Sansa Stark has been criticized for her conduct leading up to the battle fought between an army of Free Folk and the forces of House Bolton, commonly known as the Battle of the Bastards. The action is named in honor of the opposing commanders, natural sons of Ned Stark and Roose Bolton respectively, but it is the timely intervention of Sansa Stark that decided the outcome. This is the most highly rated and regarded episode of an extremely popular, almost ubiquitous and inescapable, television show and the events are well known to most. The Stark forces were outnumbered, but having no choice, they fought a larger, better equipped, and better trained army to retake the northern fortress of Winterfell, ancestral seat of House Stark. Jon Snow accepted battle on these unfavorable terms because he believed he had no other choice. Sansa, however, did have recourse to a large contingent of heavy cavalry, the knights of the Vale. She said nothing of this, and Jon went into the struggle with nothing but his outmatched Wildling infantry, many of whom perished in the fighting.
It’s thought that her silence lead to the unnecessary deaths of many of these brave Free Folk, and that if she’d told Jon the truth, she could have saved many lives. Why did she keep the coming of these allies to herself? Although she must have sent for them much earlier, she may not have known if they were going to come. She had to trust the treacherous Littlefinger, a man who’d betrayed her and her family in the past, to act as her envoy. Will they arrive in time? Will they come at all? If he does bring these troops, on whose side will they fight? It was Littlefinger who suggested using these knights against the Boltons, mentioning the possibility of such a step during their chilly encounter at Molestown. It was Littlefinger again who convinced Sweetrobin to join Sansa’s cause. It is unlikely that Sansa was certain of these knights joining them, and that mentioning such a hope to Jon and the rest only to have it disappointed would be ruinous for their already shaky morale. This is a generous construction and not at all improbable but I’m going to assume the opposite. I’m going to assume that Sansa was certain but that she didn’t trust Jon with that knowledge. I’m going to assume that she hid the imminent advent of the cavalry Jon so desperately needed.
How would Jon have reacted to these tidings? He would certainly be cheered. He would have waited and later confronted the Bolton army on terms of parity, or perhaps even superiority. He wouldn’t have sent his meagre force of infantry into a fight it couldn’t possibly have won. And that is precisely what he needed to do if they are to destroy the Bolton army and retake Winterfell. If they had assembled their combined host of Wildling infantry and Vale cavalry, the accession of the knights of the Vale to the Stark army would no longer be a surprise. Ramsay would have altered his dispositions, or more likely, refused battle and retreated into the fortress. Afterwards, the Free Folk and their giant were able to breach the gate and take the castle because it had already been denuded of its garrison. If Winterfell were fully manned and properly prepared, any assault was unlikely to succeed, and an army with no provisions, hungry and already close to starving, cannot undertake a siege. Mance Rayder had an enormous host and several giants, but he was repulsed in his attack on Castle Black. To recapture Winterfell, the Starks must destroy the Bolton forces in the field. They need an overwhelming battlefield victory.
How do you win an overwhelming battlefield victory if your men and resources are about equal to those of your enemy? Throughout history, the great captains have won their signature victories by thinning their ranks in some places to strengthen their reserves. The fight is joined, and these weak spots have bent but not broken. Great battlefield commanders are gifted with the coup d’oeil (it should be noted that this is a French term), an ability to watch a group of men fighting for their lives and tell, even from a distance, whether they will hold or if they are about to break and run. They may feel betrayed, they may fall, but so long as they keep fighting, that doesn’t matter. Their leader sacrifices their lives to win the battle. No one likes to fight against impossible odds. The leader of these overmatched forces will plead for help. He will beg for reinforcements. These pleas must be ignored. To lead men into battle, you must be willing to let them die. This is cold; this is hard; but that’s the price that must be paid. Many Free Folk died in the Battle of the Bastards but they didn’t die because Sansa kept it a secret that they were soon to be joined by a troop of heavy cavalry. They died because they fought a battle against a large, well-armed, and well trained, force of experienced professional soldiers. Sansa kept her secret and because she did, that enemy force was annihilated.
Most battles are won by the side that can pitch in the last reserve. This means that this reserve must be held back until the very end. At Austerlitz, Napoleon weakened his right flank, and although his men were under terrible pressure, facing onslaught after onslaught, he waited until the enemy moved their troops off the Pratzen Heights in the center to join those attacks. Only after the enemy had thrown their last reserve troops into the fight, did he strike his final blow. The timing is everything. Had he launched his assault against the center too soon, there would be troops still present to meet and repel the attack. Had he waited too long, the overburdened right would have given way and he would have lost the battle before he could put in the killing stroke.
At the Battle of Issus, Alexander and his best cavalry were deployed on the right wing, and Parmenio was assigned auxiliary troops to hold the left wing against the Persians who were far superior in numbers and quality. The Persians hit Parmenio again and again, and his wing was pushed back. His Thessalian auxiliaries gave ground as more and more of their number were cut down. They bent but they didn’t break. They fought and died to buy Alexander time, and he used that opportunity to unleash his own charge on the other end of the field, and this charge frightened Darius into fleeing and won the battle. Were they happy? They won the day but they must have felt aggrieved that their lives were treated as a commodity to be bartered for a foreign king’s triumph.
When the Army of the Potomac was coming against him in overwhelming strength, Lee broke up his own army into pieces. The smallest of these pieces was given to Jubal Early to hold off Union forces much stronger than his own. He was given a fight he couldn’t win but he wasn’t supposed to win. His defeat was inevitable but he must make sure that he fights long enough for Lee to win a much larger battle miles to the west. A thankless job to be sent into a certain defeat, but the greater victory is impossible without this sacrifice. The Confederates lost the minor Second Battle of Fredericksburg, but won the Battle of Chancellorsville and that decided the entire campaign.
The knights of the Vale mounted their charge only after the Bolton army had surrounded the Wildlings and were crushing the life out of them. The Wildlings had fought valiantly, but the arms, the weight, and the discipline of their foes were too great. The Bolton men interlocked their shields, couched their spears and advanced in an impenetrable shield wall. The Wildlings heedlessly and savagely rushed the enemy trying to break through, but not even Wun Wun could shatter their formation. Ramsay threw everything into the fight, holding nothing back, and all his men were committed, and that is when the knights of the Vale were unleashed. As far as timing goes, the moment was perfect. The Bolton deployment was much like a Macedonian phalanx, and at the Battle of Cynoscephalae a Macedonian phalanx was slaughtered when Roman legionaries managed to get in behind them. It was just the same for the Bolton army. When the wave of heavy cavalry hit them, their entire army was swept away. The Free Folk suffered losses but the Bolton men were nearly extirpated.
Am I saying that Sansa Stark is a superb battlefield commander, like Caesar, Frederick the Great, or the Duke of Marlborough? I like the girl and take up cudgels to defend her, but I won’t make such a ridiculous claim. It’s clear that while Arya reads about Nymeria and Visenya Targaryen, Sansa reads about Jonquil with flowers in her hair. But it wouldn’t be out of character for Littlefinger to have familiarized himself with battlefield tactics in his reading. Maybe the knights had been on the march throughout and entered the fray as soon as they came up. Whatever the case, whether deliberate or inadvertent, things could not have worked out better for the Starks. The Free Folk suffered and died on the field, but most of them survived to fight again in the wars to come, and it was their enemies who perished nearly to a man. It was Sansa who called on the knights of the Vale; it was Sansa who won the battle; and it was Sansa who retook Winterfell.