No Retreat, No Surrender: 5 Incredible Last Stands

Military History Veteran

The idea of the noble last stand is rooted in history and folklore. It is always enthralling to read tales of how small groups of warriors stared a much larger force and death, in the face without flinching. One wonders what went through the minds of these brave individuals as in many cases; they knew that there was no hope of survival. Only a sense of pride, honor, and duty kept these men and women fighting, in many cases to the last person, as they prevented their enemies from having things easy. In this article, I will look at 5 remarkable last stands although not all of them involved combat and in some cases, the heroic warriors won the day.

Battle of Thermopylae. Realm of History

1 – Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)

In many ways, this was the original ‘last stand’ as it involved 7,000 men from various Greek-city states heroically facing at least 60,000 Persians and they held their own until treachery was their undoing. The battle marked the beginning of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece as their first attempt was foiled with defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The failed attempt was conducted with Darius as monarch, and when he died in 486 BC, his son, Xerxes, who was determined to avenge the earlier defeat, succeeded him.

After dealing with other matters, Xerxes was finally ready to invade in 480 BC. The initial Greek response when it learned of the invasion was to amass an army of 10,000 hoplites who were ordered to hold a position at the Valley of Tempe. However, these men withdrew once the vast size of the invading army became known.

Eventually, the Greek city-states, who did not trust one another, managed to cobble together an army of around 7,000 men. The group was a mixture of Spartans and their helots, Phokians, Thebans, Corinthians, and others. They were ordered to defend the all-important pass of Thermopylae as it was through there that the Persians had to travel to invade Greece.

The pass of Thermopylae had a 15-meter gap which soldiers could march through, and it was protected on the left by a sheer cliff and on the right by the sea. In other words, once the Persians arrived, they had no choice but to try and go through the assorted Greek troops who had no intention of surrendering. Xerxes waited four days to attack because he believed the Greeks would flee in terror once they saw the size of the Persian army. He sent an envoy who offered the enemy a chance to surrender but the Greek army, led by Leonidas I of Sparta, dismissed the offer out of hand.

On day one of the Battle of Thermopylae, the initial Persian sortie was fought off, so Xerxes sent in his famed Immortal warriors; they too failed to penetrate the Greek defenses. The Greeks used a very clever tactic; they pretended to flee chaotically only to quickly turn on the enemy in a phalanx formation which was very effective against Persian arrows. The Greeks continued to hold the pass on day two and were faring well until a traitor by the name of Ephialtes told the Persians about the Anopaia path. By going down this route, the Persians could circumnavigate most of the Greek forces and surprise the main army’s southern flank.

When the Persians emerged behind the Greek army, all seemed lost, and Leonidas ordered most of the men to withdraw. On day three, Leonidas gathered together the remains of the original 300 Spartans, 400 Thebans, and 700 Thespians. The goal of this small bunch of brave warriors was simple: Defend the pass and prevent the Persians from getting through at all costs. They knew they had to fight until the last man, but no one considered deserting. In a desperate last stand, the Greeks fought bravely, and Leonidas was killed. Eventually, the remaining hoplites were massacred by Persian arrows. There is a suggestion that the Thebans surrendered, but many historians dispute it.

The Persians were now free to march into mainland Greece, but they lost up to 20,000 men at Thermopylae. Xerxes’ plans to achieve what his father didn’t lay in tatters after a decisive defeat at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. The Persians struggled with a small army at Thermopylae, so when it faced the largest hoplite army ever assembled (estimated to be at least 80,000 men); it crumbled and lost up to 90,000 men. The Persians apparently lost the Battle of Mycale on the very same day, and with his army in ruins, Xerxes had no choice but to abandon his invasion.

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  • ODETTE2012

    The story of ZIZKA is told in the music of Bedrich Smetana in MA VLAST or” My Country.” Two of the six sections are called VLTAVA and VYSEHRAD.

  • Keith French

    The Alamo not on this list?

    • dilligas06

      Not politically correct to use that example. Build a wall.

  • OrlandoAndy

    Where’s Szigetvar?

  • UnreconstructedRebel

    Any list that does not include the Alamo or battles like Fort Gregg at Petersburg or Fort Fisher, NC is not worth the time to read it.

    • Jordan Mehlhaff

      Shut up, snowflake. America has only existed for a couple hundred years in the several thousand years of recorded history so stop crying because your favorite battles out of thousands didn’t get posted. Fucking crybaby.

      • UnreconstructedRebel

        You’re a millenial right? In my experience, only millenials can combine that air of supercilious attitude with impertinence and risible ignorance.

        Maybe they could have included Isandlwana from the Zulu Wars or Lord Elphinstone retreat from Kabul in the 2nd Afghan War, but you probably had already thought of that.

        Anyone who doesn’t think the Alamo belongs on this list is and remains, by definition, a dumba$$.

      • Christian Childs

        Stop appropriating our culture Jordan. Repatriate to your ancestral home.

    • jimfetterolf

      The Alamo and Little Big Horn.

    • Vaughn Slavin

      there is so much great history. I would not put down any attempt to get people to read it unless it is twisted into being PC or just wrong

  • James Cutler

    No Alamo then no list

    • Jordan Mehlhaff

      Hurr durr. No Alamo. Amurrica.

      Fuck off. There are plenty of people who led a final defense besides Americans so shut the fuck up if your special battle doesn’t get named you fucking snowflake.

      • Ryan Campbell

        Angry much?

  • spacemtn61

    Thank God they didn’t include Custer in this list. His wasn’t a stand but an idiotic blunder due to arrogance. But any list should include the Alamo as well as the San Patricios who fought at the Battle of Chrubusco.

    • Dan Linnell

      2 out of 5 you reckon? In all the recorded history of warfare?
      You yanks. Pffft

  • RedNekTex

    The Alamo isn’t on the list becuase it does not deserve to be there in terms of historical importance. The men were brave heros, no doubt, but had Travis followed orders, they would not have died. Gen. Houston ordered Travis & Bowie to take the cannons and abandon the Alamo. With Bowie gravely wounded, Travis disobeyed that order and got the entire command killed as a result. In terms of importance, its impact on history, innovation and tactics, San Jacinto was by far the greater Texas battle. Houston was no stranger to native American life and fighting. Unlike Mexicans and thier muskets, the Texans didn’t have to reload the tomahawks issued them by Gen. Houston. The results are self evident.

    • verutum

      RedNekTes, No offense But this site is about brave, last stands. The Alamo certainly counts as a heroic last stand. Strategy doesn’t come into the discussion. That is a whole other matter.

    • Had it not been for the 13-day delay of Santa Anna’s army at the Alamo and the galvanizing effect of the massacre on the ragtag Texas army, San Jacinto might not have occurred.

  • Mark Williamson

    Seriously, The Battle of Camerone didn’t make the list?

  • verutum

    there was nothing heroic about Masada. They got surrounded and committed suicide instead of fighting to the last man and taking some Romans with them. Chicken livers.

  • verutum

    How about Horatio at the Bridge in Ancient Rome? One Brave Roman holding back the invading Barbarians.

  • Brian Frakes

    You missed The Battle of Kosovo Field in Serbia,1389, without which Europe would have all been crushed and today we would all be speaking Arabic.

    • Byron Broun

      Correct

  • Abel Martinez

    The defenders of the Alamo were slavers, they deserved to die,
    Mexico did not want slavery

    • That is ridiculous. Slavery was not an issue. Santa Anna didn’t care about slavery. The rebels in the Alamo were fighting to secede from Mexico. The Mexican government was a dictatorship that made the huge mistake of welcoming too many immigrants and lacked the ability to stop the illegal immigration that followed. When the number of immigrants reached a critical mass, they demanded independence. Ordered to destroy the Alamo, the men under Travis chose to defend it instead. The Mexican army also suffered under Santa Anna. They were marched too hard, outrunning their supply lines, and arriving at the battle fatigued and malnourished. Thus, all of the men who died at the Alamo died heroically.

  • Abel Martinez

    Custer, wanted to place the Americans in concentration camps, wanted to be President. He deserved to die, the U.S. calvalry attacked villages, killing old men, women and children

    • There were no concentration camps in those days. Custer earned his death by being a poor commander. He was arrogant and impulsive, and not a hero, but he paid for his mistakes. Unfortunately he took his command with him.

  • OrlandoAndy

    At Szigetvar in 1566 a small force of Hungarians and Croatians held up the overwhelming army of Suleiman
    the Magnificent for so long that they had to abandon the invasion, and during the siege the sultan himself died. On the final day, when defeat became certain, the leader Nikolai Zrinski lead his forces out in one last charge against the Turks, first stuffing his clothes will jewels so that the man who slew him would have a fabulous reward. He also lit a delayed fuse to the powder magazine and when the Turks rushed in to loot the city the ensuing explosion killed hundreds, Over 20,000 Ottoman troops lost their lives during the siege and the delay in what was called at the time “The Battle That Saved Civilization” certainly saved Vienna from becoming the next Turkish outpost in Europe.

  • Marc Van Gilst

    What about the Battle of Moscow in 1942?

  • Ron McLemore

    It’s almost as though history stopped in the middle ages.