The WWII German Army was 80% Horse Drawn; Business Lessons from History

The WWII German Army was 80% Horse Drawn; Business Lessons from History

Summary: The bulk of the German Army—the dough feet of the normal infantry divisions—moved on shank's mare. The rifle companies' transport consisted of three-horse wagons, on which the troops loaded their packs, as did this outfit on campaign in Russia in the summer of 1941.


sleeping troops The bulk of the German Army—the dough feet of the normal infantry divisions—moved on shank's mare. The rifle companies' transport consisted of three-horse wagons, on which the troops loaded their packs, as did this outfit on campaign in Russia in the summer of 1941. Lone

Not many people know that the greatest use of horses in any military conflict in history was by the Germans in WWII: 80% of their entire transport was equestrian. Despite all the propaganda about Blitzkreig, formidable German R&D, industrial design and production, the day to day mechanics of that fighting force involved an average of 1.1 million horses throughout the war. Of the 322 German divisions in the middle of the war - 1943 - only 52 were armored or motorized.

The great bulk of the German combat strength—the old-type infantry divisions—marched into battle on foot, with their weapons and supply trains propelled almost entirely by four-legged horsepower. The light and mountain divisions had an even greater proportion of animals, and the cavalry divisions were naturally mainly dependent on the horse.

The allies by comparison enjoyed the strategic advantage of the USA's ability to mass produce motorized vehicles, with low unit cost and rapid quantity production, coupled with relatively easy access to fuel worldwide.

What's this got to do with collaboration? The reality is companies have to go to battle with the army they have, and that includes a great deal of legacy infrastructure for all but literally brand new firms. How you adopt new processes and associated technology, however, is frequently the differentiator between attempting to survive and winning.

The story of the automatic machine gun is worth bringing in here: Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, an American who emigrated to England in the Jules Verne world of the 1880's, invented it in that era. He demonstrated his new automatic gun to the British military authorities, but;

The British army high command could see no real use for the oil-cooled machine gun he demonstrated to them in 1885; other officers even regarded the weapon as an improper form of warfare.

Two years later the British government placed an initial order for three in order to evaluate them. Although they passed all tests they were not picked up by the British military high command, who envisaged limited infantry use of such a weapon.

Arms salesman Basil Zaharoff made a much more favorable impression on the German high command later that decade, so when World War One broke out in August 1914 they had 12,000 available.

The British commanders continued to order the 'offensive spirit' of charging at these weapons of mass destruction, but they

...found to their repeated cost the futility of massed infantry attacks against well-entrenched defensive positions protected by machine gun cover. The first day of the (1916) Somme Offensive amply illustrated this, although the lesson appeared to be lost to the British high command. On the opening day of the offensive the British suffered a record number of single day casualties, 60,000, the great majority lost under withering machine gun fire.

The allies rapidly ramped up their machine gun production and tactical usage to achieve parity which led to a prolonged, dug in defensive conflict.

The machine gun meanwhile quickly developed internationally from a cumbersome, jam prone 100lb+ weapon requiring four men to move and operate, to a sophisticated hand held rapid fire automatic weapon.

From a strategic perspective there are two analogies with management practice and associated IT.

German Bicycle reconnaissance troops in arctic While the WWII German forces enjoyed significant air superiority during the early years of the war, they were ultimately overstretched on several fronts and limited by their transport infrastructure. The Russians had lend/lease Studebaker trucks while the Germans formed arctic bicycle reconnaissance battalions.(See above)

This allied transport advantage is analogous to a coherent collaboration strategy and associated environment. The ability to mobilize your entire workforce to be informed and move quickly is tactically key to executing strategy and gain competitive advantage.

Collaboration is primarily a human endeavor, and we constantly seek out tools and technologies to improve our ability to communicate, and to capture and disseminate information. Not being open minded about what will bring tactical advantage, as was the case with the British High command's opinion of Maxim's machine gun, can result in fatal failure when your competitors are more open minded and fast moving than you.

Legacy IT infrastructure can sometimes be the cavalry regiments of modern companies, requiring a lot of care and feeding but in reality reinforcing ponderous, old fashioned ways of doing things. Seeking tactical advantage that augments the status quo has never been more important than it is in the current economic climate. The First World War ended four dynasties: the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires. It not hard to draw an analogy with what will happen to some global company's empires if they don't heed the lessons of history.

Command and control alone doesn't win wars, especially without a finely honed strategy; it's differentiators like Maxim's machine gun that make all the difference.

To continue this post's military theme, here's some video of Jeffrey A. Sorenson, CIO of the Department of the US Army, speaking last month at the Web 2 Summit conference. Sorenson talks about plans to deploy lightweight 'Stryker brigades' anywhere in the world within 96 hours, and the associated command posts of the future. This was a fascinating talk and demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the power of collaboration technologies by the US military - at least in this slide deck - and also some fascinating insights into the cyber warfare aspects of the recent conflict in Georgia.

Topics: CXO, Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Software


Oliver Marks & Associates provides seasoned, technology agnostic independent consulting guidance to companies on effective Digital Enterprise Transformation business strategy, tactics, infrastructure & technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models and management.

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  • the emphasis in the german army was on physical fitness

    Strategically their battalions were twice as strong as UK/USA battalions, and four times as strong as Soviet battalions.
    Their Hitler Youth SS Battalions were even stronger.

    I'm not convinced that motorised vehicles were a large contributory factor to our success, it was overwhelming force of numbers that overcame Nazi Germany, especially on the eastern front where 9/10 German Soldiers died.

    Not to mention the burning to death of perhaps a million or more German citizens by UK Bomber Command.
    • We tried.

      "Not to mention the burning to death of perhaps a million or more German citizens by UK Bomber Command."

      More citizens died in the fire bombing of Dresden than Hiroshima. But no matter how hard we tried, the combined strength of the Allies couldn't even come close to the casualties inflicted by the Axis powers. You seem to be familiar with this subject so you must know that over 50 million people died in WWII and the estimate is that 25 million were Soviets.
      • That particular statistic had a lot to do with methodology.

        [i]You seem to be familiar with this subject so you must know that over 50 million people died in WWII and the estimate is that 25 million were Soviets.[/i]

        One Soviet approach I really liked was something along the lines of:

        1-Send lots of troops forward with only the first man in line having a weapon.

        2-When the guy in front gets shot, the guy behind him picks up the weapon.

        3-When the outnumbered Germans run out of bullets, shoot half of them and accept the surrender of the rest.

        4-Make the remaining Germans take a march that would make Bataan look like a walk in the park.

        5-Conscript new recruits.

        6-Repeat steps 1-5.
      • I was comparing other reasons we won to the "we had lots of cars angle"

        The deliberate targeting of the German population by Bomber Command was one of many tactics used by the allies, I was just adding it . Having lots of cars probably wasn't the dealbreaker the article makes it sound like it was.
        • Trucks, not cars

          The thousands of trucks we gave the Russians enabled them to sustain a constant offensive, never needing to pause for resupply. This is what ground down the German war machine, more than any other factor.

          Bombing the German population was ineffective at cutting production of war materiel - production increased in spite of it. Where strategic bombing [i]was[/i] a success was against German fuel production - petroleum was a "sympathetic" target (it blowed up real good).

          Hitler was desperately eager to motorize his armies - and the German economy - but the prostrate economy he had to start with made it slow going. When he perceived the time was ripe to attack, he believed he couldn't afford to wait - so he went to war without enough trucks, enough ships, or decent tanks (only puny training tanks that were never meant to see combat).

          Would have worked if the U.S. had stayed out of it, as he hoped. The lesson? I dunno - beware the well-financed newcomer entering the market?
          • agreed, trucks helped. The T34 and Katya helped too.

            But it's pretty clear it was sheer weight of numbers. Regardless of the Allies equipment, the men of the Wehrmacht, plus their quite reasonable equipment punched harder man for man.

            Yes Bomber command incinerating so man civilians had practically no effect in terms of lessening production (perhaps as low as 1%) but it probably had a psychological effect.

            (Sun Tzu's 'terror').

            I think if any one of the major powers of the axis had not been in combat when they were, the outcome would probably have been different.
            So it's a good thing that everything turned out how it did.
      • Dresden Bombing Myths

        The number of dead in Dresden was much lower than popular history claims. (And this is according to German historians.)

        Just to be clear, I'm not making any comment on the moral aspects of the bombing; just on the reported facts.
        • why dresden should attract disgust over other cities is unclear

          We shouldn't eulogise or seek to justify the burning to death (or killing in any other way) of any civilians (or indeed drafted soldiers) in any theatre of war, be it Dresden, Berlin, London, Toyko, Ho Chi Minh city etc.

          It's pretty horrific. The allies knew what they were doing, and felt it was necessary to do this to win the war, and that winning the war by anhialation of the Nazi state was absolutely necessary.
          The allies didn't win easily or by a clear margin, it was tough, so it's almost impossible to make any moral judgement about it.

          The difficult part is the Nazis probably felt exactly the same way about the world they were trying to create.

          So all you end up with is that war/killing is very very wrong, in terms of the terrible acts on both sides, and that it was unavoidable, necessary, and it was resolved in the right direction.

          The men in bomber command had very short lives, so they were clearly brave, but it's difficult to see honour when they were incendiary bombing civilians. It was a horrible, dirty war, there is practically nothing good about the whole thing other than many acts of courage and mercy (on both sides, because there were many prisoners of war kept in decent conditions in germany) amongst the prevailing filth, and that the ending was the right one.
    • Even if your physically fit. . .

      If you take a bullet in the head your still dead. Physical fitness would have helped a soldier but it only went so far.

      We are only human.
      • specops troops are extraordinarily fit

        often they travel very far on foot behind enemy lines.
        At the end of the day, due to better training / fitness or whatever, the german units were stronger by man than allies by a factor of 2-4.

        Say you're stronger than your enemy by a factor of 4, but he has 5 times as many troops, in a war of attrition, the generals being equal in strategic capability, the enemy will win.
  • RE: The WWII German Army was 80?0Horse Drawn; Business Lessons from History

    I knew they used horses, but I had no idea it was in such a large proportion.
    A great short, informative article.
  • what about the rail system?

    What about the European rail system? Within continential Europe the Nazi's could use the rail system to easily move troops and equipment (and prisoners). They didn't have that type of rail system available when they invaded the plains of Eastern Europe.

    I guess the point would be, understand and make use of the infrastructure you have and don't extend yourself past your core business.
  • RE: The WWII German Army was 80% Horse Drawn; Business Lessons from History

    There's another point about being open-minded about technology. The American army in Italy abandoned their trucks and switched to mules in the mountains because they were better able to navigate the rough terrain. Being open-minded about technology also means being open-minded about "legacy" technology.

    I like new kit as much as the next guy, but sometimes the old stuff can get the job done cheaper and more reliably. (At least until people figure out how best to apply the new technology.)
  • The US auto makers should read this,

    The automakers a using 30 year old thinking and planning and going down the drain.
  • A real eye opener about America...

    For all our tip of the arrow talk the military even today is run by idiots. There is a history book called hang fire? that talks about the history of the US Army buying the worst crap to arm its soldiers. The department that handles accepting firearms has killed more soldiers than the enemy. The reason is that it is a refuge for bad officers. It outlines all the mistakes from the M-16 backward. I was shocked that we actually won most of the wars based on how poorly armed we were.
    • U.S. had "greatest battle implement"

      You had the latest technology available to you at the time - a semi-automatic (just pull the trigger) 8 shot top loading clip rifle. Everyone else (incl. your other allies, had bolt action - fire shot - pull bolt to eject shell and reload from clip.)

      The M1 Garand Rifle also known as the Caliber .30
      General George S Patton called "The greatest battle implement ever devised".
      • germans had semi-auto Gew 43s and a large number of submachine guns

        Not just bolt actions.
        Most infantry are (and probably were) killed by mortar fire.
        • Also the Stg 44

          Let's not forget that they had the Sturmgewehr 44, the world's first assault rifle. An interesting story behind that, applicable to the business world.

          When the designers of the Stg 44 first presented it, the military loved it, but Hitler hated it. He was a corporal in WWI, of course, and his idea of a military rifle was a long rifle, designed for accuracy at 1000 meters. Of course, in a modern battlefield, no engagement really occurs at that range, so it is rediculous. The commanders were distraught, because they knew that the Stg 44 was a great rifle to use. So they worked around Hitler: because it was an automatic weapon, they gave it a "Machine Pistol" designation (which was their designation for submachine guns), and Hitler supported submachine guns. Hitler approved the weapon, and it went on to forever change infantry small arms. When Hitler found out, he didn't have anyone executed over it, despite them going over his head.

          There's a great lesson about business to be learned there.

          Justin James
  • Good research, faulty conclusions

    You have drawn a most amazingly incorrect set of conclusions from an otherwise well researched set of facts. The reality is, Germany defeated France in a few weeks and nearly beat England *and* the USSR, neither of which have happened in many, many centuries. When the US entered the war, Germany was throwing 16 year old boys and 40 year old men into the fight. Despite all of that, the Wehrmacht maintained an impressive 3:1 kill ratio against the US troops, who were the best trained, educated, and equiped army the world had seen up until that point, while outnumbered, no less! The kill ratio against British and French troops was higher, and if I recall properly, the kill ratio against Soviet troops was well over 10:1.

    The secret the the Wehrmacht's success in the field has much to do with the education of what can be described as their executive and middle management layers. For example, sergeants in the German army performed the functions of low level officers in the US army. Those sergeants got their stripes by surviving under fire, not by going through the "right courses". In the business world, the equivalent would be the person promoted through the ranks as opposed to being hired as management fresh out of business school. It's like the movie "Aliens", who do you really want leading you, Sgt. Apone or Lt. Gorman?

    Another major difference between the leadership is the idea of "leading from the field". Many, many more German staff level officers died in WWII compared to the US army, because their generals and colonels led from the field. Rommel, for example, would typically be on the next hill observing with binoculars and strategizing on the spot, well within artillery range. This is why the timing of D-Day was so critical. Rommel (who was in charge of the coastal defense) was away from the scene due to a family event (his wife's birthday, or maybe she was sick, I forget the exact cause); it was very rare for him to not be there. The mere absense of Rommel was considered to be a major strategic advantage by the Allied forces, and rightfully so. He was a leader who lead his troops all over Africa, with no supply lines, no reinforcements, no supports, beating all winners for quite some time.

    The real lesson to be learned here? With the right management, legacy can hold its own quite well.

    Justin James