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

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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.

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 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 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.

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  • Bill Reich

    The use of the word “controversial” in the headline for this moronic clickbait is stupid. None of these retreats were particularly controversial. What exactly were the Greek mercenaries to do? Throw themselves on the mercy of the Persian Emperor? After he had killed the last group to try to talk to him?

    You _missed_ the most controversial retreat in history while feeding us this Pablum. Kurita’s turnaround saved thousands of Japanese and American lives. You can look it up.

    • Mike Ivy

      I would say Adm Mikawa’s withdrawal after Savo Island to be almost, if not more, controversial. Had he struck the landing force after defeating their cruiser screen, the Marines would have likely been stranded on Guadalcanal and a situation that virtually ruined the IJN as a fighting force would have been avoided. Instead, he withdrew to Rabul, handing the USN a tactical defeat, but failing to turn it into a strategic defeat as well.

  • gus17

    Not mentioned is the retreat from the Yalu and the Chosin Reservoir
    by the Marines during the Korean War. This movement was one of the most successful retrograde movements in history. Not only did the Marines outfight a vastly superior Chinese force, they brought all their men and much of their equipment.

    • ScudAg56

      Why was that a “controversial” retreat? The Marines were cut off and had to fight their way out.

      • gus17

        It was controversial because politically it marked the definite end of the WWII “honeymoon” between the US and the USSR; and it marked the emergence of the PRC as a major player in Asian politics.

      • Boxhawk ✓ᴰᵉᵖˡᵒʳᵃᵇˡᵉ

        Actually there was some controversy regarding Task Force Faith (RCT-31) Read up it is pretty interesting.

  • mechadave

    Dunkirk was not controversial. The British had only 2 choices: Allow their entire Army to be killed or captured, or to make the attempt to escape.
    For a more controversial retreat, or unnecessary captitualition in the same war, Singapore is a prime example. A powerful British army surrendered to a much smaller and exhausted Japanese force that hiked & bicycled across a great distance & couldn’t be resupplied. The shameful surrender (the worst defeat of the entire war) humilated Churchill.
    Apparently Gen. Percival wanted to spare the civilian population & disobeyed specific orders to fight a protracted defense, but tens of thousands of Asians were slaughtered by the Japanese & the British POWs and civilian captives had to endure nearly 4 years of very harsh and abusive treatment. At least what few of them surrvived to VJ day. So its clear that fighting it out was the wiser course.
    Its very likely that the British forces could have crushed the smaller exhuasted Japanese force (fighting with zero artillery support) if the British had been concentrated instead of dispersed where they were easily bypassed by the Japanese forces.

  • Krammer

    What’s the controversy about Xenpphon? Or Agincourt? Another lying headline from this clickbait outfit.

    • Groucho

      Not to mention there was nothing controversial about the evacuation at Dunkirk. It was a masterpiece of planning and execution and it saved the British Army to carry on the war. If that army had been forced to surrender, Britain would have had to sue for peace with Germany.

      • ralph

        Brits were not surrendering!

        • Ash45

          Well, the Germans holding a large portion of their army after soundly defeating both the British and the French might cause them to reconsider.

  • Scad

    I would have to add the Confederate retreat after routing the Union forces at the first battle of Bull Run.