One of the most climactic battles in the entire Game of Thrones series, the Battle of Winterfell, came to its inevitable conclusion in Episode 3, Season 8. Pitting the forces of the Living against the forces of the Night King and his White Walkers, it was not only a clash of ideals but also in battle tactics. The White Walkers boasted superior numbers and a hive-mind mentality, while the Living boasted smaller numbers, but some of the most elite fighting forces in Westeros, as well as being backed by two dragons.
So how did it all go so horribly wrong? From lack of communication to ineffective use of range weapons and infantry forces, there were many elements that led to the rampant tactical mistakes that littered the episode like corpses. Here’s a list of ten of them that the Living made at the Battle of Winterfell.
10 THE DOTHRAKI WERE WASTED AS A FIGHTING FORCE
There’s a reason the expression exists to “send in the cavalry” - mounted soldiers are not meant as a first line of defense but secondary to a central charge unit, where their forces can take advantage of their mobility and their ability to attack the flanks of an opposing force. Sending the Dothraki charging into complete darkness, unsupported by trebuchets, was a waste of their skills.
What’s worse, unable to effectively flank the wights, and unable to provide the Unsullied ground forces with any support between the barriers put in place, they become in essence a giant source of support for the undead when they’re inevitably killed.
9 THEY HAD NOVICE LEADERSHIP
Without the presence of superior battle tacticians like Tywin Lannister or Robb Stark on their side, the novice leaders of the ranks of the Living did the best they could. Unfortunately, their best was listening to de facto military leader Jon Snow, who seemed to forget all the organized battles he’d witnessed when drafting his battle plan.
He knew the devastation the dragons could cause to the Undead from his combat beyond the Wall, yet he didn’t mobilize them into an air raid. Having witnessed the wight attack Hardhome in Season 5, he should have known to pour flaming oil down the side of the castle walls which, when lit on fire, would leave the Undead in flaming heaps as they tried to scale the keep, yet he didn’t make that command.
8 THEY MADE POOR USE OF RANGED WEAPONS
Ranged weapons, such as trebuchets and units of archers, are some of the most effective military devices used in medieval combat, as they allow a military force the ability to cripple its opposing stronghold and forces without being anywhere near it. In the Battle of Winterfell, the trebuchets aren’t used very much at all, not even to give the Dothraki cover support.
The Dothraki could have been made into a mounted archer unit, but instead the archers were confined to the castle walls, requiring them to wait until wights were practically knocking on the castle doors to hit them. And to top it off, they have two dragons, and prefer to use them as traps for the Night King, rather than the flaming air squadron they could be.
7 THEY HAD INEFFECTIVE HIGH GROUND
For the ranks of the Living to be truly effective against the armies of the Dead, having the high ground is essential. In military circles, that usually comes down to having some sort of geographical advantage. Having the battle at Winterfell decidedly nullified that when the ranks of the White Walkers simply marched on the keep across a large open field, making it impossible for the outnumbered humans to funnel their much larger force into a more manageable number.
With several weeks leading up to the climactic battle, if geography wasn’t on the side of the Living, they needed to achieve the high ground some other way, and laden the battlefield with all manner of obstacles, such as dragon glass, and fire.
6 THEY POSITIONED THE UNSULLIED INCORRECTLY
The Unsullied are arguably, next to the Dothraki, one of the most skilled fighting forces in all of Westeros. Yet somehow, they got placed in front of the trenches, exposed to an army possessed of superior numbers, with little to no support.
The trenches should have been moved forward and filled with oil and tar, lit early so as not to be overly reliant on dragon breath to light them, with the infantry placed behind them, picking off the ranks of the Undead that made it past. Finally a wave of Dothraki cavalry should have been behind the Unsullied to offer support and maneuverability, herding wights to their fiery ends.
5 THEY LACKED A CENTRAL LEADER
Though they’ve witnessed and participated in a great many battles, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen don’t make effectively strong central leaders. They lack the pragmatism of Tywin Lannister and the acumen of Stannis Baratheon. They don’t even have the intuition of Tyrion, who for all his faults proved something of a tactical magician at the Battle of Blackwater.
Because of their reactive natures, Dany and Jon were the first people to abandon their battle plans at the first sign that they weren’t going right, with no backup plan in place. The White Walkers and the Night King operate as one cognizant unit, something the forces of the Living knew nothing about and could never match.
4 THEY LACKED STRONG COMMUNICATION
Considering that the Battle of Winterfell happened in an era without radio signals, satellites, or any advanced forms of technology, there couldn’t have been much hope for sophisticated signaling between ranks. However, some method of communication should have been utilized, weather it was through fire signals or just the use of battle horns.
Communication between ground troops, sub-commanders, and military leaders is vital to make sure that tactics can be altered on the fly as new information becomes available. Without effective communication, you get issues like what occurred with Dany and Jon being unable to see Davos’s signals to light the trenches.
3 THEY HAD NO PLAN IN CASE OF A BREACH
Though Winterfell may have had wide open spaces all around it that made it impossible for the Living Armies to bottle-neck the forces of the Undead, if they ever breached the walls, it could have easily been done from inside the castle by those that knew its layout. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no plan in place for when the Undead eventually made their way inside, except for maybe Brienne and Jamie with their backs against a wall.
With their superior numbers, the only way to effectively take on the White Walkers was to channel them into smaller clusters that could be efficiently picked off. Archers could have turned their attentions to the interior of the castle and fired flaming arrows, while wights could have been lured into enclosed spaces that could have been set alight.
2 THEY PLACED THEIR COMMANDERS ON THE FRONTLINES
As much as it may have made sense at the time of hammering out the final battle plan to have Brienne take control of the left flank, Jorah take control of the Dothraki, and Greyworm to command the Unsullied, having all the sub-commanders in the front of their forces left them exposed when they shouldn’t have been.
If any of the sub-commanders were to fall, then their troops would have no one to look to for a sense of the battle plan, and chaos would ensue. The sub-commanders should have been centrally located or taking up command in the rear, able to oversee each wave of attack and alter their tactics accordingly.
1 THEY RELIED ON THE NIGHT KING'S ARROGANCE
Perhaps at their war council, the strategists involved in planning the Battle of Winterfell decided that they would rely on the Night King’s arrogance. They would appear like a fierce beast in its death throes, teasing the hunter forward to deliver his final blow before they lashed out with one final surprise swipe to his jugular. Their plan was effective, after a fashion, with their final swipe/last resort being Arya.
However, this was at a great cost to their fighting forces, of which the death toll was in the thousands. How are they supposed to march on King’s Landing now and battle Cersei, arguably the only person left with any sense of strategy?