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Brutal Last Stands of Military History

When someone mentions the phrase last stand people who are interested in history often associate it with the Battle of Thermopylae. Thanks to this association with Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans, last stands are often seen in a positive light with brave men standing up to oppressors for their freedom, their families, even at the cost of their own lives.

There were many more famous last stands throughout history, although not all of them were in service of a good cause. I still believe these men deserve to be remembered for their sacrifice and their bravery, if not for their recklessness and the needless deaths they may have caused by their stubborn refusal to give in.

Battle of the Persian Gate ( 330 BC)

The Battle of the Persian Gate is almost the carbon copy of Thermopylae with the roles reversed, this time it was a Persian force defending their homeland from the invading Greeks and Macedonians.

After defeating Persian King Darius III at both the battles of Issus and Gaugamela Alexander the Great was marching east and conquering city after city. On his way to Persepolis Alexander had to march through the narrow passes of the Zagros Mountains. Alexander uncharacteristically neglected to send ahead scouts and marched straight into the Persian ambush at the Persian Gates, Alexander at first suffered heavy losses but managed to retreat.

The Persians repelled Alexander for prisoners of war led Alexander through the mountains to the rear of the Persian position, losing their advantage of terrain the Persians were defeated.

Battle of Camaron (1863)

The Battle of Camaron was the moment when the legend of the French Foreign Legion was born. Under the command of Captain Jean Danju, 65 legionnaires held off between 2000 to 3000 Mexican soldiers for the better part of a day.

Napoleon III invaded Mexico in 1861 intending to set up a French puppet state in America. Napoleon probably expected to take over the troubled country without too much trouble, the Mexican state was plagued with political and financial instability.

Contrary to expectations the Mexicans put up a tough fight and Napoleon was forced to send to Mexico several tens of thousands of French soldiers.Among the reinforcements sent to Mexico were soldiers of the French Foreign Legion.

When the French were besieging Puebla new supplies arrived at Veracruz. The supply convoy heading to Puebla was worth over 3 million francs and was packed with both bullion, guns and ammunition. Captain Danjou volunteered to lead one of the escort companies of the convoy.

The group was heading towards their destination when they sighted Mexican cavalry. Danjou hoped he could draw the Mexicans away from the convoy, after repelling several Mexican attacks Danjou and his men took up position in a hacienda( dwellinghouse). Despite two offers of surrender Danjou and his men decided to fight and die rather than surrender.

By the time the French ran out of ammunition, there were only 5 of them left. When their ammunition ran out the 5 remaining legionnaires mounted a suicidal bayonet charge against the Mexicans.
When the last three man standing were brought before the Mexican commander he asked, "Is this all of them? Is this all of the men who are left?" Then, in amazement, he exclaimed, "These are not men! They are demons!"

The Siege of Szigetvar was one of the most brutal ones in the border fighting between the Ottomans and the Hungarians and Croatians

The Siege of Szigetvar was one of the most brutal ones in the border fighting between the Ottomans and the Hungarians and Croatians

The Siege of Szigetvar( 1566)

The Siege of Szigetvar was the last battle of Suleiman the Magnificent, the most famous Sultan of the Ottoman Empire under whose reign his empire reached its apogee.

Suleiman smashed the army of the Kingdom of Hungary at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, even King Louis II died while he was fleeing. Louis death led to a succession crisis which ended in the partition of the kingdom. Transylvania became an Ottoman vassal, the Ottomans annexed the middle part of the kingdom, while Ferdinand Habsburg was elected king of Royal Hungary( the Northern and Western parts of the kingdom).

As Suleiman grew older huge campaigns became rare, border skirmishing became the norm in Hungary. For unknown reasons the aged Suleiman decided to personally lead a campaign against his enemies in 1566. He was already 72 years old at the time and was suffering from gout. The initial destination of Suleiman’s army was believed to have been Eger, however, the constant attacks of Nikola Zrinski, a Croatian-Hungarian nobleman, made him change his mind.

Suleiman decided to attack Zrinski and besieged his fortress Szigetvar. The siege began in August, the defenders were greatly outnumbered, however, the formidable defensive position of Szigetvar made the siege incredibly difficult for the Ottomans.
After a month of the siege the outer defences of the castle had fallen and the defenders retreated into the old town to make their last stand.

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Suleiman died just a day before the final assault of the Ottomans. Zrinski refused all offers of surrender and ordered a suicidal charge out of the castle, most of his soldiers, him included, were cut down by the Ottomans.
The battle became immortalized by the great-grandson of Nicola Zrinski, who wrote the Hungarian epic poem „the Peril of Sziget”.

Battle of Roncevaux Pass(778)

The Battle of Roncevaux Pass became immortalized thanks to The Song of Roland, a song inspired by the death of one of Charlemagne’s commanders who died in the ambush.

Charlemagne was invited into Hispania by Muslim rulers who were at odds with the Umayyad Emir of Cordoba. Ever the opportunist Charlemagne saw a chance to increase his influence by helping his southern neighbours. Things did not go according to plan as Charlemagne soon quarrelled with the men who invited him in the first place and even besieged one of them in Zaragoza.

After a month of the siege, the parties agreed and Charlemagne started to withdraw from Spain. On their way north they came into contact and attacked Pamplona, one of the most important cities of the Basques who controlled the region. The enraged Basques swore revenge and thanks to their knowledge of the terrain set up a successful ambush. Charlemagne’s rearguard who were travelling with the baggage were cut off and slaughtered to the last men.

Thanks to the resistance of the rearguard Charlemagne’s main army escaped and their sacrifice was not forgotten. Roland and his paladins who were killed in the ambush became legendary figures thanks to their sacrifice and remained the role models of chivalry during the Middle Ages, their fame and admiration for them were similar to the legendary knights of King Arthur.

The fall of Constantinople brought an end to the Byzantine Empire

The fall of Constantinople brought an end to the Byzantine Empire

The Fall of Constantinople(1453)

By the 15th century the Byzantine Empire was on its last leg, the once glorious empire consisted of little more than Constantinople and the outskirts of the city, a city that was only a shadow of its former self.

Despite the bleak outlook of Constantinople an ambitious young ruler had grand plans for it. Mehmed II had became the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire only a couple of years before and was eager to capture Constantinople and make it his capital. Despite pleas from Emperor Constantine XI little assistance came from the other European princes. When the Ottomans finally arrived and besieged the city the defenders were badly outnumbered.

Yet despite their numerical inferiority the defenders held firm, in no small part thanks to the famous walls of Constantinople. The Ottomans finally breached the walls after 53 days on May 29, 1453 and overwhelmed the defenders. Emperor Constantine refused to flee from the city, he rather chose to fight side by side with soldiers and perished during the fighting.

The fall of Constantinople brought an end to the Byzantine Empire, the last remnant of the ancient Roman Empire.

Siege of Masada (73)

The Siege of Masada was the last stand of the Jewish rebels against the legions of Rome during the First Jewish-Roman War.

The Jews rebelled against Rome in 66 AD and at first had considerable success against the Romans. Despite their initial victories, however their cause was hopeless, the resources the Empire was able to deploy to defeat the Jews were simply too great for the rebels. In 70 AD, the legions of Titus captured even Jerusalem and burned down both the city and Herod’s Temple.

As the Romans reconquered more and more territory the rebels were forced to flee, on base for fleeing rebels was Masada. According to Flavius Josephus Mosada was held by the Sicarii, an extremist group among the Jews.

According to the traditional date of the events, the Roman governor of the province laid siege to Masada in 72 AD. The Romans surrounded the hilltop fortress and assaulted it on April 16, 73 AD.

Surprisingly to them, they found no resistance as the defenders chose to commit mass suicide instead of dying at the Romans hands, or becoming slaves ( some historians doubt the truth of Josephus’s narration, as the archaeological evidence according to them does not support the story).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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