A rout is a chaotic and disorderly retreat or withdrawal of troops from a battlefield, resulting in the victory of the opposing party, or following defeat, a collapse of discipline, or poor morale. A key feature of a true rout is that the routing forces abandon equipment, especially weapons.
A routed army often disintegrates into a state of "every man for himself" or sauve qui peut as the survivors flee for safety. A rout often results in much higher casualties for the retreating force than an orderly withdrawal. On many occasions, more soldiers are killed in the rout than in the actual battle. Normally, though not always, routs either end a battle or provide the moment the winner needs to win decisively a battle (or even campaign).
The opposite of a rout is a rally, in which a military unit that has been giving way and is on the verge of a rout, suddenly gathers itself and turns back to the offensive. More commonly, the over-matched force retires in good order without losing cohesion as a military unit.
The recommended reaction to an enemy's rout is to launch your reserves, especially reserve cavalry, in a pursuit. A pursuit, which is normally conducted without support on its flanks, is itself a dangerous operation, in the category of "all or nothing", since the pursuing force itself might be cut off and destroyed. Therefore experience and judgment are required to recognize a rout and make the decision to conduct a pursuit.
Historically, lightly equipped soldiers such as auxiliaries, light cavalry, partisans or militia were important when pursuing a fast-moving, defeated enemy force and could often keep up the pursuit into the following day, causing the routed army heavy casualties or total dissolution. The slower moving heavy forces could then either seize objectives or pursue at leisure. However, with the advent of armoured warfare and blitzkrieg style operations, an enemy army could be kept more or less in a routed or disorganized state for days or weeks on end. In modern times, a routed formation will often cause a complete breakdown in the entire front, enabling the organized foe to attain a quick and decisive victory in the campaign. In the blitzkrieg warfare that characterized World War II, the French Army was decisively defeated in the Battle of Sedan (1940) opening a 20 kilometres (12 mi) gap in Allied lines into which Heinz Guderian poured his mechanized forces. German tanks kept the rout going, and the Allies were unable to stabilize the situation before the Wehrmacht occupied Paris and forced the capitulation of the French government.
Feigned routs may be used as a military deception to entice an enemy into pursuing the "retreating" force, with the intent of causing the enemy to abandon a strong defensive position or leading the enemy into an ambush. This carries some risk because a feigned rout can quickly turn into a real one.
In the Battle of Cowpens, Daniel Morgan's planned retreat of the unreliable forward militia was interpreted by the British commander Banastre Tarleton as a rout, as intended. In over-aggressively pressing the attack, the British lost cohesion and were overwhelmingly defeated in the resulting double envelopment by the Americans.
This feigned rout tactic had several benefits. It was a ruse de guerre that played off British expectations that an undisciplined militia would rout on contact, creating British overconfidence. The militia screened the main American force from view. By asking for only two volleys before the retreat, Morgan set an achievable goal for shaky and poorly trained militia facing British regulars. And it allowed the militia to remain intact for later parts of the battle.
Leading up to the French decisive victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon ordered his forces to retreat so he could feign a grave weakness. Desperate to lure the Allies into battle, Napoleon gave every indication in the days preceding the engagement that the French army was in a fragile condition, even abandoning the dominant Pratzen Heights near Austerlitz.
Other uses of the term
A rout is a synonym for an overwhelming defeat as well as a verb meaning "to put to disorderly retreat" or "to defeat utterly" and is often used in sports to describe a blowout.
In law, a rout is a disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons, acting together in a manner that suggests an intention to riot, although they do not carry out the inferred act.
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