Download FREE briefings. Have an account? Please log in. Text Size: A A A

History’s Long Shots: The World’s Most Heroic Last Stands

Military History

History’s Long Shots: The World’s Most Heroic Last Stands

The famous Battle of the Alamo pitted rebellious Texans, some of whom were Americans, against a Mexican army sent to crush their nascent independence movement.

WWII History Magazine contributor Christopher Miskimon shares with us his list of history's long shots and the most heroic last stands.

By Christopher Miskimon

The Siege of the Alamo – February 23 – March 6, 1836

This famous battle pitted rebellious Texans, some of whom were Americans, against a Mexican army sent to crush their nascent independence movement. Mexican leader General Antonio Lopez De Santa Anna laid siege to the small mission, bombarding it for days and having several small skirmishes before a final assault on the night of March 5-6. All the combatants in the Alamo were killed other than one man, a slave of the Texan officer Col. William Travis, and several women. This short term Mexican victory backfired when “Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry. It has since become arguably the most famous battle of the American West.

Immediately after their victory at nearby Isandlwana, a large Zulu army attacked a company of British soldiers at the Rorke’s Drift outpost.

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift – January 22-23, 1879

Immediately after their victory at nearby Isandlwana, a large Zulu army attacked a company of British soldiers at the Rorke’s Drift outpost. Though badly outnumbered, the English managed to hold off their opponents and inflict heavy casualties through sheer determination and bravery. The successful defense was a bright spot compared to the debacle at Isandlwana and 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded among the participants.

The Battle of Camarón is the French Foreign Legion’s defining battle.

The Battle of Camarón – April 30, 1863

This is the French Foreign Legion’s defining battle. A company-sized patrol of 65 Legionnaires escorting a supply convoy was overtaken by a force of 800 Mexican cavalry, later reinforced by some 2,200 infantry. The French soldiers took cover in the nearby Hacienda Cameron Inn and swore to defend it to the death. The ensuing battle lasted around seven hours and ended only when the last 5 Legionnaires made a bayonet charge. The last two men alive were given permission by the Mexican commander to leave with the body of their commander, Captain Danjou, who had a wooden hand. Today that hand is the most revered artifact in the Legion’s long history.

Captain William Fetterman longed for action against the local Native Americans, who had carried out a campaign of raids against the encroaching Americans.

The Fetterman Massacre – December 21, 1866

Captain William Fetterman longed for action against the local Native Americans, who had carried out a campaign of raids against the encroaching Americans. On December 21, he received all the action he could want and more. The native warriors, led by such braves as Crazy Horse, laid an ambush by attacking a wood-gathering party away from the camp. This brought out Fetterman at the head of 80 infantry and cavalry. Estimates are about 1,000 warriors attacked and overwhelmed them, killing all the Americans. Since the native accounts vary, it is still not known exactly what happened.

Some 554 men of the US 77th Division—a.k.a. the "lost battalion"—were surrounded by German troops when the French forces on their flank were stopped, leaving them isolated.

The Lost Battalion: The Men of the 77th Division, October 2-8, 1918

Some 554 men of the US 77th Division were surrounded by German troops when the French forces on their flank were stopped, leaving them isolated. Wishing to restore this hole in their lines the Germans attacked the American for six days; almost two-thirds of them became casualties. Despite this and shortages of food, water and ammunition, the Americans held out until other allied attacks forced a German retreat, relieving the beleaguered Yanks.

When the Chinese Boxer Rebellion attempted to drive foreign influence out of China the legations belonging to a number of foreign nations were besieged.

Siege of the International Legations, Peking Boxer Rebellion – June 20 – August 14, 1900

When the Chinese Boxer Rebellion attempted to drive foreign influence out of China the legations belonging to a number of foreign nations were besieged. The Boxers received on-and-off assistance from elements of the Chinese government. The siege was punctuated by periods of truce intersperse with heavy fighting. The 409 European, Japanese and American soldiers and sailors defending the legations suffered almost 50% dead and wounded. Two forces, one Japanese and one French, suffered over 100% casualties as wounded men returned to action only to be wounded again!

The result of the battle became one of the most well-known stories of the century

The Battle of the Little Big Horn – June 25-26, 1876

America’s most famous last stand. Lt. Col. George A. Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment against a large Native American encampment. Underestimating his foe, Custer split his command into three separate elements and attacked a much larger force of native warriors. The column led by Custer was wiped out. The remaining columns later linked up and made their own stand on a hill, surviving when their enemy moved off the next day. The events of the battle are even today the subject of much speculation and argument.

The Battle of Wake Island

Wake Island – December 8-23, 1941

This isolated Pacific outpost was attacked the day after Pearl Harbor but a mixed forces of US Marines, Sailors and civilian workers managed to fend off the first landing attempt by the Japanese on December 11, sinking two destroyers and damaging a cruiser. Afterward the Japanese applied more resources to taking the island and a second attempt on December 23 succeeded despite heavy casualties. The small American force inflicted casualties all out of proportion to its size but suffered greatly in captivity after the battle.

Stalingrad – July 17, 1942 – February 2, 1943

Stalingrad – July 17, 1942 – February 2, 1943

This famous battle was also the last stand of the entire German 6th Army, proving everything was indeed bigger on the Eastern Front. After being cut off by Soviet counteroffensives, Nazi forces were prohibited from breaking out by Adolf Hitler, who was loath to ever retreat or give up territory. Unable to break the encirclement from outside, the Germans watched as their brethren in Stalingrad were slowly ground up in bitter urban warfare. Eventually their food and ammunition were exhausted and the 90,000 survivors surrendered. Only around 5,000 survived the war and returned to Germany in 1955.

The most audacious plots to assassinate the man responsible for the death of millions...
Get your copy of Warfare History Network’s FREE Special Report,
Killing Adolf Hitler

Battle of Thermopylae – 480 BC

Battle of Thermopylae – 480 BC

The sacrifice of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans has been told and retold until it is now practically a cliché. Though there were many more Greeks present, including Arcadians, Thebans and Thespians, the Spartans have received credit for the spirited defense of the Greek army’s rear guard. The main Greek army, variously estimated from 5-7,000 held off a much larger Persian force for two days. While ancient chroniclers claim the Persian force at over a million, modern estimates are much lower, at most a few hundred thousand, still long odds. On the third day, with the Persians now outflanking the Greeks Leonidas, his Spartans and around a thousand others remained to act as a rear guard. They were slaughtered but entered the annals of military history where they are celebrated to this day.

The Swiss Guard During the Sake of Rome – May 6, 1527

The Swiss Guard During the Sake of Rome – May 6, 1527

On this day a Hapsburg army entered Rome to sack and occupy it. Many of the troops were mutinous Lutheran mercenaries eager to claim loot. As this force closed on the Vatican, it became clear the Pope’s life was in jeopardy. To buy him time to flee 189 Swiss Guards made a stand on the Vatican grounds; only 42 survived the onslaught but Clement VII was able to reach relative safety. Today each new group of recruits to the Papal Guard is sworn in on May 6.

Battle of Shiroyama – September 24, 1877

Battle of Shiroyama – September 24, 1877

This battle marked the end of the Samurai and ushered in a new age for Japan. Takamori Saigo, the leader of a group of 500 Samurai which had been defeated earlier, took position on a hill named Shiroyama near the city of Kagoshima. The Japanese army of 30,000 equipped with modern weapons surrounded them and began a punishing artillery bombardment. By morning only 40 Samurai remained. Saigo had been wounded earlier and either died or committed ritual suicide. The last 40 warriors charged, sword in hand, only to be shot down. The battle was used as a general influence for the final battle scene in the movie The Last Samurai.

The Battle off Samar – October 25, 1944

The Battle off Samar – October 25, 1944

With a large Japanese fleet bearing down on them, the destroyers, destroyer escorts and escort carriers of the US task force designated Taffy 3 made a desperate stand. Beyond them was the US amphibious force conducting landings at Leyte Gulf. If the Japanese battleships and cruisers reached them it would be a slaughter. Taffy 3’s sailors fought with such aggressiveness the enemy fleet was turned back, though at a loss of 5 ships sunk, including two of the tiny carriers, and 2,496 casualties. It is still lauded as one of the US navy’s proudest moments.

Defense of Arnhem Bridge – September 17-26, 1944

Defense of Arnhem Bridge – September 17-26, 1944

The most distant of the airborne attacks of Operation Market Garden, British paratroopers were able to seize this bridge over the Lower Rhine River in order to hold it for advancing British 2nd Army. That force was delayed by a stubborn German defense, leaving the paratroopers isolated and with little supply. After holding for 9 days, the survivors withdrew, leaving a large number of wounded to be taken prisoner. It was a dark day for the British Army despite the valiant performance of the airborne troops.

The Warsaw Ghetto – April 19 - May 16, 1943

The Warsaw Ghetto – April 19 – May 16, 1943

As the Nazis began to round up the last Jews from the Warsaw Ghettos, an underground group of Jewish fighters chose to resist. The ensuing battle was desperate and uneven as the poorly armed Jews fought to stave off almost-certain death in the camps. The Nazis used the incident as an excuse to murder thousands of ghetto residents and quickly deported the rest, leaving the Ghetto an empty and haunted place.

Battle of Karbala – October 10, 680

Battle of Karbala – October 10, 680

This battle took place in what is now Iraq between the Umayyad caliph Yazid and supporters of Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad. Hussein’s followers numbered perhaps 72, facing thousands of enemy soldiers. All of them were killed making their stand which is now an important day in Shia Islam. Even today in Muslim culture struggling against long odds is known as “facing one’s Karbala.”

The Stand of the Saxon Housecarls at Hastings - October 14, 1066

The Stand of the Saxon Housecarls at Hastings – October 14, 1066

Hastings is widely known as a critical battle of European history, but less well known is the stand made by the English Housecarls, essentially household troops in service to King Harold. When that ruler was killed during the battle, his Housecarls took positions around his body and fought until they were wiped out. While the battle was ultimately lost the Housecarls honored their oaths and fought to the last man.

Of course, these are just a few of the most heroic last stands in history. Others will be included as we update the list, but which ones do you think we need to add first? Let us know in the comments section below.

Updated March 2, 2017

Add Your Comments

31 Comments

  1. Michael Addington
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Famous last stands>>>> Masada

  2. Chuck Burton
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    The Japanese on several Pacific islands, but particularly on Iwo Jima, where they were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, but managed a skillful defense that cost America heavily and made us think about the cost of invading Japan, itself. Then came the defense of Okinawa, which was so costly for us that it was a prime factor in the decision to use the atomic bomb.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Chuck Burton: fanatics or not, the Japanese on Iwo Jima and Okinawa were well led, put up an incredible defense and died almost to a man doing so. However, our own people on Corregidor were equally brave and largely died after surrender.

    • Joseph Remy
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      Only thing I would say about the Japanese is that they never managed to inflict more casualties on the Americans than they themselves suffered. Even at Iwo Jima, which had defense in-depth and where they did not resort to banzai tactics, the Japanese still came off worse so the “defenders advantage” (where the defenders can exact a high toll on attackers, like Seelow Heights) didn’t really apply to Japan.
      Maybe it was more a case of American firepower, logistics and an excellent medical service.

  3. Andrew P. Rees
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    1863 The French Foreign Legion under Captain Danjou at Camerone

  4. Andrew P. Rees
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Also, what about Masada in 960?

  5. Andrew P. Rees
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Salamis in 480 BC might not be considered a “great” last stand, but it did change the course of Second Persian Invasion of Greece.

  6. Prof. Allen Hamilton
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Any list of “heroic last stands” that does not have the Alamo at the top is laughable.

    • Andrew P. Rees
      Posted August 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      Good call. I’m kicking myself right now.

  7. SKYHOOK47
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    The siege of the Arkadi monastery in the Greek island of Crete in 1866 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arkadi_Monastery

  8. gary daniel
    Posted November 17, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    The last Confederate fort at Petersburgh that Gen. Lee asked to hold on so he could get the ANV out.

  9. gary daniel
    Posted November 17, 2014 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Fort Greg if I remember correctly

  10. Joe Armistead
    Posted November 17, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Please, Rorke’s Drift. The Brits just bettered The Alamo by winning. Zulu is a great movie, though not completely accurate.

  11. Pat Chase
    Posted November 17, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    So many posibilities: the fall of Constantinople, siege of Rhodes or Malta against the Turks where surrender was not an option. The Germans defending Berlin against the Russian how they must have felt, or Lenningrad, all begging the question, “What is the criteria – winning, losing, surrendering is not a option?”.

  12. Arkadi
    Posted November 22, 2014 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    The siege of Malta ? HAd the island fell, gate was open for the Turks to invade Europe.

  13. Bob
    Posted January 31, 2015 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    How about Chosin Reservoir? The Americans were hopelessly outnumbered by over 200,000 Chinese and North Koreans to 5,000 US Marines.(The US escaped but there were many little final stands in the whole battle.)

    • Bob
      Posted March 21, 2015 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      I accidently put in the wrong statistics. It was 100,000 to 10,000.

  14. Amigo Toyota
    Posted February 28, 2015 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Battle of Saragarhi (21 v/s 10,000)?

  15. Diego Garcia
    Posted March 30, 2015 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Chapultepec, the last battle in the Mexican-American War.

  16. Al Wright
    Posted March 30, 2015 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    The 20th Maine at Little Round Top on the second day at Gettysburg is an amazing story.

  17. richard carlson
    Posted March 30, 2015 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    In a future update you should include KHARTOUM.

  18. L.S Kelvin
    Posted April 16, 2015 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    How about Battle of Saragarhi ? 21 sepoys vs 10,000 – 14,000 incoming soldiers. (afghans and others) You websites will never mention about this. PAY SOME RESPECt TO THOSE PEOPLE. They earned it.

  19. Al
    Posted April 25, 2015 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Let’s not forget Corrigador, Bastogne, Khe Sanh, Dien Bien Phu Sevastopol or Tobruk. They were all sieges and of course NOT all combatants in each siege were wiped out, but what are the parameters here. Die Hard last stands or memorable sieges.

  20. Bob
    Posted April 28, 2015 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    The 8th of November.

    In vietnam the 173th Airborne had their famous last stand. 30 U.S. Marines held off 1200 Vietcong. Almost all of the marines were wipedout. The vietcong on the other hand suffered 400+ casualties.

  21. Bob
    Posted September 3, 2015 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    John Basilone’s last stand on Guadalcanal. He held off thousands of Japanese alone.

  22. avishek
    Posted October 1, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    The list will never be complete without “the battle of Saragarhi” fought between 21 sikh soldiers of Indian- british army and 10,000+ fierce Pathan and Orakjai tribesman.
    I think it should be on the top of the list.

  23. Deepak Yadav
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Your website neglected the all time Indian epic battle of indo china war of 1962 where 114 fearless soldiers from “Ahir company” of 13 kumaon regiment stunned the martial races of the world by fighting a last stand battle at the altitude of more than 15000 ft. massacred more than a thousand Chinese. The epic battle was fought at Rezang La. Take a bow world n show them respect !!

  24. James
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    In the last battle that stopped the German advance in the Ardenne ( by German General Pieper ) and Bastoine in January 1945.
    The 551st Parachute Battalion attached to the 82nd Airborne fought and won despite receiving a 94% casualty rate.
    Of the 643 officers and men of the 551st that entered the battle, only 110 remained on the duty roster by the end on January 7th.
    They also lost their commanding officer – Colonel Joerg – killed ( the ONLY officer for the US forces that fought at the Battle of The Bulge ).
    To add insult to injury, General Gavin disbanded the 551st after the battle…

  25. Jim
    Posted January 29, 2017 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    The March of the Ten Thousand Greek mercenaries from Persia.

  26. Daniel Sánchez
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Here is my proposal for a last stand:

    The siege of the Alcazar of Toledo during the
    spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939)

    The commander’s son had been taken hostage by
    the enemy, who demanded the Alcazar’s surrender.

    The commander refused to surrender, and his
    son was executed.

  27. Ironhand
    Posted March 29, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    In all these lists, Cartagena de Indias is always missing. Blas de Lezo’s men defended the placer with 3000 men vs 10000 english attackers.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *



Issue Previews

Wunderwaffe: The Nazi Wonder Weapons

Wunderwaffe: The Nazi Wonder Weapons

As World War II turned against Hitler, he became desperate to develop weapons that might turn the tide. Some of the technologically advanced systems proved to be devastating.

Armored Cars of the Third Reich

Armored Cars of the Third Reich

German light and heavy armored cars enabled scouts to gather vital intelligence for panzer units.

A Sergeant in the 12th Armored Division

A Sergeant in the 12th Armored Division

From the Colmar to the Rhine, Sergeant Carl Erickson fought World War II as a tank driver with the 12th Armored Division.

The USO Turns 75: American soldiers’ “Home Away From Home”

The USO Turns 75: American soldiers’ “Home Away From Home”

During WWII, the unique civilian organization did much to boost the morale of soldiers at home and abroad.

facebook gplus twitter youtube rss

Enter Your Log In Credentials

Forgot your Password?

×
.