Warfare in Fantasy: Forgotten Logistics

fantasy armyEver wonder how armies of tens of thousands of men spring up from the ground overnight like weeds?

How these weedy men go clickity-clank across the landscape with few troubles?

Do you question the ability of a feudal society to maintain said massive weed crops which they throw willy-nilly to the wind against one another?

For me I think that actual weeds have the decency to drain the land of its resources. I do not see any gardening of any sort go on in many of today’s fantasy stories that involve large scale warfare. No one is watering these things, feeding them the nutrients they need to batter down the other bigger weeds in their way.

Weeds in this are men, and these men are in armies. These armies which are often numbered in ridiculous amounts, wander across a landscape waving at the happy farmer as they go by (unless they are the bad army in which they kill the smiling farmer before continuing). There are miles and miles between them and home, and there is no one carting goods behind them.

During this march towards inevitable battle, they subsist on air. They don’t stop at a fresh water supply because marching in armor and carrying all your gear, is easy. They have no need of the elixir that feeds weeds. They all have magical pots which every night stew together various ingredients to silence the boisterous stomach of a massive army.

Now, if you’ve read this far into my sarcasm, you will start to think of stories you’ve read. You will likely see a common theme. That theme seeming to be, logistics does not matter to make things believable, right?

Wrong, bad writers! Wrong I say.

So lets talk. Well, we can’t really talk because this isn’t an interactive session. How about we have me talk and lets have you follow along nodding your head to my lovely insight. Let us see for the first time the empty kettle in the room and the ten thousand men surrounding it, starving in their gloriously broken armor.

Logistics

I’ll make the definition easy for everyone to understand. Logistics is what keeps your army together, battle after battle, on foreign soil or at home, and is what put them together in the first place.

Simply put, this seemingly insignificant aspect is left out of most novels. Some writers know it is there but choose to ignore it. Others have no clue such a thing exists.

However, many people would agree, logistics is boring. Readers don’t want to read page after page describing the baggage train. Heck, I’ve yawned to myself just imagining the word logistics. Yet, what most don’t realize is that a simple sentence can change the way an army is perceived. There is no need for page after page and glorious description, but there is a gargantuan need for inclusion.

For the purpose of this article and to keep it from spiraling out of control I will talk about only the most important aspects of logistics.

Cost

Lets be serious here. War is stupidly expensive. In a modern age we spend billions, upon billions of dollars maintaining our military, let alone sending it out to fight. Now, imagine you are a single kingdom in a feudal, medieval society as many fantasy novels are set in. Any king will quickly find himself a pauper after tackling the cost of fielding an army, even a small one for a short period of time.

Who has to be paid? Well there are the soldiers generally. There are those who supply the soldiers, like I dunno the people who make armaments for a living. Merchants make a killing in wartime, pun included for your enjoyment.

Buying supplies, which often cost more in times of war because, well you know greedy merchants can weigh heavily on any monarch, leader or the poor, forgotten quartermaster. Feed those horses? That will be your left arm please. Beans for your troops? All you can eat once you hand over your kidney. Oh they need stuff to fight with? What else you got that I can flay from your tender flesh?

Economics people is that thing you learned once upon a time in high school. Economies win wars just as much as those soldiers. Coin, cold and hard, or salt if you are a Roman legionnaire are the instruments that maintain those men-at-arms.

Nothing is free, unless your fantasy world is all sort of out of place, in which, why are you reading this?

In any case you can understand cost. Taxes are raised, supplies are rationed on those already sad serfs, and nobles grumble at your hand in their pockets. Then imagine a LONG war and a massive army of man and animal.

Yeah, you get my point.

Sustenance

This is easy for anyone to understand. This is the sizzling bacon in the frying pan. Who said bacon was bad for you? Its bacon! Anyways, the saying is true. Armies march on their stomach. In novels where the era is the medieval or nearabouts, people struggle in peace time to keep food on the table. Yeah the nobles eat lavishly, but they are jerks anyways. Armies have to be fed, and fed well. This trickles into effects like morale and military preparedness. If you already didn’t get it, swinging a sword, marching thirty miles, carrying gear and armor is taxing. One meal a day will wear on your army like a spear shoved into their gut.

You can have the most elite dudes running around in heavy plate armor wielding bastard swords, but a couple days of not eating and their commander will start to look like a juicy hog.

Now, this should apply to the enemy as well. I have always wondered how all those orcs were fed, when many didn’t really seem to like farming. If they eat each other I can understand, but in the long haul this is detrimental to any war effort… eating your soldiers I mean.

If any person answers, “They exploited the landscape and took from it what they need,” I will beam you on the head with my bacon pan. You only have to sit and think about that for half a second and toss it out of the window to smack someone on the first floor. This is a band-aid fix. The land can only support so much for so long, and likely once you start killing vast herds of tasty elk, the rest of the animals will wise up to the fact and call PETA.

So in the end food and water is crucial to the believability of your awesome army. Even more so is the supply of it from the land that spawned the army in the first place. Supplied from home, the army can exploit the land to add to its stores, boosting morale by being well fed by more than beans.

If you lack this in your stories you acknowledge to people that you are writing about a magical army that does not need to eat or drink. Again it only takes a sentence or two here and there to refresh our minds that your army is indeed believable.

Maintenance

Serious me again. Stuff breaks. Stuff breaks ALL the time. Even dwarfs break their awesomely crafted gear. Spokes on the wagon carrying all that XXXXXX Beard-Bitter break because that stone was just a bit more stubborn than the wheel.

Ever see a dwarf watch kegs of their favorite XXXXXX Beard-Bitter go crashing to the ground? Its horrendous, let me tell you. It will give you white hairs.

This is where camp-followers comes into play. Blacksmiths will follow armies just as much as buzzards above. Horses have to be taken care of which = farriers. Leather-workers, cooks, families, and ahem women who ply a “certain” trade, etc. This is just as integral to most ancient and medieval armies as the army itself.

Maintenance keeps men and their gear in fighting shape. The effect of maintenance also bleeds into overarching cost. These people do not do what they do for free. They want the king’s gold, that is why they are there.

Again, believability is in the small details you put into your work. You do not need to keep an accounting of every camp follower by name or the color of their collar. Just mention that they are there, that they exist.

Lastly, in maintenance I will add that maintaining supply lines is a work of art. It is a science. The best generals could be undone by losing their supply train, out running it, or not protecting it. Morale will plummet in a camp when they hear that the enemy rode around and crashed into their supplies, looting and killing, taking goods which belong in certain bellies and not others.

The machine of war is a hungry thing. There are bolts and screws, nails and clasps, and gears upon gears turning endlessly to see to it that every man in uniform will be the best as he can be when the day comes for bloodshed. The machine requires nimble hands set with grease and oil, and clever minds to keep it grinding forward.

Charlemagne built forts every so often during campaign, so did the Ottomans. Supply caches could be kept safe, and warriors could be positioned all along behind the main army to keep the valuable wagons safe.

The Ottomans conquered from Iraq to the gates of Vienna in Austria. Charlemagne built an empire in Western Europe. The Romans made the Mediterranean their own personal lake. Alexander conquered his known world. They did this not just with the arms of their soldiers, but by legendary examples of logistics.

To End

The next time you throw your world into war, take a step back and understand the true effect that this will have. No one is exempt in war. Warfare in fantasy can be glorious and powerful, but something must support it. People, believability is the word we must always strive for. Logistics make your conquests possible, do not leave them out.

I know this was an overview, that I did not delve deep into each subject, but that in the end is your responsibility. It is your responsibility to your reader to know what you are doing, or risk making them walk away from the lovely picture on your cover.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my stories:

The Legacie of Everhold marched along a well kept road of flat gray stone that split the Empire in half, reaching from the walls of Everhold to the Capital of Ordain. Ten thousand strong with all of its number infantry save for two thousand light and heavy horse. They marched in multiple columns, to magnify maneuverability. Through the Central Interior the sound of feet and shod hoof could be heard, before heading south to the buffer nations. Even in lands cored to the Ordainian Empire they came with a mountain of supplies. These followed, close enough to matter yet far enough to be safe. Families were banned from following by imperial decree, but that ban did not include the necessities of the army. Smiths, leather-men, water finders, and brewers made a year’s pay in a month following a Legacie, and with their help, the Legacie would triumph.

See, easy. They exist. The army is believable. Enough details attached that now a story can continue.

Now, go. Rethink your world view. Write and for the love of the Gods above, water your weeds.

Questions for the Reader

  1. What novels have you read that the author actually takes care of the issues told about in the above article?
  2. What stories have you read where you scratch your head at wondering how so many people managed to not starve before reaching the “final battle”?
  3. How much would the small additions mentioned help you visualize an author’s world, if any?

Aaron Prince is currently writing a series set in his own world of high magic and almost perpetual war with one novel completed and several short stories. He has a great love of dwarfs, language and characters that break the mold.

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James Dosher
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James Dosher

I love this article. A few things you didn’t mention, but I’ll bore your readership anyway:

I. Navigable rivers are wonderful liquid roadways for you to rapidly move goods and troops around your burgeoning empire. Just remember they are also gateways of invasion into your lands for the same reasons. This is also a great way to introduce an subterranean waterway along with the resulting trade and threat if you so desire.

II. One of the reasons you had so many mercenaries for so long was it sucks down your tax base to transfer a townsman, or farmer, from taxpayer to expense (aka a soldier of some kind). Remember, rich soldiers are most often so because they have lands and professions they need to be taking care of it they wish to remain rich. They cannot normally afford to be going off for two, or three, years at their potentate’s request. That’s the point behind ‘scutage’ ~ the rich pay their leader a few instead of armoring up and going on campaign.

The down side is most mercenaries aren’t 100% invested in their sides victory.
A benefit of mercs is they tend to stay loyal as long as your cause isn’t utterly hopeless and you seem capable and willing to keep the pay flowing their way. They are more, or less, professional fighting men (and women) and risking their lives undertaking dangerous work is what they do.

Besides, as umpteen Fantasy novels have shown, often the people on your own side aren’t terribly loyal to your people’s cause.

III. All food grows in season. You can’t requisition from the peasantry what they don’t have to give. That is why few military campaigns happen in the dead of winter when the weather itself is a killer and the prospect of starvation keeps the rank & file inside their castle walls.

***

I’m currently finishing up (or have for the past three years) a story arc of a modern fantasy story … and this came up in a HUGE way. I had to resurrect the Mongol ‘Hordes’ in the Current year resplendent with all the tanks, IFVs, trucks, planes and helicopters one would expect of an army centered on rapid strategic deployment and lighting-quick tactical mobility.

Once the wider World got over the shock of a Land War in Asia (technically starting off with ‘just’ Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan versus the People’s Republic of China) the REALLY frightening details began slapping all the experts around. The ‘Khanate’s preliminary stockpile of arms, munitions and fuel to fight the first, three month struggle (at which time the UN brokered a cease-fire … because the next theoretical step was MAD) plus the reasonable cost of all the production facilities and all the components which went into all those machines … then the cost of training and maintaining – in secret – off roughly 300,000 combat troops (thus expecting a minimum of 1.5 million logistical personnel necessary to keep all of the above functioning … ran over $$$ THREE TRILLION.

To say the G8 and the Global banking community was truly curious about that was an understatement. The IMF and Lloyds of London was shipping in the antacid in bulk. In the South, China’s largest port witnesses an LNG tanker about to dock hit at least one sea mine. Steel and concrete buildings a kilometer away are leveled. In the North, their largest refinery suffers a suspicious number of catastrophes burning up acres of the refinery and the adjoining container shipyards.

Currency exchanges begin going into free-fall. The cost of everything the World’s largest economy (the PRC) imports skyrocket while stuff the export … can’t be readily, or safely, exported.

In the same way a horse-borne army requires a great deal of fodder and well-armored men require extra upkeep, tanks and planes need plentiful fuel which has to be transported over ever more tenuous railways, rivers and – if all else fails – roads. High tech equipment requires far more maintenance. Things – expensive things – cost a fortune and you’d better have that replacement part in stock before hostilities start, or the cost will be much worse. The only logistical items which aren’t horribly impacted are food ~ as long as your forces keep moving over ‘fresh’ terrain.

Even then, with everything the nomads do, the agrarians should still win … except they have their own high-tech ‘knights’ now too. In the story, the Mongols look as if they are going to launch a chevauchée into Manchuria (which they cannot possibly hold so it looks like they will simply devastate the land between the major cities instead) only to have Vladimir Putin ‘offer’ to defend the ‘Lost Territory’ of Manchuria (with the connivance of the Khanate). The political and military deception works. Russia ‘invades’ the north in order to save it. Meanwhile, the Khanate swings south through their true goal – Tibet.

Tibet is economically virtually valueless, but politically priceless. How can the Khanate ‘sugar-coat’ their atrocities committed at the start of the war (a biological first strike)? Liberate Tibet and hand it over to the Tibetans vis-à-vis the Dali Lama. This, and the abundant resources beneath their feet, buy them more time to build alliances and find a way to survive the 2nd stage of the War with China (by enlisting the aid of India, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam ~ the US under President Obama shows ZERO interest in partaking in such as predatory and war-like scheme). The Khanate also adds on a few other states via coups (Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey) which greatly increases is population and economic potential.

Yes, this does leave Iran in a rather delicate position and, along with Pakistan, in a budding anti-Khanate coalition (along with the PRC) – because actions rarely happen in a vacuum.

RJ Moore II
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RJ Moore II

As a person who reads entire books on logistics, I resent your implication. In fact I find logistics far more interesting than the sort of Wuxia-Monty Python breakdance fighting we get from Hollywood.

I also find economics far more interesting than warfare in general. How magic would impact the economy is totally overlooked by 99.9% of fantasy/RPG authors.

Michael
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Michael

One of the main things left out I find is firewood. I calculated the weight of supplies needed for a years long siege in one of my stories. The place being sieges is entirely self sustaining so the only way it can be taken is by direct assault. That would make, the main reason to keep it surrounded, to keep them from gaining reinforcements allowing the attackers to win by attrition. Anyway, even with regular fierce battles, the total percentage of needed supplies by weight came to 98.7% firewood.Enough to supply the army for light, cooking, and keeping warm. Yet you virtually never see this addressed in movies or literature to where you know for certain this concern is reasonably paid attention to. The calculation was based off of 1 campfire for every 30 pe.

The baseline for the amount of wood needed per pit was from a YouTube video a guy posted where he showed how to make a self-feeding fire that could burn for a full day. He had two pairs of posts angling out from one another with logs stacked up each side, and would therefore automatically roll into place feeding the fire as it consumed the lower logs. Not sure where I could find a better general baseline for calculations.

I’m trying to see if I can make the siege an actual possibility in my fantasy world. The self sustaining area is 100 miles in diameter completely closed off with four defensive walls and can sustain some 3 million defenders indefinitely. The required regular sieging number would be 9 million. Supplying that 9 million, if the supply line was unbroken, day and night, would need to have a width of 300 feet. If only traveling during the day, then the required width would likely be 450 feet wide. This would allow for two directions, as well as space to camp or rest off to the side and make repairs if needed, and not hinder the other supply wagons from continuing on. And each wagon would have to carry at least 17 tons of supplies each, akin to the modern semi trucks that can carry up to 22 tons of supplies. And again in the style of a medieval siege, the wagons would actually be carrying almost nothing but firewood weightwise.

Also there would have to be engineers stationed every so often along the supply line route to keep it clear of snow in winter, and to do needed repair work year round to keep the supplies constantly flowing. The supply line in enemy occupied territory roughly 2,000 miles. Probably around a million soldiers would be needed just to protect the supply line for the siege.

The size of the attacking army is based off the amount needed back home to support each man in the field. If I remember right, I believe it was 7 people at home supporting each soldier in the field. So the maximum number of troops on the front, well supplied, would be 12.5% of your population. Any higher than that and you start going into short falls and/or rationing.

Levente Szedlak
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Levente Szedlak

Wow, it’s a great post. And true too. Most authors are lazy or just oblivious about this topic, which is quite disappointing.
But I have a good example: In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, the rebels actually make efforts to buy weapons, equipment and food to their growing army and also use clever tricks to deliver and deploy the supplies to their troops.

In non-fantasy fiction, the novels of Robert Merle’s Fortune de France series are my favourite in describing warfare, economy and logistics.

Andrea Robinson
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Andrea Robinson

To be honest, having experienced many fantasy movies and books that inevitably offered plenty of wars, it never occurred to me that the supply lines were missing. I think it was one of those subliminal questions, as I saw people sitting down to eat and drink around a campfire. I believe some of those media did represent something as simple as, “They struggled up the hill, the weight of their heavy packs biting into their shoulders.” To be honest, that’s probably enough for most of us dimwitted people who don’t give any thought to the huge requirements of wartime. But I’ve also experienced plenty of media that made the prep and logistics delicious – the blacksmith crafting a joyously balanced weapon that gleams in the fire and makes you wish you had one.

Spot on – just another terrific way to embellish and “juicify” our writing. Thanks so much for bringing this out. 🙂

Kelly Knight
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Kelly Knight

Yeah, I’ve read so many books that don’t think about the everyday issue like eating and sleeping. Lazy authors just want to get to good action scenes and don’t realize how important every day situations add to the story. Thanks for the reminder, It’s easy to forgot sometimes. 🙂

Ann
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Ann

Aaron, great piece here. And though I myself am not a writer, (I’m on here to learn to be able to help my 11 yr daughter who’s an aspiring writer). And though she hasn’t gotten into any fighting scenes yet, it is interesting to see the behind-the-scenes on war and supplying the armies…..good, informative post. Love all the stuff I’ve read on here today. 🙂

Philster401
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Philster401

Christopher Paolini a bad author by most of your standards, put a lot of thought in to his warfare he made a few chapters in the perspective of the Vardens leader, she talked about the economics, alliances, and logistics in general a fair amount.

Nicholas C. Rossis
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Nicholas C. Rossis

A great post. In my own work, a general has to cut his campaign short because he has spread his supply lines too think. I even quote Tom Clancy at some point: “Amateurs discuss tactics, professionals logistics.”

Andrea Robinson
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Andrea Robinson

Thanks for that quote, Nicholas! I’ll remember that one.

🙂

Joel Stunkard
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Joel Stunkard

Great piece, Prince. Understanding warfare and the struggles therein is a priceless gold mine of storytelling possibilities. I’ll be applying these principles to my novel and have already thought of multiple plot points just from reading. Thank you.

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