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From Game of Thrones, S08E03, now I'm not a military expert, but I think the Dothraki's attack was obviously pointless, so why did they do that?

Against such an enemy every move should be perfect and wise, not based on simple reasons or emotions. Jon and others knew their enemy isn't normal. Jon even described them very well (S8, E2):

Our enemy doesn't tire, doesn't stop, doesn't feel. We can't beat them in a straight fight.

If that attack wasn't a straight fight, what was it?!

Losing the battle was equal to the end for the living. If they did that against, say, Cersei, it would have been okay I guess, but not against Night King.

Almost all great war commanders and warriors were there (also the most intelligent), Jon, Jaime, Jorah etc., so which one suggested that attack? For what reason and goal?

We all know for a fact that none of the characters in the Winterfell knew about the return of Melisandre, right? So they planned the Dothraki's attack with a weapon that has no effect on Wights? (without that fire, Arakh could not kill Wights)

12 Answers 12

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The point was to demonstrate that the writers had no clue what they were doing, should probably not be allowed to write about battles again, and should not be trusted with managing "logistical" based plot lines...

And about the best 'logical' reason to have it done would be "To avoid paying for so many horses/GCI for the rest of the season."

  • Dothraki are consistently described as being the greatest light cavalry in the world, and fearsome skilled warriors: And yet they wrote them in a way to show off a skill level equal to a baby randomly clicking at the mouse while seated in front of a game of Total War.
  • If the white walker army could move too fast and too aggressively for horsemen to scout safely or to even attempt hit-and-run tactics against, then anyone who survived at the wall would not have been able to make it to Winterfell before the battle.
  • Facing the front of such a large force with light cavalry could serve no useful purpose. Such troops would have done far more for the battle if they could have engaged part of the army and pulled it away from the main fight to take pressure off Winterfell.

Attempting to read too much into the battle 'strategy' from that episode is a highly questionable effort, given that they also decided to trap infantry on the far side of all the defensive lines, rather than even attempting to use the prepared defenses to slow the opponent such that they would be easier to kill. [You know, the entire reason why people build stuff like staked ditches and castle walls?]

It was a sadder Hollywood Farce of War than the number of characters who run around battles without helmets.

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    I agree with this 97%. -- The lack of helmets on main characters is a common visual device and story telling aid though -- even in many video games, your character has a helmet equipped, until there's a cutscene, and then it's magically gone and you can see the expressions on their faces, and the interactions are more emotionally charged, etc. -- It's a super useful visual aid, IMO, and it's a compromise I'm willing to accept. -- The ridiculous battle strategies are too much though... fucking hell... GRRM is probably rolling in his .... sofa. – BrainSlugs83 Apr 30 at 19:12
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    Great point about light cavalry vs. heavy cavalry. In the books, there is a scene, when Stannis relives the Nightswatch in the battle with Mance Rayder, designed to show the awesome might of heavy cavalry. (PS--have you heard of linked cavalry? It shows up in the Outlaws of the Marsh.) – DukeZhou Apr 30 at 20:58
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    Finally really good answer, this is definitely one the main reasons of that move: "To avoid paying for so many horses/GCI for the rest of the season" – Mehdi Dehghani May 1 at 3:58
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They did not know that it would be that ineffective

The Dothraki are great warriors particularly in open field. The surprised look on Dany's face tells us that they didn't expect the outcome. They must have been expecting that the Dothraki might hold the dead for a while. If they lasted long enough to bring the White Walkers (not Wights) they could kill them.

We also see the Unsullied use long range weapons when the Dothraki charge. That might have been their plan. Hold the army of dead with Dothraki army and fire catapults. Note that lighting the trench was kind of a backup / retreat plan. They were ready to fight the army of dead outside the castle walls in the first place.

Dothraki are not good at defense

The Dothraki are better off fighting enemies than standing at defense. We have never seen Dothraki holding defensive formation much. They are better off attacking than holding a line.

Off screen explanations

  1. The dismissal of Dothraki shows the viewers that the army of the dead is much more powerful and dangerous.
  2. It would also reduce the strength of Dany's army. Given that both of the remaining dragons are still alive this might be a way to give some advantage to Cersi in the upcoming battle.
  3. As pointed out by Chanandler Bong in comments, this could have been a way to subvert to viewers hopes. From Fandom site,

In the Inside the Episode featurette, the showrunners make no attempt to explain the in-universe reasoning behind this - just that they wanted a dramatic beat of the audience thinking the Dothraki might have some hope with their flaming Arakhs, only to then subvert this by having them wiped out.

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    Good answer. You may want to add to the off-screen explanation that it was also done this way for dramatic effect: In the Inside the Episode featurette, the showrunners make no attempt to explain the in-universe reasoning behind this - just that they wanted a dramatic beat of the audience thinking the Dothraki might have some hope with their flaming Arakhs, only to then subvert this by having them wiped out. From: gameofthrones.fandom.com/wiki/… – Chanandler Bong Apr 30 at 6:39
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    also also: (out of universe) it might be a good explanation why they don't need a place between the common peaceful people after the war is over, which would be hard. As in they would not fit in. – Thomas Apr 30 at 7:39
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    As a side note - this is the strategy that has worked pretty well for every Dothraki Khalasar in every military engagement in the past. They don't really do anything else. – Orgmo Apr 30 at 13:29
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    They could still have been used for flanking once the defence had begun. – mathreadler May 1 at 7:53
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    "They did not know that it would be that ineffective" yeah, whatever, an army that lives on horseback did not know that a head-on chivalry charge into the night is a bad idea. 🤦‍♂ They could have run into a forest of pikes, for all they knew. – ZJR May 2 at 9:16
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The cavalry would have been useless once the fight came to the trenches and ramparts.

That said, proper military strategy would have been to place the cavalry on the flanks of the main force, and charge in from the side when the Others hit the front lines of infantry.

Therefore, this was purely a narrative device, designed for dramatic effect, not realism.

  • Specifically, seeing the lights blink out was a metaphor for for how the Night King is the end of light.

Here the individual lights are also a metaphor for life--each flame that goes out is meant to represent a life extinguished.

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    You said they'd be "useless once the fight came to the trenches and ramparts." and then in the next sentence contradict that by saying how they would be useful after the fight came to the trenches: "charge in from the side when the Others hit the front lines of infantry" – Matt Burland May 2 at 19:14
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    @MattBurland Front line of infantry was set up in front of the trenches, and was many rows deep, and held for quite a while. (In fact, I don't think the Unsullied line ever broke--they held to protect the retreat before the surviving Unsullied themselves retreated, living up to their reputation.) – DukeZhou May 2 at 21:09
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Some really great thoughts in the thread. As a lover of medieval battle stories and sword and sandal epics I have to be honest and say I was completely shocked by the Dothraki attack. I don't want to rehash everything that's already been said but here are some of my comments and questions on the scene:

  1. It was pitch black with howling winds and snow. They couldn't even see more than a few meters in front of them, and that was WITH the flaming swords, so how did they know where the enemy was or how far away they were, whether or not they had dug trenches or had set up stakes? It was utter madness to plunge forward into the darkness without a clue of any position, strength, weaponry.

  2. Before the Red Woman lit their swords, they had no torches. How the hell were they planning to see where they were going? Conversely, they gave the enemy a tactical advantage because you could see their flaming swords approaching from a mile away.

  3. Mormont was a trained and experienced knight yet he rides into battle with the rest of them like s big fool, with no Intel or light.

  4. What a dumb way to dispatch of the dire wolf who shared the journey to that point.

  5. All they did was send the Night King more fuel for his army. The strategy should have been long range battle to limit losses. Every loss of their was a gain for the army of the dead. Their were tens of thousands of soldiers but the long range attack and archery offense in particular was pathetic. They should have rained down arrows on the dead when they were in range and keep them at bay. A series of trenches would have worked better, used their trebuchets + dragons to inflict maximum damage.

  6. They could have had more light and fires on the field to Illuminate. They could have rigged an early warning system. Bran could really have done more.

Having said all that, I agree that the point of the Dothraki defeat was both metaphorical and logistical. They wanted to use an anticlimax to raise tension and fear, and to visually portray the impending doom of lights/lives being snuffed out. They also wanted to raise the stakes for the battle for the iron throne. Dany has lost more than half her army so we're all wondering how the hell they're going to take kings landing, As professional screenwriter and filmmaker I can tell you that it was also logistical. Cast is a massive budget cost and GOT has a huge cast, by taking out the Dothraki and their horses in one fell swoop, they've saved budget to raise the production value of other scenes and episodes.

That'sy take on it.

Ben

  • Really good points, Idk why they added catapult to the story neither! – Mehdi Dehghani May 1 at 5:13
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    I believe the dire wolf survived the fight. – Tim B May 2 at 15:02
  • Honestly the flaming swords probably only made visibility worse. You can get accustomed to seeing in the dark (as long as there is still some light), but not when there's a fire burning right next to your face. – DaaaahWhoosh May 2 at 18:30
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Jorah appeared to be leading the Dothraki and we saw him draw and raise his sword after the swords were lit but they never showed Jorah or any other leader giving any sort of command to begin the attack. I expected a shot of Jorah dramatically signalling the advance and the lac of it left me with the impression that the riders may have gotten excited about having flaming new toys to play with and charged on their own earlier than was planned.

It would also help explain why the artillery didn't start firing until the Dothraki were already halfway there which was another example of poor planning.

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Whatever the plan was, it obviously didn't work. Daenerys was plainly horrified they were put out so easily—she didn't think she was wasting lives. Moreover, we're never shown precisely why they failed so spectacularly—it could have simply been they were outmaneuvered, and such a charge may have worked on other circumstances. Some possibilities include:

  • They only intended to harry the approaching force: The living might have been trying to leverage their elite cavalry advantage, rather than e.g. posting the Dothraki on a wall. This could conceivably work, though perhaps the dead anticipated this attack, swarmed together, and outflanked/surrounded the Dothraki, cutting off their retreat. The living may have also overestimated the efficacy of their calvary against the dead.

  • They thought they could surprise the dead: Surely the dead weren't expecting this brazen attack. The dead are variously portrayed as oblivious and stumbling around lethargically (i.e. when not swarming); if they had been in this state during the march to Winterfell, maybe they could have been cut down and picked off more easily than the inevitable swarm when the dead arrived at the castle.

  • They hoped to draw out the Night King: If the Dothraki had held their own for a bit, it may have forced the Night King to reveal himself, something he might be more prone to do when on the defensive, where he would assume his enemies would have a harder time targeting him than e.g. right next to a castle. Jon and Daenerys would then spring the trap.

Also, we might remember the living were desperate, and perhaps more willing to employ desperate, surprising, or bold tactics, if on the balance, it increased the likelihood of total victory. They weren't simply trying to kill as many zombies as possible or hold out as long as possible—they either killed all of the wights and the Night King, or it didn't really matter how effective they were. Maybe they considered a Dothraki charge could end in disaster, but there was some probability it would be remarkably effective (e.g. drawing out the Night King), beyond anything else the Dothraki could have done.

Finally, we're primarily discussing how stupid it was in light of how badly it failed—had it worked in any measure, most of us wouldn't question the wisdom of it. The great irony of this discussion, is we're railing on the writers for putting in the charge because it seemed so ill-advised, but we're basing that primarily on the evidence that it was completely ineffective in the show—an outcome, we might remember, that was written by the same writers. They could have reasonably had it succeed in some measure. Ultimately, they made it fail so spectacularly for the same reason they put it in: a device to create tension. It worked.

  • "They thought they could surprise the dead", do you even know NK? he marked Bran on Bran's vision, so don't tell me he surprised, specially with that flames! – Mehdi Dehghani May 1 at 6:05
  • ...was being shattered into thousands of ice beads also his plan? – Tahlor May 1 at 15:37
  • @Tahlor Can't blame the guy for not expecting teleportation. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey May 6 at 11:17
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One non-dramatic, realistic military reason was that it was not an attack. It was a probe.

They don't have drones to scout the enemy forces. They don't have orbiting spy satellites or AWACS. They needed a way to check the enemy forces out.

They do have dragons but it was dark and they had another mission for them anyway (to fly away and wait for the Night King).

They can't just send a scout or a small scouting party and expect them to survive and return to report.

So the best they can do is send enough people so enough will survive to report back intelligence.


There is still the problem of why they didn't use Bran but you can come up with excuses for that as well from the generals not knowing that they can use him to him wanting to use his abilities to attract the Night King

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    There is no evidence to back this theory up. – Pierre Arlaud Apr 30 at 13:13
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    But when some of the Dothraki returned no one asked them about the army of the dead. If it was a probe some one might have asked it. – Kolappan N Apr 30 at 14:33
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    "They don't have drones to scout the enemy forces" - the hell they don't. "I have to go now...." - Bran. LOL, kidding around, mostly. – PoloHoleSet Apr 30 at 16:43
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    I don't agree; they were not probing, there was no return plan indicated (and indeed none was carried out, and no intelligence was gathered). -- In a regular battle this would have been a poor choice to throw away lives for no reason (unless you can't feed them and you're planning on trying to hold out through a siege, in which case, it's vicious and cold hearted) -- but in a battle where the enemy is literally and tangibly strengthened by every loss you take (e.g. the warriors will become undead, and be used against you) it was just beyond stupid... – BrainSlugs83 Apr 30 at 19:02
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Why does it have to be good strategy?

I frame challenge the question. Real life military commanders also make tactical and strategical mistakes. It's quite common, in fact, even in the modern era. Remember that time Israel charged a whole bunch of unsupported tanks into what turned out to be a long series of fortified lines, resulting in them suffering massive losses despite on paper having vast military superiority? They committed the same error: sending in the "cavalry" with inadequate support and intelligence.

Perfect tactics is kind of an oddity, especially from a hodge-podge army of specialists that had never been trained to work in concert. Which is exactly what the army at Winterfell was. The Unsullied were strictly infantry that had never shown any training at working in concert with cavalry (or an air force, aka dragons). The Dothraki were strictly cavalry, and not even a regimented military one: they were raiders that use speed and ferocity to overwhelm and frighten. The Dothraki lacked the training necessary for the "standard" cavalry flanking procedures everyone seems to expect them to seamlessly execute. And the Unsullied lacked the training to execute the cooperative tactic, as well. Jon, as far as we've seen, was never trained in military tactics involving multiple troop types. The Wall had no such troops. Jaimie presumably was so trained, though insofar as we've only seen him march almost entirely with infantry on any of his campaigns, even that seems unsure.

So you can see this as a simple tactical error, which may have been largely unavoidable due to the nature of the forces. The assumption that perfect tactics would be used is erroneous. This is hardly required, and it makes invalid assumptions on the skill sets and training of the combatants at hand.

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It's all deus ex-machina horseshit

George R. R. Martin needed the blonde one to lose all of her support base, hence all those proud Dothraki had to be killed off as fast as possible. No other explanation needed. She will bite so much dust in the last episodes, and that's part of the setup.

All the strategy and tactics in the long night episode are, anyway, wrong: the army outside of the walls is a sensible daytime strategy, against a regular army (which the dead are not). Being outside the walls at nightime, is, in any situation, plain stupidity.

Also nobody needs to get into a crypt if the castle has a donjon, and IIRC Winterfell does. Also a capital of that importance, in a plain, in the 1600s should have a double circle of walls, and it does not.

Then again the dead shouldn't even have bothered taking Winterfell: they need no supplies, they need no rest, they should have skipped it trough the woods, taking easier targets south that were left unarmed after their armies left to fortify Winterfell. After a while maybe, if ever, destroy Winterfell with the fresh armies of dead civilians from the south. Nothing about that episode make any sense, it's all about closing storylines with a budget for CGI that's too damn low (hence the need for night fighting).

So, yeah, Dothrakis had to die. With more money to spare they would have had a dedicated episode to disappear, but that show ran out of dough.

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    The show has departed from the books. If GRRM decides that the Dothraki has to go he has far more options open to him for how they will be lost. – Taemyr May 2 at 13:41
  • While the criticism of the episode itself is correct, the answer destroys itself by laying the blame at someone who has proven himself capable of goof writing, and is not involved with the production, the story, or the promotion of the current season. There is a relevant quote by GRRM about "creative differences" which you can google. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey May 6 at 11:02
  • Another minor nitpick: Winterfell does have inner walls. Please don't ask me why the defenders don't use them (putting the Dothraki on top of those would have been an idea). Maybe I just missed it due to the many cuts and the darkness. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey May 6 at 11:04
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Form the production perspective, I think the Dothraki troops had to die because it would cost too much to shoot them and in their style. I am now beginning to think that the entire purpose of using the dark set was to save money for the upcoming episodes. Boyy, I can't wait!

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I had this odd feeling that wiping out the Dothraki army was on purpose by Dany so that once they won the long night and eventually the throne she had one less army to worry about once she's in power because maybe she is as crazy as her father?

But chances are this was just to help the flow of suspense and horror.

🤷🏻‍♂️

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    Sacrificing a good chunk of your army before you've won the war to prevent potential unrest after the war seems like rather poor strategy. – Nuclear Wang Apr 30 at 13:09
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    If the Dothraki were intact, there would be no suspense about whether the First Company would be of any use, sans elephants, against the surviving armies marching against Cersei. – PoloHoleSet Apr 30 at 16:44
  • Maybe if they were planning for a long siege (which they are not) -- e.g. "how do you feed that many people?" 🤔 -- ... but they're not... and even then it's a pretty poor strategy... -- For unrest, I don't really buy it -- they're SUPER loyal to her (as demonstrated in S08E03, no less. 😉) – BrainSlugs83 Apr 30 at 19:07
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I think most people are saying the right things, cavalry are mostly offensive, the Dothraki don't fight behind walls.

Two reasons why it's a great scene is one the Dothraki would have charged regardless. They never faced this army, and no one has on this scale at night. They got motivated by Melisandre encouraged with blades on fire, they now are an excellent source of recon, especially for the dragons. Though the plan failed miserably.

My plan would be send them out kind of like Hannibal did in the Battle of Trebia or the Battle of Helm's Deep, get the cavalry to come in from behind.

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