American Civil War, BEF, Belgium, British Expeditionary Force, food and ammunition, French Army, German Army, Great War, guerilla, Helm's Deep, Horace Smith-Dorrien, Le Cateau, Marius, Marius' mules, Minas Tirith, Mons, Orcs, Paris, Romans, Schlieffen, Schlieffen Plan, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Wagons, World War I
Welcome, as always, dear readers.
In August, 1914, as the German army was pushing through Belgium
in its attempt to sweep to the west of Paris and drive the French armies
eastwards towards the Germans waiting for them there (the so-called Schlieffen Plan),
they were met by the small (70,000 man) BEF, British Expeditionary Force,
a few miles north of the Franco-Belgian border, near the town of Mons, where the British fought a delaying action.
The Germans were in such strength that the British were forced to pull back, retreating southward with the Germans pursuing so closely that the commander of one half of the British army (2nd Corps), Horace Smith-Dorrien,
decided that it was necessary to fight a second delaying action, at Le Cateau.
A major reason to do so was not just that the German pursuit was so close, but that it was necessary to protect the trains. This doesn’t mean the railways, but the endless lines of wagons
which carried all the food and ammunition for the soldiers and stretched for miles behind them..
It was also primarily horse-drawn and, on narrow roads, mostly unpaved, the trains moved very slowly, which was a major reason why armies in earlier centuries rarely ever campaigned during winter.
This was a problem, all the way back to the Romans. In the 2nd century BC, the Roman general, Marius, in an attempt to do away with as much of a baggage train as he could,
ordered his men to carry as much of their equipment as possible, thus cutting down on baggage wagons and pack animals. His men were less than pleased at being so loaded down and began to call themselves “Marius’ mules”.
In the late 18th to early 19th century, when French revolutionary armies swelled beyond the ability to pay to supply them, the order was to travel lightly and to live off the land. This may have reduced baggage—and even, perhaps, speeded up movement—but it made local people very hostile to the French and, in Spain, the response was to ambush the French whenever possible, which is where the word “guerilla” (originally meaning “little war”) comes from.
This could happen, particularly to Union supply trains,
during the American Civil War.
So, such trains were utterly necessary—if a large army had to cross miles of territory and perhaps fight on the way, they would need everything a train could carry. At the same time, trains could be both vulnerable and thus draw off numbers of soldiers to protect them when such soldiers might be better employed on the battlefield, as well as cumbersome, because they were slow-moving, forcing armies to march at their speed (and in dry summer weather, the dust they raised could give away the direction of an army’s movements).
In The Lord of the Rings, we see two invasions: that which attacks Helm’s Deep
and that which attacks Minas Tirith.
The mass of invaders is vividly described:
“For a staring moment the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and Dike lit with white light: it was boiling and crawling with black shapes, some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields. Hundreds and hundreds more were pouring over the Dike and through the breach.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 7, “Helm’s Deep”)
“The numbers that had already passed over the River could not be guessed in the darkness, but when morning, or its dim shadow, stole over the plain, it was seen that even fear by night had scarcely over-counted them. The plain was dark with their marching companies, and as far as eyes could strain in the mirk there sprouted, like a foul fungus-growth, all about the beleaguered city great camps of tents, blac or somber red.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)
And yet there is no hint of what will supply them in their assaults and beyond. We could argue, of course, that, as in so many things, JRRT is interested in the movement of his narrative and its effects: masses of orcs are much more menacing than long lines of wagons, and we’re sure that this is actually the case, but there is another possibility. The Great War began in Belgium as a war of movement, huge armies attempting to outflank and block each other like chess players. For better or worse, those armies needed such baggage trains, as we’ve said. By the time Tolkien had arrived at the Western Front, in mid-1916, the war had become static, as if both sides had dug trenches and were besieging each other.
Supply was clearly still necessary, but it was a complex combination of ports and ships and railway lines and wagons and mules and even human mules, close to the front.
In a way, the whole business of supply had begun to look like just that: a business, like importing bananas from the Caribbean, having them arrive in London, then passing them on by train to cities and towns across Britain.
So, instead of being part of long marching columns,
their even longer lines of wagons lagging behind, Second Lieutenant Tolkien would have seen long lines of men and animals, lugging endless boxes and cans and bundles—
necessary for war, but hardly dramatic, and so best left to the imagination of certain readers, those who can never see a battle without wondering, “When it’s time for lunch, who feeds all of those soldiers—or orcs (and never mind what certain people might eat)?”
As always, thanks for reading and
Actually there is a reference to wains for the armies of Mordor:
“Busy as ants hurrying orcs were digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring, just out of bowshot from the walls; and as the trenches were made each was filled with fire, though how it was kindled or fed, by art or devilry, none could see. All day the labour went forward, while the men of Minas Tirith looked on, unable to hinder it. And as each length of trench was completed, they could see great wains approaching; and soon yet more companies of the enemy were swiftly setting up, each behind the cover of a trench, great engines for the casting of missiles. There were none upon the City walls large enough to reach so far or to stay the work.”
“Far behind the battle the River had been swiftly bridged, and all day more force and gear of war had poured across. Now at last in the middle night the assault was loosed. The vanguard passed through the trenches of fire by many devious paths that had been left between them.”
Those particularly were said to transport the siege engines to assemble on the field but no doubt there were all sorts of supplies. Another reference is in here portraying the mustering of forces of Mordor:
“From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the East Men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftains and laden wains. All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion.”
‘Laden wains’ it is not unlikely those were not only in the human forces fighting for Mordor but also Orcs had use of them. Naturally the soldiers themselves would have baggage, we know that marching companies of Orcs can carry their own supplies for long periods and even longer distances, the companies that captured Merry and Pippin had their own packs of supplies for the road, the travel rations would last for a while until the wains with supplies would come. In any way Mordor at the point of the siege of Minas Tirith already controlled the major roads, they would have secure territory for transporting their wagon trains, Mordor itself had entire infrastructure and supply trains, established roads allow for easier transport and in occuppied Ithilien there were old numenorean roads which were used by marching troops of Mordor.
“They followed their enemies now by the clear light of day. It seemed that the Orcs had pressed on with all possible speed. Every now and again the pursuers found things that had been dropped or cast away: food-bags, the rinds and crusts of hard grey bread, a torn black cloak, a heavy iron-nailed shoe broken on the stones. ”
Also the curious case with Orcs is that they have enormous stamina, they have much greater endurance than ordinary mortals it seems they at times seem almost tireless, they can be trained to move at great speed while heavily armed so the Orc armies have certain advantage in mobility. Plus another factor the famous orc-draught, it seems to not only be something available to Isengarders but also Mordor orcs. Those draughts are basically like ‘magical elixir’ which enhances their performance, boosting their strength and endurance.
“[Uglúk] cut the thongs round Pippin’s legs and ankles, picked him up by his hair and stood him on his feet. Pippin fell down, and Uglúk dragged him up by his hair again. Several Orcs laughed. Uglúk thrust a flask between his teeth and poured some burning liquid down his throat: he felt a hot fierce glow flow through him. The pain in his legs and ankles vanished. He could stand.
‘Now for the other!’ said Uglúk. Pippin saw him go to Merry, who was lying close by, and kick him. Merry groaned….
When he had forced a drink from his flask down the hobbit’s throat, cut his leg-bonds, and dragged him to his feet, Merry stood up, looking pale but grim and defiant, and very much alive.”
“Orcs were all round me. I think they had just been pouring some horrible burning drink down my throat. My head grew clear, but I was aching and weary.”
The Return of the King, LoTR Book 6, Ch 1, The Tower of Cirith Ungol
So this like lembas for the good guys is another ‘magical’ element which further justifies the augmented performance of the orc armies.