxen.
The vehicles of a medieval baggage train – the carts and wagons
When we look at the logistics of medieval warfare then we first have to look at the means of transportation that were possible. While transporting goods and supplies by boat was a lot easier than transporting large amounts of supplies on carts or wagons transport by boat was not always possible.
Most of the vehicles of a medieval baggage train were two-wheeled carts that had a maximum load capacity of 1102 lb (500 kg) but there were also four-wheeled wagons in use that could transport up to 1433 lb (650 kg).
These carts and wagons could either be pulled by oxen or horses. Both draft animals had their advantages and disadvantages. And since these advantages and disadvantages could decide the outcome of a campaign I would like to dedicate the next chapter to the draft animals of medieval baggage trains.
Oxen and horses: The draft animals of medieval baggage trains
Oxen and horses were the two possible draft animals that were used to pull the carts and wagons of a medieval baggage train. Carts and Wagons that were pulled by horses had the advantage that they could cover up to 18,6 miles (30 km) per day while carts and wagons that were pulled by oxen could only cover 10-12 miles (15-20 km) per day. So when the carts of a baggage train were pulled by horses then that allowed the army much greater mobility which could be an important edge over the enemy.
Additionally, it also meant that a baggage train with horses as draft animals could keep up with the marching speed of a medieval army. Here you can find out more about the marching speed of medieval armies.
But horses as draft animals also had their disadvantages!
While oxen could be fed on 44 lb (20 kg) of grass or hay a horse needed 11 lb (5 kg) of hay and 11 lb (5 kg) of feed grain to properly work as a draft animal. So while oxen could just graze, horses had to be fed with grain that had to be transported on the carts and wagons that they pulled.
And that is important to remember!
Since medieval wars were mostly waged in the summer months the oxen which served as draft animals for the baggage train could just graze when the camp was made. The grain that the horses needed on a daily basis to maintain their efficiency had to be transported on the cart they pulled which in return lowered the additional load that the cart could carry to supply the army.
And that limited the effective reach of the baggage train and, in effect, also the reach of an army.
Horses as draft animals – A limitation to the marching range of a medieval army?
While the use of horses as draft animals allowed the baggage train to cover almost twice the distance in comparison to the use of oxen it still had one major disadvantage. And now it`s time to talk about that disadvantage!
We have already stated that the typical two-wheeled cart that was pulled by two horses could transport 1102 lb (500 kg) and cover about 18,6 miles (30 km) per day.
Now that sounds great but there is one problem.
To maintain the efficiency of the horses each horse needed 11 lb (5 kg) of feed grain per day. If you combine that with the 2 pounds of grain that the driver of the cart needed on a daily basis then you need 24 lb (or 11 kg) of grain per day just to operate the cart. And there we have the problem.
Let`s say that you want 617 lb (280 kg) of the 1102 lb (500 kg) load that the cart could carry to be supplies for the army. Then that leaves you 485 lb (220 kg) for grain with which the horses and the driver that moved the cart could be fed. With daily consumption of 24 lb (11 kg) of grain that allows you to feed the draft horses and the driver of the cart for 20 days.
Fodder for 20 days means that you can cover 372 miles (600 km) when we assume the average speed of 18,6 miles per day that were realistic for a cart pulled by horses.
So if you fill almost half of the potential load of a cart with fodder for the draft horses then that gives you a reach of 372 miles (600 km) before you have to „refuel“. The problem is that the cart is bringing supplies to an army in hostile territory. So when it arrived at the army it could not replenish its fodder supply for the way back. Instead, the cart had to bring the fodder that it would use to feed the draft horses on the way back with it from the beginning.
So that meant that under the condition that only half of its capacity was filled with fodder for the draft horses the effective reach for a cart with 1102 lb (500 kg) of the potential load was only 186 miles (300 km) since the cart had also brought enough fodder for the way back.
Now you did not have that problem if you used oxen as draft animals since these animals could just graze whenever the carts were not moving. However, Oxen had one other major weakness.
Oxen as draft animals – slower but more economic than horses
As stated, a horse needs quite a lot of feed grain while an ox can survive and perform even when it’s just fed with grass or hay.
The downside of oxen as draft animals was however their limited speed. A cart that was pulled by two oxen could only cover up to 10 miles (15 km) per day. If you combine that with the average marching distance of 12 miles (20 km) that a medieval army could cover per day then you realize that either the army had to march slower (which limited its mobility) or had to march apart from the baggage train (the necessity of guarding the baggage train caused the army to split up)
Both options were not ideal.
And that brings us to the general problem of transporting supplies by cart or wagon. It was highly inefficient. That, by the way, was one of the reasons why the Romans mostly relied on cargo ships to import the grain that Rome desperately needed. You can find out more about why Rome was dependent on Grain imports and not just produced its own grain in Italy in my article here.
So ideally a medieval army would rely on supply deliveries by ship. But oftentimes that was not possible due to unnavigable rivers or too much distance between the next navigable river and the operating army.
So in that case the transport of supplies had to be used as effectively as possible. Let`s now take a look at how medieval armies were supplied.
How were medieval armies supplied?
When it comes to supplying a medieval army there were basically two options. Either a medieval army brought all its supplies with it (which made a large baggage train necessary) or the army could try to live off the enemy’s land and loot food and supplies from the civilian population (which didn`t work for long). Let`s take a look at both options.
Supplying a medieval army through the baggage train
Supplying a medieval army through the baggage train had its flaws and inefficiencies. But it was still more sustainable than the plundering of the countryside that we will focus on in a moment.
As already presented. When we assume that every cart with a maximum load of 1102 lb (500 kg) could transport a total of 617 lb (280 kg) of supplies for the soldiers as long as the army was not more than a 20 days march, that is roughly equates to 186 miles (300 km), away from its supply depots.
So what did that mean? Let`s look at the example of food and assume that the entire 617 lb pounds of supply that each cart could transport for the army were completely made up of grain.
Each medieval soldier needed 2,2 lb (1 kg) of grain per day while horses needed 11 lb (5 kg) per day. So if a cart could drop off 617 lb of grain every 20 days that meant that one cart could provide a constant food supply for two footsoldiers and two mounted warriors (including their horses) as long as the army did not move more than 186 miles away from the depots were the carts could pick up the supplies.
Remember, that is just the food and we assumed that the carts have to cover 186 miles to get from the depots to the campaigning army. But since armies needed much more than just food we have to increase the number of carts even further or reduce the distance between supply depots and the campaigning army.
And that was actually done. Let`s say that a king planned on attacking his neighbor to extend his territory. In that case, the army, more on the composition of a medieval army here, would not just start marching. Instead, preparations like setting up and filling supply depots as close to the soon-to-be invaded territory as possible were made so that the supply carts of the baggage train did not have to cover too long distances which in return reduced the number of carts necessary to supply a campaigning army.
That was especially important since medieval armies could be pretty large. But when we consider the fact that a cart that was operating at the presented distance could only supply two infantrymen and two mounted men with food then even smaller armies needed massive baggage trains! But more on the size of medieval armies in my article here.
Another way was to reduce the baggage train and count on looting the enemies’ countryside for supplies.
Supplying a medieval army by plundering the countryside
Needless to say that relying on looting the enemies’ countryside to provide one`s own army is a risky endeavor. And it also had other disadvantages than just the uncertainty of how much food could be looted and if that was enough for the entire army.
When a medieval army had to rely on looting to supply itself then that always slowed down the army since the men had to search for supplies, find the supplies, deal with the owners of these supplies, and bring these supplies back to the army camp.
All of that could slow down the moving speed of a medieval army to a crawl. If you want to find out more about the speed at which medieval armies moved then you might enjoy my article here.
The other, even bigger problem was the number of supplies that could be looted from an area. When a medieval army entered the hostile territory and supplied itself by looting then it could not stay in the same place for too long since even a small army would have quickly plundered the entire area. That would then result in the starving of the local civilian population and the need for the army to move on.
Needless to say that these conditions did not allow monthlong sieges. Here you can find out more about how medieval sieges worked.
So I think that looting was definitely an additional source of supplies for a medieval army on campaign. By the way, while most modern military doctrines (even in the 18th century) try to spare the enemy civilian population that was not the case during the Middle Ages.
Plundering and looting both after a battle but also while on the campaign was seen as a reasonable thing to do during the Middle Ages. Even the majority of the income of a medieval soldier was not made up by his pay but by his share of the booty.
Here you can find my article with more information on the pay of medieval soldiers. And here you can find more information about the looting (and the other events) that took part after a medieval battle.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
David S. Bachrach: Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).