“Custer’s 7th Cavalry is just one of several examples from history of army units that have been completely wiped out in a single battle.”
THE CITIZENS OF AMERICA received a nasty surprise in the days leading up to their country’s 100th anniversary. In early July, 1876, newspapers nationwide were reporting that nearly 300 troopers from the 7th Cavalry had been slaughtered the previous week by warriors of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in a little-known corner of the frontier. Heading up the column was the vainglorious and flamboyant general George Armstrong Custer. His mission: to round up Sioux tribes and force them onto government reservations.
On June 25, Custer’s force moved against an Indian encampment on the bank of the Little Bighorn River in present-day Montana. Despite the fact that the native warriors outnumbered the 7th Cavalry troopers more than three-to-one, the general ordered the assault anyway. Not surprisingly, the attack failed to scatter the Sioux. In fact, the braves swarmed the American column sending Custer’s men scrambling back to the high ground overlooking the village. Over the minutes that followed, Custer’s entire force was cut down piecemeal. One eyewitness to the slaughter reported that the soldiers of the 7th fell in the same time it “takes a hungry man to eat a meal.”  Ironically, the supposedly ‘primitive’ tribal warriors outgunned the cavalry troopers; most of the braves carried state-of-the-art rapid fire Spencer, Winchester and Henry repeaters; the cavalrymen were equipped with inferior single-shot Springfield carbines. Custer himself fell in a hail of bullets with wounds to the chest and head. His body and those of his men were stripped and mutilated where they lay.
Custer’s 7th Cavalry is just one of several examples from history of army units that have been completely wiped out in a single battle (or suffered greater than 90 per cent casualties). Consider the defenders of the Alamo and the three Roman legions lost in Teutoburg Forrest. Here are some more:
The First ‘Last Stand’?
History remembers Custer’s Last Stand as an example of hubris and folly; posterity has been far kinder to King Leonidas I of the Ancient Greek city state of Lacedaemon, also known as Sparta. In 480 BCE, the legendary ruler led 300 of his hoplites into a hopeless battle against the Persians at Thermopylae. The Spartans were part of a larger force of between 4,000 and 7,000 soldiers from various Greek city states that had banded together to defend their homeland against a foreign invasion. The Persian emperor, Xerxes I, likely had between 100,000 and a quarter million troops at his command and expected an effortless victory against his puny opponents. As his vast formations overwhelmed the Greeks, Leonidas and his men along with about 1,000 other troops wedged themselves into a narrow mountain pass at the famous hot springs in an attempt to hold off the enemy long enough for the main Greek force to withdraw to safety. After three days of battle, the tiny force was killed to a man; they took 20,000 Persians with them to Hades. According to the legend, the doggedness of the Spartans, coupled with the defeat of the Persian fleet at Salamis, convinced Xerxes to call off his invasion and head for home.
Defenders of the Faith
Fighting to the last man is not something one would normally associate with mercenaries. But the Swiss Guards, the famous soldiers-for-hire that have defended the papacy for centuries, did just that in 1527. When Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sent an army of 20,000 men to overthrow Pope Clement VII, the regiment fought off a vastly superior force of attackers in front of the Vatican itself. In fact, the Swiss manned the defences long enough for the pontiff to flee. Out of a force of fewer than 200 guardsmen, all were either wounded or killed.  So much for Swiss neutrality.
The Civil War’s Lost Units
The bloodbath that was the American Civil War is replete with units that were whittled down to nothing. Case in point: The 27th Virginia Regiment. Part of the famous Stonewall Brigade, named for its iconic commander General Thomas J. Jackson, the 27th began the war with eight companies totalling 800 men. The outfit lost 141 at the First Bull Run; later it would suffer 30 percent casualties at Gettysburg. By the end of the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864, what was left of the regiment, now known as the Bloody 27th for its harrowing casualty rates, was all but destroyed. 
The 11th Mississippi suffered a similar fate. Dubbed the “University Greys” in homage to the state’s prestigious college from which the regiment was recruited, the 11th enjoyed the dubious distinction as being the southern unit that advanced the farthest towards the Union lines during Pickett’s Charge. Its complement would suffer 100 percent casualties for that honour. 
A number of regiments of the British Army suffered total (or near total) annihilation while fighting in the farthest flung reaches of the empire. Case in point: In 1842 the 44th Regiment of Foot from East Essex died almost to a man during its last stand at Gandamak, Afghanistan. After covering the rest of the army’s retreat, the bloodied, frozen and exhausted 44th were cut off and surrounded by Afghan tribesmen. The warriors gave the East Essex one last chance to lay down their arms – “Not bloody likely!” came the reply. Only two Englishmen survived the ensuring massacre. Oddly enough, it was not the first time the 44th had been virtually wiped out. During the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, Scottish Jacobites outflanked 2,300 British troops of the 44th. The highlanders slaughtered more than 500 and captured three times that many in about 10 minutes of vicious fighting. Only 170 members of the regiment (about 7 percent) escaped.
Unfortunately, none of the 66th Regiment of Foot, aka “the Berkshires”, would walk away from the 1880 Battle of Maiwand during in the Second Afghan War. After losing all but 11 men to a force of several thousand tribal warriors, the last survivors of the Berkshires fought on, supposedly astounding the enemy with their tenacity. Eventually, all of them would perish. “The behaviour of those last eleven was the wonder of all who saw it,” one Afghan eyewitness supposedly said of the 66th.  Equally grizzly was the fate of six companies of the 24th Regiment of Foot that were left to defend an unfortified camp near Isandlwana, South Africa during Britain’s war against the Zulu nation. The 500-strong detachment was overwhelmed by more than 20,000 warriors on Jan. 22, 1879. None survived.
France also has a tradition of fighting to the finish.
In 1863, during Napoleon III’s conquest of Mexico, a column of Foreign Legion troops marching to relieve Vera Cruz encountered a numerically superior force of enemy troops. The legionaries withdrew to the protection of a nearby estate and held off successive waves of Mexican attackers, taking heavy casualties (including their commander) in the process. The French troops, reduced to a half dozen, fixed bayonets when their ammunition ran out and fought on. Beaten and exhausted, the last three Frenchmen brazenly negotiated a truce with the Mexicans and withdrew to safety with their flag, weapons and wounded. The Foreign Legion still marks the anniversary of the battle every April 30. It’s known as Cameron Day, named for the estate where the battle took place, the Cameron hacienda. 
First World War
The Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916, stands as the epitome of the senseless slaughter that characterized the First World War. On the opening day of the battle alone, more than 57,000 British troops became casualties, with 19,000 killed. Not surprisingly, a number of units in the first wave of the attack suffered greater than 90 percent losses. One of those was the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Within the first 10 minutes of going over the top, 650 of the unit’s 750 men were hit. Fewer than 70 emerged from no man’s land unscathed . The battle is seen today as a defining moment (albeit a grim one) for the province of Newfoundland, Canada. The only unit to suffer a higher casualty rate at the Somme was the 10th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. It sustained more than 90 percent casualties in its advance at Fricourt.  A similar fate befell the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment the year before the Somme. It was the first Ottoman unit to cross swords with the Anzacs at Gallipoli. Supposedly, as the Allied troops were wading ashore, the commander issued orders to hold until reinforcements to be brought forward (no matter what the cost). All of the men of the 57th were supposedly either killed wounded or captured. The sacrifice of the regiment is still remembered by Turks. 
Second World War
Catastrophic casualty rates didn’t end with the brutality of trench warfare. During the Second World War, a number of units sustained near total casualties as well. Consider the fate of the Wehrmacht’s elite Großdeutschland infantry division. After making a name for itself during Germany’s 1940 invasion of France, the Großdeutschland regiment was strengthened to a Panzer grenadier division and shipped east to take on the Red Army. After years of action on the Russian Front, the unit was gradually depleted from 15,000 men at its peak to fewer than 4,000 in by April of 1945.  Although largely broken and exhausted, the survivors were ordered back into action against the Soviets at Pillau, Poland in the war’s last days. By the end of the engagement, the unit was utterly destroyed.
It was a story all too familiar to the U.S. Army’s 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), better known as Unit Galahad or Merrill’s Marauders. The 3,000 volunteers to this long-range special operations outfit served in the Burma theatre between 1943 and 1944. Although often outnumbered, the Marauders, named for their commander Gen. Frank Dow Merrill, fought in nearly 40 engagements deep in the jungles of south Asia. By the end of the unit’s last battle, the fight that liberated the city of Myitkyina, the 5307th had fewer than 200 troops remaining.  Following the clash, the Marauders were withdrawn from the war.
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(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Dec. 4, 2012)