Battles of the Fords of Isen

The First Battle   
Reconditioning and reorganization   
The Second Battle   

The Battles of the Fords of Isen took part when Saruman invaded Rohan.

The First Battle    

Because of the terrain, Saruman had the advantage in that he could send his troops down either side of the river. If the Fords were held against him, he could attack the defenders from both sides. And if necessary, any force on the west of Isen could retreat upon Isengard.

If Théodred sent forces across the Fords to engage Saruman's troops, or to defend the western bridgehead, they would have no retreat if they wee worsted. The enemy would be at their heels, and possibly also waiting at the other side.

Saruman's attack was foreseen, but it came sooner than expected. The first battle was fought on February 25th, 3019. Warned by his scouts of a mustering of forces on the west side of Isen before the gates of Isengard, Théodred manned both the eastern and western approaches to the Fords with footsoldiers from Westfold. He left three companies of Riders on the east bank, while he crossed the Fords with his main force: eight companies of Riders and a company of archers. Théodred's intention was to overthrow the forces of Saruman before they were fully prepared.

Some twenty miles north of the Fords, Théodred encountered Saruman's vanguard and scattered it with loss. He then rode on to attack the enemy's main host, but found them in positions prepared for the event, behind trenches manned by pikemen. Théodred in the leading éored was brought to a stand, and new forces arriving from Isengard outflanked him upon the west, threatening to surround him. By the onset of the companies coming up behind him, he was extricated.

Meanwhile, east of the river, other forces of Saruman were now hasting towards the Fords. Théodred could see them across the river, but he was unable to guess their strength. Therefore he ordered a retreat. Even if they executed this manoeuvre with little loss, the Rohirrim were unable to shake off the enemy, and the rearguard under Grimbold often had to turn at bay and drive back the most eager pursuers.

When the day was waning, Théodred gained the Fords. He set Grimbold in command of the garrison on the west bank, stiffened with fifty dismounted Riders. Théodred manned the eyot with his own company on foot, to cover the retreat of Grimbold if he was driven back. The rest of his Riders and all the horses he sent across the river.

Then, with unexpected speed, Saruman's eastern force came down. In the van were some Dunlending horsemen and a great pack of orcish wolfriders. Behind them came two battalions of fierce Uruks, heavily armed. The horsemen and wolfriders slew or dispersed the horse-herds and picketed horses.

The sudden assault of the massed Uruks took the eastern garrison by surprise, and swept it away.

The Rohirrim that had just crossed from the west were caught still in dissarray and were driven from the Fords along the line of the Isen, fighting desperately, with Uruks in pursuit.

When Saruman's forces had gained possession of the eastern bank, there arrived a company of men or orc-men (Uruk-hai? ), ferocious, mailclad and armed with axes. They hastened to the eyot and assailed it from both sides. At the same time, Grimbold on the west bank was attacked by forces coming down the western side of Isen.

Seeing the axe-men driving Théodred's men towards the low knoll in the centre of the eyot, Grimbold, taking a few men that stood near him, ran to the aid of Théodred. So fierce was his onset into the rear of the axe-men, that he clove through and reached Théodred together with two others. But too late. Just as he came to his side Théodred fell, hewn down by a great orc-man. Grimbold slew the orc-man and stood over the body of Théodred, thinking him dead.

Elfhelm came then to the rescue, having lead four companies all the way from Edoras. Alarmed by the presence of wolfriders, Elfhelm pressed on towards the Fords instead of stopping at Helm's Deep as was his original intention. By a few fugitives that he met just before the last bend in the road, he was told of the disaster.

Even though both his men and his horses were weary, he pressed on as fast as he could, and when he was in sight of the east bank, he ordered his companies to charge.

Now it was the Isengarders that were taken by surprise, and few stood their ground. Elfhelm dismounted with his own company, and rushed to the eyot, catching the axe-men between himself and the surviving defenders, and with both banks still held by the Rohirrim. The axe-men were all slain, the last two of them fighting Grimbold over the possession of Théodred's body.

Elfhelm and Grimbold found that Théodred still breathed, but he only lived long enough to speak his last words:

Let me lie here - to keep the Fords till Éomer comes!
Unfinished Tales, The Battles of the Fords of Isen

A harsh horn sounded, and then it was silent. The attack on the west bank ceased, and the enemy faded away into the dark.

As it later turned out, Saruman's chief objective at the time, was to achieve the slaying of Théodred, the son of King Théoden, at all costs.

At the first battle all his fiercest warriors were engaged in reckless assaults upon Théodren and his guard, disregarding other events of the battle, which might otherwise have resulted in a much more damaging defeat for the Rohirrim. When Théodred was at last slain Saruman's commander (no doubt under orders) seemed satisfied for the time being,
Unfinished Tales, The Battles of the Fords of Isen

Reconditioning and reorganization    

When news of the fall of Théodred reached him in the Hornburg on the next day, Erkenbrand of Westfold assumed command of the Westmark. He sent message to Edoras to bear to Théoden his son's last words and praying that Éomer should be sent with all the help that could be spared. Thanks to the cunning of Gríma, his request for help was not answered

Erkenbrand gave command in the field to Grimbold, while he was himself occupied with the manning of the Hornburg and gathering such men of Westfold as he could.

Elfhelm and his Riders belonged to the Muster of Edoras, and Erkenbrand could not give Grimbold any command over Elfhelm. There was however no dissention between Elfhelm and Grimbold, but their ordering of forces was a compromise between their differing opinions:

Grimbold manned the western end of the fords with the greater part of his foot-soldiers; in a strong position in the earth-forts that guarded the approaches. He remained with the rest of his men, including the remains of Théodred's cavalry, on the east bank.

Elfhelm withdrew his Riders and took up his position where he had wished the main defence to stand; his purpose was to descry any attack coming down on the east of the river, and to disperse it before it could reach the Fords.

The eyot was left bare.

The Second Battle    

The second battle took place on March 2nd.

As it turned out, any variations in the tactics of the Rohirrim would have made little difference, as Saruman's strength was too great.

The attack began by day, and before noon a strong force of Saruman's best fighters attacked the forts on the west of the Fords. In fact, this force was only a small part of what Saruman had in hand, but still enough to greatly outnumber the defenders. The garrison of the Fords resisted stubbornly but at length, a troop of Uruks forced the passage between them while the forts were heavily engaged.

Grimbold saw that the Uruks began to cross the Fords and, trusting in Elfhelm to hold off any attack on the east side, came across with all the men he had left and flung the Uruks back. The enemy commander then threw in a yet uncommitted battalion, and broke the defences. Grimbold was forced to withdraw across the Isen. It was then near sunset. Grimbold had suffered much loss, but had inflicted far heavier losses on the enemy (mainly Orcs), and he still held the east bank strongly. The enemey did not yet try to cross the Fords and fight their way up the steep slopes to dislodge him.

Elfhelm had been unable to take part in this action. When dusk came, he withdrew his companies and retired towards Grimbold's camp, setting his men in groups at some distance from it to act as a screen against attacks from north and east.

Fearing, indeed knowing, that greater evil would befall them ere long, unless help beyond hope reached them swiftly, the defenders prepared to do what they could to hold up Saruman's advance before they were overwhelmed. The greater part stood at arms, only a few at a time attempting to snatch such brief rest and sleep as they could. Grimbold and Elfhelm were sleepless, awaiting the dawn and dreading what it might bring.
They did not have to wait so long.
Unfinished Tales, The Battles of the Fords of Isen

It wasn't even midnight when the vanguard of the whole remaining forces of Saruman came from the north, armed for the conquest of Westfold. They came at great speed, and gathering into their stream the forces already manning the west bank they swept over the Fords like a river of fire with a great clamour of hate. A great company of bowmen might have made some difference, but Grimbold only had a handful of archers.

He (Grimbold) could not hold the east bank, and withdrew from it, forming a great shieldwall about his camp. Soon it was surrounded, and the attackers cast torches among them, and some they sent high over the heads of the shieldwall, hoping to kindle fires among the stores and terrify such horses as Grimbold still had. But the shieldwall held. Then, since the Orcs were of less avail in such fighting because of their stature, fierce companies of the Dunlendish hillmen were thrown against it. But for all their hatred the Dunlendings were still afraid of the Rohirrim if they met face to face, and they were also less skilled in warfare and less well armed. The shieldwall still held.
Unfinished Tales, The Battles of the Fords of Isen

In vain Grimbold looked for help from Elfhelm, but none came. Knowing that although his men would fight until all were slain if he ordered so, this would not help Erkenbrand. But any man that could break out and escape southwards would be useful. He therefore mounted those riders that could be mounted on the remaining horses, not many more than half an éored, and placed them under the command of Dúnhere. The shieldwall was opened on the east side, and the Riders attacked, driving back their assailants, diving and wheeling round they then charged the enemy to the north and south. The surprise of the sudden attack combined with a rearguard on foot commanded by Grimbold, gave the remainder enough time to retreat with what speed they could. Saruman's commander soon understood that the shieldwall was broken and that the defenders were fleeing, but the moon was overtaken by clouds, he was in haste, and he had captured the Fords. Therefore he did not allow his troops to press on after the fugitives. Instead, he gathered his force as best as he could, and made for the road southwards. So it was that the greater part of Grimbold's men survived, scattered but making their way away from the road. They were relieved but amazed to counter no enemies, not knowing that a large army had already passed southward and that Isengard was now guarded by little but its own strength of wall and gate.

It was for this reason that no help had come from Elfhelm. More than half of Saruman's force had actually been sent down east of Isen. they came on more slowly than the western division, for the land was rougher and without roads; and they bore no lights. But before them, swift and silent, went several troops of the dreaded wolfriders. Before Elfhelm had any warning of the approach of enemies on his side of the river the wolfriders were between him and grimbold's camp; and they were also attempting to surround each of his small groups of Riders. It was dark and all his force was in disarray. He gathered all that he could into a close body of horsemen, but he was obliged to retreat eastward. He could not reach Grimbold, though he knew that he was in straits and had been about to come to his aid when attacked by the wolfriders. But he also guessed rightly that the wolfriders were only the forerunners of a force far too great for him to oppose that would make for the southward road.
Unfinished Tales, The Battles of the Fords of Isen

What followed is less clear, since only Gandalf had full knowledge of it. What is clear, is that Gandalf received news of the disaster in the late afternoon of March the 3rd. He then rode with the greatest speed that Shadowfax could command, and reached Isengard in the early darkness, leaving again in no more than twenty minutes. He must have met Grimbold and Elfhelm, probably both on his outward journey, and his return. Grimbold's men he sent southward to join Erkenbrand...


The story as written in Unfinished Tales, ends here.

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