The Thin Red Line (Battle of Balaclava)
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The Thin Red Line was a military action by the Sutherland Highlanders red-coated 93rd (Highland) Regiment at the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854, during the Crimean War. In this incident, the 93rd, aided by a small force of Royal Marines and some Turkish infantrymen, led by Sir Colin Campbell, routed a Russian cavalry charge. Previously, Campbell’s Highland Brigade had taken part in actions at the Battle of Alma and the Siege of Sevastopol. There were more Victoria Crosses presented to the Highland soldiers at that time than at any other. The event was galvanized in the British press and became an icon of the qualities of the red coat in a war that was poorly managed and increasingly unpopular.
The Russian cavalry force of 2,500 was on the road to Balaklava. About 400 of them were involved in the incident. It was early morning, and the sole force that lay between the oncoming cavalry and the disorganised and vulnerable British camp was the 93rd Regiment.
Colin Campbell, 1st Baron Clyde is said to have told his men, "There is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand." Sir Colin's aide John Scott is said to have replied, "Aye, Sir Colin. If needs be, we'll do that." (Campbell's relationship with his men was almost family-like.) Campbell formed the 93rd into a line two deep — the "thin red line". Convention dictated that the line should be four deep. However, Campbell, a veteran of 41 years military service, had such a low opinion of the Russian cavalry that he did not bother to form four lines, let alone a square, but met the charge head on with the 2-deep firing line. As the Russian cavalry approached, the 93rd discharged three volleys: at 600, 350 and 150 yards respectively, however they did not get a chance to discharge one at point-blank (as at Minden in 1759) range as in popular belief. This is due to the fact that the Russian commander, seeing such a thin line of infantry, concluded that this was a diversion and that there was a much stronger force behind the 93rd, and ordered the cavalry to withdraw. At that, some of the Highlanders started forward for a counter-charge, but Sir Colin stopped them with a cry of "93rd, damn all that eagerness!"
The Times correspondent, William H. Russell, wrote  that he could see nothing between the charging Russians and the British regiment's base of operations at Balaclava but the "thin red streak tipped with a line of steel" of the 93rd. Popularly condensed into "the thin red line", the phrase became a symbol of British sangfroid in battle.
The battle is represented in Robert Gibb's 1881 oil painting of the same name, which is displayed in the Scottish National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle. It is also commemorated in the assembly hall of Campbell's former school, High School of Glasgow, where there is a painting of the action hung in the grand position, a tribute to one of the school's two generals, the other being Sir John Moore who was dismembered by a cannonball during the Peninsular War.
Later uses of the term
The Thin Red Line has become an English language figure of speech for any thinly spread military unit holding firm against attack. The phrase has also taken on the metaphorical meaning of the barrier which the relatively limited armed forces of a country present to potential attackers.
The term "the thin red line" later referred to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and their job to defend the British Empire and the United Kingdom after the incorporation of the Argylls and Sutherlands into a single regiment now known as the Argyll and Sutherland battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
The derived term The Thin Blue Line refers colloquially to the police, which soon gave birth to the equal term of the "Thin Red Line" which refers colloquially to the fire brigade.
- Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem Tommy that has the lines "Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' Tommy, 'ow's yer soul? / But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll," – "Tommy Atkins" being slang for a common soldier in the British Army.
- James Jones wrote a novel about American infantry soldiers fighting in Guadalcanal during World War II and entitled it The Thin Red Line. The book was adapted into feature films in 1964 and in 1998.
- George MacDonald Fraser describes the Thin Red Line, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and the Charge of the Light Brigade in his novel Flashman at the Charge.
- In the film Carry On... Up the Khyber, a soldier draws a thin red line on the ground with paint and brush, arguing that the enemy will not dare to cross it.
- The action was the origin of the now-traditional Scottish song, A Scottish Soldier (The Green Hills of Tyrol). The Green Hills of Tyrol is one of the best known tunes played by pipe bands today. It was originally from the opera William Tell by Rossini, but was transcribed to the pipes in 1854 by Pipe Major John MacLeod after he heard it played by a Sardinian military band when serving in the Crimean War with his regiment, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders.
- Kenneth Alford (also known as Major Fredrick Joseph Ricketts) wrote his march The Thin Red Line in 1908 (published in 1925) to commemorate the "thin red line".
- The battle is referenced by English metal band Saxon in the song "The Thin Red Line" on their 1997 album Unleash the Beast, and by the Canadian band Glass Tiger on their 1986 album The Thin Red Line.
- The band Steeleye Span references the term in their song "Fighting for Strangers" from the album Spanning the Years.
- Van Halen`s "Unchained" references the term on their 1981 album Fair Warning.
- The band Big Audio Dynamite references the term in their song "Union, Jack" from the album Megatop Phoenix.
- Jason Isbell references the term in his song "Grown" from the album Sirens of the Ditch.
References and notes
- "Crimea, 1854 The Battle of Balaklava". British Battles Exhibition. The National Archives. Retrieved 27 October 2013.
- This original Russian cavalry force divided itself into two smaller groups, and only about 400 of them were involved in the "Thin Red Line" incident. These 400 Russians were the Cossacks and Ingermanlandsky hussars of the 6th Hussar Brigade, commanded by General Rijov. The rest of Rijov's force attacked the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Rijov's command was part of General Pavel Liprandi's 23,000 strong army at Balaclava.("Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-56", by Trevor Royle, pages 266 - 268)
- The 93rd Highlanders involved in the "Thin Red Line" incident probably numbered no more than a few hundred infantrymen. This was part of the British, French and Turkish forces at Balaclava which totaled approximately 21,000 strong.
- The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise's) - Scottish Regiments, 1st Battalion A&SH, National Service, world war time, peace time and active service with the Ar...
- B. Perret, "At All Costs!"
- B. Perrett, "At All Costs!" Cassel Military Paperback, 1994
- The war in the Crimea - from our special correspondent - Heights Before Sebastopol, The Times 14 November 1854, p7. Times Archive