New Acquisitions: That Dothraki Charge

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Quick Note: New Acquisitions is the category for more off-the-cuff or one-off posts. Whereas the Collections posts will come every Friday, New Acquisitions will show up irregularly.

Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 3.  You have been warned.

I’m sure I’ll do a complete look at the Battle for Winterfell at some point (spoiler: it is a train wreck), but I wanted to single out this one element: that Dothraki charge at the beginning.  Because a lot of commentators on the internet seemed to have grokked that it made little sense, but not why.

And this is going to require its own post, because there are actually a lot of reasons why this charge is just baffling.  This was the wrong charge, at the wrong time, by the wrong cavalry, in the wrong place, with the wrong tactics, in the wrong formation, and for the wrong reasons. That’s a lot of wrong for one scene.

At the Wrong Time

Let’s go in order: this was the wrong time in the battle for a cavalry charge, both in the sense of the wrong moment in the battle, but also simply the wrong time of day.

Horses are fairly fragile animals.  This is in part a product of selective breeding: modern domesticated horses have been bred to be larger, heavier and stronger, increasing the strain on those thin legs at high speed.   Steppe ponies, much closer to pre-domesticated horses, are a lot lighter and smaller; a modern domesticated horse can weigh anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000lbs, whereas Steppe ponies are often as light as 600lbs.  When you take a creature with legs designed to hold up 600lbs of weight, and instead breed it to be a 1,300lbs warhorse and then put 200lbs of rider, armor and tack on it – and pull the center of gravity of all of that up 20-25 inches or so there are consequences.

What does this have to do with the time of day?  Charging on a horse, full out, in the dark is an awful idea.   I’m not going to link a bunch of videos of what happens when horses break legs in races and rodeos, but if you have a morbid interest, youtube will provide.  That is on prepared, flat surfaces.  The ground outside of Winterfell is rough grassland on rolling hills (more on the agricultural nonsense of that terrain at a later date; we ought to see grazing) in the summer.  In Westeros’ long winter, that terrain is compounded with snow.  One misplaced hoof-fall, one unnoticed hole in the ground, and you are in trouble.

And the problem compounds from there.  Because if one of the horses breaks a leg or slips, it is going to fall and spill the rider, creating two new obstacles that, in pitch blackness, no one can see.  We’ll go into the nonsense formation of the Dothraki in a minute, but suffice to say that in the darkness, none of the riders can see well enough to dodge a fallen horse in front of them – even if the flaming sword has let them know the rider in front of them has fallen.

An accurate recreation of what the Dothraki Cavalry, and the Audience, could see at the Battle for Winterfell.

By the Wrong Cavalry

This was also the wrong moment in the battle for this charge, for reasons that dovetail into the next topic: this was the wrong cavalry, in the wrong place.  This is a point where some of the internet experts with degrees from the Total War academy haven’t quite gotten it right (this is not a slight against the Total War games, which I love the hell out of – but formal training in history they are not).  A lot of voices pointed out it was a bone-headed move to simply charge straight up the center, but didn’t seem to know why.

After all, cavalry charges up the center are not actually rare historically, and often succeed.  At Dyrrhachium (1081), Robert Guiscard wins the battle with a cavalry feint up the center, followed by a devastating charge (also in the center).  Likewise, the Battle of Hastings (1066) was essentially a series of cavalry charges, right up the middle.  Of course, this plan doesn’t always work: Agincourt’s (1415) famous initial cavalry charge right down the center was a disaster (in the defense of the French, the terrain offered no other real attack route); a similar headlong cavalry attack at Bannockburn (1314) was similarly unsuccessful.  But the idea of a cavalry charge somewhere other than the flanks is not, a priori insane.

The issue here isn’t that it is always wrong to charge up the center, but that it would be foolish to charge the Dothraki up the center, and to understand that, we need to explain a bit about types of cavalry.  First, cavalry are often classed as being either heavy or light.  Heavy cavalry here typically means an armored rider, often on an armored horse.  What level of armor makes for ‘heavy’ varies by period: in the ancient world, body armor was usually enough (although the Near East did feature cataphracts whose armor was more comprehensive), whereas by the 15th century, anything short of a full plate harness was light.  By this metric, the Dothraki are clearly light cavalry: unarmored men on unarmored horses.

And here we hit our first problem, because those devastating right-up-the-middle cavalry charges I listed off are generally performed by heavy cavalry, armed with lances, rather than light cavalry armed with swords.  Now we should be clear: as I tell my students, horses are not battering rams.  Even heavy cavalry cannot simply smash infantry out of their way, as in Total War games.  Horses, you will remember, are fragile creatures.  But even if you are not slamming into the enemy (we’ll cover the tactics of shock in a second), an up-the-middle charge is going to have your enemy’s full and undivided attention – some protection is a good idea.

But the Dothraki are light cavalry.  What ought they be doing?  Well here, we need to distinguish between types of light cavalry as well.  Whereas the big difference between light and heavy cavalry is about armor, the next big classification difference is about weapons: does this cavalry carry a ranged weapon?  Nomadic cavalry was typically horse archer, firing bows from horseback, but light cavalry could also be close-combat only, armed exclusively with lances, swords and the like.  Of course, your Mongol-style Steppe nomad cavalry also carried lances, swords and the like.

You might be wondering then why anyone would use regular light cavalry and the answer is fairly simple: it is really, really hard to shoot a bow effectively from horseback.  That skill pretty much has to be ingrained in your culture, which in turn means that many armies simply did not have access to effective missile cavalry.  But light cavalry still serves crucial screening, scouting and raiding purposes, so one makes do with light pure-melee cavalry.  I cannot imagine many generals, however, passed up the option to have Turkish or Mongol-style cavalry in their army, if the option was available.

Where do the Dothraki fit?  Well, based on dialogue (and the books), they are clearly intended as Mongol-style light cavalry, armed with bows and close-combat weapons and learning to use both from childhood.  But in the show itself, they are almost always shown engaging with their arakh sickle-swords (a confusing placement of that weapon – for another time), rather than with bows.  Not a bow is to be seen on the cavalry at the Battle of Winterfell, despite a serious dearth of archers among the defenders – one cannot help but point out that the Dothraki would have been far more useful dismounted and firing from the walls.

One crucial problem here is the lack of lances (lance in this context doesn’t just mean the European type – any sort of spear used from horseback is a lance) – if for some baffling reason you are going to charge enemy infantry in good order over an open field, you really want a weapon which can reach past the head of your horse.  Short swords are fine for running down routing enemies, but for any enemy that is going to try to hit you back, you want a lance.  The physics make easy sense: if you have a shorter weapon, then the head of your horse will come into range of your target before he comes into your range.  Mutual ruin is not your objective.

So the Dothraki are expert missile cavalry, but in this scene they are inexplicably armed exclusively as shock light cavalry (shock here means ‘melee’ or ‘close combat’) – which is a simply worse form of light cavalry – and then deployed and advanced as if they were shock heavy cavalry, a task for which they are not armed or armored.

These flaming swords sure are cool, but what about the bows you spent a lifetime practicing to use on horseback?

With the Wrong Tactics

That leads us into the next set of problems: the actual tactics.  The tactics in this sequence are a matryoshka doll of bad decisions, so rather than diving right in with what is wrong, it is better to look at what doing it right looks like. So how does light cavalry attack infantry? 

The key concern here is actually maneuvering space.  When attacking infantry, cavalry does not want to stop: a horse is a huge target and a cavalryman – even an armored one – at a stop is a terribly vulnerable target.  Since (say it with me), horses are not battering rams, that means you need space in the enemy formation to ride in and around the enemy infantry, spearing and slashing as you go (you can trample a lone infantryman, but not a dozen in a pack).  Light infantry in loose order will give that space to you naturally (which is part of why they are so vulnerable to cavalry), but smart infantry will close up ranks when they see you coming to deny you that space.  Wights in Game of Thrones attack in huge, dense masses, so we can treat them like dense infantry, deployed in good order, for this purpose.  You need some way to break them up.

The way cavalry – any kind of cavalry – does this is the feint.  First, the cavalry charges: if the enemy breaks and runs (horses are big and scary!), fantastic!  You win!  Go ride them down.  If the enemy does not break, however, you do not (video-game-style) plow straight into their dense formation at full speed.  Instead, the cavalry pretends to retreat, turning and running away.  This, as a side note, is the ideal time to fire any ranged weapons you might have, dumping ranged fire into the dense infantry at very close range (there was even a type of pistol cavalry, called caracole, which specialized in this – ride up, dump pistol fire at point-blank range, while turning to ride away). But the key is that this is when you pretend to run away.  This tactic is called feigned flight.

The temptation for infantry is to pursue a fleeing enemy.  This is a fundamental human mental weakness: if the enemy is on the run, we want to go get them.  But if the infantry pursues, it will break that tight, solid formation that protects it, creating the space inside the formation the cavalry needs.  Once that happens, the cavalry can wheel around and charge again, to devastating effect.  This is what happened at the Battle of Hastings (1066); the Norman cavalry staged a series of feints, luring the Anglo-Saxon infantry down out of its formation and crushing it.  Only the elite huscarls arrayed around the king were disciplined and well trained enough to hold formation.

The absolute masters of this tactic were the Mongols: horse archers can intensify the psychological pressure by continuing to fire as they cycle-charge.  It is very hard, psychologically, to stand idle in formation, under fire.  Most infantry, the world over, would break sooner or later and either flee or pursue the ‘fleeing’ Mongols, and then be destroyed.

So that is what the Dothraki charge should look like – charge and retreat, charge and retreat, until the wights are drawn out enough for there to be space to get inside the mass of them and move around.

But every part of the way the charge is shown in the episode is terrible for this kind of maneuver.  First, as mentioned, it is dark – the Dothraki cannot even see the enemy, much less know if they are broken up enough.  Moreover, they break out into a full-speed charge without any hint of slowing down before contact; there is no effort to feint.  While the Dothraki have reason to be arrogant and assume many types of infantry will simply break at their approach, they have in this show, encountered at least two groups already which do not: the Lannister army at the Loot Train (the Dothraki are essentially saved by Dragon) and the Unsullied.  If the Dothraki are half as good as this show wants us to believe they are (Robert Baratheon, “only a fool would meet the Dothraki in an open field”), they ought to be smart enough to plan for at least one feint.  Moreover, their formation is all wrong.  Let’s move on to that.

In The Wrong Formation

Based on what we’ve already covered, you can actually suss out on your own what good cavalry formations look like, but let’s go over it just in case.  Within the formation, the riders need space to maneuver – other horses and riders are going to fall down and create obstructions.  That means that you either can deploy your cavalry shoulder-to-shoulder, but only one line deep (or perhaps multiple lines with big gaps between them), or you can deploy deep, but loose to allow a lot of space for riders to dodge obstructions.  What you cannot do is deploy your formation deep and tight – which is exactly how the Dothraki form up.

Close-set horses, many ranks deep – and with no clear order as an extra bonus.

The next thing you know is that you need to be able to feign flight quickly and that means the formation needs to be able to turn around rapidly.  Here, you have a few options: one is to deploy in a very loose formation, so that each rider has enough space around him to safely wheel around on his own – you turn every horse in the formation, rather than turning the whole formation.  This seems to have been a common solution for missile cavalry.  For shock cavalry, which tends to want to be in tighter (but still loose) formation, you might employ a wedge or diamond.  The advantage of that is that the front rider can turn the formation far more rapidly and smoothly than he could moving a block – Alexander the Great’s companion cavalry always formed like this, with Alexander at the tip of the wedge.

And no, this does not count as a diamond of wedge formation. The commander, Jorah, isn’t even at the tip where he could command. This is a mounted mob, not a formation; Steppe nomads could do far better than this.

How are the Dothraki formed up?  In a tight, deep rectangle.  If these were supposed to be heavy cavalry, or just poor horsemen, I might find this believable, but these are supposed to be experts.  The problem with a rectangle is in turning it around – you do not want anyone to stop, remember, so you have to wheel the entire formation around one of the corners and everyone has to slow down waiting for the riders at the far corner to make the huge circle to come around to the other side.  And hope that this massive circle doesn’t drag them through the enemy.  The riders can’t quickly turn around on their own, because the formation is both tight and deep, so they have riders in front, behind and to the sides of them, and thus no space to turn.

The result is, ironically, exactly what we see: when the formation runs into an obstruction (the army of the dead) it has no way to turn into a feint.  The riders don’t impact dramatically, they just slow to a stop, trapped by the riders in front and behind them, before being mauled and overwhelmed by wights.  This is a mistake I can imagine from a neophyte commander trying to manage an unfamiliar type of cavalry, but these are battle-hardened Dothraki commanded by an experienced soldier (Jorah Mormont) who has spent years commanding them in numerous battles.  This kind of amateur-hour mistake should never happen.

That said, the Dothraki should never have even been mounted on the field, because:

For the Wrong Reasons

You may have already picked this up too, but it bears saying outright: nearly all of the impact of cavalry is psychological, not physical.  Horses do not move infantry by force of impact, but by force of morale.  And therein lies the problem with deploying the Dothraki – the dead have no morale to attack.  Wights do not get scared.  As shown with the fire pit, they can also be made to stop and hold formation at any time, so the Dothraki can’t hope to feint them out of formation.

(Aside: I’m actually not as sure on this second point about feinting.  In a daylight fight, making the Dothraki feint might work well.  Sure, the Night King can have his troops stand firm in formation, if he knows to do that.  But how much cavalry has he fought beyond the wall?  How many horse archers?  It seems fairly likely the Dothraki could lure him in a pell-mell charge once they feign flight, and then turn and cut down large numbers of wights.  Indeed, on the operational level, Team-the-Living should have had the Dothraki shadow the army of the dead for days, harassing it in this way and pinpointing its location as it approached Winterfell, using fire and dragonglass arrows to do it – and burning the bodies once they isolate and wipe out groups of wights so that they can permanently diminish the Night King’s forces.  Doing so would also limit his ability to fan out to desolate the North, saving lives and limiting his army growth.)

This fact robs the Dothraki of all of their most potent weapons.   Within the story, there is really no excuse for a plan that does not take this into account.  Many of the leaders of Team-the-Living are experienced military commanders with experience with the Night King’s army, either veterans of the battle at Hardhome, of the battle at the Fist of the First Men, or the fall of the wall itself.  I assume we are not to think that everyone in Winterfell is dangerously incompetent, so this is just bad writing.

Fixing It

So, what should the Dothraki have done instead?  I have a few options, in order of my preference:

First Option: Dismount and put them all on the walls.  The showrunners seem to have forgotten that the Dothraki are expert horse archers, but we need not.  There is, in fact, no reason to fight on the open field against the dead, and the Dothraki, supplied with fire and dragonglass arrows, would be a huge asset deployed up on the castle wall.  Part of the reason Winterfell’s walls are overrun is that they are thinly manned when the attack comes, allowing individual defenders to be overwhelmed.  Moving everyone, including the Dothraki, to the walls, resolves this problem and hardens the defense.

Second Option: However, I find it perfectly believable that the Dothraki would chafe at or refuse this assignment.  Horse archery is a valuable, difficult skill and cavalrymen the world over have often resisted being converted into infantrymen on an impromptu basis (this is, for instance, why the Ottomans relied so heavily on the Janissaries – slave soldiers could be made to do any kind of warfare, whereas the Turkish Timariot cavalry preferred to fight with the status of being on horseback).  In that case, use them operationally rather than on the battlefield.  Prior to the battle, have your Dothraki harass the army of the dead, pin-pointing its advance and revealing information about its composition (like undead giants).  Once the army of the dead is upon you, send the Dothraki south with the non-combatants.  The Dothraki can screen the retreat of the non-combatants and at the same time ensure you are not surprised by an attack from King’s Landing.

Third Option: If the Dothraki refuse to be removed from the field for the battle, then deploy them in the shadow of Winterfell.  What I mean by that is that you form them up on the far side of the castle from the enemy.  That way, as the main body of the army of the dead slams into (and hopefully bounces off) the castle walls, you have the Dothraki light cavalry picking off small groups of straggling enemies trying to make their way around the castle, looking for weaker sections of wall.  The best part here is that the fire trench resolves some of the ‘fighting at night’ problems.

Of course, this is just a TV show.  It doesn’t need to make perfect, sound tactical sense.  At the same time, this is clearly a case where some historical reading might have really helped the show-runners.  The reaction to this episode has been quite poor, especially compared to the exaltations that GoT usually receives.  I think part of the reason was that even regular folks in the audience had no trouble sensing that something was wrong about the battle-plan, even if they weren’t able to point their finger quite as to why.

This coming Friday, we’re going to start looking at a much more successful siege sequence, the Siege of Gondor from Peter Jackson’s Return of the King.  It has problems too (including some interesting choices of cavalry tactics), but didn’t strain suspension of disbelief quite so much.

16 thoughts on “New Acquisitions: That Dothraki Charge

  1. Very interesting analysis! I’ve read a *lot* of fantasy books, but I’ve never been able to tell if the author knew what he was talking about. Well, actually there are two red flags; I discount the knowledge of anyone who talks about “notching” an arrow, or who has throwing knives, axes, or swords as a common battle tactic.

    But in fantasy books, it’s ubiquitous that they depict a calvary as slamming into the front lines of a force; the horses are often described as fighting, too, rearing up and driving their hooves into enemies. It’s disillusioning to find out this wasn’t the way things were done.

  2. The Knight (Horse) piece from Chess illustrates these cavalry principles nicely. A chess horse is the most indirect piece, which can easily threaten any other piece without being threatened itself. It never hits anything head-on, and in fact, it’s vulnerable to direct attacks. A chess horse moves two pieces in one direction plus one to the side, which makes it hit the side of a formation. It always puzzled me why the piece moves the way it does, but after reading your article – it’s obvious!

  3. “You might be wondering then why anyone would use regular light cavalry and the answer is fairly simple: it is really, really hard to shoot a bow effectively from horseback. That skill pretty much has to be ingrained in your culture, which in turn means that many armies simply did not have access to effective missile cavalry.”

    Either that or you can have professional army trained in it, like Byzantines did. But even they did not maintain horse archers through their entire history.

    1. On the other hand, Western cavalry often utilized mounted crossbowmen, which were more of a mounted infantry than anything – they could shoot from horseback, but they would remain stationary while doing so, and their purpose was to support the heavy cavalry rather than to act on their own.

  4. “the Dothraki are essentially saved by Dragon”

    Not sure if that’s a typo for ‘Drogon’ (name of the particular dragon) or deliberate word choice.

  5. The bit I thought for the Dothraki (in the tv show – the books are potentially very different) is they are almost a highly specialised terror cavalry that didn’t really exist in history – they fought against foes that would always be broken by just seeing they were against the Dothraki and as such the fights were always against foes that would not really be fighting back. This would also be why they use a weapon that doesn’t really fit any historic cavalry, and not going for the bows as would seem to fit for a group that is seeming like it should be pretty much the Mongols. This being terror cavalry would also show why they were so ineffective against the few foes that weren’t already broken – and especially the wights that are not even slightly worried by morale.

  6. Unfortunately, I think the only real reason the Dothraki were employed the way they were was as a plot device. The inside the episode all but says this. Benioff and Weiss wanted to show just how strong the Army of the Dead is (as if we haven’t already seen that) by having them all but wipe out the Dothraki in minutes. A stupid head-on charge in the dark in a formation that doesn’t allow retreat is the easiest way to do that. It gives them a nice visual of all the fires going out that severely demoralizes the castle defenders when they see it, and it prompts Daenerys to break from their own plan and charge into battle on Drogon early, resulting in both herself and Jon getting trapped in the clouds by an enemy that can control the weather, taking their strongest weapons completely out of the battle.

    Why? Because they needed the battle to be over quickly (hence all the jokes about the “short night”) since the season only had six episodes and they needed to get on with the rest of the story. Realistically, the Army of the Dead would almost certainly prevail eventually, but against every remaining fighter from both the North and the Vale, all of the Dothraki, the Unsullied, and two dragons, it would at least take a while. But they didn’t want to have to depict a real siege because it would take too long.

    It’s emblematic of everything that was wrong with the final two seasons. Nearly everything we see is only justified as a plot device, not by any in-world logic. They gave up on trying to make sense.

  7. Once the bardings become common for knightly horses, then they indeed seem to have been used as ‘battering rams’ against unwavering opponents, albeit at measured pace.

    Feigning retreat tactics is not conducive with knee-to-knee density favored by later knights (not easy to turn without breaking formation) nor with several instances of men at arms squadrons charging “through” 15~16th C pike blocks (willingness to make physical contact against steady foot)

  8. From the perspective of the episode, I never thought the charge was supposed to *work*, but rather was basically “Ride forth. Ride forth and meet them.” Die on their horses with swords in hand, doing what damage they could, rather than dying in the walls, as they all would have without Arya’s interrupt.

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