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John D Salt

I’m not sure what a last stand is.

I thought I knew until I thought about it.

Well there’s your problem — “most of the trouble comes from thinking”, as one of the soldiers said in Tolstoy’s “Sevastopol Stories”.

Without thinking about it too much, I think I think something counts as a “last stand” if there is no retirement or extraction plan. A term I’ve often heard, which I think means much the same, is a “Die-in-place Defence”. When I was in Exeter UOTC a distinguished if eccentric officer involved in our training, Rory Walker (MC, and mad as a badger in a cake shop) thought it would inspire bloodthirsty young officer cadets to become adequate leaders if he quoted from a document allegedly found secured by a bayonet to the wall of a bunker that was overrun during the “Backs to the Wall” battles in 1918. This said, in part, “Special Order of the Day: We are staying here. We may stay here alive, or we may stay here dead, but we are staying here.” Hardly in keeping with the NATO idea of an elastic defence, but never mind that, it was stirring stuff.

Last stands generally seem too have an appeal to the emotions. I’m not sure on what grounds it would be considered that “the cultural reasons for it may not easily resonate with us” as far as Thermopylae is concerned. I can’t think of many combats from half a millenium before the birth of Christ that resonate more, unless it be Horatius holding the bridge. There’s not only a film about Thermopylae, there’s a film about the film! Few things resonate to that number of echoes.

We all like a good last stand. Rob Robertson mentioned Roncevaux, and the Song of Roland is one of the foundation-stones of French literature. We English probably pay a bit more attention to Agincourt than we should, perhaps on Shakey grounds. The Alamo provides the foundation myth for Texas; commemorating the death of Hussein at Karbala is still one of the main events of the year for Shi’a muslims; the Israeli Defence Forces invoke the spirit of Masada. British paras remember Arnhem; US paras remember Bastogne; my own regimental association runs an annual pilgrimage to Risquons Tout, Mouscron, because of three Queensmen with a Bren carrier who simply fought in place until they were all killed. People who are “sick of this dam’ war: the blood, the noise, the endless poetry” will probably find that last stands have contributed almost as much poetry (or other literary and legendary gubbins) as they have blood (and here I must confess my shame at having attempted a Villanelle for 5th Hampshires about Sidi N’sir).

Perhaps last stands are not likely to be tactically very interesting, as both sides expect the defenders to be obliterated, and wargamers famously prefer oddly-well-balanced meeting engagements or mutual advances. For the unromantic tactician, the main point of wargaming interest here is I think the idea of the “golden bridge”. If a “last stand” is a defence without an extraction plan, and if the defenders are the sort of people likely to subscribe to the romance of going out in a blaze of glory (“How can man die better/Than facing fearful odds/For the ashes of his fathers/And the temples of his gods?”) then it is probably a foolish move to deprive the other side of an extraction plan they would otherwise like to have. The idea of a “golden bridge” –leaving the enemy a way out — is discussed in Paddy Griffith’s wonderful “Battle in the American Civil War”, but I have not really seen it mentioned elsewhere. The only rules I know to reflect the effect are in SPI’s “Sinai”, where Arab units surrounded by enemy zones of control have their defence values doubled, and the Israeli player has the option of waiving a ZOC in order to avoid this, and so produce a retreat rather than a “die-in-place” defence.

All of which makes me wonder how much morale rules should allow for the existence or otherwise of hope, because it seems to me that soldiers who have resigned themselves to the idea that they will not survive sometimes take an awful lot of killing.

All the best,