The 7 Greatest Last Stands in Military History

1. Battle of Thermopylae (480BC)


As with so much of history, we have been misled by Hollywood. The Battle of Thermopylae was not 300 Spartans against a million Persians, and I’m sure that not everyone had washboard abs. Instead, the battle, which took place at the narrow costal pass of Thermopylae (meaning, the Hot Gates) over 3 days in the late summer of 480BC was a defensive action by a Greek army of about 7500 men (including the famous 300 Spartans). The army was a coalition of Greek city-states and was led by King Leonidas of Sparta. Their purpose was to prevent the Persian invasion of Greece led by the Emperor Xerxes I. Persians had already tried to invade once, and were defeated at the Battle of Marathon ten years earlier. This time, in order to ensure victory, Xerxes sent an army that modern scholars estimate to be between 100,000 and 150,000 men. The Greek plan was to block the line of Persian advance at Thermopylae. For seven days, including three of actual combat, the Greeks held off the huge Persian army. A small force, led by Leonidas, literally blocked the only road that the Persians could use. After two days of fighting, the Greeks were betrayed by a local man called Ephialtes, who told the invaders of a small path that would allow the Persians to outflank the defenders. Once Leonidas realised he had been betrayed, he knew defeat was only a matter of time. He sent the bulk of his army away to fight another day and with a force of about 1000 men (in the front line of which were his 300 Spartans) he remained to guard the retreat. The small force fought fiercely to the death. In total Greek losses amounted to 4000 (including the 1000 engaged in the last stand), whereas the Persians lost about 20,000 men. Despite his victory at Thermopylae, the invasion proved costly for Xerxes. His fleet were destroyed at the Battle of Salamis later that year, and the flowing year, the rump of his invading army was wiped out by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea. 

2. Battle of Agincourt (1415) 

From 1337 to 1453 England and France fought the slightly misnamed Hundred Years’ War. The cause of the war was the succession to the French throne. For various reasons, the English kings claimed the throne of France, and wanted to take possession of it. The French resisted. After a few decades of relative peace, and after failed truce negotiations, the English once again went on the offensive in France in 1415, but disease took its toll and the English army was reduced to a shadow of its former self by October that year. The English commander, King Henry V, decided to withdraw back to England to rebuild his numbers. The army headed for Calais. The English numbered no more than 6000 men, of which about 5/6thwere lightly armed longbow men, and the rest armoured infantry, made up of dismounted knights. At Agincourt on 25 October, they found their way blocked by a French force of about 30,000 – 36,000 men – 10,000 of which were heavily armoured and mounted knights. The French were blocking Henry’s retreat and were happy to wait it out until Henry was forced to attack or flee. Given the unequal numbers, and the fact that the English were weary, hungry and sick, the expectation was that Henry would withdraw. But the French had chosen their spot poorly. The English were able to take the high ground and had time to drive wooden spikes into the ground to protect their archers from French cavalry charges. Henry advanced to start the battle. Personally leading his troops, Henry ordered the archers to target the French knights and cavalry. After an initial volley of fire, the French cavalry charged in a somewhat disorganised manner. Slowed by mud and the forest of defensive stakes, the cavalry was cut down by the accurate and unceasing fire of the English archers. When the charge had failed, the French decided to advance on foot (their own crossbowmen were largely out of range by this time). Again the mud, and the fact that the knights were in heavy armour, slowed them down and the English were able to pick them off before they got too close to Henry’s position. The French finally reached the English lines, but the archers continued to fire at point blank range. Once they ran out of ammunition, the English longbowmen attacked the, by now, exhausted and demoralised knights with knives and hatchets. Lightly armoured and relatively fresh, the English swarmed over the French army and finished a famous victory. The English had lost just 150 men. The French had lost 10,000, many of them from noble families. The French army lost its Constable, Admiral, Master of Crossbowmen, and the Master of the Royal Household, as well as an Archbishop. Henry returned to England unopposed. 

3. Battle of the Alamo (1836)  


In 1835 a force of Texians (which is the name applied to non-Mexican inhabitants of Texas at that time) drove out of Mexican-controlled Texas. The Texians garrison about 100 men at the former Catholic mission called the Alamo. With intelligence that a Mexican army under General Santa Ana were moving to retake Texas and headed in the direction of the Alamo, Texian reinforcements arrived, including the eventual co-commanders James Bowie and William B Travis so that the eventual total strength of the garrison was no more than 260 men. On 23 February 1500 Mexicans marched into San Antonio. There followed 10 days of skirmishing between the Alamo defenders and the Mexican army. Travis wrote letters begging for reinforcements as he was aware just how outgunned his men were, but few reinforcements arrived. In the early hours of March 6 the Mexicans advanced on the Alamo. The Texian defenders repelled two attacks but the Mexican broke through at the third attempt. The defenders retreated to the buildings of the compound and continued the fight. Any defender caught outside or any who surrendered was immediately killed by the Mexicans. The Mexicans pressed the attack and eventually overwhelmed the remaining Texians, all of whom were killed. In all 257 Texians were killed, taking with them some 600 Mexicans. The last stand at the Alamo had an electrifying effect on the push for Texan independence. People flocked to join the Texan army and inspired by a desire for revenge, they defeated the Mexican army at the Battle of Jacinto on April 21, 1836. 

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