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Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part V: Ladders are Chaos

41 min read
https://acoup.blog/2020/05/28/collections-the-battle-of-helms-deep-part-v-ladders-are-chaos/

This is is the fifth part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III, IV) from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. In our last two parts, we looked at the organization of the two opposing forces. In particular, we noted that while Saruman had built what appeared to be a professional force capable of complex operations, in practice he had not done the legwork in organization or training to actually facilitate those complex operations. This week, we’ll see those flaws in action, as we look at the conduct of Saruman’s host’s siege operations, along with Théoden’s last minute defensive preparations. How can an understanding of medieval siege warfare inform the catastrophe that is Saruman’s fortress assault? And how do the organizational failings of his army lead to their tactical failings on the battlefield?

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Investing in Preparation for your Prepared Defenses to be Invested

But before we get to ladders and explosions, we ought to talk about the steps Théoden is taking to prepare for a siege. And I know it feels like we are taking forever to get to the actual assault, but that is really the point: effective siegework, on either the offense or the defense, depends mostly on preparation. Film tends to elide away this element, but even an assault that ends a siege often comes as the result of months of careful planning and preparation.

And in the film, Théoden has some work to do. The Helm’s Gate fortress complex as we see it is clearly old and hasn’t been well-maintained, particularly the Hornburg itself – a lot of the crenellations (the term for the zig-zag stonework at the top of castle walls, which is designed to provide effective firing cover and hinder attackers attempting to scale the wall) are clearly cracked or worn, as is a lot of the general stonework. There is just generally a lot of disrepair here and not nearly enough time to fix it all with good masonry.

Pictured: A whole lot of elves not fully protected by this wall. And what purpose do the firing slits serve if you are just going to shoot over the wall anyway?

(A brief aside as this goes nowhere else. While normally I think Jackson’s set team did an excellent job, the defenses at Helm’s Deep are actually a rare exception, especially on the Deeping Wall. When viewed at a distance, it looks fine enough – there are merlons with firing slits in them. Terminology note: in that zig-zag stonework pattern, the merlon is the high part of the design, the crenel is the open space between the merlons to allow for firing, and the entire system is known as crenellation, which for some reason spellcheck believes is spelled with one ‘l’ but is in fact spelled with two). The slits are wider facing outward to allow a wider range of firing angles and narrow on the inside to protect the archers. So far so good. Except that when we get close, we see these merlons are only about chest high; no part of the Deeping Wall’s crenelation reaches head-height (except for Gimli). Consequently, the archers on the wall are exposed from the chest up. That in turn makes the crenels useless, because you aren’t fighting through them, but over the merlons. This is not how castle walls were designed; rather, the merlons should offer complete cover for the archer, who can then step around to the lower crenels to fire, while still shielding his body behind the merlon.)

Gimli, making correct usage of the Merlon while a bunch of Elves randomly stand out with most of their vital organs exposed to enemy missile fire.

Disrepair was a common problem for defenders. Maintaining major fortifications like this is expensive and difficult. Earthworks – like dry moats (essentially trenches) used to block approaching infantry and crucially siege equipment – need to be re-dug regularly, as the natural action of wind and erosion will erase them from the landscape quite quickly. Buildings, trees and other obstructions need to be removed to clear sight and firing lines (which often means rendering some of the most valuable land completely unproductive). And even stonework is vulnerable to erosion and damage, especially stonework that is part of a living working city (and may also be scavenged for usable masonry by less scrupulous types). The frantic rush to repair city fortifications when it becomes clear that a town or city might find itself in a war zone is a common-place of ancient and medieval war narratives for good reason!

Théoden probably has the labor for many of these tasks, but nothing like the time to do them in. Instead we see him focusing, quite sensibly on what he can do before the main enemy force arrives; he may well still be hoping that they will settle in for a longer preperatory phase which will buy him the time to reinforce some of the stone defenses as well. The gate is quickly reinforced with heavy timbers, and we see the construction of wooden hoarding (temporary defensive enhancements atop walls that usually project outwards from the stonework, designed to allow the defenders to drop or fire things at attackers at the foot of the wall safely) over the gate.

Men of Rohan, reinforcing the gate of the Hornburg. In the books, once the gate is breached, they construct a makeshift barricade in its place, something we do not see in the film.

He also marshals all of his available manpower and sets watches. That second issue may seem trivial, but actually keeping watch over even a moderate circuit of walls – especially at night – is hard. You need watchmen and a system to make sure they are awake and attentive. Remember, at this point, Théoden thinks he may be in for a long siege, rather than a quick assault. Many castles fell because a lapse in the watch routine or a traitor inside the fortress allowed the attackers to sneak even just a small force of soldiers into a single tower; Antioch (1098) famously fell this way. So delegating a trusted subordinate the job of making sure the watch rotation is ample and regular is a key task, as is making sure that there is enough manpower available to stand all those shifts without exhausting your defenders.

For any army somehow, inexplicably facing assault within the day – no, I am not going to stop complaining about the film’s nonsense operational timeline, thank you – this is the right set of priorities and Théoden sets about them with energy and determination. If he had a week or two, we might expect fresh stonework or earthwork fortifications, but he hasn’t the time. We’ll deal with the Aragorn-vs-Théoden undercurrent of this scene a bit later in this series, but I want to note that Peter Jackson has – quite unintentionally, I think – captured Théoden’s workmanlike generaling well. His defense plan – lay provisions, set watches, assume that 10,000 Uruks cannot be maintained in the field for any length of time – is simple, solid and effective. It isn’t the flashy, defense-in-depth effort by Denethor, but it doesn’t need to be. Especially since the terrain in front of the fortress has little natural defense, Théoden’s plan is a good one – trying to get ‘fancy’ would likely only lead to unnecessary losses in the open ground before the fortress.

Book Note: Book!Théoden has both more and less to do in the run-up to the battle. He has less to do, in part, because his infrastructure position is much better. The book version of the Hornburg isn’t badly run-down, but has in fact been recently renovated by Théoden’s local commander in the field (good choice of leadership there; Erkenbrand takes over quite well when Théodred is slain). We are told that Erkenbrand, “as the days darkened with the threat of war, being wise, he had repaired the wall and made the fastness strong” (TT, 157). As noted above, this kind of renovation under the threat of war occurred all the time – there simply were not enough resources to keep every major fort and population center’s fortifications up to spec at all times. It shows some foresight that Erkenbrand had reinforced the one fortress that would matter (though as becomes clear in the Unfinished Tales, the Ford at the Isen had also been given moderate fortifications). Saruman ought to have had this place under observation, and the renovation of its defenses rightly should have concerned him a great deal.

But the biggest change here is in the topography, in particular the existence of an outer layer of fortification: Helm’s Dike, an earthwork rampart which was located some distance out from the fortress. Éomer gives the distance as two furlongs, which is 440 yards; he also describes it as ‘ancient’ (TT, 159). The distance between the dike and the main fortress always puzzled me. Lower secondary outwalls were a fairly common way of strengthening a defense, as they prevented siege equipment from closing with the wall, provided a safe skirmishing position for advanced troops and could be built to both prevent artillery fire (catapults and later cannon) from being directed against the base of a wall – the ideal spot to produce a breach – while not disrupting the lines of missile fire from soldiers atop the primary wall. You can see these sorts of elements combined, famously, in Constantinople’s Theodosian Walls. But the dike is too far out to be supported by the main wall; it might serve to allow an advance force to keep artillery away from the wall, but without supporting missile fire from the main defenses, it could not be long held (and isn’t, in the event). What it does do is protect the rearguard of a retreating army and enforce an early amount of friction on the approaching Uruks, but I can’t help but thinking that moving it back about 240 yards would have made it far more valuable as an outwork. If this were a historical fortress, I’d start probing older settlement patterns to try to find out if the Dike originally encompassed some (now abandoned) settlement, because that’s the only reason I can think of for placing it so far out.

Éomer, rather than Théoden, arranges the defense and here his information is better than in the film. Éomer benefits from the more ample scouting arrangements that Théoden has in the books – he knows an assault is coming very soon, so he immediately mans the walls, concentrating his strength on the weakest defenses (TT, 160). The rearguard is left at the Dike (TT, 161) which provides warning, a limited defense in depth and crucially creates a window for any stragglers from Théoden’s or Erkenbrand’s forces to regroup at the fortress. Meanwhile, Gamling had already seen to the provisions of the fortress, in case the assault turned into a siege (TT, 160). So although the circumstances – especially time, force and information – are different, in both cases, the Rohirrim set in and prepare effectively, focusing on the more immediate and important concerns first. That preparation will serve them well in the battle to come. Unlike…

Ladders

The best way to talk about Saruman’s preparation is going to be to actually let the assault unfold and deliver comments as it goes. When discussing how the assault plays out, it is important to recognize that Saruman must have known he would assault this place for far longer than any of the Rohirrim (even book!Erkenbrand, who has evidently been repairing the Hornburg for what one assumes is at least months) could have known they would need to defend it. Saruman has had years to consider his assault – something the Rohirrim are well aware of (TT, 158). If his army hasn’t trained and prepared for this, that’s a terrible planning oversight, if they have trained and prepared for this, and this is the best he could do, then that is an even deeper failing in both developing capabilities but also in strategic judgment for opening this war so unprepared.

Because this is almost a textbook course on how not to assault a fortress.

Book Note: While in the film, the assault opens with the Uruk army making an unopposed approach, the more complex book topography makes this a battle in stages. Théoden has left a rearguard of Westfolders (TT, 161) at the dike; they “gallop” back, so he must have left horses with them. We are not told but may guess that Gamling was still in command there. As the rearguard reports as it returned, it “loosed every arrow” at the approaching force and then retreated in good order (TT, 161). The army had approached with torches, which had made them easy marks for the Rohirrim archers (TT, 162). What is then absolutely stunning is that Saruman’s host does not leave a force behind to defend the Dike. If the dispersion after forcing the ford is the first moment we might point to as a decisive, catastrophic failure, this is the second. Countervallation – making a wall around your siege lines facing outward – is a standard siege technique all the way from antiquity. We’ll talk about it more in just a moment. But when your enemy countervallates for you, to then not man those prepared defenses with even a token force is just stunning.

Given the preparation time, there ought to have been an advance unit (probably mounted infantry) which would have been specifically tasked to take the Dike – which as the text notes, was too wide to be defended effectively by Rohan’s smaller force (TT, 159) – and then hold it as a rearguard while the main army assaulted the fortress. Had this been done, Erkenbrand’s later rescuing force would have found themselves attacking a superior force against prepared defenses and likely without the benefit of surprise (as Saruman’s rearguard would have spotted them). But, as we established, Saruman’s host is not well led, and seems to lack the organizational capability to split forces over multiple tasks like this; it proves a fatal vulnerability.

Yes, Old Man and Adolescent Young Man – Hold your 80+lbs bows at full draw. And hold. And hold. And hold.
Seriously, holding a proper warbow at full draw is difficult and tires you out very rapidly; hunting bows, with their much lower pull weights, are not really a good proxy for what a warbow is like.

Saruman’s army approaches the fortress and initial begins demonstrating – making noise, banging spears and so on – in an effort to demoralize the defenders. Attempting to demoralize the defense is a good tactic and we’ll talk more about it in a later part in this series. Though I should note that if you are going to have your army demonstrate, you ought to do it either with shields raised or out of bowshot. As it stands, the Rohirrim archers knock arrows and draw their bows, apparently without orders and then…just hold them at full draw. For about thirty seconds (yes, I timed it); given what I’ve seen of modern warbow shooting, I wouldn’t expect an arrow to be held anymore than is necessary to finish aiming, perhaps 3 seconds at most. So, this fits nowhere else, but war bows feature very high poundage draws, far higher than hunting bows. This is a problem in all sorts of fiction where people point and draw war bows at each other like they are pointing guns – guns do not require you to exert 80+lbs of force to simply keep the arrow steady. I don’t blame this old fellow for loosing his arrow; I blame his commander for letting the men draw their bows too early.

Everyone acts like the old archer fellow has just fouled up, but seriously! He nails this Uruk in the neck in the rain from what must be at least a hundred yards away, in the dark! If Rohan had more of these old archer fellows and fewer Elves, I don’t think the Uruks would have even made the walls!

(I should note, this isn’t just a problem with the Rohirrim. Aragorn gives the order that gets subtitled “Prepare to fire!” – which, given that he has never seen gunpowder, one assumed he wouldn’t ever think to ask anyone to ‘fire’ a bow – and the elves respond by knocking and drawing arrows and then holding them, waiting about 15 seconds for the order to release (mercifully, not to ‘fire’). While clear information on medieval mass-archery tactics is very hard to come by (except for basic positioning) it doesn’t seem like volley fire was normal. It would have been very difficult, given the poundage of the bows, to hold for volleys like this. And it does no good to claim that these are elves – Legolas does not appear to be massively stronger than his companions.)

Book Note: The exchange in the book is a bit more complex. The defenders are hiding behind the ramparts as Saruman’s host approaches, and the latter begins attempting to suppress the defenders with arrows (TT, 162), but the defenders hold their response – presumably preserving arrows and stamina for when the arrows will be most useful. This unexpected lack of reply causes Saruman’s host to stall out for a moment “foiled by the silent menace of rock and wall” (TT, 162) which again speaks to insufficient drill, training and leadership. There ought to be a host of junior officers and NCOs already getting their troops moving, rather than standing dumbfounded because the enemy did not return fire as expected. But given what we’ve already discussed about Saruman’s lack of proper preparation, the fact that his army falls apart every time anything goes even a little bit sideways is not a huge surprise.

Saruman’s host then charges the wall, without any clear order, in one dense mass, in an effort to raise ladders against the walls. The technical term for this sort of assault is escalade – an effort to go over the walls with ladders or ramps. I’ve seen the presence of these ladders offered as evidence that this army was well prepared to assault this fortress; alas, no. Saruman’s forces are launching perhaps the worst version of what Clifford Rogers terms “hasty assaults” something he notes failed in most cases (Rogers, op. cit. 117). How does this go wrong? Let’s count the ways.

The dense, disorganized mass of Uruks charging through the arrow fire. While the film cuts neatly to make them get through this fairly quickly, bowshot – being about 200 yards – would typically take around a minute or so to charge through (remember, these fellows are moving on muddy ground, in armor, and they are not Usain Bolt); the archers might be averaging something like six shots a minute.
In short you do not want to give them this neat a target, especially if you are not using any kind of cover or shields.

First, the Uruks charge without any kind of cover and get torn up by the responding arrow-fire. Not only do they not carry shields, they also don’t carry any kind of portable cover or screens – commonly called mantlets – which were normally used for this kind of approach. Moreover, rather than approaching in clear specialist teams with specific jobs – ideally limiting the number of Uruks in bowshot and thus making it more difficult for the elven archers to hit their targets – they charge in a mass that is both dense and disorganized, which is a rare feat of bad soldiering. We see some brief attempt at suppression fire against the walls, but it begins far too late (after the initial, devastating volley) and is nowhere near sufficient to actually silence the incoming arrows.

And then they raise ladders. Ladder assaults on castles are an absolute staple of historical fiction and they did happen. As Rogers notes, such ‘hasty assaults’ were typically launched as soon as possible, in the hopes of catching the defender unawares and quickly gaining the wall. There would almost always be a backup plan, because ladder assaults usually failed. If you could do anything other than a ladder assault – use a siege tower (in the period generally called belfries), have a covered ram, sap under the walls, build a ramp over the wall, bribe a traitor, anything – you did that instead.

To be clear, the plan here is to run a 200m dash, then lift a heavy ladder, then rapidly climb that ladder and then be ready to immediately fight multiple Elven swordsmen. While probably still out of breath from the charge.
Good luck. With. That.

It takes just a moment’s thought to realize how vulnerable an attacker is when climbing the ladder – he can probably keep his shield above his head, but he has no easy access to his sidearm (needing his other hand to steady himself on the ladder). Moreover, he is fighting an opponent on firm ground, who benefits from the walls cover, who may simply drop rocks on him, while the attacker is stuck trying to defend himself in uncertain footing on a ladder. Such a plan might work against a wall that was thinly defended, where the attackers might be able to get someone over the wall somewhere and then force a cascading failure. But the Uruks are attempting this sort of assault against disciplined elves in heavy armor arrayed several ranks deep on the wall. To be honest, the biggest problem with this scene is that the Uruks get any purchase on the wall at all – most of which seems to involve unarmored Uruks cutting down multiple plate-armored elves with a single stroke, something that is deeply silly in ways that we will discuss next week.

What ought to actually happen is that every Uruk over the wall would be immediately beset by something like half a dozen different weapons (the elf to his front, right, left and the three behind them). The first Uruks, balancing atop the ladders, are unarmored and so will fall almost instantly, while the Uruks climbing up behind them in armor are unlikely to last much longer. Ask anyone who has ever done any amount of sparring with close-combat weapons what it is like to face even two opponents in confined quarters; these Uruks are facing six elven swordmen a piece. Even if they get a small toehold, the density of the elves means that they don’t benefit from the cascading failure we might see against a weakly defended wall. This was never going to work.

It is awfully sporting for this plate-and-mail armored Elven warriors, likely with decades if not centuries of experience on their weapons, to simply stand there and let this Uruk do his giant round-house swing, without making any effort to attack the unarmored portion of his body, which is all of it. Any one of these fellows might easily parry that sword, allowing any other one of these fellows to easily stab this Uruk to death.

Which is fine, because it was never intended to work. Looking forward, the ladder assault was clearly intended as a distracting demonstration so that the work of mining the wall with the ‘blasting fire’ could proceed unhindered. Except in that case, the ladder assault might well have been profitably done with far fewer Uruks and at only a few points in the wall. As it stands, Saruman’s host hurls much of its strength in high-casualty, low-impact assaults against the walls to little purpose in a wasteful display of poor generalship. One assumes Saruman thought this would be fine because his numerical superiority was so great that the losses would mean little; if so, he was obviously wrong.

What is most surprising is just how unprepared the Uruks are for even this sort of basic escalade operation. The ladder-bearers advance in dense order – rather than spaced out to limit the effectiveness of enemy missile fire. They have no cover. Basic movable cover – man-sized wooden mantlets on rollers, for instance – are just not that hard to make or difficult to transport and Saruman has had ages to get ready for this. And as we’ll see, their best ranged suppression option – primitive catapults – arrives too late to offer fire-support to protect the force attacking the wall. Consequently, the Uruks attacking the walls take far more casualties than necessary in an assault that was a diversion in any event.

Book Note: The initial stage against the Deeping Wall plays out much the same in the books, using ropes and ladders (TT, 165). Given just how much more competent the Witch King’s assault on Minas Tirith is, I don’t think this is error by Tolkien so much as an intentional contrast between Saruman’s arrogant presumption of strength and Sauron’s actual strength.

The major difference in the overall assault, both with the ladders and at the gate, is Tolkien’s description of it coming like waves, with Sarumon’s host charging, breaking, reforming and trying again (TT, 162). This is far truer to the nature of such attacks than the endless cresting wave of the film. Assaulting a wall is terrifying stuff and the attacker’s courage will only hold them so long in the face of stiff resistance. It is not uncommon, both in sieges but also in open battles, to hear of forces attacking, being repulsed, backing off to a distance, reforming and trying again, sometimes several times

Gimli, holding two ladders at the same time, by striking each Uruk before they can defend themselves. Imagine how much better he could do with a weapon with greater reach, like a spear!

Battering Rams

The next stage in the film is the attack on the gate of the Hornburg with a battering ram moved up the causeway (we’ll come to the mining effort in a moment, which is happening at much the same time).

Book Note: This reverses the order of attacks in the book, where the first effort on the gate of the Hornburg is made before we transition to the walls. This may in part be a consequence of Tolkien’s writing viewpoint centered on Aragorn and Éomer, as they begin on the Deeping Wall, but rush to the gate to perform a sally, then rush back to the Deeping Wall which is already heavily engaged (TT, 163-5), so it is possible the attacks were simultaneous. Whereas in the film, the ladders are already up the walls by the time the assault on the gate begins marching up the causeway.

The Uruks advance in a sort-of-testudo formation, keeping their shields above their heads to cover them from the missile fire coming off of the Hornburg. This is at least better and more organized than the charge against the walls. But here again, Saruman’s poor preparation work shows – Aragorn, spotting the column moving up the causeway, is able to redirect arrow-fire from the Deeping Wall into the vulnerable flank of the advancing orcs (the technical term for this fire-from-the-side is ‘enfilade fire’ – receiving enfilade fire is very very bad, particularly so in the gunpowder era. Even without gunpowder, it is hard to defend from attacks coming from the side and ranged troops firing at a dense mass like this can hardly miss).

Uruks bringing up the ram in the worst way possible, by knocking their fellows off of the high causeway to their almost certain falling death. Why wasn’t this planned for, with an interval left in the center so that the ram might be passed up?

Again, Saruman has had years to observe the Helm’s Gate fortress-complex and its defenses. The possibility of enfilade fire from the projecting tower beneath the Hornburg (on the Deeping Wall) should have been anticipated, if for no other reason that that producing enfilade fire is what projecting towers are for. The purpose of a projecting tower is so that men on it can fire down the length of the wall; it cannot have escaped an astute observer that this field of fire would include the very exposed causeway. Moreover, the Uruk team tasked with taking the gate ought to have been specially picked out, trained and prepared for this task. For a professional force like this one, it would not have been strange to learn that they would have built their own mock Hornburg and run assaults on it with that unit over and over again to get everything down. Surely someone, at some point ought to have brought up, “Hey, chief, maybe we should make sure to also have our shields out to the left side, towards the Deeping Wall, so we don’t take heavy losses from enfilade fire?”

And then this long line of Uruks reaches the top of the causeway and produces their great weapon: an uncovered battering ram. Naturally, it isn’t carried by some specialist unit near the front, but is rushed up the center of the causeway, throwing Uruks to their death by shoving them down as it goes, because if it isn’t already obvious by now, this entire attack is catastrophically poorly planned. Rams like this were almost always covered – that is they were protected by a movable shed, sometimes on wheels, sometimes carried. Men working a ram cannot protect themselves (because their hands are on the ram) and – as we see here – it is all too easy for men up on the gatehouse or on the hoarding to simply throw anything at them. Popular culture has seized on boiling oil, but more often cheap things were used – boiling water, heated sand, plain old heavy rocks – to equally brutal effect. Covering the ram wasn’t merely a question of casualty aversion – each ram-bearer who was scalded to death, shot or crushed under thrown rocks would disrupt the rhythm of the ramming action.

(As an aside, we see a lot of these rocks being thrown just bouncing off with almost no effect – because they are props made of light, safe materials. Actually having a thrown piece of masonry bounce off of your halmet would be far more unpleasant. Also very likely disabling or fatal – a heavy rock thrown from a wall can strike with a lot more force than a (far lighter) sword and there is a real limit to even what a solid helmet with a good helmet-liner (made of quilted textile) can do in terms of absorbing blunt force trauma; on this note S. James, “The Point of the Sword” in Waffen in Aktion, ed. A.W. Busch and H.J. Schalles (2010).)

This doesn’t fit anywhere else, but this is such a strange thing to do – one a small hole is made in the gate, the Uruks lean through it to fire crossbows at Rohirrim who are, at most, just a few feet behind the door (you can see one fellow just there to the left). Why use slow, heavy, difficult to reload crossbows, instead of just using a spear? And why don’t the Rohirrim respond with spears and swords, given that the Uruks are almost leaning through the gap?
This is another example of Hollywood treating bows and crossbows like modern guns when they very much are not. It’s almost as bad as those scenes of people being held at bow or crossbow-point, instead of at spear or sword point.

Nevertheless, by sheer weight of numbers – and the inexplicably non-lethal Rohirrim heavy rocks – the Uruk-hai reach the gate and begin battering it down, forcing Aragorn and Gimli to launch a daring sally attack from a hidden door on the side of the causeway. This is a good place to note that defenders in sieges were not just passively awaiting attacks. Parties might try to sally out to damage or destroy enemy works, inflict casualties, raid supplies, or just generally inflict fatigue and terror on the besiegers, as at the Roman siege of Lilybaeum (250-241 B.C.) or Avaricum (52 B.C.). Aragorn’s effort here is fairly modest; his aim is to disable the ram and clear the gate so it can be reinforced, which he does quite handily. The silly thing here is that the sally port – a common feature of castle design – requires jumping over a death-drop to actually get anywhere (odd choice) and that the sally is done with just two people, instead of siphoning off some of the mass of infantry Théoden has with him.

Book Note: The sally in the books (TT, 162-4) is more realistic. There is no leaping over a dangerous chasm and the sally consists of more than just two people. Instead, it is Aragorn, Éomer, Gimli and a small company of Rohirrim swordsmen. Whereas Aragorn and Gimli in the film actually hold the gate against a continous attack while it is repaired, the book is a bit more realistic: the sudden terror of the onset of the sally causes the enemies at the ram to flee, creating a momentary lull in the battle during which the sally party can return inside the gate and reinforce it. That a sally such as this – catching an enemy focused on the task before them in the flank – would panic and scatter them in this way is no surprise. Humans fight battles in a terrible balance of fear; it does not take much of a sudden shock to send them running, even if just for the moment. Especially when they are so poorly trained and led as Saruman’s host.

One of the largest differences in this analysis is the timing of the mine (which we’ll discuss in a moment). In the film, it comes before the sally (in part because the chronology of the entire battle is compressed, so Aragorn hardly has time to be running up to the keep, down to the wall and back again), which means that in the film, by the time the sally clears the gate, the Deeping Wall is already lost, and a result the gate falls moments afterwards. In the book, the mine comes well after the sally and is used to disrupt an effective stalemate where both the Deeping Wall and the Hornburg appear able to indefinately resist Saruman’s assaults, to the point that Aragorn, Éomer and Gamling stop to have a chat during a brief lull in the assault (TT, 167).

As with the ladder assault, the basic concept of this attack isn’t completely crazy, but it is performed in a wasteful manner. If the plan was to clear the wall first, then this attack should not have even begun before the completion of the mining effort removed the threat of enfilade fire. And given the time Saruman has had to prepare, it’s a wonder he didn’t have a specially built and measured movable shelter (on wheels) for the causeway. Hellenistic and Roman armies often moved shelters like this (either towers or rams) up earthen ramps of their own construction; fitting even a very basic, light-weight shelter (for easy transport) ought not to have been difficult for a wizard. The Assyrians used a mix of personal shields (made of whicker, so they could be large and light, but catch arrows) and movable shelters (and towers) in their siege-craft in the eighth century B.C. – that’s how old these techniques are.

Via Wikipedia, detail from the Lachish Reliefs, depicting the Siege of Lachish (701 BC). On the far right you can see a covered ram being moved up a ramp, supported by archers. In the center, you can see more infantry advancing up ramps, using movable cover and large wicker shields.
To give a sense of how old this is, there are no catapults here because the catapult wouldn’t be invented for another four centuries, give or take.

Blasting Fire

Now we come to the mining attack against the wall. While all of the rest of the battle is going on, Saruman’s Uruks – in what appears to be one of the only actions performed by a coordinated, prepared team – places what looks like a large black-powder charge underneath the wall and detonates it, creating a breach. We’re going to leave aside the use of a painted ‘berserker’ Uruk with a glowing white torch (made of magnesium strips? what is he burning?) to ignite the charge, rather than using some sort of fuse.

Sapping and mining were common tactics in ancient and medieval sieges. Prior to the development of gunpowder, the goal was typically to tunnel beneath key elements of the enemy fortifications and then collapse the tunnel by burning the wooden supports holding it up in order to collapse that key defense, as at Nicaea in 1097. The arrival of gunpowder brought the option of filling such a tunnel with explosives in order to blast a breach. While Saruman hasn’t done any tunneling, this is, in essence, what his host is doing: using a gunpowder charge placed under the wall (in the culvert through which the Deeping Stream flows).

You may ask why the powder-charge can’t be placed just anywhere; the reason is that a contained space – like underneath the wall – is required to channel the pressure and energy of the explosion into moving the material of the wall, rather than into a shock-wave through the air. This is especially true of black powder explosives, which burn quite a lot slower than the speed of sound. If you just set your bomb alongside the wall, the wall itself would redirect much of the force of the initial blast away, sending loads of as-yet-still-mostly-unburnt powder away from the wall, wasting much of the energy potential. Placing the charge beneath the wall, in a confined space (and in a metal container, where the pressure has to build to a certain level before the container bursts) is a good way to maximize the energy-delivery from your powder charge.

I feel I should note that the charge we are shown in two large metal pots doesn’t seem anywhere near large enough to release the necessary energy to move that much wall and throw huge stones what look to be at least 100 yards into the air, if what they contain is black powder (and since we actually see it in the film, as opposed to the books, we can see pretty clearly that it is corned black powder). But this isn’t a huge problem, since Saruman has magic, perhaps he has somehow enhanced his ‘fire of Orthanc’ as Aragorn calls it in the books. In either case, he overshoots the size of blast he needs by quite a bit, sending huge chunks of masonry mostly into his own forces, further demonstrating Saruman’s callousness with his own troops. It’s hard not to think that a smaller blast might have left his troops in a better position to rapidly exploit the breach, giving the defenders less time to meet them in good order.

Pretty clearly intended to be black powder. It even comes is nice round grains, which ought to indicate that it has been corned.

This is by far the single best-prepared element in Saruman’s attack; the charges were pre-measured, the target was pre-selected, and an elite unit was trained to deliver the bomb. Going back to my initial read of Saruman’s command style, this is clearly the element he focused the most energy and attention into, because it fits his nature as an inventor and craftsman. And in the film, we see that he is supremely confident that “if the wall if breached, Helm’s Deep will fall!” a confidence that, in the event, is wholly unwarranted (after all, the wall is breached, but he fails to take the fortress). It is hard to resist the conclusion that had Saruman put as much effort into low-tech siegecraft like movable shelters, better training and more careful planning, he would have been in a better position to take the Hornburg with or without his bomb.

Ironically, from what we see, the bomb was entirely pointless in the film. The Hornburg absolutely dominates the Deeping Wall; if the former is taken, holding the latter – exposed to missile fire from above without any protection – must fall. Saruman’s stated tactical plan for the attack, quoted above, is exactly backwards. And in the film (as opposed to the book), Saruman’s ham-fisted effort at the gate was – with some setbacks – succeeding by sheer dint of numbers (and the strange non-lethality of Rohirrim stones); had his causeway force continued the attack while the rest of the army simply dug in against potential relief forces, he would have won the battle. The contrast with the Witch King’s assault – which seeks to engage Gondorian defenses everywhere, but keeps a keen focus on the main blow to fall at the gate – is marked. Whereas the Witch King remained focused, Saruman dissipates his efforts, including his one key advantage (the bomb), all over the field, leaving insufficient forces to engage the only place that matters: the Hornburg. Blowing the Deeping Wall doesn’t speed the capture of the Hornburg in the slightest – if anything, it ensures that more of the defenders will be crammed within, making the capture of the one place on the field that matters more difficult (as it does in the event, since in the film, the loss of the Deep is the only reason Aragorn is available to make his daring sally)!

Had this mining operation occurred earlier, at a time when it might have prevented the force advancing up the causeway from taking that enfilade fire, it might make a bit more sense. Here, I think we should understand this as a consequence of Saruman’s poor organization. He has designed this clockwork plan of ladders->bomb->causeway->ram which is too complex for his poorly organized and prepared army to actually execute. This leads to elements occurring in the wrong order (the causeway effort coming before the bomb) or not being tightly grouped enough (with the ladder Uruks spending far too long sustaining far too severe losses waiting for the bomb to arrive). It’s not hard to imagine how this could happen – the catapults (we’ll get to them) can’t get forward early enough because the poorly organized infantry is in the way, while the assault begins before the bomb team is in position; the gateway team clearly just jumps the gun – perhaps because the limited command structure has made it almost impossible for each team to know what the others are doing. It reminds me of the failure of George McClellan’s over-complicated and poorly coordinated plan to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam. A good plan that is too complex to actually execute is not a good plan.

The destruction of the wall then triggers more close-combat fighting in the Deep itself, which we’ll get into in more depth next week.

Book Note: There are a few differences of note with the book version. The biggest is the timing – that the mining effort occurs as a clear reaction to the repeated failure to take the fortress with more conventional tactics. Charitably, I think we might assume that Saruman had provisioned his troops with the blasting fire in the expectation that it would be necessary to clear the caves (which are otherwise fearfully difficult to breach, TT, 169), but that in desperation, they first used some of these charges to clear the wall.

Moreover, this use of the blasting fire is a reaction to a setback, rather than such a clearly planned part of the assault. Initially, Saruman’s orcs had sapped their way through the culvert in secret and built up a small force within the Deep under cover of darkness (TT, 165). They trigger their attack too early however and are beaten back (TT, 166) and the culvert is sealed with whatever spare rock is available. It is only then, it seems, that Saruman’s host sets to the use of the blasting fire (TT, 167) to clear a path, which then finally dislodged the defense from the Deeping Wall. It also certainly doesn’t seem like the blast was nearly so large as in the film.

Most notably, book!Saruman at least deploys his Uruks with more than one set of charges, as we hear later that “blasts of fire leaped up from below [the Hornburg] shaking the stones” (TT, 170), presumably attempting to break the Hornrock itself, or blasting the tunnels (though the latter seems unlikely as they do not successfully seal the tunnels). In either case, evidently these charges were not fit for the task, at least in the time they were given, which somewhat diminishes the credit we might give Saruman for precisely measuring his charges to the task at hand.

Grapples, Catapults and Large Ladders

After the blasting fire, we do see the Uruks break out some new siege tools we haven’t seen yet, the most notable being oversized ladders capable of reaching all of the way up to the top of the Hornburg and grappling hooks fired from some sort of catapult. I’m hesitant to call the catapult a ballista – that term is, I think, more correctly applied to Greek and Roman engines which worked by torsion (the coiling up of sinew in a sort-of spring) rather than tension (the bending of a heavy bar). In essence a tension catapult functions like a gigantic crossbow; while a torsion device may look similar, it works by a different method. Tension catapults were used in the Middle Ages, but they tended to be some of the least sophisticated and effective types. The counter-weight or even traction trebuchets or torsion powered engines were both more complex, but also more powerful.

Uruk tension catapult. There ought to be some complex gear-mechanism to pull this back (like a crossbow’s windlass); if this weapon is to have a real advantage in power and range over a normal bow, it needs to have an absolutely tremendous pull-weight, well beyond the ability of an Uruk to simply pull by hand.

What’s striking is how late these weapons are revealed in the attack, and the purpose to which they are put; in particular they are only used to launch grappling hooks up to the Hornburg, which is quite frankly a waste of everyone’s time. If Uruks climbing ladders cannot take the walls, there is no chance that Uruks trying to shimmy up a rope will manage it – at least the fellows on the ladders can still cover themselves with a shield and climb fairly quickly. Although I should note that I really question the feasibility of lifting ladders with this many Uruks on them at this height, both in terms of the strength of ladder (against the bending and then compressive force), as well as the lifting mechanism.

It is very surprising that these engines did not appear earlier, in the assault on the Deeping Wall. I think the popular conception is that catapults were for knocking down walls – and against thin curtain walls, they might do this, though it was not their core purpose. Rather, the main use of catapults was to degrade the crenelation on the wall, exposing the defenders to arrow fire (and more catapult fire) in order to drive the defenders off of the wall. The reason you would do this is for the same reason ladder assaults are so wasteful: it is nearly impossible to successfully take a defended wall by escalade, so the defenders would have to first be driven off before escalade could be attempted with a reasonable chance of success. Of course, degrading the defenses like this would require catapults fit to fire stones (instead of grapples), which might be assisted by arrow-throwing engines attempting to pick off defenders on the wall. For the attack on the Deeping Wall, using even just a few of these engines to suppress the archers on the wall (by flinging stones and bolts at them) could have vastly lowered the casualties of the attacking Uruk force, and possibly even allowed the escalade to succeed, given their numerical advantage.

My own theory for the late appearance of these weapons relates to the relative disorder and poor leadership of the army: the rest of the army was in the way. When we see the broader Deeping Coomb in the long-shots, it is absolutely full of Uruks, which must have made moving cumbersome, specialized siege equipment from the rear to the front terribly difficult. Consequently, crucial artillery wasn’t available until the end-stages of the siege, far too late to be of any real use. Again. Poor organization and leadership there.

So I think Saruman gets relatively little credit for the late appearance of some actually capable siege weapons. He has brought inferior versions of the wrong artillery to accomplish the wrong task and worst yet, his poor preparatory planning and training has meant that it arrived late besides. It’s another example where the Uruks have the trappings of a fancy, professional army (look, big expensive specialized weapons!) but not the training, organization or discipline to effectively use those weapons. This is a common problem in the militaries of developing countries: resources and money are directed into flashy, ultra-modern weapon-systems (especially jet fighters; look at the militaries of the Middle East and all the flashy jet fighters they buy, while far more basic capabilities – rudimentary modern-system stuff – remain severely lacking) instead of into the boring, low-tech training and discipline which has a far higher return-on-investment in terms of developing actual military capabilities.

Book Note: These engines do not appear in the books (though the grappling hooks and long ladders do), which really heightens the contrast between the Witch King’s towers-and-catapults professional preparation and Saruman’s ladders-and-bows amateur-hour assault. Again, I think this is an intended element of the story, contrasting the real strength of Sauron with Saruman’s dilettantish incompetence and baseless pride, not an error on Tolkien’s part.

Hasty and Deliberate Assaults

Let’s return for a moment to Clifford Roger’s distinction (Soldier’s Lives Through History: The Middle Ages (2007)) between what he terms ‘hasty’ assaults and ‘deliberate’ assaults in medieval siege warfare. As Rogers notes, many armies on arriving at a fortified settlement that they needed to take – be it a fortified city or a castle – would engage a ‘hasty’ assault as soon as possible. Such attacks, made with perhaps some ladders, ropes and whatever else might be to hand, usually failed, unless they took the city defenders very much by surprise. But typically, since sieges were so long and arduous, and since so little a portion of the army was risked, it was worth rolling the dice on a small chance of ending the siege immediately. But no army was betting the farm (or the siege) on the hasty assault, because – again – they usually failed.

When that typically failed, the army would revert to what was always the actual plan, which was either blockade (surround the place, wait for it to run out of supplies and surrender) or preparation for a deliberate assault (or both). Throughout, negotiation was a key tactic, as the defenders knew a city or castle taken by storm was likely to be very harshly treated (another reason why rampant backstabbing was a generally self-defeating tactic in medieval Europe; a reputation for trust was the sine qua non of such useful negotiations). Obvious, visible preparations for a deliberate assault could be used as leverage to negotiate the surrender of the fortress, thus avoiding the need to actually launch the assault.

Preparations for a deliberate assault might included extended bombardment with siege machines, or sapping efforts. The attackers might construct siege towers, which were – contrary to their pop-culture appearances – less for getting onto the wall as they were to get a firing platform above the wall, from which to shoot down at the defenders, clearing a set of wall for successful escalade (much like how catapults were not for demolishing the walls, but driving the defenders off of them). Armies might even use earthworks to build ramps up the walls, although this was a more common tactic of large ancient armies than smaller medieval ones (it required a lot of coordination, but mole-construction – the earthwork ramp was called a ‘mole’ – was a fairly sure route to success if the besieging army was much stronger than the defenders).

Crucially, while all of this was going on, the attacking armies faced two main threats: threats from within their siege lines (from the besieged garrison) and threats from without (from a relieving army). Consequently, one of the first things any good besieging army did was construct field fortifications facing the main exits from the besieged fortress to block sudden sallies or nighttime raids. And one of the very next thing any good besieging army did was construct field fortifications facing away from the besieged fortress, to hinder a relieving army. The term for the first kind of works is ‘circumvallation’ (Latin, lit: walling around [the fortress]) and for the latter is ‘countervallation’ (Latin, lit: walling against [an outside attacker]). At the very least, fortifying a secure camp near the target settlement would be done typically even before a hasty assault was launched, because it was so crucial.

Conclusions: Saruman Is Not Very Good At This

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, for the most part, what Saruman has done is launched a ‘hasty’ assault without any backup plan if it failed. The best part of the plan is the concept: overtask the defenders by attacking at all points simultaneously. Presumably the effort on the Deeping Wall is to remove the enfilade fire against the causeway (though in that case, the effort on the causeway ought not to have begun before the Deeping Wall was either taken or so fully engaged that it could not respond). But the worst part of the plan is every part of the execution.

I am put in mind of Sun Tzu’s description of why siege warfare is wasteful, “the general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to assault like swarming ants, with the result that one third of his men are slain while the town still remains untaken.”

But so far, we’ve mostly focused on what Saruman’s forces have done. But the worst sin here is a sin of omission. Saruman’s force – completely focused on the assault and without the necessary leadership to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time – completely fails to engage in any defensive preparations of this sort. Consequently, when Théoden predictably sallies out of the main gate (how was that contingency not gamed out!? It’s the main gate!), he faces no prepared defenses at the base of the causeway and no Uruk unit formed up for open fighting ready to meet him. And like when Éomer (or book!Erkenbrand) shows up on the army’s flank, absolutely no preparation work has been done to secure the approaches. In both the book and the film, the relief force arrives over a ridge, on which apparently were posted no scouts or defenses. This is far worse in the books, because the work of preparing a defensive line behind Sarumon’s host has already been done for them. Helm’s Dike is perfect for this role, yet no force is left to hold it.

From the same manuscript as above, we see efforts by the attackers, left, to fortify their positions opposite the enemy fortifications. Note also, bottom center, the use of natural features (in this case, water features) to protect the camp.

Saruman’s massive army cannot possibly be brought to bear against the Helm’s Gate fortress complex all at once. This is clear in the book and the film – the army is simply too big and the frontage of the fortress too small, leaving most of the host simply standing around waiting for an opportunity to go into action. And yet none of these forces were spared to protect their position from a relief army. A relief army, I might add, that Saruman’s forces were in a position to be well aware of (they ought to know that much of Erkenbrand’s army is as yet unaccounted for), even if we forget that they are commanded by a wizard with a magic seeing-stone. It should not have been an impossible task for a few thousand of his troops to act as a rearguard, spending the night fortifying their position and scouting for potential relieving forces.

Book Note: The contrast with the Siege of Gondor, particularly in the books, is instructive. The Witch King’s forces immediately split into groups performing a multitude of tasks at once: digging lines of trenches to protect their siege equipment from sallies, deploying that equipment from wagons and so on (RotK, 104-5); they’re clearly working in many groups, since they engage the city at nearly all points along its outer wall. At the same time, he has dispatching a blocking force to hold the approaches from Rohan (RotK, 116) which Théoden only avoids through shrewd use of local guides.

Now this post may sound like one long critique of Jackson (and Tolkien), but I mean nothing of the sort. I actually thing this is brilliant storytelling and one of the most successful elements of Jackson’s adaptation of this battle. As we’ll discuss at the end of this series, Saruman is in way over his head; he is playing at being a Dark Lord like Sauron, but only playing. And his slipshod fortress assault expresses that same idea. Saruman has launched a child’s idea of a siege. It has all of the exciting things: ladders, explosions, great charging masses of troops! But he has neglected nearly all of the boring grunt-work that makes that work – the preparation, the construction of low-tech moveable cover, the digging and field fortifications necessary to secure a position.

But more fundamentally, the main failure here is deeper: the failure to properly organize and train this army. The failure of the fortress assault – and it really does fail, as the Uruks are in panicked retreat even before reinforcements arrive (something clearer in the books, TT, 172) – marks another moment, much like the dispersal of Saruman’s Host, where victory might have been secured even despite the intervention of the heroes. And both moments speak to a lack of exactly the sort of discipline good professional armies spend so much time building.

That doesn’t mean that every army needs to be built that way, but this army did. Saruman continues to devise complex plans on tight time-tables that would work wonderfully if his army was composed of robots (or disciplined professionals) instead of orcs and humans. This is, I must say, a common mistake of amateurs – to propose extremely complex battle plans which could win the day on a computer or in an armchair discussion, but which are so complex that actually implementing them in the fog of war is nearly impossible. No plan survives contact with the enemy – but Saruman’s plans are especially fragile and have no backups, which speaks to his amateurism.

While no singular mistake here is fatal to Saruman’s overall operational plan – his numerical advantage allows for his army to recover from grievous errors by sheer dint of numbers – they add up. Each sloppy assault tactic, each bit of poor organization diminishes his army (quite literally, in that it gets his Uruks killed), reducing, bit by bit, that margin of numerical superiority. And since his army lacks advantages in training or cohesion (or as we’ll see next week, equipment), massive numerical superiority is the only coin it has with which to buy success. Once that is exhausted, Saruman’s host, quite predictably, falls apart.

Next week, we’re going to zoom in a bit on the fighting itself and take a look at the armor and weapons. How well and realistically equipped are these armies and what does that say about them?

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