This is the fourth part of a six part series (I, II, III, IV, V, VI) taking a military historian’s look at the Siege of Gondor in Peter Jackon’s adaptation of Return of the King. Part I, II and III can be found here, here and here. Last time, we looked at Mordor’s siege tactics in attempting to breach the city. This time, Rohan arrives and we take a more detailed look at how a cavalry charge does – or doesn’t work. What is heavy cavalry for? And how does it accomplish that goal on a battlefield? And what about elephantry? And are you really telling me elephantry is a real word? (yes it is).
As an aside: welcome new readers! If you enjoy this series, check out the ‘resources‘ links at the top of the main page to see some of my other writings and if you want updates on my future projects, you can follow me on twitter or subscribe using this button:
But first, you know me, and you know you weren’t getting away without…
Look, Mr. Frodo – More Logistics!
It is hard to get an exact sense of the timeline of events within the film, in contrast to the books, which feature not only repeated references to what day it is, but also a complete timeline of the events in the appendix. Nevertheless, the film-language being used here strongly implies that we, the audience, are being shown the Gondor and Rohan scenes in parallel (note for instance how Pippin lighting Beacons directly runs into Aragorn seeing them). That gives us some sense for the chronology of events.
Théoden is at Edoras (scene 20 – scene counts by the extended edition DVDs) when Pippin lights the Beacons (scene 19). At the end of that scene, he departs with his household guard and the army he has gathered to Dunharrow to complete the mustering of his forces. Dunharrow is just to the South of Edoras, up in the mountains, so Théoden should arrive there fairly quickly – but he doesn’t arrive there until scene 29, after Faramir’s ill-fated attack on Osgiliath. Aragorn then takes the Paths of the Dead (30-32) and the Rohirrim depart in the morning for Gondor (scene 34). All of which is to say that the Rohirrim leave Dunharrow on the same day as the Army of Mordor hits the Pelennor Fields.
That gives Théoden about 48 hours to reach Minas Tirith. Is that reasonable? Well…no. Mongol cavalry could move as much as 60 miles a day – there are fantastic operational mobility advantages to being Steppe nomads – but even that wouldn’t be enough. Dunharrow is nearly 200 miles from Minas Tirith. While Théoden and his house are essentially legendary heroes, if even the Mongols could not make your ride, I don’t think we can expect the horse-lords to do it either.
Book Note: I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll include it here: Tolkien gives the Riders of Rohan significantly longer to get to Minas Tirith. Théoden is already preparing the muster before even the first orc has left Minas Morgul. The messengers of Gondor (Hirgon) meets Théoden – already marhsalling at Dunharrow – on the 9th of March, two days after the beacons are lit and the very day the orc army departs Minas Morgul. That gives Théoden five days to get to Minas Tirith. A hard ride – 40 miles or so a day – but not an impossible one.
What about from a supply perspective? Actually, the supply situation of the Army of Rohan is reasonable. At only six thousand strong, this is an army small enough to make use of local supplies as it moves. Moreover, since it is moving primarily over Théoden’s own territory, he may well have sent messengers on ahead to make sure supplies were gathered along the marching route.
The horses do pose additional logistics issues: while wild horses can subsist entirely off of grass, European warhorses (and one assumes Rohirrim warhorses) have been bred to be so large and strong that grass is no longer sufficient to support their nutritional needs. It would have to be supplemented with cereal grains (traditionally barley) in some quantity; Roman warhorses were rationed 5kg of barley per day, very roughly five times the intake of an infantryman. For an army with 6,000 horses, that’s a lot of feed, but not an insurmountable amount.
One thing is missing for this army, however: spare horses. A knight does not ride to battle with a single horse, but rather with several. The war-horse is a specialized creature, bred large to support the weight of a knight in armor; they are not endurance runners. So a knight would ride to battle on a smaller, cheaper riding horse. This also, of course, spares the really expensive asset: a good war horse could cost vastly more than a basic riding horse (check out some comparative prices here). A third horse would be required to carry baggage – the riding horse can’t support more weight (it has the rider) and the war horse, again, ought to be spared for the fight. Rohan’s army of 6,000 riders should thus be marshaling out of Dunharrow with more than 18,000 horses.
As we’ve seen elsewhere, this is a common movie trope – showing armies marching in battle formations. It is useful to remember that any army – including a modern one – moves far more encumbered than this and that just because an army is pre-modern doesn’t mean it isn’t hauling a lot of stuff.
The Ride of the Rohirrim
At last we hear the horn-call of Rohan. In the film, it is a single solitary call, which is a bit odd given that what the books describe is, “Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing” (RotK, 113). This choice, I have to assume, has a lot to do with the pacing of this scene. In the book, Tolkien is able to build suspense and anticipation by using his chapter order to jump backwards about 32 hours after the above line. Jackson has cut this sequence, so to build the same anticipation, he has to draw out the moment before the Rohirrim charge. Nevertheless, it seems worth noting that you should not alert the enemy to your impending flanking cavalry charge before it actually arrives.
Book Note: What’s missing? Actually a fairly interesting sequence. Théoden makes a deal with the leader of the Woses, Ghân-buri-Ghân to lead this army through the forest rather than down the main road (RotK, 117). This is the sort of detail that it makes sense to cut for time in a film, but in a book is a wonderful thing to add. As in the film, the Rohirrim arrive unannounced because the forces of Mordor have apparently failed to set a rear-guard, or scouts of any kind. But in the books, the Rohirrim arrive with surprise because Théoden is a canny leader who knows when to use local knowledge. The orcs did have a rear-guard blocking the road – they had ditches and obstructions in place to prevent the classic Rohirrim cavalry charge – but these were bypassed by way of the forest trails.
The other thing that is missing is the Rohirrim’s arrival. In the book, the geography of the battlefield is more complex. In addition to an orc force blocking the road, there are enemies on the Rammas Echor, and then scattered parties across the Pelennor Fields (which are farmlands rather than steppe, as in the film). However, the orc presence on the Rammas is thin, and Théoden routs it quickly. The use of blasting fire to surmount this defensive obstacle now aids the Rohirrim, as they pour through the holes, still largely undetected, in to the Pelennor (RotK 122-3). Thus in the books, the Rohirrim charge into the unsuspecting rear of an army, rather than into infantry facing them in good order.
Théoden now gives a set of functionally nonsense orders (“Grimbold, take your company right, after you pass the wall”) because these lines are lifted from the books, where they took place just beyond the Rammas Echor, rather than in the open field. In practice, Théoden’s unit commanders essentially ignore him and the Rohirrim charge as a single mass, rather than a set of discrete units as the book dialogue implies. It works out anyway.
We’ve actually already discussed a fair bit about cavalry tactics before (here). Fortunately, there are fewer baffling decisions in this scene then in That Dothraki Charge, so we can get a bit more focused. This is the right kind of cavalry (heavy, shock cavalry) at the right time (daylight) in the right general place (a fairly flat and open area).
They are, however, in the wrong formation. For cavalry, this formation is very deep. The front block looks to be about 12-14 horses deep, and the rear block seems to be about as large, making the entire formation c. 24 x 250 (we were told they had 6,000 horses, you will recall). This is a very deep cavalry formation (presumably so it would neatly fill the screen), which is mostly a problem because of the size of the enemy force. Attacking with such a purposefully narrow front means that the Rohirrim will be enveloping themselves on contact. This is particularly dangerous for cavalry because the feint is so important for cavalry tactics.
But the real problem here is the density – the horses are shoulder-to-shoulder, front-to-back. While the formation loosens a bit as it charges, it is still too dense to allow these men to maneuver. As we discussed in That Dothraki Charge, the problem here is what happens if a horse slips and falls or is shot by an arrow (which we’re going to see happen). A downed horse spills its rider, creating two possible obstructions for the horses trailing behind. In this kind of tight order, they have neither the time to react to that or the space to weave around it.
So what are the other options? One option would be advancing in loose order – creating horizontal space between the files of horses to provide maneuvering room. The handy thing here is that by giving each horseman room to maneuver on his own, the formation can potentially switch direction quite quickly – a real advantage if you are pulling off a feint, where the cavalry pretends to charge but wheels off at the last minute. It’s a lot easier to turn each horse individually then to turn the entire formation as a block (if you are going to turn the entire formation, it should be a wedge of a diamond – something we can discuss in the future if we ever look at Alexander (2004)).
Given the battlecry of ‘Death!’ shouted in unison, one assumes that the Rohirrim are not going for a feint, but rather hoping the morale impact of their charge will break the enemy lines. In that case, tight order isn’t a bad idea – horses arrayed closely, pounding forward are scary. Here, though, you would put a lot of forward space between your ranks, creating a series of long, thin lines of cavalry with separation between them. Another advantage of this kind of formation is that it would let you match the frontage of the enemy, so you are not self-enveloping the moment you make contact.
Book Note: The formation issue is largely solved in the book, because the situation of the battle is very different. Théoden’s orders to split the force – with the main body coming down the center and two subsidiary forces splitting to the sides – is given before passing the Rammas Echor. As a result, the Rohirrim, passing through the outwall are spreading out over the Pelennor, still undetected by the orcs.
Théoden holds his charge until hearing a loud boom – doubtless Grond breaching the gate – at which point he now gives his speech, sounds the horn (‘such a blast upon it that it burst asunder’ (RotK 123), because Tolkien wants you to know that, he too, has read the Song of Roland), before delivering his charge into the still unsuspecting rear of the enemy.
We’re not told the Rohirrim’s formation, but we can assume it is potentially much looser (either forward or horizontally) because they’ve covered a lot more of the plain. Moreover, splitting the force makes a lot more sense given the more complicated battlefield: Théoden’s riders need to navigate fields and farms, not just open endless steppe, which in turn demands a lot of freedom to move and maneuver.
What to Expect When You Are Expecting a Cavalry Charge
Withstanding a cavalry charge in the open is one of the sorest tests infantry can face. When it comes to cognition, we humans are still basically animals – no more so than when our capacity for reason is overwhelmed by fear and adrenaline. Animals assess threat chiefly by size – is this thing bigger than me? This impacts all sorts of things. We find deep sounds ominous and scary because deeper noises in nature are produced by larger things (the combination of a deep noise and a high pitched one unsettles us because of the mixed signals, discussed here, for instance). It is easy to try to think about this rationally, in a moment of calm, but we didn’t survive in nature for thousands of years by being rational: we surviving by running away from things bigger than us.
Horses, of course, are big; men on horses are larger. The pounding of thousands upon thousands of hoofs from a cavalry charge is a deep, resonating noise (the pounding of the hoofs of just a couple dozen horses can be heard over a cheering crowd at a horse-race; consider the volume of 6,000). And they move fast. We don’t think of a horse charging at perhaps 15mph as being fast because we have cars, but for a pre-modern infantryman (or infantryorc) that charging horse is probably the fastest ‘vehicle’ they have ever seen. Everything in our animal brain at that moment will be telling that infantryman to run away.
The Rohirrim are doing some very historical things to intensify this effect. Their armor features a lot of polished, uncovered metal (especially of scale and chain) which will glint in the sun. The gleam of armor is often described in ancient and medieval sources as terrifying, because an enemy with lots of nice shiny armor is likely to be a far more dangerous opponent. Moreover, the horn-call at the onset of the charge (along with a wider formation!) makes the attacking force seem far larger than it is and more intimidating. Even the painting and decoration of the equipment fits with historical methods of inducing terror in enemies, along with things like high plumes (to make you seem bigger and taller). Finally, the battlecry of death! is unlikely to be reassuring to an enemy.
Book Note: In the books, the “Death!” battle-cry only comes later, after Théoden has fallen, and Eomer believes his sister Eowyn to be dead as well. Instead, Tolkien notes that the Rohirrim break into song at their onset, “and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing was fair and terrible came even to the City” (RotK 124). That may sound silly – singing in a battle – but it isn’t. While Tolkien is drawing from Anglo-Saxon epic (where battle and war songs figure significantly), it puts me in mind of the Hussites (15th cent.), who would go into battle singing “Ye who are warriors of God” or British infantry advancing to “The British Grenadiers” in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Infantry in the pre-modern world is all about finding ways to get men to withstand this nearly impossible challenge. This is the cohesive principle (which we’ve touched on here). There are different ways to achieve cohesion in infantry: strong community bonds, strong personal bonds between soldiers, intensive drilling, even certain formations (deep formations tend to lend confidence to a defender). But getting a levy of unenthusiastic conscripts to stand before a cavalry charge is nearly impossible.
Almost immediately as the Rohirrim appear, we see problems for the orcs. The orc general, Gothmog, has to push through the ranks and reorder his infantry, while the orcs just stare, dumbfounded at the new threat. This is a task that should have been taken up by a hundred-hundred NCOs all up and down the line, which speaks to problems of command structure. Moreover, the fact that something as simple as “pikes in front, archers in back” has to be given as an order suggests insufficient training for the orcs. Well-drilled infantry ought to assume appropriate formations by force of habit.
This kind of formation, as a side note – with two discrete bodies of troops, melee infantry in front and archers behind – is not actually all that common outside of Total War games. While arrows can be fired over intervening troops, such shots are less accurate and strike with less power (having to move through much more air in a high arc before falling on a target). Ranged troops were more frequently intermixed with melee troops. At Agincourt (1415), the billmen and longbowmen were mixed into a combined formation called a ‘hedgehog,’ the precise nature of which remains unclear. Warring-States period (475-221 BC) and Han Dynasty (220 BC – 280 AD) infantry seem to have combined units of ji-wielding ‘halberd’ infantry with crossbows. Missile troops could also be deployed as flanking or screening forces, as in the Macedonian and Roman armies.
Either way, the orcs – with no real system of cohesion to hold them together – begin to break apart as soon as it becomes clear that the arrow volleys will be insufficient to stop the oncoming charge. While the breakup of the orc infantry line ought probably to occur a few moments sooner (many of the orcs are still in position and braced when the cavalry arrive), the basic theory here is actually good. As John Keegan famously noted, “the ‘shock’ which cavalry seeks to inflict is really moral, not physical in character” (Keegan, The Face of Battle (1976), 96).
Cavalry impact is one of those things that is so frequently debunked on the internet that it has produced an odd sort of over-reaction. On the one hand, most of popular culture still portrays horses as battering rams that can simply smash through all but the stoutest of infantry with the raw force of impact. On the other hand, there are voices in the enthusiast community (particularly the HEMA (Historical European Matrial Arts) community) who will insist that horses will never, on any account, slam into a body of humans.
First: horses will absolutely hit people, trample them and charge into crowds (warning: links include footage of real horses hitting real people). It is easy enough for a rider or an infantryman to miscalculate and produce a collision. At Agincourt, the sources are clear that the failed French charge nevertheless left some knights stranded inside the English infantry formation (where they were swiftly captured or killed).
At the same time, horses are not battering rams and cavalry is not a suicide pact. While some of the Agincourt riders did impact with the English, they also died – or were captured. Assuming the horse remains functional after impact – and this is a big assumption, horses are fragile creatures – if the enemy aren’t already put to flight, you have come to a stop within weapon’s reach of perhaps half a dozen enemies, while sitting atop a large, mostly unarmored horse. This is, of course, even worse for a thrown rider.
Each impact with a horse is thus a dangerous gamble by the rider: will the horse break a leg, foul a step or fall? Will the person I strike get a sharp point into the horse first? The goal is not to hit the enemy with your horse, but to hit them with your weapon, ideally without stopping. A stopped horse is a vulnerable horse – horses, after all, are large animals that panic easily when wounded. A man on horseback simply cannot adequately defend his entire horse if he is not moving. Even with a much longer lance, at low speed the horseman loses as much as he wins. Against an enemy that is facing you, you want a weapon that can strike out beyond the head of your horse; this is part of why the lance (any kind of spear, really) is the classic weapon of the horseman. Videogames (glares in Total War) often feature ‘sword cavalry’ or ‘hammer cavalry,’ for instance, in contexts where those would be backup weapons to be used when a lance broke.
As noted, the goal is to do this without stopping. Lance drills involve training to let the point of the lance trail to the side after impact, so that the forward momentum of the horse pulls the victim off of the lance, which can then be raised and leveled for another hit (descriptions, for instance of the British 17th Lancers at Ulundi (1879) make reference to the lance points ‘rising and falling’ as they inflicted terrible losses on the retreating Zulu). You can actually see a modern sport version of this drill with the sport of tent pegging. The same is true for sabre drill, although the motion is different.
The impact of the Riders of Rohan breaks functionally every rule of we’ve laid out. While the front rank of the orcs is broken up due to the failure of cohesion, the overall formation is very deep and still quite dense. Nevertheless, the Rohirrim’s horses just seem to ride over orc after orc without stopping. No effort is made to weave in and out of the gaps or to strike with weapons. When we zoom in on individual characters, however, they are at a complete stop, surrounded by enemies, striking downward chops with swords and the like, which is a terrible situation to be in.
Book Note: The book largely avoids this by not describing the impact in much detail. Tolkien notes that “the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them” (RotK 124), but the more relevant passage, I think, is this one, “Well nigh all the northern half of the Pelennor was overrun, and there camps were blazing, orcs were flying towards the River like herds before hunters; and the Rohirrim went hither and thither at their will” (RotK 125).” This makes more sense than the great impact of the film – here the Rohirrim, having broken the morale of the orcs, use their own terror to push them here and there, annihilating small or isolated groups without ever plowing straight into the central mass of the enemy.
So on the one hand, the general principle (‘once the orcish line is broken by morale failure, the cavalry will win, inflicting heavy losses’) is correct, how it happens (‘the cavalry simply tramples hundreds of orcs at a time’) is not. We should instead see the horses weaving in and out of the fleeing orcs, lances rising and falling, rising and falling (if you look closely, you can see that, for safety reasons, all of the riders are keeping their lances well above head-height).
Yes, Elephantry is a Word
Up come the Mûmakil, and it’s time to talk about war elephants. The elephants of Peter Jackson’s film are, of course, much larger than real war elephants, but war elephants were very much a real thing. It really was possible – as pictured – to build small archery towers on the backs of war elephants to provide firing positions (although nothing near so large as we see in the films).
Jackson’s war elephants attack without any supporting arms, which is a significant mistake. The fleeing orcs make no effort to reform behind and support the elephants. War elephants are fearful weapons, but they are not invulnerable ones. Elephants are prone to panic when wounded, for one. Moreover, because they are so large and slow to turn, against light infantry, they are very vulnerable. The common Roman tactic against war elephant was to deploy light skirmishing troops (the velites) to throw javelins at the elephants from out of reach. These troops, in loose order, could evade the elephants’ charges, while the heavy Roman javelin (the pilum) was capable of causing serious wounds to even an elephant. Effective elephant use thus required some infantry support (although this, in turn, was hard – a elephant in panic became a hazard to everyone, friend and foe alike).
Side note: many of the Rohirrim in this sequence pull small bows and begin firing from horseback as if this would be an expected skill for them. Effective archery from horseback is very hard to do. It is the sort of thing that one either learns to do from a very young age as an essential skill for living (or something deeply embedded in culture), or not at all. The Rohirrim are an agrarian society – they have villages, we’ve seen them – not a nomadic one, meaning that the Riders of Rohan have all learned to ride horses as a secondary war skill, not as a primary skill of life. It thus seems very unlikely the Rohirrim would have any horse archers among them.
What Jackson shows is the Mûmakil defeating the Rohirrim by simply wading into them and smashing them – which is not how cavalry and elephantry interact. Horses are, you will recall, animals; they have animal responses to other animals. For instance, horses unfamiliar with camels will refuse to charge camelry (yes, also a word), being panicked in some cases simply by the smell of the unfamiliar animal. Likewise, horses of all kinds will not willingly go near elephants. While some riders with bold horses might be able to get close, most of the Riders of Rohan would find their mounts simply turning aside as the Mûmakil approached – or worse yet, panicking and throwing their riders.
Book Note: both of these issues are resolved in the book. First, the Mûmakil do not come up unsupported, but rather they themselves are supporting the advance of the Haradrim cavalry and infantry. The Haradrim prince, spotting Théoden’s banner, foolishly charges early and is soundly beaten by the heavier Rohirrim cavalry in close combat (I am reminded of the battles at Nicea and Dorylaeum (1097) in the First Crusade, where Turkish cavalry (under Kilij Arslan, Sultan of Rum), unfamiliar with European heavy horse, charged into close combat too early and were sorely beaten – it was a mistake they would not continue to make in subsequent crusades).
Moreover, Tolkien has a better grasp on the effect the Mûmakil have on the battle, noting that “wherever the mûmakil came there the horses would not go, but blenched and swerved away; and the great monsters were unfought, and stood like towers of defense, and the Haradrim rallied around them” (RotK, 133).
That said, the weapon attached to the tusks of the elephants – which I have sometimes heard regarded with disbelief – do, in fact, have a historical basis. Rather than wrapping the tusks in what looks like oversized barbed wire, in India, war elephants might be equipped with sword-like weapons that fit over the tusks of the elephant, providing greater reach and lethality.
Some of the tactics we see the Rohirrim use were established anti-elephant tactics. While the thick hide of elephants made them resistant to arrows, heavy javelins could panic them, and the Romans used their javelin troops, as noted, for this. Even missile weapons which couldn’t kill or seriously wound an elephant might panic it, as at Thapsus where archers and slingers were able to drive war elephants back into the ranks of their own troops (Ps. Caes. De Bello Africo 83). Striking at the legs could also be effective. Interesting, Caesar also made a point of familiarizing his horses with the smell of elephants prior to fighting them, so that his own horse would not panic, an option presumably unavailable to the Rohirrim.
As a piece of film, I love this sequence, which perfectly builds up anticipation and then delivers payoff. And the broad outlines of it – the bullet-point form (‘cavalry charges, infantry breaks and is destroyed, enemy brings up elephants, which stops cavalry’) checks out. Where I think it succeeds most is in the attention to the importance of morale – Eowyn’s pre-battle effort to master her own terror at the sight of the enemy, the mounting concern of the orcs turning into panicked rout, and Théoden’s efforts to reform his forces in the face of the elephants all touch on the importance of psychology in warfare.
Battles and wars are not won by killing all of the enemies, or even most of them. Battles are won by making the enemy run away and wars are won by breaking the enemy’s overall will to resist. In portraying the see-saw of emotion, the waxing and waning of courage and determination, and the efforts by the heroes to keep their troops in the fight is where this sequence is at its best.
Where it stumbles is in the physics of the actual combat. It isn’t unreasonable: the scenes are framed for filming safety and how they look on screen, not for realism. You can see this in the stage combat – how often orcs are ‘killed’ by ‘cuts’ to their metal breastplates which obviously don’t achieve any kind of penetration, for instance. Even with modern CGI, it may just be that a realistic cavalry charge remain out of reach.
Next Week: We look back at what is happening in Minas Tirith, and we talk about flails.