Armies of Mordor
Issue of free will and discipline
Orcs are sometimes believed to not have free will, but this appears to be incorrect. Witch-King commands with fear, which would be unnecessary if orcs had no free will at all: “His own folk quail at him, and they would slay themselves at his bidding.”. Even below Witch King, command appears to be based at least in part on physical strength and terror factor – Ugluk occasionally chops off heads to enforce his authority, and Shagrat also threatens – and tries – to kill a smaller orc that had refused his commands. Orcs even have a saying that “where there’s a whip there’s a will”, and text notes that smaller orcs are driven unwillingly to Dark Lord’s wars.
Instead, orcs are driven by hatred. Their own misery and enslavement likely helps breed hatred towards people who are better-off than they are: a very understandable, and very human, reaction, attested time and again through history. Orcs likely reveled at war as an opportunity to vent their own frustrations on others, and would indiscriminately slaughter and rape in their campaigns. Fresh meat from bones of their victims – much better than food they likely got in Mordor – would have been a bonus. But if the enemy is more powerful than they are, and it looks likely they will lose a battle, orcs are prone to breaking. This is seen at Pelennor once reinforcements of Gondor arrived. Part of this hatred at least stems from fear. Earlier in the First Age, Morgoth convinced Orcs “beyond refutation that the Elves are crueller than Orcs, taking captives only for amusement, or to eat them”. This of course would have been entirely unnecessary if orcs had no free will to begin with. Even so, much of the hatred appears to be of external source – at Battle of Black Gate, orcs became leaderless and disorganized when the “Power that drove them on and filled them with hate and fury was wavering, its will was removed from them”. This indicates that while orcs are not controlled by Sauron’s will, in a sense that their actions are controlled as if they were puppets, it is Sauron’s will that holds them chained into evil, and without it, orcs may be capable of good. But as long as Sauron existed, there could be no peace with the orcs.
As a side note, it is known from Tolkien’s notes that orcs breed in the manner of Children of Illuvatar. In one letter he notes that there certainly are orc women, but that not much is known about them as orcs are predominantly if not exclusively seen in their roles as soldiers of Evil. The idea appears in published writings as well. In Hobbit, it is stated about Gollum and the Ring that “Only a few hours ago he had worn it, and caught a small goblin-imp.”. One of definitions of an “imp” is “a mischievous child; urchin”. Later he mentions “nassty young squeaker”. Further, Saruman has bred Uruk-hai by crossing orcs with humans, and half-goblins, half-orcs and orc-men are all attested in the writings.
Goblins are also good engineers, miners, and craftsmen. In fact, forces of Evil are heavily industrialized, whereas Good seems to be focused on craftsmanship. Orcs of Mordor also know how to read and write, and there are idle runes on statue of king in Ithillien. This is in itself an indication of a well-organized military, in the vein of Roman or Byzantine armies. Morgul-host was specifically noted as being formed by “small black figures in rank upon rank, marching swiftly and silently”, preceded by “a great cavalry of horsemen moving like ordered shadows”.
However, orcs are not exactly the most disciplined of soldiers. They are willing to suffer tremendous losses as long as it looks like they will win, as demonstrated at Minas Tirith where they basically ignored deadly archers of Gondor. But when they were charged by Rohirrim, their discipline quickly broke and they were ridden down: indeed, the fact that they could be ridden down meant that they broke, as a disciplined infantry in good order will, as a rule, withstand a cavalry charge. Once Aragorn arrived and their doom was sealed, orc morale and discipline broke down completely, and they fled. This however may have more to do with the loss of cloud cover than breakdown in discipline. Humans in Sauron’s service appear to be far more disciplined and of higher morale: it was Haradrim and Easterlings that attempted (and nearly succeeded) to turn the tide at Pelennor, and in fact fought to the bitter end – so much so that only rumours of wrath of Gondor reached their homelands, and the battle lasted until sunset. It was likewise humans that did not flee or surrender after Sauron’s final downfall.
On the other hand, Ugluk – leader of Saruman’s Uruk-hai – promotes a set of very positive characteristics / virtues, such as bravery, determination and loyalty. He first introduces his troops – as being servants of Saruman the Wise, the White Hand – before introducing himself. When Rohirrim assassinate several orcs and cause disturbance, he goes to calm things down. At the very end – instead of escaping on his own, like Grishnakh did – Ugluk holds his orcs together in a “black wedge” that almost reaches the forrest; in a manner perhaps reminiscent of later retreat of Faramir’s troops across Pelennor. Yet these virtues are twisted and placed in a service of evil.
Misty Mountain orcs likewise do not have a need for destruction: their technology has purpose, and they leave a forrest at their doorstep largely intact. While their economy is predatory, this is no different from many other human tribes and organizations, either in Lord of the Rings (e.g. imperial Numenor, Corsairs etc.) or historically (any colonial empire – British, French etc. empires, Ottoman Empire, neoliberal capitalism in general).
Mordor is not a disorganized horde. In The Two Towers, a soldier states: “Whose blame’s that? Not mine. That comes from Higher Up.”. This phrase alone is enough to show that Mordor indeed does have organization to its hordes. First instinct of both Shagrat and Gorbag is to establish a pecking order: and they do so by citing their ranks and areas of command, rather than by physical violence as could be expected in a disorganized mob. In fact, their dialogue is much closer to that of modern militaries than is the case with armies of “good peoples”.
Further evidence is present in the same and the following confrontation. Two groups of orcs have different sigils: the Red Eye of Barad-dur, and the Face of Moon of Minas Morgul. Thus we see a clear geographic division to forces of Mordor, where Minas Morgul is an independent command.
Orcs even have serial numbers in addition to name, as Uruk in Mordor states that he will give tracker’s “name and number” to a Nazgul. When Frodo and Sam mask as orcs, an Uruk slavemaster threatens that “Up you get and fall in, or I’ll have your numbers and report you”.
However, organization of Mordor is too centralized. Leaders micromanage discipline, and top leaders routinely punish individual soldiers. This ends up in hasty and incoherent orders, and high level of mistrust – discussed below.
Chain of command and subdivisions
When it comes to the chain of command, at the top is obviously Sauron, as Evil-in-Chief on the physical plane of Middle-Earth (on metaphysical plane, that is Morgoth). It should be noted here that even in the Third Age, Sauron does have a corporeal form – Gollum speaks of Sauron’s “nine fingers” in present, and it is noted that after fall of Numenor Sauron could “never again” take a form that was beautiful – but he was clearly capable of physical regeneration. So while Sauron was in no way inconceved in his duties as C-n-C (Commander in Chief), there are two obvious candidates for the second-in-command: The Witch King, and the Mouth of Sauron.
Of the two, the Mouth of Sauron is less likely choice. He seems to act as a messanger, Sauron’s mouthpiece. Witch King however is more independent, and even ruled the realm of Angmar before Sauron came back to power in Mordor. In Two Towers, Grishnakh states that the Nazgul are the “apple of the Great Eye”. While Nazgul reside in Minas Morgul, they occupy ranks within the overall hierarchy of Mordor.
In the same discussion, there is a reference to the “Top Ones”. These could be higher-ranking orcs, Nazgul, Sauron, or any combination of these possibilities. Said Top Ones clearly do not trust the lower-ranking officers, however, as Shagrat mentions spies among his own men. Command seems to be based on fear; especially, fear of the Nazgul.
Mouth of Sauron expected to be given overall governorship of the West once it was conquered. But this does not necessarily mean that he was above the Witch King in the command hierarchy of Mordor, either; merely that he is the highest-ranking servant that could be spared.
Minas Morgul and Cirith Ungol are independent commands, and commander of Cirith Ungol seems to have overall command when Morgul forces come to the pass. While Cirith Ungol appears to be under Barad-dur, Minas Morgul is its own command, down to its own symbols. Instead of Red Eye of Mordor, Morgul forces use a face of the Moon disfigured with face of death.
Further proof of this independence comes after the fight between the orcs of Morgul and Ungol. Snaga stated that he “fought for the Tower against those stinking Morgul-rats”, possibly referring to mutual destruction of Shagrat’s and Gorbag’s units. This likely does not point to a feud between Minas Morgul and Barad-dur, but rather feud and/or tensions between the forces of two commands, which sometimes sees outbreaks of violence. Red Eye is thus a symbol of orcs under direct command of the Dark Lord.
Uruks vs Orcs
In organization of Mordor, Uruks seem to be considered much more reliable compared to normal orcs (Snaga). Thus they form elite units, and are also given command of groups of smaller orcs. This is seen first in Moria, where orc leader is noted to be nearly man-sized, and stronger than Boromir (himself noted to be shorter but broader – and thus likely more physically powerful – than Aragorn). Thus he was clearly an Uruk. Gorbag also confirms this (“Always the poor Uruks to put slips to right…”), and later on Frodo and Sam (accidentally) “join” a unit of smaller orcs, being whipped to war by two large Uruks.
Captains organized the army, though it is unclear how large were the forces each captain commanded. Shagrat had overall command of Cirith Ungol pass, but the force he commanded does not appear to be particularly large. Sam noted Shagrat’s company at about 40, and Gorbag’s at 80, but also noted that Shagrat will not have taken his whole force to the pass. Gorbag, coming from Minas Morgul, may well have done so. Thus each company can be guessed at about 80 men effective strength. Accounting for possible reserves, illness etc., total strength may be at 100 – 120. Neither Gorbag’s force nor Shagrat’s were significantly larger than the other one, as they managed to completely wipe each other out.
Not all captains are Uruks. Grishnakh does not appear to be Uruk, yet he was given task of capturing possible Ring-bearers, and expected to be evacuated by a flying Nazgul. He also seemed aware of the Ring – as seen when he was searching/questioning the hobbits – as well as of power and position of the Nazgul. Whether this was an accident or not, it is likely that Grishnakh was not part of “regular” establishment, but rather something more akin to a special operations forces captain.
Isengarders, under Ugluk, are stated to number “four score at least”. “Score” is a measure meaning “twenty”, so “four score” would be a total of 80 Uruks. Thus Ugluk’s company numbers 80 or more, indicating similar unit structure to that of Mordor. This does not appear to include scouts under Snaga, though these – smaller – orcs may have been an attached but separate unit. Grishnakh, after running off, later returns with “a couple of score”, meaning 40, Mordor Uruks. This may or may not have been his whole force.
Gothmog is noted as “lieutenant” of Morgul, and it is he who takes up the command of Mordor forces at Pelennor when Witch King is slain. It is unclear however whether he was an orc or a Nazgul. Overall, Tolkien seems to use “lieutenant” as “second-in-command” and “captain” as “commander”. Thus Mouth of Sauron, as lieutenant of Barad-dur, would be the second in command of the tower.
Mordor also utilizes messengers, trackers and spies. These generally seem to be smaller orcs, and quite likely specially bred, as tracker outright states that he has “lost the scent” when trying to find Sam and Frodo.
Grishnakh, while not a Snaga, is also entrusted with a special mission as a messanger. But he appears in a situation where military muscle is needed; thus it stands to reason that Snaga orcs are used where direct combat is not necessary.
Issues of trust
Orcs seem to be in a state of self-contradiction: they are quick to quarrel and even kill each other, yet also – within units at least, but also between them – appear to have deep bonds of trust. Grishnakh states that he came back to Ugluk in order to help some “lads” he left behind – while likely a lie, it would not have fulfilled its purpose if it did not sound believable to orcish ears. “Rebel” seems to be the utlimate pejorative word, as used by Shagrat and also by soldier orc in “The Land of Shadow”. Neither is Grishnakh the only one to use the term “lads”, which in itself implies male bonding and good fellowship; Gorbag and Shagrat use it when discussing possible future after the war, and Ugluk mentions “Mauhur and his lads”.
But as issues between Morgul and Mordor orcs, discussed, before, show, this deep-rooted loyalty is also rather narrow – it seems to be limited to one’s own command, or unit, and no wider. And Sauron himself seems to be mistrusting of his servants, hence Shagrat’s paranoia of spies in his ranks. This leads to centralized decision-making, and overall military inefficiency. It also bleeds into breeding, as Mordor fields a number of specialized orc breeds. Much like modern-day materialist-capitalist society, Mordor denies human nature of the orcs and reduces them to cogs in a giant machine. As a result, Mordor can easily outnumber the more individualist armies of the Free Peoples – but its armies are often less effective despite larger numbers, because this very pursuit of specialization and efficiency destroys the individuality which allows the Free Peoples to find unexpected advantages and paths to success. This also means that Mordor armies never show the self-correcting tendencies that more decentralized armies of Free Peoples do – orcs complain and do nothing, even when orders are clearly in(s)ane. While Free Peoples place loyalty to peers above obedience to superiors, Orcs do the opposite. Orcs themselves are constrained by narrow self-interest, having no superior – national, ethnic, political etc. – loyalties, but this often proves counterproductive, placing them into danger while denyng them the ability to fulfill their duties.
Ugluk does trust Mauhur to show up in a possibly suicidal attack – and so he does. At Helm’s Deep, Uruks show again unit pride (“We are the fighting Uruk-hai!”), and also show the understanding of concept of parley. They do not however respect it entirely, tolerating Aragorn’s attempts at talk for a time, yet trying to shoot him down in the end, and taunting him throughout. While orcs recognize the idea of goodness, humour, loyalty, trust, group cohesion and ideal of a higher cause, they also show entirely human – if perhaps more pronounced – inability to actually live up to these ideals.
But Sauron’s own mistrust is his undoing. He is noted to have “policies and webs of fear and treachery”. As a result, he is the only one who made decisions in Mordor – everybody else merely carried out his commands. This is contrasted starkly by Council of Elrond, where a whole council debates an issue before making a final decision, and by Kingdom of Gondor, where Denethor (and later Aragorn) has a circle of advisors who help him in making decisions. Yet Sauron was completely incapable of conceiving that his enemies would attempt to destroy the Ring, and was taken by surprise. He was also incapable of delegating tasks to his subordinates, and control relied heavily on his personal intervention.
Overall command chain appears to be:
- Witch King of Angmar
- Khamul, Mouth of Sauron, other Nazgul
- Army captains
- Uruks of Mordor
- Orcs of the Red Eye
- Morgul Orcs
- Lesser Orcs
Summary at the end of article here.
Mordor also has significant human allies: Haradrim, Easterlings, Corsairs of Umbar and Variags of Khand. All these are corrupt Men, and are not part of the army of Mordor itself. Rather, they form attached auxilliary forces, fighting under their own commanders and their own manner of combat.
Sauron’s army at the Black Gate was stated to have numbered “ten times and more than ten times” of the Host of the West. Army of the West at that point numbered “less than six thousand”, so anywhere between 5 500 and 6 000 men. As such, Mordor’s host at the Black Gate may have numbered between 55 000 and 70 000 troops. Most of the host – including most of Men – fled after Sauron’s downfall, yet the men who remained were enough to offer battle to Captains of the West, though not enough for it to be anything more than a last stand. Assuming about a fifth to a quarter of evil men remained to fight, and that they were 1 000 – 2 000 strong, total number of evil men in the Mordor’s army might have been 4 000 – 10 000. This then would leave orcs at 50 000 – 60 000.
There is also a “great company” of trolls. This may mean some 500 trolls, considering that earlier a company is noted to have 500 men.
Total: 50 000 – 60 000 orcs, 500 trolls, 4 000 – 10 000 Southrons and Easterlings (assume 2 000 – 5 000 each).
Orcs and “men from afar” sat on the horse-road from Rohan to Minas Tirith in order to prevent reinforcements. They were said to number more than Theoden’s 6 000-strong host (“score of scores counted ten times and five” = 20 * 20 * 15 = 6 000).
Total: 6 500 – 7 000 Orcs and humans. Assuming similar proportions as at Black Gate, 6 000 orcs, 500 – 1 000 Southrons and Easterlings.
The only reliable number given for Minas Tirith is the number of Haradrim, which is 18 000 – three times the Rohirrim. Considering the low fighting quality of the orcs, army of Mordor must have heavily outnumbered the Western forces even after Aragorn’s arrival. In Military Organization of Gondor, I estimated that garrison of Minas Tirith numbered 3 000, with 3 000 reinforcements arriving before the battle. Aragorn brought at least 2 000 more reinforcements, in addition to 6 000 Rohirrim. Assuming that Mordor had twice as many troops, total forces must have numbered around 28 000 at the very least. More likely number is 2,5 to 3 times the total Western force, that is, 35 000 to 42 000 men. Easterlings would likely have been fewer than Haradrim, due to greater distance and already having enemies “closer to home”.
Total: 35 000 – 42 000 troops. Of those, 18 000 Haradrim, 6 000 – 12 000 Easterlings, and 11 000 – 12 000 orcs. Number of Easterlings is likely overstated, or else number of Orcs understated. Up to 210 000 troops may be supported based on Black Gate troop proportion estimates (of which 180 000 would be orcs).
Corsairs of Umbar had attacked shores of Gondor and thus denied reinforcements to Minas Tirith until they were defeated. Their strength is unknown, but they were noted to have “at least 80 large dromunds and smaller ships beyond count”. Ship types are unknown, but Byzantine dromond might have had a crew of up to 230, of which 70 troops. Thus, possible number is 18 400 crewmen for 80 dromunds but only 5 600 would have been Corsairs, as their galleys were rowed by slaves. Smaller ships might have doubled that number.
Total: 10 000 – 12 000 troops.
Dol Guldur managed to attack Lothlorien, Mirkwood and Rohan simultaneously, and possibly several times, but failed. At Battle of Five Armies Thranduil had 1 000 spearmen and 1 000 bowmen, so minimum strength is 3 000 (assuming 1 000 troops left “at home”). In Unfinished Tales it is stated that by the time of War of the Ring most Silvan elves liven in Lothrlorien as opposed to Mirkwood, so its strength might have been cca 4 000. Dol Guldur forces must have been serious threat at the very least, and large enough to survive, regroup and attack again both Lorien and Mirkwood, while also being a threat to Rohan. As such, 6 000 troops against Rohan, 3 000 – 5 000 against Thranduil and 4 000 – 6 000 against Lothlorien seems reasonable, as attacking force generally (but not always) requires numerical superiority. Most of these were likely orcs, so higher numbers are more likely.
Total: 13 000 – 17 000 troops.
Dain brought 500 dwarves to Battle of Five Armies from Iron Hills alone. Thorin however contacted kin from north, west and east, and dwarven numbers had increased by War of the Ring. As such, 1 000 troops is minimum number, but more likely is cca 2 000.
Humans at Battle of Five Armies made one wing of the army alongside dwarves, while elves made the other wing. As there were 500 dwarves and 2 000 elves, humans must have numbered at least 1 000, but more likely around 2 000. Brand’s kingdom also extended south and east; if boundaries are rivers Running and Redwater, it would have been half the size of Rohan but heavily depopulated. Thus 2 000 – 3 000 troops (about fifth to a quarter of Rohan’s strength) is likely.
Army attacking Erebor consisted only of Easterlings, who were a match in military skill and equipment to forces of Gondor. Forces of Erebor were defeated after a three-day battle in open field, but once Easterling army was demoralized by defeats on the southern front they emerged to defeat the enemy. With allied forces numbering 3 000 – 5 000 in total, Easterlings may have been 5 000 – 10 000.
Total: 5 000 – 10 000 Easterlings.
Overall numbers are thus as follows:
- Low count (124 800)
- 80 000 orcs
- 800 trolls
- 20 500 Southrons
- 13 500 Easterlings
- 10 000 Corsairs
- High count (159 000)
- 95 000 orcs
- 950 trolls
- 23 500 Southrons
- 27 500 Easterlings
- 12 000 Corsairs
- Extreme count (328 600)
- 263 000 orcs
- 2 600 trolls
- 23 500 Southrons
- 27 500 Easterlings
- 12 000 Corsairs
- Low count (124 800)
“Extreme count” is likely unsustainable, as it would render humans near-irrelevant, when it seems clear that they were major if not main part of Sauron’s offensive. On the other hand, low count at least – and possibly even high count – likely underestimates Sauron’s manpower potentials, as he did not wait to gather his full strength for assault against Gondor. But most of the remaining reserves were likely humans.
Generally, warfare in Lord of the Rings is less organizational and more heroic. Between that and Tolkien’s personal dislike of war, there is not much description of specific tactics used. It is worth noting however that Haradrim clearly have notion of infantry support for their mumakil, and that Ugluk manages to maintain cohesion of Uruk-hai of Isengard when trying to break through to Fangorn. Likewise, both sides at Pelennor utilize troop rotation, as it was noted that soldiers would retreat and rest from fighting, which went on until the end of the day. Orcs at Pelennor broke in face of both Imrahil’s cavalry charge and later that of Theoden; but in the first instance they were strung out, pursuing Faramir’s force across the field, and in the second their rear guard had been bypassed and they were taken unawares besieging the city. Orcs do utilize combined arms at Morannon, showering Men of the West with arrows before sending in the trolls, and during Aragorn’s march forces of Mordor attempt an ambush – albeit, as commanders note, in an aim of drawing the allied force forward as opposed to actually inflicting casualties.