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During the movies you never really see any battles in an open field, it usually behind walls. So when I saw the Dwarves set up the shield wall it got me really excited and thinking, who is the best warrior race in middle earth? But in order to not get this question closed I'll change up the question a little bit. Does Tolkien ever talk about battle formations and tactics in his books? My personal observation is that the dwarves fight as a single unit whereas the elves prefer the one on one, for instance when Thranduil took his reindeer/moose across the bridge.

If I could put a comparison out there I would say Elves fought more like Samurai while the Dwarves used more like a Spartan/Hoplite type of tactic.

There is obvious draw backs to each race that we can assume, but does Tolkien go into any detail about this?

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    There were no reindeer in the books (AFAIR) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jan 16 '15 at 18:31
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    Not that I recall, no. In fact, most histories in real life have only the vaguest descriptions of tactics and maneuvers, and what they do say is often incorrect. The style JRRT uses is consistent with that used in old histories and legends. – Oldcat Jan 16 '15 at 18:33
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    There are some descriptions of Numenorean and Gondorian battle formations in Unfinished Tales (which I don't have near me right now). None of other races. – Matt Gutting Jan 16 '15 at 18:36
  • Well whatever Thranduil was riding @DVK – EricSSH Jan 16 '15 at 18:49
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    I think there was a very surface level discussion of Rohan formations. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jan 16 '15 at 18:51
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Very, very briefly

Although the Legendarium is ostensibly a history, Tolkien is a mythic historian rather than a military one. Whenever he discusses battles in any detail, he tends to focus only on those tactical decisions that become significant to the mythological (or narrative) aspects of the story.

I'm going to try and compile a more-or-less complete list of such occurrences in the text, so commenters feel free to suggest ones I missed.

There's rather a lot of this in Unfinished Tales, which describes some of the less-famous battles in much more detail than they're afforded in the main texts.

  • Unfinished Tales Part 2 Chapter 4: "History of Galadriel and Celeborn" has some details about The War of the Elves and Sauron, the conflict that erupted shortly after the creation of the One Ring. For example, the assault on Eregion:

    The scouts and vanguard of Sauron's host were already approaching [Eregion] when Celeborn made a sortie and drove them back; but though he was able to join his force to that of Elrond they could not return to Eregion, for Sauron's host was far greater than theirs, great enough both to hold them off and closest to invest Eregion.

    The above passage suggests that Sauron's main battle tactic is to overwhelm the enemy with superior numbers. This would make sense, since the bulk of his army (at this time) is orcs, who are weaker combatants than Elves but reproduce more quickly. The optimal tactic here is a Zerg Rush.

    The above passage also describes what I believe is a pincer movements on the part of the Elves, although it doesn't tell us a lot about their general military style.

  • Unfinished Tales Part 3 Chapter 1: "Disaster of the Gladden Fields" gives us a little bit of a glimpse at Númenórean tactics, and a little more of Orcish tactics:

    Isildur commanded a thangail to be drawn up, a shield-wall of two serried ranks than could be bent back at either end if outflanked, until at need it became a closed ring. If the land had been flat or the slope in his favour he would have formed his company into a dírnaith and charged the Orcs

    [..]

    [The orcs] halted briefly, preparing their assault. First they let fly a hail of arrows, and then suddenly with a great shout they did as Isildur would have done, and hurled a great mass of their chief warriors down the last slope against the Dúnedain, expecting to break up their shield-wall.

    [...]

    It seemed to Isildur that the enemy was withdrawing toward the Forest. [...] He gave orders to resume the march at once, but to bend their course down towards the lower and flatter ground where the Orcs would have less advantage. Maybe he believed that after their costly repulse they would give way, though their scouts might follow him during the night and watch his camp. That was the manner of Orcs, who were most often dismayed when their prey could turn and bite.

    [...]

    The Dúnedain had gone scarcely a mile when the Orcs moved again. This time they did not charge, but used all their forces. They came down on a wide front, which bent into a crescent and soon closed into an unbroken ring about the Dúnedain.

    [...]

    At that moment there came a sudden blast of horns, and the Orcs closed in on all sides, flinging themselves against the Dúnedain with reckless ferocity. Night had come, and hope faded. Men were falling; for some of the greater Orcs leaped up two at a time, and dead or alive with their weight bore down a Dúnedain, so that other strong claws could drag him out and slay him. The Orcs might pay five to one in this exchange, but it was too cheap.

    What this suggests is that Númenórean had rather evolved tactics, with different formations for different circumstances. The only ones described are the thangail, defined in the quote above, and the dírnaith, which is defined in a footnote in the text:

    The dírnaith, Quenya nernehta 'man-spearhead', was a wedge-formation, launched over a short distance against an enemy massing but not yet arrayed, or against a defensive formation on open ground.

  • Unfinished Tales Part 2 Chapter 1: "Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan" briefly discusses some tactical decisions made during a battle against the Wainriders, men from the East. In addition to an account of the battles, there's a footnote that discusses the main military unit of the Éothéod, and later of the Rohirrim, the éored:

    According to a note on the ordering of the Rohirrim, the éored had no precisely fixed number, but in Rohan it was only applied to Riders, fully trained for war: men serving for a term, or in some cases permanently, in the King's Host. Any considerable body of such men, riding as a unit in exercise or on service, was called an éored. But after the recovery of the Rohirrim and the reorganiza­tion of their forces in the days of King Folcwine, a hundred years before the War of the Ring, a 'full éored' in battle order was reckoned to contain not less than 120 men (including the Captain), and to be one hundredth part of the Full Muster of the Riders of the Mark, not including those of the King's Household. [The éored with which Éomer pursued the Orcs, The Two Towers III 2, had 120 Riders: Legolas counted 105 when they were far away, and Éomer said that fifteen men had been lost in battle with the Orcs.] [...] The Rohirrim had increased since the days of Folcwine, and before the attacks of Saruman a Full Muster would probably have produced many more than twelve thousand Riders, so that Rohan would not have been denuded en­tirely of trained defenders. In the event, owing to losses in the western war, the hastiness of the Muster, and the threat from North and East, Théoden only led out a host of some six thousand spears, though this was still the greatest riding of the Rohirrim that was recorded since the coming of Eorl.

    The full muster of the cavalry was called éoherë[.]

  • Excellent very comprehensive answer. – user8719 Feb 24 '15 at 17:06

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