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Denethoring the Lannisters


(Originally posted at Forum of Ice and Fire)

In war between Gondor and Mordor we see (in the books, not so much the movies) outright Byzantine layered defense-in-depth strategy. Now, the entire point of defense-in-depth is our old friend friction. As Clausewitz explains, anything we do encounters friction, that is things which make achieving our goals easier. Some of it friction is internal, and indeed any complex system – such as an army, or society in general – experiences friction. And this friction increases with any addition to that complexity. You move an army, friction increases. If there are any obstacles, difficult terrain, friction increases again. Enemy is interfering? More friction. In fact, friction alone is often enough to defeat an army; for example, if terrain is difficult enough, attacking army not familiar with it may fall apart without any action taken on the defenders’ part. And it is this friction which Denethor utilized in defense against Mordor (there is very in depth analysis here, though I will not be using it for the most part; I have however read it, and I highly recommend it).

Quick overview of the elements is as follows:

1) Rangers of Ithillien. These guys serve as scouts, spies and raiders. They are operating within enemy territory, gathering information and intercepting smaller elements of Sauron’s forces.

2) Anduin. This is a massive river – something similar to Danube – and can only be crossed on few points: Cair Andros and Osgilliath chief among them. It thus serves as both a defensive line and a chokepoint.

3) Rammas Echor. Essentially a giant wall, likely inspired by Anastasian wall. It was not a defence per se, but rather an obstacle which could be used for rearguard action.

4) Fields of Pelennor.

5) Minas Tirith itself.

So how does this work? Simple: it is all about friction. Rangers of Ithillien, by their scouting activities, provide the intelligence to Gondor while denying it to the Enemy. Although impact is limited by the fact that both Denethor and Sauron have palantiri, palantiri themselves are also limited. Rangers also present a constant, if low-level, threat, thus forcing the enemy forces to move around in larger, less mobile and more unwieldy groups.

Anduin itself is a massive obstacle. Its width and navigational hazards basically funnel Mordor’s forces into several chokepoints, thus allowing Gondor to concentrate its limited defensive strength. And even once crossed, it still represents a logistical obstacle for what is essentially a ground-bound force.

Rammas Echor, as noted before, is almost impossible to defend due to its massive size. However, that is not its purpose. Its mere presence immensly complicates logistics of any attacking army: doors in the wall are a logistical chokepoint, so any army that has forced Rammas Echor either has to accept that fact, or destroy the wall (and we see Mordor doing that – with gunpowder). Further, road which leads from Osgilliath towards Minas Tirith passes through Rammas Echor, and the point where it passes the wall is defended by Causeway Forts. It is here that Faramir fights a delaying action against forces of Mordor, and rearguard positioned at the forts can cover the withdrawal across Pelennor.

Fields of Pelennor are not an defensive obstacle per se, but still function as one. As Faramir’s forces retreat from Rammas Echor, his rear guard – consisting of cavalry – is harrying the enemy force, forcing it to maintain formation and thus take its sweet time crossing the Pelennor.

Minas Tirith is a massive fortress. As a result, enemy has to mount either a siege or an assault. Both present a difficulty. In sieges, attackers often suffered as much as defenders – especially in the era before railway. And army which may be sitting at its ass for months at the time still needs to be supplied – and there are limits in that ability. It is likely these logistical concerns which motivate Witch King to mount an assault; but assault is in itself incredibly difficult, especially as Minas Tirith is easily one of most fortified cities in fiction. It has seven concentric walls, and in a post I am writing for my blog I estimated the city to be 1,5 kilometers across (in films, it is only 200 meters or so – as height and width of the city are more or less equal). It thus replicates outlined strategy in microcosmos.

Overall, the aim is not to destroy the enemy, but to delay them. There are no magical logistics in Middle Earth – orcs have to eat, even if that means eating each other. And Minas Tirith can resist any army that can be kept in the field for the long time, which means that the only way to take the city is by the storm. Even then, however, city’s defensive architecture makes such an undertaking an extremely costly affair, in terms of both lives and time. Just to give an example, final siege of Minas Ithil lasted for two years. Combined with previously outlined characteristics, there is usually time enough for reinforcements to arrive. First siege also lasted for perhaps a year before the city fell. Minas Tirith also was reinforced before the siege by provincial forces, which were summoned by the beacons.

When Mordor attacks, first major battle is fought at Osgilliath. Faramir returns to Minas Tirith from Ithillien to report on enemy movements, and Denethor sends him to Osgilliath with reinforcements. Orcs force a crossing in boats, but suffer heavy losses, while Faramir retreats to Causeway Forts. There he is reached by retreating forces from Cair Andros, and pulls back to Minas Tirith. Retreat across Pellenor is in marching order, with cavalry fighting a rearguard action, and orcs in pursuit become disordered in their eagerness to get to grips. Once Faramir’s forces draw close to Minas Tirith, Denethor releases a cavalry sortie; out of order, forces of Mordor cannot resist. Cavalry of Gondor crushes them, but Denethor calls them back to prevent them from overextending.

Crossing, battle at Causeway forts, retreat and finally Denethor’s charge all serve to induce friction in forces of Mordor, delay and disorder them. I should also point out the preparations Denethor carried out: he removed all nonessential personnel from the city, thus limiting the mouths to feed. By evacuating the Pelennor, he also denied Mordor army supplies. Mordor army also, and historically accurate, brings their siege equipment disassembled, and assembles it on-site. Army of Rohan, alerted by Denethor’s messanger before the siege, is also moving towards Minas Tirith; being six thousand strong, it can make use of local supplies.

* * * * *

Now, onto Robb Stark. How could he have opposed the Lannisters? The answer is found in logistics. I will cite here the notes I made for the fantasy setting I am developing:

“For a two-week march, a 15 000 men force (two legions plus auxilliaries) requires 288 400 kg of grain for soldiers’ rations – 115 360 kg for a standard 6 000 men force. Horses and mules significantly increase this – while light horses used by scouts and rangers can subside entirely off the grass, large war horses require a supply of food, around 15 kg per day, while normal war horse requires 9 kg per day, and same for pack or draft horse, while mule would require 7,5 kg per day. Further, each cavalryman has to have a war horse, a riding horse and a pack horse. 2 000 cavalry in usual legion thus requires 6 000 horses, of which 800 heavy war horses, 1 200 average-sized war horses, 2 000 riding horses, and 2 000 pack horses or mules. Assuming mules instead of pack horses, these would require a total of 59 000 kg of fodder per day or 826 000 kg for two weeks. In normal conditions a third of figure for animals is barley, which means animals will require 275 000 kg of barley over two weeks, for a total of 390 360 kg over two weeks. If there is no possibility for grazing at all, total requirements for a legion come for 941 360 kg over two weeks.

A standard pack horse or a mule can carry a maximum of 120 kg over any distance. For a two-week march, a mule would carry 105 kg of barley for itself, leaving 15 kg free. Ridden cavalry horses would carry 34 kg of barley, unridden cavalry horses 68 kg of barley, and mules 84 kg of barley. Since soldiers can and do carry 14 to 17 days worth of food with themselves on the march, barley carried by mules would be that required by animals themselves. Horses themselves would carry 204 000 kg of barley. As such, a 6 000 strong legion on a two-week march would have 737 360 kg of barley carried by pack animals, requiring 6 145 mules. If grazing is available as an option, barley carried by pack animals is 186 360 kg, requiring 2 219 mules.

Army accompanied by pack animals can make 25 km per day in flat terrain, or 350 kilometers with above numbers. Oxen however would require no fodder, as they can obtain food by grazing; this however requires significant time, and may not be useful in mountainous areas. In flat areas, two mules can pull a wagon carrying 660 or cart carrying 500 kg. Two mules would require 210 kg of fodder for two weeks, leaving 450 kg for a two-week march or 240 kg for four-week march. As such, a legion would require 868 – 2 092 wagons for two week march (280 – 350 km) or 1 626 – 3 922 wagons for four-week march (560 – 700 km). These would require 1 736 to 7 844 mules – former number being mere one fifth of number required in mountainous areas. If using carts – of lesser capacity but more agile in hard terrain – numbers are 380 (with grazing) – 1 504 (no grazing) carts for two-week march and 2 330 (with grazing) – 9 217 carts (no grazing) for four-week march. Four-week march is standard which provincial officials have to set aside for an army. All numbers are increased in practice by some 10 – 20% in order to compensate for losses during the march.”

Here one also has to understand that armies in Westeros are actually not medieval, but actually from early-modernity: you simply cannot field 50 000+ men as a coherent force without standardized army organization, such as was employed by Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and early modern and later Western European armies. What this means that they also ought to have a standardized and developed logistical system – largest force you can feed in the field, from foraging, is cca 6 000 or so. Army larger than that cannot really remain in the field for more than two weeks without organized system of supply (four weeks may be technically possible, but I suspect it is rather impractical).

Yet Robb Stark fields 20 000, and stays in the field for a long time. Other kings also field armies in tends of thousands, but Renly Baratheon takes the cake with his host that is some 90 000 strong. This means that all these armies have well developed supply lines. But supply lines can be cut.

Robb, in his initial moves, managed to prevent Tywin Lannister from unifying his armies, as explained by Blackfish here. But in the process he slips Roose Bolton’s reins – and never picks back up. He also sent Theon Greyjoy to negotiate with Balon – even had Theon not turned cloak, Balon could have simply imprisoned Theon and attacked North anyway. Anyway, Robb decided to attack Westerlands.

Now, his decisions do make some sense. Attacking Westerlands puts Tywin on back foot. But it also removes Robb from his own centre of gravity, and forces him to wage war by Southern rules. Robb also displays strategic confusion in failing to give Edmure clear orders.

Problem is, when he went into South, Robb left North almost undefended. Better option may have been to try and incite Tywin into following him up North, and then harrying him until his host falls apart. In going North, Tywin likely would have had to besiege Riverrun and few other key fortresses, thus splitting his force. Between North’s size and desolate nature, any campaign by southern forces in the North is bound to run into difficulties – even before you account for armed opposition. So why was this not done? Robb may have intended to do it, but if so, he failed to brief his subordinates on his plan. He also overcommited himself to his southern campaign. Riverlands do have rivers, which may even be significant barriers in the vein of Anduin (although the emphasis on region’s “lack of natural boundaries” indicates that these rivers can be easily forded. But historically, rivers are significant strategic actor. In Croatian-Ottoman wars, a major defeat meant that the border get pushed – up to the next river). However, the region is completely open from the West – which is where main danger comes from – and situation from the South is not much better until one comes to Riverrun, by which point half the Riverlands had been lost already. It could never have been held conventionally.

Further, necessities of campaigning in the South forced Robb to give too much power to men like Roose Bolton and Walder Frey, who never were reliable allies. Both of them were always keeping their options open. In the North, he might have had more reliable commanders to fall back on. Ironborn, too, would never had attacked – the only reason they did was that there was not sufficient force in the North to counter them.

So the way I see it, if he could have incited Tywin to follow North, then he could have harried him throughout the Riverlands, especially at the fords. Similar to what Edmure did, but designed to bleed Tywin, not to stop him. If smallfolk and their possessions are in castles or evacuated, Tywin would have been hard-pressed to sustain his army. Even in the best-case scenario, he would be forced to move to maintain himself, and thus keep chasing after Robb. And if he tried to besiege castles, he would be vulnerable to a counterattack. And there were chances for that: Tywin is nothing if not proud. Such a move would have also limited Ramsay Bolton’s actions, though I do not believe Robb was aware of the need to do so.

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