The First World War and the Birth of Modern Logistics

August 13, 2014 BY Mike MacRae

20140813 - World War One logistics

The 100th anniversary of the First World War is an appropriate opportunity for us to outline the paramount role of logistics in times of war, just as in times of peace. Under the pressure of war humans surpassed themselves to innovate and display a unique genius for supply, maintenance and transport.

Contrary to popular belief, military logistics is not an invention of the modern warfare. During antiquity, Alexander the Great built the first supply networks to support his military campaigns throughout the world and he took logistics issues very seriously:

"My logisticians are a humorless lot... they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay."

- Alexander the Great

Fortunately, today’s CEOs are much less inclined to execute their supply chain folks, most of them at least.

During the First World War, the foundations of modern logistics were built at both military and civilian levels. It was, however, during the Second World War that the true power of logistics operations was realized.

At the beginning of the First World War, the solutions to solve logistics issues were often improvised based on the needs of the time. The famous battle of the Marne is a good example: the French army took control of over 600 Parisian taxis to move soldiers to the battle front in order to stop the German Army only 10 kilometers from the French Capital.

The First World War consisted mainly of trench warfare where the replenishment of supplies was a deciding factor for victory. Indeed, to be able to maintain order within its ranks, it is essential for an army to be able to properly supply its troops. Sun Tzu says as much in his famous Art of War:

"The line between disorder and order lies in logistics."

- Sun Tzu

Armed with this wisdom, it is not a big leap to conclude that logistics was Germany’s undoing in the Great War.

Indeed, one of the biggest German mistakes was to underestimate the logistics of battles that extend over several continents. Due to the rapid progression of the Wehrmacht, German troops were often cut off from their supply lines and had to retreat, not because of their enemies’ strength, but their own weak logistics. This lack of logistics prowess forced the German general Rommel to end a crushing offensive in North Africa.

Now, more than ever, wars are raging all around the world - competitive wars carried out by companies. If you are a business owner or a decision maker, then you are involved in one of these wars. Your battlefields are your markets. Your munitions are your products. You measure victory in sales. But, if you follow the German Army’s strategy, you will have a crack army with no supplies and you will fail.

"Forget logistics, you lose."

- Lt. Gen. Fredrick Franks