In November 1854, The Times war correspondent William Russell, writing from the Crimea, reported that an attack by Russian cavalry had been repulsed, having come up against a piece of ‘Gaelic rock… a thin red streak topped up with a line of steel’ – a description that would later become ‘the thin red line’. Russell was describing the heroic part played by the 93rd Highlanders in the Battle of Balaclava, probably better known as the occasion of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade.
The 93rd Highlanders had been raised in 1799 as the 93rd Regiment of Foot, drawing its recruits mainly from the remote county of Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. In Autumn 1854, the 93rd was defending Balaclava, a small village and port being used by the British as their supply base. Balaclava was of great strategic importance, and its loss could have changed the course of the entire war.
93rd Highlanders leave Dover Castle for India in 1856
On the morning of 25 October 1854, the Russians, seeing the apparent sparseness of the British defences, sensed an opportunity to make a breakthrough and take Balaclava. They pushed forward following a fierce artillery barrage.
The 93rd, made up of about 500 men under the command of General Sir Colin Campbell, was stationed between the enemy and their target, but they had taken cover from the artillery fire behind a hill and were out of sight of the Russian forces. When he saw that between 400 and 800 Russian cavalry intended spearheading an attack on Balaclava,
Campbell moved his men back to the crest of the hill. For a time, there was silence. Finally, the Russians charged, determined to break through the British line and reach Balaclava.
With squadrons of Russian cavalry bearing down on them, the Turks on the British flanks fired a volley at random before fleeing, leaving two ranks of kilted Highlanders to face the onslaught. As bayonets were fixed, Campbell rode to the front and called out to his troops, ‘There is no retreat from here, men! You must die where you stand.’
The response from a junior officer was immediate and equally assertive: ‘Aye, aye, Sir Colin, an needs be, we’ll do that.’
The sight of the Russians gathering speed as they thundered towards the British lines must have been awesome, but the line held firm. If anything, the Highlanders were* over enthusiastic, moving forwards as if to charge. ‘Ninety third! Ninety third!’ cautioned Campbell. ‘Damn all that eagerness.’ Suitably reminded of their duty, the men of the 93rd stood their ground and the Russians were met by two volleys of musket fire, one at 500 yards, the second at 200 yards. This broke up the first attack, but the Russians reformed and attacked again, this time looking to pierce the British line on its now unguarded right flank. The men of the 93rd, however, kept their discipline and wheeled to meet them, firing several more volleys at close range. This second reverse was too much for the Russians. As hundreds of men and horses went down, they retreated in disarray.
The story of the thin red line is not one of a fierce hand-to-hand battle, and it was all over in a matter of minutes. It was an example of discipline and courage in the face of the terrifying spectacle of a massed cavalry charge. Campbell confirmed his complete faith in his troops by calmly announcing later, ‘I did not think it worthwhile to form them even four deep.’
The 93rd’s show of courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, resulted in the regiment being allowed to commemorate Balaclava on its colours, the only infantry regiment permitted this distinction. And ‘the thin red line’ is remembered in both the stirring march of that name, and the painting by Robert Gibb RSA, on display at the Scottish National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle.
Although the phrase ‘thin red line’ is often applied generally to the British Army, it is correctly the nickname of the regiment later known as the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, now 5th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland.