The 9th episode of the 6th season of Game of Thrones spent most of its runtime on the eponymous battle between the bastards, Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton. The episode itself was very entertaining, but I could not keep my inner tactician from frowning at some of the tactics displayed. I don’t necessarily mean mistakes made by the characters (which is part of those characters’ flaws and thus intentional in the writing and perfectly fine), but rather an example of medieval warfare not being understood at all. So, for fun (because that’s the kind of person I am), I decided to analyse both Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton as commanders, the development and outcome of the battle from the view point of a 12th century general (a mindset I often occupy anyway).
Disclaimer: Yes, I understand the episode chose to focus on visuals and narrative to create an engaging episode rather than shackle itself to historical accuracy (as much as a fantasy show can be historically accurate anyway). Similarly, I am choosing to analyse the episode to write an engaging post rather than shackle myself to being reasonable.
Let us line up the battlefield. Bolton has superior forces in both infantry and cavalry, which certainly gives him an advantage; however, morale, discipline and terrain can make up for that. While Snow’s Free Folk forces may not exactly be disciplined, their morale should be decent (they got a giant on their side, for one). Furthermore, Snow and his adjutants have arranged the terrain to defend themselves against being flanked by Bolton’s cavalry, which is a good start and should even out the odds.
Bolton in his base cunning proves superior at games of manipulation, however. Using Rickon as bait to infuriate Snow, he manages to make Snow commit several mistakes. First of all, he gets Snow to charge ahead on his own (a commander should always be surrounded by his guards, since his death in battle would demoralise his men deeply, but considering Snow went into battle wearing leather rather than steel, his choices do seem questionable in general). This forces Snow’s adjutant, Davos Seaworth, to make a tough call; let Snow die with demoralising consequences or give up the advantageous position by charging forward. Seaworth chooses the second, meaning that without losing a single soldier, Bolton takes away the advantage of terrain from Snow’s forces.
The impetuous charge by Snow’s forces reveals a few other key weaknesses. First of all, cavalry should never charge the enemy lines head-on; they are too easily stopped by infantry with spears ready and waiting for them. This is why cavalry is always used to outflank the enemy, attacking their infantry in the sides or the rear. In Snow’s case, when you are under threat from this because the enemy has superior cavalry numbers, you should keep your own horsemen back. This will let them respond to the movements of the enemy cavalry, reacting and protecting your army from being outflanked. Having cavalry and infantry attack in a haphazard mix as we saw in this episode removes the shock effect that a disciplined attack by riders would have, and it also means your infantry’s lines are completely disrupted and they cannot fight shoulder to shoulder – terrible news when you are already outnumbered.
Typically, a commander will always remain outside the actual fray to continue leading his troops, directing reserves where needed etc. Snow’s remaining advantage is that he has a second-in-command in Seaworth, ensuring that his forces remains under leadership even as he himself is embroiled in battle. Bolton, showing again tactical acumen, keeps himself back from battle to continue directing his forces.
His next move, having his archers shoot into the mass of fighting infantry might not have been smart; soldiers tend to dislike it when their commander shows a callous disregard for their lives, negatively affecting morale.
Regardless, at this point in the battle, however, Snow’s poor decisions have caught up with him. His men are fighting disorderly (their only hope would have been to have remained in good fighting order, maintaining a strong line), and Bolton decides to engage his reserve troops. This is exactly the right decision; the enemy is on the verge of breaking, and the shock of fresh troops surging into the fight will undoubtedly cause many of them to flee, as also happens. Seaworth has done the same, his only remaining move, using his reserves to bolster the wavering Stark forces, but without the same effect.
Bolton’s men proves to be exceptionally disciplined; carrying out encircling movements with such precision and speed in the midst of battle would leave the Roman legions green with envy (in fact, probably only the Spartans ever had such disciplined troops that they could have accomplished something like this). Yet another mistake by Snow, however. While the Bolton forces are carrying out their movements, his soldiers should immediately have engaged, disrupting their formations. This is in fact the reason why complicated manoeuvres are never carried out once the battle has begun or even just when enemy forces are within striking distance.
A prime example of this is Scipio Africanus’ brilliant victory over Hasdrubal Gisgo at the battle of Ilipa in 206 BC. Scipio arranged his forces in a highly unorthodox manner, and when the Romans were finally close enough to the Carthaginian forces that Hasdrubal became aware, it was too late to react and shift his own forces around in response.
Having failed to take advantage of attacking while Bolton’s forces moved into position, and also having failed to reorder his own battle line, Snow has at this point all but lost the battle. The only reason he does not is the sudden appearance of new forces to the battlefield. Of course, if Sansa had just told Snow about the Vale army, they could have fought as a united force from the beginning and hundreds if not thousands of men fighting for the Starks would have survived the battle, but oh well. A mind for strategy clearly does not run in the Stark bloodline.