Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part IV: Men of Rohan

This is the fourth part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. VIII) from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. In the last part, we looked in some depth at the organization of the host of Saruman and the seeds of ill-preparation, leadership and cohesion which will bloom as poor performance in the fortress assault at the Hornburg. This week, we’re going to keep that approach going, but turn our lidless eye on the army of Rohan: how is this army organized and what makes it function? How does it cohere? Why is it able to stick together, when Saruman’s more imposing army falls apart?

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To recap where we left off last time when we looked at the host of Saruman, we found that Saruman’s army was organized like a professional army, but without the layers of officers or the level of drill and training necessary to generate cohesion or to enable the complex tactics which are so often the strengths of professional armies. Like many modern efforts to graft a professional army onto a society with both insufficient training time and a lack of care for the underlying social structures, Saruman had created the appearance of a professional army, without any of the strength of one. We concluded that Saruman’s organization was fatally flawed: a being with little appreciation for people had fundamentally neglected the human (or orcish) aspect of his army, creating a force which functioned well on paper, but was likely doomed to fall apart in the face of adversity.

The Men of Rohan, preparing to defend the Hornburg. I actually really like these wooden defenses atop the wall. Such temporary enhancements – often called a hoarding – to a stone fortification are often left out of pop-culture imagination when it comes to siege warfare, but they were very common, allowing for a protected position from which defenders atop the wall could engage enemies at the very foot of the wall without leaning out and exposing themselves.

The Lords of Rohan

Ok, I hear you say – but is the army of Rohan any better? After all, in the film, Théoden’s army is mostly boys and old men pressed into emergency service; his force in the books is larger and has a core of experienced riders, but still relies heavily on armed peasants levied from the Westfold. Well, here is the thing: Rohan’s organization isn’t so much better or worse than the Uruk’s, as it functions on a completely different organizational principle.

And the difference can serve to demonstrate why the distinction between professional armies and non-professional armies is so important. While all armies replicate the structures of their society on the battlefield, in many important ways, professional armies often develop a parallel, often effectively deracinated (read:’uprooted’) social organization. It often involves – as we noted last week – more officers (creating a military hierarchy because the deracination has removed the professional soldiers from civilian society and thus from civilian hierarchies) and also typically greater use of corporal discipline (physical punishments). All of that is meant to replace the social bonds that might otherwise hold an army together – typically because there is a need for the state to have an army that can be permanently stationed on the frontiers.

But the army of Rohan is deeply rooted in its civilian society (or more correctly, peacetime society, as some of these fellows are military aristocrats and so not really civilians), to the point that the two are almost indistinguishable. In consequence, the men of Rohan are organized much the same in war as in peace. In the film, we actually do see several distinct groups of Rohirrim; the distinction between them gets more clear if we include the muster of Rohan in Return of the King. So we’re going to break down this army and see how it maps onto Rohan’s society and what might hold it together.

Let’s start at the top – with the king and his great lords.

Arrayed around Théoden are his personal guard; they wait on him in his court and ride with him in battle. We can spot them easily: they have distinctive and impressive scale armor and wear cloaks with embroidered borders. This is a retinue, a body of folks (mostly men) called retainers who are supported by the king (or another high noble) and follow him around. Rogers (cited below) gives an example from Petit Jean de Saintre of an extravagant, but not insane, retinue for a baron (a mid-level noble) which includes three knights, nine esquires (here also fighting men), and 34 assorted supporting personnel (many of whom also had combat roles); they bring with them ninety-nine horses. As Rogers is quick to note, those knights probably had retainers of their own – at least a valet and a page; these retinues can nest in each other. So a king’s retinue might include not only the fighting men of his own household, but his vassals as well – who in turn have their own retinues, and so on. This sort of army form is the retinue of retinues, which we’ve discussed before.

Part of the king’s personal retinue. These are probably the knights of his house, since we see them mounted later on. Notice how they all wear the same basic equipment, with the same colors and the same embroidered cloaks. Such uniformity was almost never the case in pre-modern armies (even those, like the Romans, that we sometimes imagine as uniform were not so), but a wealthy lord or king might clad the fighting men of his household all in the same livery to set them apart on the battlefield, though doing so was a considerable expense.

(Bibliography Note: If you want a better sense of the vertical and horizontal ties that created and bound these retinues together, Rogers, Solders’ Lives Through History: The Middle Ages (2007) has a good basic description. If you want to see a late version of that system in much greater detail, see if you can’t find a copy of D. Simpkin, The English Aristocracy at War: From the Welsh Wars of Edward I to the Battle of Bannockburn (2008)).

Now there’s a key separation between the king’s personal retinue and the retinues of his great retainers, and that’s where the cloaks come in. That cloak element might seem strange, but it is actually perfectly in keeping with historical medieval practice, where the giving of livery (read: clothes) was a key way of marking a noble’s retinue. A powerful noble’s retainers might be marked on the battlefield by all sharing that livery, assuming the noble had the wealth to so outfit his men (which might be considerable, basic clothing was a much bigger slice of household expenses, even for the elite, in the pre-modern world when it all had to be made by hand). Théoden has done this, marking out his elite retainers by equipping them, probably out of the royal armory. Note that these retainers are not all of the important men in the kingdom, or even most of them (in fact, a king’s retainers were often the sons of important magnates, not the magnates themselves); Éomer is not a member of this group and thus doesn’t wear the king’s livery, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.

Book Note: This group of retainers around Théoden receive more clear development in the books. They are called the “knights of his house” (RotK 126-17), which clears things up immensely. This is an institution that we have no difficulty recognizing from medieval retinues. While some of the men who might serve a lord in his retinue would do so because they held land under grant from him (a fief), a noble of significance would also maintain some of these fighting men in his household, feeding, armoring and otherwise maintaining them directly out of his finances. In great noble’s household, we might expect to see both his own junior relatives fighting as knights of his house, but also petty nobles who lacked estates of their own, but had received the training normal to the nobility. Such men were a valuable military resource, because the skills necessary to fight well on horseback were difficult to obtain; if they performed well, the noble might establish them on a small fief as a reward, incorporating them (and their heirs) into his military system. More senior nobles (and especially kings) often seem to have taken the adult sons of their most important vassals as knights in their own house, both as a way of paying honor to their vassals (to ride at the standard of the king was, of course, an honor) and as a way to control them.

Háma, Théoden’s door-warden and apparently guard-captain, is a special case worth noting; he’s not a young up-and-coming aristocrat like we might expect of the king’s household, but clearly an older soldier. He’s clearly a member of Théoden’s household, rather than a vassal of some sort, as Théoden freely demotes him from his position as door-warden (TT, 142) yet keeps him in the household guard (where he falls at the Hornburg). He may be a member of what is sometimes called the ‘sergeantry’ – professional military men not of knightly social status; a full discussion of these fellows is beyond the scope of this series, but they become more important the later one goes in the Middle Ages. However, Théoden is clearly quite close to him and his burial – he alone gets his own mound at the Hornburg – would seem to argue against lower status (TT, 77); Théoden even singles out his death to Saruman. I think we might imagine Háma as either a member of the sergeantry, or more likely in my mind a petty aristocrat who in either case probably grew close to Théoden as a member of his house (possibly before Théoden became king or shortly after); royal retinues often seem to contain a few of these ‘old soldiers’ of the king. In practice, I think Tolkien is also being influenced by the role of a Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon king’s huscarls – essentially their version of the king’s retinue. Men like Háma could sometimes wield power well in excess of what their own limited lands or titles might imply, because their proximity to the king often gave them a high degree of access; at the same time, such men were valuable to kings because they were most closely tied to the king than to any of his powerful (and potentially dangerous) vassals.

Finally, I would note the position of Gríma Wormtongue in all of this. While he is clearly chiefly an advisor to the king, the book is more clear that this also puts him in the king’s retinue and he would be expected to ride to war with the king (TT, 146-8); Gríma’s refusal to ride to war serves as the obvious signal of his treachery. Because such a refusal likely forswears a central duty of Gríma’s oath of homage, it frees Théoden to act against him more directly without oath-breaking himself – thus the latter’s warning that if Gríma refuses to ride to war and they two should ever meet again, it would go poorly for Gríma.

Next, we have riders who, while mounted, are clearly not counted among the king’s immediate retinue. And here, Peter Jackson does, I think, a good job of telling these men out: their gear is not quite as resplendent, and they usually do not have the fine embroidered cloaks. But they do have proper armor and horses – things which would be of considerable expense in a pre-modern society. Who are these fellows? Many of them are likely smaller landholding aristocrats, wealthy enough to equip themselves and supply a horse, but not so wealthy as to afford their own retinues. Some of these men might arrive on their own (with perhaps a page or valet to handle their horses) or with very small retinues and then be grouped into full units centered on more important aristocrats. Alternately, they might arrive as part of the larger retinue of the great magnates – men like Éomer (who, lest we forget, is the nephew of the king rather than his son and thus probably the head of his own household). We don’t learn much about these guys in the film, but we see them, which is a welcome improvement from much of the pop-culture representation of these sorts of systems, which largely drop the great number of these ‘knights bachelor’ who made up the backbone of knightly armies.

Éomer leading a company of cavalry, earlier in the film. When we get a closer look at these fellows, we find that they do not have the uniform equipment of Théoden’s retinue. Likely they are drawn from a number of different retinues, or are smaller aristocrats themselves. One would expect the core of this company to be Éomer’s own retinue, including the fighting men of his own household.

Book Note: Again, our look at the books gives us quite a bit more on the lesser riders and at the magnates – the great lords – of Rohan. Éomer, we learn, was raised in the king’s house when he was orphaned, but appears to now be lord of the Eastfold, since he can order the people there to move to safer areas (his father was also lord of the Eastfold; ‘placing a son on the honor [read: titles and land] of his father’ is a standard signifier of good kingship in medieval texts, so Théoden is doing well by the standards of medieval kingship here) as well as the Third Marshal of the Mark; the position of marshal is a common medieval one, by which a king might delegate out some of his army-leading duties. Théoden’s marshals are himself (of course), his son Théodred (until his death) and Éomer.

We meet a number of other magnates in the books. Erkenbrand and Grimbold both seem to hail from the Westfold and given their command roles are likely major nobles with retinues of their own. Likewise, Elfhelm who was given command of one of the éoreds during the ride to Gondor (it is this éored that Merry and ‘Dernhelm’ are in) seems to be a fairly major noble. The Unfinished Tales have more details about what these fellows were doing in the run up to the assault on the Hornburg which supports the notion that they are leaders of significance in the Westfold. We should imagine that these magnates not only have retinues of their own, but that many of the aristocrats in their retinues are likely to have retinues of their own (a retinue of retinues). The general muster of the Rohirrim that occurs after the Battle of Helm’s Deep does appear to be led by these magnates, who are likely drawing on vertical lines of obligation – Elfhelm calls his retainers, many of whom call upon their family and retainers, who do the same and so on until all of the riders are mustered. With an aristocracy that is deeply interconnected by ties of fealty and family, this is an effective way to call up an army without needing the sort of extensive record-keeping and financial overhead that a formal conscription system requires. Or at least, it is a good way to call up all of the aristocrats and their retinues, but you may need a whole lot of non-aristocrats as well to serve as infantry. And that brings us to…

Ninth Century Rohirrim

Next, we have the infantry. As mentioned before, Théoden has a pocket of infantry with him in his marching column. These may also be his retainers (it’s hard to say as they don’t appear in the books). But it is clear in the shots of the keep that there is also a body of infantry who are relatively better equipped (and closer to prime age) than the general force defending Helm’s Gate. These fellows aren’t noble and don’t appear to be directly in a noble’s house or employ. Mostly importantly, many of them don’t seem to have horses (or at least, war horses; many well-to-do infantrymen in the Middle Ages might have fought as ‘dismounted infantry’ – riding to battle on far cheaper riding horses, but fighting on foot). Here I think we should think of these fellows as akin to the Carolingian select levy or the Anglo-Saxon fyrd. Let’s talk about those historical systems.

(Bibliography note: on the Carolingian levy system, see B. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire (2001) and G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West 450-900 (2003). And as an aside, oof, that is not the title I would have chosen. In any case, what follows is based on my readings of those. There’s also a fairly good ‘state of the subject’ section in W. Lee, Waging War (2016), 156-158.)

In essence, the Carolingian army was an odd sort of layer-cake, in part because it represented a transitional stage from the Germanic tribal levies of the earliest middle ages towards to emergence and dominance of the mounted aristocracy of the early part of the high middle ages (note: the Middle Ages is a long period, Europe is a big place, and it moves through a lot of military systems; to talk of a single ‘medieval European system’ is almost always a dangerous over-generalization). The top of the layer-cake consisted of the mounted aristocrats, in basically the same organization as the lords of Rohan discussed above: the great magnates (including the king) maintained retinues of mounted warriors, while smaller (but still significant) landholders might fight as individual cavalrymen, being grouped into the retinues of the great magnates tactically, even if they weren’t subordinate to those magnates politically (although they were often both). These two groups – the mounted magnate with his retinue and the individual mounted warrior – would eventually become the nobility and the knightly class, but in the Carolingian period these social positions were not so clearly formed or rigid yet. We ought to understand that to speak of a Carolingian ‘knight’ (translated for Latin miles, which ironically in classical Latin is more typically used of infantrymen) is not the same, in social consequence, as speaking of a 13th century knight (who might also be described as a miles in the Latin sources).

But below that in the Carolingian system, you have the select levy, relatively undistinguished (read: not noble, but often reasonably well-to-do) men recruited from the smaller farmers and townsfolk. This system itself seems to have derived from an earlier social understanding that all free men (or all free property owning men) held an obligation for military service; Halsall notes in the eighth century the term arimannus (Med. Lat.: army-man) or exercitalis (same meaning) as a term used to denote the class of free landowners on whom the obligation of military service fell in Lombard and later Frankish Northern Italy (the Roman Republic of some ten centuries prior had the same concept, the term for it was assidui). This was, on the continent at least, a part of the system that was in decline by the time of Charlemagne and especially after as the mounted retinues of the great magnates became progressively more important.

We get an interesting picture of this system in Charlemagne’s efforts in the first decades of the 800s to standardize it. Under Charlemagne’s system, productive land was assessed in units of value called mansi and (to simplify a complicated system) every four mansi ought to furnish one soldier for the army (the law makes provisions for holders of even half a mansus, to give a sense of how large a unit it was – evidently some families lived on fractions of a mansus). Families with smaller holdings than four mansi – which must have been most of them – were brigaded together to create a group large enough to be able to equip and furnish one man for the army. These fellows were expected to equip themselves quite well – shield, spear, sword, a helmet and some armor – but not to bring a horse. We should probably also imagine that villages and towns choosing who to send were likely to try to send young men in good shape for the purpose (or at least they were supposed to). Thus this was a draw-up of some fairly high quality infantry with good equipment. That gives it its modern-usage name, the select levy, because it was selected out of the larger free populace.

And I should note what makes these fellows different from the infantry who might often be found in the retinues of later medieval aristocrats is just that – these fellows don’t seem to have been in the retinues of the Carolingian aristocracy. Or at least, Charlemagne doesn’t seem to have imagined them as such. While he expected his local aristocrats to organize this process, he also sent out his royal officials, the missi to oversee the process. This worked poorly, as it turned out – the system never quite ran right (in part, it seems, because no one could decide who was in charge of it, the missi or the local aristocrats) and the decades that followed would see Carolingian and post-Carolingian rulers more and more dependent on their lords and their retinues, while putting fewer and fewer resources into any kind of levy. But Charlemagne’s last-gaps effort is interesting for our purpose because it illustrates how the system was supposed to run, and thus how it might have run (in a very general sense) in the more distant past. In particular, he seems to have imagined the select levy as a force belonging to the king, to be administered by royal officials (as the nation-in-arms infantry armies of the centuries before had been), rather than as an infantry force splintered into various retinues. In practice, the fragmentation of Charlemagne’s empire under his heirs was fatal for any hopes of a centralized army, infantry or otherwise, and probably hastened the demise of the system.

Beneath the select levy there was also the expectation that, should danger reach a given region, all free men would be called upon to defend the local redoubts and fortified settlements. This group is sometimes called the general levy. As you might imagine, the general levy would be of lower average quality and cohesion. It might include the very young and very old – folks who ought not to be picked out for the select levy for that reason – and have a much lower standard of equipment. After all, unlike select levymen, who were being equipped at the expense, potentially, of many households, general levymen were individual farmers, grabbing whatever they could. In practice, the general levy might be expected to defend walls and little else – it was not a field force, but an emergency local defense militia, which might either enhance the select levy (and the retinues of the magnates) or at least hold out until that field army could arrive.

Now, I’ve used the Carolingian system here because it offers a clean break-point between the cavalry of the magnates (and their mounted retainers) and the infantry of the select and general levy, since at Helm’s Deep we see that clear division in the army of Rohan. But the Anglo-Saxon fyrd (dates esp. 899-1066) – for which, I may add, we seem to have quite a bit better evidence – functioned much the same way, save that generally speaking Anglo-Saxon magnates also fought on foot (though they rode to battle). The king had his own immediate household retinue (the huscarls, equivalent to the ‘knights of the king’s house’); the great magnates (the earls and later also thegns) too would have their own retinues of household troops. These troops viewed themselves as full-time fighters and used high-quality equipment – much like our magnates and riders above. But beneath them was the fyrdsystem, in which each community was assessed, based on land, wealth and population (tabulated in a unit called hides, much like the Carolingian mansus) – a number of men it had to supply to the army each year. This body – which was simply called the fyrd – made up the main infantry component of the army. Crucially, this allowed the Anglo-Saxon army to stay in the field year-round; it’s the clear analog to the select levy. Beneath it was the ‘general’ or great fyrd – the body of all able-bodied free (land holding) men who could be called to arms in the event of a local crisis, to stand on walls; the clear analog to the general levy. This system worked very well until it was effective extinguished by the Normans after William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings in 1066 (a battle whose result was by no means certain!).

Men of Rohan!

And those systems actually provide a fairly good rubric for understanding what we are looking at when we see the infantry of Rohan (I should be clear here that we also see dismounted riders, both the fancy fellows of the king’s retainers and other riders). The infantry in Théoden’s column, who look to be mostly adult (but not old) men, with fairly complete equipment are likely some portion of the select levy or fyrd equivalent (though they may also be dismounted retainers; they don’t wear the king’s livery, which makes me think select levymen). At the same time, it’s clear that even before Théoden’s refugee column (which arrives before even his riders) gets to the Hornburg that there is already an infantry force there (we see them opening the gates to admit Éowyn and her refugees). These – given that they are well equipped (most of them are wearing mail or scale, with round shields, long spears and helmets – this is quite heavy) and prime aged – are likely also elements of the select levy, serving garrison duty in an important fortress (or, as in the books, elements of a field army that has retreated there ahead of Théoden’s column).

Some of our Westfolder select levymen opening the gate. Éowyn has just arrived at the head of the column, so these men did not come from Edoras, but are local members of the select levy. Note how their equipment is of a higher standard than what we’ll see of the general levy in a moment. If Rohan’s army works along the same sort of Carolingian or Fyrd-style system, these men were probably each outfitted with several poorer households pooling resources to make sure they had basic equipment.

Book Note: We get a far more complete picture of the select levy in the books. Erkenbrand’s army, as we noted in Part I, seems to be primarily an infantry force when it makes its appearance at Helm’s Deep (TT, 172). Erkenbrand arrives with a thousand men, which seem to be the reconstituted remains of part of his force at the Isen (he can hardly have had time to muster these troops); the original force must have been quite a bit larger. Clearly some of his troops made it to Helm’s Gate, some were set by Gandalf to bury the dead at the Isen (TT, 184), others were slain in the battle (but fewer than were thought, TT, 184 – this bit of carelessness in running down Erkenbrand’s army also suggests that Saruman’s host dispersed to pillage at least to some extent, given that (TT, 157-8) they had a wargry force with which to pursue and yet failed to do so effectively over the open ground of the Westfold), all in addition to the thousand he arrived with at Helm’s Gate at the end. Since this was originally a field force, attempting to hold the Ford of the Isen, it falls to reason this was the select levy – which also explains why it is in the field through February and March. One of the advantages of such a select force was that (because you were only drawing a handful of men from each town or village) it could stay out in the field while the rest of the fellows not selected did the farming and working.

And we also see the emergency general levy (or great fyrd) equivalent in action as well. In the film, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas note as much, “farmers, ferriers, stableboys. These are no soldiers” and “most have seen too many winters, or too few” even as weapons are being handed out to the otherwise unarmed refugees. We even see the young and old men being marshaled out of the refugees for the defense. Gamling describes it as “every villager able to wield a sword” which is an apt description of the general levy. I think Peter Jackson overdoes it a bit – some of these boys look too young to even be combat useful – but often the age-line for such general emergencies was very young and besides he needs us to understand just how young in very short shots. But it is clear this is a general levy – anyone who can serve in the defense. It’s interesting to note that, as we see this done, it is mostly in an attitude of cooperation or at least resignation; no one is surprised by this order. That tells me that Rohan probably has a long tradition of these sorts of levies, such that all of these men knew there might come a time when they would be called on to serve in this capacity (although perhaps not against such fearful odds).

The general levy being gathered and armed with whatever weapons might be available.

Book Note: We see a bit more of these fellows in the book. The main difference is that none of them come from Edoras; rather they are the general levy of the Westfold, drawn together to defend the non-combatant populace of the region, much of which has fled inside of the stronghold of Helm’s Gate. Gamling – one of Erkenbrand’s retainers in the book, rather than one of Théoden’s – notes that even before Théoden arrives in Helm’s Gate, “Maybe we have a thousand fit to fight on foot…but most have seen too many winters, as I have, or too few, as my son’s son here” and then later notes, “Behind us in the caves of the Deep are three parts of the folk of Westfold, old and young, children and women” (TT, 159-160). So by the time Théoden arrives, the general levy has already been separated from the non-military population, fitted with whatever weapons were available and posted on the wall. Some good organization by Gamling there.

I particularly like that we see a clear contrast between the select levy fellows who are fairly well-armored and clearly of fighting age – even if they are on foot and their cloaks are somewhat worn – and the general levymen who are mostly quite old or quite young and who have body armor made of organic materials (mostly leather it looks like; it ought to be quite a lot of textile rather than so much leather, but that’s for later in the series). For a poor man going to war, a quilted textile defense consisting of multiple layers of fabric quilted together – as a gambeson or aketon – might be the only sort of body-defense they could afford, especially on short notice. And, as we’ve discussed, it was quite a lot better than nothing, even if its protection fell far short of mail.

An older man and a younger man of the general levy. We’ll touch on a lot of the arms and armor in this sequence in a later post entirely dedicated to the topic. But for now, I want to note that while I think this is a pretty poor job of depicting what ought to be a gambeson (it doesn’t look very much like true hardened leather armor, cuir bouilli, which is such a commonly confused topic, I have no doubt I’ll discuss it in depth on its own one day), but I do like that the militia of the general levy is clearly set apart even from the infantry of the select levy.
But I have one complaint: PUT ON A DAMN HELMET.

Normally, we would expect a professional force, like the Uruks, to handily dispose of a levy force like this. A solid, well-organized and experienced professional force would be far more cohesive and capable of executing more complex tactics; at the same time, the levy force likely knows this, which may intimidate them and damage their morale. But there are a few very important weights on the scales. The first – that the Uruks are not a well organized or experienced professional force – we have already discussed. Like many armies even today, the Uruks have all of the trappings of a professional force with none of the reality of it, and perform about as one would expect. But why do the Rohirrim – especially the select and general levies – perform so well? This is the other part of the equation.

The key is cohesion – especially socially derived cohesion. We’ve discussed this concept here before (and will do so again) because it is so important for understanding why some militaries – especially pre-modern armies that engage in shock combat – perform so much better than you would expect given their relative levels of numbers, skill, training or equipment. Cohesion is a blanket term for the psychological forces which hold soldiers in the line under the stress of combat. These are often very different from the motivations that bring a soldier to the field (if you want a good example of how these motivations can differ, check out J. M. McPherson, For Cause & Comrades (1997) on motivation in the American Civil War). The thing that gets you to the battle may not be the thing that holds you in the line when the actual terror of battle takes hold. In particular, while a cause may get you to the battle, by and large it is the fear of shame, either before comrades or close social contacts (friends, family, neighbors), or the desire to protect those same people which keeps soldiers in the line under extreme stress.

Cohesion is so important because morale, not lethality, is typically the deciding factor in pre-modern warfare (and also, as an aside, in modern warfare too). Armies generally do not win by exterminating the enemy, but by making the enemy stop fighting, give up and run away. Consequently, an army that can better resist running away – even if it is less lethal (perhaps because its levymen are less well-trained on their weapons, or less well-armored) – is likely to win, except in cases where the technological or performance shear is really dramatic (and this is not one of those cases; for an example of that kind of very sharp technological/organizational overmatch, see for instance, J.F. Guilmartin, “The Cutting Edge: An Analysis of the Spanish Invasion and Overthrow of the Inca Empire, 1532-1539” in Transatlantic Encounters, eds. K.J. Andrien and R. Adorno (1991)).

Some Men of Rohan, preparing to defend the walls. This looks like a mix of the different troop types we’ve seen, with Théoden surrounded by his guard, with more select levymen up front, and a few of the general levy off to the sides. In practice, you’d want to focus the dismounted riders and select levy – with their heavier armor and better cohesion – at the most difficult or important points, like above the gates.

We’ve already noted how the Uruk army has not built the structures necessary to sustain a professional army’s cohesion – and of course, neither have the Rohirrim. But that is because Rohan’s military system draws that same cohesive force from civilian (or at least, peace time) social structures. It does not need to painstakingly construct that cohesion through drill because it derives cohesion from the preexisting, peacetime relationships among its members. And – just as this army is segmented into several parts (the riders, the select levy and the general levy) – it draws on different cohesive forces.

For the riders, the cohesive element is almost certainly the same sort of horizontal and vertical aristocratic bonds that held together medieval knightly conroi in battle. These men – as the word conroi we introduced last time implies – trained together and fundamentally lived together. The men next to them on horses were their peers who would judge them (and judge them harshly) for their bravery or cowardice.. Théoden (in the books; the film gives an abbreviated version of this line to Éomer) sums it up neatly, “Yet, though you fight upon an alien field, the glory that you reap there shall be your own forever. Oaths ye have taken: now fulfill them all, to lord and land and league of friendship!” Those bonds – glory, reputation, oaths and friendship and fealty, the ties from one aristocrat to another – are what hold the retinues of the magnates together. And with a relatively small aristocracy, no rider of Rohan can have any doubt that should they show cowardice, it will be noticed and noted by their friends and family members who ride next to them.

But what of the common soldiers? Whereas Théoden and Éomer think about reputation and glory in terms of deeds fit for singing minstrels, the common soldier cannot imagine his individual actions to be committed to cultural memory in this way. What holds the select and general levy together? Here, I’d argue, we see a similar cohesive principle to that which holds many citizen militia forces – like Greek hoplite armies – together (and which held 8th century Frankish infantry armies together at battles like Tours (732)). The units of the select levy, or the fyrd (and later medieval militias as well) would be drawn up from towns and villages, organized by geographic units. Men would stand in the line next to their neighbors and family, typically under the leadership of the leading men of their towns and villages. Peacetime magistrates, guildmasters, village chiefs and headmen, or just bigger local landowners often serve as the commanders of these, frequently irregularly sized, often impromptu units (if you want to see this kind of social bonding later in the European Middle Ages, check out L. Crombie, Archery and Crossbow Guilds in Medieval Flanders: 1300-1500 (2016); Flanders was one of the relatively few places that continued to produce good infantry in this period and the high degree of social investment obvious in these guilds shows why and how Flanders continued to produce high quality infantry).

Marshaled together under the leadership of their own local leaders and organized along local and regional lines, the social pressure not to let your friends and family down was extremely powerful. In a touching moment from the books that makes it perfectly on to the big screen, Merry sums up the pressure this creates, “as all my friends have gone to the battle, I should be ashamed to stay behind” (RotK, 81). To break from the line, leaving behind your male family members, your friends, your neighbors to face peril alone – few could endure that shame. And perhaps the one thing humans fear more than death is shame. At the same time, there is the positive motivation too – by staying in the line, you are clearly, directly protecting your friends (who may well be standing next to you, in front of you, or behind you). There was also little problem following orders – your guildmaster or local magistrate gave you directives in peacetime, now the same fellow (or a close relative or friend of his) is giving you orders in wartime; following them without complaint seems natural and right. It is an extension of the peacetime hierarchy, so it does not require the creation of an entirely new, parallel wartime hierarchy (nor does it necessarily require the sometimes brutal use of corporal discipline pre-modern professional armies often did).

This image isn’t here for any particular reason, save that when – looking for good captures of Éomer’s cavalry company, I noticed that in this short cut when he is talking to Aragorn, his sword is clearly sliding right out of its scabbard. This is not a problem that should occur with a proper sword-suspension, which he evidently does not have. Combine this with the heroic work of the Rohirrim Propmasters, and Éomer just has so much trouble keeping his weapons!

Now I should note – looking forward, a bit, in real world chronology – that this kind of cohesion depends on the value that society places on this kind of soldiering. Take that same levy out on the field, but tell them they are much lesser and that their service doesn’t matter and the cohesive principle begins to fail. If the soldier in the line’s social value and reputation isn’t tied to his performance in the line, why risk anything? If there is no honor in standing the line because you are just a peasant, then there is far less disgrace in running away – because you are just a peasant and have no part in this nobles’ war! And if the battle is really supposed to be decided by the clash of heavy cavalry, of which the infantry takes little or no part, then it isn’t really me letting my neighbor down, is it if I run when it looks like our cavalry is losing. And there we see the roots of the decline of this system: it only works so long as the society using it sets great store on their infantry. Even by the time of Charlemagne, the Carolingian system was beginning to fray (though its Anglo-Saxon cousin, the fyrd, would have to be forcibly dismantled by the Normans), as the mounted aristocrats rose in social (note: not battlefield) importance and thus focused more resources and prestige on their own place on the battlefield, and less on the infantry. Charlemagne’s infantry still had plenty of fight left in them, but the value placed on them – and by and large their performance – would diminish, decade on decade afterwards.

How that process of infantry-decline proceeds is a topic for another series, but I want to note now that I suspect Théoden’s Rohan is already well on its way down that path. If you told me that the battle at Helm’s Deep would be the last great showing of the levies (who cannot come to Minas Tirith because they cannot move as fast as the cavalry) and that by the end of the reign of Éomer, Rohan’s levy infantry was mostly unreliable – or at least thought to be so by the riders who ruled the state and determined exactly which sort of fighting resources would be allocated to – I’d find that readily believable (with dismounted riders taking its place in the field when you needed good infantry). The one countervailing tendency I could see is that the success of Gondor’s heavy-infantry centered warfare style might spur Rohirrim imitation. But this too could lead to infantry decline, with Rohan’s kings trying to replace their effective (but low prestige) select levies with knock-off Gondorian-style heavy infantry, resulting in a less effective military overall (the way efforts at imitating European military systems in the early-modern and modern period sometimes seems to weaken rather than strengthen armies, especially where European military institutions melded poorly with local social institutions).

The Elves

And then the elves arrive and we reach one of Peter Jackson’s alterations to the source material that, so far as I can tell, very few people like very much.

Sigh. It was going so well Haldir. We were almost through an entire essay without me ragging on Peter Jackson. And then you had to show up and ruin it.

I assume the storytelling purpose of having the elves show up is to be able to show the free peoples of Middle Earth banding together on-screen. I think this is a product of the shift from written language to film language: in the books, the armies fade into the background a bit more, so Gimli and Legolas can more easily fill in the space as ‘representatives’ of their people. We read Gimli and Legolas fighting and think “Oh yeah, the Elves and Dwarves are in this fight too!” And we get lines to the point – such as when Gimli wishes for a force of dwarves and Legolas reminds him that neither of their people have need to ride to war, because the war is already heading to their homes (a line that makes it into the films). And for pedants like me, the appendices confirm in fact that the War of the Ring breaks out almost simultaneously all over Middle Earth – the war comes to Elves, Men and Dwarves almost everywhere. Lothlorien falls under assault on March 11th, the Mirkwood Elves on the 15th, and war comes to Dale on the 17th, with the Men of Dale and the Dwarves forced to hold out in the lonely mountain (Dáin Ironfoot, who you will remember from The Hobbit, falls in this battle).

For the film, I think there was a feeling that this action needed to be ‘on screen’ but honestly, I think that was mistaken. I suspect the audience could have understood well enough with just a few lines that the reason that the Elves and Dwarves weren’t riding over the hills was that they were busy fighting their own wars against the same enemy. If I’d have made any change, it might have been to insert some clearer reference to the fighting around Lothlorien (perhaps move it up in the timeline) to make clear that one reason that Rohan can fight Saruman and then aid Gondor is that the Ents and the elves protect Rohan’s northern flank, taking the brunt of the Moria orcs so that Théoden is free to help Minas Tirith confront Mordor directly.

The other purpose of this bit, of course, is to make Théoden wrong about something else, because Peter Jackson has inserted a subplot of Théoden needing to be told how to go about doing kingship by Aragorn. We’ll deal with that entire idea a few posts down the line, but I do not consider it an improvement to the source material. Most of Jackson’s efforts to add more conflict don’t really hold up very well.

As it stands, the arrival of the Lothlorien elves produces a really baffling situation from an operational perspective. First, these are clearly elves from Lothlorien: we met their leader, Haldir, as a captain of Lothlorien’s guards in The Fellowship of the Ring. And yet – for reasons relating to Aragorn and Arwen’s plot – he presents himself as being from Elrond, which makes about no sense at all. Peter Jackson likes to play with the mightier elves in particular (but also the wizards sometimes) being able to communicate at great distances, but I think that while it is clear that ‘the wise’ often see much, they cannot actually telepathically communicate with each other this way. If they could, what would be the point of the Council of Elrond at Rivendell, or Gandalf’s being called away to the White Council in The Hobbit? Moreover, it’s not obvious to me that Elrond can task elves from Lorien to do anything; the elves haven’t had a unified leader since the death of Gil-galad. The various elven leaders are not part of a single unified elven nation, something that should be perfectly obvious to anyone who has read The Hobbit and contrasted the behavior of Elrond with that of the Mirkwood elves.

Our operational map of the movie’s version of the Helm’s Deep campaign, with Haldir’s absolutely absurd long distance sprint to Rohan marked. The worst part is that the film makes fairly clear that Elrond only contacts Lorien after the wargry battle, so these fellows ran all that way in an afternoon.

Moreover, these Lothlorien infantry would have had very little time to get from Lorien to Helm’s Deep, over some difficult territory. They would have had to march south, either through Fangorn or through the thinly populated Wold; both are logistics nightmares. And they’d have to ford at least two major tributaries of the Anduin (the Limlight and the Entwash). And they’d have, at best, mere days to do that, on foot, with minimal baggage. The distance is about 200 miles, which ought to require about a month to march through and significant resupply (either through depots or by foraging, although there isn’t much of a population to forage from) along the way. Armies do not move like this.

That said, the arrival of Haldir and his elves do let me discuss the one final component we might expect in the sort of army Rohan has: auxiliary forces. The word ‘auxiliaries’ in this sense generally means troops fighting in an army who are foreign to it, a catch-all that can include indigenous colonial forces recruited into the armies of their overlords, mercenaries hired from abroad, sometimes domestic irregular forces and – as in this case – foreign allied forces serving within the army of their ally. The word has its origin in Latin; the auxilia (‘helpers,’ from auxilium, ‘aid’ ‘help’); the auxilia in the army of the Roman Empire were units composed of non-Roman citizens (whereas the legions, at least in theory, were citizen-soldiers) and were a crucial part of the Roman army. We will absolutely talk about the auxilia in more depth in the future on this blog; they deserve their own series.

“We come to honor that allegiance.” I hate this line, it drives me nuts every time. They don’t have allegiance, they have an alliance. These words are not synonyms! You owe allegiance to a superior, and something tells me that Galadriel does not consider Théoden her superior. Jackson does pretty excellent work matching the style and tone of Tolkien’s job for the most part, but you can tell he sometimes struggles with it, and this is one of the worse examples.

Auxiliary forces were very common in pre-modern armies of almost all kinds. Looking at the organization above, you can see part of the reason why: the socially embedded structure of Rohan’s army is great at furnishing a few basic kinds of troops – heavy cavalry, heavy infantry and perhaps a handful of archers furnished by communities that do a lot of hunting. But what if you need some other kind of fighting force? Perhaps something that has to be socially embedded but in a different sort of society (like horse archers) or something that requires a degree of professionalism your social structure lacks (like pike-squares or crossbows). Or maybe you simply need to draw on a manpower source that doesn’t fit into your regular army (like subordinated peoples in an empire). You look to auxiliaries.

While the Roman auxilia were generally recruited from within the empire (in contrast to the later foederati who came from beyond it), medieval auxiliaries could come from a bewildering array of places. They might simply be the forces of an allied, independent ruler fighting along with you, in which case the auxiliary forces, while organizationally distinct, might be very much like your core army. They might also be town militia, especially in situations where major towns were semi-independent enclaves (like medieval Flanders); a town might supply skilled archers, crossbowmen and heavy infantry that the rural levies available to the landed aristocracy do not. Those town militias often arrived with their own leaders and organizational structure and expected to be employed as a single unit on the battlefield. And, of course, there are foreign mercenaries of all sorts – especially those that provide some sort of foreign fighting style that is locally lacking (high and late medieval French armies liked Italian crossbowmen and later Swiss pikes, for instance, to supplement the fearsome French cavalry). While often mercenaries would be recruited in smaller groups, a large mercenary company might function effectively as an army within the army.

Now the organization system Rohan has – a retinue of retinues with a levy beneath it – does not have an abundance of officers to organize these auxiliaries and even if it did, the entire point of recruiting these fellows is that they do a kind of warfare the core army doesn’t, so the core army’s leaders probably don’t have the right skills (often the issue is language skills – you are relying on the auxiliary force’s bilingual leaders – often drawn from a bilingual social elite – to translate for their soldiers). So these auxiliary units tend to be organized under their own leaders, rather than being completely integrated into the army’s organization more generally. So the idea that Haldir and his elves (and for some inexplicable reason, Aragorn) might have effectively separate command structures from Théoden actually makes a lot of sense, as does the decision to deploy the two armies separately, with the elves holding the Deeping Wall and the Deep, and the men of Rohan holding the Hornburg. Trying to intermix the two armies may sound tempting, but it is likely to make a mess of things – they may not speak the same language and they certainly have not trained to fight together. And, as an aside, the decision to put auxiliary forces in necessary but particularly exposed positions, as here, is also a tried a true tactic: never risk your own men when you can risk the mercenaries instead (as with the crossbowmen at Crécy, for instance).

(Note that this is not always the case. The Roman auxilia were actually quite tightly tied to the organization of a Roman army, and had Roman officers. it’s quite clear that there was concern among the Romans that the auxilia not be in a position to challenge the legions, despite being (by 14 A.D.) roughly equal in numbers. Auxilia were broken into smaller units and kept more dispersed, in part because they often filled light infantry and cavalry roles which benefited from that dispersal, but also in part it seems, to make an auxilia mutiny difficult. At the same time, the legions remained the key heavy infantry force, giving the citizen-Roman forces an escalation dominance advantage against their auxilia support-units; while the legions needed the lighter and faster auxilia forces to function at full effect, in a stand-up fight between the two, the advantage would be to the heavier legions. That said, Roman auxilia units filled almost every battlefield role: archers, light and heavy infantry, light, heavy and missile cavalry and so on. For more on the auxilia, see I. Hayes, Blood of the Provinces (2013))

Haldir commanding his elves. I actually like that they deploy as a distinct, separate unit, in their own formations, under their own commanders, rather than being mixed into the general formation of the Rohirrim.
On the flipside: no pre-modern army was ever this uniformly equipped. Not even professional forces like the legions of the Roman Empire. The impression of uniformity we sometimes get, from things like the Column of Trajan (Romans) or the Terracotta Army (China) are propaganda; archaeology makes it abundantly clear there was still a lot of variety in equipment.

Consequently, that means that auxiliary units may operate on different cohesive principles than their parent army. If the auxiliaries are mercenaries, that may mean a unit operating under a professional ethos within a non-professional army (something that can produce nasty clashes of organizational culture…as with the crossbowmen at Crécy, for instance). Alternately, a professional army may well be using auxiliary units organized through tribal loyalty or personal leadership (including units organized as retinues, like we discussed above). Typically, so long as the leaders of those auxiliary units remain part of the organizational structure (so that, for instance, the chieftain of the tribe is also the leader of its militia or – as here – the captain of a group of effectively professional troops remains in command), the cohesion of the auxiliary force may function effectively on a completely different principle than the main force. As appears to be the case here, with an effectively professional elven auxiliary force supporting Rohan’s levies.


At the center of all of this – both our discussion here and last week with the host of Saruman – is the concept of cohesion. We’re going to return to this concept a bit later in the series when we discuss morale, but I want to note here that the effectiveness of unit cohesion is not a simple ‘given’ based on how these units are organized. For Théoden to harness the cohesive elements holding his army together, there are things he must do: he has to act the part of a king, he has to be present at the battle, he has to value and privilege the local leaders and units that hold his levy and his retinues together. Likewise, if Saruman wants whatever shred of cohesion his army has to hold together, he has steps to take too; given that he has made his Uruks and the Dunlendings swear to serve him personally, the first step here would be to actually be present.

But if this organizational comparison should bring out one thing, it is this: there is more than one way to organize an effective army. Even had it been effectively organized, Saruman’s host was never likely to look very much like Théoden’s army. The system of army organization which works for one society may not work for another because armies always replicate their social institutions on the battlefield. Divorcing an organizational systems from the social contexts, relationships and values which are its foundation often drain away its effectiveness. History is replete with examples of ‘knock-off’ versions of effective military institutions, transplanted into cultures where they just didn’t quite work and often under-performed indigenous systems of military organization.

Finally, I think this comparison is handy because it shows how a non-professional army might actually be a superior battlefield force to a professional army. In the decades since the Second World War, nearly all of the armies of the wealthiest countries have professionalized. This is not uncommon for long periods of relative peace where major conflicts are confined to ‘frontier’ wars. But that professionalization – and the frequent valorization of it – often leaves the impression that professional armies are just better somehow. And it is certainly true that the very best professional armies are often very good at what they do. A professional ethos can be an extremely powerful cohesive principle, further enhanced by the extensive training that professionalization provides.

And yet professional armies do not always win. Indeed, the Romans spent the first five decades or so of the second century B.C. using their non-professional citizen-militia army to absolutely mop the floor with the professional armies of the Greek-speaking Eastern Mediterranean (and also beat Carthage’s largely mercenary armies as well). The disciplined, highly effective armies of 18th century Europe spent much of the early 19th century being flooded out of existence by the highly motivated armies of the French revolution created by the levée en masse until the remaining powers of Europe were forced to respond with mass-armies of their own. Britain’s small professional army – the ‘Old Contemptibles’ – for all of their considerable skill and professionalism, were simply too few to stop the German mass-mobilization in 1914, without the aid of a similarly mass-mobilized French army.

Military organization is more than just a “professional – good; militia – bad” dichotomy. Cohesion matters. How the army slots into existing social structures, the value placed on service and what kinds of service matters. No army – not even a fully professional one – can (or should!) ever be fully divorced from its society.

We’ll talk more cohesion a bit later in this series, but I think I have now kept you all from the clashing of swords and storming of walls for long enough. Next week, we look at the tactics and equipment of the assault and I explain why I think Saruman was badly underprepared for this.

157 thoughts on “Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part IV: Men of Rohan

  1. I’m utterly fascinated by the “Men of Rohan!” section because it 100% dovetails with one of my favorite historical incidents–the Battle of Hemmingstedt, which is about the strongest example you can provide of the power of social cohesion in irregulars.

    Dithmarschen was a loosely organized region in northern Germany, forming most of the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein. Unlike nearly everywhere else in Europe, Dithmarschen was not subject to feudalism until the absolute end of the medieval period in 1550, and remained in this state despite ruthless attempts from the Kingdom of Denmark and the Dutch Republic to subjugate them. Why that is, is best summed up by the 1500 Battle of Hemmingstedt, where the Danes’ attempt to finally and utterly crush the Dithmarschers ended in unthinkable disaster.

    Without going into excess detail, the Dithmarschers, despite having a force barely over 1000 men with worse equipment, managed to smash the Danish army of over 12,000 including thousands of members of the notorious Black Band mercenary army. There were multiple key factors to this, such as the Dithmarschers’ masterful use of terrain and weather to sculpt the battlefield and trap the Danes on a narrow elevated road surrounded by sucking quagmire, but terrain alone cannot explain citizen militia holding off multiple of their number in battle-hardened mercenaries for hours.

    Morale does that. And the Dithmarschers had plenty–apart from fighting alongside their social cohorts and comrades, the Danish army in marching into the region had seized, sacked, ravaged, and burned the area’s largest town of Meldorf just before the battle. Preventing this kind of ludicrous brutality would have been extremely powerful motivation, especially compared to the Black Band they’re fighting who are definitely not getting paid enough to charge from sucking mud up a steep embankment at polearms and crossbows.

    That parallel can definitely be seen here. The bulk of the Isengard army has very little good motivation to fight the enemy–even given from-birth brainwashing in ideology, as you’ve said, ideology doesn’t often last as a combat motivation. The other main one they might have is profit from looting, which can’t hold a candle to defending your entire society from merciless, complete depravation.

  2. Rereading this splendid series, I noticed this passage about Saruman’s casual attitude toward casualties:

    While no singular mistake here is fatal to Saruman’s overall operational plan – his numerical advantage allows for his army to recover from grievous errors by sheer dint of numbers – they add up. Each sloppy assault tactic, each bit of poor organization diminishes his army (quite literally, in that it gets his Uruks killed), reducing, bit by bit, that margin of numerical superiority.

    It occurs to me that this is also an example of Saruman failing to fully consider the relationship between his operational priorities and his strategic goals. You’ve made the case that Saruman’s strategic objective is to conquer Rohan before Gondor falls to Mordor, presenting his expanded empire to Sauron as a fait accompli. Therefore, he’s on an accelerated timeline in this invasion.

    Since Saurman needs results fast and enjoys a substantial numerical advantage, it makes sense to adopt sloppy-but-fast tactics—as long as he can accomplish his objective in time, taking excessive losses is acceptable. This is logical.

    But it’s not quite right. “Conquering Rohan” may be the label of the win condition box on Saruman’s war flowchart, but it won’t help Saruman if the last knight of Rohan is beheaded by the last surviving Uruk-hai. The armies of Mordor won’t be impressed by a desultory force putatively in control of Rohan. After all, they are planning to overrun Rohan at its full pre-war strength. So Saruman doesn’t just have to win—he has to defeat Rohan while sustaining the strength of his army, probably at least above the level of Rohan’s pre-war army. From that perspective, Saruman’s tactics are themselves self-defeating, or at least self-endangering: every Uruk-hai wasted against the walls of the Gate weakens his eventual negotiating position vis-a-vis Mordor.

    It seems to me that this is another example of Saruman’s mechanistic thinking. His goal is to take the fortress; his numerical advantage means he has “surplus” troops; so there’s no cost in spending them. (Also feels a little like the video game thinking you sometimes describe, where there’s a “mission” with an “objective” and if you achieve it, you “win” and the level is over.) But he’s actually failed to connect all of the levels, as well as his present activities and future posture; and so he’s spending down an account he himself expects to need very soon.

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