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How was such a great army, like the army of Napoleon on its way to Moscow, supplied with food and other needed things? Were they transporting it from France or maybe stealing from territory on their way? What were general methods to supply great armies?

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    Your question is interesting. However, equally interesting question is "How chain of supply of Napoleo army failed during the winter in Rusia". You question assumes that his chain of suply was always successful. This was apparently not always true. – Andrei Oct 13 '11 at 20:52
  • The legend has it that inventor of canned food came to Napoleon with his invention just before Russian campaign. Napoleon refused to use the canned food in his troops. And that this eventually was one of the reason of failures of his food supply during the winter. Never knew if this legend was true. – Andrei Oct 13 '11 at 20:55
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Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History's Greatest Soldier by David Chandler is a good source of informations on Napoleon. See pages 749-797, chapter "War Pans and Preparations".

Mostly, the supplies were stored and ran from Poland. However, the army was accompanied by no less than 200,000 animals and 250,000 vehicles. A lot of the supplies were to be found on site -- hence the delay in the attack. The sheer scale of Russia and its scorched earth were massive factors in the failure of the offensive.

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Napoleon's army got some supplies from occupied and allied territories of course, especially from Prussia and Poland. Still, the distances were too long to get sufficient supplies in and so the soldiers plundered villages on their way to collect food. This turned out particularly devastating on their way back: the Russians used scorched earth tactics and the army literally starved to death. To quote Wikipedia:

Napoleon and the Grande Armée had developed a proclivity for living off the land that had served it well in the densely populated and agriculturally rich central Europe with its dense network of roads. Rapid forced marches had dazed and confused old order Austrian and Prussian armies and much had been made of the use of foraging. In Russia many of the Grande Armée's methods of operation worked against it. Forced marches often made troops do without supplies as the supply wagons struggled to keep up. Lack of food and water in thinly populated, much less agriculturally dense regions led to the death of troops and their mounts by exposing them to waterborne diseases from drinking from mud puddles and eating rotten food and forage. The front of the army would receive whatever could be provided while the formations behind starved.

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There were four main methods of supplying troops during the Napoleonic period;

(1) The individual soldiers would be issued with rations that they carried in their knapsack. Enough for about two weeks. This was often in the form of biscuits.

(2) Cattle or other animals were herded along and slaughtered along the way but these increased the grazing requirement.

(3) Wagons following in the supply train. The main component of which was normally flour. Periodically they would stop construct ovens and bake biscuits. (In Spain, Wellington's supply was mainly on mules rather than wagons)

(4) Living off the land and foraging. French armies tended to rely on this much more than the various allied armies. In western Europe this was much more successful than in less rich regions like Spain or Russia. While foraging can often enable armies to move faster, the prolonged use of foraging brings down good army discipline as troops get very used to this foraging and just outright looting follows and result in bad relations with civilians.(As well as opportunities for the less committed soldiers to just desert)

For the 1812 invasion of Russia, it was gathered in eastern regions under Napoleon's control and sent to the areas the Army was concentrating in. This was by wagon mainly but there was some use of river transport. Napoleon never intended to march to Moscow. The campaign was a series of ad-hoc decisions by Napoleon to move further into Russia which he had not planned for and had not the supply to do. Napoleon only had the wagon capacity to supply around half his army that sort of distance, and that's ideally. There were problems right from the start. Horses were not in good condition when they started (and the French cavalry were notorious for their bad treatment of their horses), and the extravagant use and marching of Murat was not going to conserve horses.

On the retreat from Moscow, the shortage of horses was made worse by poor march discipline, with much looted baggage that consumed both space on the road (making for more congestion slower march) and use of horses. Napoleon had been urged by his Generals to abandon much of the artillery (particularly those of the less useful smaller calibres) to free up some horses but this was rejected.

  • I plan to get back and explain biscuits and typical supplies carried in pack and few other things – pugsville Sep 17 '15 at 5:43
  • French soldiers were typically issued cheese as well as biscuit for their ration. Both foods are both dense and calorie rich. – Pieter Geerkens May 6 '17 at 21:48
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Napoleon's centre of gravity for his army was fast mobility and forced marches. Therefore, he enforced training for his troops to live and forage off the land. This worked within Europe where fertile lands made this practice easy. Organising his army into corps and regiments, he was able to ensure a fluidity and freedom of movement within the battlespace. This is more exceptional when you take into account that he faced enemies with the same technology (peer to peer).

Russia was a different matter entirely. The invasion was planned during 1811 in Germany. He crossed into Russia in 1812. His estimation of the campaign was that, due to his 600,000 troops, the Russian Czar Alexander would immediately surrender. He estimated it would take a total of three weeks.

The Russian generals knew they could not beat Napoleon head on. Already knowing his tactics and taking advantage of his need to bring Russia to heel quickly, to ensure the reinstatement of the effectiveness of his "continental system", Russia's troops kept withdrawing further into Russia. Only taking part in small skirmishes in order to ensure the French army never relaxed. Then Russia stated to commit to scorched earth, burning the winter's crops so the French could not utilise them.

When Napoleon got to Moscow he had 300,000 troops (some historians say 200,000). The Russians burnt Moscow to deny Napoleon the ability to rest and recuperate there. Napoleon withdrew from Russia trying to avoid the scorched earth, however, the Russians attacked Napoleon's army forcing them to go back through the scorched earth areas. When Napoleon eventually got back to Germany he had a meagre 30,000 troops.

Napoleons Russia campaign is not so much a lesson in failure of logistical systems more so a lesson that an army must always strive to eliminate any weakness within logistical systems as there is nothing that will control how an army can utilise a battlespace more.

  • inaccurate on number, Napoleon had barely 100,000 on entering moscow, Napoleon losses on machine to moscow were greater than those when retreating. Who burnt moscow has never been proven, the Russian fired some military stores, but haphazard looting bytes french army began straight away and fires from such lotting were common. Though much private supplies being in cellars survied that fire, there was no attempt to impose march discipline and loot was favoured over food in the retreat. – pugsville May 18 '17 at 2:52
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Tinned food was in its infancy and expensive to employ, the tins were sealed with lead and would not have been used on such a massive scale. Napoleon's armies divided to march, United to fight and thus tried to live off the land/local produce and used supply wagons/depots more closer to the battle when concentrated. One of the reasons supply failed in Russia was the Russians destroyed everything and then the road Napoleon wanted to take was barred on the retreat forcing the army to retread the same barren route. Also severe heat then storms on the advance killed thousands of horses and so many of the wagons were abandoned.

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