Military of Westeros 2 – Tactics
Despite advanced armour, archers are still significant force. In AGoT it is stated that “two hundred determined archers can hold the Neck against an army”. While a lot of that is due to local geography, fact that archers are so effective may indicate that most troops do not have high-quality armour. This is confirmed in the battle near the end of AGoT where Northerners broke into run under hail of arrows, losing many men. Overall, archers seem overpowered in Westeros, though – as Battle of Blackwater shows – they are vulnerable to cavalry. Arya states in AsoS that “bodkins can pierce even heavy plate”, and in the same paragraph there is an example of longbow arrows piercing breastplate “as if it had been made of silk instead of steel”. In reality however no arrow could pierce heavy plate – in fact, piercing even mail was unlikely by 14th / 15th century or even earlier [link]. Bodkins at any rate were not armour-piercers, but were rather used as “flight arrows”, for harassment and such. Thus importance of archers is simply due to Martin’s misunderstanding of weapons effectiveness. Archers themselves are often grouped with spearmen, while spearmen are used as guards.
Another oddity is that “swordsmen” are a separate group, where in real world, sword was usually a sidearm, while primary weapon was a spear, a pike, a pollaxe, or else a bow, a crossbow, javelins, or a sling. The exception were soldiers wearing two-handed swords for the purpose of pushing away enemy pikes during a push of pike – pike has large moment of inertia, so pushing it downwards can easly cause it to get stuck into ground, forcing the pikeman to draw out the sidearm. Swordsman would knock the pike downward, followed by a lunge turn the body with montente, and another strike with a step as one came back, rolling along the pike to keep it supressed (see discussion here). Alternatively, halberds would get into the gap opened by swordsmen. However, such troops are nowhere in evidence.
When attacking a castle, normal approach is siege. In assault, grapnels and scaling ladders may be used, as well as battering rams. Arrows and boiling oil are used for defense – although latter is a weird choice, as boiling sand or other nonedibles (including boiling seawater) would be a better choice, due to both cost and practicality issues. Even weirder is that boiling oil is used by Night’s Watch during siege of Castle Black – especially in icy conditions oil is much more valuable as food than weapon, while water would be at hand in a nearly endless supply. White Harbour is defended by scorpions, spitfires and crossbowmen; spitfires are likely flamethrowers similar to ones used by Byzantines. Stannis states that siege of Storm’s End may take “a year”. For what is considered one of strongest fortifications in Westeros, that is an unusually short time. Historically, longest siege – Siege of Candia – took 21 year. In one particular case, 800 monks held out in a monastery, against an army which had gunpowder artillery, for eight years. Longest siege during Wars of the Roses, which are a model for the War of the Five Kings, was that of Harlech castle – it lasted for eight years, with 50 defenders holding out against thousands. While most sieges were far shorter affairs – 180 days to take Kenilworth Castle in 1266., 186 days for Chatau-Gaillard in 1203.-1204. – these are not magically-reinforced fortresses with massive walls and enough food to last for years. Dreadfort is stated to be capable of withstanding a two-year siege – but being in the North, which faces ten-year winter every four decades, more logical number should be twenty years. Robb’s marriage to a Frey is forced not by lack of manpower, but rather by pressing need to secure a crossing before Riverrun fails. But due to Riverrun’s strength and Westerosi siege tactics (which are lacking compared to Roman ones – there is no indication of siege ramps, for example), he should have had time to walk back to Winterfell, hold several feasts and wait until Lord Manderly has built enough ships to enable him to completely bypass the Twins. In a (second) siege of Riverrun, infiltrating the castle is proposed, which is one of historically-utilized ways of taking fortified positions – but also one as likely to fail as not.
Cavalry, when charging, is formed in a wedge, riding knee-to-knee. They approach the enemy at walk, then trot, speeding up to canter, and only going to gallop when they are about to hit the enemy line. This is done at Blackwater and the Wall both. Cavalry itself is a significant force.
In urban fighting, as seen in Battle of the Bells, houses are often considered a no-go zone: armies duke it out in the streets while smallfolk hide in houses. On the other hand, however, civilian populace may be intentionally slaughtered, as was done by Tywin Lannister.
Stannis and Jamie both ignore the fact that their scouts are disappearing, showing tunnel vision at best and outright stupidity at worst. Stannis nearly suicides himself against Dreadfort before receiving advice from Jon Snow.
In engagement with Lannisters, Northern infantry forms double line of spearmen behind the “tall oaken shields”, meaning pavises. They also advanced behind a wall of shields and pikes. Northern pike is broken by Lannister heavy cavalry. This is not due to lack of discipline, however, but due to faulty tactical deployment – Northern line is only three ranks deep, where Byzantine line in similar conditions would have been six or seven ranks deep, although with only two ranks of spearmen facing the cavalry charge. By tenth century, depth was increased to eight ranks, with two ranks of pikemen on each face – but those in the rear would rush to reinforce the front when needed, so the pikemen facing cavalry charge would actually be three or four ranks deep. It should also be noted that cavalrymen Byzantines faced (or utilized) at the time did not utilize couched lance charge, but rather attacked with melee weapons – couched lance only appeared in Europe in 11th century. However, eight ranks of pikemen were more than enough even in 15th century, as Swiss pikemen deployed eight-deep. Description of battle at any rate – particularly, Tyrion’s freedom of movement (he circles at least one opponent), the fact that enemies come at him one at the time, as well as Bronn being “surrounded by three enemies” – indicates that both lines had disintegrated into chaotic melee, which historically almost never happened to disciplined infantry. Thus it is no surprise that the Stark lines collapsed under charge of Tywin’s reserve.
However, Robb’s decision to split cavalry and infantry – sending foot down the Kingsroad while cavalry continued across the Green Fork – may indicate that combined-arms tactics are not developed properly in Westeros. In a similar situation, when Roman emperor Basil II had to respond rapidly to Fatamid incursion, he mounted his infantry on mules. Covering journey of 600 miles that would have normally lasted three months in just 16 days, he smashed the Muslim army besieging Antioch. Robb on the other hand took no infantry with him, though his decision may be explained by the fact that infantry was required for a holding action where his force will have been outnumbered. He does utilize scouts, but these are not trained scouts but rather hand-picked men, and most of his (significant) scouting-related successes are due to Blackfish’s ability in the field. When Robb mounts an ambush for Jamie, his entire force remains mounted and charges mounted, which would have been impossible – or ended in disaster – had Jamie been even halfway competent (e.g. fortified his camps).
Robb leaves a force of archers and swordsmen to garrison the Twins, and the crossing at Riverrun is guarded by a mixed force of archers and pikemen. Force at the crossing also deploys sharpened stakes and caltrops, much like English longbowmen did during battles. Roose Bolton also uses a mix of spearmen, longbowmen, cavalrymen and possibly men-at-arms to stop Gregor Clegane’s force.
Ambushes are a big part of defensive warfare. Crannogmen are fond of the tactic, and Northerners ambush Asha’s forces while she was trying to reach the shore. Northmen in that battle wore furs, hides and piney branches.
Lannister troops in battle in A Game of Thrones formed into three ranks in center, pikemen formed into squares between two archer contigents which flanked the road. Behind the first line of archers and pikemen were men-at-arms. Right wing contained 4 000 heavy cavalry. Reserve was 5 000 strong, half cavalry and half foot. Left wing, near the river and on uneven ground, was light cavalry: mounted archers in leather jerkins, a swarming mass of undisciplined freeriders and sellswords, fieldhands on plow horses armed with scythes and their fathers’ rusted swords, halftrained boys from the stews of Lannisport and Tyrion and his mountain clansmen”. Left wing, being a bait, had no pikes, too few bowmen, and a handful of knights. It may also have had 3 000 clansmen Tyrion brought with him.
This deployment has historical precendents. In Wars of the Roses and Hundred Years War, which ostensibly serve as a model for warfare in A Song of Ice and Fire, longbowmen were more commonly interspersed with men-at-arms and pikemen. However, alternative deployments could see longbowmen on flanks while men-at-arms took the centre, which appears to be the deployment used here (See 1 2 3). What is interesting is that pikemen in the centre formed not a square, but squares, which indicates a division into units with a possible aim of offensive deployment; purely defensive posture would have been served best by a single ubroken mass of pikemen, giving up maneuverability for cohesion. Men-at-arms, behind pikemen and longbowmen, could act as a reserve or reinforcement. Fact that heavy cavalry is formed on the right wing also shows tactical sophistication of the Westerlands army. Normal feudal practice was to place heavy cavalry in the front rank, and attempt to break the enemy with force of a charge. This was done by English at Falkirk in 1298., French at Courtrai in 1302., French at Crecy in 1346., French at Nicopolis in 1396., Vladislav at Varna in 1444. – all of them disasters, as cavalry deprived of infantry support would get wiped out, leaving infantry unprotected.
While pattern itself is advanced, Tywin fails at adapting it to local terrain – “Tyrion turned his courser in a circle to look over the field. The ground was rolling and uneven here; soft and muddy near the river, rising in a gentle slope toward the kingsroad, stony and broken beyond it, to the east.”. Extreme of the left flank of an army is positioned close to the river, where ground is noted to be muddy, thus preventing usage of cavalry. Yet main force on the left flank is itself cavalry, but light cavalry. Seeing how left wing was expected to break, this is a logical choice – on hard ground. Yet their tactical employment – specifically Gregor’s charge which actually breaks Northern pikemen – is that of heavy cavalry. But heavy cavalry itself is deployed on rocky terrain, whereas light cavalry – which includes mounted archers, some of the best-trained and most expensive troops in any army – is charging over muddy ground. In this situation, it would actually make more sense to have infantry on the flanks and cavalry in the center, or else cavalry center-front and infantry behind cavalry. Plan also relies on pikemen in the center being unengaged so as to have the freedom to attack Robb’s pursuing forces, which is absurd, especially since most 14th/15th century forces attacked center first (generally, only pre-1490 Hungarian and English forces were sophisticated enough to avoid that). And even if they were unengaged, wheeling around to engage Northern right flank would have left their own right flank exposed, and ther low frontage would have left them open to envelopment. Further, had Northern right been reinforced with heavy cavalry, it could have punched through Tywin’s light cavalry and then either withdrawn or else engaged Tywin’s reserve. More logical option, if going with “left wing breaks” plan, would have been to reinforce left wing of center division with troops and utilize them and/or Tywin’s reserve to engage and partly surround Northern force pursuing broken left wing.
Before battle, Tywin commands Ser Addam to fall back while harrassing the flanks of the Northern army, drawing them farther south.
In battle of Riverrun, Jamie’s army had been forced to split into three by the terrain. The camps were surrounded by a pallisade of sharpened stakes, speaking well of Westerosi siege practices. Question is whether he had to split forces into three apparently evenly-sized camps. It may have been unavoidable – concentrating most of the force into one camp would have required building bridges in order to facilitate quick response by the main force in case one of weaker detachments guarding the remainder of the perimeter was assaulted, and there was never any indication that such an undertaking is within capabilities of Westerosi (or Essosi, for that matter) militaries. When Lord Brax attempted to cross the river, he did so using the rafts – and raft on which he was overturned. While swimming in plate armour actually is possible, shock of raft overturning (and possibly landing atop men now in water) is more than enough to explain drowning.
Reach tactics appear to be based around heavy cavalry charge. When Renly plans a battle against Lord Stannis, he is planning to smash Stannis’ host with cavalry charge. Here we also see lack of professionalism, as everybody insists on leading the van.
Stannis’ cavalry at Battle at the Wall manages to sneak up on Mance Rayder’s camp. Eastern column is detected, but other two columns are not, and they outflank Rayder’s army. Under cavalry charge wildlings break completely, even a line of spearmen; only mammoths hold as they unnerve the horses, though either Martin or Jon himself appears to misunderstand why.
When marching from Deewood Motte, baggage train is located behind main column and in front of the rear guard. But three divisions seem to form a contnuous whole. Properly, there should have been advance guard some miles ahead of the main army, main body of troops, and then the rear guard.
In naval combat, ramming plays a major role. Consequently, primary warship type is the galley. However, boarding and archery are also significant, though in Battle of Blackwater at least archers are not very effective – which should also be the case on land. Firepots are used on ship-to-ship combat as well as to attack ships, and ships themselves are equipped with catapults.
By A Storm of Swords, King Balon’s longships command the Sunset Sea. This indicates that there is no major naval force on the western shores of Westeros, as a Westerosi war galley should be capable of easily outfighting a longboat, if not at preventing raids.
Euron’s longships can easily navigate river of Mander, which is out of bounds for larger sailing vessels. Likely for this reason, men of the Shields – which defend entrance to Mander – use longships as well. Euron manages to get clear of those by feinting a raid up river, and then striking with main force once Shields’ ships had left in pursuit. It is noted that his maneuver – moving out of sight of the shore and then striking, instead of following the coastline – is highly unusual. Shields’ ships are ambushed upon their return. After that, Euron raided up Mander and Arbor and captured three ports.
Display by archers is enough to convince raiding longship to abandon the attack on Cinnamon Wood.