Battle Tactics: The Battle of the Bastards (TV version)

(SPOILERS for Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire)

I am not a huge fan of the later books in GRRM’s A song of ice and fire, so I have not really delved into the TV show, with the exception of when there is a major battle to watch. This most recent season had the famous battle of the Bastards which was one of the most visually spectacular and exciting battles out there. I loved it.

Mostly.

I have a serious problem with the way that Bolton’s spear wall is portrayed. Take a look at the following pictures:

BoB 1

Big shields and a wall of spears… a strong shield wall ha turned back many a barbarian horde hasn’t it? Note that men can easily fit between the spears and despite the length of the weapon it is only braced by two men.

BoB 3

Some unlucky Wilding gets too close to the shield wall and gets an ugly surprise. Note the long length of exposed wood on these spears.

BoB 2

The size of the forces involved. What happens if all of the Wildlings, fearing death, push in one direction?

.

BoB 4

Another view showing the relative size of the forces involved. The reaction of any force being squeezed like this is to push back at some point in a desperate attempt to survive.

So the Bolton Spearwall is an odd duck.

  • The shields are enormous individually, but do not gain the strength that a smaller shield overlapping with a neighbors shield would.
  • The spears are a long as some pikes but only have one set of extra hands bracing them and absolutely no support from spears further back in the formation. The main deterrent from pushing into a phalanx is that one is always exposed to more rows of spears, there is no safe channel for men to flow through to get to the shields.
  • Several of the Wildlings are shown making it to the shields. One opens up and delivers a swords thrust to keep the man back. This is great TV, but terrible tactics for a spearwall where it would be far better to ward the front rank with more spears. The sword thrust appears to come from the man in the second rank, which is a pretty long lunge, and that oversize shield looks awful clumsyand hard to get back into place.

I would argue that the Wildlinsg would push back against the shields of the Bolton men. The spear density is just too sparse to stop them and the enemy ranks are too thin to prevent a breakout. Once the mass of bodies is pushing against the shields (which is inevitable, one way or another) it is very hard for the front man to move his shield aside for the man behind him to thrust with a blade. The Romans used shorter, wider shields that they could thrust over.

Some would argue that the Bolton spearwall bears some similarities to medieval spear units, the Roman Legion, or even that the Bolton men are so good or the Wildlings are so unused to formation fighting that they could not get up to the shields to push back.

Fine. What then stops the Wildlings from doing exactly the first thing that leaps to mind when I look at that spearwall: What stops the Wildings from grabbing the spears or hacing the points off? In a true Phalanx the secondary spears could thrust out to prevent this. Nothing at all prevents it in the battle of the bastards. No matter how stupid and fearful the Wildlings are eventually someone is going to hack the head off of one of those spears, or, worse yet, grab them and pull. It would only take three men pulling to overpower the two men holding the spear in the Bolton formation.

The Macedonian Phalanx

The Macedonean Phalanx. One of the pinnacles of formation warfare. The pikes are braced by numerous men and defended by row after row of spear tips that could thrust forward to ward off anyone pushing into the formation. 

Even then a true fanboy could argue that I am wrong and it does not have to turn out that way. A particularly cynical chap might say that they were overawed or low on morale, ready to be slaughtered like animals.

Ok. So what then happens when those spears start pushing into the mass of men and getting weighed down by bodies. Each of those spears would rapidly become useless as it pushes into the packed Wildlings. After it impales a few it becomes a liability as the rest can easily surge over the encumbered weapon and get into the Bolton line before it reforms. In a true spearwall the additional spears could be used to push bodies off, but more importantly they provide immediate replacements when the front spear gets broken, pulled away, or becomes unwieldy due to impaled bodies, there are immediate replacements already in place.

I admit I am being picky. Fans loved the Battle of the Bastards. The problem is many of those fans, like my own stepson, will go on to write their own fantasy tales/shows/games and I do not want to see them compound on this error.

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