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Tactical Overview: Dothraki


Viserys promises that 10 000 Dothraki screamers are enough to “sweep the Seven Kingdoms”. But Free Cities do not really fear Dothraki; they are rather confident in their walls.

Dothraki use short stirrups, which is enough to show that they are meant to be horse archers. However, if so, then they are the most useless Mongols in history of fantasy. At Qohor, Temmo and his bloodriders attacked only three times with horse archers, but charged eighteen times in a frontal assault. In the end, twenty-five thousand Dothraki warriors were defeated by three thousand Unsullied.

Mormont himself describes the encounter as follows:

It was four hundred years ago or more, when the Dothraki first rode out of the east, sacking and burning every town and city in their path. The khal who led them was named Temmo. His khalasar was not so big as Drogo’s, but it was big enough. Fifty thousand, at the least. Half of them braided warriors with bells ringing in their hair.

The Qohorik knew he was coming. They strengthened their walls, doubled the size of their own guard, and hired two free companies besides, the Bright Banners and the Second Sons. And almost as an afterthought, they sent a man to Astapor to buy three thousand Unsullied. It was a long march back to Qohor, however, and as they approached they saw the smoke and dust and heard the distant din of battle.

By the time the Unsullied reached the city the sun had set. Crows and wolves were feasting beneath the walls on what remained of the Qohorik heavy horse. The Bright Banners and Second Sons had fled, as sellswords are wont to do in the face of hopeless odds. With dark falling, the Dothraki had retired to their own camps to drink and dance and feast, but none doubted that they would return on the morrow to smash the city gates, storm the walls, and rape, loot, and slave as they pleased.

But when dawn broke and Temmo and his bloodriders led their khalasar out of camp, they found three thousand Unsullied drawn up before the gates with the Black Goat standard flying over their heads. So small a force could easily have been flanked, but you know Dothraki. These were men on foot, and men on foot are fit only to be ridden down.

The Dothraki charged. The Unsullied locked their shields, lowered their spears, and stood firm. Against twenty thousand screamers with bells in their hair, they stood firm.

Eighteen times the Dothraki charged, and broke themselves on those shields and spears like waves on a rocky shore. Thrice Temmo sent his archers wheeling past and arrows fell like rain upon the Three Thousand, but the Unsullied merely lifted their shields above their heads until the squall had passed. In the end only six hundred of them remained… but more than twelve thousand Dothraki lay dead upon that field, including Khal Temmo, his bloodriders, his kos, and all his sons. On the morning of the fourth day, the new khal led the survivors past the city gates in a stately procession. One by one, each man cut off his braid and threw it down before the feet of the Three Thousand.”

The Three Thousand

Needless to say, this does not paint Dothraki in a good light. If description of battle is true – which is fairly questionable – then Dothraki show several significant weaknesses: 1) complete disregard for infantry, 2) utter tactical incompetence and 3) inadequate shock capabilities. Fact that Dothraki “broke themselves like waves on a rocky shore” on the Unsullied phalanx (see overview of Unsullied here) means that they are completely incapable of acting as heavy cavalry – this is also indicated by their stirrups, which are of the sort used exclusively by mounted archers.

That Dothraki are feared in Essos is suggested by the fact that Free Cities pay tribute to them. But this need not be the case. As Magister Illyrio explains, “why take chances, when their friendship comes so cheap”? For mercantile cities, it makes sense to pay off barbarians even if said barbarians could be easily crushed: no matter how big the tribute, raising armies is always more expensive, especially when said armies consist of mercenaries. Saxons usually bought off Vikings, despite there not being much tactical difference between the two groups, simply because it was safer and cheapter. And Vikings accepted the tribute because to them it was safer and cheaper as well. Roman Empire too bought off various barbarian tribes during entire run of its existence (that is, from 27 BC to 1453 AD).

Drogo’s khalassar had 40 000 warriors and “uncounted” women and children. This means that khalassar cannot move quickly, or else cannot utilize its full strength in offensive operations.

Tactically, Dothraki – as noted before – are nothing dangerous. They are based on Mongols, but lack precisely the things which made Mongols so dangerous:

  1. intelligence network
  2. military engineering capability
  3. field artillery
  4. combined-arms force (heavy cavalry, missile cavalry, heavy infantry, missile infantry)

Dothraki are thus a one-trick pony. Jorah Mormont praises their horse archers:

They are better riders than any knight, utterly fearless, and their bows outrange ours. In the Seven Kingdoms, most archers fight on foot, from behind a shieldwall or a barricade of sharpened stakes. The Dothraki fire from horseback, charging or retreating, it makes no matter, they are full as deadly… and there are so many of them, my lady. Your lord husband alone counts forty thousand mounted warriors in his khalasar… Your brother Rhaegar brought as many men to the Trident, but of that number, no more than a tenth were knights. The rest were archers, freeriders, and foot soldiers armed with spears and pikes. When Rhaegar fell, many threw down their weapons and fled the field. How long do you imagine such a rabble would stand against the charge of forty thousand screamers howling for blood? How well would boiled leather jerkins and mailed shirts protect them when the arrows fall like rain?” (GoT, Daenerys IV)

But if that is all they have – and so far it appears it is – then Dothraki are hopeless in warfare. Settled armies have been defeating armies based around horse archers for as long as recorded history exists. The key here is discipline: if infantry maintains formation, it is only vulnerable to charge by heavy shock cavalry. Missile cavalry is only dangerous insomuch as it can cause infantry to lose cohesion, but by itself it is not very dangerous as it is both outranged and outshot by foot archers or crossbowmen. While Jorah is disparaging of “archers, freeriders and foot soldiers”, that is actually a mix which is perfectly set up for countering Dothraki tactics. And “boiled leather jerkins and mailed shirts” are actually completely adequate against bows, especially against relatively small bows used by horse archers.

Strategically, Dothraki have a common failling of all horse armies: logistical requirements. Such armies require massive pasturelands. While such indeed do exist in Westeros, much of the continent consists of either mountains, narrow valleys or terrain crisscrossed by rivers. Such terrain will seriously hamper Dothraki mobility.

Dothraki chances of taking Westeros can be illustrated by Mongol invasion of Hungary in 1285. (that is, the second invasion). While much is said about the first Mongol invasion, that one is useless for comparison here. Hungarian forces from the first invasion consisted of light infantry, light cavalry and very few castles – an army which is more similar to that of Night’s Watch or Wildlings than anything fielded by Seven Kingdoms. They also showed clear incompetence, failling to properly scout the enemy or fortify the camp. After the experiences of the first invasion, kingdom of Hungary reorganized its military. Reorganization included massive program of fortifications construction, introduction of heavy armoured cavalry of Western style, and greater number of crossbowmen. Further, while Hungary and Poland were defeated in first Mongol invasion, Mongols were still defeated in Bohemia, Austria and Croatia where terrain was not in their favour.

Second Mongol invasion of Hungary 1285

Both forces in second invasion numbered around 30 000 men, but Mongols were all mounted and thus had advantage in shock action and mobility. During early phases of invasion, Hungarians relied on typical castle warfare, hoarding all stocks of food and supplies within castles while also using castles as bases for harrying the invaders. Using castles as bases of operation, Hungarians fought a number of battles in which they destroyed individual Mongol detachments. Talabuga’s weakened army was eventually defeated in a field battle in western Transylvania. It was then ambushed during retreat by Szekely light cavalry, and by the time it had returned to Mongol territory the army had effectively ceased to exist.

Second army led by Nogai stayed in Transylvania until spring of 1286. He managed to destroy some villages, town and even a few forts and fortified towns, but failed to take any major fortifications. However his force was eventually defeated in the field by local Hungarian army, so when king Ladislaus IV arrived with his army, the only thing left for him to do was to harass the retreat of remains of Nogai’s force.

Mongols never again invaded Hungary, and in 1345. Hungarians defeated Golden Horde in its own territory and captured what would become Moldavia. Third Mongol invasion of Poland, in 1287. – 1288., was likewise a failure with Poles using strategy similar to that of Hungarians. Mamluks defeated Mongols four times – utilizing army modeled on that of Western European societes (that is, heavy-cavalry-centric).

Westerosi armies have exact same elements which Hungarians introduced to counter Mongols: castles, heavy cavalry and crossbowmen. Unlike Poland, Westerosi also have advantage of terrain: Westerlands, Vale and Dorne are all defended by mountains. Reason why Mongols were successful in the first invasion was that countries they invaded – Russia, Poland, Hungary – had none of these factors. All three countries were politically disunited, had flat terrain, and fortifications which were almost exclusively constructed from wood. But any one of kingdoms of Westeros is more powerful than any of three European states listed, and has none of the disadvantages noted.

It should also be remembered that even the first Mongol invasion of Europe was not an unqalified success. Battle of Mohi was a very close-run thing, and Battle of Legnica was lost by Poles rather than being won by Mongols. In each battle, Mongols suffered heavy casualties despite ultimately winning said battles. In 1242., out of four generals, Subudei and Beider wanted to continue the invasion but Batu and Berke voted against. In other words, invasion was on the verge of failure even before news of Ogodei’s death reached Mongol commanders – that news was merely the last straw, and it allowed Mongols an honourable retreat, giving them an exit from what was quickly becoming an outright disaster. But even before then, plains of Hungary and Poland were insufficient for maintenance of Mongol armies, especially during the winter. Spring made things even worse as plains turned to mud, hampering movement while at the same time denying fodder. Out of 40 000 men which participated in the first invasion, only 19 000 returned home. And while Mongols had conquered China, Mongols armies which did so were actually predominantly Chinese, and Chinese themselves preferred open-field battle to utilizing fortifications.

Tactically, Battle of Mohi was won through combat engineering and superior heavy cavalry on part of Mongols – it was Hungarians who had predominantly light cavalry forces. In second invasion, Hungarians fielded heavy cavalry, and defeated the Mongols.

Compared with Mongols, Dothraki are at massive disadvantage. Tactically, Dothraki are exclusively light cavalry. This might make them dangerous to barbarians and states with badly-trained armies. Against organized opponents, light cavalry is easily countered. Light melee cavalry cannot survive against proper infantry or heavy cavalry force, and light missile cavalry is likewise at disadvantage against heavy cavalry and worthless against infantry armies with proper missile troops. So-called Parthian shot would actually leave retreating rider vulnerable to missile infantry, and fact that Westerosi wear armour means that Dothraki horse archers would have to come extremely close to have any effect – causing them to be shredded by Westerosi longbowmen and crossbowmen. Infantry missile troops – longbowmen, crossbowmen – can stand in tight ranks and on solid ground. This means that they can achieve greater density of missiles as well as greater precision. Further, since they can have more powerful weapons, infantry can have greater absolute range, greater effective range and better armour penetration. And Dothraki themselves are unarmoured men on unarmoured horses. Result is that Dothraki are extremely vulnerable in such an exchange, while their enemies – protected by big shields and/or plate armour – remain essentially invulnerable to Dothraki missile fire.

Mongols being awesome in armour

Armour matters. Turkish missile cavalry proved ineffective against Frankish armoured infantry at Dorylaeum. Mongols themselves had heavy cavalry which utilized lamellar iron armour, and also light cavalry which utilized silk armour. Further, Dothraki do not appear to utilize lances, which leaves their melee troops effectively useless. This means that Dothraki are completely incapable of overcoming even modest Westerosi force in the field. The only – minor – chance for them to win is by harrassment tactics, aiming to break morale of Westerosi troops by missile bombardment. However, availability of longbows and crossbows to Westerosi forces will make even those impractical for Dothraki to use as they will suffer heavy casualties, and lack of heavy cavalry will make Dothraki incapable of breaking infantry ranks. At the same time armour worn by Westerosi will prevent missile fire from causing anything but minor casualties. Fact that horse barding is used means that horses too will be immune to missile fire. Terrain in Westeros also forces head-on engagements, taking away even this remaining option Dothraki have and making them vulnerable to heavy cavalry charge. Mongols armies by contrast were 40% heavy cavalry in proportion, and said heavy cavalry was actually better armoured than European counterparts, utilizing lamellar armour where Europeans utilized only mail (plate armour only appeared in mid-1300s, well after Mongol invasions). This heavy cavalry was decisive at both Battle of Legnica and Battle of Mohi. As such, even successful application of feigned retreat tactic by Dothraki would not ensure their victory.

As a result, Dothraki are useless when deployed on their own. They can harrass the enemy, but they cannot take or hold ground. They will also not be able to disperse or destroy heavily armoured infantry or cavalry.

Strategically, Dothraki have not shown ability to construct siege equipment and undertake military engineering in general. This means that they have even less ability to take fortifications than Mongols did. Mongols themselves proved incapable of taking normal, real-life fortifications, as evidenced by their failures to take castle of Klis as well as Trogir and most of the few stone castles Hungary had. In fact, Siege of Esztergom in 1241. was a failure despite town only having wooden walls and a stone citadel. Mongols constructed over 40 siege engines, breached city walls, but failed to take the citadel. Westerosi fortifications are illogically massive, and Dothraki – with their lack of siege capability – have no way of threatening them. Network of castles seen in Westeros is a perfect counter for Dothraki nomadic style of warfare, irrespective of the terrain.

Mongol engineers being awesome in Siege of Baghdad

The only option Dothraki have for doing damage in Westeros is by avoiding direct confrontations and instead focusing on raiding (chevauchee) tactics, aiming to defeat Westeros by causing long-term devastation of the countryside. But how likely are these to succeed? Not very likely. Ottomans regularly raided Hungary and Croatia with armies numbering several thousand horsemen on average. These raids started in 1456. at latest, and continued for as long as Ottoman-Hungarian wars lasted. Ottomans had on their side massive advantage in military organization, as well as much greater numbers – especially of irregular troops such as akinjis which were utilized in raids – and society which made such raids essentially mandatory. Both sides’ armies consisted of professional troops, but only a small portion of these were fulltime professionals (Black Army and border fort garrisons on Hungarian side, Janissaries and Sipahis on Ottoman side). Hungary found answer to Ottoman cavalry’s ability to divert, disperse and reform in rapid sequence; but it never found answer to Ottoman Janissaries’ discipline nor to near-constant raiding which it was subjected to by Ottoman Empire.

Despite that, it still took field battles – specifically Battle of Mohacs in 1526. – to bring down Hungary completely. For as long as the army remained undefeated, kingdom could not be conquered. To the south, in Croatia, raiding did give results. But advance was very gradual: it took hundred years for Croatia to be mostly conquered after the disastrous Battle of Krbava Field in 1493., and even this involved field battles as well as sieges. War itself however had lasted for much longer – as noted, Ottoman raids started in 1456. at latest, yet it was only from 1512. onwards – and especially after 1526. – that Ottomans started conquering significant parts of Hungary and Croatia.

Mongols did manage to conquer Korea through similar strategy, but caveats should be made. Mongol Empire was basically at Korea’s doorstep, thus providing Mongols with a close logistics base. Korean Goryeo kingdom was much smaller than Mongol Empire, and much more centralized than either Europe or Westeros. Even so, it took Mongols 28 years to conquer it. While Mongols could have conquered Europe through similar approach, it would have required long-term investment, as well as participation of infantry and military engineers – neither of which Dothraki have.

Dothraki are steppe nomads. They do not have safe bases from which to conduct continuous raids of enemy territory close-by, as Mongols and Ottomans did. Further, nomadic armies were dependant on open steppe. A nomadic rider could have as many as eighteen remounts, with ten remounts being quite typical, and five a minimum to maintain appreciable advantage over sedentary armies (where two to three mounts per cavalryman were usual). Any significant force would thus require massive open plains. Mongol armies could be as strong as 100 000 men – which means that each would have half a million to a million horses. A horse requires ten hectares of pasture a year. Thus the Ukrainian steppe and the Great Hungarian Plain were the westernmost areas which Mongols could reach. And even then, latter could support no more than 20 000 soldiers in the long term. Mongolian tumen of 10 000 men required 100 000 horses and 9 square kilometers of pastureland per day. This is an issue: less than half of Westeros consists of plains. Remainder is either mountains or forests, with Dorne, Westerlands and Vale being predominantly or fully mountainous, and thus completely out of reach for the Dothraki. Stormlands are also inaccessible, with forrests, marshes and harsh terrain in general, while Riverlands are crisscrossed with rivers. North is also inhospitable, leaving only Reach and portion of Westerlands open for conquest. And even there, much of “plains” will actually be farmland, with limited pasture for horses. Westeros itself is separated into several areas by major rivers; for people without military engineering capacity, these rivers will be major obstacles. As a result, Dothraki will be incapable of mounting anything more than large-scale raids, and even these will not be very effective or able to reach far. In fact, for a large-scale raid, a single castle in the wrong place could bring the raid to a halt – with the result that all horses in the army would starve. And in actual winter, horses will starve one way or another. It will also be ridiculously easy for a Westerosi commander to get Dothraki contained in an area and then force them into a field battle or simply starve them out.

Beyond horses, men also require food and water. For a Mongol-style society, drinking horse blood and mare milk is an option, however, meaning that they do not need to bring food for men. Weather in Westeros is also an issue. There is no mention of composite bows in Westeros; in this Westeros is much like Europe. But the reason why Europe never developed composite bows is rather simple: they literally fall apart in wet weather. If Dothraki utilize composite bows, this would limit window of invasion to warm seasons (summer) – and even that requires some luck, as summer months even in southern Europe can still have occasional downpours capable of matching the volume of water of whole-day autumn rain despite lasting only for a few seconds to few minutes.

Even disregarding bows, Dothraki would not be useful outside summer months. Mongol invasion in Hungary bogged down in part due to rains. Even tactically, rains would take away some of Dothraki mobility, making them that much more vulnerable to the heavy cavalry. Lastly, nature of Westeros as a feudal society makes it resistant to an invasion: for a centrally-organized state, defeat of main army usually meant collapse. A feudal kingdom is not an organism but rather a network, in which each node has to be individually defeated. This prevents an outright collapse, even as it prevents the kingdom from fully mobilizing its resources from the outset. As such, feudal kingdoms are at disadvantage against centrally-organized states capable of implementing constant pressure (e.g. Hungary vs Ottoman Empire), but are at advantage relative to those same centrally-organized states when it comes to fighting nomadic opponents which cannot implement this kind of constant, decades-long pressure. Thus a defeat of any one army is of no consequence against a feudal opponent. Neither Crecy nor Agincourt allowed English to win in France, just as Krbava did not automatically allow Ottomans to conquer Croatia.

In terms of organization, Dothraki do not appear to have anything like structured, formalized command and control system of Mongol armies. Whereas Mongols had developed C4ISR system that was only matched by highly organized states such as Roman (Byzantine) Empire and Chinese Empire, and commanders who led from the rear, Dothraki khals have their authority based on individual fighting prowess and personal relationships. This basically ensures that Dothraki will be at disadvantage even against Westerosi armies in terms of quality of command staff (many Westerosi commanders – such as Tywin and Stannis – also lead from the rear, even though many others do lead from the front). In a battle, Dothraki will have trouble figuring out what is going on, and will be completely incapable of adapting to unpredicted circumstances or carrying out any sort of complex maneuvers. Dothraki also do not have Mongol logistics, combat engineering or intelligence gathering capabilities, nor their discipline. And while Mongols made important use of infantry, Dothraki believe infantry to be worthless.

Mongol organization being awesome

Lastly, individual prowess. Westerosi soldiers are professionals, with knights and men-at-arms in particular being full-time professionals; they make up about quarter of the army. Even infantry, who are socially peasants, are equivalent of English yeomen: commoners who cultivate their own farms. These yeomen – who formed basis of English armies – performed extremely well at Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt. They are not rabble swept from fields; feudal levy relied on wealthy peasants trained from childhood with spear, pike, or bow. Thus vast majority – though not all, as portion of troops really are rabble – of Westerosi soldiers would be able to match Dothraki warriors in individual prowess, with quarter of Westerosi armies having notable individual superiority. But even average Westerosi soldier would be able to defeat the best of Dothraki warriors, for one reason: armour. Plate armour in particular cannot be defeated by arrows except by a very lucky shot, and is a massive advantage in a sword fight to the point that a relative novice will win in more than half the fights against an experienced fighter if former has armour but latter does not. The only way to somewhat negate that is to use dedicated anti-armour weapons such as pollaxes, but Dothraki do not appear to have those.

And when it comes to experience, it is Westerosi who have the advantage. Dothraki mostly fight each other and terrorize the Lamb Men. Westerosi also mostly fight each other, but their armies are tactically flexible enough to assure that they will have experience fighting different types of threats. Westeros itself is also geographically diverse, whereas Dothraki will not have had experience fighting in anything other than open plains.

The only possible counterpoint is the Field of Crows. But this is not really a good example:

The fall of Mardosh finally awakened the remaining Sarnori kings to the depth of their peril.

Putting aside their own quarrels and rivalries at last, the Tall Men gathered from up and down the Sarne, assembling a great army beneath the walls of Sarnath, intent on breaking the power of the khals for good and all.

Led by Mazor Alexi, last of the High Kings, they struck out boldly to the east.

In the tall grass halfway between Sarnath and the ruins of Kasath, they met the assembled power of four khalasars on what forever after was known as the Field of Crows.

Khal Haro, Khal Qano, Khal Loso (the Lame), and Khal Zhako commanded almost eighty thousand horsemen between them, we are told.

The great host of the High King of Sarnor was led by six thousand scythed chariots, with ten thousand armored riders behind them, and another ten thousand light horsemen (many of them women) on the flanks.

Behind them marched the Sarnori foot, close to a hundred thousand spearmen and slingers, giving the Tall Men a great advantage in numbers.

As battle was joined, the Sarnori chariots threatened to carry all before them.

Their earthshattering advance smashed through the center of the Dothraki horde, the spinning blades on the wheels of their chariots slicing through the legs of the Dothraki horses.

When Khal Haro himself went down before them, cut to pieces and trampled, his khalasar broke and fled.

As the chariots thundered after the fleeing horsemen, the High King and his armored riders plunged in after them, followed by the Sarnori foot, waving their spears and screaming victory.

Their elation was short-lived. The rout was feigned.

When they had drawn the Tall Men deep into the trap, the fleeing Dothraki turned suddenly and unleashed a storm of arrows from their great bows.

The khalasars of Khal Qano and Khal Zhako swept in from north and south, while Loso the Lame and his screamers circled round and attacked the Sarnori from the rear, cutting off their retreat.

Completely encircled, the High King and his mighty host were cut to pieces.

The World of Ice and Fire
Field of Crows

Account does not support any great tactical advantage of Dothraki. Scythed chariots are at disadvantage against cavalry, especially light missile cavalry, due to being larger target and less agile. And only 50% advantage in overall numbers (120 000 vs 80 000) is not enough to offset 4-1 disadvantage in cavalry – at least if cavalry is actually worth something. The issue here are slingers: if Sarnori had any appreciable number of slingers, they should have been easily able to keep unarmoured Dothraki at bay. But they appear to either have been very few, or too untrained: there is no mention of them beyond their initial appearance. Sarnori army also fell into a trap and ended up surrounded and destroyed in a completely nonsensical way, acting as if they had completely forgotten about remaining 60 000 Dothraki while chasing after first khalassar.

Also, Sarnori army appears to have been low-quality. Presence of chariots indicates that they had no heavy armoured cavalry, while the fact that infantry followed chariots “waving their spears and screaming victory” indicates fairly lightly-equipped infantry, close perhaps to Egyptian infantry of Rameses II: spear, light shield and little else; but unlike Egyptian infantry, Sarnori infantry also appears to have been undisciplined. In the end, a Westerosi army would not have required 80 000 cavalry – or even 80 000 troops – to defeat Sarnori force present in the Field of Crows.

Viserys’ invasion was not thought dangerous so much because of Dothraki, as it was because Dothraki themselves gave him status of legitimate threat and thus increased likelyhood of Targaryen loyalists rising up for him. As can be seen from above, Dothraki alone cannot conquer Westeros. They cannot win in a pitched battle against Westerosi forces, and cannot take fortified places. The only thing they can do is raid, but as already explained, raiding is not enough to break enemy resistance. Even if they were to magically gain the ability to break Westerosi armies in the field and take lowland castles, at least three kingdoms would still be immune to their invasion due to terrain. Only way for Dothraki to be useful is for them to act as scouts for a proper combined-arms force.

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