As a historian, I am both intrigued by the ways that battles play out in Game of Thrones and excited for the show to get back to politics -- and to Cersei (Lena Headey), my queen (sorry, Senator Warren). I had high hopes going into Sunday's "Battle of Winterfell," not necessarily that the living would win, but that they might do our species justice when it comes to siege warfare -- something that, for better or worse, humanity has spent a lot of time perfecting. Unfortunately, the army of the living not only failed at basic battle strategy, but they completely forgot to tailor their plan to take into account the Night King's unique abilities.
Given how the Night King can turn any corpse into a wight, Jon (Kit Harington) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) should have first realized that they couldn't afford casualties. Every hero who died would only add to the enemy's strength. This is a huge advantage for the Night King, and why prisoners of war are so important in premodern armies -- you usually just turn them into your own soldiers, reaping a double benefit. None of the living want to be the Night King's federate troops, and so they needed to prioritize avoiding casualties. This is especially true because they didn't know the size of the Night King's army going into the battle. If it was functionally infinite, then there's really nothing they could have done -- the Night King could just send wave after wave of wights at Winterfell until they buried the living (much like how he sacrificed many of them to create a bridge over the fire trench). But let's assume for the sake of this discussion that the army of the dead was finite and a somewhat reasonable number, say, 80,000. (That's what the British had at Waterloo, and the Romans at Cannae.) If the living then sacrificed their army -- 20,000, like the French at Agincourt, perhaps? -- they dramatically would augment their enemy's strength. So casualties should have been avoided at all costs.
Luckily, the Winterfell defenders had a fortified castle and many catapults, which should have helped in avoiding casualties because it would allow them to engage the enemy without having to expose their own troops to harm. But rather than take full advantage of this benefit, Jon and Daenerys squandered this opportunity.
The defenses of Winterfell should have been set up something like this: Plains -- spiked things -- fire ditch -- spiked things - catapults -- wall - archers - spearmen. That way, the dead would have had to cross an open plain where the army of the living's artillery could have blanketed them with projectiles of one sort or another -- hopefully flaming ones. The catapults needed to have been set up on the defensible side of the fire barrier, and they needed to shoot many times to make up for the investment in skilled labor, treasure, and wood.
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The combination of wall, ditch with fire, and more barriers -- all before you get to the artillery -- would have also slowed down the mass of wights. The Winterfell soldiers should have then shot arrows at the Night King's army from the walls, from archers stationed there who have practiced shots from different posts. (Several times during the episode someone shouted something to the extent of "man the walls!" or "put the archers in the towers"-- but what were their archers doing if not manning the wall?) This external line of defense would be easily defended, and few troops would have been stationed outside the walls -- mostly artillerymen, with some Unsullied sprinkled throughout. Because of this, the Winterfell soldiers' retreat, if and when it came, could be covered by the archers on the parapets and accomplished by small postern gates rather than the main entrance to the castle, which should absolutely never be opened during a battle.
All of this would only delay the inevitable, however, and at a certain point the living would still have to prepare for an attack on the walls. Attacks on fortification walls are dangerous and generally only successful when following a long siege and the construction of massive siegeworks. The dead, who seem to exhibit exemplary persistence, are probably better at storming the walls than anyone this side of a Roman legionary, but there's a reason frontal assaults are rare: they are incredibly difficult.
In hand-to-hand combat, numbers are only as important as frontage (an infinite number of back rankers can do little more than push), and so outnumbered forces need choke points. As is clear in the "Battle of Winterfell," the walls were a choke point. Each crenellation turns the contest into a one-on-one battle, which negates the besieger's advantage in numbers entirely. In the episode, in fact, most of the time when the dead got over the wall it's through an unguarded crenel; one wonders whether the heavily-armored and highly-skilled Unsullied might have acquitted themselves well here, two to each opening, with one on hand to swap out if the other got tired. Eventually numbers would win, but with a casualty-minimizing and capital-intensive defensive strategy the castle could have been held for a much longer time and the attack could have been stalled, buying Arya (Maisie Williams) more time to make it to the Godswood.
Had they followed this strategy, when the army of the dead was trapped outside the walls of Winterfell, the small frontage of the walls negating any advantage in numbers, the dragons could have struck. They are simply devastating weapons against the dead, and accomplish the double benefit of both destroying wights and burning bodies. This minimizes the number of corpses the Night King could add to his arsenal and essentially turns the army of the dead into something more closely resembling a normal army.
In this situation, a continued stalemate would result in the eventual victory of the army of the living, because in not too long of a time the wights could be completely incinerated by the dragons. If we imagine even a few hundred being burned per pass, then for all 80,000 it might take something like a hundred bursts of dragonfire to eliminate them as a threat. That might take all night, but it wouldn't take all week.
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Turning the dragons on the wights would have forced the hand of the White Walkers, who would need to change the tactical balance in order to break up the stalemate. They would be forced to commit their tactical reserve -- in this case, themselves. The White Walkers demonstrated a pretty admirable caution by not exposing themselves to harm during the battle. This, in fact, was a relatively late phenomenon in the history of warfare, and someone like Julius Caesar would still occasionally charge into battle at the head of his troops. The White Walkers are better tacticians, it seems, but as far as we know they are also the only ones not susceptible to dragonfire and so they would need to come out and counter the dragons to prevent their army from being completely destroyed. This is when the speed of the Dothraki would have come in, and our riders -- who never should have been wasted right at the beginning of the battle -- could come in on fresh horses, ready to avenge the deaths of their comrades and truly shine.
In a better tactical plan than the one Jon and Dany orchestrated, the speed and maneuverability of the Dothraki could have been put to use in service of the only hope of winning the battle: killing White Walkers. The keys to the Dothraki are their mobility; they have a tactical advantage because they can choose when and where to engage the enemy. This is strategically important, but hard to take advantage of tactically in a siege -- perhaps why Jon and Dany were so willing to send them to obvious slaughter. But in the wake of dragonfire and in small bands outside the walls of Winterfell, these riders could have chosen their own engagements. They could essentially go hunting for White Walkers, taking out whole companies of enemy troops each time they are successful.
The striking power of cavalry has been used to cut the head off an enemy army many times. At Gaugamela in 331 BCE, well-disciplined Greek pikemen disrupted mass Persian formations, pining them down awkwardly, until a young Alexander and Companion Cavalry could strike at the Persian Immortals and rout the King of Kings, winning the battle. Everything we've seen in this show suggests that the Dothraki are much better cavalry even that Alexander's companions, and I'm sure that while the enemy army spent itself against the walls, these riders, armed (we'd hope) with recurved bows and dragonglass arrows, could have struck down any White Walkers who entered the fray. But alas, they were sent to their untimely doom, charging straight into an unknown enemy, something that never once in the history of steppes nomads was ever done. Even for a Khalesei.
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All of this, of course, is predicated on the idea that the Night King was going to attack Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), which may be the only mistake more glaringly obvious than putting people in the crypts for protection. As Sansa (Sophie Turner) mentioned in the season premiere, Winterfell didn't have the resources to feed their troops for an extended period of time. Yet the Night King saw little use in a siege of months, or even the weeks, it would take to starve out Winterfell's defenders. It's not like his dead would have had to worry about dysentery in their camps. The Night King should never have attacked anyone personally. He should have waited. He should have sent, if he had them, endless wights until his enemies were either wiped out or drastically depleted before exposing himself.
But he also must have known that he was the key to it all. The Night King can seemingly have no successor. The empire, as it were, dies with him. So he should have been extremely careful. It seems as though the Night King's hubris was his ultimate downfall, because you would think that someone who's been waiting 8,000 years to put their plan in action would have the patience for a six-week siege. It's not like Bran was working on a time-sensitive spell that the Night King needed to stop that night. But, if we've learned anything from history, it's that sometimes one bad decision change the fate of the world.
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Other Links From TVGuide.com Game of ThronesEmilia ClarkeSophie TurnerNikolaj Coster-WaldauPeter DinklageIsaac Hempstead-WrightKristofer HivjuKit HaringtonMaisie Williams