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Know Your Lore: The struggle for Southern Barrens

The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how, but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

All they needed was a supply route. With the abdication of Warchief Thrall and the rise of the new Warchief, Garrosh Hellscream, suddenly the Alliance discovered what it meant to have a true orc at the helm of the Horde -- a merciless killer who held no particular love or wish for understanding and peace. Suddenly, the days of mild skirmishes were over, and the attacks in Ashenvale and Stonetalon had begun in earnest as the Horde moved from quietly settling the land and using its resources to taking it by force.

The night elves struggled to fight back, but the remote location, so far away from the human settlements of Northwatch Hold and Theramore, left only one route for the Theramore forces to take in order to get those supplies delivered. It was one that took them straight through the heart of Horde territory -- the harsh, expansive desert of The Barrens. And so the Alliance came up with a plan: A road was to be constructed. With a road, the Alliance could easily transport caravans and troops to defend those caravans and help their allies defend against the crippling attacks.

It was just a simple road.

However, the Alliance were soon to find out that in The Barrens, life was anything but easy -- a lesson the Horde had learned when they first settled on the continent of Kalimdor years before. A plan was put into place: Alliance forces from Theramore and Northwatch Hold would march on The Barrens, securing the land and clearing the way for the road to be paved from Theramore, where construction on a new highway had already begun in earnest. Meanwhile, troops from Northwatch Hold were deployed to clear the way to Stonetalon and keep the Horde busy so that supply lines could get through.

But nobody could have predicted was what would happen the day after the Horde outpost of Honor's Stand was taken. Deathwing emerged from Deepholm and ripped the world asunder as a result. The Barrens were torn in two, a great rift in the earth ripping through the land and making it near impossible to travel from south to north. And the Horde began their attacks in earnest, sending a fleet to take out Northwatch Hold and wipe the Alliance from the face of The Barrens forever.

The Horde forces were led by an orc named Karga Rageroar, who had already intercepted a ship carrying worgen fleeing from the beleaguered lands of Gilneas. The worgen fought back, and as Rageroar slaughtered the worgen left and right, a few managed to escape. Rageroar ordered his men to fire on the ships, taking the scalp of a fallen worgen and wearing it as a gruesome trophy. Few of the worgen made it to land, but they did so off the shores of Northwatch and immediately began to offer what help they could to the Alliance stronghold.

Meanwhile, at Honor's Stand, the Northwatch forces found themselves struggling to hang onto the land they'd managed to take hold of, as orc and tauren forces pelted assaults on the settlement from above. What the Alliance didn't and couldn't know was that the tauren had been using trails high above The Barrens to hunt for years, and those paths were now being used with deadly efficiency by the attacking Horde troops. Not only were the Northwatch troops unable to continue into Stonetalon, where they were desperately needed, they were barely managing to hang on themselves, their own supplies dwindling desperately thin. Northwatch Hold was unable to send any relief due to Horde attacks at their doorstep, and the entire Alliance fleet, so carefully prepared and ready for anything, was a scattered mess.

And in between it all, a strange overgrowth of wilderness had sprung forth from the Barrens, full of grasping vines and plant life with a life of its own. This was no ordinary forest, as even the wildlife had been oddly altered. Between the wilderness and the quillboar, the Alliance was having a hard time getting through. They sought to arrange diplomatic relations with the native quillboar of the area, but the quillboar weren't quite as civilized or amenable to pleasant negotiations as the Alliance had hoped.

Meanwhile, further south, a man had been placed in charge of clearing the way, a man who was rightfully wary of the Horde and wary of war in general. He wasn't a cruel man by any stretch of imagination; he knew that war had to be fought, but he wanted the fight to be short, precise, and with as minimal a loss of life as possible. He wasn't a cruel man, no, but his choices, no matter how merciful they may have seemed, ultimately didn't matter to the Horde -- what mattered was the blood on his hands, not his motives for spilling it. And justice would be swift and brutal. The man's name was General John Hawthorne, leader of the Forward Command.

The highway from Dustwallow Marsh was mostly a success, though attacks from the ogres and Grimtotem tauren of the area were always a danger to travelers. The Alliance managed to put together a small outpost in the Southern Barrens, the first of its kind since Northwatch Hold. Calling it Fort Triumph, General Hawthorne proceeded with the next step of his plan: clearing the way for the highway to continue. Unfortunately, though The Barrens were mostly deserted, there was one tauren settlement that stood in the way and presented a potential problem to Alliance forces: Camp Taurajo.

Tell me what happened at Taurajo.

"Ah yes, our assault on the Horde town of Taurajo. I struggled with the implications of the decision. Taurajo was admittedly what you might call a 'soft target,' primarily a hunters' camp. Still, it had been used to recruit, equip, and train Horde infantry for many years.

When our scouts reported that Taurajo's most dangerous units were out on the hunt, we had to act quickly."

We sacked the town?

Hawthorne wrinkles his brow. "I would prefer not to use the term 'sacked,' but yes, the attack went off flawlessly. We removed Taurajo from the equation, confiscated its arms, and destroyed its smithing facilities. The assault gave our forces considerable breathing room and knocked the enemy off balance. Nonetheless, during the assault, I instructed my men to leave a gap open in our lines..."

Why did you do that?

"Taurajo had a significant civilian population. I wanted to ensure that they could escape the fighting, and many did, finding refuge in the north. There are some, even in Alliance High Command, who argued that I let an opportunity slip away. That I should've taken hostages. But I don't see the value in those sort of terror-tactics.
Hear me out: I want this war to end someday. It won't ever stop if we butcher or imprison civilians.

I just pray that there are those on the other side who see things as I do."

What Hawthorne didn't realize was that the lines left open for fleeing tauren civilians led straight into the heart of quillboar territory -- and that the quillboar were natural enemies of the tauren. Doubtless he assumed since the quillboar and tauren had shared The Barrens for years that the two were allies; but the escaping tauren from Taurajo found themselves captured, with even fewer numbers able to make it out.

What Hawthorne did realize, however, is that his forces weren't all as merciful or as keen to simply leave the tauren village be after it was taken out as he was. The Theramore and Northwatch armies were comprised both of soldiers of the Alliance and non-violent criminals conscripted from the Stockades in Stormwind. When Hawthorne's troops earned their victory over Taurajo, some of the criminals broke ranks, leaving to loot what remained of the tauren settlement. Hawthorne ordered the criminals captured; not only were the looters ignoring orders, he realized the desecration of the tauren homes would only further anger the Horde, when the ultimate goal, what Hawthorne was after, was peace.

General Hawthorne was arguably the most decent man the Alliance had working the front lines. But the Horde didn't see the motives behind the man; they merely saw the killer responsible for the deaths at Taurajo, and they wanted vengeance. A strike force was sent out to intercept Hawthorne on his way back to Fort Triumph, and Hawthorne was quickly eliminated. His body was recovered, but the spirit he tried to instill in his troops, the wish for mercy and peace, for a quick end to the war, evaporated.

What he left behind was a group of tired, bitter soldiers, angry at the Horde for their continued attempts to undermine what was supposed to be a simple mission. The Alliance troops were desperate for supplies, simply trying their best to help their allies. And those Alliance troops would stop at nothing to defend their right to keep the fragile foothold they'd placed in The Barrens. The death of their General only stoked the fires of anger and hatred higher -- ironically, the last thing General Hawthorne would have wanted.

The Southern Barrens presents a unique outlook at the events surrounding Cataclysm and the ascension of Garrosh Hellscream, but more importantly, it presents an in-depth and fascinating peek into the various background workings of war itself. As members of the Horde travel through Southern Barrens, they are given the absolute impression that the Alliance are 100% responsible for the slaughter of countless innocents, with no provocation at all, cold-blooded murderers who must be brought to justice for their actions. As Alliance, players are given the absolute impression that the attacks on Northwatch were unjustified and the continued assault by the Horde is a result of said Horde's being nothing more than a bunch of brutal, bloodthirsty savages -- and given the slaughter of General Hawthorne, that impression is completely correct.

But when one thinks about it, what General Hawthorne represented was one of the last bastions of decency and sanity that existed out there in The Barrens -- a way of thinking that was eerily similar to Thrall's vision of a peaceful union between Alliance and Horde. Much like what is happening in the rest of Azeroth, General Hawthorne's death almost seems to represent a cruel reminder that that vision has evaporated, replaced with the cold savagery of Hellscream's reign.

The interesting part about the Southern Barrens lies in the story told, however. Players who play through one side of the situation without looking at the other come out of it convinced that justice was met, one way or another. But players who take the time to level a character through both sides of the story are left with the ultimately unsatisfying impression that in the end, nobody was right. Neither side was completely justified in taking the actions that they took.

In the case of Taurajo, we're left wondering (even on the Alliance side of the equation) why Jaina Proudmoore didn't just send an ambassador to the quiet tauren village, given her interaction with the current tauren leader, Baine Bloodhoof, in the Cataclysm novel The Shattering. Or better yet, why didn't she ask Baine directly for clearance past the tauren outpost? Baine Bloodhoof isn't exactly a fan of Garrosh Hellscream, and the end result may have been something far different than what we see in game -- and General Hawthorne wouldn't have had to make the choices he made.

Instead, what we get is death -- endless, brutal, nonsensical death on both sides, and each is left with the impression that they are right, and the other side is wrong. It's a glimpse into the world of war -- a world where people lose themselves in the bitter throes of battle and death and forget about things like common sense and mercy, in the name of the greater "good." It's an odd stance for something as simple as a video game to take -- and it's a beautifully constructed, if ultimately depressing, piece of storytelling.

The Southern Barrens is only one part of Kalimdor, but it highlights events, tensions and thoughts that are being echoed over the whole of Azeroth. The tensions between Alliance and Horde are higher now than ever before, perhaps higher than they've ever been. Hellscream will stop at nothing to secure land and supplies for his new Horde, and the Alliance will valiantly fight to protect their land and their people, until the bitter end. And that, ultimately, is what the Southern Barrens leaves one with, in the end -- a bitter taste, from the moment players step on the fields of blood until they leave, having done nothing to solve the situation but to move on and leave the fields of battle behind.

For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:

While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.

Filed under: Lore, Know your Lore

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