This article was written and submitted to us by Narnian of Vilya (author of the brilliant Elizablade story).
Author’s note: This piece looks closely at material from Unfinished Tales, The Two Towers and the Peter Jackson films. There are SERIOUS spoilers regarding book quests in Update 5, so be warned.
The Big Picture
The Battles at the Fords of the Isen are regarded as the opening conflict of the War of the Ring proper, though they were by no means the first clash among the major combatants.
Sauron had been campaigning in the north through his fortress at Dol Guldur, his aim there being to defeat Lothlorien and open a route through Moria. Even that effort was aimed at finding a route south along the west side of the Misties to attack Rohan from the west. We LOTRO players know that thanks to the Golden Host (and us!), Sauron was not only stopped but soundly defeated at Dol Guldur. That action, combined with the much earlier loss of Smaug the Dragon and restoration of the Dwarves under the Lonely Mountain, meant that the Sauron’s northern strategy had failed.
He began a new effort aimed at his most powerful foe, Gondor. His plans would not come to pass if his enemy were able to call upon their allies in the Riddermark, so Sauron called upon Saruman the Wizard to build an army to defeat Rohan, something that LOTRO has been illustrating splendidly.
To defeat the Rohirrim, Saruman needed to gain entry into the Westfold through a shallow ford in the river Isen. The Rohirrim had not yet learned of Saruman’s intentions or hostility toward them, but the lawless land of Dunland presented a threat to them that had gone back generations. So for that reason alone the area around the Fords was of strategic importance to them such that Prince Théodred himself was responsible for its defense.
Saruman’s plans included installing Grima Wormtongue as close adviser to King Théoden. This resulted in a King under sorcery, addled and unable to make command decisions; a key component of Saruman’s strategy.
25 February, TA 3019: The First Battle
Prince Théodred received intelligence that an army was being raised in Isengard, and decided to mount an assault before that army was ready. His hope was to bottle up the enemy and defeat them in detail. It was a logical assumption that the main road out of Isengard would be the primary route that a large army would take, so Théodred picked that road as his axis of attack.
Théodred’s force included mostly of cavalry and one company of archers, with Grimbold commanding the rear guard. This force has been estimated to number 1,400 men. Guarding the east side of the Fords, with their backs to Rohan proper, was a small number of Westfold militia and spare cavalry.
Some twenty miles north of the Fords, Théodred’s army made contact with the Uruk vanguard and pressed an aggressive attack. The Uruks were pushed back until they reached a point that none of the Rohirrim could have imagined. Behind prepared and entrenched positions was a great number of Uruk pikemen, far more than Théodred imagined.
For the uninitiated, a pike is a two to three meter pole with a spear point at the end. It is anchored into the ground and is designed to kill oncoming cavalry. Pikemen were the equivalent of modern anti-tank infantry.
The Rohirrim had no choice but to retreat. Just as they wheeled to head south, fresh Uruk infantry assaulted their western flank. The battle was joined, and it was an intense close-quarters fight indeed. Théodred and Grimbold barely made it out alive with their forces. Grimbold had to press the attack to open the road to the south, so the Rohirrim could retreat back to the Fords.
As they extricated themselves from the fight, on the east bank of the Isen was seen a smaller force, moving south with great speed. These were elite Warg-mounted Uruks and Dunlendings with heavily armed Uruks behind. The militia guarding the eastern Fords were no match for them.
The main Rohirrim force managed to reoccupy the western reaches of the Fords and mount a hasty defense. Grimbold set up his men on the west bank while Théodred took his men to the eyot (small island) in the center of the Fords in case Grimbold needed to retreat.
The combined armies of Isengard flooded in from both both banks of the river. The militiamen on the eastern shore were decimated, many retreating south. Grimbold’s men were nearly surrounded, fighting for their lives as well. But the most critical fight took place on the little hill in the middle of the river. There, Prince Théodred faced down an onslaught of Wargs, Hillmen and many companies of Uruks. The band of Rohirrim were about to be overrun, and Grimbold took some men to press a counterattack into the river. He was successful in breaching the enemy lines and arrived just as Théodred fell before a large Uruk. A brutal battle ensued for the body of the fallen prince.
All seemed lost; and indeed would have been that very moment were it not for a sudden arrival from the east. At the head of four companies of cavalry came Elfhelm, who had ridden all the way from Edoras. In the fog it seemed to the Uruks and Dunlendings that an enormous army had arrived, so they began their retreat back to Isengard. Grimbold was rescued and Théodred, still clinging to life, remained in friendly hands. The Rohirrim gathered around their dying Prince as he breathed his last words: “Let me lie here to keep the ford until Éomer comes.”
The Fords remained in the hands of the Rohirrim. But the price was terrible; estimates are that more than half were dead or wounded, including Théodred.
War is filled with misunderstandings of intentions and capabilities. The Rohirrim did not know that Saruman’s main objective was only to kill Théodred. Saruman did not know that the Rohirrim were sundered to the point that he could have easily overrun them and swept into Rohan in one blow. Saruman’s caution gave the Rohirrim seven precious days (In Middle-earth, February had 30 days) to reinforce their positions at the Fords. During this period Gandalf was able to free Théoden King of Grima’s influence and convince him to muster to war. The delay in launching his general attack was the strategic mistake that led to Saruman’s defeat.
02 March, TA 3019: The Second Battle
While Erkenbrand was given charge of the defenses at the Fords, he was away at Helm’s Deep and sent word to Grimbold to remain in command. Grimbold and Elfhelm came to a compromise in their defensive plan: Elfhelm would reinforce a position on the eastern bank of the Isen, with scouts posted farther north. Grimbold would remain at the two camps on the western bank (known in LOTRO as Grimbold’s Camp and River Watch).
The leading elements of Isengard’s army flooded south yet again. Only this time their numbers were greater and their intent was clear: Destroy all Rohirrim on the west bank of the Isen. Nearly 4,000 Uruk infantry and warg riders assaulted Grimbold’s positions in force. The battle lasted through the afternoon and into the evening. Finally Grimbold ordered a retreat across the river.
Elfhelm was positioned farther north up the east bank of the Isen. As darkness fell over the Gap, his scouts reported a sea of torches marching toward them. The full army of Isengard was on the move and bearing down on Elfhelm’s position. He ordered a general retreat into Rohan, despite knowing that Grimbold’s forces were surrounded at the Fords.
Grimbold set up a shield-wall (phalanx) to block access out of the Gap. Despite being surrounded, his position held into the night. Knowing he could not hold out indefinitely, Grimbold mounted a feint attack with his cavalry and broke out to the east, the armies of Isengard hot on his heels. With that, the armies of Rohan were completely driven from the Fords of the Isen, and Saruman’s forces had unfettered passage into Rohan. The whole army of Isengard, some 10,000 strong, marched into Helm’s Deep and assaulted the Hornburg the next night.
This entire episode is of course a work of literature, but deeply informed by the military history of our world. For that reason, we could engage in conjecture. What would Théodred have done if he knew the full capabilities and intentions of Saruman’s armies? Would he have abandoned the Fords entirely, mounting a Thermopylae-style defense at the pass into Rohan? Would he have even abandoned that, opting to let Isengard push into the Westfold only to engage them in the open field cavalry warfare for which Rohan was known and feared? Might he indeed even brought all his forces to meet Erkenbrand at Helm’s Deep and created a defense in depth in front of the Hornburg?
Of course we know what happened. It was just as JRR Tolkien wanted: A desperate fight, fought in unclear conditions with uncertain knowledge of the enemy. High drama like this makes for great reading, or indeed great gaming.
What remained crystal clear in this story was the valor of the Rohirrim and their loyalty to their Prince. Such valor is perhaps the whole point of the story, and from it we should be inspired.