No Retreat, No Surrender: 5 Incredible Last Stands

No Retreat, No Surrender: 5 Incredible Last Stands

Patrick Lynch - June 18, 2017

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.

No Retreat, No Surrender: 5 Incredible Last Stands
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.

No Retreat, No Surrender: 5 Incredible Last Stands
The Site of Masada. Weaponsman

2 – Siege of Masada (72?-73? AD)

At the Siege of Masada, approximately 960 Jews held out for over a year against 10,000 Roman soldiers. It was one of the last events in the First Jewish-Roman War (66 – 73 AD) which was the first of three Jewish rebellions against the Romans. The rebels were fighting a losing battle from 70 AD onwards when a large number of them died in the siege of Jerusalem. However, even though things looked increasingly bad for the rebels, they refused to surrender and maintained a presence in strongholds such as Masada.

Masada was a palace that doubled as a fortress due to its location on top of a rocky, steep hill. In fact, the only way to reach it was via a long and winding road on the eastern side of the hill. It ensured that Masada was an incredibly difficult place to capture; primarily because would-be attackers could only march up the hill in small groups. As a result, they were wide open to counter attacks. Furthermore, the creators of Masada ensured it was difficult to starve out the inhabitants. Cisterns were cut into the rock and stored rainwater while there were large storerooms specifically designed to hold vast quantities of food. There was even space to grow crops so if the population was under siege; it could grow fresh food.

The Romans quickly found out how difficult it was to take Masada when a 10,000 man army under Lucius Flavius Silva arrived in 72 AD. Approximately 960 Judeans occupied Masada when Silva arrived, and they were led by Eleazer Ben Yair who came from a militant family with a reputation for resistance. Silva, the governor of Judea, followed the tried and trusted Roman siege practice of surrounding the enemy fortress. The Romans created a ring of fortifications to prevent the defenders from launching counter-attacks or escaping with a view to seeking assistance. The Romans even had artillery emplacements built to fire missiles at anyone who tried to escape.

The Romans knew that it would be a long and protracted siege and were ready for it. After several months of engineering work, they were ready to attack and constructed a siege tower with a battering ram. The Jewish Sicarii did not launch any counter attacks during the siege. The rebels had hoped to get help to stage a genuine insurrection, but in the end, there were less than 1,000 trapped at Masada. They chose death over surrender. As Judaism forbids suicide, the rebels drew lots and killed one another so only the last person standing committed suicide.

When the Romans breached the fortress walls on April 16, 73 AD, they found every single inhabitant of Masada lying dead on the ground. However, two women and five children supposedly hid inside the cistern thus surviving the cull. The end of the siege also marked the conclusion of the First Jewish-Roman War although the heroism at Masada lived long in the memory.

No Retreat, No Surrender: 5 Incredible Last Stands
Depiction of Berserker fending off the Saxons. Loren86 – DeviantArt

3 – One Man Army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066)

At the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066, Harold, the King of England, defeated his brother Tostig and the Norwegian King Harald. Although Harold’s 15,000 man force won a decisive victory as both enemy leaders died in battle, he lost up to 5,000 troops. As a result, he was significantly weakened and ultimately suffered defeat at the Battle of Hastings soon afterward; Harold died in that battle.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge is also known as the scene of one of the greatest one-man stands ever seen on a battlefield. The Norse army was stunned by the sudden arrival of Harold’s Saxon forces and was completely unprepared. Harald of Norway tried to regroup and form a defensive line to give his men a fighting chance. A flimsy wooden bridge was all that stood between the Saxons and the vulnerable Norse army. One giant Norse berserker manned the bridge and dared the enemy to charge; they did and met death via the defender’s ax and sword.

Dozens of Saxon warriors tried to get past the Berserker, but they all failed as he killed at least 40 of them single-handedly. He apparently held his ground for almost an hour; long enough for his fellow Vikings to regroup. Alas, he did not see a clever Saxon who rowed to the bottom of the bridge and emerged to stab the berserker in the groin.

The great warrior’s sacrifice was in vain as the Saxons stormed the bridge and defeated the Viking army. King Harald of Norway died via an arrow to the throat, and with the loss at Stamford Bridge, the influence of the Vikings on the British Crown died. Despite their defeat, the legend of the Berserker lives on as for a brief period; the mighty Saxon army was defied by a single man.

No Retreat, No Surrender: 5 Incredible Last Stands
Battle of Golden Spurs.

4 – Battle of the Golden Spurs (1302)

Also known as the Battle of Courtrai or the Battle of Kortrijk, this fight was, in many ways, a classic David vs. Goliath contest. Although the Flemish army slightly outnumbered the French, it was primarily made up of untrained infantry militia. On the other side of the battlefield were trained French knights consisting of nobles, crossbowmen, infantry, and pikemen. The Flemish army should have been slaughtered, but it had other ideas.

The Franco-Flemish War (1297 – 1305) involved a three-year truce which began a few months after the start of the conflict and ended in 1300. The French were in total control of Flanders by this stage, but in 1302, an armed rebellion broke out in Bruges. In what became known as the ‘Bruges Matins’ the group murdered every French person they could find. The French King, Philip IV, assembled an army to deal with the insurgents and nominated Robert II of Artois as the commander.

When the two armies met at Kortjik on July 11, the Flemish army of just over 9,000 consisted of guild members. Flemish interests depended on barbers, decorators, glove makers, fishermen and people from other guilds. There were only a couple of hundred mounted knights to support the group. The Flemish fighters carried wooden pikes to fend off cavalry charges while a number of them used a weapon called a ‘Goedendag,’ a heavy wooden spear. There was a metal rim where the spear was attached to the timber so the wielder could use it as a club or a spear.

Facing them was a professional army consisting of approximately 8,000 Frenchmen including thousands of Knights and nobles in the finest armor. Robert was renowned throughout France as a capable commander, so it had all the makings of a mismatch. Perhaps the French were overconfident, but they soon realized they had a real battle on their hands. The Flemish cleverly dug trenches to cause chaos to any enemy cavalry charge. It appeared as if the French would have an easy time of it when their crossbowmen enjoyed initial success and allowed them to move into enemy formations.

Then Robert made an idiotic decision; instead of allowing the light troops to continue their push, he pulled them out of the firing line. He didn’t want to prevent the nobles from having the honor of winning, and he was also mindful of the thousands of Knights who would be angry because they marched and didn’t fight. As the heavily armored mounted Knights moved forward, they found the rough terrain difficult to move in. They were unable to form coherent charges so when they came up against the Flemish pikemen; they were forced to pause.

Suddenly, the Knights were surrounded by thousands of lightly armed but extremely fast men. The hopelessly outnumbered Knights were bludgeoned to death by Flemish Goedendags. The French Knights in the center avoided the horrible fate of those on the flanks and broke through enemy lines to wound one of the main Flemish commanders, William of Jurich. The loss of William would have proved very damaging to Flemish morale, so his servant took his master’s armor and rode into battle pretending to be the lead commander.

Flemish reinforcements arrived, and well-placed troops prevented the French from fleeing. Robert led a charge to try and turn the tide of battle, but he was killed in the fighting. The leaderless French capitulated as they lost at least 1,000 men. The battle gets its name from the fact that the victorious Flemish collected approximately 500 golden spurs from the dead to show the number of wealthy enemies they killed. In many ways, the Battle of the Golden Spurs was the beginning of the end of the dominance of Knights on the battlefield. Ultimately, France won the war in 1305, and while Flanders remained independent, it was forced to pay a high financial cost.

No Retreat, No Surrender: 5 Incredible Last Stands
Memorial of Zizka at Vitkov Hill Prague. Pragitecture eu

5 – Battle of Vitkov Hill (1420)

The little known Hussite Wars was a series of conflicts over a 15 year period (1419-1434). It took place between a Christian movement in the Kingdom of Bohemia called the Hussites and several European monarchs who sought to impose the Roman Catholic Church’s authority upon them. One would expect the Hussites to get crushed, but they more than held their own and eventually forced a compromise in 1434. They agreed to submit to the authority of the Church and the Kingdom of Bohemia in return for the Hussite church becoming free of the Papacy.

The Battle of Vitkov Hill, from June 12 – July 14, 1420, perfectly illustrates why the Hussites eventually achieved a victory of sorts. The location of the battle was just outside of Prague and should have been no contest whatsoever. On one side, there was an army of 7,000-8,000 men under the leadership of Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor. Opposing them was a group of fewer than 100 soldiers led by Jan Zizka. Sigismund attempted to capture Prague and assembled an 80,000 man army to march on the city which was defended by 12,000 men.

Vitkov Hill, a seemingly flimsy defensive structure, stood in the way. Zizka knew the importance of the hill; if the enemy took it, the chances of withstanding a siege were slim. Along with his small group of men, Zizka remained behind the wooden planks on the hill and waited for the enemy’s attack. Sigismund understood the implications of failing to take the hill and sent 8,000 troops to capture it. The Vitkov Hill was actually a more solid defensive location than it appeared as the wooden fortifications were surrounded by moats and there was also a stone and clay wall.

For several weeks, the Christian Knights were unable to take the hill as Zizka led a brilliant and heroic defense. Attack after attack was repelled until Hussite relief troops arrived on the scene on July 14 and surprised the Knights with an attack from behind. The Crusaders panicked and fled the field, and a number of them drowned in the River Vltava. Up to 300 Knights died in the failed assaults on the hill.

Vitkov Hill was renamed Zizkov in honor of the brave commander and a monument depicting Zizka on a horse was erected on the hill. It is the third largest bronze equestrian statue on Earth. After the loss at Vitkov Hill, the Crusaders knew they couldn’t starve the city into surrender. While Sigismund took the castles of Hradcany and Vysehrad, he couldn’t hold them, and he eventually withdrew from Prague with his army.