60

The whole point of building a castle is that it is an excellent defensive stronghold: the attackers need to climb walls, and the defenders have the high ground and can defend very efficiently using archers, oil, etc.

So what is the reason why the army of the living lined up just outside Winterfell in S08E03, rather than staying put inside the walls and fight as defenders in a siege? It would seem a strategically superior strategy, especially since they knew that the Night King had reasons to attack Bran specifically.

  • 25
    An army that size wouldn't fit inside Winterfell. – Paulie_D Apr 29 at 22:40
  • 7
    by the same logic, the logical way to attack from the side of Night King would be a siege. Too much army for too few food, so with a litle patience, army would be decimated before an attack – Kepotx Apr 29 at 22:40
  • 9
    @Paulie_D that dosn't mean you should put everyone outside the castle. Man on top of wall are way more valuable than in the open field. put the maximum on the walls, keep the others as reserve. – Kepotx Apr 29 at 22:42
  • 5
    @Kepotx The best way for the White Walkers to attack is the way they do. Ultimately they can just raise their numbers, as long as the battle is won they will have a larger Army then what they had before. A siege, would lead to a White Walker victory as well, but the reality is the army is made up of disposable troops that can be brought back or easily replaced. – McFuu Apr 30 at 3:49
  • 5
    White walkers are not common enemy, 50 of them where able to break wall and medieval gate when chasing Arya. With this overpower army, I guess they idea was to distract the enemy by using dumb strategy and have a glrious death. Even with a perfect castle, and good tactic. The only thing they could hope for is a miracle an nothing less. I guess using bad strategy is a way to invite your ennemy to not use good strategy against you. And let some room for a miracle to happend. – xdtTransform Apr 30 at 9:24
96

There are a couple of ways you can look at this, both from an in story explanation, as well as a real world application.

In story the purpose of the siege was to bait the Night King into entering the field of battle so ultimately the dragons could kill him. Bran was used as bait because the Night King has a ridiculous need to kill him (if someone can explain, why exactly the NK needs to kill Bran, please do). Basically the way the battle played out more or less worked as planned.

Now there are a number of issues here with doctrine in a fight (how battles are actually fought in this equivalent time period), and the Strategy and Tactics taken. Just a quick aside Strategy is a long term goal, like a campaign strategy and why some battles need to be fought, and tactics are short term, move this unit here for this reason. Example being, a tactic is to order a tank division to hold a bridge, the strategy being forcing the enemy to move forces from the east to the west because of less ways to traverse a feature, in this instance the river.

This is going to get really long... so I'm just going to do a quick dirty on what the defenders did wrong and how they wouldn't really make those mistakes if they were suited to leading men in battle, and an explanation on how it would be done, both with knowing and not knowing the enemy.

What was done wrong:

Dothraki Leading the Charge: The defenders don't know the abilities of the White Walkers in open battle, while the thinking here is that the Dothraki are probably the best units in the entire series, and definitely the best on open fields, they are incredibly poorly suited to the role of running down an advancing army. The Dothraki often use speed and violence of action, charging into ill-prepared Armys and terrifying them off the field quickly. The White Walkers aren't people, and most of the planners of the battle knew this, this was a major blunder. Also the Dothraki cut through lines, if they are facing an attacking army, there is no line to cut through and get to the other side. These guys are loosely based on Mongolian Horse back warriors. I say loosely because they completely forgot that it's not the Mongol sword that won them the largest land empire in history, it's the Mongol composite bow. But the main Mongol tactic was to trick the enemy into thinking their numbers were smaller, drawing advancing enemies into thinking their lines were breaking, and then as the enemies advanced into being surrounded the Mongols would shoot them with arrows until they died. Near the ends of battles the Mongols often left breaks in their encirclement, letting the enemy think they had a way to escape, and then they would run them down and butcher them as they were tired. Be like the Mongols, not the Dothraki. Dothraki operated ultimately on fear, useless against White Walkers.

The Defenders never ranged their "Artillery": The trebuchet and catapult were never ranged, and THEY ONLY FIRED THEM ONCE. Oh, and they placed them essentially on the front lines, near the castle walls/inside the walls/behind Winterfell all would have been better positions. They would have been ranged and they would have known exactly how to fire each one to hit exact positions, so they could have been used in the midst of fighting.

Combining troop types on the same line with same conditions: This sounds odd to you, but the Unsullied holding the left and the Northmen holding the right is ultimately stupid. The Unsullied are the best for holding a defensive position, they should have held the line and immediate flanks. The Northmen operate more as skirmishers, heavy unmounted knights. They would be best used to fill gaps, cover the extreme flanks, etc... They'd have no issue continuing a line, but wouldn't be able to stop an advance. Also these would be the first troops you want back in your castle during a retreat. Holding a wall doesn't require a shield, the wall is your shield.

Where are the Archers: Why aren't mass quantities of arrows being poured into this completely unarmored Army?

Why do the walls not getting defended after the field fell?: This goes along with how poorly Winterfel is designed. Number one men should be on the walls to repel climbers, archers should be in the towers to provide fire on opposing walls. Yes opposing walls they should know that star shaped fortification have been en vogue forever, so defenders don't have to expose themselves to fire down their walls, they simply fire on the walls across from them they can see. Winterfel doesn't have this, because siege warfare isn't a thing in Westeros I suppose. No Oil to pour on hapless White Walkers, no murder hatches... If you are interested, just research what goes in to attacking a fortified structure, and the defenses thought of through the years. That's why siege's are usually done in a waiting for a year outside your walls manner.

And the biggest sin: Why is there no plan for fall back points and defenses? Real defenses have fall back points, and contingency fall back points. Castles have Keeps, even if the castle walls fall, Keeps can be sealed essentially tight and are extremely difficult to get into. There are stories in history of sections of walled cities and castles falling, while other sections are still held, it's that difficult to get from one area to another. This was never done by the Defenders.

How this would have played out: In the days leading up to the battle, skirmishing parties of militia men, recon, wildlings would have been sent out to engage and harass the enemy to slow their advance and determine how they are ultimately going to fight. The people I mentioned are ultimately easily expendable because they don't really fit a mold of the type of troop needed to defend a castle. Considering they wouldn't have learned the white walkers abilities until days before battle, the outer defenses created would still likely be the same, but they need to be bigger and more pronounced. The trench dug would be deeper with more wood and more designed to stop a rush. The artillery would have been placed in the yard and near the wall and ranged. The unsullied would have been used to hold the whole line with the Northmen on the flanks and as reserve. AFTER the white walker charge had been halted you would use your cavalry Dothraki to crash into their flanks endlessly, in and out. They would attack enough to keep them from gaining forward momentum and thin them out, but no enough that they would and change angle of attack. When the field lines broke and retreating within the walls was needed, the Northmen would go first, the Dothraki would be told to break off and constantly attack at the rear of the White walkers, basically run around and pillage the country side, but pillage for enemies obviously. Once inside the walls the Northmen would be on the walls to repel climbers, while the remaining unsullied would be at strategic hardpoints, the main entrance, travel ways between different parts of the castle, anywhere a line needs to be held. Ultimately the plan would be to continual funnel the white walkers into pinch points, since the white walkers are useless at actually siegeing.

  • 4
    Good points, but I'd argue that there were archers pouring arrows onto the enemy (from the battlements, mainly), but they only had a few days to manufacture effective arrows, so had a limited supply, which is where there couldn't be the hail of arrows blotting out the sky. – Yann Apr 30 at 8:01
  • 6
    if someone can explain, why exactly the NK needs to kill Bran, please do because as was said in the previous episode, with Bran being the three eyed raven he is effectively a portal in to the past that is far more reliable than any written account. It would appear the night king wants to erase everything not just in the present but the knowledge of the past also. Where best to start than with the one individual who can recount knowledge of the past at a whim? – Trotski94 Apr 30 at 8:23
  • 35
    @JamesTrotter, Yes, but specifically why did the NK have to do it? Any individual minion could stab Bran. It was a cheap excuse to have the BBEG expose himself, at the cost of common sense. – Fifth_H0r5eman Apr 30 at 8:49
  • 20
    Mostly correct, but I'd point out that star fortresses with bastions are a post-gunpowder invention, with the idea of designing a new castle from scratch. Winterfell is modelled on pre-gunpowder castles such as the Tower of London, Caernafon or Winchester. Not only did the concept of star fortresses not exist, but most families couldn't afford to do more than build extensions on the castle they already had. Perhaps the Lannisters could (except they actually couldn't...) but not minor nobility in a poor region which doesn't raise much tax. – Graham Apr 30 at 10:24
  • 10
    I'd also question their deployment of their most devastating weapon, the dragons. Why didn't the dragons just incinerate the first lines of the dead instead of pointlessly throwing away the Dothraki? Why, when the dead used their own bodies to cross a line of fire (which why didn't the dragons start in the first place), didn't the dragons patch the gaps with their own fire? – Matt Burland Apr 30 at 15:35
18

**

Because their strategy is not a defensive one.

**

At the battle of Winterfell, the combatants primary objectives are:

Night King
Kill Bran Stark, thus wiping out the "living history" of men and enabling the total destruction of humanity and the start of eternal winter.

Starks and allies
Lure the Night King to a place of their choosing in the hope that they can destroy him and therefore his entire army.

The Starks & co have already concluded that any defense against the Night King's army is doomed to failure.

The sheer number of his initial forces plus their undead nature making them extremely hard to destroy, and his ability to raise any slain combatants on the allies side as yet more undead troops means any defence either within or without the castle as no chance to succeed. The Night King also has a giant flying flamethrower in the shape of an undead dragon, which renders castle defences fairly redundant.

We see in episode 3 that

once the Night King's forces reach the castle walls they are breached within minutes, as the undead can simply pile up and overwhelm them. The undead dragon also makes short work of the remaining walls and defences wherever it lands. Once the undead forces breach the walls it becomes a rout and the allied forces are slaughtered.

Therefore the battle strategy adopted by the allies is not a defensive one, it is offensive. Out on the battlefield the allies forces are able to fight they way they are trained and equipped for, using formations and tactics. Their troops can engage the enemy for as long as possible, first on the battlefield outside, and then on the castle walls and finally within the castle grounds. Their purpose is not to defeat the Night King's forces, it is to engage and hold them as long as possible while hoping Bran's plan (using himself as bait to lure the Night King to Godswood) pays off.

  • 10
    What exactly is the difference between "engage and hold them" and "defending"? Besides the stupid throwing away of l Dothraki lifes at the start of the battle, what exactly was offensive about their strategy? – a.j. tawleed Apr 30 at 9:34
  • they don't look very aggressive after the first charge – GlorfSf Apr 30 at 15:23
  • 2
    The Night King also has a giant flying flamethrower in the shape of an undead dragon, which renders castle defences fairly redundant. - did the defenders of Winterfeld actually know about the undead dragon though? It wasn't clear to me if they did, or if it was a complete surprise. – Matt Burland Apr 30 at 15:37
  • 4
    Yes they did, @MattBurland. But they disregarded any possible advantage any information Bran could've gathered anyway. They should have tried to minimize deaths while drawing NK out to kill him, instead they just sacrificied the whole army. Sure, I take it for narrative they need the north+dany coalition to be weakened against Cersei, but come on, it would've been more satisfying if they got massacred in spite of a great strategy, rather than because of a poorly planned defense. – Sebastián Vansteenkiste Apr 30 at 15:54
  • 4
    If this was indeed the real reason then the best strategy would have been to send the bulk of their army South (to prevent unnecessary deaths, but, more importantly, the creation of more wights) and leave behind a token force to man the castle walls, engage the army of the dead, and lure the Night King into the Godswood (exactly why, again?!). Verdict: not convinced. There’s no good in-Universe reason for the strategy. – Konrad Rudolph May 1 at 12:52
8

The possibility of hiding behind the walls was never very practical for long because the Night King had a dragon. As we saw, when the dragon attacked the walls fell pretty quickly.

It was always going to come down to a fight between dragons and hoards. Better to try to keep the Night King's dragon away from Winterfell for as long as possible.

Also consider the forces that the alliance had available. Dothraki riders need space to attack and hit the enemy hard. The Unsullied are a field army, favouring spears and shield formations which are ineffective in close quarters. They don't seem to use bows at all.

The plan the alliance had wasn't terrible, given what they knew. Draw the enemy onto the field, maintain a strong defensive line and use the dragons to hit them as they tried to advance. Meanwhile the Night King would be drawn out, both by the battle and the dragons, and by Bran.

The walls of Winterfell were most effective as archery positions, given that they were not particularly high and they didn't have adequate defences (e.g. supplies of oil or rocks to drop), and that the dead don't have any bows or siege weapons.

4

I saw the battle at Winterfell as a chess game where Black sacrificed many pawns and pieces in order to lure White's King into a checkmate.

It was clear to the allied leaders of the North that:

  • The Night King himself wanted to kill Bran and destroy his mental archive of humanity.
  • Killing the Night King was the key to eliminating the army of the dead and White Walkers, either by attacking him with dragon fire or ambushing him with Valyrian steel.
  • The allied army could not sustain itself for long at Winterfell - supplies were dwindling.

Left unsaid in the episode, but no doubt understood by the defenders:

  • The Night King was not obligated to attack Winterfell immediately. He could have surrounded the castle and waited, starving the defenders. Or he could have led his army farther south and attempted to draw them out from the castle.
  • The Night King could have disengaged from a costly assault and retreated if he felt the battle was going badly for him. This would prolong the war indefinitely.

For these reasons the allied army had to ensure the Night King's army was promptly engaged and that the Night King felt confident enough to enter the castle and personally attack Bran. The Night King would have seen the Dothraki attack as desperate and hopeless, encouraging him to think the defenders were weak. Daenerys and Jon attacking his army from above with the dragons would compel him to engage Winterfell's defenders sooner rather later. Placing the bulk of the allied army outside the castle walls was an irresistible opportunity for the Night King to attack, wiping out the allied army and increasing the ranks of his own army.

Positioning the allied army behind the castle walls, using more archers, building more flame pits or flaming oil on the walls, etc., could have inflicted heavier casualties and even a tactical defeat on the army of the dead, but if the Night King was allowed to withdraw from the field he would still have a strategic advantage. The resolve among the allies to continue the war would have eroded after defeating but not destroying the Night King's army.

--> There was one other option for the allied army which wasn't considered: Evacuate Winterfell except for Bran and perhaps a token guard, with another force (or even Arya, alone) hiding nearby, ready to ambush the Night King as he approached Bran. This would spare the lives of many thousand soldiers but would have been a risky gambit.

3

throughout history all major battles involving castles have taken place in much the same way. Yes a castle is a defensible position but no one has ever won a siege by staying inside a castle. The attackers can surround the castle and use the benefit of time to wear the defenders down if this happens unless the defenders know another army is approaching to break the siege they will attempt to sally out of the castle to try and win the battle.

Now with the army of the dead the chances of surviving a siege are even worse the bodies can just pile up against the walls. Instead you need to try and thin the army out and hold it off away from the castle for as long as possible. Plus there is only so much space in a castle to put your troops. If everyone is crammed in then the defenders can’t fight effectively. Looking at the size of the defending army it would have filled wonterfell but you still would have only got so many troops on the walls to repel attacker’s.

  • 22
    "no one has ever won a siege by staying inside a castle" let me disagree. Not all sieges were successful, and you usually need much more man to assiege a castle than defend it. As it's way more costly to assiege than defend, play on the clock was a common strategy. – Kepotx Apr 29 at 22:48
  • 1
    Sometimes the attacking army has lost because it ran out of time, money or resources yes, but in nearly all cases Sieges have been broken by an army coming to support the defenders routing the attacker’s outside the castle. This was never going to happen here as Cersei was not going to ride to relieve winterfell, also in a war of attrition the army of the dead would always win. – Richard C Apr 29 at 22:51
  • 3
    also, while sorties was indeed done to try to destroy assieging forces, when you know you will be attacked, you stay inside the walls, not outside. – Kepotx Apr 29 at 22:53
  • 3
    I have asked this question on the historical exchange to confirm if these tactics where based on real life examples of castle defenses. Will share any answers that I get. – Richard C Apr 29 at 23:21
  • 7
    Sieges failed all the time, particularly due to lack of supplies, lack of funds to keep your army paid, and diseases. Note that an army of wights lacks all of these weaknesses, however... – Michael W. Apr 30 at 23:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.