Tactical Overview: Golden Company
This will be similar to my previous overview of Unsullied.
Tactics and Organization
Golden Company was formed of Westerosi exiles, defeated remnants of Blackfyre Rebellion. Because of this, they utilize many of Westerosi tactics and approaches. First impression made is that of their camp: “compact, orderly and defensible”, with defences consisting of a deep ditch and pallisade of sharp stakes. Tents are in rows, with broad avenues between them, with latrines separate from the tents and horse lines to the north. Armed and armored sentries patrol the perimeter. This is significant because camp discipline speaks of general discipline and organization, and just from the camp it can be concluded that Golden Company is one of the most disciplined and organized military forces seen in the books.
Company has 10 000 men. Among these are 500 knights with three horses each, 500 squires with a horse each, and at least two dozen elephants. Black Balaq has 1 000 archers – a third crossbowmen, a third with recruve bows, and a third longbowmen, of which 50 have goldenheart bows and the rest use yew longbows. It is unlikely the company maintained this composition throughout; mercenary companies often changed numbers and organization significantly.
Being a mercenary company, Golden Company has some similarities with the Ten Thousand: an assortment of Greek warriors contracted by Cyrus the Younger to help oust his brother King Artaxerxes II from the Persian throne. Ten Thousand more than held their own in the battle, but Cyrus was killed in battle, and mercenaries’ generals were murdered while trying to negotiate a retreat. The company however held together, and managed to escape to Greece after a gruelling nine-month trips, losing only a quarter of their total manpower despite constant attacks.
The White Company was one of most infamous free companies – mercenary armies who conducted majority of warfare in 14th century Italy. Under Sir John Hawkwood, the White Company became known as one of most elite mercenary armies in Italy. Troops were a hodgepodge of English, Germans, Bretons and Hungarians, renowned for their skill with longbow and the lance, but also for surprise attacks and willingness to do battle in any sort of weather – even at night. In 1361., it had 3 500 cavalry and 2 000 infantry, and its commanders were elected. It often had its men-at-arms dismount, advancing at two per lance while longbowmen drew up behind. However, it also had good heavy cavalry: Battle of Castagnaro was won by a cavalry charge.
German Great Company was a group of mercenaries of German origin operating in the Italian peninsula during 14th century. At its height, Company numbered 10 000 – 12 000 men, mostly heavy cavalry. In 1353.-1354., Company had 10 000 fighting men and 20 000 camp followers. In 1359., Company reached strength of 20 000 men. In 1363. it was crushed by the White Company in Battle of Canturino and disbanded. Reason for defeat was defection of Hungarians who refused to fight their fellow countrymen in the White Company, and loss of Konrad von Landau; after those events, Great Company fled.
As a company in employ of constantly warring city-states, Golden Company also has general similarities to mercenaries of Italian city-states – among which was the aforementioned White Company. Overall, neither organization nor size of Golden Company are impossible, or even unrealistic – with the exception of usage of elephants, which on a medieval battlefield would have been laughed off.
Lastly, its reputation for always keeping their contract, discipline and professionalism is reminiscent of Swiss mercenaries.
Golden Company continues the trend of too few cavalry, and especially too few heavy cavalry, compared to real-life 15th century armies. As can be seen, even White Company had over 60% cavalry. Later professional armies had similar proportions: Black Army of Hungary had 70% cavalry (20 000 out of 28 000), while later Hungarian army in early 16th century had 60% cavalry, of which half was heavy cavalry. In contrast, Gold Company appears to have only 10% heavy cavalry.
Where it does have advantage over many other formations (such as Unsullied) is that it is an organic combined-arms outfit. The only other force seen to operate in a similar manner so far is Lannister army under Tywin, which deploys a segmented battle line of heavy infantry, cavalry and archers, thus showing a high degree of professionalism. Other Westerosi forces show much weaker coordination between cavalry and infantry, while in Essos, “combined-arms operations” appear to be nuclear rocket science, as descriptions of Unsullied, Dothraki, Sarnori etc show. Volantis does deploy 5 000 infantry and 1 000 cavalry, but it appears to be an exception. New Ghis and Yunkai both field all-infantry armies.
Elephants are a topic in and of itself. They were not very powerful battlefield weapon in Mediterranean: Romans wiped the floor with basically every single army with elephants they encountered except the very first one. In the end, elephants ended up a military failure, much like scythed chariots. Chinese similarly abandoned them. Against enemies unprepared for them however, elephants can be extremely powerful in battle: beyond physical impact of their huge mass, they would also use trunk to throw and rip apart enemies, and tusks to gore them, as well as carrying archers. They however require light infantry support so that any breaches elephants create in enemy lines can be exploited.
Problem here is that elephants are simply not very good against infantry. Typical counter against elephants was light infantry: javelinmen in historical context, but pikemen could also be effective (Alexander’s infantry withstood the charge of Porus’ elephants). In general, elephants only very rarely managed to smash through high quality heavy infantry: horse cavalry was actually rather more successful in this regard. What elephants can do is disorder the infantry line, making it vulnerable to their own infantry or cavalry. But their main usefulness is against horses: smell of elephants terrifies horses. Horses faced with elephants will – unless familiarized with them ahead of the time – simply refuse to advance.
Main importance of the fact that Golden Company uses elephants lies in three following facts: 1) elephants are a logistical nightmare, 2) they can be effective against unprepared cavalry and 3) they show the general state of warfare in Essos. First, logistics. In areas where they are native, elephants can be easily deployed as nature creates local supply of animals and fodder both. Each elephant requires 15 to 30 times the food as a war horse to sustain itself. And this is not all: a war horse requires a horse, a cavalryman, and maybe a servant (typically to help with horse barding – in light cavalry, rider often took care of the horse himself). A single elephant requires crew of four (driver plus three archers), some eight escorting infantry, and dozens of well-trained specialists. Thus 24 elephants in Golden Company would require close to a thousand supporting personnel by themselves. And while horse requires four years to reach maturity, elephant requires seventeen, and a new calf can only be had once every six to seven years, and in any case successful breeding program for elephants in captivity was never created.
What this means is that Golden Company must have extremely well developed logistical apparatus to even consider fielding these beasts. It also means that it must have been facing enemies were 24 elephants would make more sense than between 350 and 800 cavalry which could have been fielded instead. This does not speak well about Essosi militaries in general, casting in doubt true value of troops which gained fame by beating other Essosi armies (e.g. Unsullied, Dothraki). Fact is that elephants are relatively easily countered by light infantry, but only if infantry is trained and prepared for anti-elephant tactics.
In Westeros however elephants are likely to be very useful simply due to their novelty: Westeros never faced elephants before and thus will not have developed tactics to make them obsolete. Elephants in Westeros are likely to be used to break up cavalry charge: in this they can be useful due to their effect on horses. Even against professional armies versed in anti-elephant tactics, such as Roman or Macedonian (Antigonid, Seleucid etc.) armies, elephants were still used to disperse enemy cavalry force. Something similar has already happened in A Storm of Swords: “The giants were climbing onto their mammoths, though, and the knights on their barded horses did not like that at all; he could see how the coursers and destriers screamed and scattered at the sight of those lumbering mountains. (…) The mammoths had shattered the center column, but the other two were closing like pincers.”.
Elephants are also useful propaganda symbol. Precisely the difficulty of obtaining and maintaining an elephant corps – outlined above – also means that very few armies would be able to field corps of elephants. And this in turn means that those which do field them would automatically gain status. But this argument makes sense for kings and states; it hardly explains why Golden Company would field elephants, unless they proved effective against horse-based nomads such as Dothraki.
As noted, company has 500 knights with three horses each, 500 squires with a horse each, two dozen elephants and 1 000 archers. If elephant crews are not counted in combat strength, this would leave 8 000 pikemen. If they are, number of pikemen drops to 7 000, but this is unlikely considering how inconsiderate George Martin tends to be of logistical requirements; thus number of 8 000 will be assumed.
Golden Company is probably the best military force seen in the series relative to number of people employed. While some armies in the series would defeat it through sheer weight of numbers, very few – or rather, only the Lannister army – can be said to be capable of matching it in the field on a 1-for-1 basis. In this case, Lannister army might actually have advantage due to larger proportion of heavy cavalry, though that would likely be neutralized by Golden Company’s elephants.
Golden Company’s main disadvantage is its lack of archers and cavalry. With thousand of each, Golden Company has much lower proportion than other armies: around 10% are cavalry and 10% archers. Tywin’s army as described in A Game of Thrones (and analyzed in my upcoming post about professionalism of Westerosi armies) has around 50% cavalry, though if only professional troops are counted, proportion of cavalry drops to 40%. This is much more typical of actual 15th century armies (Hungarian army was generally between 50% and 70% cavalry), where Golden Company – like other Essosi armies – generally follows pattern of armies of antiquity. In fact, Hannibal had 20 000 infantry and 4 000 cavalry when he invaded Italy, which is very similar proportion (though twice overall numbers) to Golden Company. Lack of cavalry – heavy cavalry in particular – means that Golden Company would likely get smashed in open field by a similarly-sized Westerosi force. Thus, much like ancient armies, we may see Golden Company fill its ranks with Westerosi auxilliaries.
Main advantage of Golden Company is its professionalism and combined-arms approach. While Westerosi armies are both professional and capable of combined-arms warfare, they are disadvantaged due to knightly culture and general feudal setup. As a result, it is likely that neither intelligence gathering nor infantry receive attention they should: we never hear of dedicated intelligence-gathering apparatus in Westerosi armies, whereas Golden Company has a spymaster at least. Likewise, Westerosi armies seem to have only rudamentary camp security – though they usually do have pallisades at least. Golden Company, by contrast, makes camp which by description appears most similar to Roman or Byzantine marching camp: highly ordered and heavily fortified, and thus much more defensible than average medieval camp.