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