Strategy Lessons From A Real-Life “Game of Thrones”

Strategy Lessons From A Real-Life “Game of Thrones”

by Brett Arends

Everything about George Martin’s medieval fantasy saga Game of Thrones is extraordinary.

Millions are glued each week to the HBO adaptation. I got my fill of the story last year, when I read the first four of Mr. Martin’s books in about a week – and then gave up, exhausted by all the carnage, nihilism and twists.

I thought I couldn’t take any more. But then, recently, I encountered a remarkable real life version.

OK, so it was minus the Imp and the dragons, but other than that it was pretty close. If you’re enjoying GoT, and you haven’t had enough betrayal, skullduggery and murder, I’ve got a book for you.

Here’s the background. Way back in the seventeenth century, the British Isles were convulsed by a bloody civil war. It is best remembered today for the rise of its main victor, Oliver Cromwell.

Most people who study it – and this was true for me at school and university in England – focus on the civil war in England, which was the main theater of war. I was aware that there was also some conflict up in Scotland, but as it had no long-term impact on the course of events our teachers didn’t bother with it much.

And what a missed opportunity that was.

The war in Scotland featured a man who is sometimes regarded as the greatest military genius in British history, the royalist leader James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose.

He is known in Scotland simply as “the Great Montrose.” With tiny forces, and against overwhelming odds, he fought a series of brilliant battles in the Highlands and routed the republican forces again and again. He started with effectively no troops, money or base, and within a year he had  – albeit briefly – conquered the country.

I was curious to know what strategy lessons we could learn from Montrose’s short and extraordinary campaign, and so I cracked open the best-known biography, The Marquis of Montrose, written early last century by Scottish author John Buchan (better known today as the author of the spy novel The Thirty-Nine Steps).

I’ll get to the strategy lessons in a moment. But first:Yikes.

Anyone who thinks the Game of Thrones is a ridiculous exaggeration should think again. Here is wholesale slaughter, on both sides. Montrose’s soldiers annihilate their enemies. “Of the 6,000 men who had set out to fight that morning under the (enemy’s) banner, scarcely a hundred escaped,” writes Buchan. At the battle of Inverlochy, Montrose loses four men to at least 1,500 on the side of the enemy.

Here are feints and counter-feints in the dark, midnight flanking maneuvers through snowdrifts and across icy mountain passes, armies riding out of the mist, folly, bravery, attempted assassination, and genius. At the battle of Auldearn, Montrose’s chief captain held the center heroically against vastly greater numbers, at one point with a broken sword, recounts Buchan, while “Ronald MacKinnon of Mull fought swordless against a dozen pikemen with an arrow through both cheeks and no weapon but his shield.”

Peace envoys were hanged, cities sacked and plundered. Troops laid down arms on an apparent promise of mercy only to be betrayed and murdered. Women and children, cooks, stable-boys and other camp followers were butchered in cold blood. Lords fled battles on their horses, leaving the common soldiers to their fate. Montrose snuck into Scotland disguised as a servant in the company of two enemy soldiers. Later he fled aboard a small Norwegian sloop, disguised as a minister’s servant, as his enemies prepared to seize him.

I have to confess I lost track of all the betrayals and counter-betrayals, on both sides, especially among the various clans of the Scottish highlands. Indeed Montrose himself started out on the side of the conflict before ending up the hero of the other.

He was abandoned by at least three allies, let down by King Charles I, possibly betrayed by Charles II, and certainly betrayed by two other allies – one of whom sold him to his enemies for gold. Montrose was hanged in Edinburgh, his body dismembered, and his head stuck on a pike for eleven years… until the royalists returned to power, at which point his head was replaced by that of the man who had executed him.

After the royalist restoration Montrose’s body was reassembled and he was given a grand ceremony of honor in Edinburgh, where, writes Buchan, his body “was carried by fourteen earls, including the men or the sons of men who had betrayed him.”

As I said, there were no imps or dragons that I could tell, but otherwise this is an HBO miniseries waiting to happen.

As for the fascinating strategy and leadership lessons
to be gleaned from Montrose’s campaign? Here are seven:

1. There’s no substitute for personal leadership. Montrose got his ragtag army to achieve extraordinary things – including a 48 hour march through the mountains to surprise the enemy, and a sudden and swift retreat under a surprise attack – through charisma and by leading from the front. Contemporaries suggested no general in Europe could have matched his leadership.

2. When the chips are really down, be bold: “In a desperate case, the man who risks most is probably the wisest,” writes Buchan, and this appeared to be Montrose’s strategy again and again. Centuries for MacArthur at Inchon, he chose the bold, desperate gamble over slow, certain defeat.

3. Don’t waste your time courting weak or uncertain allies. Montrose’s fruitless quest to win more support from equivocal sources, particular from the leader of the clan Gordon, cost him valuable time and momentum

4. Be very careful in whom you place your trust. Montrose was supported heroically, and to the death, by a hard core of great comrades in arms. He let down by two unworthy kings and several poor allies, and then betrayed by two men he should never have trusted.

5. Better a brilliant few than a mediocre many. An essential ingredient in his success was his small band of dedicated and brilliant soldiers from Ulster, who performed extraordinary feats and defeated vastly greater numbers again and again.

6. Deception and surprise are worth many divisions. Montrose used these to great effect, especially in his most celebrated victories, at Inverlochy and Auldearn. He moved in secret, placed decoys, and hid his cavalry till the last minute, all decisive factors.

7. Adapt your strategy to what you have. This included fighting in the Highlands when he didn’t have the cavalry to fight on the Lowlands, using village gardens and huts as improvised defenses, and even, on one occasion, arming his soldiers with stones because they didn’t have any bullets.

Will “Game of Clans” be next on HBO? Stay tuned…

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