Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part II: Total Warg

This is the second part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (Part I here), from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. Last time, we looked at the operations which led up to the fortress assault. This time, I want to take a closer look at a sequence which occurs in the films, but not in the books: the Warg attack and the resultant cavalry engagement.

But before we start, we need to have a serious conversation. Cavalry is called that in English because it is made up of cavallo (Italian, meaning horse, from late Latin caballus, meaning horse), which gives the Italian cavalleria (cavalry), which arrives in English via French cavallerie (and has nothing to do with Calvary; cavalry is dudes on horses, Calvary is a very particular hill). So if you ride cavalli, you are cavalry. If you ride camels, you are camelry. If you ride chariots, you are chariotry. If you ride elephants, you are elephantry. I promise I am not making these words up; these are, in fact, technical terms. My students find them hilarious, but that does not mean they are not technical terms.

Now I’m going to make some words up, because I don’t feel like writing “orc-warg-cavalry” two dozen times. Following the rules for forming these technical terms, if you ride wargs, you would be wargry, which I suspect in speech would sound something like ‘WAR-ger-ree’ (because that -ry terminator is standing in for a French –erie). So we’re going to call this unit type wargry, both because it makes my life easier, but also because I very nearly burst out laughing every time I write it, and damn it, this is my blog and I get to have fun here sometimes too.

And, before we dive in, as a reminder – if you like what you are reading here, you can support me on Patreon; and if you want to be updated when new posts appear, you can follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) or subscribe for email updates using the button below:

What To Expect, When You Are Not Expecting Wargs

Just to refresh, Peter Jackson’s effort to resolve some of his adaptation’s narrative problems means that the nature of Théoden’s column has changed fairly radically. He has some unknown number of civilians with him, carrying their belongings. Most of the baggage is food supplies; some good management there, getting a column like this to move that light would have been difficult and it speaks to Théoden’s workmanlike generalship (writing this, it brought to mind immediate comparisons with J. K. Stearns’ description – which I have just chanced to have been reading – of the refugee columns that streamed out of Rwanda in 1994 which were, shall we say, far less competently or humanely led). Stripping a column – either a convoy or an army – down to bare essentials was a common literary trope to show effective generalship for a good reason. So it’s a good sign everyone appears to be traveling pretty light.

And that is about the only nice thing I’m going to have to say about this sequence. Buckle up, this is going to get rough.

The sequence begins with Gamling and Háma riding forward to do some scouting, so let’s start by assessing Théoden’s scouting system.

What I would want to do here is estimate the size of Théoden’s entire column, because it would greatly inform his scouting procedures. But working with the film like it is a historical text, the historian in me has to caution insurmountable problems. Our best account (the books) does not record this minor engagement (that problem is, as an aside, so common in ancient sources – this or that skirmish will be recorded in one source for a war, but not the others, because it wasn’t deemed important enough, leaving us desperately short on confirming evidence and openly wondering if the skirmish ever took place, or if an author merely added it for ‘storytelling purposes’), leaving us with only this later, less reliable narrative.

We’re told that “the city must empty,” meaning that the convoy here includes most of Edoras’ civilian population, but we have almost no way to know how much that is. Edoras as we see it has something close to 100 houses (mostly quite large, we may assume they house extended families, as is common in agrarian pre-modern societies; the nuclear family as an organizing unit over the extended family is mostly a feature of modern societies), but the hillside obscures large parts of the town, leaving us guessing as to the total number. Assuming many of these fine big houses likely also include servants and laborers, we might imagine a ‘city’ of perhaps 500 households or so; perhaps 2,500 people all told within the walls. Which doesn’t actually strike me as unreasonable for a settlement like this, except that Edoras has a severe case of Lonely City: there should be quite a lot more settlement outside of the walls, which our flawed representational evidence (the technical term for ‘historical artwork that depicts something’ – like using manuscript illumination to talk about knightly arms) gives us no means to estimate (but must exist because these folks have to eat).

Edoras, with the refugee train filing out of it. The density of the column varies wildly from section to section and scene to scene. Meanwhile, it is hard to figure how many homes Edoras actually contains (we never see the other side of his hill, which may have more settlement).

The other problem, on top of the uncertain number of refugees, is the density of the column. In the film, what we see is badly strung out. Here I must admit I am no expert on refugee movements, but even uncoordinated mass movements of people tend to be much more densely packed than this. Moreover, Théoden is moving this column through potentially dangerous territory (remember, he already knows that Saruman’s forces are burning the Westfold, which is where he is marching), so he ought to be taking some care to keep the column tight and compact. In some cases, we see them moving about four abreast, but with fairly large intervals, but in other cases there are great giant gaps and individuals moving alone.

An example of the wildly variant density of the column. In front, they’re moving six or so abreast and fairly tightly packed, but up on the hillside, the train is single file with massive intervals.

In practice, I have to imagine the limitation here is just the number of extras for these scenes. For the film, the audience just needs to think “oh, that’s a lot of old, vulnerable people our heroes need to keep safe!” We don’t need exact numbers. But it makes calculating the road-space of the column a fool’s errand. On the one hand, with just Edoras (2,500 people), if they move with tight spacing, about four abreast, the entire column might only be around half a mile long (assuming around 4 feet of road space per row). On the flip side, what we see of average spacing might be as low as 2-4 feet per person, given the wide gaps between groups and people moving apparently nearly single file; if we take that and assume a rural population to match the city (say, four country farmers for every town dweller), we end up with a (probably unmanageable) 10 mile long column.

That said, it doesn’t really matter too much how big the column is, because in any case, Théoden’s arrangements are uncharacteristically sloppy. His scouting apparently consists of two men on horseback, and Legolas’ elf-eyes. On flat, clear ground, this would not be enough. In the rough country he is inexplicably moving the column through, it is even worse. What should his arrangement look like?

I should thank Eric Burke of the Army University Press for pointing me towards some good resources on 19th century convoy tactics. Often the most important research skill is knowing who to ask. Just don’t ask Eric about infantry skirmish tactics in the ACW unless you have an entire afternoon and enough alcohol to while it away.

Well, reaching back a bit, G.H. Dufour’s (1787-1875; Swiss Chief of General Staff and noted Red Cross founder) manual – translated into English by W.P. Craighill in 1864, for reasons that might easily be imagined given the date – gives guidance on how a convoy ought to be escorted (361-372, trans. Craighill); fortunately this is a matter wherein gunpowder changes little. Dufour notes the necessity of both infantry, because “troops of this kind can fight on all kinds of ground” (a point we’ll return to) and cavalry (for its speed and scouting ability). For Dufour, there really only the one kind of infantry (unarmored, firearm bearing men), but to translate into a pre-gunpowder setting, ‘infantry’ here probably mostly means ‘light infantry’ – heavy infantry (armored men in tight formation) tends to struggle in rough ground. He breaks the cavalry into three groups, an advance guard two to five miles in advance of the column, a second group at the head of the column, and a rear-guard. The infantry is also broken into three main groups, one at the head of the column, one in the center, and one in the rear, but also with “a few men detailed from the detachments of the main body to march along the sides of the road and compel the drivers to keep their places and distances [emphasis mine].” A.L. Wagner’s 1894 Organization and Tactics (441-455) makes much the same set of suggestions.

Théoden’s entire scouting operation, by contrast, consist of a pair of riders (Gamling and Háma) riding out just in front of the army – we know they didn’t go too far because Legolas is able to catch up to them on foot to finish off the orc they spot and is then able to shout relay (Legolas shouts to Aragorn and Aragorn shouts to Théoden) the message back. In fact, as far as we can see, Théoden has no forward scouting force and no flankers. His retinue rides around him, somewhere in the middle-to-front (but not the absolute front) of the column, occasionally sending pairs of scouts forward. The retinue isn’t even concentrated around him, but has to be rallied to the front of the column. This is unconscionably sloppy.

Pictured: Théoden’s entire scouting system: one guy on foot with good eyes and two guys on horses with bad eyes.

This is not only a scouting problem – which results, by the by, with Théoden being forced suddenly into a cavalry engagement on bad terrain – but also an organizational problem. Crucially, the absence of flankers and a rearguard limit Théoden’s ability to control the column itself. Note the emphasis above in Dufour’s advice on using flankers to keep the drivers (of wagons) where they need to be – and he has in mind military wagons. With a cloud of civilians – some likely old, sick, or young – this becomes even more necessary. The flankers and rearguard need to be watching for heat and fatigue casualties, for people falling out of the line, for obstructions (a collapsed marcher, or a broken vehicle) that might block progress. With so few troops, Théoden does not have time to leisurely ride with Aragorn and talk about how bad a foster-father he was – he should be rolling up and down the column more or less continuously, trying to make the most of his limited forces. Because large bodies of (untrained) people do not organize themselves, and if you want to have any hope of controlling them, you’ve got to be doing that.

Théoden, Aragorn and the cavalry force just hanging out in the middle of the column. In this scene, it’s clear that they are nowhere near the front of the column (where the cavalry vanguard should be) but also that they are just sort of moving along. Théoden should have a lot to be doing, trying to coordinate a column like this with so few soldiers.

Now that brings up the question of how limited movie!Théoden’s forces are, a topic we’ll return to later in the series, once we have all of the elements ‘on screen’ as it were. But for now, I want to note that even with Éomer gone, Théoden should probably have more riders about him than the couple dozen he appears to have. Rohan is a pretty big kingdom. For comparison Edward I’s household – not his army, just his household (we’ll explain this a bit later) – in 1297 included around 500 armored horseman. Philip the Tall (of France) in 1317 had 235 in his household (figures from Verbruggen, The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (1997)). And that force would almost certainly be supplemented by other mounted aristocrats (and their retinues) who lived near or in Edoras (to be close to the center of power), plus many of the townsfolk fighting as infantry. In the books, Théoden’s lightning column has little space to bring infantry from Edoras, but with a refugee force, there’s no loss in speed from bringing infantry. Éomer may have taken some of these men (more likely the local aristocrats than the knights of Théoden’s house) but surely not so very nearly all of them. Théoden’s force here ought to be larger. At the very least, he ought to have organized the fighting-fit poor of Edoras into infantry to free up his cavalry (we see a handful of infantrymen, but nothing like the number of military-aged non-aristocrats a settlement like Edoras should have).

In any case, Théoden’s sloppy scouting arrangements allow a mounted orc scout (scouting for a larger wargry force) to get very close to the column undetected. How close? Well, Legolas watches the riders leave the column, within just a few yards of the leading civilian elements. Following film time-stamps (while we shift camera-lines, the audio holds consistent as the screams are audible from the column, so we have a continuous timeline), Legolas reaches the orc just 26 seconds after the attack begins, and is navigating very rough, difficult terrain, slows down to fire, and never appears to be in a dead sprint. I’d hazard that the orc encounter is probably something like 100-150 meters in advance of the front of the column. If Legolas maintains Usain Bolt’s average run-speed over the 100 meter sprint (10.4m/s) – the fastest any human has ever run in ideal conditions, which these are not – that would put the encounter 270 meters out, giving us an effective maximum distance. Chances are the orc scout was within bowshot of the column before being discovered. An ‘encounter battle’ like this should be the exact thing all of Théoden’s arrangements are designed to avoid; this sort of failure is out of character for him.

Théoden rapidly rallies his cavalry to the front of the column (it’s strange that he is not armored and fighting ready himself, given that he is apparently leading the vanguard). As discussed above, there should already be a large body of cavalry at the front of the column, but evidently there isn’t. Nevertheless, the orc scout’s carelessness gives him the time to get organized and advance – although not very far. He engages the enemy wargry within bowshot of Legolas, who has advanced to his position – perhaps 200 meters in advance of the column, generously. We’ve discussed the impact of range on the lethality of archery here, for now we’ll assume Legolas’ bow is the equal of a longbow or a Mongol bow (were it any stronger, he would need superhuman strength merely to wield it) suggesting a maximum effective engagement range around 200 meters. The orcs look to close about half of that distance, leaving the cavalry collision to occur only about 300 meters (Legolas’ c. 200 meter maximum sprint, plus half of bowshot) from the front of the civilian column.

Théoden shouting “All Riders to the head of the column!” Why wasn’t there already a large body of riders at the head of the column? Why wouldn’t, at the very least, your own retinue be with you at the head of the column, where your banner is? This was so blandly standard in medieval armies that a ‘banner’ could be used as a synonym for a lord’s retinue, because they ought always be in the same place.

Opposing mounted units should never have gotten anywhere near that close without being spotted, especially on this sort of terrain (I mean, look at those sight-lines – this isn’t jungle, you can see for miles from the crests!). At the absolute minimum, Théoden should have ordered Gamling and Háma to ride forwards hours ago, dismount at this point and scale those rocks to the left side of the path and set a watch at the top. Of course, what should actually have been done, is that there should have been an advance cavalry screen at least two miles (3,218 meters) in front of the column.

Théoden is only saved by the carelessness of the orc scout, who engaged while still being undetected, rather than sensibly rushing to report back to his unit. Had the scout not abandoned his mission’s objective, Théoden likely would have only become aware of the impending attack as the enemy wargry crossed over the ridgeline, perhaps 150 meters from the front of the civilian column, leading to an unorganized cavalry engagement amidst the civilians in the front of his column, with the likely result that he, the column, and consequently the war, would have been lost.

Now, one may reasonably ask why all of this preamble before we get to the ‘good stuff’ of charging horses and clashing swords. But the fact is that success and failure in war are often found in this sort of preamble. Gathering intelligence and coordinating large bodies of people is very hard (and, as an aside, something players of strategy or tactics games are almost never really asked to do). Attempting to do this sort of thing ad hoc and make it up as you go along are almost certain to fail because the task is too big and too complicated.

Instead, this kind of thing seems simple, because the armies that do it already have a ‘playbook’ for how a camp, or a column is organized, how scouts are dispatched, how watches are structured, and so on. Our sources occasionally give us enough detail to see that playbook (e.g. Polybius book 6), sometimes not. In later eras, that playbook gets written down and codified, first in a tradition of military manuals (beginning in the broader Mediterranean in the Hellenistic era; there’s a parallel tradition in China at roughly the same time) and then eventually in codified form as ‘doctrine’ – a topic that will have to wait for another series to get into.

But what I want to draw out here is that something as apparently simple as moving an army down a road – the sort of thing which might get a sentence in an account of a campaign (Théoden then marched into the Westfold…) is in fact very complicated and also very easy to get wrong if you haven’t planned for it carefully. As Clausewitz says (drink!), “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is hard.”

Warg and Blade: Wargband

All of which gets us to the cavalry engagement between Saruman’s wargry, and Rohan’s more traditional cavalry, and it is a bit of a bother. As with other points at which the film has (for reasons discussed last time) deviated from the books, Peter Jackson doesn’t have the benefit of Tolkien’s reading of medieval sources, nor his intuitive sense of how things work and is left on his own, and it shows in the engagement proper as well.

Théoden has no way of giving orders save for shouting “all riders to the head of the column.” Strikingly (for reasons we’ll get to below) his standard bearers don’t stay close to him; they should be stuck on him like glue, because the unit goes where the banner is, and the banner ought to be with the king (whose protection is his retinue’s job). But there are no horns or trumpets, nor a call-response order echo (put a pin in this, we’ll come back). The riders seem to advance in no particular order (while the wargry advance in what I can only describe as a pell-mell rush); Théoden seems to get the semblance of a line of cavalry at the top of the hill, only for it to fall into a rough mass as they rush in, waving mostly swords and axes. There’s a collision, with horses and wargs literally slamming together, and then a disorganized melee with many dismounted riders running about amidst the cavalry confrontation.

A well-ordered advance in lines around the banner, this isn’t.

This is, charitably put, not how good cavalry engages. And the one thing we are told, again and again is that the Rohirrim have not only good cavalry, they have the best cavalry. I can believe that Saruman’s inexperienced wargry – who mostly fight as fast-and-light raiders rather than as heavy cavalry – do a poor job maintaining formation, but not the knights of Théoden’s house (again, we’ll get to what that means as a unit a little later in this series), who ought to be some of the best trained and most experienced horsemen in all of Middle Earth. So what should it look like?

(What follows is mostly based on my understanding of medieval knightly cavalry because that is very roughly what the Rohirrim are modeled off of (particularly Hastings/Crusade era cavalry, given the equipment discussed below). The best summary for the relatively new and curious is probably the section in C. Roger’s Soldiers’ Lives Through History: The Middle Ages (2007). From there, Verbruggen, The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (1997) is a standard reference text, but harder for a beginner to follow. I’ll also reference here Keegan, The Face of Battle (1976), which is effectively the foundation-stone of this approach in modern English-language scholarship, but also a bit dated in some respects. There remains substantial debate about the mechanics of cavalry in general and knightly cavalry in particular – for the most part, I am going to try to remain on the ‘high ground’ of generally accepted things, though I will have to offer opinion on one or two matters where debate still rages).

Well, first off, they should be in formation. I’ve mentioned before that there seem to be, in effect, two major schools of cavalry formation: tight lines (most frequently, it seems, double lines, although more lines were possible, with separations between them) or looser formations – tight-and-deep and disordered-mass are the two things to be avoided. Well, the Rohirrim, stirrup-using armored heavy cavalry (with lances, we’ll get to it), are the tight line sort of cavalry. For a large group of cavalry (like at Pelennor Fields) you might well stack multiple lines behind each other with separations (though in the books, the Rohirrim’s advance over the Pelennor is so broad as to not very many lines). In this case, Théoden has only a couple dozen horsemen, so a single line would be appropriate, given the wider battlefield. Loose formations (an open order with intervals) was sometimes used for heavy cavalry, especially in the East, but first, that was still a formation with regular intervals and second, on the balance, I’d expect Théoden to form up tight anyway.

This scene, from Return of the King, is a better sense of how this sort of formation ought to form up, although I think I’d still like perhaps a bit more of an interval between lines, and – if our sources are to be believed – even denser spacing.
From the Song of Raoul de Cambrai, “The barons are so closely packed as they advance / that if you throw a glove on their helmets / it would not fall to ground within a mile.” (that same image occurs twice in the song, and also elsewhere in the genre – it was standard imagery).

There’s simply no excuse for Théoden’s riders rushing forward in such a sloppy formation. In actual battle, knightly heavy cavalry formed up first and advanced second. Since Théoden’s column has already begun moving away from the impending fight, he ought to have time to draw his riders up into a proper formation (in practice, these men – likely the knights of the king’s house – should be so used to drilling and fighting together that they should probably form up naturally out of habit, without needing to be told). The importance of that formation will become clear shortly.

They should also be organized. The popular image of the knight in battle often remains that of an individualistic warrior out on his own, or of the untutored brute smashing away without reason. But these were professional fighting men, and that vision, informed by some very old scholarship, is badly out of date. On the battlefield, they were broken into a set of more-or-less standard units. The most common, as far as I can tell, was the conroi – from Old French conreer, ‘prepared’ or ‘equipped,’ so the conroi are a set of men who trained together – a formation of anywhere from five to a couple dozen knights, organized around a single banner (there are a few different types; Rohan’s banners are, well, banners, whereas a gonfalon – a vertical hanging banner – was also common). The banner provided a crucial organizational aid (as we’ll see) and these units seem sometimes to have been simply called ‘banners’ (a knight who had received permission to carry his own banner and thus have his own unit was a ‘knight banneret,’ distinct from a knight bachelor, who would be one of the subordinate knights in someone else’s conroi and follow their banner). The eschelle or scara (both mean ‘ladder,’ the former in Old French, the latter in Latin) seems to have been a similar unit; I’ve only encountered it in reference to the military orders (like the Templars), but I don’t know if that is a general principle or just an accident of where I’ve seen it. In practice, Théoden looks to only have with him one, or perhaps two, conroi.

Book Note: We’ll come back to the organization of Rohan’s forces a bit later, once we have them all on the board, but it seems worth noting that the thousand horsemen Théoden has in the book would require larger divisions. A number of conroi would be grouped into a ‘battle’ (Old French batailles); a large army might be made up of a number of these batailles, often ten or fifteen. It seems that Rohan’s equivalent unit is the éored; at Minas Tirith, the Rohirrim are divided into more than three companies of this sort (he gives orders to three, but then bids others to follow the three in the lead). We ought to imagine Théoden’s army being subdivided this way, with a number of conroi (we do not, as far as I can tell, get the Rohirrim equivalent unit name, but doubtless there would have been one) grouped together into several éoreds, with each éored having a leader, and then each conroi also having a commander (likely a major landholding aristocrat).

Those conroi should be organized around their banners, which gets us into all of the command-and-control that is not happening in this scene. The banner was crucial, as it gave individual riders a point of reference to organize around, a place to return to if separated. With room for local variation, there were also systems of signals and commands. Since conroi were relatively small, many of these commands could be relayed by voice; for larger units, trumpets and horns might signal a general advance. The commands were about what you would expect – advance, stop, spur to a gallop, slow to a step, fall back; the exact words differed over languages. In at least some cases, these calls had either standard echos or responses to make sure the entire unit was paying attention (Verbruggen, 87). There do seem to have been standard orders, and a real concern that the formation – again, a tight line, stirrup to stirrup – not be disrupted in the advance.

(As an aside on battle-cries, because it really doesn’t fit anywhere else: it seems pretty clear to me that the battle-call of the dwarves, “Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!” (“Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!”) was probably been inspired by the long traditional battlecry of the Gurkhas, “Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali!” (Victory to Mahakali! The Gurkhas are coming!” It has a similar length and cadence, with the final clause heralding the impending arrival of fearsome foes)

The opposing wargry is even more poorly formed up, with massive, irregular intervals and a formation that is deep, rather than wide, which is the rough equivalent of going into a game of checkers by first making sure you have left nice, one-space intervals between all of your pieces.

So what should the approach look like? Théoden ought, once he has gathered his cavalry, to organize it around his standard (something he does in the books, RotK, 121, but not in the films), drawing it into a tight line. He ought to then order the advance at a trot, keeping his line dressed. Then the order to spur, first to the canter, then to the gallop. As they come into the gallop, the spears (we’ll get to them in a moment) – which will have been held pointing upwards to keep them out of the way – should come down into striking position. It’s likely that the formation naturally loses some rigidity in that last charging gallop, as stronger horses outpace weaker ones, but that is why the gallop is held until relatively close to contact – the aim is to keep a solid line (that this is ideal resounds from our sources, which talk a lot of serried ranks, tightly packed, saying things like “the wind could not blow between their lances” or how “it was not possible to throw a prune except on mailed and armored men,” quotes from Verbruggen, op. cit.). Given that the Rohirrim are exemplary horsemen and Théoden’s own conroi ought to be some of the best of them, we ought to imagine a tight formation, carefully controlled, even at the last charge.


The reader may be pardoned for having finished the previous paragraph in the hope that the next one would begin with a shattering collision of cavalry and wargry (this joke shamelessly adapted from Shattered Sword). But we need to talk about the equipment that both of these forces are carrying, because the film doesn’t quite have it right.

Let’s start with the Rohirrim. When we see them, we generally get a wide array of weapons. Gamling and Háma ride forward and try to defend themselves with one-handed arming swords (of mostly sensible design), but no shields, helmets or spears. When Théoden rallies his riders, we see a mix of swords, spears and axes. No one carries a shield, but some of the horses have shields still strapped in their carry positions. And those are, overall, the right sort of weapons, but in totally wrong proportion.

Charging Rohirrim. Ignoring Aragorn, I count 3 swords, 3 spears (two are hard to see), the banner pole and 2 axes. The correct count probably ought to be 8 spears and a banner.

Let’s deal with the first potential question: why no specialized lances? I should clear up my terminology: on horseback, the ubiquitous one-handed thrusting spear which occurs in almost every sedentary culture is often called a lance, but for the sake of specificity, I am going to call it a spear and reserve the word lance to mean the highly specialized high medieval cavalry lance (this is, should note, not the historical usage). Should we see that sort of lance here? I’d argue: no. That specialized high-to-late medieval lance – thicker and more reinforced and eventually made to utilize a specialized lance-rest constructed into the breastplate – strikes me (speaking as a scholar of arms and armor) as an evolutionary response to armored knights fighting other armored knights. It is the consequence of an arms race between offensive and defensive technology which has not yet taken place in Middle Earth, where the primary body defense is still mail (which a normal spear, held in the hand and delivered at a gallop, is perfectly capable of defeating). That armor-context is part of why I put the Rohirrim closer to the cavalry on the Bayeux Tapestry (showing the Battle of Hastings, 1066) than plate-armored late medieval knightly cavalry. Lance-rests and lances would be out of place on cavalrymen armored in scale and mail, riding on as yet largely unarmored horses.

Section of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing the Battle of Hastings (1066), with heavy cavalry using both overarm and underarm spear-grips. It should be noted that overarm grips dominate the total number of depictions in the tapestry.

But lancer cavalry – meaning cavalry using any sort of spear – is far older than the specialist lance, and – as an aside – far older than stirrups (I most emphatically do not ascribe to the stirrup thesis; Alexander charged his cavalry just fine without them, but it matters little here, as the Rohirrim have them regardless). And it isn’t that some of the Rohirrim should have spears, all of the Rohirrim should be using spears as their primary weapon. Swords, axes, maces – on horseback (and frequently on foot too) these are, with only a few exceptions, backup weapons.

The spear is just perfect for use on horseback. It can be easily wielded in one hand (good, because your other hand has the reins and your shield), it is long enough to deliver a strike both to the ground (because you are elevated and infantry targets are below you) and in front of your horse. The latter thing is important, as we’ll see when we get to impact, because it may happen that you end up stopped, or nearly stopped, facing or alongside a mounted opponent. Unlike an infantryman, you cannot necessarily close up, because your horses are in the way, so a weapon with reach is crucial. Finally, the narrow tip of the spear allows you to concentrate all of the energy you build up with your horse’s speed into a tiny, penetrating area of impact, which is ideal for defeating armor, particularly mail.

I count nine riders in this shot, five four spears between them. Five if you count the banner-pole, but you shouldn’t – the banner is a signalling device first.

But wait – what is a rider to do when he is actively accelerating himself towards the spear-points of his enemies which we just established are ideal for punching through his mail, scale or thinner lamellar armor? Carry a shield of course. Despite the fact that we see quite a lot of sensible Rohirrim round-shields (a kite shield might make a bit more sense for the horse-lords, but round shields on horseback show up all over Eurasia, so there’s no problem here; one assumes the round shield was chosen because of the Anglo-Saxon vibe the Rohirrim have), they almost never carry them, instead leaving them on their backs or on the horse (this is a lot more obvious with the charge of the Rohirrim at Minas Tirith).

Book Note: No such problems exist with the equipment as described in the books. Théoden engages the chieftain of the Southrons with his spear first and only resorts to his sword when the spear breaks; his shield also figures prominently (TT, 171; RotK 126). The Rohirrim’s shields and spears are likewise not absent (TT, 172; RotK, 121, 126).

I actually suspect this has to do with set-safety and stunt difficulty. Peter Jackson has to have a lot of riders on his set and few modern riders are experienced handling a horse with a shield in their hands (still fewer with the center-grip style of shield the Rohirrim use. This style of shield absolutely can be used on horseback – Gallic and Roman cavalry did so – but it may prove trickier than the later medieval shield suspensions). Add on to that that the Rohirrim prop-shields are overly thick and heavy and thus difficult to use effectively and you can see why, for safety reasons, they are left on the horse. Likewise, I am guessing that there was simply no way to make a prop-spear on a horse safe (it’s simply too fast to risk a wooden pole with any kind of rigid tip connecting with someone on the ground), which is why the Rohirrim spear-wielders almost always keep their points up, even when charging. Consequently, you want to limit the number of actors with prop-weapons they can’t use and keep them in the background.

All of which is no excuse for the weapons the wargry brings to the battle. While some of the orcs bring curved, relatively long one-handed swords (sensible!) many of them appear to only have much shorter swords or daggers, which are hardly ideal to use from warg-back. Worse yet is their choice of polearm, these things:

A selection of orc mounted weapons, what look like two long-hafted glaives, a bardiche and on the right, possibly a bearded axe? Also a terrible choice for use from horseback or wargback.

Now, those aren’t fantasy weapons from nowhere, so much as fancified versions of real weapons. The weapon held up in the center looks like a bardiche, while the two long blades held low look to be some sort of glaive (note: polearm nomenclature is confusing, complicated and wildly inconsistent from one area of the world to the next, and from one era to the next; I tend to lean on E. Oakeshott’s European Weapons and Armour (1980), just to use a set of terms that can be readily understood by others). These are, on the whole, pretty bad weapons to bring to a cavalry engagement, or really on warg-back at all.

The problem is that both of these are two-handed cutting weapons. But remember: you ought to have – as these orcs do – one hand on the reins of your mount. It should not be hard to imagine how awkward attempting to cut with these weapons one handed would be. And the bardiche is even worse, because you have to swing it while somehow keeping the long haft clear of your mount. Now, I should note that a short-hafted form of the glaive is sometimes seen used by cavalry as a two-handed slashing weapon:

Via Wikipedia, glaive/warbrand use from horseback from the Morgan Bible (folio 10v), c. 1240. Note the short haft of the glaive.

But so far as I can tell, depictions of this are extremely rare, and the glaive’s near-relative weapons (like the guisarme) seem to primarily be polearms intended for use on foot. In this case, the glaives the orcs are using seem to be long-hafted, which of course poses the same problem as the bardiche. These seem to me to be infantry weapons, largely unsuited for use from warg-back (oddly, this isn’t the only fantasy setting where someone thought that infantry polearms were cool and should be just as cool mounted). The orcs would have been far better off with simple thrusting spears. Oh yes and – given how lightly armored they are – shields.


Now we move to matters which are quite a bit less settled: what happens when these two formations meet. There’s considerable debate about what happens in just about any kind of shock engagement (that is, the violent meeting of close-order bodies of troops in melee, either mounted or on foot). In part, this is because we simply cannot effectively observe the question the way we can with, say, ancient ironworking techniques, nor could we easily observe and document the phenomenon in places where it was still practiced, as with subsistence agriculture, to develop clues. Attempting to create a modern test to replace that runs into problems with safety, especially when dealing with horses, which are plenty heavy and fast enough to seriously injure or kill someone without any weapons at all.

So we are left with the testimony of our medieval or ancient sources, often filtered through the somewhat (but often only somewhat) better sources for the use of cavalry in the modern period (which raises all sorts of awkward questions about how useful largely unarmored Napoleonic lancers are for understanding heavily armored knightly cavalry). And our ancient sources are on the one hand stylized artistic depictions (sculptures, manuscript illustrations, etc.) which often struggle to accurately display their subjects and often don’t care to be accurate in the first place. On the other hand, we have textual sources, which often struggle to use language to really describe combat; imagine trying to describe a fire-fight to someone who has never so much as seen a firearm used. And worse yet, over all of this is a layer of heroization and propaganda which runs through the sources for warfare and tends to further distort them from the reality on the ground. It leaves an uncomfortable amount of space for conjecture and theory, and thus debate.

So I cannot claim that my approach here is the be-all and end-all, but I will at least try to ‘paint within the lines’ of the broad scope of what the sources and the scholarship suggest at the moment of collision.

In essence, we might imagine two bodies of heavy cavalry closing on each other as a sort of ‘decision-tree.’ Our sources are really quite clear that cavalry closing to the attack spur to the gallop, so we can start there: both groups of cavalry are in fairly tight order (we’ll get to orcish indiscipline in a moment) and closing rapidly.

The first option is offered to us by simple physics: if neither formation looses up or slows down, they will collide. A gallop tends to be around 25-30mph, but since they are galloping at each other, the real collision speed is the sum of their velocities – so we have a c. 1,300lbs warhorse with a c. 250lbs of rider, armor, weapons and tack on it (effectively a single, 1,550lbs object), colliding with another c. 1,550lbs object at something like 50-60mph. The energy release of that collision is equivalent to a four-door Honda Civic wrapping itself around a tree at a little over 30mph (48.7kph for the metric among us). Being unhorsed in any situation risks potential injury – being unhorsed in a high energy collision as a tangle of metal plates and sharp weapons, as two 1,300lbs mounts come down around you is quite likely to cause catastrophic injury to the rider and almost sure to cause such damage to the horse that it will never charge again (a real problem because war horses were very expensive; even a wealthy knight might think twice before casually disposing of one).

We thus tend to think that this sort of collision did not happen often. Someone would slow down, turn aside, lose their nerve and avoid the almost certainly fatal crush. But in some ways, a cavalry charge is a game of nerves: coming in at a strong gallop looking like you are willing to risk that collision is a great way to panic your enemies, make them turn aside, and gain the advantage.

But what if no one loses their nerve, so the formations hold together? We tend to think both formations actually slow on the final approach, coming together at non-catastrophic speeds. At which point, there is an effort to ‘push through’ with swords, lances, spears, and so on, at close quarters, cutting and stabbing at enemy riders in front of you or two your side. Talking about this sort of press is tricky, because we find that our sources often like to represent as a collision what we later find out to have been a press (perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is the accounts of Waterloo, where multiple British officers maintained they had met the French at speed, but on closer inspection, it turns out to have been closer to a press, Keegan, Face of Battle, 147-9).

A press of cavalry, from MS. Bodl. 264, 74r, dated to 1344. Note how the horses are effectively stationary as they fight, at a stand still.

I think the press must have been common, because the sources place such strong emphasis on a dense, tight formation, which would be of greatest value in the press. If both forces meet, but one is loose and the other is tight and disciplined, the latter will present the former with a series of many-on-few melee combats, which ought to result in fairly rapid success (as anyone who has ever tried to fence multiple opponents alone with any close combat weapon will rapidly attest to the near impossibility of it, even with a shield). The spear is a crucial weapon here because the rider will often be striking over the head of his own mount at the enemy and his mount – reach is a crucial advantage, although in a very tight press, the greater precision of the sword dominates (thus the swords in the image above).

But did these formations ever come together at speed? This is a matter of some degree of uncertainty, but I actually think that some of the times they must have. If a charge wasn’t carefully kept regulated (something that must have been hard to do), the differences in the speed of the horses would open up gaps, loosening the formation. Alternately, men losing their nerve in the gallop may have slowed while their compatriots kept on, which would achieve the same result. In a large battle, this might be entire units – as some conroi slowed for the press and others charged home, again creating gaps which might be ridden through. Keegan raises another possibility, an ‘opening of ranks’ whereby the formation is intentionally loosened in the approach to allow the two bodies of cavalry (or wargry in this case) to pass through each other at high speed without the mounts colliding and he presents some Napoleonic era examples.

Some problems must at once be admitted. Doing this seems to cut directly against the emphasis on ‘tight’ knightly formations which resounds from the period literature. And I think there is a degree of artificiality (what Keegan phrases as ‘consent’) which the mind rebels against when it is framed that way. But I tend to think this happened. First, I do not think ‘consent’ is the right way to think about why – I think this happened as the natural response of men driving their horses forward and yet looking to avoid the catastrophic impact discussed above; it was later formalized into orders, but avoiding collision is a natural response for both humans and horses. And we see quite a lot of period artwork that shows individual or groups of horses, clearly at the gallop (all legs in the air at once) meeting head-on (Rogers, op. cit., 192 has a particularly good one which I cannot find online).

But I am most moved by the evidence of training for this, because this seems to be exactly the sort of thing that the quintaine (a charging target) or the tournament trained at (note that early tournaments trained this in units, not generally as individual contests – it was often a contest between two conroi). We see the same in modern lance and sabre drill, which survives just long enough to be documented in video (note esp. at 0:52-1:03 and 1:51-1:59) – notice how some of those sabre stances involve pointing the tip forward level with the rider (which means at another rider, not at a man on foot!), and then swiftly pulling it aside. If you are wondering what that second, silly looking movement is for, look into the modern sport of tent-pegging, which is an evolution of drills for spearing infantry from a horse – the flick to the right or left is to avoid losing your sword in the opponent after ‘giving point’ at high speed. I find it hard to imagine that all of these fellows, from the 11th century knight tilting at his quintaine to the late 19th century cavalryman, are training for a sort of combat that they never engage in.

At the same time, even in this meeting, keeping order was essential. It is not hard to imagine how one-sided an affair it might be if a conroi in good order charges against a conroi where some of the horsemen are fleeing, others are charging, and others are slowing – the formation in good order is going to scatter the other, almost immediately and likely inflict some losses (mitigated by the heavy armor everyone is wearing) while suffering very few themselves.

Likewise, the final option here is not a head-on-head engagement at all, but one in which a well organized conroi of cavalry catches another in the flanks or rear. With formation being so important and horses being so hard to turn, a formation struck in the rear or flank may have little choice but to scatter and flee. As Verbruggen argues, cavalry commanders were well aware of this vulnerability and both went to great lengths to protect their flanks (either with supporting units or, as often, with the terrain itself, anchoring a flank on some natural obstacle) and to try to exploit an enemy’s flank.

Conclusion: Towards a Better Charge

All of this is only a very brief summary of a complex topic, but it should by now be quite clear that despite Théoden and the Rohirrim’s reputation for cavalry excellence, their performance looks almost nothing like this. They attack in disorder, make little attempt at a formation and the entire scene devolves into a series of confused individual combats. What I think might be more instructive than continuing to beat up on this scene is instead to present a proposed revised scene more in keeping with what we’ve discussed, one with exemplifies the Rohirrim’s well-earned position as the ‘horse-lords.’ So what ought it to look like?

As the warning call comes from Aragorn, we ought to see the riders of Théoden’s house begin immediately coming forward and forming up around the king’s banner as by habit. This could be happening in the background while Théoden is giving instructions to Éowyn (so we don’t lose that important character beat), so that, by the time Théoden come up to the head of the formation, they are already in a line. The odd fellows out here ought to be Legolas and Gimli, who haven’t the right weapons or training for this; I might have them follow the line in and dismount when the fighting starts. If we want to get really complex, they might be backed up by some of the Rohirrim infantry, who might form up on that rocky ridge-line, taking advantage of the terrain (which honestly suits infantry far better than cavalry). Aragorn, by contrast, has adventured around the world, and might know this business well enough to form up behind the king’s banner.

Théoden then advances his cavalry at a trot to the top of that ridge we see. Each rider ought to have a spear in their right hand (held upright for now) and a shield in their left. The opposing wargry comes over the opposite ridge and – overeager and undertrained – breaks out into a charge straight-away, leading to their formation spacing out from the indiscipline. I might give the orcs spears and sabres (or just sabres, if we want to keep them visually distinct); the wargry is a light raiding force, not a heavy contact force, so sabre cavalry might be a good model (and, as an aside, woe-betide sabre cavalry that finds itself fighting lancer cavalry). Théoden orders his riders to advance, first to the trot, then spur into the gallop only as he gets close, maintaining a nice, dense stirrup-to-stirrup line as he does it. Théoden’s conroi of perhaps 25 is outnumbered, but tighter and better disciplined.

The orc riders – who were expecting to raid nearly defenseless civilians – respond unpredictably. Some slow to avoid the collision, while others spur onward, maybe even a few try to turn away. Because there are more of them and their formation has loosened, many of the orcs find themselves well to the outside of Théoden’s conroi – still more opt to avoid the solid line of the Rohirrim and intentionally steer out to the right or left. As all of this jostling makes tatters of the wargry formation, Théoden’s forces hit the center, expert horsemen guiding their mounts through the gaps created, spears striking out at orc riders as they pass; many of those spears will break with the force of impact. Those riders whose spears break swiftly draw swords or axes.

As Théoden’s force clears his first pass, only a few of his riders are down, but the center of the field is a mess of orcs and wargs. But he can’t stop, because the groups that went to the left and right are now behind him. Théoden – master cavalry captain – swiftly gathers his riders again under his banner (the obvious place to reform) and wheels about, turning left to take one of the two pockets of wargs left on the field. The Rohirrim reform and turn faster, striking the warg riders before they can properly reform, but without the devastating force of the first charge, leading to a press as some of the wargs from the other group arrive. At the same time, a handful of warg riders make tries at Legolas and Gimli’s small clump of infantry, and are toppled to ruin in the rough terrain for their trouble. The press provides the opportunity for Aragorn to “take [his] little tumble off the cliff,” but by now the wargry’s numerical advantage is gone and their cohesion is shattered. Théoden’s tighter formation off-sets the obvious advantage that a warg might hold over a horse in the press, because his riders can protect each other with their spears (keeping the wargs’ teeth and claws at bay); the press is brief and the remaining orcs scatter and flee, leaving Théoden holding the field.

Our fight now hits all of the right beats – Théoden outnumbered, ordering Éowyn away, a fearsome charge of wargry, Rohirrim victory with losses, Aragorn falling off a cliff – but now does so in a way which demonstrates Théoden’s leadership ability and the prowess of the riders of Rohan. It shows them winning through tactics, discipline and carefully honed riding skill, rather than a confusing melee where they win because they are the good guys. And it gives Gimli and Legolas something to do in the fight that makes sense, if we include the supporting infantry.

That said, I think given this alternative scenario, it should be obvious why they didn’t do this. Making this work on film would take a lot of planning for a fight which is just supposed to be a small prelude to the real action at Helm’s Deep; even more planning to do big aerial shots if you want the audience to be able to keep track of where everyone is and what they are doing. All of that would get expensive, fast. Moreover, complex wheeling maneuvers with tighter-order cavalry carrying spears and shields would probably have been too unsafe a thing to ask your riding stunt-fellows, much less your main stars, to do. But this is 2002, and you just can’t CGI the whole thing, because while your CGI stands up OK in the long-distance wide-shots, it isn’t good enough for the close-up work (something the near-contemporary Star Wars prequels will test to their great detriment).

So I get the difficulty, but it is too sad, because there are just very few good scenes of cavalry engagements at any scale.

Next week: all of the armies arrive at Helm’s Deep, and we talk about how to organize your pre-modern army so it can actually function!

146 thoughts on “Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part II: Total Warg

  1. I think the closest engagement to this in the book is Eomer’s raid on the orc forces that took Merry and Pippin – The description of the rohirrim there as more experienced/cohesive (especially against a mixed force of three armies of varying experience) explains why they only took 15 losses despite being outnumbered.

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  2. It seems like Saruman left his Wargry to the vagaries of fate (couldn’t resist a little pun). Fascinating analysis, Bret!

    Speaking of Shattered Sword (an absolutely awesome book!), I just realized that Saruman shares his weaknesses with Yamamoto Isoroku. Parshall and Tully call out Yamamoto for setting up his planning based on the perceived intentions of the enemy rather than actual enemy abilities, and that affected both his strategic outlook and the operational behavior of his forces.

    Saruman is a STEM supremacist who is so sure in his thinking of what Rohan will do based on his psy-ops against Theoden that he doesn’t bother setting up a proper scouting/shadowing cavalry force in the event that Theoden is knocked out of his torpor and marshals a cavalry force to use against Saruman’s troops in the Westfold, never mind that Saruman is perfectly aware how powerful Rohan’s cavalry are. Likewise, Saruman is so sure that the Ents will stay out of the fight based on their prior inaction in Middle-Earth that he doesn’t even consider them a factor, and doesn’t bother setting any sort of watch or scouting force to keep an eye on them in the event that they do turn (and like you’ve pointed out, he knows perfectly well how powerful Ents can be). This really is a pattern of preparing things based on the perceived intentions of the enemy forces rather than actual abilities. Saruman bungles in the same way Yamamoto does: aside from assuming that his enemy will obediently follow his pre-ordained schemes, he refuses to scout adequately or take proper precautions in the event that things don’t go according to plan.

    For the sake of other commentators, I’ll spell the analogy with Yamamoto out (please don’t mind, Bret!) – Yamamoto attacked Pearl Harbor based on the assumption (utter nonsense in hindsight) that it would force the Americans to stay neutral and not interfere with Japanese operations in the Dutch East Indies, and of course it provided the perfect impetus to bring America into the war. He ignored America’s vastly superior industrial power, which he had seen first-hand during his time at Harvard, for the sake of their perceived psychological weakness, something that he *thought* he knew more about than anyone else. (When Yamamoto’s superior, Admiral Nagano, pointed out the obvious strategic idiocy of a Pearl Harbor attack, Yamamoto used underhanded methods to force Nagano’s compliance)

    He then bungled at Midway by assuming that the Americans were badly beaten and would have to be baited into bringing out their CVs at Midway when the likes of Halsey, Fletcher, Spruance, et al. were perfectly willing to strike back at the Japanese and had in fact demonstrated at Coral Sea that American CVs could turn up and wreak havoc where least expected. Yamamoto ignores his Midway wargames that show precisely what would happen if the American CVs get a jump on them, and lo and behold, his own carrier forces get wrecked at Midway. And Yamamoto’s air commander, Genda, comes up with a scouting plan that’s effectively for the sake of it, and the only aircraft (Floatplane No.1 from the cruiser Chikuma) that could’ve detected the US forces in the appropriate timeframe for the Japanese to strike fails in its job (due to weather or the plane operating at high altitude, the reason is lost now) and there’s no backup scout plane covering the same sector, a pretty basic failing. Both Saruman and Yamamoto fail at scouting and at getting things right when their plans fail – the quote from Shattered Sword comparing the Japanese forces to ants in terms of both ruthlessness and inability to resist unexpected disruptions seems to apply to Orcs pretty well.

    In fact, I think I’d go so far as to reconcile the seemingly mixed-up descriptions of Saruman’s army “rushing” towards Helms Deep with what Yamamoto did during the Midway operation. Yamamoto dispersed a ludicrously large number of Japanese naval assets into what were supposed to be “mutually supporting” forces (but which weren’t; the carrier force was on its own for all practical purposes throughout the battle) because he thought that his enemy was beaten and would stay away from battle if they knew the true size and strength of his force; he brought in many battleships including the mighty Yamato under the thoroughly misguided assumption that the Americans would use their own surviving battleships from Pearl Harbor. All the Americans had to do was concentrate their land(Midway) and carrier-based air power on the aircraft carriers and destroy them, and leave all the rest of Yamamoto’s irrelevant and wasteful forces to head back to Japan in shame.

    It’s quite possible that Saruman, who prided himself on his subtlety, decided that a similarly “subtle” scattering of his orc forces to mask their true numbers and lure the Rohirrim into a field battle was a smart thing to do, because he thought the Rohirrim could be lured into a field battle where they fought best (and would subsequently be destroyed). And because he didn’t bother to set scouts to deal with an earlier-than-expected arrival of Theoden’s forces, they caught him completely off guard, and by heading to the Hornburg they pretty much forced Saruman’s forces to fight at a disadvantage against a much better guarded fortress than they had bargained for!

    Of course, Shattered Sword with its stern assessment of Yamamoto’s failings came out only in 2004 and there was no way Tolkien could’ve learned the full truth about the nature of Yamamoto’s failings during his lifetime, but as you may have garnered I find the prospect of comparing Saruman and Yamamoto quite enticing. I certainly enjoyed typing all this up! 🙂

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  3. On the call-and-response thing — hell, my college band was well-versed in the ritual of one of our staff yelling “HEY BAND!”, followed by anybody who’d heard that echoing back, “HEY WHAT?”, much louder en masse than that single voice could achieve. Which had the effect of producing the necessary silence for whatever announcement followed. We also knew the command “block up!” and would automatically find our places in the marching block (. . . more or less; look, we were a scatter band, and not exactly known for our precision).

    As a more general aside, I appreciate your awareness of the limitations of filming and stunt safety, the challenges of communicating certain things through a visual medium, etc. Internet pedants are a dime a dozen; internet pedants who can also acknowledge why accuracy and realism don’t always win out are much, much rarer.

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  4. Typo nitpicking:
    But – working with the film like it is a historical text – the historian in me has to caution insurmountable problems.
    Something seems to be missing in the sentence, but I am not sure what. Just doesn’t sound right to me.

    Well, Legolas watches the riders leave the column, within just a far yards of the leading civilian elements.
    ITYM “few yards”

    advance cavalry screen at least two miles (3,2189 meters) in front of the column.
    ITYM (3,218 meters)


    1. A few more:
      “Following the rules for forming these technical term” -> “terms”
      “the refugee columns that streamed out of Rwanada in 1994” -> “Rwanda
      “Stripping down a column – either a convoy or an army – down to bare essentials” -> remove first “down”
      “In front, they’re moving six or so abrest” -> “abreast”
      “say, four country farmers for every down dweller” -> “town”
      “Usain Bolt’s average runs-speed” -> “run”
      “beginning in broader Mediterranean in the Hellenistic era” -> “the broader Mediterranean”?
      “Well, the Rohirrim, stirrup-using armored heavy cavalry (with lances, we’ll get to it), they are the tight line sort of cavalry.” -> remove “they”
      “both mean ‘ladder’ the former in Old French the latter in Latin” -> ” ‘ladder’, the former in Old French, the latter… ”
      “long traditional battlecry of the Gurkha’s” -> “Gurkhas”
      “first to the cantor” -> “canter”
      “some of the horses has shields” -> “have”
      “one horseback, the ubiquitous one-handed thrusting spear” -> “on horseback”
      “That specialzied high-to-late medieval lance” -> “specialized”
      “far older the stirrups” -> “than stirrups”
      “you build up with your horses speed” -> “horse’s”
      “While some of the orcs bring curved, relatively long one-handed swords (sensible!) Many of them appear” -> “many”, and possibly “one-handed swords, (sensible!)”.
      “So what it ought to look like?” -> “ought it”
      “keeping the warg’s teeth and claws at bay” -> ” wargs’ “


      1. “five four spears between them” – five should have a strikethrough (which might not appear in a caption?)


  5. The word “wargry” is great, I will use it from now on! (but I can think of very few opportunities to do so). I think your reconstruction of how this battle should look like is great. I think I could find many historical battles where a smaller but more disciplined force of heavy cavalry supported by infantry (perhaps with wagons, forming wagenburg) routed larger but less cohesive light cavalry.

    Still there is one fundamental difference between cavalry and wargry and we don’t have historical precedent for that. Wolves are predators and horses are prey. It would be next to impossible to get the horses to charge in the direction of wargry because the horses would instinctively escape. I can’t imagine how one would train a horse to act against millions of years of evolution.

    Another issue I can see is it would be impossible for event the best raiders to reform after the charge before being attacked. Wolves are smaller and more agile than horses and they would instinctively chase and attack any separated horses. Then the rest of the horses would smell the blood and panic, possibly throwing the knights and running away and wargs would do what they do best – pursue and hunt.

    I think that wargs even in small numbers would be impossible to confront on horseback. I think this also explains why in the books Theoden didn’t choose to stay in the field and rode to Hornburg despite his objective to defeat Saruman forces quickly.

    Thank you for writing this! This is education and entertainment at the same time 🙂

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    1. Warg riders are not a new problem for Rohan: they’re a standard part of orc military operations. That being the case, Rohan wouldn’t focus on cavalry if wargs were impossible for cavalry to counter. I think it’s consistent with the way the Rohirrim talk about their horses for the Rohirrim to believe their horse bloodlines are slightly supernatural. (I believe real world horse bloodlines sometimes had mythical origins.)

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      1. OTOH, on the evidence of The Hobbit, the wargry was used to conducting raids, not battles. Tactics for attacking a farmstead are very different from those for battle.


    2. AFAIK, horses have been used on lion and tiger hunts. Perhaps it’s a matter of just getting the horses familiar enough with the smell of captive predatory animals (wolves/wargs) so that they don’t instinctively bolt or shy away when confronted with them. And given that Aragorn demonstrates (in the book) an ability to calm horses unnerved by the presence of the dead, I’d guess that it’s not going too far for Rohirrim to have the ability to calm horses confronted with wargs and other predators.

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      1. Before the Battle of Thapsus, Caesar had a few elephants quartered amongst his horses to get the latter used to the sight/smell/sound of elephantry. Maybe the Rohirrim do something similar using captured wargs.

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      2. I don’t think they use captive tigers or lions to get horses to tolerate being used to hunt them, though. I think it’s more a matter of using horses that know and trust their riders.

        Which means the Rohirrim are quite likely to be able to keep their horses controlled against just wargs.


    3. Another issue I can see is it would be impossible for event the best raiders to reform after the charge before being attacked. Wolves are smaller and more agile than horses and they would instinctively chase and attack any separated horses. Then the rest of the horses would smell the blood and panic, possibly throwing the knights and running away and wargs would do what they do best – pursue and hunt.

      At least in the film, wargs don’t really look much like wolves (more like giant hyaenas, I’d say), and I don’t think it would be safe to assume that they’d necessarily behave like them, either.


    4. In *The Hobbit* wargs are intelligent and language using, so talking about wolf instincts is rather unreliable. Their metaphysical status in LotR is less clear, but still some sort of evil or controlled wolf, not just a big wolf tamed for goblin-riding.

      The Rohirrim are described as having a special relationship with their horses, some of whom (Shadowfax) are outright magical and somewhat intelligent in their own right, so I’m happy to buy particular brave and disciplined horses.

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      1. Yeah the wargs are either a fallen, mammal equivalent of Eagle-shaped Maiar, like Gwaihír, or else they’re wolves that were “woken up” by Orcs, the way the Elves can “wake up” trees and horses.


      2. Maybe the wargs are descendants of Morgoth’s old werewolf breeds, much in the same way that Shelob and other giant spiders are descendants of Ungoliant (who may or may not have been a fallen Maia)? The old werewolves were clearly implied to be sentient, and the Tale of Beren and Luthien features Sauron speaking while in werewolf form.

        Of the Rohirrim’s horses, the horse of Eorl, the founder of Rohan, was said to be capable of speech, and Shadowfax is hinted at being a direct descendant of the horse of the Vala Orome (and therefore of divine ancestry), which would go a long way to explaining his ability to understand speech and ride on. If the other horses have even a bit of divine ancestry, they’d be capable of more than regular horses, much the same way that Aragorn who has a little bit of elf and Maia ancestry in him is more than a regular human.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Personally I was bothered by the fact that everybody in the refugee train is on foot. Rohan is supposed to be a horse-centeric culture yet it seems nobody but the king’s retinue has horses. Weird.

    Secondly Brett is a credentialed historian and I totally am not but my understanding from assorted studies of the family and domestic life is that the multi-generational household was very much the exception not the rule in the west and even in eastern cultures where the patriarchal family was the ideal, a really surprising number of people choose to live apart from the family homestead. Dhuoda, you will recall, while part of an aristocratic kinship network was obviously very much on her own in the absence of husband and sons, (there may have been a daughter or daughters with her). Manorial censuses of the tenantry show mainly nuclear families with the occasional grandparents or unmarried aunt or uncle. In Ancient Egypt while a man might find himself responsible for assorted unprotected female kin his family would basically be his wife and children.

    Of course as an imaginary culture the Rohirrim can play by any rules you like!


    1. Dhuoda was ‘on her own’ only in a limited sense. Her household would have included dozens of servants and retainers, and their families. Likewise, had her husband survived, it would have included her two sons (likely well into adulthood) and their servants, retainers, and those people’s families.

      And among the peasantry, extended families – working the same farmland – were the norm. The need for the family to center on a limited bit of capital (the farm) created a truly bewildering array of family structures which we can see in the legal and charter evidence.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re both right. While on the one hand anthropologists are now rejecting the idea (partly popularized by ideologically-motivated pseudoscience) that there’s anything new or unusual about the nuclear family, the extended family historically played a much bigger role. The extended family still does play a big role among rural modern people, though, probably for the same reason it once played a bigger role everywhere; I believe there was a “you might be a redneck” bit about “if all your stories start ‘this one time me and my cousins'”.

        The thing to remember is that the extended family is, in most human societies, extended from the nuclear one. The nuclear family is still the base unit that the bigger groups extend from.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Although I’m not well-read on medieval European social structures, I can confirm first-hand that extended families continue to be the norm in less-industrialized parts of the world, including in primitive tribes/clans. I believe sociologist Robin Dunbar put an extended family/clan to be at around 150 members maximum, before they split up.

        Proponents of ideologically motivated pseudoscience(not anthropologists) claim that the nuclear family is somehow better or more “natural”, but it’s merely a product of 19th century industrialization, backed up by extremely conservative political interests.


      3. No, the ideological pseudoscience—specifically Marxist propaganda, roughly on par with Lysenkoism—is that industrialization created the nuclear family.

        Real anthropologists now acknowledge that the nuclear family is the base unit that extended families “extend” from. All larger systems take “couple and its children” as the base unit—as can be seen by the fact the words for fellow-clansmen typically translate as “sibling”, and not the other way around (most cultures also conceptualize polygamy as modified monogamy).


      4. No, the ideological pseudoscience—specifically Marxist propaganda, roughly on par with Lysenkoism—is that industrialization created the nuclear family.

        Real anthropologists now acknowledge that the nuclear family is the base unit that extended families “extend” from. All larger systems take “couple and its children” as the base unit—as can be seen by the fact the words for fellow-clansmen typically translate as “sibling”, and not the other way around (most cultures also conceptualize polygamy as modified monogamy).


      5. My impression is that independent nuclear families have a longer history in northwestern Europe. Prospective couples would try to have the means to set up their own household, going back several centuries. Typically the extended family would be around, but you had your own house/land/job, rather than being part of one extended family compound. You see this a lot in Jane Austen though of course she’s writing about gentry who aspire to outright independent wealth. But again, my impression is the behavior was more widespread, and contributed to later age of marriage of both sexes.

        But there are other models, like societies where mothers stay put, their brothers are the ‘men’ who take care of their sisters’ children, and fathers are never more than visitors. And societies where women own huts/tents, and male partners might be around for a long time, but are also easily divorced — if you come back and find your things outside, she’s divorced you. The Aka and the Tuareg both fit that.

        “nuclear vs. extended” is a false dichotomy.


      6. What industrialization changed was getting rid of the extended family (primarily by individual workers moving to cities away from their extended family, but still able to get married and have kids), not creating the nuclear one. Not the same thing at all.

        And I went to school with members of one of those matrilocal, matrilineal societies where the main male presence in children’s lives is their mother’s brother. Navajo people still refer to clan-kin as members of the same nuclear family, which is still the base unit—because “a couple and their children” is the most basic form a family can take. It logically precedes all larger groupings, let alone historically. (And historically, even among the Navajo—where polygamy was far more widespread than almost any other culture—”one guy convinces one girl to marry him” was the most common arrangement. Despite their lack of formal stratification, a man still had to be a bit exceptional to pull off “seem like it’d be worth it to marry all the daughters of a family to him”, vs. “the parents don’t mind letting him marry one daughter”.)


      7. @Tom in AZ: Even if there are odd examples of societies that do have nuclear families as the base social unit, they have extended families as well as economic units. You mentioned the Navajo whom you went to school with, and the first website that I checked out about them said that the nuclear family is the basic social unit and the extended family is the basic economic unit. So the extended family is arguably just as fundamental as the nuclear family-
        And in fact, there are many countries and cultures I’m aware of where the meanings of “brother” and “sister” apply for “one’s own sibling” as well as “cousin.” to the point where there’s no real distinction between both!
        Even the proto-Indo-European words for “brother” and “sister” don’t necessarily mean “biological brother and sister”, they can mean “fellow clansman” or “woman of own blood”(*swe-sor = sister) providing a basis for an early Indo-European extended family of nomads.
        And there’s the growth in extended families in America at present, pushed by economic uncertainty, the need for mutual social and emotional support and growing deindustrialization. It’s here to stay, and it’s not “propaganda”.


      8. @Thematus: …I’m sorry what part of “what industrialization did was remove the extended family, not create the nuclear one” was difficult for you? You are at best just repeating my own point back to me.

        There is not one society without nuclear families. What is unusual about industrial societies is not also having extended ones.


      9. This is only somewhat related, but I found Stephanie Coontz’s “Marriage, a History” a very interesting read, looking at (almost entirely Western) marriage practices and related ideas of family life. (Hopefully Prof. Devereaux isn’t about to tell me it/she is ill regarded!).

        (I tried to leave this as a reply to the convo between Tom in AZ and Thematus, etc. below, but either that’s not possible or I don’t understand how WordPress works).


    1. That is, in fact, the etymology. The Latin base, infans, means those incapable of speech – thus infant (child who cannot yet speak) in English. But in Italian, it came to mean ‘inexperienced, youths’ which was then applied to footsoldiers, because they lacked the training or experience to fight on horseback. Since they were infantes, their unit was infanteria, and thus in French infanterie, thus in English infantry.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I thought “infantry” came from the Spanish “infantes”, princes, who were given nominal command of foot regiments in the early 16th century or so – so basically, “the prince’s troops”. But maybe that’s a factoid.


  7. I’m going to propose another reason why the scene was shot like this: the film doesn’t want Theoden to look all that competent. And, based on mine and my peers impressions, the film succeeded. Most people I know walked way either completely forgetting everything about Theoden, or thinking that he was a mediocre commander saved by the heroism of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf (though mostly Legolas and Gandalf). I think this latter interpretation, where the film language is telling us, against the script and source material, that the only people who matter are a small number of supercombatants, is the intended and successful aim of the directing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. TV Tropes calls it the Conflict Ball (based on another term of theirs, “Idiot Ball”, as in “who’s got the Idiot Ball this episode?”). Characters do things for no real internal story-reason, things that a character in their situation would know were stupid and would have ever reason to avoid, just to add conflict to the plot.


    1. Unfortunately, I think you’re right. The film makes him look like a coward for resisting Gandalf’s foolish advice to face Saruman in open battle, and I don’t think there’s ever an open acknowledgement that his decision to defend Helm’s Deep was actually the correct one.


    2. It’s true that the films don’t want to make Théoden look competent, although TBH I doubt most people know enough about cavalry tactics to recognise the flaws in Théoden’s commanding here. More likely Peter Jackson choreographed the fight as he did because he thought it was more exciting for Théoden’s men to charge immediately into battle than for them to calmly organise themselves into a proper formation.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I love your analysis of the cavalry charge. It seems most plausible, especially the press. I did a bit of research on Napoleonic cavalry charges a while back (admitting that this doesn’t necessarily apply to medieval armoured cavalry). It’s clear from numerous Napoleonic cavalry sources, experienced cavalrymen, and doctrine, that Keegan is a tad off in his contention that cavalry vs cavalry did not result in actual shock, including collisions. The examples of charging he uses are mostly light cavalry that would charge in open order and might pass through. However, heavy cavalry were trained to keep formation and charge home. The two key aspects that you point out are (i) the fundamental idea that one side will usually fail to maintain its morale and cohesion worse than the other; parts of the line will move more slowly, thereby causing the line to become more ragged, leaving it exploitable by the other maintaining more of its speed, but most importantly its cohesion. It’s worth noting that in a full gallop it’s almost impossible to maintain a proper knee-to-knee line, hence you only gallop the last 50 to 70 metres, if that. (ii) The idea of the press – if the 2 sides slacken off (again, quite likely for 2 steady bodies of heavy cavalry), they will come together at some speed, but not a full gallop; at this point it’s the best teamwork that wins, not individual combat, but teamwork.

    I think that we can describe a full-blown charge and a press as ‘shock’. It’s certainly that for the loser!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Keegan’s pretty well bang on when it comes to Napoleonic cavalry almost never coming together in a collision, and plenty of veteran 18th and 19th century officers, mostly cavalrymen, agreed with him.

      **Louis Nolan**:

      “Let us allow, for the sake of argument, that a lance of a proper length, handy, well poised, and held at its centre, reaches further beyond the horse’s head than the point of a sword held at arm’s length: in what way can this conduce to success, when it is universally acknowledged that it is the superior impetus and speed of one of the advancing lines which overthrows the others; the weapons coming into play afterwards?” (p131)

      “Cavalry seldom meet each other in a charge executed at speed; the one party generally turns before joining issue with the enemy, and this often happens when their line is still unbroken and no obstacles of any sort intervene.

      The fact is, every cavalry soldier approaching another at speed must feel that if they come in contact at that pace they both go down, and probably break every limb in their bodies.

      To strike down his adversary, the dragoon must close, and the chances are he receives a blow in return for the one he deals out.

      There is a natural repugnance to close in deadly strife. How seldom have infantry ever crossed bayonets ! some authors say never ! and cavalry soldiers, unless they feel confident in their riding, can trust to their horse, and know that their weapons are formidable, will not readily plunge into the midst of the enemy’s ranks.” (p234)

      **Friedrich Wilhelm Bismark**

      “”The cause can certainly be nowhere found but in the human heart, of two lines of cavalry resolutely advancing to the charge, and when arrived from fifty to sisty paces from each other, one line suddenly going about, and making flight.” (p76)

      **Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert**

      “Commonly one of the two squadrons going to the charge, or does not arrive on the enemy, or does not wait for him. The one in which there is the least amount of speed and order, and above all the least amount of courage, floats, is disturbed, swirls in the aisles, flees, or does more than a very short and without combat force. But, when the two squadrons are composed only of men and horses seasoned and exercised at the same point, this is how their charge goes: the ranks are mutually interlocked, the horses themselves search for intervals; the riders join hand to hand, everything mixes up to the point that the squadrons pass one behind the other, and in this melee it is then the most agile horses and the most skilful men who decide the fight.” (p164-165, Google Translated)

      **William Tomkinson**

      “…the enemy having sent forward two or three squadrons. Major Myers attempted to oppose them in front of a defile. He waited so long and was so indecisive, and the enemy came up so close, that he ordered the squadron of the i6th to charge. The enemy’s squadron was about twice their strength, and waited their charge.

      This is the only instance I ever met with of two bodies of cavalry coming in opposition, and both standing, as invariably, as I have observed it, one or the other runs away.

      Our men rode up and began sabring, but were so out- numbered that they could do nothing, and were obliged to retire across the defile in confusion, the enemy having brought up more troops to that point.” (p101)

      **Auguste Frédéric Louis Viesse de Marmont**

      “Cavalry is instituted for hand to hand fighting; it is to cross swords with the enemy, to shock, to overthrow, to pursue. To pursue an enemy is its habitual office; for it is rare that the two parties come into collision. Almost at the moment of contact, the less confident of the two halts, and then turns to flight” (p69)


      1. Hmm. I’m not sure that the quotes you’ve used are as conclusive as you might think.

        Nolan: “… it is the superior impetus and speed of one of the advancing lines which overthrows the others…” This is the shock of charge, namely impetus and speed. Later “Cavalry seldom meet each other in a charge executed at speed…”. This is what I have stated in my comment, “seldom” is emphatically not “never”.

        Bismark: This quote is stating that it’s the morale factor that counts. Note that this quotation actually supports the idea of the shock of 2 lines coming together, unless “the human heart” fails one side, which would often be the case. But not always, as other quotations (see below) affirm.

        de Guibert: Note here the contrast between de Guibert’s 2 examples. In the first example 1 side’s courage fails and the engagement is without “combat force”. In the other, de Guibert is describing the charge, but doesn’t really cover the speed at all. I note that horses “search for intervals” – this can be part of a rapid charge with impetus, with horses barging each other out of the way and potentially causing injury. Also worth noting that Napoleonic cavalry are not armoured knights and their horses would usually not be specially bred medieval warhorses. With a final 50 to 60 metre gallop, gaps will appear, because different horses move at different speeds. The short gallop is intended to bring the horses to contact without them being worn out, but it’s very unlikely that the line will be knee-to-knee, so head-to-head collions would be very rare.

        Tomkinson: in this quote 1 side specifically does not charge, so it isn’t an example of 2 sides charging each other.

        Marmont (noting he was not a cavalryman!): “… it is rare that the two parties come into collision”. “Rare”, which is part of the point I made above.

        On the other hand, we have these quotes:

        Marbot: “The Emperor, on his side, advanced our hussars and chasseurs, supported by the strong brigades of Saint-Sulpice and Nansouty, to whom the enemy opposed two brigades of the same arm…who advance rapidly upon each other, met with a shock, penetrated each other and became one immense melee.” Marbot also refers to an incident where there was no shock, because ice meant that contact was via 1 side trotting and the other side motionless – this example he uses because it was not the normal way that cavalry charged.

        Napier referring to an engagement between the 13th Dragoons and some French hussars: “Many men were dismouted by the shock, but the combatants pierced clear through on both side, then reformed and charged in the same fearful manner.”

        George Nafziger’s 2009 ‘Imperial Bayonets’ lays to rest some myths about Napoleonic theory and practice. There is a chapter on cavalry tactics theory and practice. There are multiple examples here of cavalry actions that use the terms “pierced the line”, “shock”, “struck the head of the enemy column”, “during the shock”, “They struck the Russian Uhlans”, “the French struck and drove back the first line”. Nafziger stresses the repeated use of cavalry in 2 lines, the 1st line breaks the enemy formation and disorders them through impetus and shock, the 2nd, fresh line attacks the disorded enemy and chases them off the field.

        My own view is that it was more common than not that in a cavalry v cavalry engagement, one side would fail to charge home, or they would turn away and flee before completing the charge to contact. In this case, the cavalry that completed their charge would, if they could catch their enemy, do great slaughter because, as Keegan says, turning one’s back “appears to stimulate an almost uncontrollable urge to kill among those presented wtih a view of the enemy’s backs.” However, in those less common cases where 2 steady bodies of cavalry charged home against each other, some of the files would collide and fall, though there would probably not be head-on collisions, and collisions would be much less numerous than one would have expected in theory. The majority of the files would be opened up by the impetus of the opposing horses (shouldering through at speed). The noise and violence of the charge, the clash of swords, and the confusion of men and horses could well be described as “shock”. Here is the meeting ‘with a shock’ and the penetration of ranks described by Marbot above in relation to the charge at Eckmuhl.

        Something of a clincher for me in terms of the reality of charge to contact, impetus and shock, though not head-to-head collisions, is the mere existence of heavy cavalry in the Napoleonic period. If there was no shock or collision, but simply a coming together at low speed with a melee, then there is no battlefield role for heavy cavalry, and you’d be much better off with well-trained, agile light cavalry, lancers for charging versus infantry and otherwise high quality hussars and chasseurs.


      2. Firstly, I think you need to acknowledge that both John Keegan and myself haven’t argued that collisions never happened or that one side always ran away. Keegan did not claim that “that cavalry vs cavalry did not result in actual shock, including collisions”, but that, on the rare occasion when they came together, that it was a much slower affair, practically two lines engaging each other at a walk, which is something that I agree with.

        **Re: Nolan**

        “This is the shock of charge, namely impetus and speed”

        Only if you selectively quote Nolan and remove that line from its context. His point is that the lance is an inferior weapon for cavalry vs cavalry weapon because the two lines rarely ever meet in combat, the “shock” of the anticipation of the enemy’s impetus and speed is what breaks up the formation, with the weapons coming into play during the pursuit. This is a concept all through Nolan’s work, and is made explicit in the second passage I quoted.

        “This is what I have stated in my comment, “seldom” is emphatically not “never””

        Yet you attribute to Keegan a “never” when he said “seldom”.

        **re: Bismark**

        “Note that this quotation actually supports the idea of the shock of 2 lines coming together, unless “the human heart” fails one side, which would often be the case.”

        Note, however, the context of two lines coming together being a rarity, not common, and Keegan not saying that cavalry never came together in hand-to-hand combat.

        **re: de Guibert**

        “I note that horses “search for intervals” – this can be part of a rapid charge with impetus, with horses barging each other out of the way and potentially causing injury.”

        Note, however, that this is entirely in keeping with Keegan’s view of how hand-to-hand combat worked with cavalry and that Keegan has sources backing up his view of low speed combat.

        “Also worth noting that Napoleonic cavalry are not armoured knights and their horses would usually not be specially bred medieval warhorses”

        Most medieval warhorses were not “specially bred”, especially in the early period. Mostly they were just horses of good bloodlines, 14-16 hands high (so a little taller than most riding horses) and also a little heavier than normal. Few of them ever participated in anything other than a small scale skirmish, and the chances of a medieval horse participating in two large scale charges are slim to none outside of exceptional events like the Crusades. People romanticize the destrier too much and forget that it was the less common type of horse and that knights would ride even saddle horses into battle if they had to.

        “With a final 50 to 60 metre gallop, gaps will appear, because different horses move at different speeds. The short gallop is intended to bring the horses to contact without them being worn out, but it’s very unlikely that the line will be knee-to-knee, so head-to-head collions would be very rare.”

        Only if sufficient intervals are left in the line. As Nolan’s own experiences show, if insufficient gaps were left between units, a “wave” would be generated all along the line of the charge, forcing sections so close together that horses were lifted off their feet and carried along for a time.

        **re: Tomkinson**

        “in this quote 1 side specifically does not charge, so it isn’t an example of 2 sides charging each other”

        So you’re just going to ignore the fact that Tomkinson, a veteran cavalryman who also fought at Waterloo, had only ever heard of a single instance where two cavalry forces actually engaged without one of them first turning and running?

        **re: Marmont**

        ““Rare”, which is part of the point I made above.”

        Also Keegan’s point.

        **re: Marbot**

        The only eyewitness of your list, and known for embellishing his accounts. I don’t dismiss him out of hand, but I certainly give more credence to Tomkinson and Nolan over Marbot when it comes to describing the normal course of a cavalry battle.

        **re: Napier**

        Napier wasn’t an eyewitness or participant to this battle, as he had been shot near the spine 11 days before Campo Mayor. As Keegan shows in his discussion of cavalry combat at Waterloo, second hand accounts tend to distort the picture towards classic pictures of shock combat. In fact, the picture painted by a French eyewitness (Chef de Battaillon Octave Levavasseur) is even further from the picture Keegan reconstructs from English sources:

        “However, placed in line of battle on the enemy’s ground, having all his unlimbered artillery behind us, we remained in position for more than a quarter of an hour, in full view of our army that remained motionless … terrible cries were heard far to our right. I reached the vedettes on this side, and soon a considerable mass of cavalry appeared a short distance away, galloping towards us. In this dangerous moment, I needed to turn my horse but he stood firm; it was impossible to make him move. Happily, a cuirassier on vedette duty close to me took its bridle; I gave it both spurs and reached the rear of our cavalry, which was already galloping in order to rejoin our lines. Crabbé reached the road close to la Haye Sainte.”

        The English caught them because

        “At the same moment, a column of cavalry, sent to support us, came down the slope we were climbing, and thus we barred their route [this must have been Vial’s or Farine’s brigade who had been detailed to support the left flank of I Corps]. Suddenly, the head of the column stopped and the enemy cavalry fell on our rear; our troopers pressed against one another into the steep banks, to such an extent that the men were unable to defend themselves. I heard only the clash of sabres that penetrated under their cuirasses: the enemy made a veritable carnage. But General Colbert, commanding the cavalry that we had encountered, took the squadrons that had not been engaged in the defile, then, going around the knoll which ensnared us, he fell unexpectedly on the enemy and cut off their escape, cutting up the cavalry that had fallen on us. This was how we disengaged. Due to the speed of my horse I was able to regain the rear of Crabbé’s column in enough time to leave behind me more than 200 cuirassiers who were massacred; their horses formed a barrier that prevented the enemy reaching us. Four paces away from me, an English officer had been killed in the melee, so I took his horse that served me for the rest of the battle.”

        What we see is that at least some of the French, perhaps even most of them, attempt to flee the English rather than counter-charge or even stand and fight against them, contrary to the English narratives. This goes a long way to cautioning the acceptance of non-eyewitness testimony.

        **re: George Nafziger**

        The only references to “shock” or “during the shock” come from a book written in 1887, as does the “struck the head of the enemy column”, “They struck the Russian Uhlans” and “the French struck and drove back the first line”. I can’t find the phrase “pierced the line” anywhere in my copy of the book, although perhaps that’s because it’s only in the new edition. Bonie may have been a cavalry man, although I’ve not been able to find anything on his life, but he certainly wasn’t an eyewitness to the events he was describing.


      3. Hi Hergrim
        Thank you for engaging in this wonderfully pedantic argument! Very much in the spirit of this blog I think. I suspect that the precise nature of cavalry v cavalry shock combat will remain elusive.
        Re Keegan: I’ve just re-re-read his Cavalry versus Cavalry pages in The Face of Battle. The part of his view that I disagree with is his contention that there were no collisions in the formed line v formed line circumstance. He doesn’t state that this was rarer than expected; he uses examples and eye witness accounts of the 2nd Life Guards v Cuirassiers at Waterloo to contend that “the two lines must have been almost stopped dead when they met…” and “Consent – the vital precondition for single combat proper – is thus made to appear equally necessary if cavalry formations were to fight each oher in any effective fashion.” But, his eye witnesses are Mercer (very unreliable) and an infantryman, whereas he dismisses or at least challenges the evidence from Waymouth, a cavalryman, who, Keegan states, was “really retailing the witness of a comrade”. There’s not really good evidence here for heavies versus heavies, and his other examples of charging are light cavalry, which would not necessarily charge for impetus and shock. It would have been good if he had used examples from other battles too, but then again, this part of the book focuses on Waterloo.
        My point of disagreement with Keegan is therefore fairly small. For me, there are too many examples of heavy cavalry impetus and shock against other heavy cavalry to agree with Keegan’s consent point in a cavalry charge, and lack of relatively fast contact. Impetus and shock means at least horses moving at speed against each other, forcing a passage through an opposing line, with the rider quite possibly using sword or lance at this time. Otherwise, the evidence, theory and practice of the final 50 to 60 metre gallop makes no sense at all.
        Keegan’s contention supporting his argument, with his “succeeding ranks are carried on to the leading ones by their own impetus”, is at variance with Nafziger’s contention that normally the first line charged and the second line either completed the job once the first line had movee out of the way, or provided a second string if the first line failed.
        Anyway, I’m happy to differ slightly, and I wouldn’t want to press the point too far.


  9. It may also be worth noting that experienced riders with well-trained horses can get them to do things that horses wouldn’t normally do. When I used to ride (and I should stress that I myself am no expert), I saw quite a lot of highly experienced riders exerting voice control let alone with reins over horses they knew well to traverse very difficult terrain with confidence; they will also charge bodies out of the way if commanded and ridden well. So, even though the average horse will not willingly tread on bodies, a war-horse is by no means an average horse, but can be trained to hit things hard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is, in fact, a Latin word for “warg”: lupinotuum, i.e. “werewolf” (because that’s what Old English warg and Norse vargr meant). So presumably “warg cavalry” ought to be “lupinotuary”.


    2. Then again these terms tend to come from Romance languages rather than directly from Latin, so “lugaruary” (from French loup-garou, or rather the hypothetical loup-garouérie).

      Which leads me right back to Germanic, because we already have a word ending in -ry relating to the kind of thing wargs are: “werewolfery”.


      1. I think Bilbo and Frodo, authors of the Red Book of Westmarch, despite their love of Elvish, have a fondness for old Hobbit words and use them preferentially over terms of Elvish provenance. Tolkien renders this by avoiding romance loan-words. Thus although a Gondorean might have written something translated as loupry, wargry translates what Frodo would have written.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I didn’t say “loupry” at all, and not only because the English form of that would probably be “lupary”. I pointed out that “werewolfery” already exists in English, and that if one wants a Latinate word for wargriders (which would be the pure English to gloss a pure Hobbitish), the correct terms would be “lugaruary” or “lupinotuary”, depending whether one wants to use the French (which is partly Frankish, and thus not much preferable to “werewolfery”) or the pure Latin.

        If it comes to that, incidentally, the word “cavalry” does not occur either, to my knowledge, at any point in the Lord of the Rings itself.


      3. “Warg” might be etymologically related to the Old Norse word for a werewolf, but since Tolkien’s wargs clearly aren’t werewolves as we know them, I don’t think that “werewolfery” would be an appropriate name for a unit of warg-riders.

        As for Latin, whilst they might just call them wolves, I think the concept of intelligent, rideable wolves is probably sufficiently different for the Romans to adopt a foreign loan-word to describe them (as often happens when people come across something new). So I think “wargus” or “vargus” (borrowed from the Proto-Germanic) would actually be a perfectly plausible Latin word for a warg.


      4. If it comes to that Dutch, at least, had a reflex of the root of “warg”, though it was lost in Middle Dutch and reintroduced by Tolkien (they say “warg” now but “warch” in Middle, so it probably still ought to be “warch” if it were still around), so it should at least be “vargry” or even “gargry”, from a French *varguerie or *garguerie. (French has a tendency to turn Frankish w/v into a g at the beginnings of words, cf. garou from Old French garvalf, from Frankish werwulf.)

        So I suppose I can concede “wargry” except that it shouldn’t start with w, but with v. Or g, but that’s just being bizarre for the sake of being bizarre.


  10. You are missing a possible important source on how things could work: Society for Creative Anachronism. There is one near you no matter where you are. [] Society for Creative Anachronism The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) is an inclusive community pursuing research and re-creation of pre-seventeenth century skills, arts, combat and culture. The lives of participants are enriched as we gain knowledge of history through activities, demonstrations, and events.



      1. Poul Anderson was a SCA member, and in his “Thud and Blunder”, he observed they had tried once and the horses had NOT cooperated, even though they were trained to tilting at a ring.

        Training a cavalry horse is intensive.


    1. I hardly think what the SCA does can be construed as a usable source for how battles play out. When you use weapons of rattan and foam the focus is so strongly tilted in the direction of safety and not hurting your opponent that you’re operating within an entirely different incentive-system and behaviour will thus converge in a rather different direction.

      Would you suggest paintball is a good source for how modern warfare is? I would surmise it is a better source at least for small-unit tactics (i.e fire and manouvre) since the feedback of being shot is unambiguous, even if it’s just paint, than most reenactment would be for pre-modern warfare. Yet, paintball is obviously never going to capture the complexity, danger and perhaps particularly morale aspect of actual warfare – it is not a good proxy!

      Note that I’m not saying this to disparage SCA. I think all forms of reenactment, including SCA, is great! And that the focus on safety is quite right in a modern, hobbyist setting. I wouldn’t want to read in the news that someone got their head chopped off doing their hobby! Or for any reason, to be clear.

      But that also means SCA can’t quite mimic the real thing.

      Speaking as someone who has served in the army, there is a reason why we have ‘sharp’ training (that is, with real bullets and explosives). We have incredibly advanced non-sharp training methods, where we can use combinations of blank ammunition, controlled demolitions, lasers and GPS-based simulated indirect fire to create combat training with the same incentive-system as actual combat. However, it is never quite the same as throwing grenades the provide a proper shockwave, launching anti-tank missiles that actually destroy the target, or calling in airstrikes that drop bombs that shake your bones even far away, behind cover. So we do all those things, despite the inherent danger and cost of doing so, compared to simulations. And yet it’s still not quite the same as the real thing, above all because of the morale aspect: There is something about killing or being killed, about protecting the life of the soldier next to you and knowing he/she’s putting his/her life on the line for you too, that can’t be simulated.

      I have practised HEMA on and of for about a decade and a half, and I would say much of the same is true there. HEMA has two advantages. Firstly, being mostly focused on single combat. It is both much easier to simulate the incentives of actually combat (but still far from easy: Debate has raged for most of that decade and a half about how tournament rules can be formed to balance making bouts interesting, authentic and safe) and means that comparisons can be drawn to other living martial arts that also deal with single combat or self-defence – including military close combat. The second advantage is the wealth of sources, including illustrated sources, especially from the Renaissance and onwards. This gives a strong idea of what the masters of old thought was important, sometimes what principles they built their systems on, and often very specific instructions for various techniques.

      Yet, HEMA generally comes up short in terms of authenticity just within the very narrow frame of single combat as described in the manuals! Minute details such as how sharp blades stick together compared to blunt swords (we’re talking just a few millimetres of steel in difference) fundamentally change the effectiveness of some techniques based on manpulating leverage and angles in the “bind”. And for obvious safety reasons training, let alone sparring with sharp blades is very rarely done. This alone makes it harder to get an appreciation for how exactly a real life-or-death fight would play out. Now imagine multiplying that problem (and just that problem, not everything else we come up short on) a few hundred or a few thousand times!

      And that’s not even touching on the very different incentives we operate on when reenacting compared to actually fighting for our lives, let alone the impact of morale which I think Brett does very well to stress repeatedly on this blog!

      If I was to suggest a better (but still very imperfect) proxy, it would be looking at riot police.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Gathering intelligence and coordinating large bodies of people is very hard (and, as an aside, something players of strategy or tactics games are almost never really asked to do)

    I have no large experience, but the first seem to be clearly present in at least better games.

    Fog of war (enemy units are shown only when in sight of own units) is a fairly standard gameplay mechanism.

    And for example in Starcraft I many tactics rely on undetected attacks. There are several types of invisible units or units great for a surprise hit and run attacks, nearly useless otherwise. It makes checking what enemy is doing and monitoring game area crucial.


    1. Gathering intelligence yes but coordinating groups usually there isnt. Every unit obeys every command its given and no one gets lost and wanders down the wrong road, no one gets tired etc. Some non RTS games have things like movement delays etc that may be a bit closer but no game I know of has part of your army randomly wander off when ordered.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I am not going to defend “coordinating units” parts. Everyone is robotically loyal and so on.

        And any control challenges are usually results of bugs (typical for large units or large groups in choke points, especially in older games).

        Coordinating units challenge, if any, is result of units not acting until instructed and deliberate limiting player how many units may be selected at once.

        But including “gathering intelligence” is untrue in a typical RTS. But maybe RTS are not qualifying as “strategy or tactics games”?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Games, unlike simulations, have to be enjoyable or people won’t play them. And not just for monetary gain, like any design/creative activity it’s a real thrill to see people playing and enjoying your game.
        Certain aspects of reality are just unappealing to most game players, and for lengthy and varied reasons failures in communication and unreliable subordinates seem to be at the top of the list. No matter how often you explain that this is something real commanders have to deal with (I’ve tried), not enough players regard this as an interesting challenge they want to deal with.


  12. we’ll assume Legolas’ bow is the equal of a longbow or a Mongol bow (were it any stronger, he would need superhuman strength merely to wield it)

    Legolas is not a human. Eyesight of elves is so great that it implies physics-breaking eyes and over-the-horizon eyesight. The best part is that second can be easily fit into Tolkien’s universe (see wonderful – includes Elven satellite eyeballs, and why it may be not necessary to see over the horizon)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fair point but ordinary humans, or at most slightly augmented humans like the Dúnedain, use Elven bows without having hernias. So they seem to involve the same draw-weights as we use. Legolas probably has a much easier time than a human would—not just his superior senses, but he can probably hold at full draw for a time we would need a compound bow’s pulleys to do—but he’s still fundamentally doing the same thing.

      Now if it were someone like Feänor, whose corpse self-cremated the instant he died, that would be different. But an ordinary Sindar is not the mightiest of the Noldor.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When did Dunedain use elven bows?

        Conversely the Numenoreans used steel bows. I’ve seen people debate whether that would actually be a useful thing, but I’m pretty sure Tolkien’s intent was “they’re so strong they can use crazy powerful warbows”. Of course late Third Age Dunedain aren’t peak Numenoreans.


      2. Also conversely, Tolkien ex cathedra said of Legolas:

        “He was as tall as a young tree, lithe, immensely strong, able swiftly to draw a great war-bow and shoot down a Nazgûl, endowed with the tremendous vitality of Elvish bodies, so hard and resistant to hurt that he went only in light shoes over rock or through snow, the most tireless of all the Fellowship.”


      3. The bow Legolas is using here is bigger than the bow we’ve seen him use earlier, and with his strength (as minstalko) mentions below, I think it’s safe to assume that Legolas has significantly better range than a human archer would. He may not be a Noldor, but that doesn’t meant that he’s not significantly stronger than the Dunedain (who are themselves almost superhuman compared to the other Men).

        > To Legolas she gave a bow such as the Galadhrim used, longer and stouter than the bows of Mirkwood, and strung with a string of elf-hair. With it went a quiver of arrows.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi, great post. Just a nitpick though:

    >if neither formation looses up or slows down, they will collide. A gallop tends to be around 25-30mph, but since they are galloping at each other, the real collision speed is the sum of their velocities – so we have a c. 1,300lbs warhorse with a c. 250lbs of rider, armor, weapons and tack on it (effectively a single, 1,550lbs object), colliding with another c. 1,550lbs object at something like 50-60mph. The energy release of that collision is equivalent to a four-door Honda Civic wrapping itself around a tree at a little over 30mph (48.7kph for the metric among us).

    Is not actually the physics of how a head to head car collision goes. A 1.5 ton Civic colliding perfectly head-on with another car of the exact same weight and speed (in the exact opposite direction) will have it’s momentum reduced from it’s mass*velocity to zero over a short period of time, exactly as if it struck an immovable wall. You do not add up the speeds of the two cars. The ‘Energy’ of the crash is double, but it is distributed between the two cars, so each will have the experience of crashing into an immovable wall.

    It actually might be a little bit less impulse, because cars are designed to crumple, so the opposite car will have a little bit of give, slightly increasing the amount of time it takes for the car to come to a complete stop, and thus reducing the impulse. A solid lampost or strong concrete wall doesn’t have this give, and therefore might confer slightly higher impulse.


    1. So, for these sort of equivalencies, I actually calculated the total energy of the collision (the kinetic energy of both parties before striking) in joules. Then I found an equivalent single-actor collision with the same energy release. That may not be the most rigorous method form an engineering standpoint, but I think it does express the devastating impact that such a collision is going to have on horses and men, in terms that folks who have not seen – and do not care to see – the carnage of a horse falling and spilling a rider can intuitively understand.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Another comparison—c. 700 kilos at 13 m/s comes to 59,150 joules kinetic energy—is that a round from a 20 mm autocannon, e.g. the M61 Vulcan, has 65,000 joules muzzle energy. So a cavalry charge is basically like strafing your enemy’s line with a Vulcan cannon. And then having horses step on the people you just shot.


      2. By the way, the collision energy calculation just needed you to sum up the individual energies of the parties – turn the two warhorses into a single Honda Civic crashing into a tree and you’re fine. Because if you assumed that the collision was equivalent to one warhorse being still and one charging with a combined velocity of 50-60mph, you double the energy required. The colliding warhorses or the car should be measured using the earth as a reference frame to avoid this confusion.

        K.E = 0.5 x m x v^2
        Two 1550 lb or 700 kg warhorses crashing into each other at 30mph or 13 m/s give an energy release of
        2 x 0.5 x 700 x 13 x 13 = 118,300 joules
        One 700 kilo warhorse at 26 meters per second = 0.5 x 700 x 26 x 26 = 236,600 joules
        A 1400 kilogram vehicle would have to go at a speed of sqrt ((236,600 x 2) /1400) = 18.3847 m/s = 41.36 mph. (I’m sticking to metric because I find it far, far easier for calculations) So that’s double the energy.

        Because if you have the two warhorses crashing into each other and sticking, and looking from the frame of reference of a single warhorse, after the collision you have the unfortunate horses and riders moving away from the collision at a speed of 13 m/s, which gives you the energy conservation that you need.

        236,600 joules for a single warhorse approaching another at a relative speed of 26 meters per second -> two warhorses and riders squashed up to each other (1400 kg) moving together at a speed of 13 meters per second from the previous reference frame
        0.5 x 1400 x 13 x 13 = 118,300 joules after collision from the moving reference frame of warhorse B.

        But for practical purposes, the momentum exchange, mass x velocity, for both, remains the same in both cases. M1V1 + M2V2 = (M1 + M2) Vfinal Velocity is a vector product, which means it is dependent on which direction the warhorses are moving.

        Because momentum increases linearly with velocity and kinetic energy with the square of the velocity. It’s the relationship between momentum and energy release that matters here. It’s also the same reason why guns are so effective – for instance, a 4 gram (0.004 kilogram) .223 Remington bullet (the sort used in an AR-15, M4 Carbine, or M16 Assault Rifle) fired at 1000 m/s (on the high side for velocity, but a nice round number helps) results in an energy release of 2000 Joules.

        0.5 x 0.004 x 1000 x 1000 = 2000 Joules
        The momentum of the bullet = 0.004 kg x 1000 m/s = 4 kg m/s
        Treating the action of firing as a perfectly inelastic collision with the rifle firing the gun, assuming that the rifle weighs 4kg (another nice round number, and heavy for an M16 family weapon), 4 x vRifle = 4kg m/s so the rifle is pushed backwards at 1 meter per second or 3.3 feet per second, for a recoil energy of 0.5 x 4 x 1 x 1 = 2 joules of recoil energy.

        Of course, bullets get through because of the force imparted on a very small area, and the energy dissipation also involves the absorption of force over a given area of a given material, which is a whole different ballgame to add on top of energy dissipation. But the figure does show why firearms in general are so much more effective than weapons shooting slower but heavier projectiles in terms of energy delivered on target and energy delivered to the shooter via recoil.

        I hope these physics calculations help. Maybe not much in this instance, but at least for the future. (I’m afraid anyone who wants to email me about this can’t do so – my mailbox is broken and I think I need to get a new client 😦 )


  14. Great analysis.

    As for sensible armament for the warg-riders, how about javelins (with swords/sabres as sidearms)? Perhaps heavy javelins that could also be used as light spears in close combat if there isn’t time to throw them. Something like jinetes tactics (also exploiting the wargs’ potential for frightening horses, although the countermeasures suggested in previous comments could help with that) seems reasonable to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Javelin light cavalry, with swords as sidearms, was a staple of the ancient world. The Numidians were notably excellent at this kind of fighting, and it was a very effective form of light cavalry.

      So, yes!

      Liked by 2 people

  15. While more planning may have been necessary to depict the battle as you suggest, I doubt the expensive arial shots would have been. Up until the charge it is as you describe, with Theoden talking to Éowyn then meeting his already-formed banner and beginning their advance. Then the background a captain calls the footmen to the rough ground and he is joined by Legolas (who can still get his shots off as he gets himself into position) and Gimli. The infantry can be seen scrambling into place off to the left as the cavalry line begins to canter toward the camera. The same visual language used at Pelennor Fields to show the orcs breaking under the cavalry charge can show the wargary breaking formation and on impact the Rohirrim leave numerous orcs and wargs dying in their wake. Theoden turns and looks back over the battlefield, sees the warg riders left flank in trouble facing infantry on the rough ground and wheels around to his own left, calling the riders to rally (again, using the same visual language as is used in the regrouping scene at the Pelennor Fields). If you want to be more explicit have him add something about focusing on the warg riders in open ground. Cut to them organized and beginning to trot. Cut to a wargary captain trying to rally his riders, and have the Rohirrim attack into the flank of his command before he succeeds, and thus begins the press. You can show Aragorn, Theoden, etc. fighting in the press and Legolas and Gimli fighting on the rough ground. Aragorn gets his tumble, the wargs eventually break and scatter in retreat.

    I feel like that would get the point across pretty well without arial shots and without needing to throw people at each other at high speeds. This feeling is not only based on my inexpert intuition, but also on the fact that similar scenes were used in the Battle of Pelennor Fields sequence in the next movie – from the lack of discipline of the orcs to the Rohirrim rallying – or even in this very sequence with the horses charging through into CGI wargs. Sure, arial shots were used in the Pelennor sequence, but only in a ‘aren’t these guys badass’ kind of way, not to let the audience see how units were moving on the battlefield.


  16. Tolkien is pretty boring aka consistent in his gear: almost all sorts of troops use spears, swords, bows, and shields, with body armor (helmet and mail) being pretty common. Elves, humans, orcs. Dwarves made and sing of spears, though the one dwarven force we seen, Dain’s 500, instead carry two-handed mattocks as their primary weapon, with backup:

    > Each one of his folk was clad in a hauberk of steel mail that hung to his knees, and his legs were covered with hose of a fine and flexible metal mesh, the secret of whose making was possessed by Dain’s people. The dwarves are exceedingly strong for their height, but most of these were strong even for dwarves. In battle they wielded heavy two-handed mattocks; but each of them had also a short broad sword at his side and a roundshield slung at his back. Their beards were forked and plaited and thrust into their belts. Their caps were of iron and they were shod with iron

    I just noticed the detail of “yeah we have long beards but we’re not going to leave it easy for you to pull them, or leave them hanging in the way”.


    1. I think he does this because in his historical milieu – early medieval to early-high medieval Europe – that was basically the standard equipment set everywhere. Take a look at something like the Bayeux tapestry and you have Tolkien’s dane-axe wielding dwarves in the Anglo-Saxon huscarls, and the Rohirrim’s spear-shield-and-mail cavalry in the Normans.

      There *was* a lot more variety in that period in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but I’m not sure how much that variety would have been available easily for Tolkien in the 1950s. So is boring equipment really reflects much of the reality of conflict in the era he is trying to evoke.


      1. Yeah, exactly. People use the best equipment of their time, not the anachronistic melange of D&D. Didn’t mean it as a criticism.

        Notably the orcs tend to use good gear, especially if backed by a dark lord, though even the Hobbit goblins have armor and helmets. Their main weaknesses are sunlight, *size* — a big orc is almost man-high — and a tendency to infighting if you don’t lean on them with supernatural oversight. But they’re usually not the Intelligence-penalty rabble of D&D.


      2. I mean…look up what people fought with at any given time in Russia, say, or India. By the assumptions of Western Europe, “anachronistic melange” is a perfect description.

        Hell the Warring States samurai were basically wearing Merovingian-era lamellar armor while fighting with Renaissance longswords (except a curved, single-edged version) and composite bows that are, for European purposes, mostly High Medieval or earlier.

        Weapons and armor develop as they do for specific historical reasons, there isn’t just some universal timeline they’re always going to follow.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. In other words, the convoy should look like this:
    [video src="" /]


  18. What you’re saying about cavalry contact sounds reminiscent of (what little) I know about the push of pike — is this a good mental model or not?


    1. Cavalry formations are much shallower than spears or pikes (IIRC Brett wrote about this in the Gondor collection), so the press of cavalry is just one or two lines deep.
      Spear and pike infantry benefit from deep formations because the ranks behind the first can still stab at the enemy. Horses are so long that riders behind the front rank generally can’t reach the enemy with their lances.


  19. “Warg” is Germanic, not Latin (from Norse “vargr”). A word for wofl-riding soldiers that followed the Latin-French-English route would be something like “loupry,” which is also quite fun to say.


      1. It probably ought to be “vargry” or “gargry”, given what French does with Frankish roots that start with w/v. (The word warg existed in Frankish, and survived up to Middle Dutch warch.)


  20. As has been said, “warg” is Germanic not Latin—and interestingly, when Germanic languages don’t just say “cavalry”, they say “riders” (though so far as I know only Icelandic and Faroese, of the modern ones, don’t say “cavalry”). Which is not animal-specific (presumably because camels and elephants are thin on the ground, in Germanic-speaking regions). If one had to specify it’d be “wargriders”—Germanic, like Greek, makes more use of tatpurusha compounding than Latin does.

    Apparently, incidentally, Tolkien’s contribution to the Oxford English Dictionary was “words of Anglo-Saxon origin beginning with W”. Which is why his book has wargs, wights, wraiths, willows, woodwoses, a river called the Withywindle, and calls dragons “worms”.


      1. True, his doing W and his having so many W-words in his book could both be due to a common cause rather than the one causing the other.


  21. Copying comments from elsewhere (not mine):

    If you have a ship full of men, they man the oars, etc. If Mordor had any ships crewed by trolls instead of men, you’d have to say “Troll the oars!” and “Troll your battle stations!”


  22. It occurs to me that the wargs probably ought to be weak in the charge, but devastating in the press—an enemy’s horse isn’t really designed to rip your horse’s throat open with his teeth, a warg is. That or the wargs should be more like light cavalry, peeling off and retreating, whether truly or falsely, but certainly not meeting a charge head-on. And they’re uniquely suited to the false-retreat-and-then-outflank maneuver; the real-world forces that used the tactic were not riding things that can grab enemy horses by the nose, shoulder, or flank as they pass, and throw them on the ground (though I suppose that could also be done in a heavy-style press, or as heavy-style charges pass through each other). The rider and his weapons might well be an afterthought, in warg-mounted forces.

    Also, thing that always bugs me about depictions of wolf-riders, is that most quadrupeds are not set up like horses (rhinos and tapirs might be, for taxonomic reasons). Their gait is very different, and you don’t put your saddle over the ribs, you put it over the shoulders. There are two Siberian traditions of reindeer-riding, and one puts its saddles over the ribs, the other over the shoulders: guess which one can have adult men riding reindeer, while the other largely restricts it to women and children. Effects people animating wolfriders should model the motions of the mounts and riders on those Siberian cultures’ reindeer races, not on horses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It occurs to me that the wargs probably ought to be weak in the charge, but devastating in the press—an enemy’s horse isn’t really designed to rip your horse’s throat open with his teeth, a warg is.

      That’s a good point — the Rohirrim should probably be armouring at least the front half of their horses, if they regularly face wargs in battle.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. A footnote in Unifinished Tales (which has a whole chapter devoted to Saruman’s invasion of Rohan) basically confirms this:

      “They [wargry] were very swift and skilled in avoiding ordered men in close array, being used mostly to destroy isolated groups or to hunt down fugitives; but at need they would pass with reckless ferocity through any gaps in companies of horsemen, slashing at the bellies of the horses”

      Combining that with Bret’s description of a cavalry press, I’d imagine that wargry relied on intimidation to convince enemy riders or their horses to drop out of formation, then exploited the gaps that this created. It’s worth noting that, unlike in the films, Tolkein’s orcs are barely larger than hobbits, and so their mounts might be only a big bigger than regular wolves. A cavalry force that maintained its cohesion (as you might expect from the Rohirrim) would have a huge advantage in the press.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The bit about “slashing at the bellies” of horses implies that they were quite small, probably not much larger than regular wolves. In which case, close-order cavalry probably would have the advantage in a pitched battle.


    3. TominAz said:
      “Also, thing that always bugs me about depictions of wolf-riders, is that most quadrupeds are not set up like horses (rhinos and tapirs might be, for taxonomic reasons). Their gait is very different, and you don’t put your saddle over the ribs, you put it over the shoulders.”

      Well, Peter Jackson may not have done a perfect job with placement of the Warg riders, but it’s not for not trying. I recall the extras on the DVDs having quite a discussion of this very point by Richard Taylor, I believe, and also showing some of the diagrams and analyses they did of how these beasts were to move and where to place the saddles and riders.


  23. How exactly did cataphracts differ from heavy cavalry? Did their use, tactics, differ significantly from cavalry? They have a separate and distinct name, but the only two things that consistently appear in their description are lances and heavy armor, including horse barding. Just like trolls, where legends only agree on two points: they are hairy, and have very large noses. Either way it seems to me that cataphracts were, in fact, used like battering rams.


    1. The term’s a big vague, but it generally seems to be used for (particularly ancient eastern or Byzantine) heavy shock cavalry riding on armoured horses. Basically they seem to have been used like regular heavy cavalry, albeit wearing heavier armour than most.


    2. The only major difference I can think of is the horse-armor thing, which is optional for non-cataphract heavy cavalry, but more or less definitive for cataphracts.

      Also not all trolls in legends are hairy or have large noses; some look just like humans. They may not even be bigger. (Remember, the word “drow” is actually a northern-English and Scottish dialect form of “troll”; I don’t know where Gygax hallucinated it can apply to the svartalfar…which term describes hair-color, not skin, in the first place.)


      1. In Nordic folklore, svartalfar can be used interchangably with dwarf, and there are dwarves with many troll-like traits. Thor, for instance, tricks one into dillydallying until the sun rises, and he’s turned to stone.

        (The Shetland term for “troll” is “trow”)


      2. Folklore terms have a way of slipping. Almost every form of the Slavic word for “werewolf” (vlkodlak or something similar) now primarily refers to a vampire; the Romanian pronunciation of the Slavic word for “dragon”, zmeu, primarily refers to an ogre-like creature and can be used as a catch-all for any spooky creature. (And the primary Romanian word for “vampire”, strigoi, is from a Latin word whose literal meaning is “screech-owl” but which, in Roman and Italian folklore, refers to a living witch.)


      3. And “werewolf” now means one of either sex, even though “were” is the specifically “adult male” meaning of “man.”

        (Female would have been “wifwolf” and unisex — “manwolf.”)


      4. Dwarves in old Norse myth, like Leprechauns in Irish folklore, were originally larger than humans and capable of size-shifting or even shapeshifting. The dwarf Andvari in Wagner’s Ring Cycle was described as being able to shapeshift into a trout. For dwarves to be mixed up with trolls or svartalfar makes sense, because Christianity caused the old Norse myths to change dramatically and basically be shrunken down in size, being symbolically pulled down from their former mythic role. Take a look at the way Elves and Faeries were portrayed in Victorian times, as opposed to their much larger, much more dangerous and somewhat eldritch mythic counterparts.

        Vampires and Werewolves apparently trace their origins to the first appearance of the rabies virus in Europe and split off from there. I forget which book I read this in, or I’d post a link here.


      5. Vampires, certainly, and werewolves, most likely, have nothing to do with rabies, whatsoever. Unless onryō and wiindigoog and bouda and yee naaldlooshii all do. And they don’t. (The idea those bitten by the monsters in question, become them, which might improve the similarity to rabies…isn’t actually part of the real legends. In werewolves’ case it was made up by Universal Pictures, for The Wolfman, and in vampires’ case, while not completely unknown, it’s much less common than people becoming them by dying “badly”, e.g. by suicide or without the right funeral rites being done. And, of course, “eaten by a vampire” is a pretty “bad” way to die, so even the exceptions may not be.)

        “X supernatural belief is related to Y disease” is a good way to get anthropologists to swear at you. It’s simply not good science, in 99% of instances; there’s almost never enough evidence to say any such thing, and the folklore has to be brutally twisted to accommodate the predetermined “disease” model.

        Ironically, it’s basically cosmogonic myth-making, just like it claims the beliefs in question are.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. The only vampire movie that’s particularly faithful to the folklore is A Nightmare on Elm Street. Which most people don’t even know is a vampire movie, that’s how little the modern pop-culture phenomenon resembles the actual folklore.

        The fundamental thing about them is “the dead come back to prey on the living”. Blood-drinking is optional; many of the ones in folklore eat whole corpses, like wendigo do; others, like Alpen (which is what Freddy is), don’t necessarily feed on anything but fear and anguish.

        The original Western name for these things is “revenant”.


      7. Actually, I’ve heard some people with backgrounds in folklore say that there are a lot of faithful medieval European vampire movies.

        You can tell which ones in advance. They are called — “zombie movies.”

        (Which are utterly unfaithful to Haitian zombies. The horror of zombies is not the danger of them. It’s the real possibility that you might become one.)

        Liked by 1 person

      8. I’ve heard that too, but it’s not true of any revenant account I’m familiar with. They’re ghosts that sorta-kinda have bodies. Zombies are just corpses with no souls at all. (Also what exactly Haitian zombies are is variable; the root word also means “ghost”, not “reanimated corpse”.)


    3. Cataphract is a rather wide term in itself, which may at the very least apply to various Persian, Hellenic and Roman heavy cavalry, as well as the heavy cavalry of steppe cultures such as the Sarmatians or Bulgars. Apparently the word itself derives from ancient Greek meaning ‘completely enclosed’ (though I don’t read ancient Greek myself, so someone else would have to confirm that!). Hence, we can surmise that what differentiated cataphracts from other heavy horse is the completeness of their armour – the rider and horse would be fully enclosed in armour.

      I don’t have the Strategikon at hand, but from memory Maurice describes the use of (Byzantine) cataphracts as shock cavalry. That is, to break enemy formations.

      Maurice describes them advancing several ranks deep. I don’t recall the exact wording, but it may be in a wedge or diamond formation, considering the depth. The front ranks wielded lances, while the riders further back used bows. The bow-wielding cataphracts would rain arrows on the enemy formation as they closed, aiming to open gaps in the formation. The lance cataphracts would then exploit any such gaps. Once in close, they would switch to maces.


  24. Can’t people use Cossacks as movie extras? Some still practice the traditions, and their riding skills used to be legendary. At the very least consult them and you wouldn’t make the most obvious cavalry errors.


  25. Nice analysis! But shouldn’t it take into account the biology of the warg?

    A warg is not a horse; it’s depicted as a sort of giant hyena. As such, it should actively seek contact: it has extremely powerful jaws, and teeth, and it wants to bite things. Hyenas have the most powerful bite strength of all mammals. Pouncing on horses is what the warg does; it will not slow down at the last moment. The horse should instinctively try to avoid contact (and will be made to keep charging only thanks to all the rider’s skill and training) but the warg should need no spurring. (This also raises the delicate question of how much control the rider has on his warg, given that the latter is depicted in The Hobbit as a sentient being capable of making reasoned decisions.)

    Another factor is that a warg has large paws, heavy muscle and a most flexible spine, making it a very good runner on rough terrain, and able to negotiate sharp turns without much slowing down (as can be observed on actual wolfs and hyenas). A warg formation should be able to turn around almost immediately, making it functionally impossible to flank. A warg can also leap in ways that a horse cannot (the critical part of a leap is the landing; the energy must be absorbed in some way, and the flexibility of the spine is critical for that).

    In cavalry, the horse is there to move the rider around and lend some of its energy to the rider’s weapon — and, of course, to deliver a powerful psychological blow to the infantry that is charged upon. I guess that wargry would be qualitatively different: the warg _is_ the weapon; the attack would be more a pounce-and-bite than a direct running; and, as observed in hyenas, there should be a lot of circling around and lunges and harassing and fast retreats. In the movie, the wargry attack like indisciplined horsemen, but a “realistic” wargry unit should have unique tactics and rules of engagement that do not look like what is done with horses. (In that sense, the orcs and the wargs, as depicted in the movie, are even more incompetent at their job than Théoden.)

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Then again, we’ve got Air Cavalry, not helicoptery. Maybe in modern times cavalry simply has come to mean “not on foot”.

    Wouldn’t wargs, as canids, be able to fight effectively, as a team, even without riders? Probably better without riders. A good tactic might be to dismount and let the wargs disable the horses, while the orcs keep the riders busy.

    Also, they’re probably deadly in a frontal charge. If the warg pounces just before impact, it might reach the opposing rider and bite his head off. The only hope for the horseman is to thrust his spear straight into its brain. Otherwise, even if impaled, the warg won’t die fast enough. Not even a hunting spear would make much of a difference – the wargs are bigger than bears and the impact is at full speed.


    1. Not just in modern times, either — the Romans called their units of camel-riders “equites dromedarii”, “equites” being of course derived from “equus” (= a horse).


  27. “By the assumptions of Western Europe, “anachronistic melange” is a perfect description.”

    But was it actually a melange of things from different times co-existing, or a different steady mix of a few items, based on the local history and production? The samurai were wearing lamellar instead of chain, not shopping for lamella vs. chain vs. full plate…


    I guess wargs as giant hyenas is a movie thing? I don’t think Tolkien ever described them much, but “particularly evil wolves” seems the intent. For the battle before Moria Tolkien uses ‘great’ and ‘huge’ for some individuals, but the Fellowship of only a few combatants is able to fend off a “great host” that attacks from all sides at once. Though Gandalf’s fire helped a lot, also it’s unclear if they were ‘real’ — the bodies are gone and Legolas’s arrows undamaged; did the wargs sneak back to remove their fallen kin, or were they all phantoms to begin with, or something else?

    Two Towers actually never uses the word ‘warg’, just ‘wolf’ and ‘wolves’. Merry mentions orcs mounted on “great wolves”. But remember that orcs are smaller then men; Frodo and Sam pass for small orcs in Mordor.


    1. The D&D equipment lists are all the equipment they felt like statting for the game. Nowhere is it actually implied you can buy all of them at one shop; most DMs just allow their players to do that in practice, because it saves headaches at the table. Everything about creating campaign-settings usually says you should actually restrict the types of equipment available in a given region—and then you won’t anyway because your players will complain about having to send away to another country and wait four months, just to get lamellar armor.

      Also though in the Warring States era the lamellar did directly coexist with chain (kusari gusoku) and at least plate breastplates (hotoke dō, literally “Buddha chest”, in reference to the smooth chests of images of the Buddha).


  28. Oh, forgot to mention: aren’t trained horses *also* weapons, not just passive conveyances? Like kick and even biting weapons, if there’s flesh near to bite.

    “it might reach the opposing rider and bite his head of … bigger than bears”

    Okay, (a) I’m skeptical that even a bear-sized hyena-thing could simply bite a horses’s head off and (b) this seems wildly divergent from the books. “Great wolves” makes me think of large dogs like wolfhounds, not bears.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was thinking about the movie version, where IIRC they were *really* big. And they’re not supposed to bite off the horse’s head, but the rider’s. The point is he would be mission-killed, doesn’t really matter which body part gets maimed.

      I agree that war horses were trained to be nasty. But a warg would be nasty *by nature*, as well as with a body designed to hunt and kill, not graze. In fact, probably shaped optimally to take down horse-sized prey or bigger.

      Of course, this doesn’t mean that the cavalry are doomed. But maybe the clash wouldn’t be as one-sided as Brett assumes.


      1. I think the problem here is that the movie-wargs are so big and fearsome that they’d be OP in any realistic setting. I guess, since we’re treating the books and movies as if they were historical sources, we can ascribe the Jackson wargs’ size to poetic exaggeration and assume that, in reality, they were more like particularly large and ferocious wolves.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Actually the largest amphicyonids got up to 630 kilos, well within the size-range of a horse, though perhaps better-suited to light rather than heavy cavalry. Though given their bearlike posture, and the fact a charging bear can actually move faster than a horse, they could be suited to either.

        Interestingly the amphicyonidae were obligate carnivores, like cats and hyenas, despite being more related to dogs and bears. (The pinnipeds and some mustelids, like ferrets, are also obligate carnivores in the dog-and-bear branch of the order Carnivora.)


  29. Wargs are used as mounts. That means either they are superior as mounts rather than individual fighters, or orcs prefer them as mounts to greater efficiency and are able to enforce that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It can mean a number of other things (although I’m not 100% sure what you put under “efficiency”; I’m assuming “combat efficiency”).

      Donkeys are popular in poor areas, because they can endure hardship and poor feeding. They feel more at home in mountainous or rough terrain. I think clergy liked them as mounts, and people in medieval times thought of them as “discount horses”. Maybe wargs, like polar bears, can survive where there’s little wegetation? Mordor has little vegetation, but this begs the question what predators eat. On the other hand, Sam caught a rabbit, so…

      Perhaps wargs are preferred due to their alertness and sense of smell? If they are used at raiding, it may help with ambushes – or avoiding them. Wargs might be stealthier.

      Maybe they are actually poor mounts, or poor in combat, or both. Maybe Tolkien put them in raiding/skirmishing role because he thought (from his war experience?) that they’d be a poor horse substitute. In my opinion this is the most convincing explanation.

      Could orcs just like their fierce attitude? It fits with the orc stereotype. An X-COM fan would be quick to point out they’d make good terror weapons.

      Or maybe they can’t get horses. They don’t know how to care for them, or – more likely – horses don’t like orcs. Horses are sensitive animals, I heard.

      Finally, maybe they do deal extra damage to buildings, like in Warcraft 3.


  30. On cavalry charges – stallions will try to shoulder-charge and throw down another horse (and stallions were the preferred mount for knights). They also try to over-top the other horse and bite down on the neck. I suspect that if two bodies of disciplined and determined cavalry met in a charge there might be a slight slowing before impact (but not very much, because then the second line would fall foul of the first), but that horses and riders would meet shoulder to shoulder rather than chest to chest. Most would pass through, some would be pushed aside and so create gaps which the more cohesive force could exploit. As Brett notes, all the emphasis in the sources is on staying tight together – knee to knee. Illustrations do show horses thrown down.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. > But Denethor did not permit them to go far. Though the enemy was checked, and for the moment driven back, great forces were flowing in from the East. Again the trumpet rang, sounding the retreat. The cavalry of Gondor halted.

    > Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, hewed staff and bearer; and the black serpent foundered. Then all that was left unslain of their cavalry turned and fled far away.

    > Against the wan walls and the luminous pavement of the road Frodo could see them, small black figures in rank upon rank, marching swiftly and silently, passing outwards in an endless stream. Before them went a great cavalry of horsemen moving like ordered shadows, and at their head was one greater than all the rest: a Rider, all black

    > But their chief fortress was at Eithel Sirion in the east of Ered Wethrin, whence they kept watch upon Ard-galen; and their cavalry rode upon that plain even to the shadow of Thangorodrim

    > And wherever King Elessar went with war King Éomer went with him; and beyond the Sea of Rhûn and on the far fields of the South the thunder of the cavalry of the Mark was heard

    Tolkien has no problem using ‘cavalry’. However, he does not do so in the first part of Two Towers. He only uses ‘knights’ in Return, though in multiple contexts: for Dol Amroth, the Dunedain of the North come to Aragorn, Theoden’s house, and Beregond when defending Faramir from Denethor. Pippin and Merry end up considered knights of Gondor and Rohan.

    I don’t see mention of wargs or wolves in the forces of Mordor; the only one is that Aragorn’s forces hear wolves howling in Ithilien, north of Morgul Vale.

    Gollum caught rabbits for Sam, but in fertile Ithilien, outside of Mordor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > I don’t see mention of wargs or wolves in the forces of Mordor; the only one is that Aragorn’s forces hear wolves howling in Ithilien, north of Morgul Vale.

      Wargs do seem to be mostly a Misty Mountains creature, maybe a twisted mockery of the Beornings?


  32. Polearms on horseback might be bad, but man do I love demigryph knights with halberds. They can only be bested by ghost riders! Anyway, I love these and the humour!


    1. Pretty sure Eastern Europeans sometimes used halberds from horseback; I know East Asia used glaives (here including naginata) from horseback, on occasion. Presumably not in precisely the same way as Western medieval heavy cavalry—maybe more like post-gunpowder lancers?


    2. The difference is that a Western European halberd is weighted differently than one from China, India or Eastern Europe, being an infantry weapon. All the weight is further forward and closer to the head, which allows for far greater striking power and splitting links of mail. But the cavalry halberds tend to have a heavy counterweight or a thicker shaft towards the butt of the weapon, so that the rider is grabbing the weapon close to or around its center of gravity. What it sacrifices in cutting power it makes up for in controllability, because a cavalry weapon must be quickly moved out of the way of a target or risk being dragged down and pulled away due to the momentum of the horse and the rider.


  33. Gathering intelligence and coordinating large bodies of people is very hard (and, as an aside, something players of strategy or tactics games are almost never really asked to do).

    I don’t know if you’ve ever played it, but “Hegemony: Wars of Ancient Greece” does a reasonably good job of simulating these things, IMHO. It has an actual logistics system as well, so unless you pay attention to your supply chains it’s quite possible for your entire army to fall apart due to famine.

    Also, it took me way, way too long to realise that the title of this post was a pun on “total war”.


  34. “Hellenistic era” -> “around 400 BCE”; (Xen., Aen. Tact., Plat.; scriptores machinatores)

    Don’t forget Arr. Anab. 1.15.4 and 3.15.2 (which are probably a Julio-Claudian cavalryman feeling that something in his Aread sources is weird, cf. Polybius 12)

    Edwardian lance and sabre drill are very much alive in organizations like the RCMP and Lord Strathcona’s Horse. They never died, just fossilized.


  35. Leaving aside the whole “they look like that because Tolkien wrote them as 12th Century northern Europeans” thing, what makes me suspect that encountering wargry as a mounted formation instead of as scouts and raiders was something of a rarity for the Rohirrim is their kit.

    Someone upthread mentioned cataphracts, and, given that military organizations tend to adapt their equipment and tactics to their most dangerous opponents, it would make sense that if wargry as formed cavalry were a common opponent for Rohan the response would be the evolution of something like late Roman cataphract cavalry. That would help reduce the biggest problem presented facing a carnivorous enemy mount; the hazard to the horse from claws and teeth.

    Given the suggestion that the warg-riders might be armed with javelins perhaps the armament of the Rohan cataphracts might include a bow (as implied by the “equites sagitarii clibanarii”) but either way you’d think that some combination of contus, bow, and horse armor would have developed in response to an opponent with a mount armed with face knives…


  36. We pretty much know that organized wargry would be a rarity for Rohan, and maybe anyone. The battles are in early year 3019; Saruman only took up Isengard in 2759, and starts rotting around 2851. He fortifies Isengard in 2953, and only around 3000 is he said to dare use the palantir, and become a full traitor to the White Council.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So the innovation of formed-shock-wargry is a Saruman innovation? Hmm. That would explain both the lack of systemic response from his opponents as well as the bizarre elements like the mounted halberds and the lack of projectile weapons; the sort of thing a military amateur does. “Why didn’t Sauron think of this?!?” (because he did and it didn’t work..?)

      Liked by 1 person

  37. I just discovered this blog and started reading the LotR series. I just want to say that I’m a sucker for when someone with expert level knowledge applies that knowledge to fictional works, while treating those works with the same earnestness as they would a real world historic account. It seems obvious that this is the case here. Thank you!


    1. ^^^^^Exactly this ^^^^^ I love it . . . thank you Bret!

      p.s., Someday will you comment on the short battle before the Black Gate? Or is there not enough there for analysis?


  38. “Swords, axes, maces – on horseback (and frequently on foot too) these are, with only a few exceptions, backup weapons.”

    I would like to note here that in Byzantine cataphract wedge, front ranks – intended to engage enemy infantry – carried maces, while flankers – intended to keep enemy cavalry away – carried spears.


    1. Mace-wielding cataphracts were actually the exact sort of cavalry I had in mind when I wrote “with only a few exceptions” so great minds think alike!

      I have a sneaking sense that cataphracts, while often presented as ‘just one more sort of heavy cavalry’ actually functioned under different principles. But it’s only a sneaking sense – I’m not deep enough on the literature of Byzantine cataphracts, and the source base for cataphracts in the ancient world (which I am up on) just isn’t very robust, making it hard to sustain any sort of argument, so I am not very confident in that assessment.


      1. If you want to read about cataphracts, this is the literature I have:
        George T Dennis – Three Byzantine Military Treatises – pg 57/59, 107-111, 275
        Michael J. Decker – The Byzantine Art of War – pg 148 – 158
        Eric McGeer – Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth – pg 253 – 329

        It is McGeer who brings diagram and description of typical kataphraktoi formation. Formation as he describes contained 504 men deployed in a blunt wedge: twelve rows deep with first row of twenty men and each next row adding four men (so second row was 24, third 28….). Second reduced version had 384 men: same model as previous but first row contained ten men (second 14, third 18…). First four lines were kataphraktoi wielding iron maces as shock weapons; from fifth to twelfth row two soldiers on each wing alternated between wielding a sabre and a mace. In middle of formation, from fifth row to the twelfth, were mounted archers (so 504-man formation had 150 archers). Attack seems to have three phases: approach (where archers shower enemy with missiles), impact (where kataphraktoi wielding maces bash enemy troops) and pursuit (done by cavalrymen wielding lances).

        I am not well versed in intermediate periods, but to my knowledge it is not until 15th century that we see similar combined-arms cavalry formation in Europe, as seen in illustration below:
        Which (this is just my gut feeling) may have something to do with exodus of Byzantine learned men following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. …


  39. This is a great post and makes me wonder about how pre-modern / pre-radio armies handled command, control, communication, and intelligence more generally in common situations such as on the march, while foraging, during sieges, and finally in pitched battle and how such methods varied with the social structure surrounding the army. Did the Romans or other large agrarian empires ever conduct close coordination of multiple columns converging like Napoleon? How did they pull it off without a (proto-)general staff?


  40. I just found your site, courtesy of the shout-out The Times gave it a couple of days ago, and I love it.

    I just wanted to add to your discussion of Rohirrim cavalry that Tolkien first introduces it when Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas encounter Eomer and his eored, riding in pairs: “In their hands were tall spears of ash, painted shields were slung at their backs, long swords were at their belts, their burnished shirts of mail hung down upon their knees.”

    On being hailed by Aragorn:

    “With astonishing speed and skill they checked their steeds, wheeled, and came charging round. Soon the three companions found themselves in a ring of horsemen moving in a running circle, up the hill-slope behind them and down, round and round them, and drawing ever inwards. Aragorn stood silent, and the other two sat without moving, wondering what way things would turn. Without a word or cry, suddenly, the Riders halted. A thicket of spears were pointed towards the strangers; and some of the horsemen had bows in hand, and their arrows were already fitted to the string.”

    It’s unclear where the bows and arrows have appeared from (have some of the men swiftly slung their lances and grabbed bows from bow-cases? – or are there some bowmen as well as the spearmen, who Tolkien didn’t mention, or his heroes didn’t notice, earlier?), and I find all this manoeuvring taking place without any word of command at all a tad implausible. But there is no question that Tolkien means to convey that Rohirrim ‘regulars’ are very highly-drilled troops, accustomed to complex close manoeuvring. .


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