In war, retreats aren’t always about defeat. Sometimes, they’re a deliberate tactic to gain more defensible ground, consolidate forces, encircle an enemy, or lead them into an ambush. In other cases, a retreat can change the destiny of entire nations, or contribute to the survival and growth of a new religion.
The following are just some examples of such cases.
1. First Battle of Pelusium
In early 525 BC, Cambyses II of Persia laid siege to the (then) Egyptian cities of Gaza and Memphis. Pharaoh Amasis II died before the attacks, so his son and heir, Psamtick III, met the Persian force outside the city of Pelusium.
Cambyses, knowing the Egyptian reverence for cats, ordered his men to paint cat faces on their helmets and drove a horde of live cats before them. The Egyptian soldiers refused to harm the cats, so they panicked and retreated, ensuring a Persian victory.
As a result, Egypt became a province of the Achaemenid Empire.
2. Battle of Carrhae
In 53 BC, First Triumvirate Marcus Licinius Crassus led a Roman force into Persia, hoping to extract tribute for the Roman Republic. On May 6, his army of about 50,000 men camped before the town of Carrhae. Defending it was the Parthian General Spahbod Surena with about 10,000 men on horseback.
As the Romans advanced, the horsemen retreated in a panic. Crassus’ men followed, but the Parthians doubled back in two lines flanking the Roman advance and firing a volley of arrows. The Romans were defeated and Crassus was executed, with his death, the First Triumvirate ended.
3. Battle of Tours
In 711 AD, Ummayad forces landed on the Iberian Peninsula and spent the next 21 years expanding into the rest of Spain and France. By 732, they had made it to the River Loire, but had overextended themselves, so they slowed their advance.
In October, a Frankish force led by Charles Martel attacked the Ummayad army under Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi near the village of Moussais-la-Bataille. Martel won, forcing the Ummayads to retreat over the Pyrenees and ultimately out of Europe.
More battles would follow, but Martel’s victory is still hailed as the turning point which ensured the future of Christian Europe.
4. Battle of Hastings
William II of Normandy invaded England and fought the English King Harold Godwinson on 14 October 1066 near Hastings. Since the English had lodged themselves atop Caldbec Hill, the Norman forces below couldn’t break through.
To end the stalemate, the Normans feigned a retreat. Believing they had the advantage, the English poured down the hill in pursuit, but were mowed down by Norman cavalry and archers. Harold died, resulting in further chaos as the English were routed.
Norman rulers supplanted the local aristocracy, changed the language, and were the source of Britain’s obsession with the class system.
5. Battle on the Ice
As part of the Northern Crusades against pagans and Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Teutonic Knights attacked the Republic of Novgorod under Prince Alexander Nevsky on 5 April 1242. Novgorod was already weakened by fighting the Swedes, the Mongols, and the Knights, so Alexander ordered his men to retreat to Lake Peipus, which was still frozen.
The Crusaders were not adept at fighting on ice, while the Novgorodians were. The latter also understood the lake and where the ice was thickest, while the Crusaders did not.
Alexander’s victory ended further crusades against the north for another century.