Much ink has been expended on the follies of the Army of the Living at the Battle of Winterfell. But the antics of Jon and Daenerys stand as military genius compared to the Night King. He could have won the entire war without risk through manoeuvre. Only his obsession with a decisive battle doomed his effort. Moreover, this determination for rushed, spectacular battle on the part of the scriptwriters squandered a great story-telling opportunity.
As can be seen in Fig. 1, after breaching The Wall, the Night King moved directly towards Winterfell, the location of the enemy force. This was not unreasonable. He had confidence in his superior force and gambled on a single battle to secure victory. However, it also chanced all in a clash of arms.
A superior choice would have been to move across the Lonely Hills to take White Harbour. The Army of the Living encamped around Winterfell was sustained by maritime logistics going through White Harbour and up the White Knife to Cerwyn. At Cerwyn, it would debark for the final stretch north along the Kingsroad.
By taking White Harbour, the Night King would have stopped supplies coming to Winterfell by sea. Extending a force to Cerwyn athwart the Kingsroad would have cut any landbound supplies coming up past Moat Cailin. It would also provide a base from which to observe Winterfell.
Given that the Army of the Living did not engage in operational reconnaissance, the Night King would likely have been able to enact this plan without being detected. Even if they did, it is unclear what the living force could have done to stop him.
This strategy is a Clausewitzian attack-defence – a strategic offensive which forces the enemy into costly tactical attacks. Confronted with Army of the Dead troops cutting off supplies at White Harbour and Cerwyn, the Army of the Living would have three choices, none good.
First, they could try to attack, either to destroy the enemy or punch a line of retreat down the Kingsroad. But by abandoning fixed defences, they risk being surrounded and destroyed by the Army of the Dead. Moreover, a retreat with limited supplies in harsh winter weather would have deleterious impacts on the combat power of the army.
Second, they could move west across rough terrain to Barrowton to hold a defensive line there, to be resupplied by Yara Greyjoy’s fleet. Moving off road in this fashion would have entailed serious attrition rates, especially among the Unsullied and Dothraki soldiers unsuited to the cold. Further, as with the first option, leaving Winterfell courts a ruinous field battle. Even if they did get the army to Barrowton in fighting order, the town is far less defensible than Winterfell.
Last, they could stay put in Winterfell, and entreat Cersei to send her armies north to relieve them. Such pleas would likely fall on deaf ears. The Army of the Living would have then starved to death in the freezing cold.
Missed Story Opportunity
Alright, so, the military science was a bit lacking in Season 8. But is this just the furious ranting of a grognard who’s only entertainment is gazing fixedly at Combat Resolution Tables? Maybe. But the failure to incorporate a more sophisticated campaign plan denied options for character development.
For example, the show tried to create conflict between Sansa and Daenerys. This broadly failed, because there weren’t grounds for it. After all, Daenerys was risking everything to defend Sansa’s people. However, if the Night King did execute his encirclement strategy, there’d be stakes to the conflict. Daenerys, a foreigner without attachment to the north, would likely demand a retreat. Sansa and many of her lords might disagree, reluctant to abandon their homes without a fight. That sets up a real bone of contention. Further, it would land Jon Snow with a tricky choice – family or lover – which would only be exacerbated the revelation of his Targaryen heritage.
Moreover, a complex situation would allow characters to demonstrate their competency. Jon Snow would be able to show off his soldiering experience. Tyrion and Varys, both arch-schemers, would have something to scheme about – perhaps keeping the northern lords on side. When a threat is simple, the protagonist reactions tend to end up being simple too. This cheapens the story and promotes spectacle without depth – and that’s, frankly, just a bit sad.
About the Author: Matthew Ader is second-year War Studies student at King’s College London. He has strong opinions on Marvel and Anglo-American grand strategy. But mainly Marvel. You can follow him on Twitter @AderMatthew.