Xenophon Roundtable: More Rhythmic Echos

The Anabasis of Cyrus could also be titled “The Long Retreat” because it best describes the result of a failed campaign. The army made up of mercenaries had been strategically defeated when Cyrus followed by their generals, were killed by the Persians. Their story evolved from being a trapped army, to one that mounted a successful fighting retreat north to the Black Sea, where finding themselves among Greek colonies they began to fracture and lose the cohesiveness that had been their hallmark up to that point. Xenophon’s speech at the confluence of the Tigris and Zapatas Rivers had been the catalyst that launched and sustained their march. Later, as they began to bicker, it was again Xenophon who would call on his Socratic reasoning to cement the fractures and sooth the wounded pride in a final effort to gain their homeland.

The theme of this story continues to reappear down through history when circumstance has found a sizable military force faced with the decision to surrender, or make a fighting retreat, against man and nature.

Earlier, the names of Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton were advanced to show how the rhythm of Xenophon’s Anabasis had resonated with these generals as they prepared, and led their armies in successful campaigns. There are other generals in history whose leadership and tasks more closely mirrored the march of the Ten Thousand. Men like Moore, Slim, Stillwell and Alessandri, are less known because their achievements have faded in the passage of time and still carry the faint stench of defeat.

Few people, other than students of the Napoleonic Wars remember Major General Sir John Moore who in 1808 led a British Army of 23,000 into the heart of Spain in an attempt to stop Napoleon from installing his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain. The British force was attempting to join up with the Spanish and confront Napoleon and his army of 130,000 in Madrid. Moore soon learned as he approached Madrid, that the Spanish armies had been defeated and Napoleon was bearing down on him. Outnumbered two to one, Moore chose to retreat back to port of Corunna, where British ships would be standing by to evacuate his army. Napoleon, like the Persian army before, believed that the weather and the mountains would destroy the British, so he dispatched a smaller force of 25,000 to overtake the faltering British.

The march of several hundred miles took place in the dead of winter and wound through the mountains of northwest Spain. The retreat was punctuated with brilliant rearguard actions and total breakdowns in discipline. Over 4,000 men had been lost by the time the dispirited army reached Corunna. Finding the promised ships absent, Moore was forced to fight the Battle of Corunna which ended when the French were driven back, allowing the British to evacuate by ship. The battle was won at the cost of Moore’s life. He was buried in the ramparts and later, the commander of the French army would build a monument over his grave to honor his courage.

134 years and a continent away, two columns, one a large British force and the other, a tiny group of Anglo-Americans, would make a fighting retreat through hundreds of miles of jungle, constantly harassed by the pursuing Japanese and decimated by disease. Outgunned and outnumbered, the British force under General William Slim made history by making an epic withdrawal under the harshest of conditions fighting as the rearguard in the longest retreat in the history of the British Army.

Japanese forces invaded British Burma in late 1941, with two reinforced divisions. The British force consisted of two under-strength divisions of mostly Indian and Burmese and the famed Desert Rats of the 7th Armored Brigade. A small American force led by General Joseph Stillwell had been sent south from China to lead Chinese forces deployed to assist the British. By March, the Japanese had all but defeated the Allies and a mad scramble ensued to escape to Indian and China.

Duncan Anderson wrote this about Slim, in Churchill’s Generals.

Alexander’s responsibility as army commander now lay in maintaining the efficient functioning of the rear areas for as long as possible, supervising an orderly withdrawal, and ensuring the successful demolition of access routes. It was Slim’s task to keep the frontline forces intact and conduct rearguard operations. The conduct of these two aspects of the retreat is instructive. The rear areas rapidly fell apart, the administrative troops degenerating into bands of pillaging brigands. Confusion reigned supreme. Major Michael Calvert waited for days for Alexander’s order to demolish a vital railway bridge – an order which never came. Conversely, Major Tony Mains, acting under Alexander’s explicit orders, destroyed a stockpile of fuel outside Mandalay which was almost essential for the successful withdrawal of Slim’s 7th Armored Brigade. Years later Slim had still not forgiven the unfortunate Mains.

The retreat of the frontline forces, however, proceeded with almost clockwork precision. A brilliant rearguard action at Kyaukse delayed the Japanese, and at Monywa and Shwegyin, Slim extricated his forces from near disaster with considerable skill. Once contact was broken with the Japanese at Shwegyin, the retreat became as much a race against the monsoon as against the advancing Japanese. Slim marched back with his exhausted and now disease-ridden columns up the Kebaw Valley to the relative safety of Tamu on the India – Burma border. Thin and ragged as they were, they still carried their weapons like soldiers.

Slim like Xenophon, commanded the rearguard and held back the enemy, while assisting the stragglers to safety.

American General Joseph Stillwell carried off an even more unbelievable feat. As Slim was fighting his way across a more southerly route, Stillwell led a small group consisting of American, British and Chinese soldiers as well as 19 Burmese nurses and a few civilians in a daring retreat across mountains and jungles to the safety of India. Remarkably, Stillwell brought everyone of his party of 117, out alive. Stillwell, like Xenophon, carried his personal weapon, in this case a Springfield rifle, and marched alongside his small party making sure each person made it out alive.

There is one final example, less known even among military history buffs. In the spring of 1945 the Japanese had grown suspicious of the Vichy French, with whom they had shared power in the governance of Indo-China since November 1941. On March 9, 1945 the Japanese took control in a bloody coup that forced the surrender of all French forces. Several thousand military and civilian French citizens were killed in cold blood, including the two senior Vichy officials who were publicly beheaded in Saigon. Most of the French garrisons were quickly overrun, but one French officer, Brigadier General Marcel Allassandri of the Foreign Legion got wind of the coup and led his command, consisting of three battalions of the Fifth Foreign Legion Regiment and a few Annamite battalions, for a total of 5,700, in a desperate attempt to reach the Chinese border.

A few days on the trail, short of food and ammunition, Allassandri ordered the local Vietnamese troops to disband and return to their villages, while the 5th Regiment would continue on in an attempt to reach China and safety. What resulted was an epic march, fighting against a Japanese force of 10,000 and covering over 700 miles of mountains and jungles.

On May 2, 1945, the last of the rearguard crossed the Chinese frontier after 98 days of fighting and struggling without a rest. Only about 1,000 men stood for roll call when they assembled in China. Column Allassandri as it was called was met with disregard by the Allies since there was little sympathy for soldiers who had a few months earlier been on the side of the Japanese. As a result, this epic march is almost forgotten. An account can be found in Patrick Trumbell’s Foreign Legion: A History of the French Foreign Legion, Here is a short excerpt.

Ten days later, Captain Gaucher’s 1st Battalion was called upon to resist a major Japanese attack at Ban-Na-Ngha. From then on, each day, repeated attacks on the exhausted rearguard. A company of the 1st Battalion marched forty-three miles in sixteen hours, their march ending in a furious struggle to clear the Meos Pass, a struggle, often hand-to-hand, which lasted all that night and the following day. On 1 April, another successful rearguard action was fought by the 6th Company, 2nd Battalion, under Captain Komaroff, who was killed just as he received orders to fall back. It was during this action that Captain de Cockborne, armed only with a light riding-switch, led a counter-attack, riding at the head of his men on a grey charger.

These small vignettes are included in this discussion of The Anabasis and the march of the Ten Thousand because they serve to illustrate that faced with death, men will follow inspired leaders and presevere against terrible conditions to reach safety and a chance to fight again. Most of those soldiers, who survived these ordeals went on to fight again. The Spartans soon came to dominate Athens and the other city-states. Many of the British, like the famed 42nd Regiment of Foot, The Blackwatch went on to help defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. Generals Slim and Stillwell both returned to the battlefield and led successful campaigns against the Japanese. After the war, General Marcel Allassandri became the head of the French forces in Indo-China as they battled the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh.

There have been thousands of retreats since the Ten Thousand made their way out of Asia. These few examples stand out for the hardships endured, and similarity in leadership skills that mirrored many of the same tactics Xenophon demonstrated so long ago.

The lessons taught in The Anabasis of Cyrus are still relevant. Organization, battle tactics, adjusting to the unexpected, and leadership by example, still rule the day. History may never record great fighting retreats as these again. The last great fighting retreat was preformed by the U.S. Marines as them battled out of the Chosen Reservoir in Korea in 1950. Even in that battle, air support played a major role. Air superiority now holds the key, as shown by the destroyed men and arms at the Falaise Gap in 1944 and on the Road of Death out of Kuwait in 1991. Given the level of technology today, the likelihood that anyone will ever again read of great fighting retreats against a superior foe is almost zero.

The examples of leadership and oratory contained within this ancient tome carries a lasting legacy that continued to rhyme for 2,500 years, when men would rise to the challenge and use their skill of reason and nobility to lead other men to safety.

7 thoughts on “Xenophon Roundtable: More Rhythmic Echos”

  1. HG, thanks for this. Yes, epic retreats are a category unto themselves.

    Slim’s Retreat Into Victory is an excellent book. The story of Stillwell’s march out of Burma is well told in Eric Larrabee’s book Commander in Chief: Franklin Roosevelt, his Lieutenants and Their War — there is a chapter on Stillwell.

    Sir John Moore I have heard of, but have not read a good book on him or on the Peninsular War — a gap I should make good on.

    I had never heard of Allassandri’s epic before. A good story.

    Mitch, thanks. The Czech Legion’s journey has been called the Czech Anabasis — and a remarkable tale it is. It would make a great movie.

  2. In the category of unsuccessful retreats destroyed by air power should also be included the German retreat from Marseilles in 1944. I knew an American army engineer who had been one of the first Americans to view the miles of burned-out tanks, trucks and other vehicles, and still-unburied burned bodies left from the air attacks. When I saw the Road of Death coverage during the Gulf War I thought immediately of his stories.

  3. HG, excellent post. I’d never heard of Allassandri either.

    Another example would be Mao’s Long March: it may actually be the most consequential Anabasis of the 20th Century.

    The withdrawal of the Czech Legion could have been more consequential: with the right correlation of forces, Bolshevism could have been strangled in the cradle and the Czechs would have been an important part. John Boyd argued that grand strategy was the only positive and creative level of war (as opposed to negative and destructive). No period demonstrates the swirling vortex of grand strategic creative possibility than the end of WWI and WW2.

  4. Thanks all for the nice feedback and futher examples.

    As for Allassandri’s retreat, I chanced accross it when researching a paper on World War II in grad school. The story, intrigued me because so little was ever known about it outside the Legion archives.

  5. The litany of fighting retreats can hardly omit the breakout of the 1st Marine Division from the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in Nov.-Dec. 1950.

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