Battle Analysis: The Battle of Winterfell
Recently an army of the living cobbled together from Dothraki cavalry, Unsullied emancipated infantry, a variety of Westerosi warriors, and a pair of dragons (hereafter known as “Team Alive”) fought against a diverse array of animated corpses (hereafter known as “Team Dead”). Neither army had fought anything like the Battle of Winterfell before. Despite some significant errors, Team Alive carried the day.
Most armchair analysis of the battle thus far, particularly on social media, has concentrated on the mistakes made by Team Alive, to the exclusion both of a careful account of Team Dead’s errors and of an appreciation for why Team Alive made the decisions it did. Here, using expertise developed through study and instruction at the United States Army War College, we examine with care how Team Alive overcame cultural and organizational impediments to develop and carry out the plan that defeated Team Dead.
We should be clear here about Team Alive’s strategy; it needed to induce a fight in order to avoid the threat of a prolonged siege. With horses, dragons, and lots of infantry, Team Alive would consume food at a much greater rate than Team Dead, which, uniquely among fighting forces, wouldn’t consume food at all. Team Alive wanted to lure Team Dead into battle before the gates of Winterfell because it wanted to either destroy the Night King’s army or the Night King himself. This meant accepting battle under disadvantageous circumstances, including darkness.
Team Alive’s use of cavalry has received harsh criticism from analysts, in part because of the near-complete annihilation of the force within minutes of the beginning of the battle. Team Alive deserves some of this criticism, but the cavalry attack is best thought of as a low-odds gamble in a difficult situation than as an error in judgment.
The success of a cavalry attack against infantry requires either flanking (hitting a formation on its side while some other group “fixes” its front) or a shocking frontal assault that disrupts the formation. Both of these depend more on psychological than on physical factors. Fear of being attacked from two sides induces infantry to break and flee, just as fear of being overrun causes infantry to throw down their weapons and run. In either case, cavalry runs free and kills until the infantry can pull itself back together. But crucially, success depends on the ability of the cavalry to induce panic.
We also know from ancient and medieval sources that commanders struggled to keep even experienced cavalry under control. Once cavalry left sight range and hearing distance of a commander, it was effectively on its own and not manageable. Cavalry formations commonly abandoned the battlefield to pursue objectives distinct from those of their commanding officers. Even as recently at the Battle of Gettysburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee lost contact with his cavalry, leaving him blind in the fight against the Army of the Potomac.
Team Alive knew enough about Team Dead to guess that the Dothraki faced a kind of infantry that they had never encountered before; one without fear and thus invulnerable to shock and flanking. Moreover, in the dark, the Dothraki probably could not even identify the enemy flank. Although it’s not clear that Team Alive had a well-thought out plan for the cavalry charge, it may have believed that it could take advantage of the lack of discipline of Team Dead (which did not fight in tight phalanxes or with standardized weapons) in order to reach and attack the “middle management” of White Walkers. Alexander the Great employed a variant of this strategy at the Battle of Gaugamela.
While all of this makes theoretical sense, it also runs counter to decades of Dothraki fighting experience. When Dothraki fought undisciplined infantry, that infantry broke and ran. When Dothraki fought disciplined infantry (the Unsullied, for example), the infantry took casualties but could retreat and maintain integrity and mobility. At the Battle of Winterfell, Team Dead’s infantry simply absorbed the greater part of the Dothraki cavalry without breaking and running. This left the cavalry immobile and largely defenseless against attacks from every side. The Dothraki likely did not envision their attack as a suicide charge, but they had limited tools with which to judge the effectiveness of Team Dead.
None of this makes the cavalry charge a good idea. But the mistake was made in the days before the Battle of Winterfell, not in the minutes before the charge. The best employment of the Dothraki would have come as long range scouts and skirmishers in the days before the battle. Even then, however, their utility was limited; cavalry often succeeds by disrupting supply lines and ambushing foraging parties, and Team Dead needed neither of these. And in any case, unless Team Alive spared a dragon for air support, any accumulation of Dothraki would have been vulnerable to Viserion. If the Dothraki had not charged, they would have found themselves pinned against the infantry, their mobility lost. If they had moved right or left in search of Team Dead’s flanks, they would have run the risk of being flanked themselves (Team Dead also had cavalry, and its infantry was fast and fearless) or destroyed by Viserion and the Night King.
As with cavalry, the infantry of the living has little experience fighting an army of the dead. While they could expect that Team Dead wouldn’t lose morale in the face of heavy losses, the effectiveness of the Unsullied against the wights remained uncertain. It was not wholly unreasonable to think that the world’s most disciplined infantry might hold Team Dead for long enough for either the cavalry (had it survived) or the dragons to have a substantial impact. It didn’t work out, but the Unsullied were disciplined enough to hold together and cover the retreat of much of Team Alive. As it was, Team Dead simply overran the advance ranks of Team Alive’s infantry without bothering overmuch about flanking maneuvers.
Team Alive’s use of artillery was just plain bad. It deployed a series of catapults and trebuchets between the cavalry and the infantry, and used them in a preparatory barrage immediately prior to the cavalry charge. The idea of hitting Team Dead just before the charge might make sense with the destructive power of World War I artillery, but trebuchets and catapults simply couldn’t supply sufficient firepower to put a dent in dismounted infantry in a pre-modern context. And after the cavalry charge failed, the artillery quickly fell victim to Team Dead’s infantry assault. A better strategy would have placed the artillery behind the infantry, or better yet inside the walls of Winterfell, where it could have continued firing for a much longer duration.
Dragons represented the biggest advantage of Team Alive. Commanders Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow rode Drogon and Rhaegal, respectively, and had a two-to-one numerical advantage over Team Dead. However, as with much historical air combat, Team Alive could not simply force a favorable engagement against Team Dead; the Night King could either avoid combat entirely or could rely on his army’s proven anti-air defenses. Indeed, every decision to use dragon fire to support the infantry was fraught with peril, as it represented a potential opportunity for ambush by either the Night King or his White Walkers.
Team Alive’s greatest moment of jeopardy may have come early, as Jon Snow considered using Rhaegal to strafe a line of mounted White Walkers. Each of those Walkers carried an ice spear that posed a mortal threat to Rhaegal, and a trade would have gone very badly for Team Alive. Fortunately, the Night King made the error of conjuring a storm at precisely that moment, dissuading Snow from making the attack and obscuring Team Alive’s dragons from ground fire.
Nevertheless, Team Alive’s strategy for using dragons worked, despite the snowstorm conjured by Team Dead. The Night King failed to successfully isolate and ambush Drogon and Rhaegal, and eventually found himself forcibly dismounted by the combined efforts of Team Alive’s dragon riders. Had Daenerys Targaryen simply instructed Drogon to land near the Night King and either tear him to pieces or hold him until Jon Snow arrived with Valyrian steel, the battle might have ended much sooner.
Team Alive used a layered system of fortification designed to provide breathing room for the defenders in case of defeat in the field. The first layers were sets of wooden obstacles, backstopped by a flaming trench. The second layer was the walls of Winterfell itself; the third, a variety of obstacles within the castle. The final redoubt lay in the crypts, which could only be attacked through a single, easily defensible door (until, that is, the ancestors of the Starks rose to the Night King’s summons).
None of this was a bad idea, and the concept was certainly better thought out than a simple retreat to the walls. When the moment came, Team Dead used its fearless, disposable soldiers to create multiple routes for scaling the walls. Team Alive would have anticipated this, which is probably one reason it didn’t waste excessive efforts against protecting from breaches. Team Alive lacked the infrastructure for producing wildfire, which was of limited utility in a battle against infantry in any case. Boiling oil might have made the wights more irritable but probably would not have slowed their advance. Moreover, Team Alive was aware of the presence of giants on Team Dead and had experience of giants breaking through well-fortified doors (both at Castle Black and at Winterfell).
Team Alive would have been well-advised to develop multiple defensible redoubts within Winterfell that would have been difficult to scale or breach. And someone probably should have taken note of the fact that the crypts contained dead people.
Team Alive had a Faceless Man, an assassin trained on the other side of the Narrow Sea. While Team Alive lacked a clear plan for how to bring the Faceless Man (or woman, in this case) together with the principals of Team Dead, the mere presence of such a killer offered an obvious, and in this case decisive, advantage for Team Alive. The Faceless Men were founded millennia after the last conflict between the living and the dead, meaning that Team Dead would have only a limited knowledge of their existence and capabilities.
Team Dead entered the battle with a huge numerical advantage, an army consisting of soldiers with no fear of death, an undead dragon, and no logistical footprint. Team Dead sought the complete destruction of Team Alive but focused specifically on the dragons Drogon and Rhaegal, and on the “three-eyed crow,” a … well, it remains unclear, but it was important to Team Dead.
Team Dead’s use of infantry was unimaginative but effective. The army of wights kept Team Alive’s cavalry away from the commanders (White Walkers) and employed shock tactics to disrupt Team Alive’s infantry squares. When necessary, wights sacrificed themselves to provide bridging and climbing positions for their brethren, effectively operating as animate siege engines. In operational terms, Team Dead could advance rapidly because its soldiers required no rest, cutting down on the prep time available to Team Alive. In short, the infantry branch of Team Dead did as well as could be reasonably expected.
Anti-dragon missiles represented one of Team Dead’s asymmetric advantages. The Night King had used such a missile to down Viserion, and many of the other White Walkers carried them. Used properly, these would have provided a deterrent against dragon attacks, as well as an opportunity to create a trap that could down one or more dragons. These missiles made Team Alive’s decision to use dragons in a ground support role extremely dangerous, especially without good intelligence about the disposition of the Walkers. In the event, the snowstorm made it difficult for Team Alive to even take note of the weapons, and Team Dead squandered one of its biggest advantages.
The Night King has two tricks up his sleeve, one to prep the battlefield and the other to clean it up. The first is to conjure a snowstorm, which reduces visibility and makes it difficult for Drogon and Rhaegal to work as a team. As noted above, however, this seems to have the unfortunate effect of also reducing the Night King’s visibility, as he struggles to intercept either of the living dragons in an advantageous situation and can never bring those dragons under fire from his own anti-dragon spearmen.
The Night King’s other trick, reanimating the dead, came in handy after Daenerys knocked him off Viserion late in the battle. Immune to Drogon’s fire, the Night King was clearly not immune to the Valyrian steel of Jon Snow’s sword. His reanimation trick created additional infantry, sparing him the trouble of melee combat with Jon Snow and creating a variety of problems for Team Alive.
The Night King had one dragon to Team Alive’s two. Undead Viserion was instrumental to breaking through the Wall and was a useful-if-not-critical asset at the Battle of Winterfell. But having a dragon means that you can lose a dragon, and Viserion became a focus for Team Alive early in the fight.
The Night King could solve his tactical problem in two ways. First, he could isolate Drogon or Rhaegal and bring one down by ambush before the other could come up in support. It’s not clear whether a living dragon is tougher than a dead dragon, or whether it has better sensory organs. The Night King’s aerial ambush of Drogon and Rhaegal went badly, as Viserion quickly lost momentum after a straight vertical attack, leaving Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen with improved situational awareness and an altitude advantage. The brief fight between Rhaegal and Viserion was inconclusive before Drogon arrived to tip the balance.
Second, the Night King could have used himself as bait to draw Drogon or Rhaegal into a “kill box” of White Walkers carrying ice spears. Pilots of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force regularly used such tactics to lure American fighters into the range of anti-aircraft artillery. Team Dead had a much better sense of the disposition of its forces on the battlefield, making this an obvious maneuver. Whether because of a failure of planning or of execution, the Night King did not spring this trap.
Team Dead entered this battle with massive advantages in every category other than cavalry and dragons. It destroyed Team Alive’s cavalry and the bulk of its infantry in short order, and also reduced the formidable fortification of Winterfell. Team Dead nevertheless made mistakes, failing to develop a coherent plan for defeating Team Alive’s dragons and failing to anticipate the lethality of Team Alive’s special operators. The inexperience of Team Alive in waging battle against the dead was palpable, but Team Dead also lacked experience fighting a battle of this scale against a multifaceted force of the living. Unfortunately, the “lessons learned” department of Team Dead likely crumbled to dust shortly after the Night King.
The views expressed here are the personal views of Farley and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the Army War College on the Battle of Winterfell.