The Fords of Isen was a Lord of the Rings based small unit action game which premiered at Salute 2008 and which was been seen at several shows over the following year. It has made numerous appearences at the club since, in several guises, and is great fun to play.
In the days before the War of the Ring, when Isengard was in friendly or at least neutral hands, the river Isen formed an effective barrier between the Westfold and the outer lands of the wild Dunlending people, who had been displaced and dominated by Rohan. But Saruman’s treachery now rendered the whole river useless as a strategic frontier and opened Rohan to a dangerous flanking attack.
There was some debate as to the best way to deal with this new threat – but with King Theoden succumbing to mental decay courtesy of Grima Wormtongue (what a great, trustworthy name…) and Saruman, it was left to his son Théodred (as marshal of the west-mark), Erkenbrand (the lord of Westfold), and Grimbold (his veteran marshal) to determine policy.
Unfortunately, they were far too proud and/or optimistic about the power of Rohan to confront the forces now being arrayed against them – not only the fierce (but disorganised) Dunlending ‘rabble’, but now also the usual hordes of Orcs reinforced this time by the much more dangerous Uruk-Hai and groups of ‘anti-cavalry’ Warg-riders. The three commanders therefore chose to try and defend the old frontier no matter what, rather than take the wiser, ancient approach and get all the civilians into the protection of the massive fortifications of Helm’s Deep while massing the forces of both East and West Mark. Nah, too easy………
At least the three commanders recognised the strategic value (and tactical advantage) of holding the fords, and so it was that Theodred and Grimbold brought their mainly mounted force to join the local militia infantry (a sort of ‘Fyrrd-type’ organisation), whilst Erkenbrand (apparently the more switched-on of the three) started preparing the old defences of Helm’s Deep – just in case.
Of course, as shock cavalry formed their most powerful arm a purely static defence was out of the question (naturally), plus there was the widely dispersed population to consider. And so they went for the ‘best form of defence’, splitting their already meagre forces with the bulk of the mounted troops crossing over and heading north along the west bank, leaving only a few men with the levies to build temporary fortifications (something like the staked earthen ramparts of a Roman ‘marching fort’) and guard the spare horses on the east bank of the fords. And so it was that, about twenty miles above the fords, the vanguard under Theodred came across the leading elements of Saruman’s army, already dug-in with densely packed pike men behind a makeshift trench.
Theodred immediately implemented cavalry tactic no.1 (of 1) and attacked head on! In a close-fought action, the Rohirrim actually managed to push these defenders back from their position, but as Josef Stalin said, ‘Quantity has a quality all its own’. As more of Saruman’s huge main body appeared Theodred was in danger of being outflanked and destroyed against the river, and was only saved when Grimbold brought-up the rest of the cavalry forces.
Both sides then paused to draw breath, but it was to be a short-lived respite for the Rohirrim as scouts reported signs of another force of Isengard units heading south on the opposite bank. Seems that the absolute cad Saruman had split his enormous forces, and was using different bits to achieve, err, stuff [I think it’s called strat-e-gy, guys]. Anyway, this new lot were going to isolate and attack the defenders of the fords from the rear, as the rudimentary fortifications on the other bank only faced Eastwards [Germans please take notes]. The whole frontier of the Westfold would then be open to attack as the Isengard forces “…spread like a stain across the land…”
Spotting that this would be A Very Bad Thing, the advanced force of Rohirrim retreated as rapidly as they could, but were pressed so closely by their recent opponents that Grimbold had to keep using a strong rearguard to stage a series of delaying actions to cover the main body. Thus it was in some confusion that the whole force arrived back at the fords, with Grimbold’s rearguard being the last across only just ahead of the pursuit. And then there was the bad news.
No sooner had the bulk of the disorganised and ‘blown’ Rohirrim crossed (leaving some to beef-up’ the fortifications guarding the crossing), but Saruman’s force on the east bank then appeared. Although a smaller force than the huge array on the west bank, it was not the usual collection of ‘arrow-fodder’ but a picked force of Warg-riders, Dunlending fanatics and the new swift, heavily-armed Uruk-hai. These forces immediately attacked and so fierce was the action that the Rohirrim forces were split (again), the forces under Grimbold being pushed south along the river bank, with the mainly dismounted troops under Theodred now isolated at the fords themselves.
While Grimbold was thus being kept rather busy fighting for his life, a reserve group of Uruk-Hai (almost certainly kept for this purpose) now split-off and implemented the next part of the plan by attacking the fords from this, unfortified side. Quickly eliminating the unsupported militia units guarding the ‘back door’, they then began to wade across and started to assault Theodred’s Eored (his personal Household troops) which were stationed with him on one of the low, rocky islands (little more than sandbars) marking the fords, the latter having setup his HQ there to more easily direct his part of the battle which had developed on the opposite bank.
Although initially surprised at this move – given a normal Orcs’ hatred of the water – the force here was itself some of the ‘best-of-the-best’ that Rohan had to offer, and so the fighting grew even more intense. But again, pressed from both sides sheer weight of numbers began to tell and in a scene reminiscent of doomed King Harold and his Housecarls on Senlac Hill (from where Tolkien undoubtedly pinched this bit of imagery), this group of veterans was gradually whittled away, and despite a successful late counter-attack by Grimbold (who had spotted the danger to his Prince), the latter was too late to save Theodred from being mortally wounded.
The fighting continued unabated for some time, although the Isengard units attacking from the west paid dearly for the little headway they made against the stolid Rohan foot behind their earthwork fortifications. The long-term situation was grim, however, as the whole position had a fatal weakness from the rear – but (in good Hollywood tradition) just as it seemed that Grimbold and the entire Westfold force would be overwhelmed, Elfhelm (another Marshal of the Mark), appeared with several companies of fresh, elite cavalry. These quickly turned the tables on the remnants of the Isengard forces currently engaged, some driving the bulk back north while the rest (under his personal command) eliminated the elite force of Uruks fighting around the Princes’ banner at the fords.
The now combined forces of Grimbold and Elfhelm waited nervously through the night to see if Saruman’s army would renew the attack, but by morning scouts reported that the whole host had gone. Even the remnants of the Rohirrim units which had been pushed south managed to return, as their pursuers also broke contact and withdrew under cover of darkness. The two commanders undoubtedly feared another assault by the full weight of Saruman’s army (which they now realised could have overwhelmed even the combined Rohan forces), but little did they realise that the assault had actually achieved it’s secret aim – the King’s son was dead, and the proud Riders of Rohan were now feeling not just fear, but the cold hand of despair…..
A second battle took place some days later which was also a tactical defeat for Rohan. However, as we now know even though the battles at the fords of Isen were defeats, they did achieve two critically beneficial results - the combats had cost Saruman many casualties (especially among the elite forces), and they had been delayed long enough for Rohan reinforcements to reach the fortress of Helms Deep, led by a re-invigorated King Théoden himself. And it was to be the addition of their strength to the garrison which ultimately helped to make the battle of Helm’s Deep on the night of March 3rd such a strategic victory.
Théodred - Only son and heir of King Théoden of Rohan and Second Marshal of the Mark. He was slain in the First Battle of the Fords of Isen during the War of the Ring.
Grimbold - A Rider of the Rohirrim who fought at both of the Battles of the Fords of Isen.
He rode to Minas Tirith, and was slain in the great Battle of the Pelennor Fields whilst commanding the left wing.
Elfhelm - A lord of Rohan and later Marshal of the East-mark; he also fought with Grimbold in the Second Battle of the Fords of Isen after the loss of Théodred.
The ford was the main crossing-point on the upper reaches of the River Isen. As the only direct route between Eriador and Gondor, the Fords had great strategic value, and Isengard was built to guard them. They were the scene of two Battles between Saruman and the Rohirrim during the War of the Ring.
The battle was fought in the night of 2 March III 3019.
‘Unfinished Tales’ by J.R.R. Tolkien
‘The Complete Tolkien Companion’ by J.E.A. Tyler