Game of Thrones and the Significance of ‘Last Stands’ in US and British Imperial Military History

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Game of Thrones and the Significance of ‘Last Stands’ in US and British Imperial Military History

The upcoming fight for Winterfell in the HBO series Game of Thrones speaks to the mother of all mythologies in Western imperialist military history.

Game of Thrones and the Significance of ‘Last Stands’ in US and British Imperial Military History

The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty’s 44th Regiment of Foot at Gandamak in Afghanistan in 1842, painted by William Barnes Wollen

Credit: William Barnes Wollen/Wikimedia Commons

What does the latest episode of Season Eight of the HBO hit fantasy series Game of Thrones have in common with the American and British conquests of a sizable portion of the world in the 19th century? The question may seem frivolous and far-fetched. However, as Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow’s outnumbered army is grimly awaiting the onslaught of the Undead in the castle of Winterfell, the echoes of the mother of all military mythologies, which played an instrumental role in driving Western conquests in the Age of Imperialism, are resonating in the Westeros stronghold —the myth of the last stand.

A last stand is a defensive battle by an outnumbered force against overwhelming odds that in most instances ends in the complete destruction and the defeat of the defenders—perhaps the most iconic of which was the fight of 300 Spartans against Persian invaders at the narrow coastal pass Thermopylae in Greece in 480 BC. It was this battle that begot the mythology of the last stand in Western military history, with the latter becoming synonymous for the defense of Western civilization against any foreign invaders. In the 19th century, this was taken to its jingoistic extreme with the last stand becoming the iconic symbol and preeminent feature of imperialist propaganda that helped justify Western conquest as preemptive defense. Last stands pitted purported prowess, chivalry and sense of duty of the individual Western soldier against the anonymous savagery of the bloodthirsty, uncivilized, and typically darker skinned masses of the non-West

It is thus unsurprising that the archetypal last stand film is the 1964 war epic Zulu set in the heydays of British Imperialism and recounts the defense of the mission station of Rorke’s Drift by 150 British and colonial troops against 4,000 Zulu warriors in January 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War. Zulu, especially the theatrical run-up to the battle of Rorke’s Drift, inspired director Peter Jackson’s dramatization of the battle of Helms Deep in Lord of the Rings, which in turn is said to have influenced the creators of Game of Thrones for the upcoming battle of Winterfell.

In all of these last stand narratives, the battle itself is secondary to the lead-up to the epic clash of arms. The drama is principally created by emphasizing the hopeless situation of the defenders: they cannot expect any quarter and, as a result of being despondently outnumbered and ill-equipped, are most likely all doomed to perish. Nonetheless, out of a sense desperation, duty, or simply to protect their loved ones, the defenders, despite foreseeing their own demise, still decide to fight to it out to the bitter end.

Last stand narratives especially fired the heroic imagination of the Victorians. This was partially the result of the then contemporary interest in  Greek and Roman heroic legends,  the history of the Middle Ages, especially the Arthur legend, and the Romantic movement. For example, the night-before-the-battle-contemplation-of-death portrayals, as seen in last week’s Game of Thrones episode, is derived from the Victorians’ attempt to idealize military leaders as tragic Romantic heroes — British Major-General James Wolfe endlessly repeating in a low voice on the night before the 1759 battle of Quebec the lines of a poem: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Or Admiral Nelson visiting the different battle stations aboard his flagship Victory on the eve of the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 while contemplating death. (The 19th century also saw renewed interest in Shakespeare’s Henry V, another tale of a desperate last stand that was interpreted in Victorian romantic terms.)

Yet, last stands were also used to justify the ideology of imperialism. The siege of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 became perhaps the most celebrated last stand in the history of British India and for decades afterwards was cited as a reason for the “natural right” of the British to dominate the subcontinent. (The importance of Lucknow for the British imperial elite made it even into the British series Downton Abbey a couple of years ago when the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, tells her granddaughter: “Remember your great-aunt Roberta…She loaded the guns at Lucknow.”)

Conspicuously, the last stand of British General Charles Gordon during the defense of Khartoum in 1885 was used as a rallying cry for crushing opposition to British imperial rule in Sudan. The last stand of 21 Jat Sikh soldiers in 1897 in the North-West Frontier Province of the Raj (today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province  in northwestern Pakistan), was interpreted by the British authorities as a testimony of the loyalty of their Indian subjects. At the same time, the last stand of the British 44th foot regiment in January 1842 during the First Anglo-Afghan War triggered calls for reprisals and was used as a justification for a second British-Indian invasion of Afghanistan in 1878.

The last stand mythology, however, was not just confined to the British imperialist experience.

During the period of the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century, the two most prominent events that became rallying cries for Manifest Destiny were both highly mythologized last stands — the 1836 siege at the Alamo and the 1876 defeat of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. The former prompted calls for the annexation of Texas, while the latter was used as a call to arms for the total subjugation of all native Americans. Interestingly, both commanders of the doomed forces in the respective battles, William B. Travis and George Armstrong Custer, were fans of the historic novels of Walter Scott filled with heroic battles against impossible odds. (The dramatization of the night before the final battle in John Wayne’s nationalistic 1960 film Alamo bears close resemblance to the depiction of night in the recent Game of Thrones episode.)

The last stand mythology prevailed to the waning days of British imperialism. Notably, the only time Winston Churchill issued a “last stand order” during World War II  also occurred in an imperialist context when he wired an infamous telegram to General Wavell, the overall commander of allied operations in Southeast Asia, in February 1942 during the British troops final stand in the then British colony of Singapore: “The battle must be fought to the bitter end and at all costs. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honor of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.” Churchill, in his 1930 autobiography My Early Life, also recounts his fears when getting dispatched with an order during a punitive expedition in today’s northwestern Pakistan in 1897 that his unit may have to make a last stand without his participation and the dishonor it would bring him.

Last stands were critical to the heroic narratives of American and British territorial and military expansion in the 19th century. Its distinct echo can be heard in the preparations for the soon to be televised battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. The framing of the battle narrative is broadly similar to the last stand tales propagated throughout the 19th century — a small band of soldiers courageously thwarts the onslaught of the primitive horde. In that way, the story follows a well-trodden path back to Ancient Greece and the 300 Spartans. As last week’s episode of Game of Thrones confirms, it remains an effective tool to captivate an audience.