The Most Remarkable ‘Last Stands’ In History

Battle of Camaron

The French Foreign Legion has a reputation for fierce combat and peerless bravery, and they proved that on April 30th, 1863, in the midst of the Second French Intervention in Mexico, an ongoing conflict involving European nations attempting to force Mexico to pay back debts owed to them. A small infantry patrol, led by Captain Jean Danjou was attacked and besieged by a force that eventually reached 3,000 infantry and cavalry. They numbered just 65 men.

Caught during a patrol by a numerically superior cavalry company, Captain Jean Danjou was forced to retreat his men to a nearby defensible hacienda. Realizing the desperation of the situation, Danjou forced his men to take an oath to fight to the death rather than surrender. He made them swear fealty on his wooden, prosthetic hand. The men fought for hours, winnowing their forces down as waves of Mexican infantry assaulted the house. Over the course of the battle, Danjou and most of his officers were killed. Out of food, water, and eventually ammunition, the last of Danjou’s men, numbering only five, mounted a bayonet charge. At the end of the fight, only nineteen men were left alive, seventeen of whom were severely wounded and later died.

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Defense of Polish Post Office

World War II History is filled to the brim with desperate last stands, as future entries on this list will show. However, this first one is special due to the fact that it was one of the first in the entirety of the war. On September 1st, 1939, the first day of World War 2 in Europe, Polish Postmen defended their Post Office Building in the border city of Danzig for 15 hours against assaults by SS Units stationed in the city, alongside Danzig police and Brown Shirts from the Nazi Party.

At four in the morning the Germans cut the phone and electricity lines to the building. They launched several assaults upon the beleaguered defenders, each of which was repulsed with heavy casualties, one of which ended with a Polish officer blowing himself up with a grenade to stop them. Later in the day artillery was brought up, but even with this support their attacks were repulsed. They set up a bomb beneath the building and blew a wall, but the stubborn Poles simply retreated to the basement and refused to surrender. After gasoline was poured into the breach and set alight, the remaining few surrendered. Those that did were executed as partisans, except for four who managed to escape from the building and weren’t captured.

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The Stand of the Swiss Guard

The Swiss Guard today are known for their colorful outfits and patrols through the Vatican, where they serve as the Pope’s personal bodyguard. However, in the Middle Ages, they served a far more practical purpose: warring on the Holy See’s behalf. When Rome was Sacked by the Holy Roman Emperor, as part of his ongoing dispute with Pope Clement for meddling in Italian politics, the Swiss Guard were the ones tasked with holding back the overwhelming forces facing them. What followed was their most celebrated moment: the Stand of the Swiss Guard.

Joined by remnants of the Roman garrison, the Swiss made their stand in the Teutonic Cemetery within the Vatican. The Guard’s commander, Captain Röist was wounded early in the fighting, and later sought refuge in his house, where he was killed by Spanish soldiers in front of his wife. The Swiss fought bitterly, but were immensely outnumbered and almost annihilated. Some survivors, accompanied by a band of refugees, fell back to the Basilica steps. Those who went toward the Basilica were massacred, and only about forty survived. This group of forty managed to stave off the Holy Roman Emperor’s troops pursuing the Pope’s entourage as it fled, buying time for His Holiness to escape unharmed.

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Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Of all the nations in World War II, none suffered anywhere near as much within their borders as the Poles did. It should not be surprising then, that yet another famous last stand on this list should come from the same region of the world. By 1943, the Final Solution had become such common knowledge on the streets of Warsaw that the Jews living within the city’s ghetto were under no illusions as to what their fate would be should they peacefully go along with the Germans when the weekly raids occurred. So instead, they armed themselves, and revolted.

In January of 1943, the Germans entered the ghetto. Knowing that this sweep would send thousands more to the concentration camps, the people revolted. The resulting fight would last until May, as the under equipped and desperate defenders fought house to house against overwhelming superiority, artillery and tank support. They were eventually wiped out after inflicting heavy losses on the Germans, but their heroic sacrifice inspired dozens of other uprisings within Poland, as well as breakouts from the concentration camps.

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Battle of Shiroyama

Japan has a rich history of heroic sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds. The Battle of Shiroyama is so famous in fact, that it inspired the (somewhat true) events made famous by the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai. By 1877, the old Samurai Shogunate was dying. Modernity had arrived to Japan, and the old way of the sword was being replaced with machine guns and field artillery. Not content to sit idly by and watch his way of life die, Saigō Takamori led what would become known as the Satsuma Rebellion, in a last ditch effort to prevent the end of the Samurai.

At the end of the war, Saigō was left with less than 500 loyal followers, having been beaten and outmaneuvered by modernized Armies loyal to the Emperor. They took a position atop the hill of Shiroyama as over 30,000 Imperial troops, armed with machine guns and repeating rifles surrounded them. Saigō defended his position with limited musket support and a few pieces of outdated artillery, melting down metal statues to produce bullets and tending to injuries with a carpenter’s saw. After a heavy artillery barrage lasting the night, the Imperial forces attacked. The Samurai counter-charged, engaging the conscripts in hand to hand combat with superior sword fighting skills. Saigō was mortally wounded, carried to a place by subordinates and committed seppuku. After his death, what few men remained drew their swords and plunched downhill toward the Imperial positions, and to their deaths.

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Battle of Samar

Not every ‘last stand’ on this list took place on firm ground. The Battle of Samar was a part of WWII in the Pacific theater. It was part of a larger action called the “Battle of Leyte Gulf,” one of the largest naval battles in history, which took place in the Philippine Sea off of Samar Island. The American 3rd fleet was lured after a Decoy fleet, leaving only an escort carrier group of the 7th fleet (Known as “Taffy 3”) to guard the coastline. A Japanese surface force of battleships and cruisers that they had no idea was there arrived, prompting one of the biggest naval mismatches in the entirety of the war.

Taffy 3’s three destroyers and four destroyer escorts had neither the firepower nor the armor to effectively engage the 23 ships of the Japanese force, but nevertheless desperately attacked to cover the retreat of their slow aircraft carriers. Aircraft from the carriers strafed, bombed, rocketed, depth-charged, and even fired a handgun from the cockpit of one fighter at the Japanese force, even resorting to what is known as “dry” runs: attacks utilizing no ammunition, once they had run out. Taffy 3 lost two escort carriers, two destroyers, a destroyer escort and several aircraft. In exchange for these heavy losses, they sank three Japanese cruisers and caused enough confusion for the Japanese to retreat, sparing the carriers and ground transports that were sitting helpless in the harbor.

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Battle of Rourke’s Drift

Here is another famous last stand that has a movie based off of it: The Battle of Rourke’s Drift, immortalized by the 1964 movie Zulu. By 1879, tensions between the British Colony of South Africa and the Zulu Kingdom, one of the last, greatest African nations not yet colonized by the Imperialist powers, erupted into the Anglo-Zulu War. The battle’s prelude came after Lt. General Lord Chelmsford led his men into the worst defeat ever of a modernized Western Army by a technologically inferior native force. Having wiped out Lord Chelmsford’s forces, the victorious Zulu’s moved to the former trading post of Rourke’s Drift.

There were less than 150 British and Colonial troops, squaring off against around 4,000 Zulu warriors. Surrounded, cut off from both communication and supply, and facing overwhelming enemy numbers, the men were forced to utilize wounded and sick men to man the barricades, as they set up a nasty line of fortifications to delay and funnel the enemy into killing zones. The buildings they held were fortified, with firing holes knocked through the external walls and doors barricaded with furniture. For half a day and the entire evening of January 22nd, 1879, the men held off against overwhelming forces, ultimately driving off the superior force after taking heavy casualties.

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Battle of Roncevaux Pass

Last Stands were not unique to the modern era. In fact, they have inspired art and poetry for countless centuries, from the last stand of the 300 to the Alamo. However, one story lives on thousands of years after the event, immortalized by the epic poem The Song of Roland. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass occurred in 778 between Frankish armies under Charlemagne and a force of Basque ambushers, at the top of Roncevaux Pass, a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees on the present day border of France and Spain.

In the evening of August 15, 778, Charlemagne’s rearguard was suddenly attacked by the Basques as they crossed the mountain pass. The Franks were caught off guard by the surprise attack, with their army in confusion and disarray as they tried to escape the ambush.The Basques managed to cut off and isolate the rearguard and the baggage train from the rest of the escaping army, and although the Basques were not as well equipped, they held the upper ground and the knowledge of the terrain that gave them a huge advantage in the skirmish. As Charlemagne tried to regroup and evacuate his army, the now-famed paladin Roland and his men held for a considerable amount of time, before the Basques finally massacred them completely. Though killed to the last man, the rearguard nonetheless succeeded in allowing Charlemagne and his army to continue to safety.

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Pavlov’s House

Stalingrad is rightly remembered as one of the largest battles in human history. It took the lives of countless men, and photos of its wrecked city streets serve as a testament to the intensity and desperation of the fighting that went on there for months. “Pavlov’s House,” named after Sergeant Yakov Pavlov whose platoon seized and then defended the building, was the site of one of the most courageous last stands of the battle.

The house was a four-story building in the center of Stalingrad, built in a strategically ideal position to overlook both the Volga river and the large square in the central part of town. As such it was essential for both sides to take as an ideal sniping nest/defensive position. Pavlov and about 25 of his men held the building against increasingly intense German attack for over 60 days, living, sleeping and fighting within the ruined building, because leaving the building meant certain death by sniper fire. Lacking beds, the soldiers tried to sleep on insulation wool torn off pipes. The Germans attacked the building several times a day. Each time German infantry or tanks tried to cross the square and to close in on the house, Pavlov’s men laid down a withering barrage of machine gun and anti-tank rifle fire from the basement, the windows and the roof. Eventually, the defenders – as well as civilians who were still living in the basement all that time – were relieved by Soviet forces after enduring a brutal siege that lasted from the 27th of September to the 25th of November, 1942.

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Retreat from Kabul

The Zulu War was not the first time the British Army had found itself stranded, alone with no hope of survival in the midst of a last stand. During the First Anglo-Afghan War, a similar event led to a decidedly less happy conclusion than that of Rourke’s Drift: the Retreat from Kabul, Afghanistan. An uprising in the aforementioned city led General Sir William Elphinstone to peacefully withdraw the garrison after making an agreement with the local leaders. On January 6th, 1842 a force of around 4,500 soldiers set out alongside a huge contingent of civilians for the British garrison of Jalalabad, more than 90 miles away.

Soon after leaving Kabul, it came under attack from Afghan tribesmen. Many of the column died of exposure, frostbite or starvation or were killed during the fighting. The Afghans launched numerous attacks against the column as it made slow progress through the winter snows. In total the British army lost 4,500 troops, along with about 12,000 civilians: the latter comprising both the families of Indian and British soldiers, plus workmen, servants and other camp-followers. The final stand was made just outside a village called Gandamakon on the 13th of January. Out of more than 16,000 people from the column commanded by Elphinstone, only one European and a few Indian sepoys reached Jalalabad.

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Fall of Constantinople

No city in the Middle Ages was more populous, rich or culturally vibrant than Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (modern day Istanbul, Turkey.) However, this last stand came at the very end of the Byzantine Empire’s thousand year existence. Trapped, cut off and assaulted on all sides by the invading Muslim Ottoman forces, the Empire was enduring its final death throes. Not even the forty-foot high Theodosian walls could save them from this final, 53 day siege.

The army defending Constantinople was relatively small, totaling about 7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreigners. They were led by Constantine XI, the last descendant of a long line of Greek Emperors. By contrast, the Turkish Sultan Mehmed II had 80,000 men, as well as an enormous artillery corps, which battered the thick walls into submission over the course of the siege. Once the walls were breached, the Turks swarmed into the city. Constantine, who had been leading the defense of his beloved city, remarked: “The city is fallen and I am still alive.” He then tore off his imperial ornaments so as to let nothing distinguish him from his fellow soldier,s and led a final charge where he was killed. His body was never found.

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Siege of Szigetvár

Few last stands were more heroic and less well-known than the Siege of Szigetvár. It occurred over a century after the Fall of Constantinople, and involves the Ottomans once more as the attackers. In this case, it was between Croatian soldiers loyal to the Austrian Emperor, and the massive Ottoman Empire led by Suleiman the Magnificent. Szigetvár as a strategically vital fortress that blocked the Ottoman’s advance towards the Austrian capital of Vienna. Recognizing this, the ailing Ottoman Emperor put the town to a siege in August of 1566.

Facing off against an Ottoman force that numbered in the hundreds of thousands was a tiny, 2,300 man force of Croats led by Nikola Šubić Zrinski. Over the course of the battle, over 20,000 Turks lost their lives trying to seize first the outer walls, then the inner walls, and finally the citadel over the course of a grueling, month long campaign. As the Turks were pressing forwards along a narrow bridge to the citadel, the defenders suddenly flung open the gate and fired a large mortar loaded with broken iron, killing 600 attackers. Nikola then ordered a charge and led his remaining 600 troops out of the castle. He received two musket wounds in his chest and was killed shortly afterwards by an arrow to the head. After cutting down the last of the defenders the besiegers poured into the fortress. The Ottoman Army entered the remains of Szigetvár and fell into the booby trap; thousands perished in the blast when the castle’s magazine exploded.

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Battle of Cerro Corá

South America has a rich history of warfare and martial prowess, one often forgotten in the wake of our Eurocentric view of the world. This battle, the Battle of Cerro Corá, was fought at the end of the Paraguayan War, when Argentine, Brazil, and Uruguay allied to destroy Paraguay. The war was the deadliest conflict in South American history, resulting in the death of almost 70% of Paraguay’s adult male population. This battle was the final conflict in that war.

On March 1st, 1870, an Allied column of troops had learned that the President of Paraguay, Francisco Solano López, was in the vicinity of the town of Cerro Corá. They ambushed him and his personal guard, killing the Vice President and Secretary of State of Paraguay as they tried to flee. President López was surrounded by six cavalrymen, and after refusing to surrender by firing his revolver, a soldier thrust his lance into López’s abdomen, mortally wounding him. He was able to escape with the aid of a friend, but was unable to climb the rocky hill to freedom. Left alone, he was found by the Brazilians, but refused to surrender again, and was shot in the back.

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Wake Island

The Final World War II last stand on this list occurred in the Pacific Theater. At the onset of the American entry into World War II, the Japanese Navy had two major objectives with the surprise attack: destroy the Fleet Carriers sitting in Pearl Harbor (they failed, the carriers were out to sea on patrol that day) and the capture of Wake Island, a tiny refueling port and airport in the Pacific, roughly between the American-held Island of Guam and Hawaii.

On the morning of December 11th, 1941, the Garrison repelled the first Japanese landing attempt. The US. Marines fired at the invasion fleet with their six 5-inch coast-defense guns. They sank several ships and managed to maintain (temporary) air superiority with their 4 Wildcat fighter aircraft. The second landing attempt was supported by carriers returning from the attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 23rd, the Japanese attacked with overwhelming numbers. In the end, the US lost 49 Marines, and at least 70 US civilians. A massacre occurred later that killed most of the remaining prisoners. By contrast, the Japanese had failed to take the relatively-weak garrison for weeks, losing over 125 Japanese Marines in ground combat, as well as over 100 sailors from the sunken ships, as well as 28 aircraft that were shot down.

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Battle of Myeongnyang

There were more Last Stands involving the Japanese than one might think. The Battle of Myeongnyang may have been separated from the Battle of Wake Island by nearly 350 years, but in many ways the principle was the same. The Imjin War was a conflict between the Japanese Shogunate and the Korean Kingdom of Joseon. It was an invasion of Korea that lasted for decades, and was characterized by overwhelming Japanese superiority in both armies and fleets. At the time of the battle, Japan fielded anywhere from 120 to 330 ships, whereas the Koreans faced this mismatched number with just 13.

However, the Koreans had something the Japanese did not: Admiral Yi Sun-sin. Despite having no formal training, Admiral Yi is widely known today as one of the greatest naval tacticians in history. The Battle of Myeongnyang was his masterpiece. Yi lured the Japanese into a narrow strait with an unusual current pattern: they flowed at a very strong 10 knots, first in one direction, then in the opposite direction, in three hour intervals. Timing the battle perfectly, Admiral Yi was able to coordinate the shifting of the current to benefit his ships: first by forcing the Japanese to with the current, bogging down the fleet and trapping it in the narrow strait as the ships lost cohesion and bounced into each other. Then, when the current shifted once more, it gave his own heavily-armored and well-coordinated ships the current at their back, allowing them to smash headlong into the scattered units. They ended up ramming over 30 Japanese ships, sinking them and winning a stunning victory.

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