Army living off the land

Oct 2011
What is the typical and/or maximum size of an army that can live off the land, that is, does not rely on supply lines? If memory serves me right, Roman legions of Principate might have been sized based on that concern, but I am not 100% certain of that one. I do know that an army 100 000 strong would require sophisticated logistical system in place; IIRC, Byzantines set up such systems for field armies 20 000 or so strong.
Mar 2018
It depends entirely on where, when and how long for.

In a desert or an Alpine winter? No more than a few dozen. In a fertile plain with plenty of drinkable water? I imagine 100,000 could last a week provided that they are willing to spend a long time travelling to foraging ground.
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Edric Streona

Ad Honorem
Feb 2016
So many variables...
what land?
How settled is it?
What type of troops, a mostly infantry force is going to need less than a mounted one?
How far from home are they?
How widely dispersed are they?
Are your troops used to food shortages or are they used to being well fed?
Are they close to water?
How skilled are their foragers?
Have the enemy enacted a scorched earth tactics?

I think you’d need to be very specific about the details before you’d get anything but a ball park figure.
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Feb 2019
How rich is the land?

How big is the land?

How big is the army?

What types of troops are in the army?

What is the population of the land?

What season is it?

What type of enemy is the army fighting?

How hostile is the population?

What resources does the land have?

What does your logistics situation look like?

Many questions with many different answers, the question needs to be more specific.
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Oct 2011
@Edric Streona @Mastersonmcvoidson

I was looking for "typical" campaign conditions - which is to say, summer, and land sufficient to maintain army for as long as it can be supplied in a practical manner without division (so a whole army has to remain a cohesive force).

Let's say three scenarios:
a) Western Europe (France, Netherlands) in late 15th century (so fairly well-populated and accessible).
b) Anatolia in late 11th and late 15th centuries.

And as much land as can be safely reached with foraging. For army composition, let's say 12% heavy cavalry, 24% light cavalry, and 64% infantry. Enemy would be as typical for geographic placing and timeframe of the scenario.


Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
Spring and early Summer were often the starvation periods for foraging- the previous season's food is mostly used up and the new seasons produce is not ready for harvest. Late summer into autumn would be the best times for foraging as not only could the land produce forage the armies could raid already gathered supplies of the locals.

There are many calculations by historians and logisticians about this number and even in good conditions the variance is relatively high because the agrarian availability of the land varied hugely as did the consumption rates of an army depending on speed of movement and distance from origination (or where any supply convoys outside the foraged land come from).

The estimates I trust the most are fairly recent based on U.S. Civil war quartermaster reports because large parts of this war were fought over unimproved roads and through areas of partial wilderness quite different from European battlefields. The estimates there are that roughly 30,000 men +-5,000 seem to be able to have foraged successfully if in the right season and actually making forward movement along some planned invasion route unimpeded by many skirmishers or any pitched battles.

Keep in mind that a corps of thirty thousand infantry would have 500-800 wagons, drawn by 3 to 4,000 mules with officers and scout riders adding another 1,000 or so animals that required feed and water so altogether that is about 35,000 bodies and the route of march if all moving in a single column would be almost 10 miles long. So if it takes each group of 1,000 men roughly 5 minutes to clear the camp- then each group falling in behind the first group until the last left the camp would be somewhere between 2-3 hours so 12 hours 'march' would actually be 6-7 hours distance and 4-6 hours decamping and encamping. Real average speeds of armies tended to be 10-12 miles a day or lower depending on the terrain because a single river, or several streams, mountains, etc would lower the average quite a bit from the optimal of around 20-30 miles a day.

Romans built roads for military movement but the biggest part of that movement wasn't the speed to catch enemies (though partially) more it was about the cost of moving an army. The slower an army marched the higher the cost to feed it and the less options for forage that army had.
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Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
Among the variables could also figure – is this land that the owner of the army intends to try to conquer and annex, in which case making sure it is not completely ruined in the process becomes a factor – or is it hostile lands where he might as well consider it a relative advantage to just devastate it, maximum relative outtake for himself, and useless for the foreseeable future?

But then, armies being hard-to-impossible to control beasts in the early modern period, the outcome might be much the same regardless.


Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
it also depend of the time given for preparation , Edward I armies would move with carts of smoked fishes previously assembled
one way of simplifying the logistics was to move the hard core of the army up to the conflict zone and raise the locals foot soldiers
obtaining forage was an even present headache , those war nags ate a lot of it
during the hundred years wars , the English had "chevauchees" a flying column moving through the countryside foraging and burning all the way
eventually the French response was to shadow the column picking off the foragers ,
the English had to stay in a compact group which made them easier to follows and harass ,
it also severely hampered their ability to get food with some scorched earth on their now very defined path

Charles Xii of Sweden discovered that his victorious army was starving in Russia

oxen, cattle and sheep were moved with or toward the columns of troops , it was making the movement much slower
a trained soldier can walk 30 km days in days out , a group of five thousand could move 20 Km
the cattle would not move much more than ten , this is also valid for the oxen carts
it doesn't even take in consideration the amazing ability of the drivers and beasts to create a log jam

a Spanish friend once commented on the British deliberately destroying the Spanish Sheep industry during the peninsular war
I thought at the time that with armies of hungry and armed men trampling all over the place for years , the sheep didn't stand a chance
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Apr 2017
This is a hard question to answer because too many variables are involved. You have to create a specific scenario and an answer can be hypothesized based on historical data. Living off the land doesn't also necessarily mean no logistic. A group of soldiers for example might capture a granary, hold it and guard it and then use this point to distribute food out in the field to soldiers actively raiding
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