Saturday, May 2, 2015

Marching to War

Wooden figures found in the tomb of Mesehti: Egyptian army of the 11th Dynasty
Photo by Udimu - Cairo Egyptian Museum. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (Source)
The smell of horses and horse dung, the smell of sweat and unwashed humans, that is the smell of an army on the march.

Reenacters portraying Roman legionaries of Legio XV Apollinaris.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (Source)

The tramp of thousands of feet upon the ground, the clatter of hooves, the rattle of the siege equipment rolling forward. In later years, the sound of the artillery limbers and the guns themselves. The shouts of the officers and sergeants. That is the sound of an army on the march.

The March to Valley Forge by William B. T. Trego (Public Domain)

From the 11th Dynasty of Egypt to the invasion of Russia in 1941, a span of over 4000 years, armies marched to war, on foot and on horseback.

Long columns of men, horses and wheeled conveyances would stretch for miles, filling the air with dust in fair weather, churning the roads and nearby fields to thick, glutinous mud in rainy weather.

From Paris to Moscow is over 1750 miles, from Berlin to Moscow, a little over 1100 miles. Can you begin to imagine what it would have been like to travel that distance, on foot, carrying upwards of 60+ pounds of equipment, ammunition and rations? In all sorts of weather?

It boggles the modern mind. (At least it boggles mine!)

Campagne de France by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (Public Domain)

While many think of World War II as a fully mechanized war, it really wasn't, not for the most part.

The German Army of 1941 went into Russia much the same as their grandfathers did. Wearing a field pack loaded with their necessaries, brotbeutel with rations slung from their belt, steel helmet on head and a single shot magazine fed rifle in 7.92mm, the ubiquitous K98, virtually the same rifle their grandfathers had carried to the Marne back in 1914. (First fielded in 1898, the WWII version was shorter and lighter.)

Confederate troops marching west on East Patrick Street, Frederick, Maryland, September 12, 1862 (Public Domain)

To be sure, the 1940s saw the introduction of motorized transport and armored fighting vehicles, but those were relatively rare. German infantry divisions marched to war with horse drawn artillery, horse drawn transport and officers still on horseback. Take away the vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine and the Emperor Napoléon would feel right at home, even Pharaoh Mentuhotep I would recognize those marching columns. (Though no doubt Pharaoh would have considered the men overdressed for war in Egypt and Napoléon would probably wonder why the uniforms were so drab. He would probably appreciate the economy of a standardized uniform for the entire army. The Emperor was always looking to save a sous or two on his expenses!)

British troops on the march in Mesopotamia, 1917. (Public Domain)
"Russland, Soldaten auf dem Marsch"
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons (Source)
Soldiers marched into battle for thousands of years, some later would ride into battle in trucks and halftracks, later the Bradley, but would dismount to actually fight.

War has become more dispersed over the centuries, the weapons more deadly, the uniforms more drab, so as to blend into the landscape. But the purpose of war, the killing and the destruction have remained the same.

Dak To, Vietnam
(U.S.Army Signal Corps Photo)

How one gets to the fight is one thing.

How one survives to see the next day is another.

'Tis a rare soldier indeed who does not dream of the end of war. Who prays to see the next dawn, to someday get home. Wherever home may be.

One thing though has never changed...

And probably never will...

Plato knew it over 2000 years ago...

Only the dead have seen the end of war.

Fort Snelling Looking Southeast
Photo by Akoda1031 - Own work. Public Domain (Source)


  1. Speaking of the conditions under which men fight, a little trip to the Civil War Museum in New Orleans (the second largest collection of documents, artifacts & memorabilia in the nation after the one in Richmond and located just oppo the WW II museum across the street that historian Steven Ambrose started) opened MY little eyes. Those uniforms! The weaving of those heavy wool uniforms was more akin to burlap bag consistency! Imagine fighting in the rain, muck & mire in the heat and humidity of the Deep South in Summer with that stuff on! With the high collars! And the irritation of the skin w. those uniforms rubbing! Shudddder..

    1. I need to get back to New Orleans to see those museums, I've only been there once as a side trip from Pensacola.

      As to the wool uniforms, I had trouble enough along the Mississippi Gulf Coast wearing light cotton clothing. Can't imagine doing anything wearing wool!

  2. in 2008 I went back to Gettysburg for the reenactment. Locals were saying it was the hottest they could remember. Mostly in the 90s with humidity to match. This California boy was miserable, even in camp when I could strip off the coat and waistcoat and just be in the wool pants and cotton shirt. I couldn't imagine having to march a dozen or more miles and then fight in weather like that. Always damp. Always hot. Feeling like you were swimming through the air it was so humid. The only good thing about the weather was that there was some rain just about every day so it kept down the dust as the infantry marched passed the artillery park or the guns on the field.

    On the other hand, the guys from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and other such places thought I was crazy, the weather was just fine. Maybe a tad dry.

    1. I've read accounts of the humidity in Pennsylvania in 1863.

      Those old uniforms didn't "breathe" very well.

      The guys from Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana might have packed sweaters for the trip "Up North" - I've spent time in all three places, gives a whole new meaning to the term "humidity." But you do get used to it. Of course, most of my uniforms were a cotton/polyester blend. No wool in my duffel bag!

  3. There's a reason people pick the navy. And in particular, Naval Aviation!

    1. Heh, no marching on the boat?

      (As I recall though, getting from point A to point B on a Nimitz-class carrier takes some walking!)

    2. There's only one thing funnier than watching sailors parade, and that's watching airwing sailors parade. Looks more like a square dance than a formation. "Dress Right, DRESS!" usually yields allemande left with a do sa do. On one memorable occasion CAG noted a strong resemblance to the proverbial monkey and football, to which the CAG Gunner replied, "They're firetruckin' airdales, CAG, not a buncha blankety-blank parade ground Marines!"

      And yeah, plenty of walking (and standing in line) on the boat.

    3. Heck, walking and standing in line? Even the Air Force can do that!

      Or they used to anyway.

    4. At Holloman, they had a monthly Parade where Retirees retired, Medals were awarded, Commands were passed etc. It usually had a flyover with the duty rotating between the Air Division Squadrons. The squadron that provided the flyover also had to provide the "troops". So the squadron and the AMU had to march with the Squadron Commander out front. It was our turn, and we'd actually practiced. The Squadron Commander hadn't though. So we're getting in to position and going through the commands all the way up to Dress Right, Dress! Standing there with our left arm out waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Those of us that could see him could read his face and knew he couldn't remember the next command. Finally, in his best Drill Sergeant voice he hollers, "Put your Arms.....Down! Worked like a charm!

    5. Not exactly stock from the drill manual...

      But if it works, it works!

  4. Yep, went into Naval Aviation so I didn't have to walk to work... :-) And I doubt most people COULD walk 10 miles carrying nothing these days. They were definitely hardier back in the day, before cars, AC and all the other things we take for granted!

  5. I'll take ice, snow, and sub zero temperatures every time over heat and humidity.

    1. Can always put more clothes on, with heat. once you get to a certain point, there's nothing more to take off.

      I'm a cold weather fellow myself, but...

      There's a story to be told there.

  6. I've told this story before many times, don't know if here, but one of the reasons I chose Air Force pilot tng was when I asked my Dad, who was a Company Co with the 42nd Rainbow Div in WWII what conditions were like he replied: "Son, you haven't lived until you've spent seven days and six nights January in northern Germany in two feet of heavy snow in the open in foxholes under heavy arty fire under a freezing rain with six inches of ice water covering your boots.." LOL!

    1. Wise choice Virgil.

      But thank God for guys like your Dad.

  7. PS: Two Thirds of all cas in WW II were due to disease or exposure..

    1. Holds true going back to antiquity. Most deaths were due to disease and exposure. Many more men were disabled permanently by same.


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