Since its inception, logistics has had a close relationship with war. From the very origin of the word logistics, its influence in the military field has been fundamental. And it is that war, with its movements of troops and supplies across countries and continents, has always been an organizational challenge. What can today’s companies learn from the great military geniuses and great empires of history?
war and logistics
It is difficult to exaggerate when talking about the problems of keeping an army supplied. For example, a Roman consular army, made up of about 20,000 infantry and 2,000 horsemen, could consume 40 tons of food per day. Lacking a plan to deal with this demand seems like the quickest path to defeat.
In addition, the siege, one of the most common forms of warfare, consists precisely in canceling the logistics of a city. Forcing its inhabitants to surrender due to the lack of food, the presence of diseases, etc.
Let’s see some logistical examples in the great empires of history.
the assyrian army
The first known standing army was the Assyrian army, around 700 BC. And, almost 3,000 years ago, they were already thinking about logistics when it came to undertaking their battles. Their equipment, made up of chariots, armor and iron weapons, required an additional effort, as well as the need to feed their means of transport (horses, camels, oxen…). These animals consumed a large amount of food, making it difficult for the Assyrian army to stay in one place without access to supplies.
To remedy these deficiencies, their favorite time to arrive in a new place was immediately after the harvest, to take advantage of the new foods. This already implies logistics planning: analysis of the situation, of the needs, of the resources available at present and in the future, and a calendar of actions in this regard.
“My logisticians are a humorless bunch… They know that if my campaign fails, they will be the first ones I kill.” Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great
The creation of one of the great empires of mankind -the Macedonian Empire- made its great leader, Alexander the Great, one of the most famous characters in history. In addition, his expertise in logistics has led him to star in specialized books that analyze how he managed to advance his army nearly 18,000 kilometers over eight years.
In order to achieve a more mobile troop, Alexander reduced the size and quantity of what had to be transported. He had his troops carry more of the supplies, reducing the number of animals needed, as well as limiting the presence of subordinates (although he was more lax than his father Philip on the presence of wives). The fewer number of carriages in turn reduced the need for wood to repair them.
Another feature of Alexander’s logistics was his use of the sea. While horses could carry about 90 kilos of weight -at the same time they consumed about 10 kilos of food a day- the merchant ships of the time could transport around 400 tons. Alexander charted his routes so that his ships could continually supply them.
Alejandro has already put into practice tools that today are considered novel, such as waste reduction -lean systems- and the intensive use of what we could see as multimodal logistics. He is also famous for his previous study of the combats, the use of the land in his favor or the ability to make allies in the conquered lands, seeking common benefits and strategic alliances.
“My logisticians are a group with no sense of humor… They know that if my campaign fails, they will be the first ones I kill,” Alejandro went on to say.
Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire
If we talk about great empires, the Mongolian cannot be missing, since it has been the largest in history among those formed by contiguous territories. During the 12th and 14th centuries, the Mongols extended their domains throughout Asia and Europe and their nomadic character was reflected in their military uses.
The mythological fame of the Mongolian cavalry is justified, since a good part of their success was owed to their horses. In order to always have fresh mounts, each soldier had several horses at his disposal. Furthermore, since most of them were mares, they fed on their milk, in addition to their meat, reducing the need for supplies and gaining self-sufficiency. However, finding water for his numerous mounts was one of his great logistical problems.
The horses also served them to create an advanced system of posts, used to quickly transmit written messages. In addition, they were pioneers when it came to centralizing and creating intelligence and command services. In other words, the Mongol Empire knew how to recognize the importance of information and its speed, especially critical in such an extensive territory. A lesson that current logistics must keep in mind.
The Roman Empire and Hannibal
Probably the most surprising logistical action in history was carried out by Hannibal in his fight against the Roman Empire. The Carthaginian general managed to get 37 elephants to cross the Pyrenees and the Alps, on their way to Rome. Although it is not known with certainty how many died in the attempt, Aníbal’s audacity and his commitment to solutions that others would never have considered continue to be an example for logistics today. This was demonstrated by his elephants, which helped him frighten his rivals on the battlefield.
Hannibal’s rival, the Roman Empire, also has its own place in the history of logistics. Few nations have put so much effort into creating a road network to facilitate transportation between their cities, whether for civil or military purposes. That its ability to build roads has gone down in history along with its organizational capacity is no coincidence.
the time of the crusades
History does not teach us only with its successes, but also with its mistakes. During the First Crusade, the Christian armies, with their various contingents, suffered from the disorganization of having several leaders, without a single mandate. Internal friction was numerous and its logistical and strategic planning could be improved. During the siege of Antioch, the Crusaders suffered severe shortages of supplies and food for their troops. In addition, after taking the city, they themselves became the besieged.
In this case, the lesson lies in the problems that a lack of planning, a clear and defined strategy, and organizational leadership can create.
As we can see, logistics has been vital for centuries, and its importance has not waned in recent years. In all wars, the logistics component has been essential. The Allied effort during World War II to defeat German u-boat submarines in the Atlantic in order to ship supplies from the US to the mainland. Or the Nazi plans to get supplies in the Ukraine, connect them to their fronts and continue their expansion to the east. As warfare has become more modern, the needs have also become more complex. Narrowing the time to supply troops throughout the world, whether by land, sea or air.
And this, again, is a true reflection of what has happened with logistics and supply chains. Globalization has increased the number of fronts and immediacy is an essential requirement to be able to be in more and more places. That is why most of the teachings of history are still fully valid: prior planning, optimization of available resources, being aware that the strategic level of the company must be drawn in harmony with logistics, use of technological innovations of each era. and value for the development of new ideas.