Okay, yeah, I know, I’m a bit late getting to this, but the battle at Helm’s Deep in the Two Towers is freaking lame. Great visuals, but it insults the intelligence of the readers/popcorn face stuffers.
The battles are considerably different in the movies and the books, but since more people are familiar with the movie, let’s start there. The size of the armies is given to us by Legolas, who has a habit of pointing out the obvious, “What can 300 do against 10,000?”
Fight in the shade, of course.
Wait, no, that’s wrong. Was thinking of 300.
Oh, wait, no, that was right actually. The battle at Helm’s Deep is a siege, so we’re looking at a largely archer battle. This is especially true after the elves show up. The nerd patrol at the LotR wiki puts the number of elves at 200. But, there’s a shot of Aragorn giving orders to fire where you can see (just from what’s visible in the shot) 100 elvish archers behind the wall, and there’s another shot with the elves’ leader Haldir, in which you can see at least another 100 elves. I think it looked more like 300 in the movie, but let’s just go with the conservative nerd estimate of 200.
So, we’ve got 500 against 10,000. Haven’t really improved things much, have we?
By the time the first of of the Oruk-hai gets atop the wall we learn that Legolas has killed 17 of them. There are 200 other elves. Now, there’s a few ways to interpret the skill of the other elves. First, we can say that Legolas is quite extraordinary. You don’t just send any old elf to the counsel at Rivendale. So, he probably does better than the other elves. Or, we can say that the other elves appear to be freaking trained soldiers who fire off arrows like they’re machine gunners. Because, you know, that’s how they’re portrayed in the movie. So, they would have killed a lot more than Legolas, or at least as many.
So, going with the fairly conservative estimate of 200 elves on average as good as Legolas, then by the time the fighting at the top of the walls starts, the Oruks have lost 3,400 troops. Err, 3,417, gotta count Legolas too. This is a full third of their force. In most battles out in the real world, if you lose a third of your army right out of the gate, the battle is over. Your men are disorganized, morale is shot to hell, troops are going to break rank and flee. But, these are oruks, let’s say it takes more to get them to retreat (it is possible though, we see that at the end of the battle).
Oh, wait, forgot that there were also human archers in the battle. It’s not clear how many of the 300 were archers, but let’s say half? Realistically, all of the soldiers who were part of the garrison would be trained as archers, since it’s a freaking fortress and you expect to defend it with bows and arrows. But, let’s be nice to Isengard and just say half.
And how good are they? We hear about how the troops are mostly either too young or too old, but I think this refers to the soldiers drafted from the peasant refugees, not the professional garrison. But, they’re also no elves. Let’s say they can get 5 oruks killed before the sword work begins. That’s another 750. So, we’re up to 4,117 dead oruks. Cripes!
But then they’re on top of the wall, and the the oruks’ number advantage should easily wipe out the defenders, right? No.
They’re getting on top of the walls using ladders. In a siege, ladders only work en masse, or if used in an undefended position. It should be obvious why. Just try climbing a ladder using only one hand. Pretty damn hard. Now, do it with your off-hand, because your good hand is holding your sword. Even harder. Now, imagine you’re at the top of a ladder, climbing with just one hand and somehow fighting with the other. You are going to die very quickly.
Ladders basically turn the fight in to a kung fu movie cliche, where an army of whole gang of bad guys surround the lone good guy, but then only attack him one at a time. Second dude on the ladder doesn’t get to fight until the first one is either dead, or somehow makes it on to the top of the wall (where he is immediately surrounded by 5 defenders and promptly killed). Like I said, you need either a whole lot of ladders at once, or you need to put them in a portion of wall that is undefended.
But the oruks are really big and beefy, they should be able to fight their way on to the wall from a ladder, you might say. Yeah? Well the elves are 1000 year old immortal veterans of the first war of the ring. The oruks were, quite literally, born yesterday. Advantage elves.
Now, the giant ladders would be more effective. They’re wide enough for multiple oruks to reach the top at the same time, and come pre-stocked with a bunch already halfway up. It’s at this point where the oruks can really start butchering the defenders of Helm’s Deep.
But not really. By the time the first crappy ladders showed up, 4,100 of the 10,000 oruks were already killed. Half the elves draw swords to defend the walls, but the other half are behind the wall, and would keep firing away. We also see portions of the wall that aren’t under siege, where the elves can keep shooting freely (such as when they fire on the oruks trying to batter down the door). So, let’s say one fourth of the elves have gone to the sword. We still have 150 elves mowing down the legion of oruks who are just hanging around the field waiting for their chance to die on top of the wall.
If the time between the battle starting and the first crappy ladders showing up is the same as the the time between the first crappy ladders showing up and the good ladders finally getting used, the elvish arches will have killed another 2,550 oruks. Now we’re up to 6,667. Wow, that’s actually a nice, exactly 2/3rds of the oruk army.
Except that it ignores all the oruks who have died by the sword attempting to take the walls. Probably closer to 7,000 casualties. But, at it’s not 3,000 against 600, a few of the defenders have been killed. Realistically, it’d be about 3,000 against no fewer than 550. Still advantage to the oruks, right? 6 to 1 ain’t bad.
Nope. At this point the 3,000 remaining troops will have a hard time getting those big ladders all up at the same time. Most of your ladder putter uppers are killed, so you have to go find your second string ladder climbers and get them to put the ladders up. The oruk army would be slow to get reorganized (remember, they’ve only been training for like half a day), and even if they get everything together, they’re still fighting from the tops of ladders. It’s better than the crappy first ladders, but still not ideal.
By the time the gunpowder is lit and the drain in the base of the wall is blown wide open, the oruk army would be spread thin, disorganized, their morale broken, and they’d be fleeing into the woods. By the time Gandalf arrives to save the day, the battle would be over.
But, that’s just the movie. Surely the book gives a more realistic battle at Helm’s Deep, right? After all, in the book it’s just men defending against the oruks, the elves aren’t there at all, and the oruks even have men allies fighting with them. In the book it’s an army of 10,000 oruks plus 2,000 men against the meager defenses of Helm’s Deep.
Except that in the book, the defending garrison isn’t 300, it’s 2,000. That 2,000 man garrison would be almost entirely archers, and if they killed a measly 6 troops each before the ladders hit the wall, the entire attacking army would be killed, down to the last man. If they killed only half that, it would be 2,000 troops on top of the wall, against 6,000 trying to scale ladders. Again, Gandalf arrives just in time to see the final score.
But wait, it gets dumber.
After the battle at Helm’s Deep, Rohan musters an army to helm defend Gondor against Mordor’s army. In just two days, they get together a force of 6,000 cavalry. 6,000 soldiers come to fight to defend a foreign power? Where were these guys before? 6,000 cavalry would have shredded the oruk army. Maybe Sauron’s meddling had something to do with it. Let’s say that.
They also mention that 6,000 is less than half of what they expected. Jesus, there’s at least 12,000 cavalry scattered around Rohan, but they could only muster 300 men to defend Helm’s Deep? What is this shit?
Okay, calm down…
Anyways, after noting that they didn’t get as many men as they want, one of the idiots says that 6,000 men isn’t enough to break the lines of Mordor. What? How do they know the strength of Mordor’s army? They speak as though they know they’re going to get slaughtered. But, cavalry are freaking deadly against crappy goblin infantry. With a little decent planning and maneuvering, cavalry ought to have kill ratios of 5-10 : 1. 6,000 cavalry could cut down somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 orcs.
But they think they’re marching to their doom? Just how many doods does Mordor have? Let’s ask the nerds at LotR Wiki.
…Oh. In the film, it’s about 200,000 orcs, and in the book it’s 100,000. Maybe 6,000 really isn’t enough. Gondor has about 10,000 troops though. And again, it’s a siege, so the defenders are going to be mowing down the attackers. The 10,000 defenders might knock off 50,000 orcs before the city wall is breached and Rohan’s reinforcements show up. It shouldn’t be as decisive a victory as Helm’s Deep should have been, but still no reason for a mopey king of Rohan.