The Thin Red Line (Battle of Balaclava)

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Thin Red Line
Part of Battle of Balaclava, Crimean War
Robert Gibb - The Thin Red Line.jpg
The Thin Red Line, painted by Robert Gibb
Date25 October 1854
Location
Result British/Ottoman victory
Belligerents
 Ottoman Empire  Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Russian Empire General Rijov
Strength
500 Highlanders and 350 Turkish forces[1] 400 Russian forces[2]

The Thin Red Line was an episode in the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854, during the Crimean War.[3] In this incident, around 500 men of the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders), aided by a small force of 100 walking wounded, 40 detached Guardsmen, and supported by a substantial force of Turkish infantrymen, led by Sir Colin Campbell, fired at the Russian cavalry. 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.[citation needed] The event was lionised in the British press and became an icon of the qualities of the British soldier in a war that was arguably poorly managed and increasingly unpopular.

The battle[edit]

A Russian cavalry force of 2,500, commanded by General Rijov, was advancing on the camp of the British cavalry. About 400 of them were involved in the incident.[4] It was early morning, and the only troops that lay between the oncoming cavalry and Balaklava was the 93rd Regiment.[5]

A diorama of the action in the Regimental Museum at Stirling Castle

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."[6] Sir Colin's aide John Scott is said to have replied, "Aye, Sir Colin. If needs be, we'll do that." Campbell formed the 93rd into a line two deep—the "thin red line". Convention dictated that the line should be four deep. However, Campbell felt he had insufficiently trained men to form square, and met the charge head on with the two-deep firing line. As the Russian cavalry approached, the Turks on the flanks broke and fled. The 93rd discharged two volleys: at 800 and 500 yards respectively, however they did not get a chance to discharge one at point blank range as the Russians turned away. Accounts of the Highlanders state they started forward for a counter-charge before the final volley, but Sir Colin stopped them with a cry of "93rd, damn you Highlanders for all that eagerness!"[7]

Canadian historian George T. Denison, in his book A History of Cavalry from the Earliest Times, With Lessons for the Future, wrote "... the Russian squadrons had no intention whatever of charging, but were simply at the time making demonstrations to oblige the allied troops to display their arrangements, and that when the 93rd showed their line upon the hill, the object was gained, and the cavalry withdrew.".[8]

The Times correspondent, William H. Russell, wrote[9] that he could see nothing between the charging Russians and the British regiment's base of operations at Balaklava 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 composure in battle.

The battle is represented in Robert Gibb's 1881 oil painting The Thin Red Line, 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 killed at Corunna during the Peninsular War.

Later uses of the term[edit]

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. Such uses are common in the US as bumper stickers expressing membership or support of police and fire departments.

Musical references[edit]

Canadian band Glass Tiger on their 1986 album The Thin Red Line.

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854–56", by Trevor Royle, pages 266 – 267
  2. ^ "Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854–56", by Trevor Royle, pages 268
  3. ^ "Crimea, 1854 The Battle of Balaklava". British Battles Exhibition. The National Archives. Retrieved 27 October 2013.
  4. ^ 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 of 1st Urals Cossack Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Horoshihin. Russian cavalry was part of General Pavel Liprandi's 23,000 strong army at Balaklava. (Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854–56, by Trevor Royle, pp. 266–268)
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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...
  7. ^ B. Perrett, At All Costs! Cassel Military Paperback, 1994
  8. ^ Denison, George Taylor (1913). A History of Cavalry from the Earliest Times: With Lessons for the Future. Macmillan and Company, limited. p. 350.
  9. ^ "The war in the Crimea—from our special correspondent—Heights Before Sebastopol", The Times, 14 November 1854, p. 7, Times Archive

It is notable that earlier accounts of the incident tend to rely on bare factual description while current historians often insert personal opinion and motivation coloured by unionist political perspective. Such recent writers include Royle, Reid and others.

External links[edit]