The Ottoman Empire was on its last legs. Midway through the Great War, the inter-allied French and British Commonwealth forces launched an assault to capture the Ottoman capital Istanbul to secure a sea route to Russia. Fought fiercely on the battlefields of Gallipoli peninsula, both fronts were weighed down by heavy casualties. Unable to crack the Turkish resolve, the Allies eventually beat a retreat.
The Turk sufferings during the campaign turned out to be the birth pangs of a proud nation. Eight years later, on 29 October 1923, the Republic of Turkey arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), a commander at Gallipoli, led the Turkish National Movement that ultimately founded modern Turkey. In sum, the upshot of a bloody battle was the emergence of a new country.
The fizzle at Gallipoli recoiled in Britain: heads rolled; the backwash swept aside Winston Churchill who resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty; Prime Minister Herbert Asquith swallowed the bitter pill of sharing power with his adversaries by forming a coalition government.
Despite the mounting toll, despite depleting men and ammunition, Charlie Company intrepidly engaged the Chinese. They neither retreated nor surrendered. The gallant men fought to the last trench, last man, last round and last breath.
The Gallipoli backfire thus echoes what General Omar Bradley (the legendary commander of the US ground forces during World War II) mouthed: “In war there is no prize for the runner-up.” Whatever the cost and pain, victories are sweet and celebrated; licking the wounds leaves the defeated party with lingering sourness. More so because history is written by the victors who delight in turning up their nose at the vanquished. But if something inspires public imagination more than fabled conquests, stirs the emotion like nothing else in the world, it has to be the tales of gallant last stands. Let me cite some.
Circa 480 BCE. To stem the advance of the Persian invasion of Greece, Athenian general Themistocles urged the Greek king to adopt a two-pronged strategy: one, block the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae; two, naval siege of the straits of Artemisium to forestall the Persians from skirting Thermopylae by sea.
Spartan King Leonidas mobilised an allied Greek army of approximately 7,000 men to make Thermopylae impassable to the formidable army of Xerxes, who was itching to avenge his father’s drubbing at Marathon. Although vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held more than a quarter million Persians at bay until Ephialtes – a local – ratted on them by divulging to the Persians the mountain pathway to the rear. Outflanked, Leonidas bid his army to retreat but for the phalanxes of 1,400 hoplites (armed-to-the-teeth foot soldiers) to forge a do-or-die rearguard.
The rearguard clashed with the Persians over the pass, initially with spears and later with xiphes (short swords). Leonidas died fighting. Upon sensing his moment, Xerxes marshalled his troops to the hills to rain down arrows till the last hoplite was slain. While the Greeks suffered 2,000 fatalities, the chroniclers put the Persian toll at ten times that count.
The epitaph inscribed on the plaque of the Thermopylae memorial reads:
Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
Thermopylae could not queer the Persian invasion but the moving epic scripted by Leonidas remains one of the most narrated last stands in history.
Saragarhi, a small village in present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan, staged one of the bloodiest encounters during the Tirah Campaign. Pitted against corps of Afghans, a contingent of 22 soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment of British India led by Havildar Ishar Singh, chose to fight to death to defend the army post and authored another gripping last stand on 12 September 1897.
Unlike Thermopylae, the Battle of Saragarhi was an instance of the self-sacrifice not going in vain. The Sikhs had fought long enough to allow the British to rush reinforcements…
Tribal Pashtuns raided British encampments from time to time. Situated midway between forts Lockhart and Gulistan, the British raised Saragarhi as a heliographic communication post. Since their offensives to conquer the forts were thwarted by the Sikhs, to disrupt the communication between the two forts, 10,000 Afghan tribesmen launched a fierce onslaught on the Saragarhi post that September day.
Screaming the war cry of Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal, the Sikhs confronted the Afghans head on. Havildar Ishar Singh displayed exemplary courage and leadership in defending the swarmed post located on a rocky ridge. Sardar Gurmukh Singh, the last Sikh defender, loosed off a whirlwind attack that killed a score of Pashtuns. The Afghans had to set fire to the post to snuff out the valiant Sardar.
Unlike Thermopylae, the Battle of Saragarhi was an instance of the self-sacrifice not going in vain. The Sikhs had fought long enough to allow the British to rush reinforcements, who drove away the droves of Afghans essaying to capture Fort Gulistan. In sum, Saragarhi turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for the Afghans.
Captain Jean Danjou of the 3rd company of the Foreign Regiment detachment was charged with escorting a logistics convoy to bolster the siege by the French Legion of the Mexican city of Puebla. No sooner had they halted at Palo Verde for the daybreak coffee-break than he heard the clip-clop of mounted Mexicans. His immediate task was to divert the attention of the pouncing cavalry from the convoy nearby. So he mustered his men at Hacienda Camarón with dispatch and converted an inn with three-metre-high parapet into a rampart.
The date was 30 April 1863. Colonel Milan, the Mexican commander bade him to surrender but Capt Danjou retorted he and his men would rather fight to death than submit. The 65 legionnaires bravely took on the combined might of 800 horsemen and 1,200 infantrymen. The fusillade from French long-range rifles dispersed several Mexican forays. Capt Danjou took a shot right in the chest at midday and passed on. Second Lieutenant Vilain took charge and galvanised the Legion ranks to give the Mexicans a bloody nose, till he too fell. With just 12 legionnaires left, 2nd Lt Maudet took over the mantle. Ammunition ran out in an hour in the shoot-out, and the five men still standing roared and lunged into a desperate bayonet charge.
In the battle of Rorke’s Drift (South Africa), the last-standers actually outfought and repulsed the superior foe and lived to fight another day.
Colonel Milan asked the two survivors left to lay down their arms but they sought safe passage home to escort the body of Capt Danjou. The Colonel conceded out of sheer respect for their valour.
Like the 36th Sikh regiment, the 3rd company’s sacrifice was not futile; the convoy did make it to Puebla and the city fell 17 days later.
Captain Danjou had lost his left hand in an expedition and had a prosthetic hand appended to the forearm. April 30 is venerated as “Camerone Day”, and the Legion parades the prosthetic hand to commemorate the battle of Camarón, which continues to inspire the posterity.
The general drift is the stronger force trouncing the weaker one, more so in a last stand, but not always. In the battle of Rorke’s Drift (South Africa), the last-standers actually outfought and repulsed the superior foe and lived to fight another day.
The defence of Rorke’s Drift was an engagement during the Anglo-Zulu War fought between the British Empire and the army of Zulu king Cetshwayo at the border between the British colony of Natal and Zulu Kingdom about the eponymous ford near the Mzinyathi River. On 22 January 1879, about 160 British and assorted colonial troops (belonging to B Company of 2/24th Regiment of Foot under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead and 5th Company of Royal Engineers led by Lt John Chard) parried repeated attacks by four regiments of Zulu warriors and triumphantly defended the garrison. The stout defence radiates more lustre when beheld against the backdrop of the British army’s rout at the Battle of Isandlwana just the previous day. For the record, beginning with the tactical victory at Rorke’s Drift, the British forces notched up series of victories to finally defeat the Zulu nation at the Zulu capital Ulundi on July 4. This last stand is truly sui generis.
As he neared his death, Mu’awiya, the calculating governor of Syria, Palestine & Jordan, anointed his son Yazid as his successor. Husain ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, crossed swords with Mu’awiya for he opposed this deviation from a canon of Islam (does not subscribe to dynastic/monarchical rule). Later, upon Mu’awiya’s death, Yazid ascended as the governor. He yearned for public acceptance, and like his father, had no hesitation in using means fair or foul towards fulfilling that end, but Husain steadfastly refused to accept Yazid as a leader of Islam or a caliph.
The battle of Karbala and the tragic events were like a mighty quake that shook the foundations of Islam.
680 CE. Meanwhile, its people invited Husain to Kufah and impelled him to assume as their leader. He and his supporters set course from Mecca to Kufah, but en route, they were intercepted by Yazid’s troopers and forced to encamp at Karbala, west of the Euphrates River. Five days later, Yazid’s forces completely laid siege and cut off access to Euphrates to deprive water to Husain and his band. But Husain refused to surrender.
Three days later, the day of Ashurra dawned upon Karbala. On the tenth day of Muharram, hostilities finally broke out; just 71 warriors arrayed against the might of 5,000-strong army of Yazid. As the dehydrated, exhausted men engaged the formidable army, Husain expected help to arrive from Kufah, but that never materialised. One by one, they embraced martyrdom, Husain being the last to fall. Ali Asghar, six-month-old baby and his youngest son, was not spared and died before his very eyes.
The battle of Karbala and the tragic events were like a mighty quake that shook the foundations of Islam. The significance of Karbala is that it has solidified into a keystone of the Shia faith, whose followers believe the 72 innocent lives sacrificed did not go in vain, for it saved Islam and the Ummah. For them, Karbala was actually a triumph, of good over evil.
To impose itself across the mid-Pacific and advance towards Japan during the latter half of the Second World War, the US needed to establish insular airbases, and this island-hopping strategy zeroed in on the occupation of the Marshall Islands first followed by the Marianas Islands, but to capture the Marianas, they had to first seize the Japanese-controlled atoll of Tarawa.
Anticipating an amphibious American invasion, the Japanese 3rd Special Base Force fortified the islets with coastal batteries and ring-fenced the inland with stockades and firing pits. The US 2nd Marine Division comprised a flotilla of 143 vessels and 18,000 Marines. The invasion of the largest islet Betio commenced in the predawn hours of 20 November 1943; guns blazed, aircraft blitzed, bombshells banged, but the attempts to establish beachheads were bogged down by deadly Japanese gunfire and shallow tide. Though the death of commander Keiji Shibazaki threw the Japanese response into disorder, by nightfall the garrison had eliminated 1,500 of the 5,000 Marines ashore.
The Japanese soldiers fought almost to the last man; of the 3,636 Japanese fighters who defended Tarawa, only 17 outlived the 76-hour relentless American onslaught.
On the second day, to elbow ahead, the Americans brought their heavy artillery to bear on the Japanese emplacements and established control over the western end of the island. The tide had turned, literally and figuratively! The next day, they consolidated their grip over Tarawa, pushed the Japanese further into the interior and moved in the heavy hardware.
Their backs against the wall, in the wee hours of 23rd, about 300 Japanese soldiers launched an inspired banzai charge, but were outgunned by the Americans in an hour. The Marines later stormed to mop up the remaining obstinate Japanese.
The Japanese soldiers fought almost to the last man; of the 3,636 Japanese fighters (plus 1,200 Korean labour) who defended Tarawa, only 17 outlived the 76-hour relentless American onslaught. The US paid dearly too, with 3,301 casualties.
The Second World War had slogged into the sixth year. Retribution on their mind, the Red Army was on the offensive and at his threshold (East Prussia), but Adolf Hitler chose to mind the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge) in the west instead.
The 1.5-million strong Byelorussian Front bustled into East Prussia in January 1945, and encircled the city of Königsberg. Its residents could bolt only via the Baltic port of Pillau or Danzig. The evacuations to Germany and Denmark, christened Operation Hannibal, a venture that matched the scale of the great evacuation at Dunkirk, began on January 23. With the Nazi atrocities still raw and galling, the Soviets went on the rampage to avenge, unleashing bestial savagery in the process, annihilating thousands of refugees, on land and sea.