Abandoned Iraqi T-55 battle tanks lie alongside Highway 80—The Highway of Death—in Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s disastrous 1991 retreat.

The War List: Sound the Retreat!

By Marc G. De Santis
Autumn 2013 • MHQ Magazine

MHQ researcher Marc De Santis surveys history’s most spectacular withdrawals.

Darius vs. the Scythians 512 BC

Goaded into action by Scythian attacks, King Darius I of Persia crossed the Danube at Thrace (in modern-day Bulgaria) and pursued the nomadic horsemen hundreds of miles into the steppe. With no cities to defend or crops to harvest, the barbarians stayed on the move and out of reach of the ponderous Persian army. Frustrated, and with his army exhausted and hungry, Darius gave up and beat a miserable retreat back to Thrace, racing the Scythians to the bridge across the Danube.

March of the Ten Thousand 401–399 BC

The prince Cyrus the Younger challenged his brother, King Artaxerxes II, for the Persian throne, assembling an army that included Greek mercenaries. Though victorious in the Battle of Cunaxa, near Babylon, Cyrus was killed, leaving 10,000 Greeks stranded deep inside the Persian Empire. The Greek historian Xenophon, who had joined Cyrus’s army, courageously led the mercenaries on a harrowing journey home across about a thousand miles of northern Mesopotamia and the mountainous landscape of Anatolia, battling wild tribesmen all the way.

Washington on the Lam 1776

The Continental Army’s campaign in New York amounted to a series of humiliating retreats. An overconfident American force ensconced itself at Brooklyn Heights on Long Island, only to be surprised and outfought by the British. Thanks chiefly to a fog that shrouded the East River, George Washington and his men slipped away at night via the East River to Manhattan, then withdrew to the northern tip of the island and on to White Plains. Eventually, they had to flee south to New Jersey and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Widespread desertions resulted, along with a steep drop in enlistments.

Cold, Hard Truth 1812

Napoleon’s long retreat from Moscow saw the Grande Armée brought low and started the downfall of the man who had once been master of Europe. The Russians’ scorched-earth tactics and constant attacks combined with temperatures that reached minus 35 degrees to devastate the French force of 500,000. Napoleon returned with fewer than 10,000 men.

An Italian Tragedy 1917

Immortalized by Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the Italian retreat from Caporetto on October 24 was one of World War I’s most tragic moments. The Italian commander, Marshal Luigi Cadorna, had broken the spirit of his troops with harsh discipline and the dismissal of hundreds of generals and other officers. Faced with an Austro-Hungarian-German offensive, the Italians withdrew some 16 miles on the battle’s first day—extraordinary for a war where armies often grappled over a few yards of ground. The retreat continued for days until the Italians could establish a new defensive line roughly 80 miles away, on the Piave River. They tallied 10,000 dead and 30,000 wounded, with more than a quarter of a million taken prisoner.

The Long March 1934–1935

In October 1934, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang were preparing to annihilate the Chinese Red Army in the southern province of Jiangxi. Recognizing they faced destruction, Mao Zedong and other communist commanders set out to join communist units in the north. After a yearlong epic journey across thousands of miles, they arrived in the Shaanxi region. Of the 86,000 troops who began the Long March, only 7,000 survived.

Falaise Pocket 1944

During the desperate fighting for Normandy, Adolf Hitler’s ill-conceived German counterattack at Mortain failed, and two Allied pincers closed on the overextended Germans in the Falaise Pocket, with British, Canadians, and Poles descending from the north, and Americans and French moving up from the south. From August 12 to 21, 80,000 German soldiers fought a tenacious holding action to allow comrades to break out of the closing trap. When the pincers shut, 20,000 Germans had escaped, but 50,000 were captured. Left behind was a sea of wrecked or abandoned vehicles, slaughtered baggage animals, and 10,000 German corpses.

Highway of Death 1991

Though brief, the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait during the Gulf War was horrible, particularly on Highway 80, the so-called Highway of Death. During the night of February 26–27, American planes mauled Saddam Hussein’s retreating troops as they fled advancing coalition ground forces. Trapped on the highway, Iraqi vehicles were sitting ducks for the warplanes’ guided missiles and bombs. As many as 2,000 Iraqi vehicles may have been destroyed. Estimates of deaths vary, since many Iraqi soldiers fled into the surrounding desert as the bombs fell.

3 Responses to The War List: Sound the Retreat!

  1. […] The War List: Sound the Retreat! (historynet.com) […]

  2. James N. Gibson says:

    As noted, retreats have occurred since the dawn of written history. One retreat not mentioned in your list was the British retreat from Northern France, leading to Dunkirk. Another example of a successful delaying action that allowed the majority of the Army to escape to fight another day. Still another being the retreat from the Cho Sin reservoir by UN forces back south to the 38th parallel in Korea. Or even the retreat, against Hitler’s orders, by Rommel from El Alamein in Egypt.

  3. Izzy Zee says:

    How about the Serbian retreat in 1915? An army that had fought two Balkan wars only a few years earlier fended off two Austrian attacks in WWI, then were forced to retreat across Albanian \Mountains of the damned\ (prokletije) to reach the Adriatic shore and eventually the island of Corfu. That same army would spearhead the liberation of Thessaloniki and liberate their own land only months later. How does that not make the list?

    Robert Kaplan in BALKAN GHOSTS:

    \ …While the Austian army advanced through Serbia in the north, Bulgarian troops rolled up Macedonia in the east. Rather than surrendering, the Serbian army staged a winter withdrawal, accompanied by a large civilian population, into the snowy wastes of the Albanian mountains…It was one of history’s most harrowing winter retreats, ranking with those of Napolean’s soldiers from Russia the century before and of Xenophon’s Greek troops from Mesopotamia in 401 BC into Anatolia….\

    Rebecca West in BLACK LAMB & GREY FALCON:

    In September (1915) the third Austrian invasion attempt began. By October the Serbian army , which now numbered a quarter of a million men, was faced with three hundred thousand Austro-German troops, under the great strategist Mackensen, and as many Bulgarians. It was now necessary for the country to die..\

    …The soldiers retreated slowly, fighting in rearguard action, leaving behind the civil population, that is to say their parents, wives, and children, in the night of an oppression that they knew to be frightful. Monks came out of the monastaries and followed the soldiers, carrying on bullock carts, and on their shoulders where the roads were too bad, the coffined bodies of the medieval Serbian kings, the sacred Nemanjas, which must not be defiled. So was carried King Peter, whose rheumatic limbs were wholly paralyzed by the cold of autumn; and so too, before the retreat was long on it’s way, was prince Alexander…Doctors took him into a cottage and he was operated on for appendicitis. Then he was packed in bandages wound close as a shroud, like some fantastic detail in a Byzantine fresco, improbable, nearly impossible, yet a valid symbol of truth, that a country which was about to die should bear with it on it’s journey to death, it’s kings, living and dead, all prostrate, immobile…\

    The retreating army made it’s last stand on the field of Kosovo, where a short time before, in a different dream of the creator, it had known victory: where Czar Lazar had proved that defeat can last five hundred years. Above them circled enemy airplanes, evil’s newest instrument. After a last rearguard action to shake off the Bulgarians, they turned to the wall of Montenegrin and Albanian mountains that rises between Kosovo and the Adriatic Sea…The army obeyed the order that they must take this desperate step in the hope that some might survive and be reorganized on the Adriatic shore with the help of the British and French…

    \…The motor drivers drove their cars and lorries up to a corner where the road became a horse trail on the edge of a precipice, jumped out, and sent them spinning into space. Then all set out on foot to cross the five thousand foot peaks that lay between them and the sea. Some took other routes, but on any of the roads their fate was the same. They trudged in mud and snow over the mountain passes, the December wind piercing their ragged uniforms. Many fell dead, some died of hunger. They were passing through one of the poorest parts of Europe, and the inhabitants had little to sell them, and in any case were instructed to withhold what they had by the King of Montenegro, who, though he was Serbia’s ally and King Peter’s father-in-law, had come to a treacherous understanding with Austria. The Serbians ate the raw flesh of animals which fell dead by the tracks, they ate their boots. Some died of dysentery. Some were shot by Albanian snipers. Of a quarter of a million Serbian soldiers, one hundred thousand met such deaths. Of thirty six thousand boys nearing military age who had joined the retreat to escape the Austrians, over twenty thousand perished on this road. Of fifty thousand Austrian and German prisoners, who had to follow the Serbians because their own military authorities had refused to exchange them, the greater part never came down from the mountains.\

    \When the survivors reached the coast they found that the Allies again had failed them. The port they arrived at was blocked with shipping sunk by Austrian submarines and it was impossible either to bring them food or to ship them away. They had to trudge southwards, still hungry. ..At last the French and British settled that the Serbians should be sent to the Greek island of Corfu…Still hungry, they were put on boats to be taken out to the transports…\

    \On Corfu the Serbian army fell down and slept. Some never awoke. For quite a long time there was still not enough food, and there was a shortage of fuel. Every night for weeks boats put out to sea weighed down with those who had been too famished and diseased to recover. The others stirred as soon as the spring warmed them, stretched, and looked up into the sunshine, and were again golden and young and victorious, golden and ancient and crafty , as they had been in the Balkan wars.…In summer they embarked for Salonika (Thessaloniki). A year after they had been driven out of Serbia they were back on Serbia soil, fighting the Bulgars. In November 1916 they put forth their strength and took Kaimakshalan, the Butter-churn, the mountain that dominates the southern plains of Macedonia and the road too the north, and had been thought impregnable…\

    \…In the summer of 1917 the Serbian government and a committee of South Slavs issued a manifesto proclaiming a “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, a democratic and Parliamentary monarchy under the Karadjordjević dynasty, giving equality of treatment to 3 religions, Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim. They announced, in fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was destroyed and that out of its ruins they were making a kingdom of South Slavs, such as had inherited the glory of Byzantium eight hundred years before. The poem was now written. In the autumn of 1918 the Serbian armies , as the spearhead of the Allied forces, drove into the enemy forces and scattered the Bulgars back to Bulgaria, the Austrians and the Germans back to a land which was no land, which had lost all institutions, even all of its characteristics, save that discontent which springsof conceiving poems too formless and violent ever to be written. The more poetic nation was in Belgrade thirteen days before the Armistice.\

    Next year will be the 100 year anniversary…Let’s give them their due and some recognition!

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