The 12 Most Heroic Last Stands in Military History

Whether alone or in a group, some men were destined to die gloriously and be forever remembered in history.  In the face of guaranteed annihilation, these men made their stands, ready to give their all against insurmountable odds.  Here are the most heroic last stands in military history.

12. Battle of Thermopylae 480 BCE

Heroic Last Stands

How glorious fall the valiant, sword in hand, in front of battle for their native land! – Tyrtaeus

Immortalized in legends and re-popularized in modern day with the release of the film ‘300’, the battle of Thermopylae involved a small force of Greek soldiers, lead by Leonidas, fare against a much larger Persian Army.  For three days, the Greek successfully defended the critical passageway against the onslaught of Persia advance. Though their sacrifice turned out to be in vain, the battle itself became a symbol of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

Contrary to popular beliefs, Leo and his company of 300 did not stood alone in the battle but had their ranks bolstered by soldiers from other city-states. The combined army stood at around 7000 men.

11. Defense of Rorke’s Drift 1879 CE

Heroic Last Stands

During the Anglo-Zulu, a small force of British colonial troops defended the mission station against the advancing army of 4000 Zulu warriors.  The battle involved fierce hand-to-hand fighting as the defense perimeter shrank with each wave of attacks by the Zulus until by 2 am in the morning, it finally stopped.

The Zulus had come very close to defeating tiny garrison, who were nearly exhausted their ammunition reserve and were extremely tried from hours of fighting. The next day, the Zulu army completely disappeared; all that remained were their bodies of their fallencomrades.

Miraculously, only 17 0f the original 140 men died in the battle vs. the near 350 deaths suffered by the Zulus.  Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders – the most awarded for a single action by a regiment.

10. Battle of La Concepción 1882 CE

Heroic Last Stands

77 soldiers of the Chilean army defended and laid down their lives for their country at La Concepción instead of surrendering to the 1300 strong Peruvian force.   The battle lasted for nearly 27 hours until the Chileans were forced out of their entrenched positions into the town’s church.

Here, under its roof burning with crimson, the surviving band stood over their dead commander, repulsing the Peruvian guerrillas with their rifles and bayonets. Eventually reduced to just four, they fired a final rifle barrage and then led a bayonet charge in the thick of enemy gunfire.

Once the smoke cleared, all Chileans were dead but so were 250 or so of their adversaries.

9. Battle of Wizna 1939 CE

Heroic Last Stands

During the early stages of the German invasion of Poland, a massive army of 40,000 Wehrmacht troops supported by heavy armor converged on the Polish fortified position at Winza.  Despite being outnumbered 60 to 1, the Poles managed to stall the advance for three days straight before their lines were finally broken.

Eventually, Capt. Władysław Raginis, upon realizing the dire state of his few remaining men, ordered surrender. Having made a promise to not leave his post alive, Raginis himself committed suicide with a grenade.

8. The Shangani Patrol 1893 CE

Heroic Last Stands

During the Anglo-Matabele war, a small British patrol of 34 men was suddenly ambushed by 3000 Matabele warriors. Encircled and heavily outnumbered, the men under Major Allan Wilson refused, in the face of these massive odds, to surrender and kept fighting.

Using their dead horses as cover, they held off the Matabele until they completely ran out of rounds to fire. At this point, the remaining men got up, shook each other’s hand and sang “God Save The Queen” before being finished off by the Matabele.

Impressed by their bravery, the Matabele made an exception to their usual practice of mutilating their fallen enemies, leaving the bodies of Wilson’s men untouched.

7. Battle of the Alamo 1836 CE

heroic last stands

Widely remembered to this day in Texas, the battle of Alamo pitted some 180 poorly armed Texans against a force of 1800 Mexican soldiers lead by the famous general Santa Anna.  Despite the odds, the Texans managed to repulse two attacks from their adversary but succumbed at the third attempt.  Mexicans stormed the building and, after a period of bitter fighting, killed every single one of the defenders, their last stand being at the garrison’s church.

Santa Anna hoped that the example at Alamo would quell the Texans’ resistance but rather it stiffened their resolve and made them more determined to win their freedom.

6. Battle of Camarón 1863 CE

Heroic Last Stands in Military History

These are not men! They are demons! – Francisco de Paula Milán

65 men of the French Foreign legion made their last stand against an army of 3000 Mexicans, having taken an oath with their captain to fight till death.  During the battle, this small company of brave men managed to inflict heavy casualties among the Mexicans for nearly ten hours.

Near the end, the five remaining survivors, having exhausting all their ammunitions, made a bayonet charge at their enemies.  Two died from enemy gunfire; the rest wrestled to the ground and asked to surrender.  They did so on the condition that they be allowed to keep their regimental colors, weapons and equipment along with a promise that their wounded lieutenant be taken care of.  The Mexicans bemused nonetheless complied, with their Commander, on looking at the trio, exclaiming, “These are not men! They are demons!”

5. Battle of Shiroyama 1877 CE

Heroic Last Stands, Battle of Shiroyama

In a battle worthy of legends, the remnants of samurai rebels made their last stand against the vastly superior Imperial Japanese army supported by artillery and warships. Outgunned and surrounded, the 300 or so samurai chose to preserve their honor rather than surrender.

Running out of ammunition, the samurai, lead by Saigō Takamori , switched to their katana and, under heavy fire, charged at their enemies.  In the close quarter combat that followed, their superior swordsmanship prevailed for some time until they were driven back by the sheer weight of the Japanese army.

Mortally wounded, Saigō was honorably beheaded by his lieutenant, preserving his status as a true samurai. Once this was done, the few that were left drew their swords and plunged into the enemy’s positions and ultimately, to their death. The age of Samurai had ended.

4. Stand of the Swiss Guards 1527 CE

Heroic Last Stands

Taking place during the sack of Rome by troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, it saw 189 Swiss Guard valiantly hold off the vast Habsburg army to allow Pope Clement to escape unharmed.

During the battle, the Swiss fought bitterly but were eventually overwhelmed. The surviving forty made their last stand against the advancing Habsburg troops, buying enough time to allow the Pope and his entourage to make their way across to the safety.

3. Defense of Pavlov’s House 1942 CE

Heroic Last Stands

While the decisive battle of Stalingrad saw many feats of heroics (and savagery), the siege of Pavlov’s house was by far amongst the most notable. During the battle, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov and his platoon were given the orders to defend the strategically important building at costs. Taking the orders to their hearts, Yokov and his 25 men fortified the building and prepared for the worst; ready to die for their motherland.

Despite the heavy Wehrmacht offensive, which involved tanks, artillery and aerial bombardment, Yukov and his men successfully kept the Germans in check for 60 days before a soviet force finally relieved the siege. By contrast, the Battle of France,  had lasted for only 45 days.

2. Battle of Saragarhi 1897 CE

Heroic Last Stands

Considered as among the greatest last stands in history, 21 Sikhs of the British Indian Army faced off an army of 10,000 Afghan Orakzais.  Despite the numerical odds, the Sikhs were surprisingly successful in fending off the Afghans until they were finally able to breach the garrison’s walls. Thereafter, some of the most intense hand-to-hand fighting occurred until all but one Sikh remained. The last as he lay dying in the burning outpost, repeatedly yelled the Sikh battle cry, “Shout Aloud in Ecstasy! True is the Great Timeless One”.

When the British relief party arrived, bodies of some 600 Afghans were found around the site.

1. Ben L. Salomon vs. the Japanese army 1944 CE

Legends and myths have many courageous figures single handedly holding off entire armies. The story of Ben L. Salomon, a front-line surgeon in the US Army, could be considered as such.  During the battle of Saipan , his aid station was overrun by a Japanese assault.  Rather than flee and leave the wounded, he grabbed a M1 rifle and ordered the wounded to be evacuated while he’ll cover their retreat.

Capt. Salomon knew his odds of survival but his selfless act of gallantry helped save dozens of lives. When U.S soldiers returned the next day to the site, they found Salomon’s body slumped over a machine gun, riddled with bullets and bayonet wounds. In front of his position lied the bodies of 98 dead Japanese soldiers.

Abdur Rafay Usmani

Abdur Rafay is one crazy son of a gun with a penchant for writing. Follow him on Twitter @KippieHippie

14 thoughts on “The 12 Most Heroic Last Stands in Military History

  • September 5, 2016 at 5:45 pm
    Permalink

    Have you never heard of Bastogne?

    Reply
  • September 6, 2016 at 3:27 am
    Permalink

    Having visited Rorke’s Drift – the Welsh company defending the mission station were incredibly lucky. The Zulus had acquired 1500 rifles the previous day, and plenty of ammo; when they had overwhelmed the rest of the regiment, and others, at Isandalwhana. Lord Chelmsford, the British commander having committed the cardinal error of dividing his inferior force in the face of superior numbers, whose position was not known.
    Rorke’s Drift is overlooked by hills, had the Zulus had a chance to master their new weapons, they could have simply shot the garrison to bits from the hills.
    So many VC.s were awarded to cover the disaster of the day before. Lord Chelmsford being a personal favourite of Queen Victoria

    Reply
  • September 19, 2016 at 2:03 pm
    Permalink

    Just wondering how the rank-order for these 12 actions was determined?

    Reply
    • September 21, 2016 at 12:26 am
      Permalink

      Well Mark, the main criterion I placed was how uneven the matchup was, after taking into account logistics, terrain,numbers and technology. Another factor I did consider was how slim the chances of survival was in case of a last stand, which for most on the list, happened to be zero.

      Reply
  • September 20, 2016 at 7:41 am
    Permalink

    I enjoyed reading this list very much. The risk in making such a list, however, is there are many, many battles that others would believe ought to be included, but were not. Clearly, Abdur Usmani was thinking principally about land battles. I agree with the gentleman above whom mentioned Bastogne, but Wake Island and the Free French stand at Bir Hakeim come to mind.

    If I had to chose a heroic stand in air warfare, it would have to be Butch O’Hare and his wingman against 9 Betty bombers to save his aircraft carrier the Lexington. O’Hare missed out on the mission that morning, being grounded by his Squadron commander for a flying mishap — self-discipline was not O’Hare’s strong suit. It was fortunate for the Lexington he was still on board because while the rest of the air wing was on a mission, 9xBetty’s found the carrier. O’Hare and his wingman took off and intercepted them in F4Fs — not the best fighter the Navy flew during WWII by a long shot. As it happened, O’Hare’s wingman’s guns jammed, leaving Butch to tangle with the 9 bombers alone. He downed five of them and drove off the rest, becoming an ace and earning a Medal of Honor to boot.

    For sea warfare it would have to be the Greek defeat of the Persian navy at Salamis, the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, or perhaps the stand of Taffy 3 (6x CVEs, 3x Destroyers, 4x Destroyer Escorts) against Kurita’s task force (4x Battleships, 6x Heavy Cruisers, 3x Light Cruisers and 11x Destroyers) during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

    Thanks again for great read!

    Reply
    • September 21, 2016 at 12:33 am
      Permalink

      Thanks Donald for such a nice reply. Indeed there are many notable last stands I didn’t include but I did so deliberately, as otherwise the list would have become too long and a chore to read for most viewers. Some compromises had to be made.

      Reply
    • September 26, 2016 at 11:11 am
      Permalink

      For air battles, how about the RAF in the Battle of Britain?

      Reply
  • September 24, 2016 at 5:20 am
    Permalink

    Fall of Constantinople, 1453? How many of the above have been filmed?

    Reply
  • September 27, 2016 at 2:53 pm
    Permalink

    Interesting article. For some reason I thought that the defenders at Rorke’s Drift killed more Zulus than they did. I suppose the movie does make it look more bloody than it was. As an American, I would have put the Battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer’s last stand in this list, too. Also, the picture of Captain Salomon shows a British Maxim machine gun. He would have used a 1917 Browning air cooled machine gun in 30-06 American.

    Reply
    • November 2, 2016 at 12:32 pm
      Permalink

      I thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart (a bit cheesy?) for taking out the time to read from our website

      Reply
  • February 19, 2017 at 12:04 am
    Permalink

    Excellent read. I may have added the Siege of the Dublin Post Office during the Irish Rebellion of 1926 or The Beechers Island fight between US Cavalry and Plains Indians. Also a fight in Oman where SAS troops held off a superior force….the name escapes me. I enjoyed the article.

    Reply
    • February 19, 2017 at 2:38 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks Don. Glad you enjoyed the article. Are you referring to the battle of Mirbat?

      Reply
      • February 19, 2017 at 3:14 pm
        Permalink

        Yes Sir that would be the engagement.

        Reply

Leave a Reply