Do we have record of any large scale battle (for example more than 1000 combatants) where only one person survived? I just thought of it randomly and wondered whether it may have ever happened.
The British Army left in Kabul, Afghanistan after the First Anglo-Afghan War, was to leave after an Afghan uprising.
The main contingent of some 16,000 troops and associated civilians was attacked throughout their journey to Jalalabad, eventually only a single survivor Assistant Surgeon William Brydon. He was asked upon arrival what happened to the army, to which he answered "I am the army".
I am not aware of any large battles with only a single survivor out of all the combatants, but there was at least one major battle that had only a single survivor on the losing side.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn (or Custer's Last Stand) led to a slaughter of the American forces. Every American soldier who was present when the battle began was killed, except for one scout who left mid-battle and a single horse.
Yes, there was a battle between the Spartans and Argives described by Herodotus. They decided to solve the dispute in a "fair way" without risking their full armies, so 300 soldiers were chosen from each side, and it was agreed that the side that loses would recognize its defeat. The result was one Spartan and two Argives surviving. The Argives rushed back to report their victory, but the Spartans made the argument that the battlefield remained at their disposal because this one soldier remained. So the war continued.
The same Herodotus says that there was one Spartan, surviving the battle of Thermopylae. He was very ashamed of this. He was killed at Plataea. His name was Aristodem.
References: Herodotus, Histories, Chap. II sect. 81-82, and Chap IX, sect 71.
As a counterpoint to @Gwenn 's answer: At one point during the Battle of Guadalcanal; Mitchell Paige was the only surviving member on the American side of a key portion of the front line during a major Japanese counter attack.
PLATOON SERGEANT MITCHELL PAIGE
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, in combat against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands Area on October 26, 1942. When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, Platoon Sergeant Paige, commanding a machine-gun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he manned his gun, and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire against the advancing hordes until reinforcements finally arrived. Then, forming a new line, he dauntlessly and aggressively led a bayonet charge, driving the enemy back and preventing a break through in our lines. His great personal valor and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
/S/ FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
There's also a longer somewhat dramatized version of the events of the night of Oct. 26, 1942 floating around the internet. Due to length, I'm only linking to a copy of it.
Not really one survivor, but pretty close. Olshansky's marines group.
On 26th March 1944 Soviet marines group consisting of 68 men (as only 55 names are known, some people argue that there were only 55 of them) landed in Nikolaev (now Ukraine) sea port. They fought against Germans for three days: 26-28 March 1944. At the end there were only 11 survivors, all wounded (one died later in the hospital). In the morning of 28th March Germans had to withdraw, because the Red Army had entered the city of Nikolaev from north and east.
The exact number of Germans fighting in the port is unknown, but there were three infantry battalions, which is far more than 1000 men. Germans had 18 attempts of assault, but all were unsuccessful. The losses of Wehrmacht were really significant, as at least one battalion was fully defeated.
If the legend is to be believed, Horatius Cocles once fought an army (mostly) on his own and survived, even achieving his tactical goals.
It was disaster. If the Etruscans crossed the bridge, they would take Rome. Horatius, a young Roman soldier, called to his friends, “Come on! We’ll hold the bridge while the others chop it down.” His friends froze. They were terrified at the thought of facing an entire army. “Then at least chop the bridge down while I hold them off alone,” Horatius pleaded.
He stood on the bridge and faced the Etruscan army alone. “Who among you is brave enough to face a Roman soldier,” he shouted. The Etruscans threw spears at him. But they were some distance away, and the bridge itself gave Horatius protection. Horatius stood firm, fighting like a hero. When the Etruscans tried to cross the narrow bridge, Horatius cut them down. Two of his friends rushed out to help him. Behind them, other young soldiers were frantically sawing at the heavy cords that held the bridge.
Horatius felt the bridge give way. “Go back,” he shouted at his friends. His friends raced for the protection of the walled city. It was hopeless, they thought. One man cannot stop an entire army. Only the gods could save them now. But Horatius was right. The bridge was giving way. As the bridge began to fall, Horatius turned and dived into the Tiber. The gods were with him. He swam back to Rome safely, and received a hero’s welcome.
Assuming the legend is true (sounds fantastic to me), one could argue that he was the sole "survivor".
Would the battle of the Alamo count. From wikipedia
" Of the Texians who fought during the battle, only two survived: Travis's slave, Joe, was assumed by the Mexican soldiers to be a noncombatant, and Brigido Guerrero, who had deserted from the Mexican Army several months before, convinced the Mexican soldiers that he had been taken prisoner by the Texians "
Though this states 2 people survived, I dont think I would count Joe as a combatant because he was a Travis' slave and not really there by his own volition.
Another very close answer to this question could be the Dade massacre that was part of the Seminole Wars. Only 3 soldiers survived the attack and one was killed by a Seminole scouting party shortly after the battle, and before he could return to camp.
the wikipedia page states, "Only three U.S. soldiers were reported to have survived the attack. Private Edward Decourcey, who had been covered by dead bodies, and Ransom Clark who appeared "dead enough" with five wounds and bleeding cuts on his head. The next day, a Seminole pursued them on horseback and Decourcey was killed after they had split to avoid joint capture. Clarke made it back to Fort Brooke, collapsing within a mile of the Fort and being helped all the way back by a friendly Indian woman. Clarke provided the only narrative from the Army's side of what had occurred. A third soldier, Private Joseph Sprague, also returned to Fort Brooke and continued serving in the Army. He was illiterate, and did not leave a report of the battle"
Question: Has there ever been a battle with only a single survivor?
- Battle of Little Big Horn, When re-reinforcements arrived they found General George Armstrong Custer and his 200+ soldiers were wiped out. The sole survivor was a horse Comanche found on the battle field. He was the mount of Captain Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry, and became a celebrety of sort after the battle.
- Battle of Midway in WWII. Ensign George Gay Jr off the USS Hornet was the sole survivor of the 15 aircraft ( 30 men) of devastator 8 torpedo squadron who attacked the Japanese at the battle of midway. Ensign Gay (pilot) was wounded and his radio man was killed prior to his torpedo run. Gay was subsequently shot down and spent 30 hours in the ocean prior to being picked up. During his time afloat he had a front row seat to one of the greatest navy battles of WWII and the sinking of 3 Japanese aircraft carriers.
- Aristodemus of Sparta (previously mentioned but not named).... was one of two Spartan survivors of the battle of Thermopylae. When Leonidas and his 298 other Spartan's died to the last man to slow Xerxes and his Persians from invading Greece. The other Spartan ordered by Leonidas to stand down was Eurytus.
The battle between the Horatii and Curatii in ancient Rome, but it is a borderline case because of two reasons:
It was in a time period where history and mythology cannot be fully separated from each other, so its authenticity might be accepted by some, and debated by others.
Only 6 people took part in the fight proper. However, both armies (likely above 1000) did meet each other on the battlefield, and only there was it proposed to decide the battle with a trial by champion. So, depending on how we define "battle" and "fight", this might or might not count.