Quartermaster Professional Bulletin,Winter 2000

Return to Logistics page

Medieval Logistics

As Applied to the Classes of Quartermaster Supply

CPT John Woodard           CPT Catherine Taylor          CPT Danny Devereaux          CPT Kerry King

qm-flagbar2.gif (6509 bytes)

Close at the heels of the horses came two score archers, bearded and burley, their round targets on their backs and their yellow bows, the most deadly weapon that the whit of man had yet devised, thrusting forth from behind their shoulders. From each man’s girdle hung sword or axe, according to his humour, and over the right hip there jutted out the leathern quiver, with its bristle of goose, pigeon, and peacock feathers. Behind the bowmen strode two drummers beating their nakirs, and two trumpeters in parti-coloured clothes. After them came twenty-seven sumpter-horses carrying tent-poles, cloth, spare arms, spurs, wedges, cooking kettles, horse-shoes, bags of nails, and the hundred other things which experience had shown to be needful in a harried and hostile country. - The White Company, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

    Viewing military logistics of the Middle Ages by modern standards provides insight into today's Quartermaster functions. This study will compare some modern classes of supply - Class I (subsistence), Class II (clothing and individual equipment), Class III (petroleum, oils and lubricants), Class IV (construction materiel), Class V (ammunition), Class VI (personal demand items such as sundry packs), Class VII (major end items such as trucks and tanks), Class VIII (medical supplies) and Class IX (repair parts) - to the supply systems that dominated military campaigns in the Middle Ages, 1000 to 1400 AD. The logistical functions of manning, arming, fueling, fixing, sustaining and moving will overlay the comparisons.

     For an overall picture of medieval life during military campaigns, a look at typical living conditions, specifically field sanitation, at a campsite is a good start. More than just the soldiers, the medieval army on the move included women, children, both male and female slaves, prisoners and traders. Knights rode horses into battle. Oxen, horses and mules pulled wagons and carts for supplies. The knights and noblemen slept in tents. However, many soldiers and camp followers had only meager shelter, if any at all. Slaves and prisoners dug the latrines. If there were no slaves or prisoners, the soldiers did not bother to dig latrines.

     For personal hygiene, women groomed both other women and the men and children. Searching for lice and fleas was an essential task because of the diseases carried by these parasites. The only effective method for removing lice was a close personal search by hand with a comb. Servants, slaves or occasionally the owner of a favorite mount groomed the animals. Women, slaves and prisoners performed practically all field sanitation. In camps without women, disease was rife.

     With a picture of medieval military camp life in mind, now look at what the army ate, what they fed their horses and animals, and what they drank: comparable to today’s supply Classes I, III and VI. The medieval diet was not as sparse as one might think. They had wheat, rye, oats and barley for breads and beer production; beans and peas for soups; apples and berries for fruits; asparagus, beets, carrots, celery, cabbage and radishes for vegetables. Farming in the Middle Ages also included grapes for wines and honey for mead beverages; hazelnuts and walnuts from the woods; poultry that included chickens, ducks and geese; a variety of fish; and meat from cows, pigs and sheep. Contrary to popular belief, potatoes were not prepared as human food in Europe until the 17th century when the Swiss first introduced the potato.

     The development of what soldiers today call a cracker is also interesting. The Crusaders invented a bread, like today’s cracker, baked twice to make it hard and dry, thus preventing mold.

     The fodder for horses and other beasts of burden was grass and hay. Water was usually found in nearby streams or local wells. Servants were sent to haul water once the camp was set up. Because of the unsanitary water conditions, soldiers and servants alike drank mead, beer, ale and wine. Purified during the brewing process, water was used as a foundation for beer. Mead was made of honey from beehives. The oats, wheat and barley were essential components in beer, ale and the bread that were mainstays of the medieval diet. Wine was often consumed before the aging process was complete. The grapes would be gathered, crushed, fermented, barreled and sold within a few months. As a result, the wine retained much of the fruits’ vitamins and minerals, making wine an important part of the medieval diet as well.

     In the Middle Ages, the main meals typically were at the beginning and end of the day. Women, slaves and also professional cooks prepared the meals. These professional cooks were often soldiers from the lower ranks. Women, children and slaves gathered wood for fires. The children would build the fires while the camp was being set up. Each man needed three pounds of food a day, and the livestock needed 20 pounds. Without enough food, a soldier would desert and go home. If far from friendly territory, a soldier could starve or be picked off by enemy troops. This basic requirement for food was best summarized centuries later by Napoleon’s remark about an army marching on its stomach.

     So how did a medieval commander provide supply Classes I and III for his army? Most medieval armies had nothing resembling a good logistics system. Medieval commanders who looked after logistical concerns were considered exceptions. Troops were usually expected to take care of their own supply needs. Although a soldier could carry up to a week’s worth of food with him, this was not adequate. Two methods of resupply dominated: sailing ships with supplies to follow the army along a river or coast or foraging that included plunder of the countryside.

     Stocking ships with food and fodder for resupply was an excellent method for large armies. The only d disadvantage was army movement restricted to following waterways. The medieval army resupplied by ships could move much faster, up to 20 miles per day, compared to 5 to 10 miles a day while foraging. The best example is the Third Crusade led by King Richard the Lionhearted.

Richard led a large army on [a] Crusade to the Holy Land. Previous crusader armies had suffered greatly from a lack of logistical planning. Moving through hostile, and often barren, country, several crusader armies had literally fallen apart from lack of food. Richard arranged for supplies to be accumulated and ships used to deliver them to his troops as they marched along the coast. Thus he managed to defeat Saladin, the great Moslem general. Unfortunately, Saladin also understood logistics. When Richard finally had to march inland to besiege Jerusalem, he found that Saladin had stripped the countryside bare of food and fodder. The wells had been poisoned and Richard realized that his army would fall apart from starvation if he tried to besiege Jerusalem. The crusaders had to settle for a treaty with Saladin that guaranteed Christian pilgrims access to the Holy Places. - Medieval Warfare – Logistics, DENO Partnership

     This example from the Third Crusade illustrates the importance of logistics used by leaders. King Richard the Lionhearted’s inland march also introduces some differences between using ships for resupply and having the soldiers forage for supplies.

     What exactly is foraging? To the local populace, foraging equated to looting and plundering.  Soldiers used force to take food, water, fodder and whatever else they wanted from the peasants.  Armies foraged, at the farthest, 60 miles from their lines of march. Within each unit, a mounted group of soldiers would ride forth to steal all the food they could find and defeat any opposition to their quest. As a result, a medieval army would create a path of wasteland of 10 or more miles in its wake. Because of the time invested in foraging, this method of logistics would slow the army’s progress to 5 to 10 miles a day.

Armies on the move killed far more civilians than soldiers, and the troops did that by moving about and eating up all the food they could lay their hands on. - Medieval Warfare – Logistics, DENO Partnership

     In enemy territory, looting and pillaging was seen as part of the damage inflicted upon the enemy. In friendly territory, a general would sometimes send ahead a herald to tell residents to provide a certain amount of food and fodder at a designated place and time. In return, the army’s soldiers would not be allowed to forage. Public hanging was often the penalty for soldiers who violated a general’s order against foraging. This arrangement would leave more food for the local population. With good management, a town could support an army equal to its population for a week or two without undue hardship.

     Overall, foraging saved money and administrative headaches for commanders who did not have to feed soldiers. However, in friendly territory, foraging depleted the local tax base. Foraging also was time-consuming and took the army’s focus away from movement toward the enemy and preparation for battle.

     For the medieval logistician, another supply consideration was protective clothing for the soldiers.  These Class II items consisted of leather, chain mail, plate armor or a mix of these types of protective battle gear. Leather armor was similar in durability and thickness to modern shoe soles made of leather.  Chain mail was constructed of interlinked metal rings that retarded the penetration of sharp weapons such as swords and spears. Plate armor was constructed of solid metal sheets that fitted the body contours of the soldier, offering maximum protection. Each type of protective clothing was suited to the soldier’s specific needs or place on the battlefield. Archers required only leather, foot soldiers a mixture of chain and plate, and cavalry used plate for upper body and chain mail for legs. For the most part, the soldiers were required to supply their own protective clothing.

     Brutal and bloody warfare was common throughout the Middle Ages. Men from all walks of life had to be prepared for the life of a soldier in the field. Each medieval soldier had a foundation in simple skills, such as sewing and repairing chain mail and replacing rivets, which they used to enhance the protection of the gear they scavenged, traded or otherwise acquired.

     A soldier’s outer clothes were seldom laundered because of the delicacy of the fabric, trims and dyes. Linen underwear was washed regularly if not worn on the battlefield. However, during military campaigns, washing garments at all was rare. If outerwear was washed, servants or prisoners accompanying the soldiers performed the task. The smell of smoke that permeated the clothing seemed to act as a deodorant.

     As a rule, commanders were not expected to provide clothing for their soldiers. As part of a retainer’s annual favor from his liege lord (his overlord), many individual soldiers were provided with clothing. Clothing was often part of the "payment" relationship between a lord and his servants of all levels. This clothing could be in many different forms that included heraldic livery, clothes matching the color and ornamentation of the estate, or typical clothing for the era and class of the recipient.

     For most conflicts in the Middle Ages, the role of the medieval castle was an important consideration.  From the 11th to the 15th Century, recurring wars in Europe and the Middle East led to building great stone castles. These strongholds that dominated and controlled the towns and most of the surrounding countryside were usually the targets of any attack. Resources were often funneled to development of castle defenses, often a costly proposition. Even simple stone towers, which were rare until the 12th Century, were extremely expensive to build. Defensive features such as drawbridges, embedded pikes and stakes (medieval barbed wire) and portcullis (the sliding grille of wood or iron at the castle gateway) are classic examples of Class IV materials used in castle construction.

     Determining the location for a castle was based on two main considerations: offense and defense. Offensive locations were used to project power into a region and dominate. Defensive locations were used to protect the land and the contents of the castle.

The reason why castles had to be attacked and taken by an opposing army was that they controlled the surrounding land by means of the mounted force within them. The range of the castle was the range of the horse and armored rider, not the limited field of the defensive weaponry based within it and which, with its design, made it a near impregnable base. – The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopedia, H.R. Loyns

     Therefore, the mounted force within a castle could ride out to meet and engage any threat. The castle also supplied provisions and troops to allies who were engaged in campaigns nearby. Since castles supplied allies during campaigns, castles were often built a day’s ride apart, which made them an asset for logistical planning.

     For defense, castles were outstanding. One defender could take on 10 attackers. Castles also posed a greater supply problem to the attacker than the defender over short periods. A castle typically stored a year’s supply of food. A castle had wells within its walls or was located near a channel that supplied fresh water. The main concerns of the castle defenders were the weapons of assault. These (Class VII) items consisted of the battering rams and artillery (ballista-giant crossbow, trebuchet-counterpoise and onager-tension/torsion).

     For commanders, supplies for sieges were usually found nearby. Stones would be used for the catapults. If not, large tree trunks and rotting or diseased carcasses of dead animals were hurled. The use of carcasses was most often employed to contaminate wells and food stores in hope of bringing a more rapid conclusion to the siege.

To demoralize the besieged, prisoners, or captured spies, were sometimes jettisoned, like human cannonballs, into the castle. Barrels alight with burning rags were also launched to set the castle on fire. – Knights, Julek Heller

     These large siege weapons were often constructed at the siege site to avoid delays and the logistical problems of transporting large and heavy equipment. Also, craftsmen set up shop in the area of campaigns where martial supplies could be purchased or repaired (medieval direct support shop with Class IX parts). Any delay would allow the defenders more time to prepare for the siege by increasing their stockpiles and requesting assistance from allies. Sieges were often very long engagements and required a great deal of patience from all combatants, especially the aggressors.

     One traditional siege tactic was to try to bring down a section of castle wall by undermining the wall. However, tunneling was difficult, dangerous and time-consuming. The best solution was to use weapons designed to aim missiles (Class V) at the walls or even to throw huge projectiles right over the defenses into the castle itself. Such instruments of war could be positioned some distance from the besieged castle. As long as the strength of the attacking force was kept up, bombardment could continue for weeks or even months until the walls were breached or until the garrison in the castle surrendered because food and ammunition had run out.

     Class V would be concerned with light weapons, specifically the bow, including the long bow, arrows and lances in the medieval context. During the period of 1000-1400 AD, knights with the aid of pages and squires would carry all the items they required for battle. This entailed at least one lance, a sword, shield, mace and daggers along with required supplies such as food and clothing. Raiding of the battlefield after combat was the easiest, most economical and expedient method of expanding a personal arsenal.

     Class IX parts were made and repairs performed by blacksmiths, leather workers and wood workers. Blacksmiths made such necessities as swords, arrowheads, lance tips, shield covers, metal armor and daggers. Many blacksmiths were employed in the general area of villages, castles and fortresses to allow the weapon orders to be easily filled. Blacksmiths traveled with the supply trains and were often employed by feudal lords or worked as "contractors" to paying customers. Their main purpose was to shoe horses, fix weapons and armor, and make items during sieges to supplement those lost or damaged. A leather worker’s primary job during peace and war included making protective and decorative clothing, saddles, daily clothing, and other items as needed by customers. Wood workers were employed to make bows and arrows, lances, shield bases and other wooden items needed during battles. In combat, the wood workers would ensure that wooden weapons were well stocked, and items were repaired as needed.

     Class VIII supply addressed the common diseases during the medieval period and provided the medical materials used for wounds. There were occasional needs for treatment of diseases and infections such as syphilis or St. Anthony’s fire (gangrene, or epileptic-type convulsions and hallucinations caused by eating contaminated rye). However, the primary function of medical personnel in battle campaigns was the treatment of battle wounds. The supplies available to the medical personnel were generally limited to a blade and a collection of herbs and fat-based salves, many of which could be easily replenished along the campaign route. Many deaths from battle wounds occurred because of the unsanitary treatment rather than the severity of the injuries.

     Thus, the supplies used in the Middle Ages are comparable to the modern classes of supply. For Class I, the medieval military depended on groups of foragers or their own resources for basic sustenance. Class II supplies were also the responsibility of the medieval soldiers, with the exception of those with an overlord who provided clothing and individual equipment. Class III supplies were items such as firewood and oil, much taken from the land or acquired by foragers. Class IV supplies included materials for building different defensive items such as the spiked stakes and drawbridges used primarily in castle construction. Construction materials, as with most supply needs, were acquired from the land, local villages, or craftsmen and camp followers. Items covered by the Class V category were arrows, stones and other projectiles that served as medieval ammunition.

     Class VI, as we know it, would have been included in Class I categories because soldiers of the Middle Ages would have consumed mead, ale and wine instead of water whenever possible. Class VII would have included major end items such as wagons and catapults. The medical supplies (Class VIII) would have been collected from the land and acquired from herbalists as needed. Class IX items were generally crafted when needed for the major end items. Other sundry items such as nails and rivets would have been readily available from the camp followers. The medieval commanders who took the time and had the resources to provide logistical support to their troops were usually far more successful in their campaigns.

Aimerigot and his comrades had eaten well off the country, for the peasants of the Auvergne, Provence and Lombardy had been persuaded - often at the point of a sword - to supply them with wheat and flour, fresh bread, hay for the horses, good wine, beef and mutton, fat lambs and poultry. ‘When we ride forth,’ thought Aimerigot as he drained his breakfast cup of wine, ‘we’re provisioned like kings, and the country trembles before us.’ Yesterday’s battle had been hard and bloody, but few towns could put troops into the field to match the disciplined fury of the White Company. Breastplates and helmets gleaming in the sun, and the points of their spears and arrow tips sharper than the fangs of ravening wolves. This commander they had - Sir John Hawkwood - was reckoned the best general and tactician in Europe. So the town had fallen and neither church house, inn nor merchant’s storeroom had been spared. – Life in the Age of Chivalry, Nick Yapp