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Why Are International Freight Services Called Logistics?

The ultimate goal of any successful international freight delivery service is to take the exceptionally complex confluence of practical, logistical and bureaucratic considerations and make it exceptionally simple for the end user.

A lot goes into this process, and even more goes into making this process easy to understand because of this, the commercial shipping world is so colossal in scope that the land itself has been moved to accommodate it, with waterways such as the Suez Canal being the most important places on Earth.

Many of these interlocking systems and processes understood and interpreted by freight forwarders are collected under the banner of logistics, or the organised movement of resources from one place to another through a chain of different processes.

However, the origin of the term is unusual, somewhat unclear and surprisingly controversial in its day.

Organisation And The Art Of War

Despite logistics being a relatively recently used term to universally describe the various processes of shipping to a destination, with a concrete definition and widespread adoption only appearing as late as the 1990s, the term is nearly two centuries old.

Its first use in English was in 1846, but its first-ever use was in the French Language book Précis de l’Art de la Guerre (Summary of the Art of War), written by Antoine-Henri Jomini in 1830.

The term was used purely in a military context, with Chapter VI of the book exploring in detail the practical elements of moving huge numbers of people and resources from one location to another, something essential to successfully waging any military campaign.

The term itself originates from a quite unusual place; in the French Army, there are two ranks which use the French term “logis”, which literally translates to “lodgings” in English.

This created confusion, puzzlement and more than a little criticism at the time. The French military historian Georges de Chambray noted that it had never been used before in military literature and despite being about movement, was named after “lodgings”, its diametric opposite.

However, for the Swiss military officer who was more familiar with its use in the military titles maréchal des logis (‘marshall of lodgings’, a cavalry rank equivalent to sergeant) and major-général des logis (‘major-general of lodgings’), a term he later translates as ‘quartermaster’.

At the time, military logistics was limited to the formal duty of ensuring that troops were housed and had a place to eat and sleep when in camps, as well as how they should march in columns.

This etymology is confused somewhat as whilst Baron Jomini derived it from “logis”, the term “logistique” already existed as a loan word from Greek used to describe the field of mathematical algebra.

This has meant that some people who were unaware of the 1830 origins of the term claim that it originates from Ancient Greek, and even some who have read Summary of the Art of War, which discusses this etymology at length, believe that he must have been influenced by the original term.

The term stuck in European military circles, was first translated into English in 1846 and over the next 150 years, the term would slowly take root as industrial evolutions translated into militaristic ones and vice versa, creating the freight world we recognise today.

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