Lucky expeditions, comprehensive defeats, & the birth of legends

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.

Last Stands

I'm a big fan of Tanya Huff's Confederation series. The Better Part of Valor is one of the few books that my husband and I both enjoy, and I was delighted to learn that it was based on real history — specifically, the Battle of Rorke's Drift. But history has lots of "impossible defense" type "last stands," so I went looking for more examples to use as inspiration. After all, it's pretty hard to write epic fantasy without at least one big epic battle.

Quick Facts

  • Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos of Byzantium died fighting during the Fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. It was the destruction of the last remnant of the Roman Empire 1,500 years after its establishment.
  • The Great Siege of Malta is an example of a last stand which didn’t end in defeat. The Ottoman Turks tried to capture the island in 1565 from the Knights of St John. They would have almost certainly died fighting to a man but after four months a Spanish expedition arrived and changed the course of the battle in the Christians’ favour.
  • At the Battle of Myeongnyang (1597), 13 Korean ships were confronted by a Japanese armada of over 300 warships. Despite the terrible odds, the Koreans managed to sink 30 Japanese vessels before withdrawing without any losses themselves.
  • The Battle of the Alamo in 1836 is one of the most famous last stands in American history, when just over 200 Texans held off thousands of Mexicans for two weeks. Despite the Mexican General's orders to spare no one, as many as twenty non-combatants survived the final assault.
  • The Siege of Jadotville saw 155 Irish soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in the Congo hold off an onslaught of 3,000 mercenaries on the mining town of Jadotville for five days. They were eventually forced to surrender, but the attackers suffered huge numbers of casualties and wounded before taking the town.

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift

The Battle of Rorke's Drift involved a little over 150 British soldiers holding off an army of thousands of Zulu warriors at the start of the Anglo-Zulu War  in 1879. The Zulus were trying to seize the mission station of Rorke’s Drift. After ten hours of engagement, hundreds of Zulus were dead, compared to fewer than twenty British casualties. The Zulu broke off the siege and left, although they were actually very close to victory. The British had 20,000 rounds of ammunition when the siege started and were down to less than 900 rounds when the Zulus abandoned the battle. The British went on to win the war.

The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae

The story of the 300 Spartans who held off the advancing Persian armies of Emperor Xerxes at the Pass of Thermopylae in northern Greece is a pretty well-known one these days, but as with a lot of pop history, there's more to the story than the comics & games depict. Ancient military historian Bret Devereaux has no patience for Spartan mythologizing, and points out that the Spartans hardly fought alone, they expected to win the battle, and that the Spartans had a pretty standard Greek military setup. If you're interested in the "truth" behind this "epic last stand" and Sparta in general, definitely click through those links to his website and Twitter.

The Battle of Karbala

During the Battle of Karbala in 680, an army of approximately 4,000 troops of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I attacked a small party of seventy Islamic warriors led by Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and his direct successor. This was part of a civil war for control of the Arab Caliphate between the descendants of Muhammad and the powerful generals. In the battle at Karbala Husayn and his followers were quickly overcome and killed, but the event is honoured as the Day of Ashura.

Custer’s Last Stand

Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 another notorious 'last stand,' but beyond that I didn't know much about it. Turns out it was part of the Great Sioux War of 1876 as the Lakota Indians and Sioux tried to resist American encroachments into the Great Plains. Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment was comprehensively defeated, which it turns out shouldn't have been that surprising since he finished bottom of his class at West Point. If it weren't for the Civil War he probably would never have been made an officer.


📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my previous newsletters about the non-defensive uses of walls and whether conquerors ever really burned their ships behind them as a way to prevent their soldiers from retreating.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

🏰 Do you know about any other historic last stands? Military history isn't my area of expertise, so if it's a particular interest of yours, I'd love it if you reached out — either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.

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