Medieval knights could well be the Trope Codifier, at least in their own minds and their interminable epics and ballads. It helped that ransoms for captured high-class foes were often a valuable source of income, so treating a downed wealthy foe with respect and letting him live was a sensible move.
All elite forces, but especially paratroops, consider each other as worthy opponents.
The Battle of Borodino during the French Invasion of Russia. Both sides suffered vast casualties but neither achieved a decisive victory. Napoleon's own description of the horror of this "clash of Titans" is particularly apt: "Of the fifty battles I have fought, the most terrible was that before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy victors, and the Russians can rightly call themselves invincible".
Happened during this battle. Unlike the modern practice of "taking cover," Napoleonic tactics stressed the importance of maintaining formation. This meant, unless ordered to move, soldiers were expected to just take incoming enemy fire. note This led to one situation in which a squadron of French cavalry was placed out in the open and then seemingly forgotten about. The Russians started blasting them with artillery. One French soldier even recalled being able to literally see the Russians in the distance meticulously sighting their guns on his position, and, because his battalion hadn't been ordered to move, being able to do nothing but sit there and wait for it. The French soldiers storming Russian positions maintained their discipline, as they were continually blasted with Russian artillery and musket fire. Their discipline so impressed Russian General Bagration that he started to rise and shout, "Bravo! Bravo!" (and almost immediately he was mortally wounded by shell splinters to his leg).
Also, Napoleon greatly respected the Russian commander in chief, Mikhail Kutuzov, even considering the only general capable of defeating him. In fact, after the inconclusive clash at Borodino Kutuzov would proceed to do just that, defeating Napoleon's invasion through superior strategy.
When Roman general Pompey the Great lost the Battle of Pharsalus against Julius Caesar, he was forced to retreat to Egypt, where the then-pharaoh Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator had him executed. Upon arriving in Egypt, Caesar was greeted with Pompey's severed head and signet ring in a basket as an offering. Caesar was so offended by this offering of his former friend and worthy opponent that he had the parties responsible for it executed. Part of this was probably political calculation,note Not only did it look good for Caesar to pay tribute to his foe in this way, Ptolemy's actions deprived Caesar of the opportunity to show mercy to Pompey. Caesar was almost certainly intending to spare Pompey if he ever had the opportunity, reckoning that if he did so, Pompey's supporters were less likely to try and undermine his victory. Whether this would have worked we'll never know, since Ptolemy took that decision out of Caesar's hands, so Caesar had to make do by honoring Pompey posthumously. Caesar was probably also offended at this foreign intervention into Roman affairs—it's likely that to Caesar's mind, Pompey's fate was for Romans to decide, not some Greek king. but most historians agree that he really did respect Pompey and really was offended by the Egyptians' actions.
Darius III of Persia to Alexander the Great. Read this ancient passage describing his reaction to Darius' death:
"When Alexander came up he showed his grief and distress of the King's death and un-fastened his own cloak, he threw it over the body, covering it. Later, after he captured Baptus, who had murdered the king, Alexander had the tops of two straight trees bent down so that they met. And part of Baptus's body was tied to each. Then when each tree was let go and sprang back to its upright position, the part of the body attached to it was torn off by the recoil. As for Darius body, he returned it to his mother for it layed out for in royal state."
Also, King Porus to Alexander. While it's debatable whether Alexander even won, in the legend, after Alexander defeated Porus' army in the Battle of the Hydaspes, Alexander asked Porus how he wanted to be treated. Porus' answer, "like a King", impressed Alexander so much, that not only did Alexander allow Porus to remain a king, he even enlarged Porus' territory.
After the Russian army defeated the Swedes in the Northern war, the Russian emperor, Peter the Great, treated the captive Sweden officers with great respect and allowed them to keep their swords. During the celebration feast, Peter raised a glass to the Swedish king, Carl XII, and called him his teacher.
WWI German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, better known today as the Red Baron, was greatly admired among the Allied powers. Upon his death, he was given a full military funeral by his Australian opponents.
Another Such World War I example was German fighter ace Werner Voss. After his skillful flying managed to let him go toe-to-toe against seven British aircraft for over ten minutes, one of the British Aces he fought against had this to say:
James McCudden: As long as I live I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single-handed fought seven of us for ten minutes, and also put some bullets through all of our machines. His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion he is the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight.
James McCudden:Rhys-Davids came in for a shower of congratulations, and no one deserved them better, but as the boy himself said to me, "Oh, if I could only have brought him down alive," and his remark was in agreement with my own thoughts.
Several German officers in the two world wars earned (or at least received) the respect of their opponents.
Erwin Rommel, the Wehrmacht Field Marshal in World War II known as the Desert Fox by his enemies, was praised by his opponents, especially his legendary archrivals, Bernard Law Montgomery and George S. Patton. Rommel, while not a member of the Nazi party, was still under the command of Adolf Hitler and was deeply loyal to him, as well as being a prominent admirer of Hitler. However, he had Jewish friends and consistently defied orders to execute both Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners of war. In fact, his Africa Korps was well known for being fairly humane and were not charged with any war crimes under his command. Though not directly involved, he knew enough about the July 20th plot to kill Hitler to become entangled in the aftermath and was given the choice of suicide over execution, the former which he chose to spare his family. The fact that he managed to become the only German general from the Second World War with his own museum just shows how well he exemplified both Magnificent Bastard and Worthy Opponent. Which said, a lot of Rommels reputation with the Allies was a product of Allied propaganda; by building him up as a cunning and skilled commander, the British especially could explain away the series of embarrassing defeats which he inflicted on them in North Africa, which were really largely down to their own misjudgments.
"If I had to take hell, I would use the Australians to take it and the New Zealanders to hold it." — Erwin Rommel
Though nowadays overshadowed by Rommel, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (commander of the German forces in Tanzania during WW1) qualifies as well. So badass was he that he surrendered after the war was over in Europe, despite being completely cut from any source of supplies and reinforcements. The British were so impressed that they paid his retirement pension. It also helped that he gained a reputation for giving Hitler the shaft. An anecdote had Charles Miller ask the nephew of a Schutztruppe officer, "I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go fuck himself." The nephew responded, "That's right, except that I don't think he put it that politely." Karen von Blixen - who would later write the novel Out of Africa — actually travelled on the same ship with von Lettow-Vorbeck on her way to Africa. She would describe him as the strongest example of what the German Empire truly stood for. Much later, he lobbied the West German government to pay the pensions of his surviving askari troopers (which they did). Upon his return to Tanzania in 1953, the askaris assembled and serenaded him with their marching song. Since the askaris generally didn't still have their military IDs to prove they were entitled to the pensions, they were instead asked to perform their rifle drill. Which they did, perfectly. After 40 years.
In the same vein as Rommel, the German officer Hans von Luck (seen by Rommel as a sort of adoptive son) could count. He was all over the map in WWII, being first of the German Panzer forces to the sea, furthest into Moscow, in the Africa campaign (he even captured the founder of the SAS, who escaped during a lavatory break), on the defense during the battle of Pegasus Bridge, and eventually spent years in a Stalag before arriving back in West Germany. When he visited the site of Pegasus Bridge, the British commandos, to a man, pretended he was Swedish to get him past the embittered old woman who had been liberated decades before. He also gave lectures to former Allies' military trainee officers, and generally was completely accepted. His opinion of the Allies in WWII was more of the same - he mentions that he and the Allied desert scouts had a ceasefire every night at 6pm, arranged prisoner exchange, and on one occasion, his car was attacked by a fighter - which refused to shoot until the Germans were out of the vehicle.
Hasso von Manteuffel, a German panzer commander who later became a German politician and named the Bundeswehr, Germany's post-war armed forces. Eisenhower invited him into the White House and the Pentagon, and he worked as an advisor on many American war films. He was pretty badass, too — when he served under Rommel, he commanded for several days without food or rest, beating back Allied attacks, before he collapsed. When he was defending Berlin, Soviet troops broke into his command post. He shot one and killed another in a knife fight.
At the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans shouted to each other when they were resting at night.
During WWI, German Feldmarschall August von Mackensen led a campaign through Serbia, coming up against incredible resistance when laying siege to Belgrade. Although the city eventually fell to the Austrian and German armies, von Mackensen remarked that "We have fought against an army we have only heard about in fairy tales" and had monument erected in the Serbians' honor.
George S. Patton himself earned the admiration of Josef Stalin (pre-Cold War) stating that the Red Army wouldn't be able to match his aggressive advance in the French countryside.
Adolf Hitler and the rest of the Wehrmacht commanders, of all people, respected Patton even more than his colleagues. Mainly because he was using their blitzkrieg tactics against them and winning. Hitler called Patton "the crazy cowboy general."note Hitler, being a Karl May fan, deeply admired anything coming from the Old West Erwin Rommel certainly returned his archenemy's remarks to him, saying that he executed "the most astonishing achievement in mobile warfare." General Alfred Jodl compared him to General Heinz Guderian, who conquered France, Poland, and parts of the USSR. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who fought, delayed, and harassed Patton at Sicily, noted that "Patton had developed tank warfare into an art, and understood how to handle tanks brilliantly in the field. I feel compelled, therefore, to compare him with Generalfeldmarschall Rommel, who likewise had mastered the art of tank warfare. Both of them had a kind of second sight in regard to this type of warfare." German officer Fritz Bayerlein said that, unlike the cautious British General Montgomery, "I do not think that General Patton would let us get away so easily." and in an interview conducted for Stars and Stripes (American Military newspaper) just after his capture, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt stated simply of Patton, "He is your best." Indeed, German command's high opinion of Patton was so well known that (much to the General's annoyance) Allied Command placed him in charge of the (fake) First United States Army Group during a deception campaign leading up to D-Day, since they knew that the Germans were paying close attention to anything Patton was doing so involving him directly would greatly risk exposing the real D-Day plans.
The rivalry between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, two Daimyos in Japan. Although ruling different territories, and often waging war against one another, legend says they developed a deep respect for one another, to the point where Kenshin reportedly wept openly and loudly at the death of Shingen, and never again attacked Shingen's territory.
Kenshin went so far as to break a blockade against Shingen during his opponent's most dire hour, sending him salt (for preserving food) and saying: "Wars are to be won with swords and spears, not with rice and salt."
King Fredrick the Great of Prussia once commented on Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, "I warred with her, but I was never her enemy." The feeling doesn't appear to have been mutual.
Union and Confederate soldiers in The American Civil War sometimes conducted temporary truces to trade for tobacco, food, or alcohol, with or without their superior officers' knowledge or consent. There is at least one documented instance of soldiers deserting and joining the opposing side because their commanding officer killed a soldier they had made a truce with.
Also from the Civil War: General Robert E. Lee was well respected by many members of the Union, including Abraham Lincoln. Before the Civil War, Lincoln had requested that Lee be the commander of the Union Army. The only thing that kept him from joining was because he had been born in the confederate state of Virginia, and couldn't bring himself to fight against the place he was born.
Ulysses S. Grant was similarly well respected by Lee, who, after the war, never, ever tolerated an unkind word about Grant in his presence. Joseph Johnston was similarly disposed towards his rival. Considering that the rival in question was the oft-villainized William T. Sherman, that's saying something. Johnston even served as a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral in 1891, and refused to cover up despite poor health and the bone-chilling cold. Because of this, he caught pneumonia and died shortly afterwards. When a friend advised him to at least put on his hat (hats aren't worn at military funerals as a sign of respect), he refused, saying that, "If I were in his place and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat."
Exemplified by Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. To quote the other wiki: "Dressed in an immaculate uniform, Lee waited for Grant to arrive. Grant, whose headache had ended when he received Lee's note, arrived in a mud-spattered uniform; a government-issue flannel shirt with trousers tucked into muddy boots, no sidearms, and with only his tarnished shoulder straps showing his rank. It was the first time the two men had seen each other face-to-face in almost two decades. Suddenly overcome with sadness, Grant found it hard to get to the point of the meeting and instead the two generals briefly discussed a previous encounter during the Mexican-American War." Grant was surprised that Lee, a cavalry colonel from a famous military family, remembered who he was, as at the time, he was a very junior infantry lieutenant from a family with not much military history—or any history, really—to speak of).
Joshua Chamberlain ordering his men to carry arms as a salute to the surrendering Confederates at Appomattox comes to mind as well.
Indeed, the Civil War was full of this, as most of the Confederate officers had been Union officers until just before the war. Old West Point men were fighting their classmates. Even worse, Sherman, who had headed a military academy in Louisiana just before the war, may have found himself fighting boys he had taught. Families were divided and brothers really did meet on the battlefield and fathers in one uniform find their sons in another among the dead or captured.
Raizo Tanaka was considered by American officers, both during and after the Second World War, to be one of the finest officers in the Imperial Japanese Navy and a veritable wizard with destroyers. American officers were mystified when he was relieved of sea duty in 1943; it turned out that Tanaka really was that smart and he knew most of the objectives he'd ordered to support were impossible. His protesting this got him beached, much to the relief of many American officers fighting in the Solomons.
Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor, has gone back and forth on this trope in the United States. During the war he was widely hated by his American opponents. After the war, as various Japanese veterans published their stories and they were translated, Americans came to believe he was simply doing his duty as best he could based on these accounts. This was followed by a drought in publications being translated and historians in the two countries staying mostly out of contact until the internet reconnected everyone in the late 1990s. At that point primary sources available in Japan but not translated before showed that much of what was published about Yamamoto earlier was not accurate. That combined with modern American reexaminations of his decision-making being quite critical means that opinion on Yamamoto is swinging back towards contempt.
The military ethic has analogies to the legal ethic in that it presumes that a professional soldier will do his best for the State he serves (barring Very Exceptional Circumstances like Those Wacky Nazis) just as a lawyer does the same for his client. Thus many soldiers do not think it contradictory to try to kill someone and yet admire them, as killing is their job but hating isn't, as, after all, enemy soldiers aren't much different from themselves.
"Casabianca", also known as "The boy stood on the burning deck", is a poem by British poet Felicia Hemans, first published in August 1826. The poem commemorates an actual incident that occurred during the Napoleonic Wars. In the 1798 Battle of the Nile, the French ship "Orient" caught fire while fighting the ships of the British Royal Navy. Giocante, the young son (his age is variously given as ten, twelve and thirteen) of commander Louis de Casabianca, remained at his post and perished when the flames caused the magazine to explode. Many generations of romantic young Englishmen were taught to admire the heroic young Casabianca and seek to emulate him, despite his having been an enemy who died fighting against their country.
What with the glorification of chivalry, the Middle Ages should have been full of these, but one outstanding example is Saladin of the Third Crusade who treated Richard the Lionheart with a profound respect. Given the contention surrounding the events that took place during the Crusades, how true this really was may never be known.
Since a good deal of Saladin's praise comes from Christian monks who chronicled the events, it's hard to argue. On the other side, Muslim chroniclers exclaimed that Balian, who had defended Jerusalem, held a rank in their eyes equal to a king. He had asked Saladin for leave to evacuate his wife and children from the Holy City, and Saladin agreed on the condition that he does not return to take up arms. When Balian got there though, the people implored him to stay, citing the greater need of Christendom. He stayed and defended the city, and when the time came to negotiate terms with Saladin, the sultan reportedly held no ill feelings to Balian for breaking his oath, and sent an escort to guide his family back to Tripoli.
Richard the Lionheart was apparently this back to Saladin, as he was in general. In fact, he ordered the crossbowman who had mortally wounded him to be pardoned and set free. Unfortunately, after Richard died, a certain mercenary captain in his army, named Mercadier, said screw it, Richard won't argue, and had the poor kid flayed alive.
Richard and Saladin's mutual respect was such that one of the proposed resolutions to the Third Crusade was a marriage between Richard's sister and Saladin's brother as king and queen of Jerusalem. While the proposal ultimately fell through, the fact that they even considered it speaks volumes about the nature of their relationship.
In Budapest's historic Castle District, which had seen hard fighting in 1686 when a Christian army (re)conquered it after 150 years of Turkish rule, can be seen "The Monument of the last Turkish governor" erected by the victors, with the following epitaph: "Here fell the last Turkish governor, Pasha and commander of Buda, Abdurrahman Abdi Arnaut on 9 late-summer month of 1686, in his 70th year of age. He was a noble enemy and a hero, may he rest in peace." 
One of the first things the Israel Defense Forces did after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1967 was to build a memorial to the Jordanian Arab Legion, who had defended East Jerusalem and the West Bank valiantly but suffered from a complete lack of air support (the IDF had taken out more or less the whole Royal Jordanian Air Force within 45 minutes of the opening of the war).
Australians and New Zealanders respect the Turks, and vice versa, a lot. Why? Because they were the very embodiment of this trope to one another in World War I, during the Gallipoli campaign — Australia and New Zealand was Turkey's worthy adversary, and Turkey was Australia and New Zealand's. Though both sides fought with extreme tenacity and dedication, they also fought one another with a great degree of honour. The Turks eventually renamed the beach where the invasion took place "ANZAC Cove" in honour of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps; in return for this, the Australians established the only war memorial in the Australian capital ever dedicated to a former enemy — a tribute to the Turkish commander at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's own opinion about the ANZACs can be read here◊.
The famed Lost Battalion, who after getting surrounded by the German army, spent a week fighting off their attacks, even after being shelled by their own artillery, before reenforciments arrived. By the fifth day of the siege, the German commanders sent a letter to the Americans literally begging them to surrender because they didn't want to kill any more of them.
Many of the old guard in the United States military regarded the Soviet Union as having been a fine and worthwhile adversary — at least when the prospect of nukes wasn't involved, and likewise, many of the old Soviet officers thought the same of the United States. The two superpowers stood toe-to-toe for decades without managing to get into a [direct] shooting war with each other, and often copied each others' tactical doctrines and combat innovations. Especially among the United States Navy and double among the submarines, now largely without a job, it's not unknown for senior American officers to lament the fall of the Soviet Union - fighting terrorists just isn't the same, and mileage varies on the idea of China as a replacement adversary.
Both Michael Scheuer (the one-time head of Alec Station, otherwise known as the Central Intelligence Agency's Bin Laden Unit) and Usama bin Laden (UBL) himself mutually acknowledged one another's rationality and understanding, with Scheuer agreeing with bin Laden's assessments of the United States as an overextended imperial power, while UBL even went so far as to recommend Scheuer's book "Imperial Hubris" in one of his audiotapes.
There are several instances of the Victoria Cross being awarded (posthumously) in World War II partly or, in one case, entirely on the recommendation of German officers:
The destroyer HMS Glowworm fought the much larger German cruiser Admiral Hipper, ramming the larger vessel before being sunk. The captain of Glowworm, Lieutenant Commander Gerard Broadmead Roope, received the Victoria Cross in part at the urging of Hellmuth Heye, commander of the Hipper, who wrote to the British via the Red Cross of the courage displayed by the skipper of the much smaller Royal Navy vessel.
Sergeant Thomas Frank Durrant was a British Army commando killed while engaging a German destroyer in his small boat. Durrant's commanding officer was captured, and the captain of the German destroyer met him in a POW camp and recommended the sergeant be decorated for his bravery.
Flying Officer Lloyd Allan Trigg of the Royal New Zealand Air Force received the Victoria Cross entirely based on the testimony of the men he was trying to kill. He attacked the German U-boat U-468 in his B-24 Liberator bomber; he sunk the enemy submarine, but in doing so, his aircraft was shot down with no survivors. Trigg received the Victoria Cross based only on the testimony of the survivors of the U-468 (including its captain) when they were rescued by the Royal Navy.
During the Thirty Years' War, the Protestant King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden apparently respected devout Catholic commander Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, enough that he sent his personal physician to tend to the man's wounds as he lay dying. Tilly, in turn, told the physician, "Your king is truly a noble knight."
Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin seemed to have had this for each other, despite Nazi Germany breaking the Molotov-Rippentropp pact and the vicious hatred the Red Army and Wehrmacht had for each other on the Eastern Front. Hitler often spoke positively of Stalin, and considered him to be far more honorable than 'pure opportunists' like Churchill and Roosevelt. After the war, Stalin obsessively collected any information he could on Hitler's life, despite celebrating Hitler's death when he got the news.
Hitler, who had fought Canadians in World War I, paid his respects to the Vimy Ridge Memorial. During the German occupation of France in World War II, he posted guards to make sure that the site was not desecrated in any way.
The legendary World War II dogfight between Saburo Sakai and James 'Pug' Sutherland, which saw both men display astonishing courage and skill in a dogfight that lasted several minutes in an era where dogfights were typically over in seconds. It eventually ended when Sakai shot down the crippled and disarmed F4F Wildcat, but he had such respect for its pilot that he took care to aim his finishing shot at the engine rather than the cockpit so as to give the pilot a fighting chance of surviving. He did, but unfortunately died in a jet training accident in 1949.
Both were fighter aces. Sakai finished the war with 64 victories, while Southerland's eventual tally was 6. Southerland's weapon systems had been damaged by a hit from the return fire of Japanese G4M bomber, which he had shot down before the encounter with Sakai.
Perhaps all the more poignant for the fact that the Worthy Opponent's name or even his unit is not known, Israeli pilot Asher Snir's story of an encounter with a Syrian MiG-17 during the 1970 War of Attrition: The Man in the MiG
Carlos Hathcock and the Viet Cong sniper known only asthe Cobra. Hathcock, considered by the United States Marines to be the greatest sniper they ever produced (and they produce some damn fine snipers) had a bounty of $35,000 put on his head by the North Vietnamese, and the Cobra was sent to collect. The day started with Cobra spotting Hathcock in camp, unawares, lining up a shot... and killing another marine a few feet from Hathcock, just to get his attention. Hathcock geared up and the two (along with Hathcock's spotter) proceeded to stalk each other around the valley they were in for the rest of the day, cat and mouse. Finally, as the sun was going down behind Hathcock's back, he caught a glimpse of sunlight glinting off a scope, and took the shot. When they found the Cobra, the bullet had passed straight through his scope, without even touching the side. Hathcock admitted that it was mostly luck, but had he not been the quicker on the trigger, the outcome would have been reversed; the shot was only possible because the Cobra had been trained directly on him. He would later admit in an interview to having a sneaky respect for the Cobra, saying "I figured he's almost as good as me... but nobody's that good."
Duke Cunningham also found a Worthy Opponent with the still not reliably identified North Vietnamese fighter pilot variously called Nyugen Toon or Tomb who engaged him in a dog fight he only managed to win by the skin of his teeth.
To this day, the Mexican military respects the French Foreign Legion a lot for the Battle of Camarón. A Mexican soldier meeting a Legionnaire salutes...even if the Mexican is a general and the Legionnaire a private.
After the Anglo-Zulu War, the British built a monument... to "the Zulu warriors who fell here for the old Zulu order."
After the war, King Cetswayo was tracked down and captured by a cavalry detachment, having been literally running all over Zululand for weeks, yet retained his regality — when a trooper tried to seize him, he said, "Hey, British soldier. I do not surrender to you, I surrender to your commander." The soldier not only backed away, but the detachment were also moved to spontaneously salute him - more than that, they gave him a freaking guard of honour. Hell, even Queen Victoria was impressed by him when she met him, and his admirers prevailed upon the colonial authorities to give him one of the thirteen kingdoms that Zululand had been strategically divided up into - though sadly he died only a few years afterwards in 1884, likely of poisoning. For his part, he was a great admirer of Britain and had maintained a policy of non-confrontation. Even when the British invaded, his army was given strict instructions to drive them back over the Natal River and then to go no further. Those who did, the troops who attacked Rorke's Drift, were fined five cows (a significant amount) and even those who had 'washed their spears' (a warrior could not marry until he had slain an enemy, which was the primary motivation of the attackers) were denied the right to marry in a finely judged piece of Laser-Guided Karma. The Battle of Rorke's Drift is a national embarrassment in Zululand even today - not because they lost, but because the soldiers disobeyed orders and went to "dig holes in the walls of the house of old Kwa Jimu [Jim Rorke] who had never done us Zulus any harm."
The Zulus themselves have noted that they felt much the same way about the fighting discipline the British troops; they were impressed at how the British soldiers and their native allies stood their ground regardless of the overwhelming odds like stones, while their older enemies of native nations were routed in the same situation - the exact words recorded by one David Rattray were, "Ah! Those British, they fought like lions!"
During the battle of Isandlhwana, when one of the British companies was cornered and about to be annihilated, the Zulus stopped so that the British commander could go and personally shake the hands of each of his troopers.
During the Second World War, in April 1941 the German General Wilhelm List commanded the forces attacking the Metaxas Line in northern Greece. He admired the courage of the Greek soldiers opposing him, who went on fighting even when outflanked. When finally winning the battle, he refrained from taking the Greek soldiers prisoner, declaring that they were free to leave with their war flags, on condition that they surrender their arms and supplies. He also ordered his soldiers and officers to salute the Greek soldiers.
Billy Bishop, the top Canadian ace of WWI and arguably the top ace of the British Empire, was nicknamed "Hell's Handmaiden" by the Germans, and after the war, he was invited as a guest of honour to a gathering of German aces in Berlin.
The Canadians in general were well respected and feared by the German soldiers in World War I, and earned the nickname "shock troops" by them. The stunning Canadian victory at Vimy Ride in 1917 certainly helped boost their reputation, and a rumor was also spread by the Germans that Canadians were completely immune to the cold. Even Hitler respected them and, as mentioned earlier, sent guards to protect their memorial from damage during WW2.
The English for the French and vice-versa, throughout history, to the point that they joined forces and ultimately stood united through two World Wars, after eight hundred years of intermittent but plentiful warfare (it's estimate that between 1000 and 2000 AD, England and France spent 250 years at war).
Summed up quite touchingly in this Polandball strip.◊ And more recently, in real life, during an England-France friendly match scheduled at Wembley Stadium (home of English football) a couple of days after the Paris Gun Attacks of November 2015. Usually, they're hard fought, heated affairs, and fans (even players) sometimes come to blows. This time, the French motto of 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité' was emblazoned on the side of Wembley, the historic 'Home of English football', the arch was lit up in the colours of the French tricolore, the usual vast St George's Cross made up of cards held up by fans was replaced with a French tricolore, a minute of silence was impeccably observed by all of the 70,000 plus fans present, and the words of La Marseillaise were shown on the big screens, allowing the English fans to join in - which they did. Loudly. And when Lassana Diarra, a French midfielder whose cousin had been killed in the attack, was brought on in the second half, he received a standing ovation from the entire stadium. When England won 2-0, there was absolutely no gloating whatsoever, a drastic departure from the usual practice. Moreover, barely two weeks later, a motion to bomb IS in Syria was proposed in Parliament. A couple of years before, this motion had been resoundingly defeated. This time, it passed by a landslide and RAF bombers were in the air within the hour.
Two years later, a return match took place in Paris at the Stade de France, the traditional home of French football, after the London Bridge Attacks and the Manchester Arena Bombing. The gestures, of an impeccably observed silence, a display of the flag, and the national anthem being sung by all, were reciprocated.
Napoleon I of France and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, were this at least early in their life. Justified in that Napoleon's style completely transformed contemporary military science, teaching, and application, while Wellington, despite often operating on the strategic and logistical equivalent of spit, string, and staples (as far as the military was concerned, the Royal Navy was the government's favoured child), remains one of the few generals in all of history to have never lost a battle that he commanded. Curious in that it never was mutual; Wellington found out in 1814 that the Emperor had left money (which he didn't even have) in his will to a man who had tried to assassinate Wellington, which left him absolutely disgusted at this ungentlemanly behaviour. Napoleon meanwhile had never faced Wellington in battle and suspected his marshals were to blame for their losses in Spain. This changed after Waterloo, with the Emperor having nothing but praise for the man who defeated him.
On a larger scale, this was basically what the British and French armies in the Peninsular War were like. Both armies consisted of professional, relatively disciplined and regular soldiers fighting in a strange and hostile environment with little supplies. The only other people were Spaniards and (to a lesser extent) Portuguese, who hated the British almost as much as they hated the French due to the former being arrogant Protestant hooligans and the latter due to brutally occupying their country for five years, which sparked many brutal backlashes against French soldiers. Hence, it was only natural that there should be some kind of bonding between both armies. At one battle early in the war, thirsty soldiers from both sides rested at the same well in the centre of the battlefield and attempted to talk. This was much more widespread amongst the officers, many of whom would have spoken the other's language (mainly British officers speaking French). One anecdote relates that a British major had met with a French colleague for dinner at the latter's camp, and gotten so drunk he had to be carried home by four French soldiers.
King Henry VII of England apparently considered King Richard III this, at least in the sphere of combat. His official account of the Battle of Bosworth Field, where most victorious kings would paint their slain foes as weaklings and cowards, instead had Richard dying "in the thickest press of his enemies", having made a desperate charge against Henry himself, and personally unhorsing one of Henry's best knights.
Richard also struck down Henry's banner. In most circumstances, this would have meant routing the foe. Both sides fought literally to the bitter end.
After the execution of Marshal Michel Ney (one of Napoleon's generals), a Russian officer expressed happiness over it, and was immediately dishonorably discharged from the Russian army by the Czar, who immensely respected Ney.
During World War II, SOE Major Patrick Leigh Fermor led an Anglo-Greek commando team to kidnap General Heinrich Kreipe, the German military governor of Crete. (This exploit is depicted in the book and film Ill Met By Moonlight.) Leigh Fermor and Kreipe, much to their surprise, found common ground in both their education and life experiences and gained immense respect for each other. The erstwhile adversaries met years later on a Greek television show and seemed thrilled to be reunited.
When George Washington died, the British Navy was ordered to fly their flags at half-mast.
There's actually a statue of George Washington standing proudly outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London.
In Somalia, the battle to rescue the crews of two downed helicopters during the 90's that we know as Black Hawk Down is known as the Day of the Rangers, out of a grudging respect for the skill of the Americans involved.
General George Crook campaigned against several Indian tribes for years after his Civil War service, most notably the Lakota and the Apache. However, he also took the initiative to advocate for Indian causes, most notably refusing to deport Standing Bear and his Ponca followers back to Oklahoma when they had been given refuge on the Omaha Reservation, and encouraging Standing Bear to file a lawsuit for recognition of basic Indian rights. Lakota Chief Red Cloud acknowledged Crook's rare honesty, and he was given the honorific "Gray Wolf" by the Apache.
During World War II, Italian frogman Luigi Durand de la Penne and his five companions managed to infiltrate the harbour of Alexandria and sink two British battleships and damage a destroyer and a cargo ship, but were captured before they could escape and inform their commanders of the success. After Italy switched sides, Durand de la Penne and his men were awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valour (the Italian highest decoration for valour in face of the enemy) on recommendation of the Royal Navy, with Charles Morgan, commander of one of the sunk battleships, demanding (and obtaining) to personally confer the medals. It helped that Durand de la Penne, who had been captured right after placing the mine, warned the British of which ships had been mined early enough they managed to evacuate the crews.
Just after World War II, British occupation forces judged and sentenced to death Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring for the brutal reprisals undertaken as commander in chief of the Italian Front. His former British opponents rallied to defend him. Lord de L'Isle (who fought from Anzio onwards into Italy as a Captain and earned the Victoria Cross with his own blood) defended him in the House of Lords.
On his part, Radetzky considered Cesare De Laugier this for facing him at Curtatone and Montanara with a force including a large number of volunteers raised among college students that was outnumbered five to one and outgunned by an even larger margin and holding him back a full day, further allowing the Sardinian army to regroup and defeat Radetzky's tired force at Goito and preventing the relief of the siege of Peschiera (that would surrender after Goito). When the two met after the war, Radetzky complimented him for the resistance and even making him believe he was facing the elite of the Sardinian army.
A nameless variation amid the otherwise bitter and horrific fighting of the Eastern Front in World War II: the Battle of Raseiniai was a military disaster for the Soviet Union, with severe losses in manpower and materiel when compared to German losses. However, the Soviets would not go down without a fight; a lone KV-2 tank made an amazing Last Stand against German forces over the course of an entire day. The German forces in question? The entire 6th Panzer division. One tank held off a division for a full day of fighting while destroying supplies, blowing up anti-tank guns, and sending Panzers hurrying for cover away from its 152mm howitzer. It was finally knocked out not by cannon fire, but by an infantry grenade thrown into an opportune shell-hole that had been made by bigger guns. It ended up taking two grenades to finally kill all six Soviet tankmen and stop the KV-2. Germans typically left dead Russian crews to rot in their destroyed tanks, but the 6th Panzer division so respected the sheer depth of resolve of the lone KV-2 and its unknown crew that they instead buried the fallen Russian tankers in the nearby woods with the full respect of military honors.
During the three week long war between Norway and Sweden in 1814, the fortress of Halden held out against a Swedish siege for 18 days straight. It is told by locals that this fortress never has fallen into enemy hands. This, more than anything else, made the Swedes comply to this trope, and when the Norwegian army accepted defeat and capitulated, the Halden unit marched out of the fortress under full Swedish honor and salute. Awesome when you consider how the Swedes had tried to bully Norway into submission for eight months.
This is a common trope in naval warfare, for two reasons. The first reason is that both sides in this kind of warfare have a mutual enemy- the waters their ships float on, be it a river, sea or ocean- which does not play sides and leaves everyone at it's mercy regardless of origins. The second reason is that naval warfare was often thought as a battle between ships and not men.
In the late 1500s, Admiral Yi Sun-sin of Korea earned the nickname "The Martial Lord of Loyalty" from his countrymen due to his achievements against the incredibly powerful Japanese navy of the time and naval innovations he himself pioneered. Yi eventually died during the final battle to a stray bullet, but gave instructions to not inform his crew of his death until the fighting was over. Yi also ordered his nephew to wear his uncle's armor and continue beating the war drums, which the nephew did to keep morale up. When Admiral Togo Heihachiro was compared to both Admiral Nelson and Admiral Yi roughly 300 years later, he had this to say.
Togo: It may be proper to compare me with Nelson, but not with Koreas Yi Sun-sin, for he has no equal.
In December 1914 the British Royal Navy won decisively the Battle of the Falkland Islands, sinking all but one of the German ships opposing them. Most of the German ships went down with all hands, including their commander, Admiral Maximilian Graf Von Spee and both of his sons. Afterwards, the civilian British Governor of the Falklands held a dinner for the victorious British captains. The governor proposed a toast "Damnation to the German Navy!" but the captains remained seated, none of them joining the toast. Then the senior Naval officer present proposed an alternative toast: "We drink to the memory of brave sailors who had gone to the bottom" and was joined by all the other captains.
In March 1941 U-boat Ace Otto Kretschmer was captured after U-99 was depth-charged and forced to surface by the destroyer HMS Walker. Kretschmer sent a message by Morse lamp to the Walker, requesting the rescue of his crew, and was the last German pulled up from the ocean. He tried to throw his Karl Zeiss binoculars overboard, but a British sailor caught them and gave them to Walker's captain, Donald Macintyre, who used them for the rest of the war. In 1955, Macintyre gave them back to Kretschmer, fitted with an engraved silver plate reading "Returned to Otto Kretschmer - A gallant foe".
During the Battle off Samar in WWII, a powerful force of Japanese battleships and cruisers (including the Yamato, the biggest battleship ever built, the most powerful battleship the Axis had, and the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy) stumbled upon the American task force "Taffy 3", consisting of escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts (jokingly called "The Tin Can Navy") as the Japanese closed to attack the American landing beaches on Luzon Island. With Taffy 3 outgunned almost immediately, was a real life David vs. Goliath battle, in which the American escorts closing to almost-point blank range with the Japanese heavies, launching torpedoes, dodging return fire, and firing so many 5-inch shells some ran out of ammunition in a desperate attempt to fend off the Japanese fleet and allow the slower, unarmored escort carriers to escape.
The destroyer USS Johnston was finally sunk after nearly sinking a Japanese cruiser and setting several other ships aflame (Johnston's commander was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his daring). As she was going down, a Japanese destroyer passed close by, her captain standing out on the open bridge, saluting. The crew manned the rails in salute. Johnston was the first American ship to choose to attack, which inspired the Force's commander to order everyone else to follow suit.
USS Samuel B. Roberts earned the nickname "The Destroyer Escort that fought like a battleship" for her ferocious attack against ships that should normally barely register her as a threat, among which she scored a torpedo hit that left the heavy cruiser Chikuma to be scuttled.
In August 1943, the German Navy was ordered to seize and take over all vessels of the Danish fleet, which until then was allowed to maintain itself in German-occupied Denmark. The Danish admirals, anticipating the German move, ordered all their captains to scuttle their ships. Thirty-two ships were scuttled, four managed to escape to Sweden while fourteen were taken undamaged by the Germans. In the aftermath, on the evening of 29 August, Admiral Wurmbach, Supreme Commander of the German Kriegsmarine in Denmark addressed Vice Admiral A H Vedel, the Commander in Chief of the Royal Danish Navy, as follows "Wir haben beide unsere Pflicht getan" (We have both done our duty).
In December 1943 after spending a year harassing the Arctic Convoys, the battlecruiser/light battleship Scharnhorst was cornered by the fast battleship HMS Duke of York, a Cruiser, three light cruisers and nine Destroyers. Blinded by a snowstorm, Scharnhorst returned the attack. It took twelve hours, 52 salvos and four direct torpedo hits to capsize the Scharnhorst. of the 1,968 men on Scharnhorst, only 36 survived. Upon the mission debrief, commander of the taskforce, Admiral Bruce Fraser said: "Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today."
During the many war crimes trials following World War II, two notable incidents stuck out in which allied soldiers spoke on behalf of the imprisoned Germans. Admiral Chester Nimitz testified on behalf of Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, who was facing a death penalty for unrestricted naval warfare. Nimitz pointed out that he did the exact same thing in the Pacific. This admission not only forced the judges to drop the death penalty, but more or less cleared the Luftwaffe leadership for their raids because the USAAF and RAF not only did it, but did it on a grander scale.
On a smaller scale, Waffen-SS commando Otto Skorzeny was tried for his perpetration of Operation Gref — the massive deployment of captured American equipment and uniforms behind the Allied lines. When he heard about this trial, famed British commando F.F.E Yeo-Thomas -a man who spent a long period being tortured by the Gestapo — volunteered himself to the defence, stood up to the prosecutors and told them that he murdered German troops to take their uniforms as well (Skorzeny's infiltrators mostly used uniforms confiscated from American POWs). When his testimony was complete and Yeo-Thomas stood up to leave, Skorzeny and every other prisoner stood up out of respect.
United States Navy Captain Charles McVay was court-martialed after World War II in response to the sinking of his ship, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, during the final days of the War while delivering the nuclear material and other parts for the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Imperial Japanese Naval Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, the commanding officer of the submarine I-58 and the man responsible for the sinking of the Indianapolis, testified on McVay's behalf at his court-martial, and years later, joined the surviving crew members of the ship in a campaign to exonerate him.
When Indianapolis survivors met Hashimoto in 1990 during a memorial service at Pearl Harbor, they were very disturbed at meeting the man who had killed so many of their shipmates and put them through such an ordeal. But after he explained that he was praying for the spirits of the men whose deaths they had caused, they forgave him on the spot. Due to this and Hashimoto's work to exonerate Captain McVay, his passing in October 2000 was met with genuine grief.The full story.
The various Muslim (Arab and Turk) empires who battled the Byzantine Empire were this to both each other and the Byzantines, particularly when comparing themselves with the European Crusaders that all factions involved generally saw as unwashed fanatical savages. Unlike the European Christians the Muslim empires acknowledged the Byzantines as the heirs of Rome (and in fact called them Rome, unlike the Europeans who would generally call them Greek), while the Byzantine Empire was fine with returning royal families to Arab and Turkish rulers. This respect in name and person also extended to a long period of battle: the first conflicts between the empires was in the 600's. The final capture of Constantinople as fortold at the very start of Islam itself was in 1453, eight hundred years later.
The prison warden of the Vietnamese POW facility John McCain paid condolences to his former inmate's family after McCain's death in 2018.
During the Battle of Verdun, the longest and largest battle of World War I, Fort Vaux was one of the French forts standing in the way of the German offensive aiming to strike at Paris. The garrison of 600 soldiers led by Major Sylvain Eugène Raynal (who himself had already been badly injured and assigned to fort duty because he couldn't walk properly) were surrounded and unable to be supplied, relieved or reinforced; his last message via avian carrier famously quipped "This is my last pigeon". Yet in an epic Last Stand they managed to hold out against thousands of attackers for six days, even calling in friendly artillery on their own position when the Germans took the top of the fort, surrendering only when they were literally dying of thirst. Raynal was presented with a French officer's sword on his surrender to replace his own by Crown Prince Wilhelm himself, who praised him for his heroic defence.
After the end of the Russo-Japanese War, Emperor Meiji sent the Russian Captain Vsevolod Rudnev the Order of the Rising Sun (2nd class) for his participation in the Battle of Chemulpo Bay. Rudnev accepted the award but never wore it in public.
The Roman Emperor Aurelian is known to have viewed his one of his adversaries, Rebel Leader and self-proclaimed successor to Cleopatra VII Queen Zenobia, in this way. It may have been a contributing factor in his decision to spare her life.