Losing Ground: 6 of the Most Controversial Retreats in Military History

Losing Ground: 6 of the Most Controversial Retreats in Military History

Alexander Meddings - June 29, 2017

There’s no escaping the fact that retreats are a natural and necessary part of warfare. When one army gains ground the other, by default, must lose it. However while lost ground often signifies a lost battle, retreat doesn’t always have to spell defeat.

Some of the retreats featured in this list were borne out of necessity; others were borne out of expediency. But they all have something in common: that whether in terms of survival or scale, the feats achieved by those who retreated were remarkable. Our first story takes us back to the apogee of Classical Greece, and into the heartlands of Asia Minor.

1 – Xenophon and the March of the 10,000

The Anabasis (literally meaning “the journey up from” in Greek) is the original retreat story of western literature. Written by soldier, philosopher, historian and equine expert Xenophon of Athens in the 4th century B.C, it tells the story of how an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries, under the command of the Persian Prince Cyrus the Younger, marches into Persia to remove the legitimate king (and Cyrus’ brother) Artaxerxes II from the throne. Cryus and his mercenaries engage Artaxerxes in 401 B.C., at Cunaxa in Babylon. And with the tide of battle going their way, everything seems to be going swimmingly until Cryus rushes headlong at his brother’s bodyguard and is killed—impaled by a thrown javelin, making the whole expedition really rather pointless.

Losing Ground: 6 of the Most Controversial Retreats in Military History
The route taken by Xenophon and the 10,000, Wikipedia Commons

The fact that the Greeks have won a tactical victory puts Artaxerxes in a difficult position. Unable to destroy the remaining forces outright, he instead arranges for the Greek generals (first and foremost Clearchus of Sparta) to attend a peace conference. But it turns out to be a trap and they—and by extension, their army—end up losing their heads. This leaves the 10,000 Greek mercenaries in a sticky situation: deep in the heart of hostile Mesopotamia, miles from the sea and without leadership. Their first course of action is to elect new leaders, and one of those they picked is Xenophon.

They trek across barren deserts, struggle across snow-capped mountain ranges and barter with locals over essential supplies. They survive a snowstorm in Armenia, fight battles on hilltops and in mountain passes and navigate tricky local diplomacy, helping strong local allies in return for letting them pass. And the whole time Artaxerxes’ threatening forces are snapping at their heels. Eventually, they reach the coast of the Black Sea at Trabzon (modern-day Trebizond), and in their euphoric relief they cry out the famous words “thálatta, thálatta!” (The sea, the sea!). But this isn’t the end of their campaigning; rather than disbanding and returning home, they continue to campaign firstly under command of the Thracians and then the Spartans.

Curiously, despite Xenophon’s historically attested participation in the events described, the Anabasis is written in the third person. You might think this was done to distance the author from his story—maybe as an act of modesty—but this is at odds with the way Xenophon describes himself. The exemplary leader, Xenophon describes himself as splitting logs in the snow, dismounting from his horse to lead his men on foot and giving extremely long-winded speeches about discipline and authority. At times the Anabasis reads more like a prototypal handbook on military leadership than a story about 10,000 men trying to make their way back home. But this does nothing to mar the fact that it’s still one of the most gripping and readable military accounts that’s survived from antiquity.

Losing Ground: 6 of the Most Controversial Retreats in Military History
A contemporary depiction of the Battle of Agincourt, Wikipedia Commons

2 – Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt is a vehicle for many themes. The arrogance of the French knightly class, the pucker of the English peasantry, the devastating power of the longbow and the beginning of the end of close-quarters combat. The battle also featured some of the least chivalric episodes of the Age of Chivalry, not least Henry V’s execution of French POWs or the longbowmen who marauded the battlefield, stabbing fallen French knights between the visors as they lay drowning and writhing in the mud. Agincourt is a key component of the Anglo-French rivalry still felt today. What few people know, though, is that the battle came at the climax of a disastrous campaign and long retreat towards the English Channel.

To say that Henry’s plan didn’t—for want of a better phrase—go entirely to plan would be something of an understatement. To force the issue of his claim to the French throne, he landed at the coastal city of Harfleur in August 1415 and, with his army of 8,000 men, began laying siege to the city. However, a series of unexpected events (namely the strong resistance of the outnumbered but determined defenders and an untimely outbreak of dysentery amongst Henry’s ranks) meant the siege took much longer than expected. And once the city had been taken, its walls were so badly damaged that Henry had to leave a large garrison there to hold it.

Deciding not to march on Paris, Henry instead took the remnants of his decimated (and presumably still dysenteric) army and began skirmishing across the French countryside, raiding his way toward the English-held port city of Calais. The whole time, however, he was being pursued by a large French force trying to capitalize on a golden opportunity to remove the troublesome king once and for all. Henry’s flailing army was eventually outmaneuvered. And on October 25, 1415, they were forced to fight the numerically superior French on the sodden farmland of Agincourt, Artois. But this time it would be the French who would experience a dramatic reversal of fortune.

Launching themselves headlong across churned-up, sludgy farmland into the English longbowmen and their defensive stakes, French casualties rapidly started mounting. As the French—many of whom were hungover as sin from the night before—fell, the weight of their armor and wave after wave of men crushing into them from behind stopped them from getting up, making them easy pickings for the lightly clad English. Furthermore, Henry’s steadfast leadership throughout the battlefield was exemplary—much more so than the incapacitated French king Charles VI who, due to mental illness, believed he was made out of glass and therefore too fragile to fight. Ultimately, the English suffered around 600 losses to the French 7,000-10,000. And Henry was able to march back to Calais, and later England, a hero.

Losing Ground: 6 of the Most Controversial Retreats in Military History
Napoleon’s men come up against “General Winter”. Pinterest

3 – Napoleon’s Russian Campaign

By 1812 the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, had conquered practically the whole of mainland Europe: from Southern Italy to the Baltic and from Poland in the East to Portugal in the West. He hadn’t managed to subdue the British though; short of swimming the English Channel there was little his army could do as Admiral Nelson had destroyed the combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. But he hoped to cripple them financially, mainly by enforcing a trade embargo between them and the continental powers. The only problem was that Russia wasn’t playing ball. And for this, they would have to be brought to heel.

In 1812 Napoleon led his seemingly invincible forces into Russia. His army numbered around half a million men; the largest European army ever raised, of which half was French and the rest levies from occupied European countries. He expected a battle or two in Lithuania, after which might continue to India to cut off Britain’s gold supply. Instead, he got nothing as the Tsar’s forces turned tail and ran. On June 28 he arrived in Vilnius, the capital of modern-day Lithuania, to a rapturous welcome before setting off again to Moscow in pursuit of the Russians. However, the Tsar’s army continued to withdraw, scorching the earth behind them and forcing Napoleon’s forces deeper and deeper into the barren Russian heartland.

Tens of thousands perished under the baking summer sun, lost to exhaustion, starvation and dehydration. On September 7 Napoleon engaged the Russians in a bloody but indecisive Battle at Borodino—described by the Emperor as “the most terrible of all my battles”. His army then arrived in Moscow. But no sooner had they arrived than the city went up in flames. For weeks Napoleon waited for the Tsar to send peace terms from St. Petersburg. But nothing came. And so, with trouble brewing back in France, and carrying as much plunder as he could from the charred remains of Moscow, Napoleon began his retreat. And with it, he started upon a new, grueling campaign: against “General Winter”.

In just the two months it took to reach Vilnius, Napoleon’s army was reduced to 50,000. Wading through knee-high snow, his men and horses were overcome by frostbite, starvation, and angry Cossacks. Little improved when they reached Vilnius; they found that provisions were so few that scores more died in the city. In fact, the German writer Ernst Moritz Arndt was there in January 1813, and described horrific scenes; piles of corpses three stories high. Of the almost 500,000 men who had crossed the Polish border into Russia, at most only 20,000 would make the return journey. But it wasn’t the lack of manpower that would hand Napoleon defeat to the forces of Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden in 1813. It was the lack of horses.

Losing Ground: 6 of the Most Controversial Retreats in Military History
French forces holding back the German tide at the First Battle of the Marne. Public Domain

4 – The Great Retreat of the Great War

The First World War isn’t particularly famous for its retreats (or, for that matter, its advances). Somewhat spuriously known to history as the “Great War”, this conflict was instead characterized by long, drawn-out periods of stalemate, in which the millions unfortunate enough to be on land were routinely forced from their trenches to be mechanically slaughtered out in the open. This imagery, however, speaks of the middle and later stages of the war; a period prolonged and desperate enough to affect considerable industrial progress. For, as is often said, the First World War might have ended with tanks, but it began on horseback.

At the outbreak of war, the Germans had planned for a quick victory. Working (vaguely) from the Schlieffen Plan, they wagered on no Belgian resistance, British neutrality, France’s rapid defeat and slow Russian mobilization. Unfortunately for them, none of these assumptions came into fruition. Recent—and revolutionary—rail networks stretching across Europe allowed rapid mobilization, and the vicissitudes of war and politics meant that those the Germans thought would stay neutral didn’t (and those they assumed would stay out of the war entered it).

The first engagement on the western front was at the Mulhouse, Alcase, on August 7. It marked the beginning of what’s now known more broadly as “The Battle of the Frontiers“, in which French, Belgium and British forces fought at best to drive back—and at worst to not be outflanked by—German forces advancing from Belgium and France’s eastern frontier. August featured a number of battles, spanning Alsace, Belgium, Lorraine, Ardennes and Sambre. At the latter, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fought bravely at the Battle of Mons (August 23). But they were soon overwhelmed by the seemingly endless tide of German First Army soldiers and forced to retreat.

From August to September the BEF and French 5th Army fell back to the River Marne, some 250 miles away. The journey was exhausting. But upon reaching the river there was no time to rest; for if the Allies were to defend Paris to the southeast, they would have to turn and face the pursuing Germans. The ensuing conflict (the First Battle of the Marne) lasted seven days from September 6 – 12. It was the first conflict to involve radio intercepts and the automotive trafficking of troops. It was also a notably bloody affair—the Allies lost around 263,000 men and the Germans 220,000.

Because Paris was saved, the First Battle of the Marne was unquestionably an Allied victory. What it did, however, was it prompted the Germans to abandon their plans for a quick victory in favor of a war of attrition. During the following phase—known to history as “The Race to the Sea”, General Erich Von Falkenhyn was the first to decide the Germans had to dig in and build trenches. It was imperative, he believed, that they consolidate those parts of Germany they’d already gained before the next phase of the war. Few could have seen, however, that by entrenching their positions the Germans were setting events motion that would lead to another four years of attritional warfare.

Losing Ground: 6 of the Most Controversial Retreats in Military History
Scenes from the beach at Dunkirk in May 1940, Daily Express

5 – The Retreat from Dunkirk

Soon to receive the silver screen treatment at the hands of Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is widely regarded as one of the most pivotal moments of the Second World War. It also holds considerable cultural currency, with today’s Brits still idiomatically using “Dunkirk spirit” to describe stoic resolve in the face of adverse circumstances (and Brits choosing to remain on beaches even during heavy rainstorms). It’s for good reason the expression is often used: for the circumstances in which British and Allied forces found themselves towards the end of May 1940 were nothing if not adverse.

Blitzkrieg warfare was working wonders for the Nazis in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Already by mid-May—before the Allies had had a chance to coordinate an effective resistance—they found themselves outflanked and separated from one another by spearheading German forces. The Allies tried to break German lines, most notably at the Battle of Aras on May 21, but their attempts proved ineffective. Sensing defeat, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) beat a retreat back to their perimeter line, and on May 27 they arrived. The British and French were now bottled up in a thin coastal corridor. And with the Germans advancing, all they could now do was wait for this bottle to be sealed up.

Realizing the severity of the situation, and foreseeing the imminent capitulation of the Belgians, the British launched Operation Dynamo: the naval evacuation of the BEF from the shores of Dunkirk. But what was so remarkable about this operation was not the temerity of the task they’d undertaken, but the makeup of the fleet undertaking it. Joining the British cruisers and destroyers were hundreds of fishing trawlers, drifters, yachts, tugboats, minesweepers and pleasure craft, just to name a few. Some had been requisitioned from the Thames by the Ministry of Shipping without the owner’s knowledge or consent. In most cases, however, civilians captained and crewed these ships, willingly putting their lives on the line for king, country and human decency.

Rescuing troops from the beach was a long and arduous process. The Luftwaffe had all but destroyed Dunkirk’s port, so Allied soldiers would have to be rescued from the beachfront. It was deemed too time-consuming to load troops onto boats directly from the shore, and only one of the two breakwaters flanking the beach (the eastern one) was considered fit for purpose. In a column stretching 1.3 kilometers with four men abreast, 200,000 troops were able to board British ships from this breakwater. The rest had to be lifted directly from the sandy shore.

The evacuation spanned 10 days between May 26 and June 4. It was a roaring success: around 198,000 British and 140,000 Allied (mainly French) soldiers were rescued from certain death. Almost all of their equipment was left behind, however, and what they hadn’t managed to destroy fell into German hands. But the preservation of lives and manpower far outweighed this in terms of importance. For it was only because of the lives saved at Dunkirk—and the Nazi’s remarkably misjudged decision not to press their advantage—that the allies were able to mount further campaigns against German-held Normandy in the years to come.

Losing Ground: 6 of the Most Controversial Retreats in Military History
A relocated Russian tank factory in Central Russia. Military History Now

6 – The Relocation of Russia

Hitler launched his invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. In doing so, he contravened the non-aggression Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed nearly two years previously, and broke the first rule in the Handbook of Warfare: Never March on Moscow. Stalin had repeatedly received information about Führer’s intentions but had officially chosen to ignore them, believing the Axis wouldn’t commit forces to Russia until they’d first defeated Britain. Unofficially, however, Stalin had already set in motion plans to keep the Soviets’ in the war long into the foreseeable future.

He would do this by relocating Soviet factories to the east behind the Ural Mountains; for—given that manpower was never a problem for the Russians—it was believed that as long as they protected production, the Soviet war machine could continue to run. Plans got underway on June 21. Stalin established an evacuation committee that would oversee the relocation—and establishment— of Soviet industry to the east (complete with hundreds of thousands of workers). And what they achieved was remarkable: railways cars shepherding men west to the front would, upon arrival, be loaded with industrial machinery and sent back east. By the end of 1941, GOSPLAN (the Soviet State Planning Committee) had overseen the transfer of 1,523 factories—most to the Urals, but others to Western Siberia, Central Asia and Kazakhstan.

Fortunately for the Soviets, there was already contingency in place, albeit unplanned. A core economic principle of the Soviet regime was that development should be encouraged away from the heartlands of Moscow and St. Petersburg. One of the chosen areas was the Urals. And so it was that it was already equipped with factory shell buildings, sophisticated railway networks and a powerful electricity grid. The only thing they hadn’t yet built was housing for the workers. But this was resolved in time. And just as well: for despite the enormous number of munitions and other factories captured by the advancing German army, it was only because of this massive undertaking that the Soviets could remain contenders in the war.

Of course, there were human retreats as well as industrial relocations during the campaigns on the Eastern Front. And in further efforts to limit the amount of supplies the Germans could get their hands on, the Soviets adopted a scorched earth policy. They cut communication lines, collapsed mineshafts and destroyed the area’s rail and road infrastructure. But as the fortunes of war shifted, the Germans adopted the same strategy, using it to much more brutal effect. During their retreats, they would burn farms, steal harvests and raze settlements—most famously that of Novgorod in 1944. Their rationale was psychological as well as pragmatic; as well as denying the Soviets resources they would also be committing them to help affected communities and damaging morale. Judging by the severity with which the Soviets ransacked Berlin, they had been right.