the military origin of the adjective ‘last-ditch’

In Brexit secretary confirms plan to let MPs thrash out deal in Commons, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Wednesday 10th April 2019, Matthew Weaver wrote:

The Brexit secretary has confirmed the government could try to turn indicative votes into binding decisions in a possible last-ditch attempt to break the Commons deadlock on leaving the EU.

The adjective last-ditch means made as a final attempt to achieve something after everything else has failed.

It is derived from the phrase to die in the last ditch, meaning to die still fighting to defend something. The term last ditch denoted the innermost or only remaining defensive entrenchment, as in the following passage from St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (London, 1799), by the English social philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756-1836)—as quoted in The British Critic (London) of January 1800:

One evening that Bethlem Gabor entered my dungeon, I observed in him an air of unusual disturbance. […] Chatillon, said he, perhaps you will never see me more!
“My castle is besieged. […] In the worst event I will not be made a prisoner; I will die fighting.”
From this time I saw Bethlem Gabor no more; he died, as he had sworn to do, in the last ditch of his castle.

(The end of the last sentence is “in the last dyke of his fortress” in the first American edition of St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (Volume II – Alexandria, Virginia, 1801).)

The following is from The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Thursday 15th September 1743—Dunkirk is a port in northern France; fraised means, of a parapet, made horizontal or slightly inclining to the horizon:

Dunkirk, Sept. 6. The Works made before this Town consist of a good Parapet, faced or lined with Turff, and frais’d along the Edge of the old advanced Fosses, together with a Moat of 10 Toises or Fathoms in breadth, and 8 in depth, which reaches from the Sea, on the East-side, as far as the Canal of Bergue, traversing the Canals of Furnes and Moire; which last Ditch secures all the East-side from any Attack.

Plan de Dunkerque 1751
image: Lettres de Dunkerque – Période 1600-1900

Plan de Dunkerque 1751


The following passage from the Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Saturday 3rd February 1844 associates the phrase with a metaphorical fortress:

The Pro-Corn Law Convention […] has raised the banner of “no surrender,” and is prepared to die in the last ditch of the fortress of agricultural protection.

The phrase to die in the last ditch has been ascribed to William of Orange (1650-1702), who supposedly used it in 1672 when declining the offer to be made Sovereign Prince of Holland in return for his capitulation to England and France (William was at that time Stadholder, i.e. chief magistrate, of the Dutch Republic; he became King of Great Britain and Ireland as William III in 1689). There is, however, no direct evidence of his use of the phrase.

In the following from Jure Divino: A Satyr. In Twelve Books (London, 1706), the English novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) gives an account of William of Orange’s response to the offer of capitulation made to him in 1672; in to lie in the last ditchlie is probably a misprint for die, since Defoe writes that William was “intimating, that he would dispute every Inch of Ground with the Enemy, and at last would die defending the Liberties of his Country”:

Liberty enjoy’d his Sword’s great Maidenhead:
’Twas undebauch’d with (c) Lust of Government,
Like all his future Actions, Great and Innocent.
(c) Of this he gave an unparalell’d [sic] Instance, when being reduc’d to great Difficulties, in the same War, and press’d, by the French, in the Bowels of his native Country, on one Hand, and the English, with their Navy, on the other; and the English Ambassadors offer’d him, in the Names of the Kings of England and France, to take the whole Country, and then restoring it to him, form it into a Monarchy, and make him King of it: He rejected it with the utmost Indignation; and when One of them ask’d him what Remedy he could think of for the Ruin of his Affairs, answer’d, He knew One effectual Remedy, viz. to lie in the last Ditch; intimating, that he would dispute every Inch of Ground with the Enemy, and at last would die defending the Liberties of his Country.

Daniel Defoe mentions “Sir William Temple’s Memoirs” as the source of this anecdote. However, in Memoirs of what past in Christendom, from the War begun 1672. to the Peace concluded 1679. (2nd edition – London, 1692), the English statesman and diplomat William Temple (1628-99) does not quote William of Orange as using the term last ditch:

The French […] made the Prince all the Offers that could be of Honour and Advantages to his Person and Family, provided he would be contented to depend upon them. The Bait they thought could not fail of being swallow’d, and about which most Artifice was imploy’d, was the Proposal of making the Prince Soveraign of the Provinces under the Protection of England and France. And to say truth, at a time when so little of the Provinces was left, and what remain’d was under Water, and in so eminent danger upon the first Frosts of the Winter, this seem’d a lure to which a meaner Soul than that of this Prince might very well stoop. But his was above it, and his Answers always firm, That he never would betray a Trust that was given him, nor ever sell the Liberties of his Countrey, that his Ancestors had so long defended.

In Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time (Volume I – London, 1724), the Scottish historian and Bishop of Salisbury Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715) also recounts how William of Orange reacted to the offer made to him in 1672; Burnet, who says that the Prince “told me this himself”, writes that he used the phrase to die in the last ditch:

The Prince […] said, his country had trusted him, and he would never deceive, nor betray them for any base ends of his own. The Duke [of Buckingham] answered, he was not to think any more of his country, for it was lost: If it should weather out the summer, by reason of the waters that had drowned a great part of it, the winter’s frost would lay them open: And he repeated the words often, do not you see it is lost? The Prince’s answer deserves to be remembred: He said, he saw it was indeed in great danger: But there was a sure way never to see it lost, and that was to die in the last ditch.

The earliest use that I have found of the phrase to die in the last ditch without explicit reference to William of Orange is from Extract of a letter from Boston, Nov. 17., published in The Leeds Intelligencer (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Tuesday 3rd January 1775:

Your old acquaintance B— says he will never live to see his country entirely subdued, but will assist in disputing every unlawful measure, and every inch of ground, till he dies in the last ditch.

The earliest occurrence of the adjective last-ditch in the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2014) dates from 1888. But the earliest instances of this adjective that I have found are from The Western Times (Exeter, Devon, England) of Saturday 5th July 1845:

The demise of Sir W. Follett has caused a vacancy in the representation of Exeter. There are two candidates in the field for the honour of filling the seat. The first is Sir John Duckworth, our neighbour of Topsham. […] Sir John professes to be a Conservative […]. Sir John says he would conserve institutions. […] Sir John has at his back a league composed of all who have raved and roared for things as they are for the last thirty years. Men who have denounced all reform as revolution, who have resisted reform with gagging bills and imprisonment, with denunciations, with persecution, who have contested inch by inch the sacred ground of dogmatism and error, been dying in the last ditch in defence of the old constitution any time these 20 years, but who have, whenever they were tumbled into its mud, crawled out as fast as they could, and planting their foot on new ground, raved and roared again about the “old landmarks,” just as if they had not surrendered them over and over again. On the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts, it was to have been a last ditch death; on the passing of Catholic Emancipation, the same testimony to principle was to have been rendered; Parliamentary Reform came, preceded by its last ditch threat; then Municipal Reform; and last, though not least, in 1841 the short commons of the people were to be upheld by the Commons of Parliament, or there was to be a real and genuine last ditch death of it by these gentlemen, who are constantly getting into the mud, but as constantly shirking that self-sacrifice which they are everlastingly threatening.

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