On Tactical Retreats
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
Another of my father's childhood stories is of when he initiated the expedition of a small group of fellow cub scouts, he being the "sixer" (leader) of the group, to gather blackberries in the mountains. They took with them a suitcase, having in mind to collect enough berries to fill it and bring it to my grandmother who would make blackberry tars and jam: a sensible plan that could only, it must have seemed, result in a greatly anticipated pleasure. But it is in the nature of children's "sensible plans" that they on occasion go horribly wrong. The suitcase was filled, and they took a train back, placing it on a rack above the seat in front of them. Being children, they then entirely forgot about it until one of them saw that it was steadily leaking a dark purple liquid onto the coat of a sleeping passenger seated below. My father, like Napoleon at Moscow, weighed up the situation and, concluded that the best course of action was an immediate tactical retreat. The little band of brothers abandoned their acquired treasure and got off the train at the next stop.
For a general leading a campaign, retreat is a humiliation that can lead to the end of a glorious career. But it is often the only way, not only to save face but to turn a disastrous situation around. The withdrawal from Gallipoli in December 1915 can be regarded as the only well-planned and executed action taken in that debacle. There are many examples of retreat enabling the subsequent recovery of an army. Dunkirk is the classic example of a retreat that would lead to regrouping and enable the army to fight another day, and it is rightly regarded in Britain as a moment of national pride.
Retreat used not merely to save face or revert a disastrous situation, but to trick the enemy into a trap, was a common tactic used by Franks and Muslims alike and in many encounters. Feigned retreat was used, for example, by Baldwin II in 1125, in an effort to tempt the Ascalonites into leaving the safety of their well-defended city in expectation of an easy victory over what they presumed to be an easy quarry. The king sent some light cavalry to, as William of Tyre puts it "...rove here and there over the country in order to irritate the people of Ascalon and draw them out in pursuit."* The Ascalonites fell into the trap and emerged from the city, upon which, as planned, the knights fled as if in a panic but in actuality led the Muslims into an ambush.
In an even more famous example in May 1104 at the Battle of Harran between the Seljuk Turks and the two northern crusader states; the Principality of Antioch and the County of Edessa; a feigned retreat led to disaster for the Franks and put a check on the earlier successes of the First Crusade. Baldwin II, count of Edessa laid siege to the city of Harran south-east of Edessa (today Sanliurfa in south-eastern Turkey north of the Syrian border). He was joined by Bohemond I of Antioch and Tancred, Prince of Galilee. The Seljuks responded by attacking Edessa and when the crusaders approached they affected a retreat. The deception worked with the crusaders pursuing them for two or three days south towards Harran. Then, near the city of Raqqa the Seljuks turned to fight, routed the army led by Baldwin and took the count and Joscelin de Courtenay into captivity. Bohemond and his army managed to escape to Edessa.
This use of deceptive retreat by the Seljuks resulted in the first decisive defeat for the crusaders, and greatly weakened both the Principality of Antioch and the County of Edessa, a blow from which the latter never really recovered and probably one that precipitated its early demise in 1144. It is not surprising that William of Tyre regarded it as the most disastrous defeat the Franks suffered. He summed it up as follows:
“Never during the rule of the Latins in the East, whether before or after this event, do we read of a battle so disastrous as this one, which resulted in so terrible a massacre of brave men and so disgraceful a flight of the people of our race.”**
Of course, William was writing a few years prior to a far greater Frankish defeat at the Battle of Hattin.
* William of Tyre, Chronicon 13.17; English trans. E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, New York, 1943, p. 26.
* Ibid., 10.30, p. 458.