Battlefields are dynamic. In large-scale combat operations, opposing forces seek to gain control of terrain, to outmaneuver one another, and to employ combined arms to gain positional advantage. The objective, much more often than not, is to advance. When one side is successful, that means retreat, withdrawal, or evacuation is likely for the other. Studying those armies who suffer the ignominy of retreat, then, is crucial to understanding war and command.
The word retreat, however, is almost taboo in US Army literature. The new Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations only uses the word five times, four of which are describing the near-destruction of the North Korean People’s Army in September 1950. Subsequent events revealed, however, that while the North Korean People’s Army retreated north in the face of mounting United Nations forces, it was far from defeated. Indeed, just a few months later, United Nations forces would themselves be retreating. Instead of using the word retreat, FM 3-0 uses the term retrograde—and the manual only dedicates one paragraph to retrograde operations.
For the Marine Corps, the apparent reversion to discussing retreat is similar. Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 1, Warfighting, the US Marine Corps’ capstone doctrinal document, uses neither retreat nor retrograde. Instead, it talks about “rapid, flexible, and opportunistic maneuver.” Maneuver warfare, the Marine Corps’ warfighting doctrine, focuses combat power against enemy cohesion, seeking to create “panic and paralysis, an enemy who has lost the will to resist.”
But what happens when your force is the one close to losing the will to resist? How does a commander keep an army together? The United States military has a long history of retreating, from the early days of the American Revolution to the evacuation of Afghanistan in 2021. Some retreats bought time or space. Others allowed commanders to regroup or reposition for follow-on operations. Others reflected strategic defeat.
Armies in Retreat: Chaos, Cohesion, and Consequences seeks to balance the historical and practical narrative, giving readers a better understanding of why, how, and when armies retreat. The book’s eighteen chapters examine retreats from the Peloponnesian War to the major wars of the twentieth century—even extending to an exploration of retreat in the cyber domain. Ultimately, Armies in Retreat is about surviving defeat. It is designed to inform leaders about what to expect when the unexpected happens. While triumphal narratives reign supreme, there is need for balance and preparation for the next war. The United States wants to believe it will remain supreme in combat, but the reality is that we face a possibility of defeat and must prepare for it. Retreat, while unpalatable, can ultimately lead to military or national survival, even victory.
Not all armies who retreat are defeated. Some, like the British in the 1950s and 1960s, retreat because their nations can no longer afford to keep them in the field. Others retreat to fight another day, like the evacuation of United Nations forces in Korea. Some retreats even become central to national identities, such as China’s Long March.
Ignoring the concept of retreat by omission or sophistry in doctrine won’t make it go away. Russian forces entering Ukraine a year ago likely did not think a retreat was in their future but a year of combat operations have revealed otherwise. The first Soviet forces into Afghanistan likely did not think they would watch a retreat across the Hairatan Bridge a decade later, nor did most of the many American forces who fought in Afghanistan over nearly two decades envision the exit from the country that took place in August 2021.
So instead of ignoring the lessons of history, we should study them to be better equipped for the future. Armies in Retreat is our effort to facilitate that study. The edited volume was just released by Army University Press and is available online for free.
Armies in Retreat, Table of Contents
Chapter 1 — Introduction
Walker D. Mills and Timothy G. Heck
Chapter 2 — “Left Him Alone with His Glory”: Sir John Moore and the Miracle of Corunna
Andrew O. G. Yang
Chapter 3 — Clausewitzian Friction and the Retreat of 6 Indian Division to Kut-al-Amara, November–December 1915
Nikolas E. Gardner
Chapter 4 — Shattered: The XVth Brigade against Franco’s 1938 Aragon Offensive
Tyler D. Wentzell
Chapter 5 — Polish Horsemen in the Chaotic Withdrawal of 1939
Chapter 6 — Fly by Night: Plataean Evacuation and Night-Fighting in the Peloponnesian War
Jonathan H. Warner
Chapter 7 — Hülsen’s Retreat: The Campaign in Saxony, August–October 1760
Alexander S. Burns
Chapter 8 — Retreat to Victory: The Northern Army’s Campaigns, 1775–1777
Jonathan D. Bratten
Chapter 9 — Airmen into Infantry: The Provisional Air Corps Regiment at Bataan, January–April 1942
Frank A. Blazich Jr.
Chapter 10 — Operation Ziethen: The Evacuation of the Demyansk Salient, February 1943
Gregory P. Liedtke
Chapter 11 — The German 7th Infantry Division and Retreat from the Rzhev Salient, February–March 1943
Chapter 12 — A Fighting Retreat: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign
Charles P. Neimeyer
Chapter 13 — The Railroad Saved Our Necks: United Nations Command Retreat in Korea, Winter 1950–51
Eric Allan Sibul
Chapter 14 — Cornwallis in the 1781 Yorktown Campaign: When an Attack Becomes a Defense, a Siege, and a Surrender
Patrick H. Hannum
Chapter 15 — Disaster on the Scheldt, 1809: A British Defeat in Holland
Jason D. Lancaster
Chapter 16 — “We Did Retreat but Were Not Beat”: The Irish-American Experience at Bull Run as Told through Civil War Songs
Catherine V. Bateson
Chapter 17 — The Flight into History: The XI Corps at Chancellorsville
Anthony J. Cade
Chapter 18 — Evacuating Gallipoli: Military Advice and the Politics of Decision-Making, 1915–16
Chapter 19 — The Retreat of Cyber Forces after Offensive Operations
J. D. Work
Chapter 20 — Conclusion
Walker D. Mills
Timothy G. Heck and Walker D. Mills are the editors of Armies in Retreat: Chaos, Cohesion, and Consequences. Timothy is the deputy editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and a Marine Corps Reserve officer with the Marine Corps History Division and Joint History and Research Office. Walker is a Marine Corps infantry officer, a nonresident fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future War, and a nonresident fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Jose H. Rodriguez, US Army