Monday, February 20, 2017

French Field Bakeries and Logistics

Construction of a typical field bakery, model by Ed Phillips. Click pix to enlarge.

I was reading a book titled "The French Armies in the Seven Years War" by Lee Kennett (Duke University Press, 1967) and came across some information about the French system of logistics, in particular the section about field bakeries. The one thing that really struck me was how the movement and placement of the field bakeries had such a substantive impact on the maneuvering of the French army on campaign. More on that in a minute.

I also found a short passage from memoir of Comte d'Estees and the account of the Marquis de Valfons, both on the Battle of Hastenback on July 26, 1757. The booklet was translated and published by the late James J. Mitchell (formerly the editor of the Seven Years War Association Journal prior to his untimely passing).

Valfons' account mentions an incident prior to the battle. M. de Chevert was making a reconnaissance in force around the left flank of the Hanoverian position on July 25th. After an examination of the Hanoverian position, Chevert sent Valfons back to the headquarters of Marshal d'Estrees, the commander of the French army at Hastenbeck, to give an account of the news that Chevert believed that there was an opportunity to attack the rear of the Hanoverian position on the Voglesberg.

I found M. the Marshal who, after having listened to me, told me, "Monsieur, I do not want a battle; pray M. de Chevert to withdraw his corps by the left beneath one that M. d'Armantieres command and for both to rejoin the army.

I insisted on the advantage to be lost in abandoning ground which the enemy would certainly take hold of during the night, all was of no use, his response was always "Leave!" Finally, counting on his goodness and the friendship which he had for me, I took him aside and said to him:

"Monsieur la Marechal, my attachment and appreciation embolden me to represent to you that you will be doing a great harm with respect to your army if you defer an operation which appears certain. Audacity, as you know, is the appendage of the Frenchman, and we should not allow his courage to cool."

He gently listened to me.

" Oh well! You are going to extract from me my secret; my convoy of bread is another 4 leagues from here and we don't have any other. When one fights, one could be beaten, and I don't want that the army should disperse for lack of sustenance. See you tomorrow morning when the convoy arrives."

By 7PM, the convoy was within one league and so M l"Estries gave Chevert the go ahead to organize his attack on the Hanoverian position on the following morning (July 26th).

So often we critisize French generals for their deliberate actions on campaign, and yet, when one drills a little deeper, the problems of logistic reveal the true nature of d'entrees command decisions.

Kennett's Analysis

An army of 100,000 men consumes 200,000 pounds of flour each day. The 75,000 horses in Germany  required during the Winter months a total of 8,818,636 rations - some 70,000 bales of hay and 4 million bushels of oats. To supply 100,000 men with bread, some 40 ovens were needed; often materials were in such short supply that houses had to be demolished to obtain the brick, and the installations required as much as two weeks to build. The Austrians and Prussians developed portable iron field ovens which were very successful, but the French preferred to adhere to the system of baking their bread in brick ovens. [ this suggests many ideas for wargame scenarios that center around either the construction of brick ovens, attacks on the bread convoys, or raids to acquire the necessary bricks for oven building].

Commonly the bread ration was issued every four days, the bread being edible for about nine days after baking. The rations were delivered to the army by convoys. The field ovens were generally placed about three days' march from the grain stores and two more days march from the army. It must  be said to the credit of the minitionnaire that the bread supply never failed disastrously in the Army of the Lower Rhine. It should be added, however, that time and time again troop movements were cancelled for the very purpose of preventing such a failure. [this is an interesting revelation that explains the events at Hastenbeck on the day before the battle on July 25th 1757]

This can be seen quite clearly during the summer of 1759 . Contades wrote from Corbach on June 10 that he had planned to advance but the that the ovens at Corbach from which the bread was to be drawn would not be ready for some two weeks because of the lack of materials. (Contades mentions that the army could be supplied from the ovens installed at Marburg, but could go no further, as it would be a distance of 18 leagues, the maximum distance as outlined in the French military regulations). 

The Corbach ovens would be completed on June 24 and the first rations from this installation could be drawn on July 28, after which the army could advance again. New problems arose for more ovens needed to be built at Cassel and Paderborn and the army could advance 18 leagues beyond Paderborn providing the ovens could be put into operation by July 6. The army continued to leap frog forward from one set of ovens to the other, until it encountered the enemy at Minden.




  1. a very interesting and thought provoking post. much food for thought indeed.

  2. Yes, interesting and confirms the army and the tummy cliche.

    Absolutely brilliant modeling!