Battle of the Hornburg, Rohirrim Defeat Uruk-Hai Besieging Helm's Deep

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Battle of the Hornburg, Rohirrim Defeat Uruk-Hai Besieging Helm's Deep

Uruk-hai escalade on the Hornburg, from LOTR: The Two Towers (2002)
Image courtesy of

Today in [Fictional] Military History – March 3-4, T.A. (Third Age) 3019

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

Today's story of battle and heroism is derived from the writings of English philologist, poet, professor, and fantasy writer John Ronald  Reuel Tolkien. As a veterans of the "Great War" of 1914-18, Tolkien wrote many of his experiences into his fantasy works devoted to Middle-Earth. The story of the siege of the Hornburg is one of the primary examples.


In the closing months of the year 3018 – in Middle-Earth's Third Age – forces of evil moved to inundate all the other nations of the realms. Sauron, the evil, long-lived lord of Mordor, had been gathering his armies and preparing for a final war for the extermination and subjugation of men, elves, dwarves and all other peoples who opposed him. His forces were contending mainly with Gondor, the strongest human nation of the area of Middle-Earth nearest to Mordor and the primary target of Sauron's wrath. Late in 3018, the city of Osgiliath – former capital of Gondor and now a guard post on the eastern border of the nation – was assaulted by Sauron's hordes; the eastern half of the city falling to the orcs and other evil creatures of Sauron.

Meanwhile, to the north, a new, unexpected threat loomed over the good peoples of Middle-Earth. Saruman the White, a powerful wizard and keeper of the fortress of Isengard, had been regarded as a great friend to humans. However, it was soon revealed that he was now allied with Sauron. Saruman had for many years been developing a new breed of orc in imitation of the creatures of the Dark Lord of Mordor. He bred men with orcs, creating "half-orcs" that were more man-like, but still too orcish for his use. Finally, Saruman created a new breed called uruk-hai, which was taller, physically larger, and stronger than their regular orc-kind. In addition, these newer uruk-hai were able to exist and travel in sunlight, unlike most other orcs (though they preferred not to do so, given a choice). It was also said that Saruman fed them human flesh.

Saruman, Lord of Isengard as portrayed by Christopher Lee in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001-2003); Image courtesy of
Saruman, Lord of Isengard as portrayed by
Christopher Lee in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001-2003)
Image courtesy of

The fortress of Isengard protected the western borders of Rohan, a land of plains and extensive grasslands to the north and west of Gondor. The Rohirrim, also known as "the Horselords," had occupied this area for several hundred years. They were a tall, pale-skinned, blond-haired, and blue-eyed people. Further, the Rohirrim had been allies of Gondor for 500 years, but had not seen action on Gondor's behalf for over 130 years. Suddenly, as Gondor was under attack by Sauron's forces, Saruman the White tipped his hand, seeking to strike at the Horselords and eliminate Gondor's only other close ally. He launched his forces to the south, hoping to take the Rohirrim off-guard.

Attempting to cross the river Isen in late February, Saruman's army was delayed at the Fords of the Isen by a guard force of Rohirrim. The invaders fought two battles before forcing their way across the river into the Westfold, the westernmost area of Rohan, scattering the Rohirrim defenders and killing the son of Théoden King, lord of Rohan. 

Recently recovered from a period of poor counsel and possible poisoning, Théoden led his household troops to confront the forces of Saruman at the Fords of Isen. However, before arriving at his destination, the king learned the dire news of the two battles, as well as his son's demise. Théoden was then advised by the good wizard Gandalf the White to head for the Hornburg, a second fortress nearby also guarding the Fords of Isen. The Rohirrim began organizing to defend their fabled fortification. Late in the evening, a terrific thunderstorm broke over the fortress, which heralded the arrival of Saruman's host.

Riders of Rohan, returning from the Ford of Isen; from LOTR: The Two Towers (2002); Image courtesy of
Riders of Rohan, returning from the Ford of Isen; from LOTR: The Two Towers (2002)
Image courtesy of

"Riders of Rohan" Army

In addition to the 1000-strong household retinue under Théoden King's command, other reinforcements arrived from across the land, young boys and old men answering their sovereign's call. By the evening of March 3, about 2000 men garrisoned the Hornburg, which Rohirric tradition said had never fallen to a foe. Supplying badly-needed leadership and morale to the garrison were three wandering heroes: the human ranger Aragorn, the elven archer Legolas, and stolid dwarven warrior Gimli Glóin's son.

"Army of the White Hand"

Saruman's invading army numbered some 10,000 uruk-hai, about 5000 half-orcs and common orcs. In addition, Saruman received reinforcements from the Dunlendings, a nearby human nation that had a historical antipathy with Rohan, numbering about 5000. The uruk-hai could be distinguished from the other half-orcs and orc-man hybrids, as they were taller and darker complected. They also carried short, broad-bladed swords – as opposed to the curved saw-toothed scimitars favored by most orcs. The uruk-hai were further equipped with extensive armor, iron helmets and black shields emblazoned with a white hand (symbolizing Saruman the White as their lord and master). The uruk-hai and their allies were also equipped with scaling ladders to mount an escalade of the outer defenses of the Hornburg, which they did with little trouble.

Band of Uruk-hai marching to battle, from LOTR: The Two Towers (2002); Image courtesy of
Band of Uruk-hai marching to battle, from LOTR: The Two Towers (2002)
Image courtesy of

Battle of the Hornburg

For the next several hours, the Horselords fought to keep their enemies from taking their great fortress. The defenders rained arrows and stones down upon the orcs, giving them pause. The main gate of the Hornburg was assaulted by a battering ram, but the heroes Aragorn and Éomer, nephew of Théoden King, led a sally against the ram's crew, throwing them back. Then, the enemy raised a large number of ladders, allowing hundreds of orcs to assault the walls. The men of Rohan fought a bloody hand-to-hand battle atop the Deeping Wall, holding their own. As the Rohirrim were being pressed atop the walls, a contingent of uruk-hai crept beneath the wall, through a culvert that allowed a small stream to flow out of the fortress. This group of orcs then assailed the wall's defenders; only by the sheer force of Aragorn's will – and quick redeployment of the defenders – were the orcs repulsed. With the help of the Gimli, the culvert was blocked with hastily constructed stonework.

Shortly thereafter, however, a party of orcs broke into the culvert a second time. They brought with them some unknown device developed by Saruman – variously described in the chronicles as "a blasting-fire" or the "Fire of Isengard" – which blew open the culvert and wrecked a large part of the Hornburg's main wall. This act allowed a large portion of the orcs into the outer precincts of the fortress. Then, another battering ram brought renewed pressure on the inner gate of the citadel of the Hornburg. Soon after, the inner gate was breached, and the orcs prepared to pour into the inner reaches of the Hornburg.

At that moment, as dawn approached, a series of blasts from the ancient horn of Helm Hammerhand reverberated throughout – as well as outside – the fortress. At the signal, Théoden King and Aragorn launched a mounted sortie against the orcs, with every remaining Rohirrim capable of riding, rode out the breach and counterattacked the enemy. The Horselords broke free of the entrapment and turned to assault their attackers. At the same time, dawn broke in the east to reveal to the orcs a horrible surprise: 1000 Rohirric infantry reinforcements. Led by the until-now-absent Gandalf and their leader Erkenbrand, these Rohirrim were survivors of the twin battles of the Fords of the Isen. They attacked the rear of Saruman's army; caught in a vice by the two forces of Rohirrim, the orcs fled toward a nearby forest – which had apparently escaped their notice during the previous night's battle.

However, the "forest" was actually a group of Huorns from the nearby Fangorn forest. These beings were related to the Ents, sapient beings resembling large trees that could move. The Huorns took their revenge upon the orcs of Isengard, who had cut down large sections of the tree-like creatures' forest in their preparations to build their army. Any orcs not killed in battle with the Horselords were annihilated by the tree-men.


As the orc bodies were collected, piled and burned, Théoden King met with the surviving Dunlendings who had surrendered. Théoden gave them all amnesty, with the understanding that they would: a) swear loyalty to Rohan, b) help clear the battlefield and bury the Rohirric dead, and c) return beyond the River Isen and never return if they were bearing arms against the Horselords. (The Dunlendings were shocked at their lenient treatment; they had been warned by Saruman that any of their survivors would be burned alive by the Rohirrim.)

Casualties for the Rohirrim are not given, but it can be assured that they were heavy. The Horselords gathered and buried their dead, nursed their wounded, and debated how next to react to the opening of the War of the Ring.

Footnote #1: Shortly after the battle of the Hornburg, it was learned that the hordes of Sauron were marching on Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor. After discussing the situation with Gandalf and Aragorn, Theodon King quickly sent dispatch riders throughout his kingdom, seeking for all the remaining horse-soldiers of his realm to muster. Within ten days, the entire Rohirrim nation was riding to the rescue of the kingdom of Gondor.

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Against a good defensive position, sometimes even a 3-5 to one odds aren't enough.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.