Q: Does the expression “last ditch” come from trench warfare during World War I?
A: It does indeed come from the excavated defensive positions used in warfare, but the fighting that inspired the phrase “last ditch” took place hundreds of years before World War I.
The usage can be traced back to William of Orange’s vow to fight to the death in the 17th century rather than see the Dutch Republic conquered by invading French and British forces.
William, the Dutch stadtholder, or steward, was the son of the previous stadtholder and Princess Mary, daughter of King Charles I of Britain. He later became King William III of Britain.
On July 5, 1672, an envoy from Charles II, then the ruling British monarch, met with William in southern Holland and offered to make him sovereign prince of Holland if he surrendered to the British and French.
If he refused, the envoy said, William would witness the death of the Dutch Republic.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites two versions of William’s reply. The first is in Jure Divino, a 1706 poem by Daniel Defoe, but we prefer this one, written sometime before 1715, from Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time:
“There was a sure way never to see it lost, and that was to die in the last ditch.” (Burnet was a philosopher, historian, and Anglican bishop of Salisbury.)
The OED defines the noun phrase “last ditch” as “the innermost or only remaining defensive entrenchment, the last line of defence; often fig. and in figurative contexts.”
The dictionary defines the expression “to die in the last ditch” as “to die still fighting to defend something, to resist to the last.”
When the adjective “last-ditch” showed up in the late 19th century, according to the Oxford, it described “fighting, resistance, or opposition to the very last; maintained to the end.”
The first OED citation for the adjective is from Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army (1888):
“It was said … the French intended to die to the last man before giving up that city. But this proved all fudge, as is usual with these ‘last ditch’ promises.”
In the 20th century, the adjective came to describe something done “at the last minute in an attempt to avert disaster; resulting from desperation.”
The earliest OED example for this new sense is from Death in the Desert: The Fifty Years’ War for the Great Southwest (1935), by Paul I. Wellman:
“It was a last-ditch law, dictated by the fear which death from the north had engendered in every Mexican heart.”