“Battles,” muttered Robb as he led her out beneath the trees. “I have won every battle, yet somehow I’m losing the war.” – Robb Stark, ASOS, Chapter 14, Catelyn II
First, two bald statements to kick this post off:
- Robb Stark was the greatest tactician during the War of the Five Kings.
- Robb Stark was the worst strategist of the War of the Five Kings. (Though Balon Greyjoy gives Robb a run for his money for worst strategist.)
On the face of it, these two statements contradict each other, but in these posts, I will attempt to defend both of these statements with textual evidence and some non-technical references to military strategy.
The Difference Between Tactics and Strategy
- Strategy – “The employment of battles to gain the end of war.” – Clausewitz
- Tactics – “Tactics is the art and science of winning engagements and battles.” – Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication – MCDP 1-3
I’ll keep this short as I’m sure most everyone here is familiar with the events in AGOT. Before he was King of the North, Robb Stark was a man on a rescue mission. When his father, Eddard Stark was imprisoned for attempting to overthrow Joffrey, Robb Stark called his banners and proceeded to march south in an attempt to save his father. Along the way, he met up with his two most influential advisers: Ser Brynden “The Blackfish” Tully and his mother Catelyn Stark at Moat Cailin. There, Robb informed his mother that the Lannisters split their forces. One group of Lannisters led by Jaime Lannister defeated Lord Clement Piper and Lord Vance at the Golden Tooth and then defeated Edmure Tully outside of the walls of Riverrun. The other force, led by Lord Tywin Lannister, secured Harrenhal and raced north to the Green Fork.
The Residue of Design
“Luck?” Drizzt replied. “Perhaps. But more often, I dare to say, luck is simply the advantage a true warrior gains in executing the correct course of action.” – R.A. Salvatore, The Halfling’s Gem
Let’s address one thing from the start. Robb Stark was a lucky son of a bitch. But this luck came as a result of careful planning and good division of responsibilities initially. Robb Stark divided his army between his cavalry and his infantry. The infantry he sent to the Green Fork to engage Tywin, the cavalry to relieve the siege at Riverrun. Therein lies the ruse. Robb needed Tywin to believe that he was committing his forces against Tywin all the while sneaking his more mobile forces west to the Whispering Wood and Riverrun itself.
But, to me, sending his infantry against Tywin had a greater purpose than a simple ruse. Slow, heavy infantry has the ability to set up a blocking position in good terrain. Heavy infantry, under competent leadership, could endure a beating by Tywin as well as slow any attempt Tywin could make to unify his forces if he caught wind of the ruse. As a former infantryman myself, I cringe at the thought of these poor grunts dying in a secondary effort, but I understand the cold calculus that went into the planning. Preventing Tywin Lannister from unifying his two armies through sacrificing some of his infantry makes a lot of tactical sense. It was lucky that Tywin Lannister didn’t perceive Robb’s strategy, but it was a calculated risk that came through good planning and the correct course of action.
Preparation of the Battlefield: Whispering Wood
“They say he crossed at the Twins with the great part of his horse, riding hard for Riverrun.” A green boy, Tyrion remembered, more like to be brave than wise. He would have laughed, if he hadn’t hurt so much. – AGOT, Chapter 62, Tyrion IX
While Roose Bolton and the 16,000 men fought Tywin at the Green Fork, Robb and his cavalry moved towards Riverrun and linked-up with Ser Marq Piper and the remainder of his father’s host that was harassing Jaime Lannister’s supply lines. To screen his movement, he sent Ser Brynden Tully and Theon Greyjoy ahead with his scouts. The scouts had two objectives: determining the disposition of Jaime Lannister’s host and killing enemy scouts/ravens who would alert Jaime of Robb’s approach. To this effect, the Blackfish’s strategy worked. Jaime Lannister had no idea of what was approaching Riverrun.
Robb sent a few hundred cavalry carrying Tully banners to lure Jamie Lannister into a confrontation. Jamie Lannister took the bait and attacked what he perceived to be another harrying force with a small cavalry force of his own. When he did, Robb pounced with a hidden force of several thousand soldiers. Despite taking key losses, he succeeded in capturing Jaime Lannister, thus removing the head from the snake.
Surprise, Mobility, Mass: The Battle of the Camps
When a dam is broken, the water cascades with irresistible force. Now the shape of an army resembles water. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; attack him when he does not expect it; avoid his strength and strike his emptiness and like water, one can oppose you. – Sun Tzu
In order to besiege Riverrun, Jaime Lannister was forced by the terrain to divide his force into three separate camps to effectively contain Hoster Tully and Tytos Blackwood within Riverrun. It was the only way to besiege the (essentially island) fortress. But with Jaime Lannister captured and all Lannister outriders and ravens dead, Robb Stark moved his forces against two of the three Lannister camps during the night without detection.
To the north, Robb placed Ser Brynden Tully. To the west, he placed himself. The Blackfish initiated the attack on the camp north of the Tumblestones to the complete surprise of the Lannister host. The west camp, commanded by Lord Brax attempted to take ships across the river to assist the north camp, but they were driven back by a flurry of stones from soldiers atop Riverrun’s walls. Lord Brax was killed during the attempted crossing. When the soldiers from the west camp arrived back on the south short of the Tumblestones, they were suddenly set upon by Robb Stark, the Mallister and the Umbers.
As a last stand, the Lannisters tried to use a shield wall against Robb Stark’s heavy horse. Historically, a shield wall against a cavalry charge is actually fairly tactically effective. During the Battle of Hastings , the Saxon shield wall nearly defeated the heavily armored Norman cavalry of William the Conqueror for example. The Lannister shield wall may have been effective against the Robb’s attack but for one key element. The Lannisters seemingly did not count on the defenders from within Riverrun attacking their rear. The result was a complete annihilation of the Lannister west camp and north camp.
Planting the Seeds of Defeat through Victory
“Roose has no feelings, you see…” – ADWD, Chapter 37, The Prince of Winterfell (Reek IV)
Upon seeing the destruction of 2/3 of the Lannister host, Ser Forley Prester, commander of the east camp, retreated in an orderly fashion. The result of the battles was an overwhelming victory for Robb Stark. Even with the losses suffered at the Green Fork, Robb Stark’s host was now on something of a numerical par with Tywin Lannister’s.
But in the midst of victory, we start to see the strategic shortcomings of Robb Stark. To lead his diversionary/blocking force, he placed Roose Bolton in command of his foot. At the time, it made the most sense. Roose was cold and cunning – the type of leader who would sacrifice his men for ‘the greater good.’ And yet the man was ruthless and worst of all, untrustworthy.
“That man scares me.” – Robb Stark, AGOT, Chapter 55, Catelyn VIII
Following the conclusion of the battles, Robb Stark would have been wise to recall Roose Bolton back to Riverrun considering his own personal doubts about the man and furthermore to reconsolidate his men and materials. Instead, he allows Roose Bolton to continue to command a sizable portion of his army. Even more troubling, he doesn’t seem to provide any strategic guidance to the man who would eventually betray him, but I’ll get to that in a future post…
Politics by Another Means
“Dad, how do soldiers killing each other solve the world’s problems?” – Calvin & Hobbes, Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995
I left out a lot of the political side of the equation yesterday, somewhat intentionally. I didn’t want to review the dealings with the Freys, northern lords or lords of the Riverlands, because well, honestly I’m not anywhere close to an expert, and I wanted to jump right into the military tactics and strategy. But I’ll try in an attempt to summarize as it relates to the Robb’s military strategy.
What was the endstate of Robb’s objective in fighting this war against the Lannisters? We get an idea of his objective when Robb instructs Cleos Frey of his demands to give to KL. He says the following:
“Lastly, King Joffrey and the Queen Regent must renounce all claims to dominion over the north. Henceforth we are no part of their realm, but a free and independent kingdom, as of old. Our domain shall include all the Stark lands north of the Neck, and in addition the lands watered by the River Trident and its vassal streams, bounded by the Golden Tooth to the west and the Mountains of the Moon in the east.” – ACOK, Chapter 7, Catelyn I
Essentially, Robb’s stated ambition was the control of half of Westeros. However, a little further down, Catelyn makes this curious observation:
“But bearded or no, he was still a youth of fifteen, and wanted vengeance no less than Rickard Karstark.”
Revenge as an endstate is not a clear goal or objective (As the BWB will come to find out with Stoneheart at the healm). It has a cataract effect on the individual and has the ability to make the mission and endstate of a war unclear or at least myopic.
Anyways, Robb used a combination of honor and strategic alliances to strengthen his position prior to his movement to Riverrun and thereafter. The marriage-promise alliance with the Freys was key to his army’s crossing into the Riverlands and key to shoring up the number of soldiers (particularly levy infantrymen) he had at his disposal. Furthermore, the rescue of Riverrun gave Robb command of the levies and knights of the Riverlands. However, it also had the effect of expanding the territory which Robb was forced to defend.
Realizing he needed more allies to win his war, Robb made his worst political decision. He sent Theon Greyjoy to Pyke to propose an alliance between the Greyjoys and the Starks. Releasing the only factor that kept the Greyjoys from roaring back into rebellion, he figured he could trust his closest friend. What he failed to recognize is that blood ties run deeper than friendship ties. Not even ill-treatment by an emotionally abusive, asshole father could keep dissuade Theon from becoming the turncloak. Even Catelyn, not known for being the most foresighted politician in Westeros, realizes this.
“I’ll say again, I would sooner you sent someone else to Pyke, and kept Theon close to you.” – ACOK, Chapter 7, Catelyn I
His other political decision was only foolish in retrospect. He sent his mother south to entreat with Renly Baratheon. Now, my intent is not to start a debate on whether this was the morally correct choice, but rather, to argue that it made the most pragmatic sense to ally with the strongest anti-Lannister faction in the realm. Of course, that ended in complete disaster, but not on account of Catelyn’s attempts.
I’ll leave it for there on the political side.
Tit for Tat: The Westerlands Campaign
“The Young Wolf was paying the Lannisters back in kind for the devastation they’d inflicted on the riverlands.” – ACOK, Chapter 39, Catelyn V
Simple Map of Disposition of Forces Prior to Start of the Westerlands Campaign (Note: I
may have placed Roose Bolton’s host too far north on my map. A wiki of ice and fire has Roose just east of the Twins at this time.)
Following the Battle of the Camps, Robb reorganized his host and prepared to move west. The general thrust of this strategy was that the Lannisters were weak and divided by geography. Tywin Lannister was in an extremely tough spot. Renly Baratheon and his Tyrell allies were slowly advancing northeast towards King’s Landing while Robb Stark and the Tullys were northwest of his position.
In this position, Robb made a fateful decision. He decided to move West to attack the Westerlands. He left Edmure Tully in command of the Riverlands. After leaving (vague – we’ll get to this in pt 3) instructions to Edmure Tully, Robb Stark and Brynden Blackfish led a (again) mostly mounted force west.
Now here I’m going to admit confusion. Was Robb’s intent to take the Westerlands while they were weak, sacking and burning the Westerlands? Or was it rather like what Brynden Tully says to Edmure in ASOS?
“We planned to run Lord Tywin a merry chase up and down the coast, then slip behind him to take up a strong defensive position athwart the gold road, at a place my scouts had found where the ground would have been greatly in our favor…” – ASOS, Chapter 14, Catelyn II
To this end, I’m not entirely sure whether this was the strategy or a way for Robb Stark and Brynden Tully to CYA for their failures, but again, I’ll get to that later.
Turning back to the Westerlands campaign, Robb and the Blackfish learned that a new Lannister host was being raised at Oxcross by Tywin Lannister’s cousin Ser Stafford Lannister. The problem in confronting this force lay in the terrain. The road leading to Oxcross ran into the Golden Tooth with high mountains running west to east on both sides. The Golden Tooth was a traditional choke-point to the movement of any Army towards Lannisport and Casterly Rock. The question of how to get around the Golden Tooth probably plagued Robb (We don’t know – no POV sadly), but a solution came to him at some point: GreyWind.
“He (Robb) slipped around it at night. It’s said the direwolf showed him the way…” – ACOK, Chapter 39, Catelyn V
One of the more interesting responses I received yesterday came from /u/I_Said] who posited that Robb warged into Greywind to accomplish this task. I don’t have an opinion on it, but it’s plausible to me that Robb would use the wolf and his senses to accomplish this objective. Bran warged into Summer to save Jon Snow for instance, but I digress.
Having successfully passed through the Golden Tooth without detection, Robb continued in his good tactical footing by having the Blackfish and his scouts kill any Lannister outriders. There were few enough to kill, as Stafford Lannister foolishly believed that he was completely safe on account of the terrain. (Note: no matter how great your position is, a dedicated enemy can and will find a way to kill you.) The Lannister scouts dead, Robb descended on the host utilizing one of my favorite terms: violence of action, that is: moving quickly and violently in order to leave your enemies, scattered, leaderless and unable to defend themselves from the onslaught. The result was a rout. The new Lannister host was destroyed, Ser Stafford Lannister was dead and the Westerlands were ripe for plunder.
Ashemark fell to the Stark/Tully host and was sacked partially in retribution for the burning that the Lannisters did in the Riverlands, but more practically to re-supply his Army. Galbart Glover and Rickard Karstark raided the coast along the coast of the Sunset Sea, the Mormonts captured livestock and sent the cattle back to Riverrun. Finally and most importantly, the Greajon Umber seized the goldmines in Castamere. This seizure of the gold and denial of a source of income may have been the linchpin which forced Tywin to move west, though that’s a topic for debate.
While Robb’s leal lords upended the Westerland economy, Robb moved toward the Craig…
I did not get as far as I wanted to in this post, meaning that I’ll do a part 3 next week (if folks are interested) which will deal with Edmure/Roose, the Westerlings and y’know finally delve into my theory of Robb as the worst strategic thinker of the War of the Five Kings. I hope I’ve demonstrated enough in this post and the previous one how formidable of a tactician I think Robb was (Remember, I think he was the greatest tactician in the war) and set the stage for why I consider Robb the worst strategist.
Unclear and Unconcise: Robb’s Intent
“If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But, if orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their oficers.” – Sun Tzu
Earlier, I painted the picture of Robb Stark as the greatest tactician of the War of the Five Kings. However, the second part of my thesis was that Robb Stark was the worst strategist of the War of the Five Kings. In this last section, I’ll demonstrate why I think so.
So while Robb and Brynden were out west defeating untested/untrained Lannister hosts and generally sacking/raiding their way from the Golden Tooth to the Sunset Sea, Edmure Tully, Robb’s Uncle, was left to defend the Riverlands. A major point of contention is what instructions Robb and the Blackfish left with Edmure before they departed for their merry campaign. We don’t get a POV of the instructions in real-time, but when Robb and his host returned to Riverrun from the Westerlands, they made the following claim.
“You were commanded to hold Riverrun, Edmure, no more.” – ASOS, Chapter 14, Catelyn II
How clear were those instructions? Let’s take a quick look at how the U.S. Army plans their missions via the Operation Order . Now, I won’t go into detail and explain how Robb didn’t follow the NATO classes of supply or failed to properly account for MOPP-level planning, because that’s both ridiculous and entirely unfair. However, I will point your attention to Paragraph III, Execution and specifically to the first sub-paragraph: Intent defined as “A stated vision that defines the purpose of an operation and the end state.” This is an ancient concept, not a modern one. Intent is the key to communicating purpose and end-state to subordinate leaders like Edmure Tully. Was Robb’s intent briefed to Edmure? I don’t think so.
“Lord Stannis was about to fall upon King’s Landing,” Robb said. “He might have rid us of Joffrey, the queen and the Imp in one red stroke. Then we might have been able to make a peace.
Edmure looked from uncle to nephew. “You never told me.”
Now, let me ask a simple question. Is the command “hold Riverrun” a clear and concise intent? To me, it absolutely is not. In his essay, The Riverrun Decision Stefan Sasse makes the following statement:
A lord is sworn to defend all his subjects, and in contrast to some (hi there, Brynden), Edmure takes his oath seriously. He can be no lord if he hides behind the castle walls, a point that is made through the series time and time again, because he would violate his oath and be seen as a coward, which is nothing a lord could stand for if he ever wants to command respect and obedience among his vassals.
This point rings true to me. Lacking a clear, concise intent from his commander, Edmure set about defending Riverrun and the Riverlands when the Lannister host moved from Harrenhal in an attempt to make it to the Westerlands. Edmure and his banner lords met Tywin’s host near the Red Fork in a series of engagements known as the Battle of the Fords. And let’s give credit to where it’s due. Edmure actually turned out to be a pretty decent tactician. Utilizing the wooded terrain to conceal his numbers, Edmure was able to successfully repulse assault after assault by Tywin Lannister and Gregor Clegane. He also utilized his key assets wisely, holding his heavy lance in reserve and placing scorpions and archers at key terrain points to kill enemy soldiers at their most exposed point (crossing the river). The effect was that the Lannisters were thrown back, key Lannister lords were killed and the Riverlands were safe. All was well until Robb and the Blackfish arrived back in Riverrun…
For his actions, Edmure received praise in public and utter damnation in private from his commander when he returned from the Westerlands. The intent all along, you see, was for Tywin and his host to pass through the Riverlands.
“We planned to run Lord Tywin a merry chase up and down the coast, then slip behind him to take up a strong defensive position athwart the gold road, at a place my scouts had found where the ground would have been greatly in our favor…” – ASOS, Chapter 14, Catelyn II
Well, that sounds like a pretty decent plan, doesn’t it? It almost sounds like the type of plan you’d probably brief the guy who’s supposed to lead your rear detachment so he doesn’t, y’know, fuck up your plan by blocking Tywin Lannister’s westward advance…
Final point on Edmure/Robb: It’s very possible that the ‘merry chase’ strategy was one that was thought up by Robb Stark and Brynden Tully to guilt Edmure into marrying one of the Frey girls to re-cement the shattered Frey/Stark alliance. Robb, being 16, had sex with Jeyne Westerling after being wounded at the Crag and then married her out of a sense of duty. But in doing his duty, Robb shattered the alliance with the Freys. Without the Freys, Robb saw no pathway to victory. So the theory is that Robb Stark and Brynden Tully left for the Westerlands without much of a strategy and then retroactively came up with this grand strategy, casting all the blame at Edmure’s feet, so as to force him into marrying a daughter of Walder Frey. To me, this is plausible but not wholly convincing. I do think that the merry chase strategy was decided from the outset or fairly early on. I don’t think it was communicated at all to Edmure. And lest we forget, it wasn’t Robb who suggested Edmure’s marriage.
“We must win back the Freys,” said Robb. “With them, we still have some chance of success, however small. Without them, I see no hope. I am willing to give Lord Walder whatever he requires… apologies, honors, lands, gold… there must be something that would sooth his pride…”
“Not something,” said Catelyn. “Someone.”
Deadly Friends: Roose Bolton
“Treason is like diamonds; there is nothing to be made by the small trader.” – Douglas Jerrold
From the start of the northern rebellion, Robb had one key confidant whom he (never should have) trusted: Roose Bolton. Lord of the Dreadfort (even the goddamn name is ominous) and future Warden of the North, Roose Bolton was key to Robb’s early strategy of bottling up Tywin Lannister at the Green Fork while he (Robb) moved to relieve the siege of Riverrun. Now, we all know how it turns out, but I want to talk a little about Roose Bolton prior to the Red Wedding, when he turned on Robb and how inattentive senior leadership on Robb’s part played a decisive role in letting Roose operate the way he did.
So, when we last left Roose Bolton, he was just east of the Twins having been defeated by Tywin Lannister at the Green Fork. What were his orders at that point? Well first, he was no longer being commanded by Robb Stark. When Robb left for the Westerlands, he fell under Edmure Tully’s command. Edmure Tully then ordered Roose Bolton to re-take Harrenhal which he did by bribing Vargo Hoat and the Brave Companions to turn cloak on the Lannisters.
“I think it stands to reason that Roose sent those Stark-loyalists against Tywin knowing full-well what the likely result was. Due to his lack of morals or misgivings or loyalty, Lord Bolton saw a win-win situation. The one thing he had to make sure of was that he himself didn’t get close to any harm, and he did that very successfully, retreating after seeing a full 33% of his host get chopped up.”
Was Roose killing off loyal Stark bannermen in an attempt to position himself for the future? I actually kind of think is plausible. Roose’s orders were to block Tywin’s advance into the Riverlands so that Robb and his main host could attack Riverrun. Instead, he chose to attack the Lannisters, and wound up defeated, losing a lot of soldiers, but few to none (as /u/indianthane95) of his own Dreadfort men. GRRM, himself, is a bit opaque on the subject itself, though he seems to hint at Bolton’s treason from the get-go.
Besides failures of communicating his intent, one of Robb’s other key strategic failures was mis-managing his subordinate leaders. And let’s not judge him too harshly, Robb’s liege lords both in the Riverlands and the North are all (unless I’m misremembering) older than him and most have battlefield experience. Roose Bolton, for instance, served under Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon at the Battle of the Trident. So, it stands to reason that Robb would have little reason not to trust in their ability. And yet, Robb’s generals go badly mismanaged. From Edmure in the Riverlands (lack of clear intent) to Roose at Harrenhal, Robb just sort of lets them do their thing. And for a while it works. The Riverlands aren’t the focus of Robb’s campaign in ACOK. Edmure and Roose’s efforts are a sideshow, so Robb doesn’t need to really need to manage his subordinates, right?
This is a pretty serious error on Robb’s part as we’ll see with the Disaster at Duskendale and Roose Bolton. And before we move too much further along, it’s worth remembering that Robb told his mother that Roose Bolton scared him. So, there was an element of fear/mistrust that Robb had for the man. And yet, he gave him a wide berth, and by wide berth, I mean the widest. No orders, no commands, no recall for (intentionally) mismanaging the war. These types of decisions that are essential for an Army commander to make were simply not made.
So, picking up the story again, Roose suddenly orders Robett Glover and Ser Helman Tallhart to seize Duskendale , a strategic point located northeast of King’s Landing. They are set upon by Randyll Tarly and Gregor Clegane who wipe the Northern host out. We, as readers, are initially led to believe that this was all Robett Glover’s doing, but eventually we find out that the disaster was implemented and planned by Roose Bolton, who by this point has fully turned cloak. Small theory: in addition to simply putting Glover and Tallhart in a position to die, Roose informed the Lannisters of the location and direction of the attack which allowed Clegan and Tarly to plan the best terrain for their attack and fully rout the northerners.
After being summoned to the Twins for Edmure’s marriage, Roose continues to let loyal Stark bannermen die on the way up while keeping disloyal Dreadfort men away from danger. He accomplished this by slowly moving to the Twins and when they reached the Ruby Ford, he safely evacuated Dreadfort men while leaving 2000 loyal Stark men behind who were set upon by Gregor Clegane.
Strokes of Brilliance at the End
“So long as Theon Greyjoy sits in your father’s seat with your brothers’ blood on his hands, these other foes must wait,” Catelyn told her son. “Your first duty is to defend your own people, win back Winterfell, and hang Theon in a crow’s cage to die slowly. Or else put off that crown for good, Robb, for men will know that you are no king at all.” – ASOS, Chapter 14, Catelyn II
A point I didn’t bring up in the previous installments is how impossible Robb’s strategic picture was. Having (foolishly in my opinion) dispatched his closest friend Theon to the Iron Islands to bring the Greyjoys into an alliance, Robb was stunned when the Ironborn launched a full-scale invasion of a weakened north. To top it all off, a further blow came when Robb was told that Winterfell had been put to the torch by the *Ironborn.
But more to the point, Robb was left in an untenable position whereby he was fighting in one place while his kingdom was held by another. On a personal level, I can’t imagine the thoughts that would have gone through my head had my homeland been seized while I was in Afghanistan. I can’t think of a worse morale-crusher than this for the northern rebels. Robb Stark was a king without a kingdom, and let’s face it, the Riverlands weren’t a part of the Kingdom of the North originally and served only to broaden the territory Robb was forced to defend. Read more here . But I digress.
At the start of ASOS, Robb is about to be cornered by 3 armies to his south, east and west. Tywin and the Tyrells are in KL, Gregor Clegane is in Duskendale and a new host is being formed by Devan Lannister in the Westerlands (ASOS, Tyrion III). At this point, Robb finally sees the precariousness of his situation and opts to move back north to retake the north from the Ironborn. In this, we see strokes of tactical brilliance again. Robb’s would attack Moat Cailin from two sides and would re-conquer the north, but that was not meant to be. Realizing he needed the Freys again, he attempted to re-secure the alliance through Edmure’s marriage. The Red Wedding followed.
I’ve really enjoyed writing this. Comments and suggestions are welcome below!