66th Regiment, British Infantry, Denethor, Faramir, Gary Zaboly, Le Cateau, Maiwand, Nazgul, Osgiliath, Pelennor, Peter Jackson, Rammas Echor, Richard Caton Woodville, the Alamo, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, The Siege of Gondor, Tolkien
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
In a previous posting, we rolled our eyes verbally at a moment in P. Jackson’s The Return of the King in which Faramir, according to the script, was required to mount a double-rank cavalry charge against the west bank of Osgiliath.
To us, this was a clumsy attempt to convey the clash between Faramir and his father Denethor, derived from material in The Lord of the Rings, Book 5, Chapter IV, “The Siege of Gondor”, principally from this:
“ ‘Much must be risked in war,’ said Denethor. ‘Cair Andros is manned, and no more can be sent so far. But I will not yield the River and the Pelennor unfought—not if there is a captain here who has still the courage to do his lord’s will.’
Then all were silent. But at length Faramir said: ‘I do not oppose your will, sire. Since you are robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead—if you command it.’
‘I do so,’ said Denethor.
‘Then farewell!’ said Faramir. ‘But if I should return, think better of me!’
‘That depends on the manner of your return,’ said Denethor.
Gandalf it was that last spoke to Faramir ere he rode east. ‘Do you throw your life away rashly or in bitterness,’ he said. ‘You will be needed here, for other things than war. Your father loves you, Faramir, and will remember it ere the end. Farewell!’ “
In the text, Faramir then goes to Osgiliath, having “taken with him such strength of men as were willing to go or could be spared.” The tone here is hardly encouraging and, the following day, “The passage of Anduin was won by the Enemy. Faramir was retreating to the wall of the Pelennor, rallying his men to the Causeway Forts; but he was ten times outnumbered.”
In an earlier posting, we have discussed the Rammas Echor, the wall which enclosed the farmland outside the walls of Minas Tirith.
We have also discussed the use by both Saruman and Sauron of what appears to be an early form of explosive—seen here in the following description of the fall of the Rammas:
“The bells of day had scarcely rung out again, a mockery in the unlightened dark, when far away he [Pippin] saw fires spring up, across in the dim spaces where the walls of the Pelennor stood. ..Now ever and anon there was a red flash, and slowly through the heavy air dull rumbles could be heard.
‘They have taken the wall!’ men cried. ‘They are blasting breeches in it. They are coming!’ “
Outnumbered and, with the fall of the wall in different locations, outflanked, the best that Faramir can do is to fall back towards Minas Tirith, as Gandalf says, “Yet he is resolved to stay with the rearguard, lest the retreat over the Pelennor become a rout. He may, perhaps, hold his men together long enough, but I doubt it.”
Unlike the silly—there’s really no other word for it—charge of P. Jackson—Faramir is a professional soldier, after all, much loved by his soldiers—we see what JRRT, having been a soldier himself, would have known was the military solution: a fighting retreat, led by a brave and capable leader.
His task had been an impossible one to begin with and, properly understood and depicted on the screen, would not only have been powerful dramatically, but much more believable. It was an impossible task, however, against the odds of ten to one. (For a comparison, we offer the siege and fall of the Alamo, late February-early March, 1836. The garrison numbered about 180, the besiegers eventually approximately 3000. In the final assault, before dawn on 6 March, 1836, the four assaulting columns had about 1200 men, offering odds of roughly 6 to 1 and the entire garrison died, along with somewhere between 400 and 600 of the attackers.)
(This is the work of the amazing Gary Zaboly– as an historical illustrator, he can’t be recommended highly enough. Much of his work concerns the 18th century, especially the 1740s and 50s, but he also has done some wonderful depictions of warfare in the American southwest in the 1830s and 40s.)
There are lots of examples of fighting retreats and we’ve picked two: a failure (Maiwand, Second Afghan War, 1880) and Le Cateau (The Great War, 1914).
At Maiwand, 27 July, 1880, a British-Indian brigade of 3 infantry units plus two cavalry units and a battery (6 guns) of horse artillery, anywhere from 1500 to 2000 soldiers, faced perhaps 12,000 Afghans with 6 batteries of guns.
Basically, the British were outflanked and their left-hand units began to buckle under the pressure of the attacks and the number of attackers which they had to face. As they gave way, the right hand end of the line began to move backwards, feeling increasingly in danger of being surrounded, just as Faramir’s men must have.
As the infantry retreated, the artillerymen used their guns to buy time for a general withdrawal, ending by losing a section (2 guns) to the enemy. There’s a famous painting of the withdrawal of the remaining guns by the late-Victorian artist, Richard Caton Woodville.
At the end of the withdrawal from the battle, a small group of British soldiers of the 66th Regiment took shelter inside an enclosure in a nearby village and fought it out to the end.
Gandalf’s worry had been that Faramir couldn’t hold his men together and you can see here what happens when organized units come apart—they are defeated piecemeal, “in detail” is the military expression.
In contrast to this, we offer an action from Tolkien’s own time, the battle at Le Cateau, fought on 26 August, 1914. The British Expeditionary Force, facing superior numbers and in danger of being outflanked, particularly to the west, was engaged in a long retreat. Miraculously, unit cohesion was mostly maintained, although communications were often poor, causing confusion and, in one case, even in losing a unit, never notified of withdrawal.
The British Army was divided into two larger groupings, First and Second Corps, and it was Second Corps which turned to face its pursuers. During a long morning, the British, in hastily-dug trenches, fended off superior numbers of German infantry.
Having lost heavily, but having given the enemy similar punishment, the British slowed German pursuit and were able to withdraw without being as closely pursued as they had been.
The difference here is in exactly what Gandalf was worried about. At Maiwand, the brigade fell apart and could easily be swept away by the enemy. At Le Cateau, although it was hardly a perfect affair, the British kept enough cohesion not only to withstand and defeat heavy attacks, but then to retreat in units, without ever collapsing into a fleeing mob.
What happens in that struggle in the fields behind the Rammas Echor is, in fact, a mixture of the two retreats described above. We see “Small bands of weary and often wounded men…some were running wildly as if pursued.” Then, “…less than a mile from the City, a more ordered mass of men came into view, marching not running, still holding together.” And then “Out of the gloom behind a small company of horsemen galloped, all that was left of the rearguard.”
So, it looks like Faramir had succeeded in maintaining that sense of order and purpose which is vital for a fighting retreat. It was not to last, however, as a mass of enemy horsemen on the causeway behind, as well as several Nazgul from above, threw all into confusion—which was stemmed, in turn, by the arrival of a rescue party, led by the Prince of Dol Amroth and accompanied by Gandalf arrived to drive back the attackers.
In that flurry, Faramir is struck by an arrow and has to be rescued and brought into the City, badly wounded.
Looking back, it is a very different scene from that preposterous cavalry charge, isn’t it? As our readers are probably also experienced watchers of the films, we wonder: which do you prefer, Jackson/writers or the author?
Thanks, as always, for reading.