The logistics of war

American soldiers during WWI.
This post is in honor of Memorial Day. Thank you to all who have served, including
those who paid the ultimate price.

Writing a novel containing a war is perhaps one of the most challenging things to do, particularly if you, due to your characters, are in the thick of the conflict, which is very different than writing about the home front. Most don’t really think about all that goes into moving an army from Point A to Point B … At least, you don’t think about it until you actually have to write about it.

Of all the conflicts that I have worked into a novel, wars have perhaps ran me the most ragged, and despite that, they continually appear in my pieces. I don’t really know why, they just grip me — perhaps it is just the history buff in me who read all-things pertaining to the Civil War and WWI. And each time I delve into the waters, I have characters who are in the thick of the action, forcing me to take the effort to make the conflict believable. And trust me, that is no simple task.

This post is intended to get you to think of the logistics needed to successfully write about a war. And really, this post is just the tip of the iceberg!

Supplies Lines Are A Necessity

“An army marches on its stomach.” –Napoleon

Railroads were used during the American Civil War to move supplies. During General Sherman’s March to the Sea (pictured), the South’s supply lines were crippled with the disruption of its railways.

It takes a lot to move an army, and you can’t move one without a supply line. How are your troops getting their supplies? This is the number one question you have to ask. Without a supply line, there is not war. Supplies, both food and weapons, are a necessity, and the type of supply lines available could really shape the outcome of your conflict, add conflict to your story, or create hardship for your characters.

For example, the British’s supply lines, which required transporting supplies clear across the Atlantic Ocean, put it at a disadvantage during the American Revolution. It would come back to haunt them in the modern era, too, during WWI when German U-boats targeted boats carrying supplies from other sections of the British Empire and the U.S. The Germans also experienced supply problems during WWI with their army’s size proving to be greater than their railways could manage.

Your supply lines, whether wagons, railways, armored vehicles, or whatever, need to be decided. They could very well determine how quickly your army can pick up and move, or how the war will be won. Of course, it should be noted that in some eras looting and pillaging played a major role in satisfying an army’s demands, but this has its risks, such as your opponent believing in the scorched earth policy. For a good example, research Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia.

An Army Can Only Move So Far, So Fast

“The hardships of forced marches are often more painful than the dangers of battle” –Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

Some modes of transportation will allow you to get your fictional troops where they are needed faster than would be possible on foot. Pictured are soldiers headed to the front during WWI.

How your army gets from Point A to Point B is also very important and could be tied in to how supplies are moved, or they could move separately. So think about your war. How do your troops move? Once you have that determined, it’s time to start thinking of the pros and cons on that method, plus what could possibly go wrong — though in your story you don’t always have to go into worst-case scenarios, but it doesn’t hurt to know them!

If you have a foot army, they can only go so far, so fast, especially if the terrain is hilly or mountainous. To get an idea of what is feasible, look at history, look at different campaigns. Stonewall Jackson’s forced marches in Shenandoah Valley spring to my mind first, during which he would march his 17,000 men 646 miles in 48 days. Similarly, your cavalry will also only be able to travel for so long (horses aren’t robots!); you will also have to consider the fact that horses can’t handle some types of terrain.

Of course, there are faster methods of moving troops as technology advanced from trains to planes. If you are working in speculative fiction, you might have other options available. But no matter what, you have to consider the pros and cons of each method of troop transportation, and what it means when it comes to getting your army to Point B.

What Is The Make Up Of An Army?

“When this sad war is over we will all return to our homes, and feel that we can ask no higher honor than the proud consciousness that we belonged to the Army of the Potomac.” — Gen. George B. McClellan

How big is an army? Is a platoon bigger than a company or smaller? You need to know the answers to these questions and more. It is often joked that writers don’t do math, and nothing else can show that off like an army that is too big or too small, a platoon that is bigger than a regiment, and so on. You need to look at the real world (particularly the era you are working in) to create figures that make sense, even if you are working in a world of your own creation! Modern day armies can contain anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 soldiers. For an older example, Henry VIII kept 120,000 men on foot for a whole summer. Once you get an idea of how an army is organized (squad, section, platoon, infantry company, and so on)  and these segments’ sizes, also research different branches; it doesn’t hurt to know how they work within your military. Of course, some branches might not exist in your world or time period so be aware of that.

Along with this, determine how your army was made. Are all men from 18 to 30 required to be ready to pick up arms when called? Do you have career soldiers, complete with military academies? Do all individuals upon reaching 18 have to serve a set amount of time in your military? Or perhaps your army depends on foreign soldiers or mercenaries? Is there a draft? Have some idea of where your soldiers are coming from: It can add a certain flavor to your story. Just imagine if you have soldiers who don’t want to be there or are completely undisciplined … often to the horror of civilians.


“Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace.” –Ulysses S. Grant

Consider reading war memoirs to get a feel for what it is like. Siegfried Sassoon's "Memoirs of An Infantry Officer" was listed on Andrew Sharples' "Top 10 War Memoirs," which was posted on The Guardian
Consider reading war memoirs to get a feel for what it is like. Siegfried Sassoon’s “Memoirs of An Infantry Officer” was listed on Andrew Sharples’ “Top 10 War Memoirs,” which was posted on The Guardian.

By now, you probably get the gist of what it takes to successfully portray a war and its logistic: namely, research. If you are writing historical fiction, you have to research. There are no “ands,” “ifs,” or “buts” about it. If you write fantasy or speculative fiction, guess what: You still need to research. Look at past conflicts or even modern day conflicts, see how they are fought not just from a tactical standpoint, but from a logistics standpoint. How is food and equipment getting to the front lines? How are soldiers getting to the front lines? Are there challenges to funding or supplying the war? If yes, what are they? Is there an ocean between the supplies and the front lines? Is there enemy fire derailing supply lines, similar to what happened in WWI with German U-boats? Or are your troops moving too fast for the supplies to reach them?

Research will also open you eyes to what all goes into a war and will give you ideas on how you want to handle the war being portrayed in your writing. I also recommend reading firsthand accounts from soldiers — they will give you a true feel for what war is like from the ground level. You can also speak with living veterans if they are willing to talk. I’ve interviewed several, largely Vietnam veterans, for work — we do a special Veteran’s Day page each year. You just have to be respectful. Let them talk about what they want to — or are able to — talk about. Do not push for information: You have no idea what they have seen or experience. One veteran I interviewed was a minesweeper in Vietnam. That was all I needed to hear to know I needed to tread lightly, which he appreciated, even telling my co-worker who recommended him how much he appreciated it.

Final Thoughts

As I noted, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to writing about war, but some times this basic information and these needed answers go ignored by writers — to the point, it is detrimental to a piece. So find resources that help you with your particular situation and read! Your readers will appreciate your effort, because they will be able to tell you’ve taken the time. Additionally, your research might give you ideas to add conflict or plot lines to your story that you might not have considered before.

German infantry on the move during WWI
German infantry on the move during WWI.

Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

One thought on “The logistics of war

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: