As promised last time, more pointless nitpicking for the ‘Loot Train Battle’ (technically, ‘The Battle of the Gold Road’) in Game of Thrones Season 7 episode, “The Spoils of War.” This time we’re going to take a look at the tactics of the battle once the fight starts and how well they compare with historical tactics.
They say professionals discuss logistics and amateurs discuss tactics – so let’s put on our amateur hats and have a bit of fun with this.
Before we dive in, I want to note one thing: we’re not going to talk much about the dragon. First, because Jamie decides on his formation and tactics before he is aware there is a dragon coming, so it cannot be argued these are specialized anti-dragon tactics, and second because Westeros obviously does not have anti-dragon tactics, since dragons haven’t been militarily relevant for a long time (if they do have anti-dragon tactics, evidently they’re terrible).
In practice, while the dragon as the unstoppable super-weapon is a neat story conceit, it’s functionally impossible to interrogate. Maybe I’ll do a silly post on dragon-physics at a later date, but let’s just posit that the dragons of Westeros clearly operate under a completely different set of physics than all other creatures in their universe – the heat they produce is vastly greater than the calorie potential of their food intake, the density of their hides (and thus resistance to projectiles) should render them far too heavy to fly (much less do so over long distances), etc. There’s no point in trying to assess them by any kind of real physics – they fit into the same category as un-killable undead Witch Kings.
So let’s get on with it.
Spears and Shields!
We’ll start with the Lannisters.
It has been pointed out elsewhere, so I will not belabor the point that this army has no scouts. Apparently the sum total of the cavalry force here is four men. Now, encounter battles do happen and the Mongols – on whom the Dothraki are based – were famous for showing up unexpectedly (for logistical reasons that Martin, Benioff and Weiss do not seem to understand, but we’ll deal with the troubling catastrophe of the Dothraki’s general characterization another day). Scouting plans do fail. But Jamie – despite his reputation as an able military commander – appears here to have failed to have a plan in the first place.
But I don’t want to spend too much time on the complete lack of scouting arrangements – there are just not very many ways to say “Where were the scouts?” before it gets boring. Let’s focus on the formation the army adopts.
As soon as they realize the enemy is coming, Jamie and Randyll Tarly both begin shouting to “form a line” and the soldiers, dutifully form a thin, three-man deep line in front of the wagons. This…this is an awful formation:
There is so much wrong with what is happening in this scene, it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the men in the formation. There are three kinds of soldiers here: heavily armored men in the front with only a shield – they have a sword as a backup weapon, but no primary weapon and their swords are not drawn if you look closely. Then behind them are men in light armor (it looks like just a leather jacket, which isn’t really armor at all, but we can pretend it is a proper gambeson and move on) who wield a thrusting spear that looks maybe 8ft long (so a spear, not a pike). Finally, the third line are archers, standing with a few feet of separation.
Now, for the front men, I am sure someone is already rushing to the comments to tell me that there are quite a few kinds of soldier in antiquity who were classified as ‘shield-bearers’ (e.g. Greek/Macedonian hypaspistes or Assyrian sab ariti or Persian sparabara all of which translate literally to ‘shield-bearer.’). The thing is, none of those soldiers carried only a shield. In fact, all of the examples I just listed used a thrusting spear as their primary weapon (indeed, the Assyrian sab ariti were also called nas asmare – ‘spear men’).
Dispensing with the complicated question of the equipment of the hypaspists for today, the Assyrian or Persian shield-bearer troops had a specific function in combat: to protect foot archers. In the Assyrian army, these troops seem to have been deployed in pairs, with equal numbers of shield-and-spear shield-bearers paired with foot archers. The spear of the shield-bearer protects the archers from shock combat – especially from cavalry or chariots – while the shield protects both the archer and the shield-bearer from missile fire. But that’s right out as a historical model here anyway, because there are nowhere near enough archers here (note how few there are – compare the wide spacing the archers have to the close spacing of the infantry line; counting from the running archer in the figure above, the ratio of shields to spears to archers I get is 4:4:3, so 8 infantry for 3 archers when it should be 1-to-1).
So a system where one man has the shield and another man has the spear is absolutely bonkers. I’m tempted to lay this at the feet of the prop department – those shields look a-historically thick and heavy, and they seem to have hafted a hewing spear’s long spearhead on to a thrusting spear’s long haft, which would make the spear difficult to wield properly. Basically, I suspect the franken-props they’re working with are so bad that each one takes a full extra to manage – but I don’t know, maybe the director or show-runners requested it that way.
(And no, hafting a long hewing-spear head on a thrusting-spear haft does not give you a pike. If you look at the tips of Renaissance pikes (or Macedonian ones!) you will find that they are actually quite small. This makes sense – the pike is a huge lever, so to enable good control, you want to keep the weight at the tip as low as possible. Also for this reason, pikes tapered in thickness over their length, thinning as they approached the tip, to keep the point of balance as far back as possible. In contrast, large-headed pole weapons (like halberds) are much shorter to enable better control when doing things like hooking attacks.)
Simply put, with properly made weapons, there is no reason to split the role of spear-man and shield-man. Each man carries a shield and a spear, creating a thick hedge of points, instead of the wimpy line here. But our problems don’t end here, because:
This Formation Is Bad
And I mean everything about it. It is the wrong formation, facing the wrong way (no, I am not kidding), in the wrong place.
Let’s start with the obvious: to repel cavalry, this formation is way, way too thin. That isn’t mostly – as we’ll see – to resist impact. Horses are not battering rams, although while we’re here – a horse can trample one or two people, so setting the formation this thin actually creates a trampling risk, something that real infantry formations do not generally need to worry about in close-order.
No, the problem is morale. Deep formations are as much about control – it is easier to get the troops where you need them in close, controlled order – and cohesion. A deep formation gives the men in it confidence – the men behind you literally have your backs, while the men in front of you create distance between you and the enemy. That morale pressure can hold men in the ranks against the terror of shock combat (shock here means the impact of a charging enemy body into close-combat).
Now better trained or more cohesive armies can often afford to stretch the line thinner and still withstand shock action. The Greek phalanx – composed of citizen amateurs – was 8 men deep, whereas the Romans (and the Spartans) with more cohesion often made do with a depth of 6 men. But no one to my knowledge, until well into the gunpowder era, attempted a depth of two. Horses are big and scary. Moreover, there is simply no reason to stretch the formation out to defend literally all of the wagons. If you win, the wagons – which are unlimbered when the battle starts anyway – will be there to collect. If you lose, it will not matter.
So this formation should be much denser, formed in a mass at the center of the wagons, probably 6 or 8 men deep, or even in a square, as deep as it is wide (in this case, with probably something like 7,500 infantry and 2,500 archers, they might make a hollow square, c. 120 x 120 men, with the archers in the hollow in the middle). While we associate forming square with the gunpowder era, it was done earlier – the Seleucid phalanx does it at Magnesia (190 B.C., App. Syr. 35), for instance.
But this formation is also probably facing the wrong way. They’ve adopted the standard video-game formation, with the infantry deployed in a mass, in tight formation, in front of the archers. The problem with this should be obvious for anyone who has ever stood in a crowd: the archers can’t see what they are shooting at. Now, as you can see above, shield-bearers protecting archers were often positioned in front, but they worked in pairs and in what seems to be a fairly loose formation, all told.
Now I’m not saying this was never done (e.g. Arrian’s Array against the Alans puts missile troops in the back and on the flanks, for instance, though to be fair, he expects most of his missile fire to be javelin based). But what seems to have been far more common was either to intersperse the archers with melee troops (this may have been the ‘hedgehog’ of Agincourt and seems to have been how Assyrian or Persian ‘shield-bearers’ worked) or to deploy the missile troops in a skirmish line in front of the army. That way, they have clear lines of fire as the enemy approaches, but can rapidly retreat to the safety of the infantry line if pressed. Of course archers can fire indirectly (in high arcs), but as discussed as length here, such fire is much less effective.
So at this early point in the battle, where the enemy is still closing, the archers should probably be in front of the infantry line so they can see their targets and fire accurately. As study after study of Crecy and Agincourt has shown, they’ll have around 25 seconds of direct fire before having to retreat, giving around three to four shots on the target before it arrives, which could be quite effective.
Finally, this line is in the wrong place. It is deployed in front of the wagons, when it should be behind them. Remember: the wagons have no horses limbered to them, and they’re just full of grain. They are, for the purposes of this battle, little more than very heavy obstructions. Except that heavy obstructions are really handy for something: breaking up a cavalry charge.
The use of a wagon-fort (frequently called a wagon laager after the Afrikaans term for it; in German it was called a wagenburg, which I just love the sound of) – often with the wagons chained together (or chained together with cannon) to break up cavalry charges was a staple of 16th century warfare from Hungary to India. The Mughals learned it from the Ottomans who seem to have picked it up from Eastern Europe. The same tactics were used in China by the Han against the Xiongnu steppe nomads. Indeed, it was precisely armies in this position – facing steppe nomads on horseback – which adopted the wagon-fort as a way to shield the vulnerable infantry (particularly missile infantry, which was often muskets, but could be bows or crossbows) from the charge.
Perhaps Jamie doesn’t have enough time to literally circle the wagons, but he could deploy his army behind them, which would at least break up the attack. Again, you might say he has to protect the wagons, but…protect them from what? He has archers – the Dothraki can hardly start looting the wagons ten feet from his infantry square. Even if they did, winning the battle is more important.
Fortunately for Jamie, awful tactical choices are mostly made up for by the fact that he is fighting…
The Dumbest Mongols
Martin has outright stated that the Dothraki are – among other things – modeled off of the Mongols and other steppe nomads (along with Native Americans, which is anything makes this worse). I honestly wish he had not said this, because the Dothraki are an appalling mishmash of popular fictions about steppe nomads combined with straight-up racist stereotypes.
We’re not going to get into that here. One day, when I have more time, we can discuss Dothraki…’culture’… in more depth and unpack all of it. It is some of Martin’s worst world-building, in my opinion, and if I were a descendant of any of the peoples he supposedly based them on, I would be quite upset (and no, I’m not saying the Mongols were nice people, but I am saying they were not this). But right now, we’re just looking at tactics. Or, in this case, the lack thereof.
The Dothraki are light, steppe cavalry, equipped with curved slashing swords and bows (the absence of spears or lances is a striking limitation not shared by their real-world counterparts). They do not wear armor, instead wearing fur straight out of a cheap ‘barbarian’ Halloween costume; the horses are likewise unarmored.
If we replace the barbarian-furs with some kind of clothing a touch less…ah, troublesome…this is a kind of warrior that is easy to recognize. These are – as they are in Martin’s world-building, Steppe nomads. They are not very good steppe nomads; their equipment – particularly in the show, which has badly misunderstood Martin’s description of the Arakh – doesn’t seem to be at the same level of quality or suitability as historic Mongols, Turks, Huns, etc. But steppe nomad horse archers they are.
It actually makes a lot of sense that this large army could get close to Jamie without being spotted. Steppe nomads like the Mongols were famous for being able to make long-distance strategic movements with surprising rapidity and they could camp without campfires (in part because they could preserve meat under their saddles – one of these days we’ll talk about Mongol logistics; it’s awesome and gross). I have no trouble believing that they showed up where least expected with little warning, even if Jamie does seem to have also had a terrible scouting plan.
The assault ‘plan’ they execute – essentially a poorly organized swarming attack – is just terrible. Attacking with light cavalry like this is all about encirclement, ranged fire and morale. Without any armor, a horse and rider are a big target, so getting close to infantry in good order is suicide. Instead, the key tactic is feigned flight, using the illusion of retreat to lure the infantry out of formation, where it can be encircled and destroyed.
We’ve talked about this before, but the basics go like this: the light cavalry closes towards the target, firing with bows as it advances. The fire inflicts casualties, but it also creates a strong psychological drive in the infantry to retaliate – it triggers a fight-or-flight response that tempts the infantry to either charge and attack or else turn and flee (both of which are very bad ideas). Once you get close – probably around 50m – the cavalry wheels around (the term is caracole) and gallops away, firing one very accurate, extreme close-range shot at the point of closest approach. They feign retreat, trying to pull the infantry forward. Any body of infantry – or individual soldiers – who advance (remember the psychological pressure we’re applying with arrow fire – the nomads continue to fire over the backs of their horses as they retreat with what is typically called the ‘Parthian shot’) are quickly surrounded, cut off and destroyed.
The tactic can then be repeated. Charge and retreat; charge and retreat. Bit by bit, the mental toll wears down the defenders who have to endure attack after attack without being able to respond. It is very rare that infantry can hold together well enough to maintain cohesion longer than the steppe archers maintain patience. At the same time, the tactical mobility of cavalry lets you creep around your opponent’s flank and get into the rear of his formation, sowing chaos. Once the formation breaks up, the infantry are easy prey for the far faster cavalry, and the destruction of the enemy is completed swiftly.
I should note that, as employed by steppe nomads, these tactics have to be disciplined and well-coordinated. Horses need to be moving in specific patterns to avoid getting in each other’s way. The Mongols practiced encirclement through the use of large hunts (the nerge) and seem to have drilled extensively (see T. May, “The Training of an Inner Asian Nomad Army” JMH 70 (2006) and Mongol Art of War (2007)). It may have looked like a disorganized horde to the sedentary army it was attacking, but a Mongol charge as a well-coordinated thing. It had to be.
The Dothraki do literally none of this.
Instead, they charge in at full speed, make no effort to caracole or engage in any kind of skirmish action, do nothing that might cause their enemies to break formation, and then slam, battering ram style, into a hedge of spears. A few of them fire bows on the approach, but the weight of arrow-fire is negligible. Instead, they charge forward against what is – for all its stupid flaws – still a braced spear-and-shield wall. And then just…die, I guess?
I mean, sure, in one spot, the dragon clears a path for them to charge through, but this line is huge. If this army really is 10,000 men, then this line is probably more than a mile wide – a ten foot gap through which a handful of riders can break through is a rounding error when the rest of your cavalry force impacts at speed against braced spears. Even if the horse isn’t killed or the rider thrown on impact (because your horse just went from moving at 20mph to a full stop in a few feet, but the rider still has 20mph of momentum), the dothraki rider and his horse are huge, unarmored targets at a complete stop, next to far better armored, more agile infantry with spears.
And you are stuck there as you try to wheel your horse around. Except you are being impacted by the horses behind you. I don’t mean ‘impact’ in the silly academic way, I mean they are literally slamming into you at 20mph – because this dothraki formation is deep. So now you are stuck, trapped between your fellow horsemen and a small, angry fellow with a spear. The good news is that you won’t be there long, because chances are you and all of your buddies will be dead within minutes. The smart riders in the back will wheel off and – notwithstanding some stunning emergency leadership – the ‘feigned’ flight is likely to become a real one, with riders and horses scattering, ‘pursued’ by arrow fire as they flee.
Some of the Dothraki do shoot during the charge, doing so by standing up on the backs of their horses. This is a neat equestrian trick and it looks cool, but it is not, in fact, how horse archers shoot (and I wouldn’t want to try it on the smaller steppe ponies – if you look at the image above, you may note the Mongol in question is very far forward on the horse, because the small horse can better support his weight over the shoulders than on the back). Standing like that provides a less stable firing position. it also makes your target profile even bigger, which is a bad idea when your enemy is firing back.
What’s even more foolish are the Dothraki who jump down off of their horses to fight on foot…against heavily armored infantrymen. In close formation. Alone. Without armor. With a cutting sword largely ineffective against their almain rivet. Good Luck. With. That.
Speaking historically, the First Crusade actually provides fairly stark testimony about the results when a steppe nomad style army is foolish enough to get into close-combat with heavily armored infantry. Outside of Nicaea and again at Dorylaeum and again at Antioch (twice!) the more lightly armed and armored local forces were smashed up in close-combat against heavily armored crusaders. They did not, as a rule, stand and get slowly ground to a powder, but rather fell apart rapidly on entering shock combat with more heavily armed and armored foes.
Of these, the battle outside of Nicaea (1097) between the crusader force and Kilij Arslan, Sultan of Rum, is particularly notable. The crusader formation was arranged around the city and formed a shield-wall in response to Kilij Arslan’s arrival. When the Turkish force could not dislodge it with arrow volleys (presumably the sort of caracole attacks we’ve just discussed), they lost patience and charged home and were promptly mauled and put to flight, leaving the besieged city to its fate. It was a tactical mistake they would not make against subsequent crusades; I tend to see the errors at Nicaea and Dorylaeum as being mostly a consequence of novelty – the Turks under Kilij Arslan had not faced a Western European force before. Subsequent fighting would favor the Turkish horse archers more heavily. It’s also a tidy example of what should happen to steppe nomad force which does not sufficiently degrade the cohesion of a heavy infantry formation before mounting a charge.
For the Dothraki, who do have experience fighting with and against capable infantry – particularly the Unsullied – such a catastrophic miscalculation is out of character. Given that the Lannister line does not break before contact, we should expect the Dothraki – even if they eventually won – to sustain heavy casualties.
Of course, we later see the Dothraki take near total casualties. Between this and the Dothraki charge at Winterfell (and the fact that there were apparently still Dothraki later in the season) I am beginning to think that the real power of the Dothraki is that they’ve unlocked the respawn mechanic and are now abusing it for fun and profit. Everyone else thought they were playing Total War, but the Dothraki realized this was actually Dark Souls – just keep coming back from the bonfire till you win!
To sum up: almost every tactical decision in this battle, by both sides is stunningly stupid.
What ought it look like? I think a more realistic battle would have had the Lannisters in a tight, possibly square formation, initially with archers out front. The Dothraki charge occurs as expected, but ideally with a better sense of order; if the intention is to attack in the caracole, they might advance in rows with separations for turning around. The first wave of horsemen hit the wagons and get tangled up in the obstruction and start being pulled down and killed. The rest of the Dothraki – cagey, experienced warriors, pull out of the charge into a caracole and begin peppering the Lannisters with arrows.
This is an exchange that – given a wagon-fort and a heavy infantry formation with supporting archers – the Lannisters might well win, with the archers able to move around the square to get firing lines but remain out of reach of the Dothraki (much like the function of a pike-and-shot formation). But then Daenerys and her dragon might alter the calculus, using fire to force the Lannister infantry to disperse, which in turn opens them up to cavalry attack. The Lannister army is defeated, but Dothraki losses in the early phase are high and cannot be replaced. If we had laid the groundwork to have, you know, named Dothraki characters in the story, instead of reducing their entire culture to extras, we might mourn the loss of one – to balance and explain Daenerys’ decisions at the beginning of the next episode.
Same result, more or less, just without the tactical stupidity. And perhaps a bit more human characterization for the Dothraki.
Does any of this matter? Now is usually when I make a claim for some important historical point, but to be honest, no, the tactics themselves don’t really matter.
Where I think this scene is more pernicious is in the issue of the Dothraki and what they represent. Benioff and Weiss have stated that they picked the location and staged some of the shots of the battle to reference famous old Westerns with Native Americans attacking wagon trains. And according to Martin, indeed, plains Native Americans were some of his inspiration.
But that makes the heedless, stupid and stereotypical ‘barbarian’ presentation of the Dothraki all the more troubling. The Dothraki are the only fighters here with any kind of war-call, and it is a high-pitched ululation that – in the United States, at least – is strongly associated with ‘menacing’ foreigners (nevermind that the ancient Athenians probably had a war-call – the Alale (ah-la-lay – probably an onomatopoetic mimicking a high-pitched ululation) that was very similar). Obviously war-cries were real things, but it is striking that only the Dothraki have one – no scream or song or huzzah for the Lannisters, for the Unsullied or anyone else. Just the ‘strange foreigners.’
And while the European-ish Lannisters adopt a neat, ordered formation, the Dothraki – playing the role of the Native Americans, remember (so that we get all of the awful subtext here) – is disordered, wild, chaotic. Uncivilized, one might even say – which is all the more striking given how actual steppe nomads could be highly disciplined in their fighting.
All of this plays into the deeper problems with the Dothraki. We’re going to get there, one of these days.
So do the tactics matter? No. Does the way Benioff and Weiss use the structure of the battle – intentionally or otherwise – to reinforce harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about Central Asian and Native American people matter? Yes. And before anyone pipes up with, “well who said they’re Central Asians or Native Americans” let me remind you: George R. R. Martin did. So, yes, that matters.
Next Week: Something different. I don’t know what yet.