Like what Finnish writer Erno Paasilinna said, “It is also a victory to know when to retreat,” and that’s what differentiates a great leader from a good one. Military commanders who knew that advancing is not always the best course of action are a gem. A correctly and adequately done one could allow the forces to reassemble, regroup, realign and come back more prepared. Here are some of the largest military retreats in history:

Dunkirk Evacuation

Perhaps one of the most famous ones if we’re going to talk about retreats. The evacuation of Dunkirk, also known as Operation Dynamo in 1940, is one of the largest evacuations in military history. Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940, as well as the Low Countries, so Britain sent its British Expeditionary Force to France to help stop the Nazis’ advance. Soon, they were pushed back to the beaches of Dunkirk along with the Belgian and French troops.

The British Army in the UK- Evacuation From Dunkirk, May-June 1940. (War Office official photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Allies were back up against the sea, and Germany had every chance to finish them off, but Hitler decided to order his panzer forces to halt. The Allies could have pursued them but chose not to and instead used the time to perform the largest sea evacuation in history. So the French held off the Germans outside Dunkirk while Britain assembled some 900 ships, fishing boats, private boats, ferries, and steamers to transport men back to Britain.

What Churchill thought would be a rescue of only 20,000 to 30,000 men ended up with 338,000 troops rescued in nine days. The successful evacuation became a great morale booster to the civilians, as well as the “Dunkirk spirit” that helped Britain fight better in the summer of 1940.

George Washington Escaped New York

During the American Revolutionary War in 1776, one of President George Washington’s notable moments was when he relocated his Continental Army to New York just a few months after the Declaration of Independence was signed. New York was a valuable port for them. Still, when the British began amassing tens of thousands of soldiers on Staten Island and after the Battle of Long Island that aimed to seize control of New York and isolate England from the rest of the colonies, the American forces were pushed back to the East River.

The Battle of Long Island by Domenick D’Andrea for the state of Delaware and Maryland, 1776. (Domenick D’Andrea, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On August 29, Washington started across the river going headed to Manhattan. He assembled flat bottomed boats available and started ferrying men over the East River while trying to be dead silent. To make sure that their retreat would not be exposed, they muffled their wagon wheels and oars with rags and then left the fire burning.

It seemed like mother nature was also on their side as dense fog also rolled in and hid the visages of their retreat. With all these, Washington successfully managed to move all of his 9,000 men across the river without losing anyone.

Evacuation of Gallipoli

During World War I, Australian, British, New Zealand, and French forces attempted to invade the Ottoman Empire at the Gallipoli Peninsular in Turkey. The attack, however, immediately halted and turned into trench warfare. The Ottoman Fifth Army’s numbers were also increasing to 315,000 soldiers compared to theirs, which was only 134,000. The onset of the winter did not also help the frail bodies of the exhausted soldiers, and most of them suffered from frostbite and hypothermia. If that was not enough yet, a huge storm flooded the trenches and resulted in the deaths of the soldiers who were exposed.