The Battle of the Five Armies: a post combat analysis from the book, The Hobbit.
Arguably the second last decisive engagement of the Third Age, the Battle of the Five Armies made Northern Rhovanion and Eregion noticeably safer for a close to a century. But what actually happened in this epic confrontation? How did the tiny forces of Thranduil, Dain and Bard defeat Bolg’s massive horde of Goblins and Wolves? How did the various battlefield decisions affect the outcome? What do the writings of Mr Baggins and other contemporary observers tell us, and what does the benefit of hindsight suggest could have been done differently…
An approximation of the armies and their components has been made based on records, payrolls, muster registers, first-hand accounts, treatises and oral lore. Some liberties and extrapolations have been taken with the allies of Gundabad. See (an upcoming) separate page for list of combatants and units.
Pre-battle deployments and dispositions.
Differences ignored in the face of a common threat, the free peoples shake their armies out into a defensive battle plan…
Bard and a small company of Men and Elves race up the east-ridge and witness the oncoming horde streaming like a river out of the north. A vanguard of Wargs and Wolves, followed by Warg riders of Goblin Town, lead the masses of Gundabad. The bat host is already swarming above the valley of Dale. Even from this vantage point Bard still cannot see advance units of Goblins ascending the northern flanks of Erebor. He confirms to the other generals, the Goblin’s eastern approach. Laketown’s Captain of the Guard deploys the marines as a lure across the valley where it narrows, with the assurance they will be given covering fire by Elves and Men. The marines and fishermen are desperate angry folk who have lost their livelihoods and kin.
Dain moves onto the lower slope of the eastern ridge and places his veteran Underwatch at his extreme left with instructions to hold fast lest the entire Dwarfish line is rolled up. The few Dwarf archers are placed above them to provide a reserve and covering fire. The rest of the Iron Hills contingent is arrayed in a line north-west towards the Mountain gate with Dain and his Kings-guard in the centre.
Bard re-joins the Laketown militia and swordsmen who ready themselves between the Dwarf units to serve as missile support and flankers. The men of Laketown number more than 300 and if not well provisioned most are at least well-armed. The sturdy Esgaroth town guard array themselves next to the Dwarf Underwatch veterans on the left flank.
The Elves deploy on the south ridge. They have massed archery units protected by blocks of spears arrayed along the lower slopes. Unrecorded in the Red Book of Westmarch, a detached corps of Elvish archers, spears and scouts, led by Legolas Greenleaf, is hidden in the valley of Dale along the riverbank to assist the thin line of Esgaroth marines.
Thranduil sends one lance of cavalry south of Ravenhill to hinder any flanking moves and the other lance to reconnoitre the western approaches to the mountain. A unit of scouts are also sent to skirmish forward of the Elvish lines as a screen/ lure. More Elvish scouts were patrolling the trail to Long Lake at the time and are recalled to Dale– they do not join the fray until later in the afternoon. Gandalf and Bilbo accompany Thranduil while he tasks the Hallspear regiment with rushing what supplies they can from the baggage train onto Ravenhill. This unit will later constitute the Elvish reserve force.
At this point the Eagles are leaving their roosts (from either the Misty Mtns or somewhere in the southern peaks of the Grey Mountains). Word of the Goblins move on the Lonely Mountain has reached the Eagles from their scouts, lesser kindred birds and possibly magical communication from Gandalf. It will take them most of the day flying hard on the tails of the storm to cross Mirkwood and reach the mountain. Beorn has been shadowing the Goblin army and broke cover from the northern eaves of Mirkwood two days ago. He is cutting south-east, across the Desolation of Smaug, some 15 miles west of the Lonely Mountain.
The Armies of Goblins and Wolves have marched in secret for several weeks out of the Anduin Vale and beneath the shadow of the Grey Mountains. They left the mountains seven days ago and have come south using the broken lands north of the Erebor as cover. Their outriders reached the foothills of the Lonely Mountain only yesterday. They marched through night and day under sorcerous clouds and stormy wrack. Bolg is a cunning foe and uses what information he has effectively.
Bolg has allied himself with Drauglof the Ravener. This huge Lord of Wargs is the alpha male of a large congregation of packs of wargs, evil wolves, and white wolves. These intelligent beasts (and their riders) provide rudimentary scouting information, though once battle is joined most prefer to seek out the hated foe.
The little command and control Bolg has is exerted through the leaders of various tribes. Bolg uses a small cadre of wolf riders and runners who relay messages to them. Some otherworldly intelligence is garnered by the Sauronic priest/ emissary, a human sorcerer akin to the Mouth of Sauron. It is he who has roused the vampire Gorgawethil from the buried vaults of Angmar. The ancient spirit is able to provide some aerial information from her children when the mood takes her. Gorgawethil herself is travelling with Bolg’s retinue and will not take to the sky until late in the day. It is her preternatural advice to Bolg that carries the heights. She espies the allied armies’ deployments on the high ground and thus Bolg sends large numbers of goblins up Erebor’s northern slopes to take the free folk from above and behind.
The main body of Goblins follows a path around the rough terrain of Erebor’s eastern flank. Their order of march is led by a van of Wargs. Next come the infantry masses of Goblin Gate– they are most eager to avenge the loss of the Great Goblin. They are followed by the Orcs of the Grey Mountains, relatively fresh to the warpath. Next come the Goblin scum of Angmar and numerous isolated mountain holds including the remnants of Moria, still depleted after the battle of Azunulzibar. These lesser tribes are driven before the host of Gundabad itself, led by Bolg’s heavily armoured bodyguard and the pack of Drauglof.
Due to the nature of their march the Goblin forces snake into the valley in long columns, unit after unit. Later in the day they are able to mass effectively and when Goblin units scale the heights on either shoulder of the mountain they enable flanking and encircling movements.
Bolg’s forces include several trolls. They are scattered throughout the horde but are wary of the patchy shade and the darkness inducing sorcery of the priest and vampire.
The Rohirric scholar Amlaith wrote of a Werewolf in Bolg’s host based on the memoir of the Esgaroth merchant Hamdir, a veteran of the battle. The huge number of Wargs and wolves would support such a theory. The Grey Mountains have long been rumoured to harbour Highland Gaurin so such a presence at the battle would be unsurprising. Otherwise no other first-hand account mentions Werewolves. Hamdir’s account could be that of one unused to seeing wargs and the size they can attain.
Despite his dubious scholarship Amlaith did point out one significant absence at the Battle of Five Armies. Another Dragon! This overlooked fact leads one to several areas of speculation including the torpor of the inhabitants of the Withered Heath, the lack of informants for its denizens, or perhaps the absence of any inhabitants.
It has been speculated that one or more Nazgul may have accompanied Bolg. The Witch King and/or Khamul spring to mind as both have been associated with areas adjoining Wilderland: Angmar and Dol Guldur specifically. The sorcerous darkness and weather, bat swarming and an unusually successful long distance surprise march all strongly suggest a controlling power behind the Goblins. However there is no firm evidence for the presence of Nazgul. Even the participation of Gorgawethil is not fully verifiable, being based only on the garbled curses of Bolg’s dying guards, Gandalf’s counter-spelling of weather controlling sorcery (beyond that of mere Orcish dweomercraft), and a sighting of a huge bat by one of Thorondir’s troop.
Battle is joined!
The vanguard of Wolves comes boiling into the valley of Dale seeking out opponents. The smell of Men, Elves and Dwarfs would be strong – they know they are here. The thin force of Men in the middle of the valley is the obvious target, drawing them in without delay. Surging deeper into the valley, eager to get at this line of flesh, the wolfen van is followed by the advance units of Goblins of the High Pass.
The marines cannot hold the slavering canines for long. The doomed Lakemen battle furiously, slowing the rush and allowing the Orcish infantry to close up behind the Wolves. Elvish and human bows begin to open up on the flanks but it is too late for the marines. They break under the furious assault and many are run down and torn apart. Legolas’ advance force spring up and prevents a total massacre with a withering hail of arrows into the wolvish pursuit. The remnants of the marines scatter left and right for either ridge while Legolas’ corps also fall back across the river to the south ridge.
The Wolves push deeper into the valley and follow the fleeing Men in either direction. The Wolf army is turned back by the walls of Erebor and the steep valley sides bristling with defenders. The demon dogs race along the ridge line and now the Elvish and Laketown archery takes a terrible toll on their unarmoured shaggy hides. Many Wargs charge the Elf and Dwarf ranks but are slaughtered without significant losses to the disciplined and well positioned allied lines.
All of the Goblin Town hordes, led by the ‘Not-So-Great Goblin’, are in the valley of Dale now, charging towards the Front Door and mostly oblivious to the armies on their flanks. The remnants of the wargish van joins their Goblin allies while a portion spills south, out of the valley, and begins a game of cat and mouse with the tiny Elvish cavalry contingent. This little known sideshow initially sees the mounted archery scattering the hounds.
The First Charge
The Elves on the south ridge now deliver massed volleys of arrows into the Goblins. The horde turns to the south ridge but the archery stalls their momentum and Thranduil, seeing an opportunity, declares a general charge. The Elvish spearmen hurtle down-slope, across the river and into the startled Orcs. The bulk of the archers hold their position on the ridge. Across the valley the Goblins have begun to engage the Dwarf and Human lines but the attacks are uncoordinated and are easily repelled from the defended high ground.
Thanduil’s spears create havoc in the valley while his archers are able to land volleys into the unengaged masses in the centre. The ‘Not-So-Great Goblin’ is wounded by this shooting and shortly after he and his guard are heavily engaged by the Bridge-Spear regiment. The Elvish attack wades through the pin-cushioned Goblin ranks but as it leaves the protection of the ridge archery it becomes slowed by the sheer size of the horde. Warg and Wolf rider reinforcements arrive to harry the Elvish flank and even assault the southern units of archers, whilst the Orc tribes of the Grey Mountains enter the valley.
At this point Dain, seeing the Elves becoming mired, declares a charge. The Dwarfs shouting “Moria, Moria” and “Dain!” smash into the horde and drive the Goblins before them. The Lakemen charge down too, hewing left and right with their long swords. The Underwatch and Esgaroth town guard on the extreme left, join the assault but are careful to maintain formation. Bard and the archers hold the ridge and pepper White Wargs and Ice-Orcs attempting to ascend the ridge behind the Dwarfs.
The banners of Goblin Town fall and when the ‘not so great Goblin’ is speared to the ground much of the horde is routed. Elves and men run them down while the Dwarfs clear the centre of the valley. The Wolf and Warg packs scatter and some of the hungry beasts begin feasting upon fallen goblins. But then disaster strikes…
Thousands of Goblins from various tribes and strongholds had spent the previous hours ascending the north slopes of Erebor. Some had gone searching for a way into the mountain but many others were deployed by Bolg to take the foe from above. They traversed around the mountain’s shoulders by old trails that linked the ridges. Sighting the battle below they stream down, heedless of those who plummet off the steep cliffs, and attack the Elves and Men holding the south and east ridges respectively. The lighter reserve units of Elves and Men fall back from this unexpected assault.
The allied push in the valley is left unfinished as many units move back to regain the high ground. Meanwhile the lesser Goblins of Moria and Angmar move around the east ridge, entering the valley and reinforce the shattered units of Goblin Town. Wargs of the lower Anduin vales harry the redeploying Elves while the Dwarf Underwatch is battered by a Snow Troll before it is brought low by repeated volleys from the Esgaroth guard archers. Bard’s huntsmen conduct a skirmishing to and fro sword and archery duel along the rocky slopes of the east-ridge. His fighting retreat is halted by the arrival of Laketown militia and Dwarfs. They hold this first rush of Orcs at bay despite not having the high ground. The Dwarfs relish fighting in the rocky terrain and their armoured helms protect them from hurled rocks. Bard leads a mixed cadre of Lakemen uphill to engage Goblins attempting to outflank them along the ridgeline.
Thranduil’s Master of Bows turns the northernmost archery units to blunt the Goblin assault coming down onto the south ridge. Accurate sniping on the narrow paths slows the Goblins. This delay allows a spear regiment to move from the valley back up the ridge to support the archers. When the Goblins of Gundabad finally are massed enough to dare the arrows they run down onto the waiting spears. A terrible battle envelops the steep ground as more and more Goblins crest the mountain slopes and stream towards the valley. On the valley floor the Elvish spear units pull back toward the river fending off the growing Goblin numbers and lightning fast Warg attacks. Legolas leads a spirited counter charge southward, across the Elvish front, to stave off the goblins and allow a withdrawal. Many of his companions are cut down extricating themselves back to the river.
Across the valley the Hobgoblins of Moria sight Dain’s kindred and do not hesitate in their attack. Their numbers are a fragment of yesteryear but they pile obliquely into the Dwarf lines with fervour in their desire for revenge. The Dwarf Underwatch and Esgaroth town guard are pushed back up the valley. Dain and the Lakemen are separated from the Elvish lines and pull their forces back towards the east ridge.
At the same time the Wargs have grouped into a huge pack in the ruin of Dale – they emerge and chase the Elvish cavalry out of the valley. Then the pack returns and assaults the Elvish right on both sides of the river. Goblins of Angmar and the remnants of the Grey Mountain tribes attack the Elves defending the river line near the gate. Goblin archers and slingers from on high weaken the resolve of those closest to the mountain. Without dedicated archery support, and attacked on both flanks, Thranduil hastily pulls back onto the south ridge and away from the mountain allowing the Goblins to mass in the valley. Ravenhill with its increased elevation from the ridge to the north seems a likely holding point.
The Elf cavalry rallies and is joined by the second lance returning from its western sweep – it seems the goblins are not coming that way. The reinforced company gallops northeast and attacks the Wargs from the rear giving Thranduil’s beset southern flank a chance to recover. The respite is only momentary for now the horde of Gundabad itself has entered the fray. Bolg’s huge bodyguard regiment emerges from the ruins of Dale. Bolg leads numerous units of mountain Hobgoblins, marching under banners of black and red, that move to attack both ridges. It is now that Thorin strikes.
The new wall across the front gate is levered outwards and collapses across the small lake. Out rush Thorin’s company clad in the best Dwarfish mail and wroth are the hands that wield axes of the king’s armoury. Stones are cast from on high but they bear on and drive the surprised Goblins from the gate, freeing up the Elves nearest the river. Thorin turns south east cutting down Orc and Warg alike and flank charges the enemy assailing the east-ridge.
The company carve a bloody swathe through the Goblin lines. Thorin calls his kinsfolk to join him whilst turning south towards the oncoming ranks of Gundabad. Virtually all the Dwarfs and half the Lakemen charge downhill into the valley. Moria’s goblins fall beneath mattock and sword. Thorin’s company strikes down a huge white Warg, driving its yelping pack off, then they slam into the armoured ranks of Bolg’s guard. Legolas and other Elf lords, leading two regiments of spears, the Hearthswords, and a regiment of archers, charge across the river cutting down the foe in their stride. The fresh allied charge ploughs unheeding across the plain of Dale, eager to unite at Thorin’s call. They leave the bodies piled black and high behind them. Dain and the Lakemen rout the Moria Goblins and link up with Thorin and Co’s assault on Bolg’s troops. The Elvish charge wades across the sea of Goblins and Wolves leaving a black wake behind them as they too join Thorin’s attack. But the allied flanks are wide open.
Bard and his remaining Lakemen are now cut off, fighting Goblins from above and wolves that ascend the ridge and assail them from below. The bats of Gorgawethil are particularly fierce at higher elevations and more than a few men and elves on the ridges are beset by flocks of the evil creatures. Thranduil’s depleted holding action on the ridge comes under attack from Goblins moving up out of the valley and down from the mountain. He pulls his reserve forces south towards Ravenhill hoping the centre can win the day. From this vantage point he, Gandalf and Bilbo can see what Thorin, Legolas and Dain are up against. The masses of Gundabad are deep and now they begin to envelop the heroic tripartite thrust into their midst.
Thorin strikes down many an Orc, but he and his company are halted by the regiments of Gundabad. The orc shields are thick, and their ranks ordered. Bolg is here and he doesn’t need Gorgawethil whispering in his ear to see the unguarded flanks. Ravener, the Chief Warg of all the north, leads his huge pack around behind the Dwarfs cutting them off from the east and tears into the rear. Wargs and Hobgoblins envelope the allies, turning their flanks and the attack becomes a circular defence.
Up on the south ridge Gandalf senses evil sorcery and attempts a counterspell. Gorgawethil and the Priest redouble their efforts but Gandalf begins to lift the magic darkness to the west. Thranduil’s cavalry are again driven from the valley with some loss by Goblin archery and pursuing Wolf packs. They lead the Wolves into an ambush by a company of Elvish scouts returning from patrol in the south. The scouts and cavalry then try to relieve Ravenhill but the forces of Gundabadrim and Grey Mountain Orcs are too thick on the ground for their pin pricks to take effect.
Hobgoblin shield walls, bolstered by a Troll, attack the south ridge, shattering the spear hedge and contracting the Elvish line onto Ravenhill. The Hall-spear regiment forms a final cordon about the hill while Thranduil’s archers shoot the last of their arrows from behind. In the valley Ravener, the Warg king, tears apart Dain’s Underwatch Thane and fatally wounds Laketown’s Captain of the Guard. Legolas shoots Ravener through the eye and thus holds the line but the allies on the plain are hemmed in and being ground down. Thorin’s company again try and fail to break the ranks of the Orcs while Bolg prepares to crush the trapped allies. He sends Hobgoblin regiments and Wolf packs up both ridges, cutting off all escape in the valley. Gundabad’s slave Trolls lumber into the valley while Bolg himself advances into the front ranks to finish off the trapped Dwarf Lords.
All hope seems lost as the Elves, Men and Dwarfs are ground down. But then Bilbo sees something in the lifting clouds to the west.
Bilbo’s cries of “The Eagles, The Eagles are coming!” are taken up by the Elves. The allies are invigorated by the news despite it being some minutes before they arrive. The Goblin attacks on the ridge tops waver, the allies hold firm, but the situation in the valley is critical.
Bolg and Thorin square off trading blows, axe versus scimitar. But Thorin is tired and the huge Goblin is fresh to the fight. He strikes down Thrain’s son and Fili and Kili rush in attacking Bolg. The Orc slays Fili outright while Bolg’s bodyguard spear Thorin. Kili protects Thorin with his body and is speared to his death. The company and Dain’s soldiers hold position over Thorin while the Eagles finally swoop low out of the west and over the south ridge. The first pass shreds the ridgetop Goblin lines and dislodges many archers and slingers on the peak above the gate. The birds continue east and scatter the Orcs fighting Bard’s men such that the Lakemen are able to turn and properly battle the Wolves and Goblins in the rocks beneath them.
The Eagles wheel about and engage the Goblins on both ridge tops and mountains again whilst Thorondir and his guard strafe Bolg’s forces in the valley. Many Goblins are slain but the spears and arrows of the massed army wound many of the giant birds. Bolg’s forces continue to hold the low ground and crush the allies. He directs Gorgawethil to personally attack the Eagles – she transforms and flies low and to the east seeking to clear the attack runs before ascending. In a remarkable display of control Bolg orders his forces to keep spearing and shooting the Eagles and sends his Trolls around the western flank of the trapped allies to stave their defence in. The Goblins on the ridge tops are broken but Bolg’s forces in the valley are unbeaten and still outnumber the free folk three to one.
Suddenly the Elvish cavalry harassing the goblins at the south of Ravenhill are startled and flee from the gigantic beast that rushes past them. It is Beorn in bear form, unlooked for, that now charges straight into the Goblin lines, crushing Orc and Warg underfoot. He overbears and disembowels a Troll then crashes like a thunderclap upon the rear of the Gundabadrim, breaking their ranks. His arrival coincides with the parting of the cloud cover. The Eagles have driven off many of the bats and the lowering sun disheartens the Goblins and causes the remaining Trolls to turn to stone. Beorn stomps over the bodyguard of Bolg and relieves the pressure on the trapped free folk. He carries Thorin out of the fray, to the Elvish lines. Eagles harry the wolf packs and drive off the Goblins beneath Ravenhill allowing Thranduil to advance his force downhill pushing the Goblins into the river and beyond.
Beorn then returns to the battle and wreaks havoc. He throws Wargs and riders about in sprays of black blood, then again crashes upon Bolg’s guard. Their swords are sharp but no match for his size and ferocity and they are hurled aside. Undaunted, scimitar whirling, Bolg rushes at the monster but Beorn swats him down. Pouncing on him, Beorn crushes the Orc lord in an eye-blink. The bodyguard scatter and Beorn pursues causing the surrounding formations to lose cohesion. The Eagles now swoop down into the valley tearing the wavering infantry to ruin.
With the mountain heights now scoured of Goblins by the swooping eagles, Bard and his men charge downhill. Beorn runs amuck where-ever he will, rending Goblin and Warg without pity. Thranduil charges his reserve out into the valley driving the enemy before them in panic. And the once beleaguered force of Dwarfs, Men and Elves in the centre can now go on the offensive again, striking out in all directions. Goblins and Wargs run hither and yon, leaderless and sun-addled. The bats scatter directionless, as one of Thorondir’s wingmen sights a particularly huge bat exiting the valley around the tip of the east- ridge. Dain slays a hideous mannish commander (the Sauronic Priest) amidst the remnants of Bolg’s guard and all control of the Goblin host is finally lost. They are run, ridden and flown down. The Eagles particularly account for huge numbers of the routed evil ones. Many drown in the river or are trapped on the lake shore and massacred. Nightfall enables numbers to make their way west and the pursuit continues for days. They are chased into swamps or the darkened tree-halls of Mirkwood, where they are led in deep to die of thirst.
It is a mighty victory but a costly one- Thorin, Fili and Kili all perish, whilst many other renowned captains of Men, Elves and Dwarfs are lost. The Lakemen lose nearly half their number, many in the opening skirmish then later in the desperate moments on the plain before the Eagles arrive. Wargs in particular are the nemesis of the tall men. The Dwarfs count nearly 200 dead as well, though their armour and sturdy constitution allows many of their wounded to recover. The Elves suffer upwards of 600 casualties, the bitter stand on the south ridge and about Ravenhill accounting for many of the fair folk that departed this world on that fateful day. Several of the Eagles are wounded. They lose two of their number to Goblin arrows and spears and a third is torn apart by Wargs when it is grounded near the east-ridge.
Bolg, his Priest and Drauglof the Ravener are slain as are all the leaders of lesser holds like Goblin Town, Moria and the Grey Mountains, along with many a Warg pack chief. It has been estimated that three quarters of the Goblins in the north perish as a result of the Battle of the Five Armies. Of the Wargs and evil Wolves it is harder to say for those that survive the battle and escape the valley were well able to flee the Desolation. They had however suffered terrible casualties from Elvish archery and wherever they attacked prepared formations. No official count was made of the enemy dead though estimates range from 3000 to 15000 Goblin and Wolf casualties. The narrative of Elentiriel, an Elven spearman sent to ‘finish the stricken’ states that he counted 1217 enemy dead on the south ridge. He estimated four times that in the valley. If a similar number were slain on the east-ridge, then more than 7000 were slain at Erebor plus say another 1000-2000 in the pursuit lasting several days, giving a figure close to 9000 dead. No trace of the vampire Gorgawethil was found. It is supposed she fled into the uttermost East to continue her feral existence in some lost gloaming hole.
Analysis – Bolg’s Failure or the hand of Manwe?
Many scholars have asked how did the free-folk pull this victory from the jaws of defeat. If one of the three allied armies was absent it is doubtful the remainder could have held on til the Eagles arrived. Also, and most importantly, without the Eagles allied defeat was almost certain. Beorn’s arrival proved the nail in the coffin for Bolg, turning what could have become a nasty prolonged fight into a rout. Was it merely the timely arrival of aggrieved parties, Gandalf’s scheming, the hand of Manwe, or all of the above? We may never know.
Bolg’s folk performed very well all things considered. The masterly hidden march of a huge army across hundreds of leagues harkens back to the assault on Gondolin. One can only assume that the bats of Gorgawethil shrouded them and/or killed Roac’s kin. Her sorcery or that of the Priest may also have helped. The land to the north is admittedly a wasteland unmarked and shunned by the free-folk and, by following the terrain, Bolg gave his forces natural screening. As for the assault on Erebor, save for the Eagles, the scaling of the heights would normally have been the undoing of their enemy. It is perhaps lucky that more Goblins and Wolves did not take this route into the valley of Dale. It is also fortunate that Bolg did not split his forces and come around the mountain from west and east, and/or ascend the ridges from the opposite side and enter the valley laterally en-masse from above. This would have quickly overwhelmed the Men and Dwarfs and pinned the Elves down into a doomed battle of attrition early in the day. Presumably controlling such a semi-disciplined horde disallowed tricky pincer envelopments. The unknown lay of the land and forces that might have been waiting for them could have made splitting his forces too risky. It is probable that most of the Goblins merely wanted to get at the treasure in the mountain and were looking for the fastest way in rather than giving any thought to a battle plan.
The Goblin column of march made for a piecemeal application of force. The allied armies were able to lure the vanguard, and then smash the lead elements. It is only when Goblin units crest the mountains shoulders and attack from above that Bolg’s forces in the valley can mass effectively. The archery and slingers from on high counter the Elvish and Human shooting thus reducing the devastating volleys into the centre of the field. Eagles and Beorn notwithstanding, once Bolg’s forces are assembled in the valley and Thorin’s charge is halted and enveloped, the Goblins had the battle won, even with the breaking of the clouds to the west.
The patchy cloud cover throughout the day had unnerved the few Trolls present and reduced their effectiveness in battle. Sorcerous control or timing of the storm that followed the Goblin approach was lost in the late afternoon. This loss of sun cover ultimately proved the Trolls’ undoing in the closing phase of the battle. The sunlight also cannot be underestimated in reducing the effectiveness of the Goblins and Wargs and, when combined with surprise attacks from monsters and the loss of their leaders, it broke their resolve. Imagine if Bolg had attacked the valley in the evening. Effective Trolls, humans virtually blind, archery drastically reduced and possibly no Eagles! The north may well have been lost. The Goblins haste to reach the mountain in their greed for money or revenge found them punished even harder than the squabbling allies. Men, Elves and Dwarfs were on the verge of blows and it is doubtful that Gandalf alone could have halted their murderous intent without a common enemy to focus upon.
Allied performance in the Battle was exceptional considering the disparate squabbling races and the short time to integrate such forces. Pairing the Men with the Dwarfs made for a less quarrelsome duo than Elves and Dwarfs might have been and somewhat balanced out the numbers enabling a twin deployment. Gandalf’s advice here is probable.
Use of the ridges as high ground above a killing field was an excellent plan, however the proximity to the peak proved costly when the Goblins crested the heights. Bard’s scouting was unable to spot the ascending Goblins and the failure of the Elvish cavalry to identify or communicate with Thranduil of this direction of assault raises some questions. Such intelligence early in the battle may have provoked a costly retreat to the south (or into the mountain?) or led to a defensive battle on the ridge tops. Also the ridge deployments meant the two forces were easily separated. Whilst this did create a salient / killing ground for the enemy to occupy it also risked isolation and piecemeal annihilation.
It has often been asked if the allies could have deployed better or if their two main attacks during the day were wasteful. The ruin of Dale could have functioned as a defended bulwark whilst the Elves held the south ridge. A defensive battle might have worked in their favour as Ravenhill, elevated above the ridge line, would always offer a high ground advantage. Dain and Bard proved capable in holding rocky terrain so the ruin of Dale might well have been defensible. However this would leave Thorin isolated and unable to assist. Also Bolg might have been able to isolate Dale and grind it out then turn his attention to Ravenhill.
Another alternate battle plan is grouping all the allies along the river-line below the south ridge and drawing the enemy into battle. Once engaged they could then withdraw back up onto the south ridge giving a height advantage and allowing Elvish archery full play. This is more of a one dimensional strategy but the south ridge and Ravenhill were certainly good ground to fight upon. This plan may well have reduced allied casualties but also might have allowed more Goblins and Wargs to escape the carnage of rout when the Eagles did arrive.
Lastly it has been suggested by Dwarvish historians that Erebor itself should have been the battleground. 50 troops could have reinforced Thorin’s company while the rest of the armies should have been sent from their ridge deployments up onto the mountain itself, ideally beating the goblins approach from the north to Erebor’s shoulders. Fighting here would have played to the allied ranged advantage and reduced the movement advantage of the Wargs. A deployment like this would be vulnerable to besieging and difficult to counter attack from, but with the Eagles’ arrival the Goblins would themselves be caught on very bad ground.
As for the two allied attacks made on the day, Thranduil, Dain and Thorin all thought they had a chance to break the enemy and create a rout or at least deal a lethal blow to the Goblin leadership. Whilst these charges cost them dearly and nearly lost the day, they also culled huge numbers of enemy, lured the goblin forces into a swirling confused pitched battle and kept the bulk of the Goblins and Wargs on the low ground.
Bard and his forces merely joined in with these charges, no doubt being less well equipped, the smallest force and with families within a few days march, they had the most to lose. One could even say that Bard displayed the best general-ship of the day. He attempted to scout the enemy; provided a sacrificial lure; didn’t initiate charges against insurmountable numbers, but also supported the charges of his allies; and defended the high ground from rear attacks with vastly less troops than the Elves.
Dain of the Iron Hills was hamstrung in his choices by needing to assist first Thranduil and then Thorin. He supported Thranduil’s attack, conducted a fighting retreat to the ridge, then joined Thorin’s charge and conducted a circular defence. His army provided heavy infantry to take the brunt of much of the fighting. Questions could also be asked of Dain’s scouts as Bolg’s horde was little more than an hour’s march away as he rounded the east-ridge. Perhaps Dain had retracted all his flankers to prevent his approach to Erebor being spotted? Regardless of this, Dain’s most valued contribution to the battle was switching from a belligerent opponent to wholeheartedly cooperating with the Elves and Men.
Thranduil had, what is in hindsight, the best ground. If one rules out fighting on the mountains peak, or defending the gate, then Ravenhill is the key terrain of the entire battlefield. That position, combined with the largest allied force, enabled the Elves to dominate the western battlefield, functioning as a lethal meat-grinder of Bolg’s forces. Thranduil did well to hold his spread out force to the high ground as the Goblins twice gained ascendancy. The Elves early charge, whilst premature, was an understandable thrust easily retractable. Supporting Thorin’s (in hindsight impetuous) charge much less so! Thranduil’s lieutenants did what seemed like the right thing in supporting this attack.
Thorin‘s charge towards the end of the day was probably the least sensible movement of the allied forces. By charging from the gate Thorin, remorseful for his churlish behaviour earlier and eager to extract revenge upon Bolg, did unite the allied armies and again throw the enemy units in the valley into confusion. But with so few in his own group, and the depleted numbers of those who could easily support him, it was a doomed effort. Save for the arrival of the Eagles it would have (prematurely) destroyed the armies of the free folk. One could argue that this would have been obvious to Thorin and his move was a desperate gamble to take out Bolg and hopefully throw the Goblins and Wolves into disarray as the battle would soon be lost anyway.
All that said, if the allied forces had merely waited upon the ridges then Bolg would have easily massed his forces then flanked and crushed them, so charging into the valley at opportune moments could be an advisable tactic to thin out the enemy and keep them off balance. Perhaps had the last charge retracted before being surrounded, it would have left us with Thorin alive and well, finally King under the Mountain, older, and hopefully much wiser.
Lastly we have the manipulation of Gandalf as the subtle hand of Manwe. He provoked Thorin into attempting the quest. Then he guided Thorin’s company through lands likely to harbour allies to counter the Dragon, the Goblins, and ultimately the Necromancer. By neutralising Smaug he put paid to a deadly threat to the west and by drawing the Goblins out into a place where the free folk had mustered he gave them a chance to unite to face a common enemy. Perhaps this level of plotting is drawing a long bow, but the designs of a wizard with millennia to plan are not to be discounted lightly. Killing Smaug and culling the Goblins would free up the north for another century whilst reaffirming alliances of old. Without the BotFA the Goblins would soon have destroyed the men of the Anduin vales and proven a much vaster force for Thranduil, Esgaroth and Lorien to deal with at the end of the Third Age. Obviously well informed, Gandalf knew of Bolg’s approach and probably that of the Eagles. He may even have inspired Beorn to act. His words to Bilbo, as recorded by Thranduil’s scribes and Bilbo himself, indicate he knew war was coming days before the battle. Presumably he weighed the risks of rousing a Dragon and stirring up war, the lesser evil compared to an ongoing build-up of the forces of darkness and the potential devastation of the future.
Balin tells Bilbo it is a 5 hour march from the Gate to Ravenhill. This makes the battlefield overly large, and very difficult to tally with Thorin being rapidly supported by Elves from Ravenhill. Either Balin was greatly exaggerating to Bilbo; or the height of Ravenhill was such that the bulk of the 5 hours is in the actual ascent and the defence of Ravenhill refers to fighting on its lower slopes; or Tolkien made a mistake and it should be only an hour’s march.
It is uncertain whether Wargs can be ridden by goblins. Tolkien seems to mash up the distinction between Wargs and Wolves between his works.
The East Ridge is very close to the Goblin’s eastern approach route both on the plain and over the mountain. Yet Bard is able to hold out as well as the Elves with their numerical superiority on a more distant ridge top. Assuming that Lakemen are just your average fighters, either Bard was reinforced heavily by Dwarfs and Elves, and/or the bulk of the Lakemen fought with him in defending the ridge. Or the terrain on the East Ridge, and Erebor proper, funnelled most of the Orcs away from him. I lean towards the latter and suspect that the shoulder of the East Ridge had a minor mountain peak that led Goblins over the gate and onto the south ridge and/or the Goblins found an easier way around the west of the peak above where Smaug smashed the back porch.
Amongst other minor canon violations I have inserted the Vampire Gorgawethil and a Sauronic Priest to account for the Goblins convenient cloud cover and bat swarms. The presence of a Nazgul seemed a bit over the top, whilst that of mere “Goblin magic” too mundane.