Last Stands at Thermopylae, the Alamo, and the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol

Although outnumbered 10 to 1, Volyna vows to continue fighting “to our last strength.”

Last Stands at Thermopylae, the Alamo, and the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol

What do the battles at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., the Alamo in 1836, and the ongoing battle at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol have in common? All three feature a last stand, a military situation in which a relatively small number of soldiers attempt to hold a defensive position in the face of overwhelming odds. Last stands can play a significant role in the shaping of a people’s national identity.

“The most valiant men in Greece”

In 480 B.C. Xerxes the Persian “king of kings” assembled a vast army to invade and conquer Greece. Xerxes’ mighty force filled the Greeks with terror and desperation. Herodotus, the Greek “Father of History” later wrote that the Persian army ravished the land while “drinking rivers dry.”

Xerxes easily reached Thermopylae, a narrow 50-foot-wide pass just 85 miles north of Athens. A small band of 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas defended Thermopylae. Herodotus recounted that Xerxes laughed when he learned that only a small contingent of Spartans stood between him and Athens. But one of his advisors warned the Great King, “Now you are face to face with the…most valiant men in Greece.”

The advisor was right. The Spartans repelled wave after wave of Persian soldiers. Even Xerxes’ elite Immortals could not break through the Spartan line. Finally, after three days, a traitor revealed a secret mountain pass that enabled the Persians to surround and kill all the Spartans.

The Spartans valiant sacrifice at Thermopylae inspired the Greek city-states to mobilize their forces. Spearheaded by 10,000 Spartans, an army of 30,000 Greeks decisively defeated the Persians at the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. Both Herodotus and the epic Hollywood film 300 celebrated the battle at Thermopylae as an example of free people defending the independence against a ruthless tyrant.

“Remember the Alamo”

We do not know if the small band of less than 200 Texans who defended the Alamo knew the story of the Spartan’s last stand at Thermopylae. But we do know that their commander William Travis knew his men faced a desperate situation.

The Alamo was a fortified Spanish mission located outside of San Antonio. In 1835, Americans living in Texas rebelled against Mexico’s heavy taxes and refusal to admit additional settlers from the United States. The Mexican dictator, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, vowed to crush the rebels. In February 1836 he commanded an army of over 3,000 men to attack the Alamo.

Travis and his men repeatedly repulsed the Mexican forces. Each charge brought heavy losses for Santa Anna. When it became clear that his men could expect no mercy from Santa Anna, Travis called a meeting. Vowing to fight to the death, he asked his volunteer soldiers to signal their support by crossing a line he drew with his sword. All the men but one crossed the line.

After 12 days of fighting, the Mexicans finally broke through the Alamo’s battered walls. Although they ran out of bullets, the Texans refused to surrender. Their sacrifice gave Texans time to rally around forces led by Sam Houston. Shouting “Remember the Alamo,” Houston’s soldiers surprised and defeated Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto. Houston promptly forced the captured Mexican dictator to sign a treaty giving Texas its independence.


“We’re fighting to our last strength”

Last stands are not only found in textbooks. A last stand battle is currently being fought at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

Mariupol is a strategic port city located on the Sea of Azov in eastern Ukraine. Capturing the city has been one of President Putin’s key objectives. With Mariupol under its control, Russia could establish a continuous land corridor from the Crimean Peninsula to the areas it controls in the Donbas.

The Russian siege of Mariupol began in early March. For almost two months, relentless Russian artillery and aerial bombardments have reduced the once bustling city to a wasteland of destroyed apartments, hospitals, and schools.

The last pocket of Ukrainian resistance is now centered in the giant Azovstal steel plant. A city within a city, the plant covers an area of 4.2 square miles. An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 1,000 civilians are holed up in a vast network of underground tunnels and shelters.

The Azovstal plant has become a symbol of determined Ukrainian resistance. Led by Major Serhiy Volyna, the Ukrainian force refuses to surrender. Although outnumbered 10 to 1, Volyna vows to continue fighting “to our last strength.”

The Ukrainian last stand at the Azovstal steel plant is distracting the Russian army and preventing the Kremlin from its plan to conduct an all-out offensive in the Donbas. But it is also serving an even more invaluable function. President Putin has repeatedly denied the legitimacy of a separate Ukrainian national identity. He insists that an independent Ukraine should not exist. But the last stand at the Azovstal steel
plant is becoming part of Ukraine’s national memory. The story of the plant’s heroic defenders will play a role in accelerating the consolidation of a Ukrainian national identity as a free people fighting for their independence.

Larry Krieger

Larry Krieger

Author · Instructor

In a career spanning more than 40 years, Larry Krieger taught a variety of AP subjects including Art History, U. S. History, European History, and American Government. Mr. Krieger has published popular books that have enabled students across the country to be confident in their abilities when facing AP and SAT exams.

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