The Battle Of Winterfell And The Napoleonic Wars

The prelude to the Battle of Winterfell looked familiar: two armies arrayed at dawn, glaring suspiciously at each other across a patch of land soon to be called a battlefield, horses nervously and impatiently pawing at the ground in front of them, weary soldiers waiting for the slaughter and carnage that has always been the grunt’s fate, and finally, kings and generals sizing up the scene, waiting for the moment when they would cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. So did the battle itself: brutal hacking fights with sword and spear and hand, bloody confusion, piles of bodies, men crushed to death, and then, finally, a decisive cavalry charge.

Those with an interest in military history–and within it, the gory details of the Napoleonic Wars–will have visualized many such scenes in their readings. (The extensive use of bows and arrows and the phalanx in the Battle of Winterfell makes it resemble older battles of the medieval and Roman eras too.) In Sergei Bondarchuk‘s epic Waterloo, the opening scenes of the battle–before the first French artillery barrage–show the resemblance of the prelude to combat quite clearly. Moreover, as in Bondarchuk’s production, the makers of Game of Thrones were decidedly old-fashioned: they relied, even if not as heavily as Bondarchuk, on actual masses of men, materiel, and horses. (Bondarchuk, of course, had no recourse to digital effects the way the makers of Game of Thrones do.)

The many descriptions of famous battles of the Napoleonic era, such as, for instance, those of the Battle of Borodino during the fatal Russian campaign in 1812–which Napoleon himself described as the ‘most terrible’ of his long and storied career–in turn, were re-invoked while watching the Battle of Winterfell. Consider, for instance, the following:

Inside the redoubt, horsemen and foot soldiers, gripped by a frenzy of slaughter, were butchering each other without any semblance of order…

The Raievski Redoubt presented a gruesome sight. ‘The redoubt and the area around it offered an aspect which exceeded the worst horrors one could ever dream of,’ according to an officer of the Vistula Legion, which had come up in support of the attacking force. ‘The approaches, the ditches and the earthwork itself had disappeared under a mound of dead and dying, of an average depth of 6 to 8 men, heaped one upon the other.

The Lifeguard Horse was deployed to the left of the Guard Cavalry. Its four squadrons were formed in one line, squadron by squadron with intervals. When the trumpets crashed out with brazen voice the two outfits began their magnificient advance. The fighting itself took place on a rye field and the onrush on both sides was so terrific that some of the most forward horses and men went down like poppies in a hurricane.

Because I mentioned the Battle of Waterloo, let me close with the final key resemblance between a Napoleonic conflict and the Battle of Winterfell. The latter was ended by the arrival of the Arryn cavalry (a surreptitious supporting force arranged by Sansa Stark and Littlefinger.) The Battle of Waterloo–the last Napoleonic battle–was brought to its conclusion by the arrival of the Prussian forces led by General Blücher; till then, even though Wellington‘s forces had seemed ascendant, a final coup de grace had not been delivered. Wellington himself desperately awaited relief; as he grimly noted, “Night or the Prussians must come.” When they did, it must have seemed like a scene right out of the movies. Or a television show.

Sandor Clegane, The Hound, on the Hypocrisy of Knighthood

A Song of Ice and Fire‘s Sandor Clegane, the Hound, is a vile man, a murderous mercenary who knows no scruples. But his impassioned rants against the hypocrisy of the knights of the Seven Kingdoms–besides providing him with some wonderful lines–give him a little redemptive touch.

In A Storm of Swords, before his battle with Beric Dondarrion, as he is accused by the Brotherhood without Banners (AKA the Knights of the Hollow Hill or The Forgotten Fellowship) of atrocities committed by the Lannisters, the Hound fights back:

“You server the Lannisters of Casterly Rock,” said Thoros.

“Once. Me and thousands more. Is each of us guilty of the crimes of others?” Clegane spat. “Might be you are knights after all. You lie like knights, maybe you murder like knights.”

 Lem and Jack-Be-Lucky began to shout at him, but Dondarrion raised a hand for silence. “Say what you mean, Clegane.”

“A knight’s a sword with a horse. The rest, the vows and the sacred oils and the lady’s favors, they’re silk ribbons tied around the sword. Maybe the sword’s prettier with silk ribbons tied round the sword. Maybe the sword’s prettier with ribbons hanging off it, but it will kill you just the same. Well, bugger your ribbons, and shove your swords up your arses. I’m the same as you. The only difference is, I don’t lie about what I am. So kill me, but don’t call me a murderer while you stand there telling each other your shit don’t stink. You hear me?

After he has cheated a ferryman of his fare by falsely promising to pay him on his ‘knight’s honor’ and is accused of breaking his vow, the Hound says:

Knights have no bloody honor.

Later too, the Hound lets an innkeeper know he does not want to be thought of, or addressed as if he were, a knight:

“I don’t want no trouble, ser,” the innkeep said.

“Then don’t call me ser.”

The Hound is right, of course: there is little distinction, often, in the behavior of sellswords and knights (as Sansa Stark painfully finds out);  the vows of knighthood are all too easily broken.

In leveling these charges against the exalted figure of the knight, Clegane forces a confrontation with the uncomfortable truth that renders the distinction between mercenary and professional soldier a tenuous one: both are in the business of killing.  The mercenary’s acts are all too quickly prejudged as driven by little more than selfish considerations but the soldier may often be granted the privilege of elaborate ideological cover for his actions.

This fragility of the distinction between ‘the man who fights for cause and country’ and ‘the man who fights for purse alone’ suggests a greater moral responsibility on the former.  But as the Hound sagely–if crudely–points out, all too often soldiers (and their leaders) are content to merely dress up their actions with puffery and bombast and pompous proclamations of codes of conduct. It is the easiness with which those may be discarded that is the target of the Hound’s ire. And it should be ours too.