Heroic last stands have happened all throughout history, with virtually every war humans have fought. There are a multitude of reasons why soldiers decide to form a last stand, rather than to retreat or surrender. Some of them may have seen it as their utmost duty to never surrender, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Others might have been trying to buy some time before help could arrive, or were attempting to defend a crucially important tactical location. Others, on the other hand, may have had no better alternative than to stay and fight, rather than to face an even more grisly fate by surrendering. Going past some of the famous last stands, like the Battle of Thermopylae or Custer’s Battle for Little Bighorn, we’ll be looking at other epic last stands in history.
10. The Battle of Beroia – 1122
The Battle of Beroia was fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Pechenegs near the town of Stara Zagora in present-day Bulgaria, in 1122 AD. The Pechenegs were a group of Turkic people that dominated the plains north of the Black Sea, and by the 10th century their territory stretched from the Don River in southern Russia to the lower Danube in what is now Romania. But as a semi-nomadic group, the Pechenegs never formed a state in the actual sense of the word, being more an organized union of tribes. Sandwiched between the Hungarians to the West and the Rus State to the North, the Pechenegs began raiding the province of Thrace around the 10th century. By the 11th century, their raids into the region had intensified, which also coincided with the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria in 1018. At one point, the Pechenegs even made it to the gates of Constantinople in 1090, where they were defeated at the Battle of Levounion.
Severely weakened by the defeat, as well as the raids suffered at the hands of the up and coming Cumans to the East, the Pechenegs were forced to leave their lands and find another home. And the only place they could go was the Balkans. They crossed the Balkan Mountains and set up camp near the town of Beroia in present-day Bulgaria. Here, they were met by the Byzantine Army. Initially, the Pecheneg chieftains were presented with generous gifts and the prospects of a favorable treaty. But this was only a ruse on the Byzantines’ part as they descended upon the Pecheneg encampment in force. As skilled mounted warriors, they fought mostly as horse archers while relying on their wagon fort, known as a laager. The battle was hard fought and the Byzantines suffered heavy losses. Even the Emperor himself was wounded by an arrow, but only when the infamous Norse Varangian Guard entered the battle and was able to breach the defenses did the Pechenegs fall. In the aftermath, the nomadic people no longer existed as an independent force. Some of their settlements remained in Hungary for a time, but they were later assimilated and then disappeared from history as a distinct group of people.
9. The Red River War – 1874
The Red River Indian War was a series of battles and skirmishes fought mainly in the Texas Panhandle region, which would forever put an end to the old Native American way of life in the United States. By the 1870s many Indian tribes living in the Great Plains, mainly the Comanche, the Cheyenne, the Kiowa, and the Arapaho, were more or less forced to relocate into reservations where they were allotted small pieces of land and given food rations, housing, and other supplies from the American Government for a period of 30 years. They were also allowed to hunt bison and other game south of the Arkansas River, and in exchange were asked to stop raiding and attacking settlements. Not all Indian tribes agreed, though, still trying to keep to their old way of life. Unfortunately, the bison population plummeted due to the rampant hunting. Soon it all but went extinct, and the Indian tribes had been completely dependent on them for their survival.
Furthermore, the food rations from the government to the reservations were always insufficient and of poor quality. By late spring in 1874, many had left the reservation and joined with the other tribes still roaming the wilds. Finding themselves in a truly desperate situation, the Indian tribes led by Comanche Chief Quanah Parker led a resistance force aimed at preserving their way of life. In a last-ditch effort to save the buffalo herds, they attacked a band of commercial hunters. This prompted the US government to authorize the Army to use whatever force necessary to subdue the renegade Indians. A total force of about 3,000 men was put together and led by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who then divided his force into five armies that were to converge around the canyons in the Texas Panhandle, where the Native Americans had retreated to. Over 20 engagements took place between the two sides, but since the Indians were traveling with women, children, and elderly people, they mostly tried to avoid direct conflict. The Americans, on the other hand, tried to engage them at every turn. They followed a sort of scorched-earth policy, killing off horses and burning supplies wherever they found them. This was in an attempt to starve the tribes out.
The final blow came at the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. Here, the American forces came across a large Indian settlement that also held most of their horses and winter supplies. When the troops attacked, the Indians were taken by surprise and did not have time to gather anything before retreating. Only four Indians died in the battle, but they lost all of the 1,400 horses there, as well as the many pounds of buffalo meat. The American forces killed the horses and burned the meat and the buildings there. Half starved to death, and Quanah Parker and his band entered Fort Sill in June 1875 and surrendered. This was the last band of free Indians that roamed the Great Plains.
8. The Battle of Alesia – 52 BC
Waged for the political and financial ambitions of Julius Caesar, the Gallic Wars were a series of military campaigns that lasted from 58 to 52 BC in regions that are now France, Switzerland, and parts of Belgium. Gallia was home to around 20 million people, and was made out of a loose confederation of tribes that lacked any kind of cohesion or military discipline, which had enabled Caesar and his legions to defeat many of them. The Romans had to engage each tribe as they encountered them, and the wars stretched on longer than previously anticipated. It was only around the end of this period that the Gauls realized in what a dangerous situation they were in and began to band together under one commander, Vercingetorix, “Victor of a Hundred Battles.”
Vercingetorix rallied all the tribes in Gaul that were not allied to the Romans and began waging a guerilla-style war and a scorched-earth policy, burning all crops and villages in the Romans’ way. After a series of successful encounters, Vercingetorix and about 60,000 warriors were eventually pinned down at the fortified hill of Alesia. They had the advantage of superior numbers and higher ground, as well as the shaky supply lines of the Romans. Nevertheless, Caesar ordered a circumvallation wall be built surrounding the hill town in the hopes of starving the Gauls out. Some raiders were, however, able to breach the Roman walls and were sent for reinforcements. Learning of this, Caesar ordered a second wall be built, but this time facing outward and preparing for an outside attack. Both armies were facing the prospect of running out of supplies, and this is why Vercingetorix ordered the women and children leave the fort, hoping that Caesar would let them pass. He didn’t, and the civilians were trapped between the two armies, slowly starving to death.
In September that year, the expected Gallic reinforcements arrived. Then, attacking from both sides, the Gauls almost emerged victorious against the Romans, who were on the verge of breaking the lines. Luckily for them, Caesar and his 6,000 strong cavalry outflanked the outside Gallic warriors. Their lines soon broke and began retreating in disarray, with the Roman cavalry mowing them down for several miles. With no chance at escape and facing imminent starvation, Vercingetorix surrendered the following day. This battle effectively put an end to the Gallic resistance and propelled Julius Caesar to become the sole ruler of Rome. By the end of the Roman conquest of Gaul, over one million Gauls lay dead while another 500,000 were sent into slavery.
7. Pavlov’s House in Stalingrad – 1942
Operation Barbarossa was the largest invasion force ever, involving over 4 million Axis forces and some 600,000 motorized vehicles in an attempt to conquer the Soviet Union. The frontline extended over 1,800 miles from north to south. In the initial stages of the operation, the Soviets lost in swift succession what are now present-day Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. These regions were some of the most populous in the nation, and the most industrialized. They also suffered heavy losses with the army being more or less in disarray. On the southern part, Hitler decided to go for the oil fields in the Caucasus region, but diverted his 6th Army towards Stalingrad. The city didn’t hold any significant strategic importance, but it did bear the name of the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. But what the Nazis believed to be an easy victory turned out to be one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.
The Soviets held up a stout resistance and fought for every square inch of the city. Though they were mostly driven from the Western bank of the Volga in Stalingrad, a narrow stretch of the river bank still remained under Russian control. One place located here was Pavlov’s House, a four story apartment building. The building had a great location, right in front of a large square, with great visibility on all sides. Roughly 30 Soviet soldiers, led by Junior Sgt. Yakov Pavlov, fortified it the best they could and laid mines and barbed wire around it. With a supply line from across the river, the soldiers were able to fend off wave upon wave of German attacks. They had machine guns at every available window and anti-tank rifles and mortars on the roof. The building was besieged several times a day, every day for two months, but the Germans were never able to take it.
Relief came on November 25, 1942 with a massive Soviet counterattack. Jokingly, the Soviet commanding general Vasily Chuikov said that the Germans lost more men and tanks in trying to take Pavlov’s house than taking Paris. Now, if the Soviets had lost the house, they would have had a much harder time in mounting a successful counterattack across the river. If they had lost the Battle of Stalingrad, chances are that the entire Soviet Union would have fallen at the hands of the Nazis. This battle was, in fact, the turning point of WWII.
6. The Battle of Saragarhi – 1897
The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has almost always been tumultuous. Now, during the end of the 19th century, Pakistan didn’t exist as an independent country and was actually part of India under British control. So the British had a series of forts consolidated and put to good use there. Two of the forts, however – Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan – were not in visible range of each other, so they had a communications post built in between them, which acted like a heliographic tower. It used the light of the sun or another sources of light to send messages between the two forts. Located on a rocky ridge, the Saragarhi post was made out of a small block house, some makeshift ramparts, and the observation tower. During August and September 1897, a general uprising of the local Pashtun tribes had taken place, and they had several failed attempts at taking the forts.
21 soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Army were left in charge of the Saragarhi post to operate and defend it. But on the morning of September 12, the post was stormed by roughly 10,000 Pashtun militants who wanted to disrupt communication between the two forts. Sardar Gurmukh Singh, the Sikh soldier in charge of communications broadcast the entire events live using light. When the attack began he signaled Fort Lockhart and asked for reinforcements. Unfortunately, however, they replied back that immediate help was not available. The Pashtun offered the 21 Sikh soldiers inside the post a chance to surrender, but they didn’t accept and instead decided to fight. They were trying to buy as much time as possible for the other two forts to be reinforced before the Pashtun force could reach them. After several attempts, the rebel tribes made it past Saragarhi’s defenses and a fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued. After all of the 21 defenders were killed, the Pashtun set fire to the outpost, but enough time had been bought for Fort Gulistan to be reinforced and repel the ensuing attack. The 21 brave Sikh soldiers reportedly killed somewhere in between 180 to 600 Pashtuns before the end. Saragarhi Day has been celebrated each year ever since by the Sikh military.
5. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass – 778 AD
The Early Middle Ages were littered with constant wars and conflicts for territorial gains and plunder, and not even the largest Kingdoms were exempt from this rule – in fact, they excelled at it. This was also the case of Charlemagne and his Franks. As it happens, he was offered a deal by the then-governor of Barcelona, Sulayman Ibn al-Arabi, to form an alliance in exchange for Charlemagne to cross the Pyrenees Mountains and be guaranteed some easy pickings. The Frankish King agreed and took a military force into the Iberian Peninsula in early 778. Here, they easily took over the city of Pamplona and were headed for the even bigger prize – the city of Zaragoza. But this city was not ready to submit and Charlemagne laid siege to it. Pressured by a Saxon rebellion in France, Charlemagne agreed to a deal where they would accept a large payment in gold in exchange for leaving Zaragoza.
On his way back, Charlemagne ordered the defenses of Pamplona be destroyed so that it wouldn’t pose any further threat. Angered by this decision, the local Basque tribes devised a surprise attack for the Frankish armies while they were crossing the Pyrenees Mountains back to France. While crossing the narrow Roncevaux Pass, Charlemagne’s forces were ambushed by the Basques. Though inferior in number, the tribesmen were able to inflict heavy losses on the Franks, who could not effectively deploy their full forces. One of Charlemagne’s most trusted and skilled military leaders, Commander Roland, took charge of the rearguard of the army in an attempt at buying the rest of the army enough time to exit the pass. They were successful in achieving their goal, but the army detachment that remained behind was killed in the ambush – Roland included. The Basque tribes were also able to make off with the gold Charlemagne took from the city of Zaragoza. The Commander’s last stand was later popularized in the 10th century with an epic poem entitled The Song of Roland.
4. The Naval Battle of Myeongnyang – 1597
During the last few years of the 16th century, Japan organized two invasion forces into the Korean Peninsula, bent on conquering it and China as well. The Japanese also made good use of double agents during this period, which led to one of Korea’s most prestigious and skilled Naval Admirals to be impeached and almost put to death. Admiral Yi Sun-sin was imprisoned and tortured as a result, and then demoted to the rank of a common soldier within the Korean navy. Due to false information, the Japanese were also able to draw the Korean fleet into an ambush at the Battle of Chilcheollyang, where the Koreans lost 157 of its 169 warships. After this crushing defeat and the death of the Admiral, Yi Sun-sin was hastily reinstated into that position. Now leading what remained of the Korean fleet, Yi Sun-sin became a prime target for the Japanese who wanted to destroy what remained of the enemy’s navy.
The Japanese dispatched a fleet of 133 warships and an additional 200 support ships to rid themselves of Yi Sun-sin and his 12 ships. The king of Korea, not seeing any point in what remained of their Navy, told the Admiral to disband and join the ground forces instead. Yi Sun-sin simply replied via a letter by saying: “Your servant still doth have twelve warships under his command and he is still alive, the enemy shall never be safe in the west sea.” He took his small force and hid it in the shadows of the narrow Myeongnyang strait. With the use of a small fast ship, Yi Sun-sin drew the Japanese force into the strait. Now, even though the Korean naval forces were severely outnumbered by at least ten to one, because only one ship could pass through the strait at a time, the Japanese ended up losing more than 30 ships before retreating. This last stand of the Korean navy reverberated through the entire invasion. With the Japanese fleet in disarray, their admiral killed, and many other ships severely damaged, the forces already on the Korean Peninsula no longer received supplies or reinforcements. The following year, in 1598, the Japanese had retreated from the Korean Peninsula.
3. Wilson’s Last Stand – 1893
During the infamous Scramble for Africa, a businessman by the name of Cecil Rhodes acquired the rights to use the iron mines the Kingdom of Matabeleland under King Lobengula. The agreement was that the British could use the mines, trade with the local rulers, form banks, manage some land and even raise and maintain a police force. In return, Rhodes would govern and develop the territory acquired, give a share of the profits from the mine to King Lobengula, and respect the laws already existing under the African rulers there. But while Rhodes kept some of his promises, he and his company oftentimes ignored including the king and the other chieftains in the profits of the mines. King Lobengula was also denied the right to raid the nearby Shona people. These disagreements led to the First Matabele War.
Though superior in number and well trained, the soldiers of Matabeleland were no match against the new British super weapon – the Maxim machine gun. A combined force of 700 men left Fort Salisbury and Fort Victoria in what is now present-day Zimbabwe and headed toward the Matabeleland capital city of Bulawayo. They were attacked several times by superior African forces, but always driven them back with ease because of the machine guns. When they were approaching the city, King Lobengula fled the capital and burned it down. Major Patrick Forbes then formed a volunteer force of 470 men and went after the fleeing king. On December 3, 1893 they reached the bank of the Shangani River and spotted the king’s caravan on the other side. A small scout force led by Major Allan Wilson crossed the river, trying to see whether the king was in fact there or whether it was an ambush.
The 34 men camped the night and in the morning they charged the camp trying to capture the king. But when they reached the wagon, they realized that Lobengula had fled under the cover of darkness, and they were now surrounded by over 3,000 Matabele soldiers. When these warriors began firing their weapons, the scout party made a run for cover, trying to regroup with the other party across the river. Unfortunately for them, however, they were surrounded, and the other men under Forbes’ command were also engaged in a surprise attack of their own. The river had also swollen during the night due to some storms in the region. The small scouting party chose a clearing among the trees to make their last stand and used their dead horses as barricades. They were also given the chance to surrender but refused. Instead they chose to fight to the last man and the last bullet. In the aftermath, the 34 managed to kill somewhere between 400 and 500 Matabele soldiers.
2. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – 1943
As part of the so-called ‘Final Solution’, all Jews that were within German controlled territory during WWII were confined in local ghettos, from which they were then taken to extermination camps. The same thing happened with the Warsaw ghetto in Poland. This was the old Jewish quarter of the city that was initially surrounded by barbed wire, but later a 10 foot tall brick wall. It only occupied an area of about 840 acres, but by 1942 it held more than 500,000 Jewish people. The living conditions inside were miserable with an average of nine people living in every room of the ghetto, while others were living in hallways and stairwells. Starvation and disease were also rampant. Starting in July 1942, the Nazis were shipping some 5,000 people each day to the Treblinka extermination camp. By the end of September, only about 55,000 people remained.
Then, in January 1943, Heinrich Himmler paid a visit to the ghetto and ordered the deportation of another 8,000 Jews. This decision took the population by surprise, and instead of reporting like ordered, they hid away in the many hiding spots they had built while confined in the ghetto. The Jewish resistance that formed in the ghetto began organizing themselves for an attack. The Germans did not set foot again in the ghetto until April 19, when Himmler organized a special operation to clear it in honor of Hitler’s birthday on April 20. By coincidence, April 19 was also the day of Passover when Jews celebrated their freedom from slavery in Egypt. Nevertheless, in the morning, over 2,000 German troops entered the Warsaw ghetto, accompanied by tanks and machine guns. The resistance, numbering no more than 1,500 sprang into action, using whatever weapons they were able to gather or make – mostly pistols, several rifles, one machine gun, and some homemade bombs.
The Germans retreated in the evening and came back in the morning, but this time made use of smoke bombs, attack dogs, and flamethrowers. The German plan was to empty the ghetto in three days, but it took them almost a month to do so. By the end, several hundred Germans soldiers were killed, while over 40,000 Jews were captured. Out of them, 7,000 were shot on the spot, another 22,000 were sent to death camps, while the rest were sent to labor camps.
1. The Siege of Masada – 73 AD
Following the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Second Temple, and the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, Emperor Titus returned to Rome but left word to his generals to put down any other pockets of resistance in the province of Judaea. The last fortress was held by a group of Sicarii Jews at Masada. The fortress was located on top of a table-shaped, but steep mountain, where King Herod the Great reinforced the already existing stronghold there and made it into a refuge for himself in case of a revolt some 100 years prior. Access to the gates was possible only by an extremely narrow and winding pathway, known as ‘The Snake’. It was so narrow it was hard for two men to walk side by side. And it was here that the last remnants of the Jewish revolt made their stand against the Romans.
Commanded by Lucius Silva, the Roman Legion numbering some 10,000 men strong, including auxiliaries and slaves, surrounded the fortress and built a wall around it. But they realized that it would take a long time before the defenders ran out of food and water so simply starving them out was not an option. Neither was an attempt at storming the stronghold by going up the Snake. Instead, the Romans began construction of a 1,968 foot long ramp that rose 200 feet to the fortress walls. And they did it while under constant arrow fire from Masada. That ramp still exists today. They then began construction of a siege tower and a battering ram to breach the wall. The whole operation took around three months to finish. Once the final attack came and a hole in the wall was punched, the attackers came upon an unexpected discovery. All of the 960 defenders killed themselves the night before the final attack. Only two women and five children were found alive in an underground water cistern.