I sat down the other day with the BBC iPlayer and watched the first episode of Bullets, Boots and Bandages: How to Really Win at War. The official Twitter account of Vindolanda had mentioned that the fort was going to feature on the program, and I thought it would be interesting to see the material presented from a military historian’s perspective (in this case, the military historian is Saul David).
The program was very interesting, and I did get a different perspective on the Vindolanda evidence, especially from David’s progression to more modern examples. This episode’s focus was on the supply chain – so how you keep troops fed and watered, and generally in healthy conditions. The comparanda in question were Henry V’s French campaign; Wellington’s campaign against Napoleon; and the trenches of the First World War. (And also a communications disaster which I have completely forgotten the name of.) There were two things that particularly jumped out at me that I thought deserved comment.
The first is the difference between Vindolanda and the rest of David’s case studies. Vindolanda was a settled camp, with a fixed location. That’s part of the pleasure of Vindolanda, being able to see the footprint of the permanent camp and get some solid evidence about the infrastructure of military installations on the provincial border. Getting a sense of how big rooms are, for instance, tells you a lot about the kind of living conditions the number of people billeted there would have endured (something David did not mention, despite praise of Roman glass windows). However, all the other case studies were about armies on the move, shifting their location through enemy countryside, and how you would get provisions to them in good order. Dealing with supplies for a fixed spot would be a very different operation and, as my colleague Simon Esmonde-Cleary pointed out to me when we discussed the program earlier this week, meant that legions could send soldiers out on requisitioning missions all over the empire and have supplies brought back to them rather than vice versa.
The second point that wasn’t mentioned was about class issues and the professionalisation of the military over the time period that the case studies covered. In Roman society, there is a high expectation that men of the senatorial and equestrian classes will do military service at some point before entering political life – you had to be thirty before you could stand for election to the most junior political post of quaestor. A good proportion of those officers would have found themselves in the unpleasant provinces, on the front lines, and (pertinent for this subject) at the far end of the supply chain. This shifts over the time David covered. Under Henry V, the provincial barons would certainly have been leading their men into battle, but it was more of a one-off as-required duty than part of a career path. By the time you get to Wellington, you’re dealing with career generals who are not particularly concerned with political careers; by the first world war, although conscription changes the profile of the men on the front line, career senior officers again are a subset of the aristocracy who can often stay away from the nastiest points of engagement (think of the Battle of the Somme). And when you look at the modern army, we are dealing with an entirely self-contained career.
I don’t claim to have an answer, but it struck me that this change in profile raised an interesting question. When you have an army which will always have some of the state’s potential political leaders on the front lines, does that change the way you think about supply chains? Do class issues change your priorities and your methods? David demonstrated the difference that the invention of the tin can made to getting food to the first world war trenches; however, he pointed out that the innovation was more about delivering calories than nourishment, and mentioned men’s complaints that they often only got one variety of vegetable, and sometimes no vegetable at all, to go with their meat. The men in the trenches were, in the main, not from the highest echelons of society. I wonder what approach the supply chain would have taken if aspiring politicians had been expected to routinely serve alongside them.