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A Military Officer Reveals the History Behind Game of Thrones Battle Tactics

A Military Officer Reveals the History Behind Game of Thrones Battle Tactics

Game of Thrones has taken from legal history (Tyrion’s trial by combat) and medical history (Ser Robert Strong is the reanimated corpse of Ser Gregor Clegane). In episode “Battle of the Bastards”—the fight between the armies of the Starks and the Boltons—we got to see writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff showing off their military history. 

Specifically: the part where the Boltons completely surrounded the Starks with their shields.

In the series, we’ve seen shields (and armor and weapons) aplenty. But it wasn’t until the episode “Battle of the Bastards” that we saw a scutum, a long, heavy shield used by the Romans. The Boltons used these scutums to surround the Stark forces and crush them within.

According to Paul Meagher, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps., the maneuver used by the Bolton forces is “a variation on a double envelopment used by Hannibal in the battle of Cannae…in the Second Punic War.”

However, in the Battle of Cannae, the Romans, 85,000 of them, were the losers. The Carthaginians, led by Hannibal, had only 60,000 troops. “Hannibal’s brilliance was to pull off a double envelopment with a smaller force,” said Meagher.

Battle_of_Cannae,_215_BC_-_Initial_Roman_attack

Meagher explained why the double envelopment is so effective. “Since the outside circle will always have more surface area than an inside circle, it can always present more spears and is very difficult to break out.

“The shield wall and spears was a neat combination of the Anglo Saxon shield wall, and the Alexandrian Hellenistic phalanx. Alexander pioneered using much longer spears in his phalanx than his opponent, to gain stand-off distance and inflict casualties earlier.”

In the episode, the scutums were used offensively as well as defensively. The Bolton soldiers, who had surrounded the Starks, moved slowly inward with their shields pointed—killing the Starks literally by inches.

There’s an historical precedence for that too: According to Meagher, “That actually happened in Cannae. The Romans were packed in so tightly that some legions were crushed to death…. It took hours to kill all the trapped Romans.”

Meagher said, “To ‘pull off a Cannae’ is every tactician’s dream.” And now, thanks to episode “Battle of the Bastards,” it’s every Game of Thrones fans nightmare.

Other interesting points to the battle:

– Jon Snow almost died in an inglorious but realistic way: He was almost crushed to death. During the fray, the Wildings saw a potential route of escape over a pile of bodies. Jon was knocked over and stepped on by his comrades. According to a Virginia Commonwealth University report from 2010, 21 percent of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were “non-hostile.”

– The potential escape over the bodies that the Thormund saw and tried to take advantage of? That was quite possibly a Bolton trap. According to Wikipedia, in The Art of War, “[Sun Tzu] argued that it was best to allow the enemy a path to escape (or at least the appearance of one), as the target army would fight with more ferocity when completely surrounded, but it would lose formation and be more vulnerable to destruction if shown an avenue of escape.”

– Ramsay Bolton had archers volley their arrows in the middle of the battle. Surely that would kill some of his own forces—which is why Davos had the Stark archers keep their arrows knocked. Bad move, Ramsay, to show your army that you don’t care for their lives. (Note: I can’t find a precedent for it. Readers, let me know if you do.)

– Jon Snow, head of the Stark army, told Thormund, “We’re digging trenches along our flanks so they won’t be able to hit us the way Stannis hit [the Wildlings]…. They won’t be able to hit us from the sides.” I didn’t see any evidence of trenches. They must have been too expensive to film.

– Of course, Davos warned Jon, “It’s crucial that we let them charge at us.” But in fear for his little brother Rickon, who Ramsay set loose on the battlefield, Jon lost his head, Rickon lost his life, and the Starks almost lost the battle, were it not for the Arryn forces that came to the rescue.

Oh, Jon. Sansa is a better commander than you.

Image Credit: The United States Military Academy.

Featured Image Credit: HBO.

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