Logistics And The British Defeat

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Logistics And The British Defeat


When war broke out in America in 1775, the British forces were not logistically prepared. When they are compared with the rebelling colonies the logistics system used by the British appeared efficient superficially, but it had deep cracks and fissures that would eventually cost the British Empire the war. Its soldiers were never short of food or water, and military supplies were sufficient for all the men involved in the battle. Logistics of this scale would not be witnessed for almost two centuries until the Allies invaded North Africa during the Second World War. The major failure of the logistics system was in its resupply network, which should have been identified and rectified as the war wore on (Bowler, 24).

This was not done and therefore the downfall of the British Army in the war began. A close examination of the manner in which the British Empire supplied its troops both in the colonies and from the mother country reveals how the absence, or presence, of crucial materials can affect military expeditions. Eventually, the absence of adequate supplies in reserve, coupled with rampant corruption, insufficient transportation and cautious generalship led to the defeat of the British Army (Christopher, 34).

Logistical Issues

The Treasury Department

The British Treasury Department was mainly responsible for the maintenance of food supplies which also included forage for the animals used during the war (Bowler, 65). It is worth noting that during this time, men fought primarily on horseback, and therefore they depended on horses for mobility and flexibility. Their horses had to be fed.

The Navy Board

This board was charged with the responsibility of transporting clothing, cavalry and infantry supplies, tents, hospital supplies and other camping equipment (Bowler, 16). The Navy Board was to ensure that troops were well equipped to go to war at anytime, anywhere.

The Ordnance Board

Responsible for engineers, guns, artillery, and other ordnance stores including ammunition.

The Treasury Department was ill prepared for the beginning of the war. At the time, the British Army was a colonial garrison force, and there was no central command since England lacked the general staff to serve there (Buel, 39). There were no army officers in the command hierarchy above the level of regiment before the start of the Revolutionary War. The Navy Board can be said to have been better organized than the Treasury, mainly due to the fact that Britain was a major naval power. At the time, Britain had the largest and most powerful navy in the world. Since 1689, the Quartermaster General together with his department had been existent in the British Army; and the department was its most senior service department.

In contrast to today when the duties of quartermasters are strictly logistical, the Quartermaster General of Britain in the 18th century was charged with other duties. He was what would be known today as a chief of staff to the Commanding General, and therefore issues of supply formed just a section of the many spheres of work he engaged in. He was charged with coordinating other staff departments like operations and intelligence, and also assumed command of troops whenever the army launched an attack. This clearly indicates that he had little chance of focusing all his attention to the supply of food and forage to the personnel and animals involved in the war in America (Huston, 42). After the Quartermaster General’s Department, the next in line was the Commissary. The head of this department (the Commissary General) was a civilian.

The number of staff who served under him in the colonies steadily grew to 300. The purchase of fresh food supplies became the biggest supply problem for the British Army. The Commissary Department was riddled with so much corruption and the very first Commissary General (Daniel Chamier) was also dishonest apart from being incompetent. His biggest failure was the inability to file accurate reports on the total number of personnel in the colonies who were in need of rations. The downside was that the Treasury relied upon the figures given to it by Mr. Chaimer as a basis for shipping requirements and ration acquisition. The total requirement Chaimer sent to England was regularly short by an average of 4,000 rations. In addition to this, officers, refugees, children and wives and other people who were supposed to receive a share of the rations delivered to the army (Buel, 96).

The Barracks Master General had other duties apart from his main task of ensuring that all troops were properly and adequately accommodated in the garrisons.

He was charged with supplying them with stoves, cots, tents and other camping equipment they required to survive in the field. He was also responsible for supplying fuel, which was mainly firewood until the discovery of coal which replaced firewood in the later stages of the war. Just like the majority of the British Army’s service support corps, the Barracks Master General always used his position for personal profit. In the colonies, Engineer and Medical departments formed the last of the support staff under the leadership of the Commanding General.

Corruption And Profiteering

Corruption and profiteering were very rampant in the British logistics system. The service corps was dominated by individuals who had the least concern for ethics and good leadership. It is however worth mentioning that under the British Law at that time, a majority of practices that we define as legal today were not crimes (Huston, 39). They were never considered to be ethically or morally wrong during the 18th century. It was common for commissaries to keep the “fifth quarter” of slaughtered livestock for themselves. This “fifth quarter” was the tallow, hide and the head, and they would be sold for profit by whoever managed to lay his hands on them. Although such behavior was tolerated, it eventually contributed to the development of more unethical practices.

For example, the contractors in Britain who supplied food for shipment to the colonies regularly provided quantities of cereals like rice or flour that were considerably less than the required amount. There could be as much as 10% shortage in a single barrel of flour (Bowler, 187). There is no single record of what happened to the millions of bags, crates, barrels, boxes and other containers sent to America.

Majority of the consignments arrived in a poor state and probably would have been thrown away, but it is impossible to imagine that the commissaries could have sold them for profit. The other policy which was frequently abused by the Commissary General and his staff involved the cattle that were captured during battle or raids on farms and homes (Christopher, 81). Fresh meat was always in great demand, and the army had no reluctance in paying each soldier one dollar for every head of cattle that was brought to the camps. The Commissary General routinely took advantage of this and paid soldiers the dollar they were supposed to be given and then sold the cattle to the army at their current market value. They consequently made huge personal profits from this dishonest practice. The reimbursement of civilians for commandeered supplies was not spared either. It was transformed into an income generating venture by the men in the commissary.

If the army had to commander supplies from local farms, the troops were supposed to give each farmer a receipt to take to the commissary in order to get their reimbursements. They however rarely got their money (Buel, 94). This could be because they were afraid or because they knew reimbursement was unlikely to be given to them. What the commissaries did is they took the money meant for the reimbursement and later reported that it had been claimed. Transportation in the British logistics system was also corrupted. According to a parliamentary commission that reviewed the expenditure of public money in 1781, the majority of horses and wagons that were hired to provide support to the British Army in the colonies were owned by officers who worked in the department of the Quartermaster General.

Funnily enough, they were the same officers who were charged with the responsibility of conducting the hiring process (Huston, 27). This would be a blatant violation of ethics in today’s ethical standards.


The experience of the British in the American Revolutionary War is very important for the militaries of today. Although numerous changes have been witnessed in the area of military technology and organization in the last 200 years, American forces still have a hard time dealing with many of the similar problems that hampered the resupply effort of the British. Logisticians in force projection armies still have to solve the problem of delivering supplies over long distances, relying upon the support of the host nation and conquering the constraints of resource. The most important thing to note is that when logistics is not planned in detail, military operations still suffer a great deal.


Bowler, R. Arthur. Logistics And the Failure Of the British Army In America 1775-1783. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Buel, Richard. In Irons: Britain’s Naval Supremacy And The Revolutionary Economy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

Huston, James A. Logistics of Liberty: American Services Of Supply In The Revolutionary War

And After. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1993.

Christopher Hibbert. The American Revolution Through British Eyes. New York: Avon Books, 1997.