Have Fun Storming the Castle!

The wights breaching the castle walls is an inevitability. Even if the battle was run by truly great military minds, all of the barricades, ranged weapons, and cavalry would only delay the inescapable end. One of the more shocking things to me about the Battle of Winterfell is that they seemingly didn’t plan for this outcome. The defense within the castle walls really seemed like the absolute bare minimum, an afterthought (with the exception of the noble Lyanna Mormont, may she rest in power).

When discussing the lack of battle strategy within the castle walls with my source, it was clear that this was one of the more “WTF” aspects of their plan, or lack thereof. A castle is specifically designed to “be a fortified, defensible position.” The strength of castle defense and its ability to slow the enemy is ever present in many battles, from the Battle of Blackwater in season 2 to the Battle of Helm’s Deep. It is an opportunity for “the remaining archers to fire down upon them from interior walls or rooftops of buildings as well as dumping boiling pitch or oil below, which could then be set on fire.” My source goes onto to suggest that, based on witnessing the wight attack Hardhome in season 5, Jon should have had the forethought to pour flammable material down the outside of the castle walls that could be lit on fire as the dead piled on top of each other to overtake the fortress. 

One of the advantages that the living have inside the castle walls is knowing the layout. This would have been a great opportunity to reintroduce the idea of bottle-necking the enemy and picking them off in smaller numbers. “The buildings themselves should have been considered for the retrograde plan as the defenders fought back to predetermined final battle positions, ones with strong stone walls, limited entrances, and where possible, escape routes above or below ground which could be collapsed on pursuing wights,” my source explained.

The show took us inside the castle as Arya ran through halls and found herself in not one but two large empty-ish rooms. Theoretically, windows and doorways could have been bricked off so that you could lure the wights in through one door, and put your back against the wall of the other near the only other exit. And since you should never underestimate your enemy, he would strongly recommend going ahead and adding flammable material and objects to these rooms, so that once it becomes too overwhelmed by wights, they would be able to set it on fire and make their exit. Imagine if Brienne, Jamie, and Podrick had used their ever present back-against-the-wall skills in that arena.

Take Me to Your Leader

None of this, not one single bit of this, matters when you don’t have good leadership and communication. As my source explained:

“A crucial component of conducting any operation is establishing methods for command and control of your forces. While the defenders at Winterfell did at least assign command to each element of their formation, Brienne commanding the left flank, Jorah taking charge of the Dothraki, Grey Worm leading the Unsullied, they lacked a central command element which would oversee the entirety of the battle.”

It turns out that Sansa was wrong. Tyrion would have been able to do more than die if he was outside of the crypt. Tyrion has already proven his ability to think on his feet in times of stress and chaos, which is a skill that was greatly missed at the Battle of Winterfell. With the two lead commanders waiting on the sidelines with dragons, and no central sub-commander on the battlefield, the armies protecting Winterfell were little more than small groups of people fighting next to each other instead of with each other. Tyrion would not be “leading the charge or engaging in fierce melee combat, but watching and directing from a high vantage point.”

Ideally, Tyrion would be “communicating his commands to the sub-commanders of each element.” Now, this requires two major changes and battle preparations that were not employed at that Battle of Winterfell. One of those is some form of communication. Obviously being in a world without radios and satellite phones, the command as a whole would have had to come up with some sort of code with torches, flags, fires, couriers, horns, or some other method, that would “indicate a change in plans or commencing from one phase of the operation to the next.” While the snowstorm would have made some of this difficult, having a problem-solving mind like Tyrion on the field would have potentially led to identifying that Daenerys would not be able to see Davos’ signal to light the trench, and a back-up plan could have initiated much sooner.

The second thing would be to not have your sub-commanders on the front lines. It may be a heroic idea, but they are statistically more likely to die first and if all of the leadership is killed in the first wave, the troops have no one to turn to. As my source explained: “They should have remained centralized or to the rear of their elements, so that they can monitor the progress of their troops, while also being positioned to receive orders from higher.”

It doesn’t help that there were no back up plans put in place, and the two lead commanders were the first ones to abandon the only plan they had. The wights individually might be brainless, but they are all controlled by one very powerful, very intelligent, and very ruthless mind. While they seem chaotic, they are quite possibly one of the most organized armies to ever exist. They operate fully as one. That is more than 100,000 soldiers working together in perfect unity.

Multiple people have seen the wights fight in action, Hardhome being the most important, and yet Arya seemed like the only person that was trying to gain intel and develop a strategy. There is absolutely no excuse for the lack of intelligence applied by the commanding forces to fighting this army. They have witnessed them dig under walls and doors, scale structures, and operate as a whole, they had all of the information that they needed and applied almost none of it:

“Their plan should have consisted of more than ‘we will do X and if that fails, we will fight until we die’. There should have been branches and sequels, ‘we want to do this, if successful, we move on to this, if that doesn’t work, this is the next best thing we can do.’ They also should have factored in the enemy’s decision-making, how they would react to what friendly forces are doing.”

Basically, drago glass and fire alone do not a battle strategy make.

Why Does it Matter?

Thanks to Arya initiating a back-up plan of her own, where none existed, the living still came out victorious, which will probably make all of these terrible choices and lack of leadership go completely unnoticed. Thanks, girl. But at what cost? The leaders of Winterfell put all of their dragon eggs in one basket, focusing solely on baiting the Night King, abandoning their soldiers in the process.

“Perhaps they had discussed the necessity of providing the dead with a ripe target which would fall quickly, to play on the previously displayed arrogance of the Night King and more surely draw him into the field,” my source pondered.“Their plan may have been designed to make their forces look like a dying beast, luring in the hunter for a final strike.” However, based on Jon’s track record in battle leadership, I really doubt that this was an idea born of intelligence and strategy. After all, he had to rescued by Littlefinger at the Battle of the Bastards.

We may have seen most of our favorite characters make it through the battle relatively unscathed, but now they are supposed to march south and face Cersei’s massive army in the final war, and are once again going to be greatly outnumbered. A dwindling army following two of the worst commanders in the world are on their way to fight the only person in the Seven Kingdoms that could probably make the Night King shiver. Things are not looking good.

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