15

What is the longest sustained retreat by a military force in history, by total length? Not counting naval examples, as they can be much longer.

When I search for it I get a lot of results to the Battle of the Ch'ongch'on River, which is the longest retreat in US history, but at 120 mi (190 km) it is dwarfed by a more famous retreat, of the French from Moscow.

Still, that may not be the longest in all history. Which one is the longest?

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    How is "retreat" being defined for this question? For example, if I sail around the world and attack someone on the other side, I get defeated and sail all the way home, does the whole return journey count as a retreat? – Steve Bird Sep 16 '16 at 5:50
  • Good question; I don't know of a way to define a retreat. For whatever reason, people count the Korean War example but not naval examples during WWII that are surely longer. Wikipedia states that it requires "retreating forces back while maintaining contact with the enemy". I don't know if that's a proper or rigorous definition, so if someone can expand on that that would be great too. – congusbongus Sep 16 '16 at 5:58
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    What about Czech legions in Russia? They had to go around the globe to come back: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Czechoslovak_Legion. But it was not a retreat after losing a battle. They captured gold reserve and occupied Siberia for some time :-) – Leos Literak Sep 16 '16 at 11:25
  • I think easily the US South in front of the Northern Commanded William Tecumseh Sherman. He forced the various Armies of the South to fall back starting in Indiana all the way ultimately to Coastal North Carolina...a distance of well over 1500 miles in total. – Doctor Zhivago Sep 16 '16 at 12:54
  • There was some long retreat with the mongols, I just can't remember it. – Firebug Sep 17 '16 at 18:31
26

The longest retreat is the Long March

The retreat lasted over a year and went almost 10,000 km.

The Communists, under the eventual command of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, escaped in a circling retreat to the west and north, which reportedly traversed over 9,000 kilometers (5600 miles) over 370 days

Most people are familiar with the outline of this retreat - essentially, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had establish an un-recognized governance over parts of Jianxi and Fujian. The GMD attacked, and the CCP fled to join with communist forces in north China. They settled in Baoan

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    The other one I was thinking of was the German retreat from Egypt during World War 2. That was probably 1800 miles or so. – Doctor Zhivago Sep 16 '16 at 13:10
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    Check "MAO: The Untold Story" for some of the motivations behind that march. I haven't read it recently enough to state what it said here, but it was definitely not for the good of his troops or China; it helped solidify his own power. – Almo Sep 16 '16 at 15:00
  • Almo, Do you think the GMD was kind to those CCP soldiers who surrendered? In general, there is a lot more to this gigantic popular revolution than Mao and Chiang. These soldiers, on both sides, fought, died, and retreated for reasons much larger than their leaders. – axsvl77 Sep 16 '16 at 19:44
15

Napoleon in Russia is the longest clear retreat.

Its the longest regular army retreat, at least 490 miles.

The Anabasis is considerably longer, but it is not corroborated.

There are a few massive countries like Canada or Australia, but they haven't had major wars on their territory. The only other countries to even approach that kind of length are China and India, neither of which seem to have any notable retreats across their length - besides insurgencies like the Long March, as the other answer has already found.

List of Chinese wars and battles

List of Indian battles

You could also consider situations like the defeat of the Africa Korps to be a retreat, but it was more of a delaying action and doesn't clearly qualify. The reason why Napoleons' retreat was unique was, firstly, because his army was much larger and better supplied than medieval and ancient militaries, and secondly because Russia was late to industrialize and did not have the logistical ability to pursue him. This is an unusual combination that does not happen often.

  • history.com/this-day-in-history/rommel-in-africa – user21358 Sep 16 '16 at 6:16
  • Retreat followed retreat, and Rommel finally withdrew from North Africa entirely and returned to Europe in March of 1943, leaving the Afrika Korps in other hands. – user21358 Sep 16 '16 at 6:16
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    @axsvl77 The entire second part of the African campaign in WW2 is effectively one massive retreat and delaying action by the Afrika Korps from Egypt to Tunisia, marked by regular stands and pitched battles but mostly consisting of rearguard actions to delay the allied advance west combined with an attempt in the west to interrupt and hopefully block the allied buildup in Tunisia which threatened to cut off the Afrika Korps from what they still thought were friendly Vichy French forces in Tunisia and Morocco. – jwenting Sep 16 '16 at 6:17
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    @Makhnk: I disagree. A retreat is an orderly withdrawal while maintaining contact with the enemy. Unless you have an advantage in movement speed, you have to fight delaying actions to keep the enemy from pounding on your retreating forces. If you are "getting the hell out of there", that is called a rout, at which point you are no longer in command of a fighting force. – DevSolar Sep 16 '16 at 8:07
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    delaying action is a form of retreat, a rout is also a form of retreat (albeit an extreme one). Most will be somewhere in between. Think Dunkirk... – jwenting Sep 16 '16 at 8:22
14

The retreat of the Nez Perce under Chief Joseph in 1877 is a good candidate: a fighting retreat in good order, covering a distance that is variously described as anything from about 1,150 to 1,500 miles (1850 to 2400 km). (I have seen claims that this was taught to US Army and Marine officers, at least as recently as the Vietnam War era, as an exemplar of a well-conducted fighting retreat.)

  • They never had a chance. Winding up on the Rez doesn't sound like a victory but in a way there was a lot more of value in the West than the East. – Doctor Zhivago Sep 16 '16 at 20:42
11

There's also the march of the Czech (or Czechoslovak) Legion in 1918, after the October Revolution and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Legion was formed as a unit in the Russian Army composed of Czechs and Slovaks interested in freeing their compatriots from Austro-Hungarian rule. When the Bolsheviks started making peace with the Central Powers, the Czech Legion decided to rejoin the war on the Allied side, which basically meant getting to France. Since getting through the German-controlled Baltic looked dubious, they decided to exit Russia via Vladivostok, in the Siberian Far East. The march started as a retreat in the face of German and Austro-Hungarian forces invading the Ukraine (part of a move to pressure the Bolsheviks into agreeing to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), and effectively ended 6,000 miles (9,700 kilometers) later in Vladivostok, which makes it a little bit longer than the Long March.

All the same, I'm not sure how much of this qualifies as a retreat per se, since for much of the time they were more on the offensive than anything else (seizing control of multiple cities along the railway route, for example). It's probably more an example of a (very extended) march through hostile territory.

  • I think while they seemed at times to be on the offense, I think their objective while in Siberia was to get home, not to win the war they were enmeshed in. They were completely surrounded by enemies. This seems like a retreat to me. – axsvl77 Sep 16 '16 at 14:34
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    "For much of the time they were more on the offensive than anything else." One is reminded of the remarks made by (Marine) General Oliver P. Smith on his southward movement from the Chosin Reservoir to Hungam in North Korea. "Gentlemen, we are not retreating. We are attacking in another direction." – Tom Au Sep 16 '16 at 15:51
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    I have added a question about how the Czech Legion got home. – axsvl77 Sep 17 '16 at 10:38
10

Consider Anabasis of Cyrus, described by Xenophon.

enter image description here

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    Can you please elaborate, what's the distance? I think only the section between Cunaxa and the Black Sea count. – congusbongus Sep 16 '16 at 7:31
  • Looks to be about 1000-1500 miles. – user21358 Sep 16 '16 at 8:18
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    congusbongus is correct. The first part of the march (Sardes to Cunaxa, the "anabasis" proper) was the march of Cyrus the Younger's army to confront and defeat his brother and claim the throne of Persia. Only the part after the Battle of Cunaxa would count as a "retreat": somewhere between 500 and 600 miles. – Peter Erwin Sep 16 '16 at 10:11
  • @Peter Erwin how much it is in kilometers? – Anixx Sep 16 '16 at 10:34
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    @Anixx Typing "500 miles in km" into Google's search box will give you the answer instantly, rather than having to wait half an hour for somebody to respond to a comment. This works for conversions between most common units. – David Richerby Sep 16 '16 at 14:57
5

If we are talking re regular troops then the British Commonwealth retreat to the Japanese on 1942 should be considered. I can't find an exact distance but History learning site gives this as 1000 miles.

This would have been equalled by the 1944-5 campaign that saw the Japanese retreat that distance although that retreat ended with the whole army destroyed and the British forces being able to go further which the Japaese weren't able to do in 1942,

Map from United States Army Center for Military History Map of retreat

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