Logistics – the art of supplying an army with food, ammunition, and other supplies – may be one of the least glamorous aspects of military history, but it is also one of the most important. Explaining his success in the Peninsular War, the Duke of Wellington observed that it was necessary ‘to trace a biscuit from Lisbon into a man’s mouth on the frontier, and to provide for its removal from place to place, by land and water, or no military operations can be carried on.’
This often-overlooked subject has its own museum, recently relocated from Deepcut in Surrey to a new, purpose-built exhibition hall near Winchester. Over two floors, the Royal Logistic Corps Museum tells the story of how the British Army was supplied from Agincourt to the present day.
The move has allowed many more artefacts to be shown, and the museum makes effective use of interactive displays, models, and film. These stand alongside exhibit cases featuring uniforms, medals, weapons, and other equipment, interspersed with an impressive range of military vehicles.
Invention and improvisation
A tour of the gallery brings home the part played by improvisation in shaping the development of logistics. The first tentative steps towards government management of arms and stores date from the reign of Henry V, with the appointment of a Master of Ordnance, based at the Tower of London.
Nonetheless, soldiers continued for centuries to carry their own food and drink, or to buy or steal provisions from the local population on campaign. A reconstruction of a supply cart, commissioned by the Duke of Marlborough for the War of the Spanish Succession, shows how the early modern era’s most outstanding commander secured a continuous flow of supplies for his army. Its innovative design made it superior to the wide, heavy civilian wagons of the time.
Britain’s first uniformed logistics unit, the Royal Waggoners (later renamed the Royal Waggon Train), was a creation of the French Revolutionary Wars. Although staffed by soldiers, it depended on civilian wagons and drivers, and its effectiveness was limited by the unreliability of local contractors. Its peacetime fate – it was scaled down and finally disbanded in 1833 – highlights a recurring theme: the desire of governments to make economies once conflict ends.
It took the threat of military disaster in the Crimean War to bring about more extensive reorganisation. A film-show makes imaginative use of photographs and paintings to evoke the plight of British soldiers and the ensuing public outcry. Astonishingly, they were provided with just three days of rations, one blanket each, and no tents as the Crimean winter approached.
The outcome was the creation in 1855 of the Land Transport Corps, so that, for the first time, logistics came fully under military control. Its director-general, Sir William McMurdo, insisted that every division had its own transport unit. This was organised for maximum efficiency in a double echelon, so that one wing moved to the front-line on one day, the second wing on the next. The gallery also houses a portable stove invented by the London chef Alexis Soyer, who volunteered his services to the Army.
Logistics for a global army
The museum guides the visitor through the many administrative changes of the Victorian period. A degree of rationalisation came with the establishment in 1888 of the Army Service Corps, responsible for transport and supply. Twelve years later, the handling of weaponry and ammunition came under two new organisations: the Army Ordnance Corps and Army Ordnance Department.
The growth of empire drove not only reorganisation, but also the introduction of new technology, illustrated by two contrasting forms of transport. From the 1860s comes the General Service Wagon, a four-wheeled vehicle drawn by two horses – or a larger number on rough terrain. Close by, visitors can walk through a mock-up section of an armoured train, developed to cover the vast distances over which troops and equipment had to be moved in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.
Nonetheless, despite the limited introduction of motorised transport early in the new century, the army that fought in the First World War was still heavily dependent on horses. The exhibits in this section demonstrate how it rose to the challenge of warfare on the Western Front. A French village diorama shows some of the many activities that gave vital support to front-line troops, with models of a field kitchen, ammunition store, and repair facilities for artillery and vehicles.
Other displays reflect the expansion of logistical services. The Labour Corps provided workers, not just from the British Army but from across the empire, to dig trenches and build roads and railway lines. The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps mobilised female labour for a variety of tasks, from catering to storekeeping and vehicle maintenance.
By the outbreak of World War II, the Army Service Corps and the Army Ordnance Corps had acquired the honorific ‘Royal’, and had been joined by other organisations. The Pioneer Corps, successor to the Labour Corps, built airfields and defences and cleared bomb damage. Women found a role in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, while the Army Catering Corps managed the feeding of army units.
Just as it had done after the Napoleonic Wars, logistical organisation lapsed in peacetime, and personnel in the late 1930s lacked training and experience. But, as several display cases show, the service rose to the challenges of war in theatres as diverse as North Africa, Italy, Normandy, and the Far East. The Second World War was fought by a more highly mechanised army, whose logistics forces had at their disposal vehicles like the museum’s Bedford truck, as well as using air drops of supplies to inaccessible locations such as the Burmese jungle.
The post-war section shows how the army was supplied through the Cold War and end of empire, from the occupation of Germany to the Falklands conflict. A Humber Pig armoured car, equipped with a remote-controlled ‘Wheelbarrow’ bomb-disposal device, evokes the long-running conflict in Northern Ireland.
A tour of the museum concludes with a film on the role of today’s Royal Logistic Corps, created in 1993 from the amalgamation of five separate organisations. Present-day exhibits, including a British Army no.5 Field Kitchen used in Afghanistan, complete the story.
The human and the material
Before leaving the museum, it is worth going up to the viewing gallery to look down on the collection as a whole, and a separate area containing coaches and other vehicles used by the Army. Pride of place goes to Field Marshal Montgomery’s Rolls-Royce Wraith staff car, requisitioned from actress Madeleine Carroll, in which he travelled across Europe after the Normandy landings.
Nor does the museum neglect the individual stories that bring history to life. Here, for example, is the story of Private Joseph Brewer, who drove a wagon during the Battle of Waterloo to resupply Hougoumont Farm’s beleaguered defenders with ammunition.
A century later, from the Macedonian front in the First World War, comes the tale of Army Ordnance Corps Captain George Finch. He ended the career of German flying ace Rudolf von Eschwege, known as ‘the eagle of the Aegean’ for shooting down Allied observation balloons. Finch packed the basket of a balloon with high explosive, which he detonated from the ground when the German pilot attacked the target.
The Royal Logistic Corps Museum tells an important story, blending the human and material elements of warfare into an engaging experience. The museum offers free parking and basic facilities, including a café (not open on Saturdays at present) and a shop selling a small selection of books and souvenirs. A library and research room can be accessed by appointment.
A visit is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in finding out how the British Army has been sustained over the last six centuries. •
Royal Logistic Corps Museum
Open 9.30am-4pm Tuesday to Saturday
Worthy Down, Winchester, Hampshire, SO21 2RG
+44 (0) 1962 887793
Images: Royal Logistic Corps Museum.