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Winning Battles and Losing Wars? – In Defense of Robb Stark

[ 63 ] April 24, 2013 |

This is a guest post by Steven Attewell, my co-host-who-does-most-of-the-heavy-lifting on our Game of Thrones podcasts, in which he discusses military strategy in a way that Rob’s more fit to comment on than I. It was discussed in both this and last week’s podcasts, so it only makes sense for it to appear here. The original post and its many comments can be found here.

Introduction:

Spencer Ackerman, the well-known national security blogger, recently posted an article criticizing Robb Stark’s military strategy in the War of Five Kings. In the piece, Ackerman argues that:

But the Young Wolf is a case study in the difference between winning battles and winning wars. Robb is an excellent company commander, leading from the front and inspiring his men with both his bravery and his battle prowess. He’s also a terrible general…

Robb’s vainglorious uncle clearly messed up by disobeying orders to hold Riverrun, preferring instead to stop Clegane’s army at Stone Mill from crossing the rivers of the Trident and heading west. Robb rolls his eyes: he wanted Clegane to come west, so the Mountain, who “doesn’t have a strategic thought in his head,” would have been lured unsuspecting toward the eastward-marching Stark forces and killed. “Instead,” the King in the North laments, “I have a mill.”

News flash, Your Grace: Clegane is not worth much more than that mill.

While I think his article does have some important points, I feel that the piece fails to grasp the larger strategic and political environment informing Robb Stark’s military decisions and as such comes to an overly negative conclusion.

A Point of Agreement:

Let me start by saying that I agree entirely with Spencer’s criticism that the show’s handling of Robb Stark’s story line (while perhaps necessary from a budgeting standpoint) “doesn’t make it easy…the gorgeously rendered map displayed during the opening credits never shows you the Westerlands, an omission with inadvertent implications…Without a sense of the terrain, you can’t really understand Robb’s war.”

The War of Five Kings is an incredibly complex war, as each of the different camps’ military strategies constantly forces the others to readjust their own in response to unforeseen events, and it’s especially difficult to understand what’s going on when the show elides events due to the narrative economy imposed by budget restraints. Case in point: between the end of Season 1 and the beginning of Season 2, Robb makes a trip to Riverrun that wasn’t shown in the show (in order to obviate the need for new locations and casting actors who wouldn’t be prominent until season 3) that dramatically changes the political and military imperatives for the Northern war effort.

Which brings us to where I think Ackerman’s missing the bigger picture.

Where Did Robb Stark Stand at the End of Season 1?

In the books and in Season 1, the War of Five Kings begins with the Lannisters in a commanding advantage. Following the capture of Tyrion Lannister, Tywin Lannister begins raising troops at Casterly Rock and sends out Gregor Clegane to raid across the Riverlands, initially hoping to draw out Ned Stark and capture him so as to revenge himself for the insult to the Lannister name and gain a captive for an exchange, and to distract his enemies while he raises a force of some 35-40,000 men at Casterly Rock. However, Jaime’s wounding of Ned Stark forces the Hand to send out Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and 120-odd men after Gregor Clegane, preventing that plan from coming to fruition.

The War of Kings Part 1: The Lannister Advance (hat tip to the Wiki of Ice and Fire) 

Tywin adapts to this change in plans in two ways: first, together with his lieutenant Gregor Clegane, he ambushes Dondarrion’s Men at the Mummer’s Ford near Pinkmaiden (2 on the map), decimating this force and forcing them to turn guerrilla fighters and become the Brotherhood Without Banners; second, he splits his forces in two and puts Jaime in command of half of his men as the Lannisters invade the Riverlands in force. Tywin sweeps through the southern Riverlands (2-4 on the map), taking the critical castle of Harrenhal which commands most of the southern Riverlands and the key north-south route to King’s Landing; Jaime overruns an outnumbered Riverlands force at the Golden Tooth (1 on the map, a castle that commands the pass that marks the border between the Westerlands and the Riverlands) and then succeeds in a surprise attack that smashes Edmure Tully’s forces mustering at Riverrun (3 on the map), although enough men manage to make it inside the castle to hold the castle, which Jaime places under siege.

This is the strategic situation facing Robb in Episode 8 of Season 1: his enemies have split their forces, such that Robb’s 18,000 men (plus the 4,000 Freys he will soon acquire) more or less equal either army, but if they combine, they outnumber him 2:1. If he attacks Tywin’s force, Riverrun might fall, ending all hope of assistance from the Riverlanders; if he attacks Jaime’s force, Tywin can march up the Kingsroad and cut Robb off from the North, while fresh reinforcements from the Westerlands threaten him from the other side. Robb’s decision is both characteristically bold and strategically brilliant: he divides his own army and attacks both forces, march-blocking Tywin’s army at the Battle of the Green Fork of the Trident (3 on the map below) so that it can’t help Jaime while capturing Jaime at the Battle of the Whispering Wood (4) and destroying his army at the Battle of the Camps (5). (Notably the show departs from the books by changing the nature of the Battle of the Green Fork from one in which Robb gambled his 16,000 foot against Tywin’s 20,000 to a sacrifice play where Robb sends 2,000 men)

War of the Five Kings Act II: Robb Counter-Attacks (hat tip to Wiki of Ice and Fire) 

As a result of these battles, Robb’s army combined with the resurgent Riverlanders now outnumbers Tywin 2:1. Tywin being no fool retreats to Harrenhal, where the strong defenses of the castle neutralize Robb’s numerical advantage, sends Gregor Clegane  with 500 men to burn the Riverlands, and calls for fresh troops to be raised in the Westerlands so that he can regain the numerical upper hand. So far, Ackerman and I are in agreement.

Here’s what happens next that Ackerman doesn’t include in his analysis: in relieving the siege at Riverrun (and freeing his uncle Edmure from temporary captivity), Robb Stark is hailed as King of the North…and the Riverlands. This changes the political and strategic imperatives of the new Stark-Tully alliance completely: not only does Robb have to “attack the Lannisters’ home turf until they sue for peace — and acknowledge northern independence,” he also has to protect the Riverlands because the lords of the Riverlands now make up half of his armed forces.  Robb doesn’t really have the option of retreating to the North – he’s leading a coalition army that’s half Riverlanders who will not follow a king who abandons them to the enemy (which would have an impact far worse than breaking his promise to the Freys).

The second thing that happens is that Edmure makes his next blunder of the War after the disasters at the Golden Tooth and Riverrun: he lets most of the Riverlands Lords go free to retake their lands from Gregor Clegane, which scatters much of the 20,000 Riverlands forces as they take and retake Raventree, Stone Hedge, and Darry in inconclusive hit-and-run warfare.

That’s the true strategic situation Robb was dealing with at the end of Season 1: he slightly outnumbers Tywin, but can’t hit him at Harrenhal (Ackerman doesn’t really take into account the importance of castles as defensive force multipliers), he’s slowly retaking the Riverlands but at the cost of dispersing half his forces, and there are new armies being raised in the west. Thus, when he invades the Westerlands in Season 2 (or A Clash of Kings), he’s not just trying to “attack the Lannisters’ home turf until they sue for peace;” he also is trying to prevent himself from being flanked and outnumbered, take the fighting out of the ravaged Riverlands, and capture supplies to feed his armies (since most of the war has been fought on the Riverlands, it’s been stripped clean), and looking for a broader strategic victory.

Analyzing Robb’s Western Offensive:

In addition to a more complex strategic situation, I think Robb’s offensive has more strategic merit than it’s been given credit for. Ackerman argues that “even in A Storm of Swords, Robb is hitching his hope for the war on a masterstroke, which is terrible wartime leadership. He’ll win — if Tywin pursues him west; if the ensuing battle breaks his way; if Stannis wins at the Blackwater,” and that “lay[ing] siege to Casterly Rock and Lannisport with the additional strength of Riverrun, bleed[ing] the west… [is] a last-gasp plan — the North and the Riverlands may not have the manpower; and if Robb loses, he dies — but it has the benefit of taking the west away from Tywin, Joffrey and Cersei. The smarter plan is to retreat to the North.”

This doesn’t really get at what Robb was doing, and fails to recognize the nature of feudal politics.

In attacking the West in Season 2, Robb sought to further his own strategic objectives (preventing himself from being flanked, resupplying his forces,  taking the fight out of his own territory) while forcing a political and military Hob’s choice on Tywin Lannister: either Tywin comes West and risks the loss of King’s Landing, or he rescues King’s Landing and risks the loss of the Westerlands and Casterly Rock itself.

War of Five Kings Act III: Robb's Western OffensiveWar of Five Kings Act III: Robb’s Western Offensive 

As we have seen in Seasons 2 and 3, the loss of one’s capitol city is politically devastating, especially in a feudal context. The armies of House Stark and Lannister are not standing professional armies; they are made up of bannermen who serve their overlords because the overlords offer them protection from outside invasion and can threaten them with retaliation if they betray them. When Robb Stark lost Winterfell, it showed that he couldn’t protect his own home or the homes of his bannermen and undermined his position with his vassals, above and beyond the issue of the loss of resources and reinforcements. Losing Casterly Rock would have done the same thing to Tywin Lannister; the mastermind of the “Rains of Castamere” inspires fear and respect from his bannermen, but none of the love that still inspires Robb’s men to fight for the memory of Ned Stark. Without his aura of invincibility, without the ability to call up fresh troops, without the gold in Casterly Rock to pay for the war effort, Tywin’s army would have melted away like snow.

The same holds true for King’s Landing: if King’s Landing falls to Renly or Stannis (and Renly and Stannis have to make for King’s Landing, since it’s the center of all political power) while Tywin is away, he loses his daughter, Tyrion (again), and the grandsons and granddaughters who represent his House’s claim to the Iron Throne. He also loses half of his territory and instead of holding the entire middle of Westeros and keeping his enemies from combining against him, now faces being backed into the Westerlands and destroyed. Politically, he ceases to be the Hand of the King, putting down rebels and traitors to King Joffrey, and now becomes a rebel and a traitor to the rightful Baratheon King.

Far from blindly gambling, Robb has weighed the odds with a keen eye to the realities of Westerosi politics, and as a result is proved right: Tywin does take the bait and come west, and had not Edmure blocked his march, King’s Landing would have fallen. Moreover, Tywin placed himself in real danger by marching west and trying to cross the Red Fork with 20,000 men – had he succeeded in crossing, he would have been outnumbered and surrounded, with Robb Stark’s 6,000 men  in front of him, Edmure Tully’s 11,000 men to his right flank, and 16,000 Northmen under Roose Bolton’s command behind him.

Even with Edmure’s screwup, Robb Stark’s offensive showed substantial results: at Oxcross (shown in Episode 4 of Season 2), Robb Stark wipes out an army of 10,000 men who were mustering on his western flank; this victory is followed up by battles at Ashemark and the Crag which protect Robb’s rear and right flank while ending Lannister resistance in the northern half of the Westerlands (which in turn means that there isn’t really a force in the west that could threaten his army at the moment, contrary to what Ackerman says). In quick succession, Robb’s bannermen seize the gold mines of Castamere, Nunn’s Deep, and the Pendric Hills (simultaneously improving their finances and cutting Tywin off from his source of funds), raid up and down the northern coast, and bring back thousands of head of cattle to feed a hungry Riverlands. In strategic terms, Robb’s “scouring” of the Westerlands eliminates Lannister numerical superiority (which in turn forces Tywin on the defensive), conquers half of the Westerlands, and puts him within a week or two of Lannisport and Casterly Rock.

Analyzing the TV Version:

I agree that great violence is done to this strategic vision by having Robb be at the recapture of Harrenhal (in the books, Roose Bolton is simply ordered to retake the castle once Tywin marches west, to cut him off from behind), and by changing the strategic significance of the Battle of the Red Fork to a fight between Edmure and the Mountain – although I think the bigger mistake was not doing any foreshadowing of the Battle of the Red Fork last season, which makes it seem like it came out of the blue and was unimportant. (It could have been very easily done as a fakeout in Episode 8 when Tywin marches out of Harrenhal with a quick scene where a message shows up at Robb’s camp in the West with news of a battle at Riverrun, filling Robb with false hopes that his stratagem is succeeding).

However, I think Ackerman is wrong when he says Robb taking Harrenhal is “inexplicable” and that “Clegane is not worth much more than that mill”:

  1. Taking Harrenhal isn’t stupid. In itself, Harrenhal controls the southern Riverlands and any approach from King’s Landing to either the North or the Riverlands, and is a huge defensive force multiplier. By taking the castle, Robb has a much better chance of preserving his territorial gains against a numerically superior opponent. We often forget, given its dilapidated appearance, that Harrenhal is a valuable military asset in its own right, but we shouldn’t.
  2. Eliminating the Mountain isn’t stupid. Gregor Clegane isn’t just “one admittedly mountainous henchman;” with Jaime gone and Kevan Lannister in King’s Landing (although we haven’t seen him this season thanks to narrative economy), Gregor is Tywin’s chief general in the Riverlands. We’ve already seen how Tywin relied on Gregor in the opening act of the War of the Five Kings; Gregor was Tywin’s hit man when it came to wiping out the royal family during the siege of King’s Landing; and Tywin will go to great lengths to keep the Mountain as a military asset even when there are compelling political reasons to give him up.
  3. It wasn’t just about Clegane. Leaving aside his person, I think the showrunners made a crucial mistake when they left Clegane with just a garrison command of Harrenhal with no more explanation – if that was truly the case, there’s no way in hell he would be marching 300 miles to Riverrun with Robb’s army in the neighborhood, or could have lost multiples of the 208 men that Edmure lost in the TV version of the Battle of the Red Fork. I think a scene was missed somewhere where the Mountain was put in charge of a larger force, which must have been at least a few thousand men (given that Edmure’s defense suggested at least a 2:1 casualty rate, which means the Mountain lost at least 400 men, and unless we’re assuming a more profound defeat than the scene suggests, he had to have 4-5 times that many men under his command). Given that Robb’s strategy at the mountain requires him to “take the fight to the enemy” and inflict the kind of lopsided battlefield losses that could even the odds against the combined Lannister/Tyrell forces, the chance to bring down their numbers by around 2,000 men isn’t a bad idea.

Conclusion:

If Ackerman wants to criticize Robb Stark’s skills as a commander-in-chief, I think there are ample grounds for doing so. Edmure acted contrary to his orders, but that could have been avoided had Robb explained his battle plans to all of his subordinates. Had Robb Stark not married Talisa Maegyr, he’d have 4,000 more Frey soldiers at a time when he needs every man. Had Robb not let Edmure discharge the Riverlords after the Battle of the Camps, he’d have had an army of 40,000 men concentrated and capable of taking Casterly Rock in one go. And for the sake of the old gods and the new, you don’t ever, ever trust a Bolton.

But Robb’s attempt to lure the Lannisters into the west where he could defeat them on the field isn’t one of them.

Comments (63)

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  1. Another Anonymous says:

    Blockquote in intro needs fixing?

  2. Jason says:

    This was great, thanks SEK. I hope there’s something similar for what Stannis is up to in the North and why the Ironmen are foolish to send their fleet to the east.

    • Another Anonymous says:

      Isn’t Stannis in the north basically b/c Melisandre told him to go there?

    • Murc says:

      … they are?

      Victarion Greyjoy has a magical artifact that can seize control of the only three existing superweapons in the world. It is logical to send your entire goddamn fleet to guard this trump card, because assuming it works you don’t need the fleet anymore. Victarion could lose nine out of every ten ships he has under his command and it would still be a winning move assuming he came out of it three dragons richer.

      • Jason says:

        Hmm, magical artifact to seize control of dragons… I must have missed something (haven’t read the last published book). I don’t see any reason why Dany would join with the adherents of the drowned god, and I’d be skeptical of the authenticity of Victarion’s artifact… he didn’t get it from Euron did he? So yes, I think they’re wasting their time.

        • He did get it from Euron. Euron’s ownership of the horn is what got him the kingship in the first place.

        • Murc says:

          Well, of course, the unstated assumption here is “the magical artifact works.”

          If it does, they are emphatically not wasting their time. And I will note; Victarion has a Red Priest with him who is all “Oh, yeah, this thing is totally legitimate. I can even tell you how to use it.”

          So far Red Priests have a really good record of being able to back up their claims of power with concrete results.

          • Yeah, but Moqorro is also really cagy in an oracle of Delphi way about whether Victarion will succeed, and we know that the Rhllorite church in Essos is proclaiming Dany to be Azor Ahai reborn.

            My guess is that Moqorro is using Victarion as a patsy and will stab him in the back at the right, so that Dany can grab his fleet and transport the Dothraki khalasar she’s about to seize, the Unsullied, the sellswords, the slaves, etc.

            • Peter Hovde says:

              Seconded-To Moqorro, Victarion is merely a way to get to Dany-the people sailing to Mereen from Volantis to kill Dany would be leery of a Red Priest, given their sympathies, but Victarion’s a perfect stooge.

            • (the other) Davis says:

              Yeah, but Moqorro is also really cagy in an oracle of Delphi way about whether Victarion will succeed, and we know that the Rhllorite church in Essos is proclaiming Dany to be Azor Ahai reborn.

              I’m coming around to the view that the red priests choose what they say based entirely on the results their proclamations will achieve (perhaps based on a genuine ability to divine the future), rather than on what they know. I suspect that Melisandre knows that Stannis is not AA reborn, but is telling him that to move him to act (and I suspect this will ultimately lead to her death when he discovers the truth), and the red priests of Essos may be trying to do something similar with Dany.

              • I agree generally, but we know from Melisandre’s POV that she’s absolutely sincere in her misinterpretations of prophecy.

                I think what the flames showed her was that Stannis would be connected to the return of Azor Ahai and the defense of Westeros – which he is, in terms of defending the Wall and influencing Jon Snow – but made to much of it.

      • He has a magic artifact that he thinks will command dragons.

        I highly doubt that’s going to work out for him.

    • I could do a long version, but the short version is that:

      - Stannis after Blackwater doesn’t have many good strategic options. Staying at Dragonstone isn’t viable, because its too close to Kings Landing and the main Lannister/Tyrell army, and the Redwyne fleet is coming around to transport the army and crush him. He’s got to regroup, and he doesn’t have many options: he could head to Storm’s End, but that’s not that far away, and he’d have the main L/T army to his north and the Martells to his south. He could go to the Free Cities, but Stannis fears that exile would turn permanent as it seems to have done with the Golden Company. The North offers the potential to regathering his strength far away from Kings Landing, and there’s 17,000 Northmen who never fought in the war who might fight for him if he can push out the Greyjoys in the name of some Stark lord of Winterfell.

      - re the Iron Born: Euron is crazy.

  3. shah8 says:

    1) Those novels don’t support too much in the way of military geekery.

    2) Essentially, Akerman makes the same criticisms one would make of Robert E Lee in his little northern excursion. “Brilliance” usually leads to defeat in detail when you’re trying to change an unfavorable calculus.

    • The North and Tywin were at numerical parity up until Blackwater.

      • shah8 says:

        What did I say that implied anything to do with numbers?

        • Well, what made the calculus unfavorable pre-Blackwater?

          • shah8 says:

            That’s actually pretty hard to say, because, well, the novels don’t really support geeking out with any sort of reality. First of all, look at the map. Ton of places for Tywin to get some serious force-multipliers going. Second, both of these guys are using relatively similar tactics and trained men. People coming up with perceptive reorgs of military profile can engage in wandering combat, since they win most battles. Robb, for the most part, can’t do much more than have a bit of shallow innovation here and there, and the world? It’s full of people who catch on to what you’re doing. Lastly, these wars are expensive, and Robb basically has to sack towns in order to keep his men in line in the real world, and would have been fatally slowed up before he gets to the gold mines. Typically, in history, guys like Robb comes to no good end, because they move more than they win–sustaining with local victories, but…

            • I am looking at the map; Tywin doesn’t really succeed in getting any force multipliers going with the exception of his defensive stay in Harrenhal. Indeed, Robb succeeds in splitting Tywin’s territory and cutting him off from the Westerlands.

              Tywin wins the war through writing letters, not military strategy.

            • Heron says:

              Not really. Harrenhall and Riverrun are the only substantial fortresses in the region; GRRM provides us with descriptions of what most Riverrun lord-seats look like, first with the ambush of Yoren’s party in book 2, then with Jamie’s campaign of reconciliation through the Riverlands in book 4/5 and they mostly seem to be fairly minor, ill-prepared motte-and-baileys that could, at best, garrison a few hundred men and which can easily be carried by assault. Tywin could retreat back to the Westerlands, where the terrain is “naturally prepared” so to speak and the castles seem to be more substantial due to the prevalence of gold-mining among minor nobility, but Tywin’s army isn’t in the east to garrison forts, they’re there to hold and harry land; retreating west defeats the purpose.

              As to rest, I don’t think you really understand how medieval armies or warfare worked. Regarding expense, it isn’t like these soldiers lined up every week to have their pay distributed. Food, clothing, boots, medical care, whores, and yes the occasional looting -though Robb would keep that as minimal as possible for temperamental as well as strategic reasons- are effectively their “pay” until such time as hostilities die down. Robb would not have a powerful need to generate large amounts of specie -in itself- to keep his army in the field, and even if he did, looting cities wouldn’t have helped him do that since, pre-industrialization, most business was done through local currencies (shop tokens, credit-sticks, ious, ect). Looting and sacking were about punishing populations and letting your soldiers “blow off steam” because sieges were horrible and nerve-wracking; they weren’t a way to extract resources from an enemy populace. When an invader wanted to get money from a city they didn’t rampage through it burning and raping; they threatened to do that unless you paid them off with all your easily-tradeable resources (hides, plate, jewelry, gems, ect.).

              Regarding strategy, Medieval war was about winning major battles. Actually read about Medieval wars. How many battles did they typically include? Barring wars of extermination such as the Albigensian Crusade, most Medieval campaigns involve months of small skirmishes and positioning, one huge fight, that destroys an army, and then they’re done. One, two, maybe three major battles at the outside and that’s all. The Norman Conquest was secured with a single fight, and if Harold II had been victorious at Hastings he would have fought off two huge invasions with a grand total of two battles. Robb’s strategy of drawing Tywin after him, then turning to engage on a field of his choosing and preparation was a very sound tactic; in fact the situation every good commander tries to bring about. His shift-of-base from the Crossing to Riverrun was masterful and expert in execution and conception, not only tactically but strategically in that Riverrun allows him to simultaneously threaten Harrenhall, the West, and even a link-up with Baratheon forces once they arrived near King’s Landing, provided an accord could be reached.

              Militarily, Robb’s performance is near-flawless. Where he screws up, time and again, is in the politics, and unsurprisingly he does so in exactly the way his father does; trusting the wrong people and losing support due to his commendable dedication to personal principle over political necessity and expediency. One of the best and least noticed juxtaposition in ASOIAF is how Tywin spends most of A Feast for Crows writing letters while Robb fights battles. Tywin wins that war by conceding the field to Robb Stark, and relying upon his mastery of Westerosi politics rather than skill-at-arms to undo him.

  4. Murc says:

    If I may, SEK, I’d also like to poke a few more holes in this particular sequence of Ackermans:

    “even in A Storm of Swords, Robb is hitching his hope for the war on a masterstroke, which is terrible wartime leadership. He’ll win — if Tywin pursues him west; if the ensuing battle breaks his way; if Stannis wins at the Blackwater,” and that “lay[ing] siege to Casterly Rock and Lannisport with the additional strength of Riverrun, bleed[ing] the west… [is] a last-gasp plan — the North and the Riverlands may not have the manpower; and if Robb loses, he dies — but it has the benefit of taking the west away from Tywin, Joffrey and Cersei. The smarter plan is to retreat to the North.”

    Ackerman is assuming that Robb Stark is operating on information that Robb does not, in fact, have.

    You talk a lot about politics. What is Catelyn doing during most of this? Why, Catelyn is in the south, treating with Renly and Stannis. And why is she down there? Because Robb sent her there on account of he had no idea what Renly is up to and maybe there’s a deal to be made.

    Robb, while coming up with his plan, does not know that Renly has been killed and Stannis has absorbed half his army. He does not know that Littlefinger has cut a deal with the Tyrells and brought them into the Lannister coalition. He does not know that Stannis even has the capability of attacking King’s Landing, much less is he making war plans while taking that account. Robb is at the end of a long and tenuous communications line, able to occasionally send messages back to Edmure in Riverrun but never staying still in any one place long enough for Edmure to get a messenger bird directly to him. And Edmure himself isn’t exactly up to date on much of this stuff either.

    Robb comes up with his entire plan knowing only that he has to defeat Tywin, does not have the power to take Casterly Rock (the second strongest castle in Westeros after the Eyrie) and that’s it. If he has other enemies as well, he’ll deal with those as he finds out about them.

    • Very good points. It’s very much a classic fog of war scenario.

    • John says:

      Is Casterly Rock a stronger castle than Storm’s End? That seems questionable.

      But good points over all. I will say that I think Robb’s biggest mistake isn’t a military mistake at all, but the mistake of allowing himself to be proclaimed King, and particularly of his claim to be King of the Riverlands. If he doesn’t want to decide for one of the Baratheon claimants, that’s all very well and good, but the declaration of independence means he’s declared himself to be an enemy to all of them. Renly is agreeable enough that he might be able to work something out with him, but even Renly says he must pay homage, and that his royal title will be purely nominal (or, at least, that it will entail no greater independence than his father had); and if either Stannis or the Lannisters win, he’ll immediately find himself at war with them.

      • Murc says:

        I will say that I think Robb’s biggest mistake isn’t a military mistake at all, but the mistake of allowing himself to be proclaimed King, and particularly of his claim to be King of the Riverlands.

        Long-term, the Riverlands were most likely going to prove impossible to hold. They’re an awful long way from Winterfell and surrounded on three sides. In a hypothetical scenario where someone unites all of the south, they’re going to be able to take that away from the King in the North at will. The North can probably hold out forever (it was never conquered by anyone whose name wasn’t Aegon, which is impressive) but the Riverlands cannot.

        Short-term? Different story. Robb has a bunch of people who hate them some Lannisters and are willing to throw in on his side, but only if he becomes their feudal overlord. What’s he supposed to say? “No?” If he does that a bunch of them are going to decide that maybe Joffrey and Tywin aren’t so bad after all. He picks up thirty thousand swords, which he NEEDS if he’s to force Joffrey and Tywin to renounce all claim to the north and release his siblings.

        More context: the Riverlands have always been kind of a prize to be won. They’re a rich, well-watered, well-populated area… but militarily speaking, they’re completely and utterly indefensible. They can be invaded at will by the Westerlands, the Vale, the Ironmen, the Storm Lords, and the Reach, and of those five, three of them (the Vale, the Westerlands, and the Ironmen) sit behind enormous geographical defenses that make retaliation and counter-invasion very hard. There’s a reason the Riverlands were never considered an Eighth Kingdom; five of the other seven kept trading it around. It’s greatest fortress, Harrenhal, was in fact built by Ironmen.

        The River Lords need a patron, always. They cannot exist independently.

        I will note that, potentially, Robb might have been hoping for a long shot; the Seven Kingdoms were welded into one by Targaryen supremacy, and then kept going long after that supremacy ceased to exist by the fact that it was the status quo. There was a very real possibility that after the death of Robert, it would fly back into it’s component pieces. In that situation, the north holding the Riverlands becomes SOMEWHAT more possible.

        • John says:

          But the Riverlands are already fighting for Robb before he proclaims himself King. At the council where Robb is proclaimed king, several of the River Lords (Marq Piper, Jonos Bracken) urge Robb to recognize Renly. Stevron Frey urges waiting it out and seeing what happens. All we hear of Blackwood and Mallister is strategic arguments, and we hear nothing from Edmure.

          The proclamation of Robb as King comes after Robb has basically ruled out all other options – he won’t make peace with Tywin/Joffrey, he won’t recognize Renly or Stannis, he won’t play a waiting game. Any of those other would have been better than the King in the North fiasco.

          People (rightly) criticize Balon Greyjoy because he decides to attack the only party in the war that might be willing to tolerate the independence of the Iron Islands out of his twisted desire for revenge on a dead man. But doesn’t Robb make basically the same mistake, and for the same reason? He refuses to ally himself with any faction, or even to cautiously wait it out to see who emerges, and instead makes a doomed play for independence.

          • He doesn’t rule out other options – his embassy to Renly and his reaction to the outcome of the Battle of Blackwater suggest that he’s willing to make peace with either. What he wasn’t willing to do was to declare himself openly right at the beginning when it wasn’t clear what would happen.

        • joel hanes says:

          the Riverlands were most likely going to prove impossible to hold.

          Yes. I think of them as Poland – a big flat space, a continental crossroads, with a long history of fluid political borders.

        • The Riverlands aren’t impossible to hold as long as you don’t try to hold all of them. The triangle described by Riverrun, Lord Harroway’s Town, and the Twins are incredibly defensible, given the way the rivers force invaders into a few chokepoints that neutralize disparities of numbers. As we see in the novels, Riverrun can hold out against vastly superior odds for a long time, and does so twice in the same war; the Red Fork of the Trident can be held against Tywin Lannister despite a 2:1 disparity of numbers.

          But agreed that he doesn’t have a choice.

          • Murc says:

            I kind of disagree with that assessment.

            That triangle encompasses less than half of the Riverlands, if I’m reading the maps right. There’s nothing stopping armies from the West, the Reach, or the Storm Lands from just sweeping through the rest of it with fire and sword.

            Moreover, the aforementioned three kingdoms are Riverland-adjacent, whereas marching all the way south to defend it is a long, arduous journey for any King in the North with his set at Winterfell.

            My understanding is that, traditionally, the Riverlands were swapped back and forth between the Westerlands, the Reach, the Storm Lands, and the Iron Islands, depending on who was dominant at the time. The Poland analogy made elsewhere in the thread is apt.

            It’s worth noting that this process may not have been all that painful for the river lords. The kind of extending sacking, looting, and burning that Tywin sends his pets to engage in would most likely not have been common in armies bent on conquest. Tywin can turn the Riverlands into a desert because he has no personal stake in the matter; rebuilding them will be the problem of the local lords and the Crown, not his. (And his behavior in ASoS establishes that Tywin could give a fuck about things like the fiscal solvency of the kingdom as a whole.)

            But if Tywin had been out to conquer the Riverlands, different story. There’d still have been sacking and burning, but what you’d do is defeat your enemies in the field, then pin them up in their castles. Once they realize there’s no realistic hope of victory, they sue for peace and transfer their homage to you. You take hostages to ensure said loyalty, and now you have a bunch of new vassals. In that scenario, while a certain amount of burning and looting is unavoidable, you want your eventual vassals to not be reduced to penury.

            • That half is very defensible though.

              As for the Riverlands, they did rule themselves for quite some time – Poland had its period of being a major European power, after all – they had the Kings of the Rivers and Hills, and held out a long time against the Andals. They retained their independence until 360 years before AL, when the last Riverlands king was killed by a Storm King, who in turn were turfed out by the Ironborn about 60 years prior to Aegon’s Landing.

              So in general, we’re talking 7000-odd years of independence and 360 years of being a stomping ground for the Ironborn and the Stormlanders.

        • Zachary Pruckowski says:

          Don’t forget that The Vale has close ties to The North, and The Iron Isles’ future ruler was raised with Robb. Now obviously those didn’t play out in practical terms (because The Vale is ruled by an imbecilic child with an insane Regent and Theon choses Balon over Ned/Robb), but it’s not hard to imagine an alternative history where The Vale at least joins Robb’s war, and suddenly the Riverlands is more defensible. After all, the Lannisters supposedly poisoned Jon Arryn (or at least could be credibly blamed for it).

      • rw970 says:

        I don’t think Robb was planning for the North to be free or independent long-term, or that he thought he was starting a new line of kings. His goals when he started out were pretty narrow – rescue Ned and his sisters and destroy the power of the Lannisters in King’s Landing. Even if he wasn’t willing to commit his troops to one of either Stannis or Renly, I don’t think he was hostile to the idea of a Baratheon monarchy ruling over the North. He only became King because his bannermen presented it as the solution to the political problem of Robb leading a war against the Iron Throne despite having no claim to it, or interest in claiming it, and not wanting to endorse either of Stannis or Renly. If reality presented a united Westeros behind either of them, I think he would have gone along with it.

        All to say I don’t think he planned on ruling over either the Riverlands or the North as independent entities at all.

      • Both are major fortresses capable of dominating entire Kingdoms that have never been taken by siege.

        The problem is that he was proclaimed king spontaneously, and in fact was rising to his feet to reject the crown when all of his lords joined in. At that point, he doesn’t have a choice – if he rejects them, he’s rejecting his own army.

        And Robb sends Catelyn to treat with Renly precisely to work out that option. Even Stannis offered Robb the chance to bend the knee, without the face-saving, and offered to return Sansa. Honestly, the only completely implacable foe Robb was facing were the Lannisters.

  5. Mumbly_Joe says:

    Edmure acted contrary to his orders, but that could have been avoided had Robb explained his battle plans to all of his subordinates.

    Actually, I think Robb might have been justified in compartmentalizing his strategy, on the basis of information security. Even leaving aside the possibility, however far-fetched, of disloyal bannermen (*cough*Bolton*cough*Frey*cough*), there’s the fact that intercepting ravens is depicted (in the books) as a routine element of halfway-intelligent siegecraft, and that House Clegane is depicted as torturers as brutal and effective as to rival the Boltons. Robb either needed to have faith that his battle plans wouldn’t leak, or have faith in the obedience of his bannermen and cousins. It’s fair to say he chose poorly, but only in hindsight.

    • Yeah, and Edmure wasn’t very good at information security in the pass – publicly stating that you won’t let the Lannisters set foot on Tully soil is a good way for the Lannisters to learn that he’s going to send a major force to the Golden Tooth where they can trap that army against the walls of the castle.

    • Murc says:

      I always felt that Robb being pissed off at Edmure was never really justified.

      Yes, it’s true Robb ordered Edmure to hold Riverrun and that’s it. But the thing is, in this kind of warfare, you NEVER want to be pinned in your castle. It reduces your options, you lose room to maneuver, you cede control of valuable real estate to the enemy. The best way to hold a castle is to make sure it never comes under siege.

      Edmure did not ride off wildly after the Lannister host. Instead he staked our solid defensive positions on his own land, with clear lines of retreat, at strategic choke points. That’s sensible and logical. If the Lannisters never cross his rivers, they can never besiege Riverrun.

      Edmure behaved sensibly. Robb is the one at fault for making his plan overcomplicated and not telling a key competent. Robb’s overall plan was sound, but he needed to issue more explicit orders, like “Withdraw into Riverrun and do not engage the Lannisters directly.” That message is slightly suspicious if intercepted, but it’s not game-breaking like leaving Edmure flapping in the breeze is.

      • John says:

        This all seems sensible to me, but it seem that this is more Martin’s fault than it is Robb’s. Martin wants to create a situation where Edmure apparently triumphs, but instead fucks everything up, and so he creates this scenario. It seems crystal clear that we are supposed to side with Robb and the Blackfish against Edmure in this scene. The problem is that Martin has accidentally written a very ambiguous situation in which Edmure has a decent case to be made. But I don’t think Martin did that on purpose.

        At least, that’s how I’ve always interpreted it.

  6. Hogan says:

    march-blocking Tywin’s army

    I could not let this pass unremarked. Sweet.

  7. Peter Hovde says:

    And just in case nobody has mentioned it, of course Caitlyn was right about not sending Theon

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