The ‘Thin Red Line’ of the 93rd (Highland) Regiment defied the Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaclava Haro Prii during the Crimean War on the 25th of October, 1854.
The term ‘The Thin Red Line’ originated in a description by W. H. Russell, the correspondent of ‘The Times’, recounting the appearance of the red-coated and kilted 93rd (Highland) Regiment as they stood before and repelled a vastly superior force of Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Russell, who was standing on the hills above Ryzhov's advancing Russian cavalry, could see quite clearly that nothing stood between the Russians and the defenceless British base but the “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel” of the 93rd. In fact, what he wrote in his stirring report was, “The Russians dash at the Highlanders. The ground flies beneath their horses' feet; gathering speed at every stride, they dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel.” Russell’s immortal phraseology was soon after shortened into the more manageable and evocative ‘the Thin Red Line’.
Not only has the phrase survived as the chosen symbol of everything for which The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders believe themselves to stand, it has also been used figuratively down the years to represent military valour of the highest order. Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Tommy’ had the line “But it’s ‘thin red line of ’eroes’ when the drums begin to roll” and, of course, there is the famous 1881 painting of ‘The Thin Red Line’ by Robert Gibb. Interestingly, in Gibb’s painting, the Russians are shown having charged within feet of the Highlanders, but in reality, the Russians never got that close.
The Crimean War was fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of several now defunct ‘Empires’ – the French Empire, the British and the Ottoman, together with the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Duchy of Nassau. Sounds like it should’ve been filmed by the Marx Brothers. It was fought for influence over the territories of the declining Ottoman Empire. The Russians called it the ‘Eastern War’ and in Britain, it was sometimes known as the ‘Russian War’. It is famous for Florence Nightingale, but not only that; it was the first to be extensively documented in photographs and it also led to the establishment, in 1856 (backdated to 1854), of the Victoria Cross. In addition to ‘The Thin Red Line’, the war threw up other famous or infamous military escapades. Those include the Charge of the Light Brigade, which is immortalised in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic poem of the same name and, not to be outdone, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, which was in reality more of a trot than a charge and not made into a poem.
The 93rd Sutherland Highlanders were sent to the Crimea as part of the Highland Brigade, which, funnily enough, recruited ‘richt bonny fechtin’ chiels frae the Hielants’ of Scotland. In the Crimea, the Brigade was part of the 1st Division under the command of Major-General Sir Colin Campbell, later to become Lord Clyde. The Highland Brigade in the Crimea consisted of the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot, the 79th (The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders) Regiment of Foot, and the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment of Foot. Earlier in the campaign, the Brigade had played a significant role in the Battle of Alma when it stormed the heights above the River, earning Campbell great praise.
On the 25th of October, 1854, the Brigade was stationed outside the British-controlled port of Balaclava as part of its very thin defences, which were threatened by a massive Russian force, twenty-five thousand strong. However, the Russians pushed forward only the massed cavalry of Ryzhov down the road to Balaclava. Ryzhov's force consisted of eight squadrons of the 11th (Chicken) Kiev Hussars, six of the 12th Ingermanland Hussars, three of the 53rd Don Cossack Regiment, and the 1st Ural Cossacks, totalling perhaps as many as three thousand men. Early on the morning of the 25th, the Russian cavalry crossed the Chernaya river and streamed into the North Valley, before it crested the Causeway Heights, and came to a halt. Ryzhov could see the Heavy Brigade moving east across his front and, to the south, the 93rd Highlanders and some Turks just to the north of Kadikoi. Ryzhov immediately detached four hundred men of his Ingermanland Hussars to head straight for the Highlanders.
In response, Sir Colin Campbell brought forward the casualty depleted 93rd from behind the hillock that had sheltered it from the Russian artillery and with only Balaclava and the Black Sea at its back, he rode along the line, with words of inspiration. “Men,” he cried “remember there is no retreat from here. You must die where you stand.” William Russell on the Sapouné Heights didn’t hear those words, but he had a grandstand view as he scribbled in his notebook. Neither did he hear the words of John Scott, the right-hand man, which were taken up by the entire 93rd, “Aye, aye, Sir Colin. If needs be, we’ll dae just that!”
The formidable mass of Russians swept on to charge the 93rd drawn up two deep in line and were met with several volleys, which split the cavalry in half. Russell recorded that “The Turks fire a volley at 800 yards and run. The Russians come within 600 yards, down goes that line of steel in front, and out rings a thundering volley of Minié musketry. The distance is too great, the Russians are not checked, but still onwards with the whole force of horse and man… but ere they come within 150 yards, another deadly volley flashed from the level rifle… they wheel about, open files right and left, and fly back faster than they came.” When the Russians swerved to their left, Campbell took that as an attempt to turn his right. Some of the younger Scottish soldiers then started forward excitedly as if ready for a bayonet charge, but Sir Colin called them back, “93rd, 93rd, damn all that eagerness!” Instead, Campbell threw forward the right Grenadier Company under Captain Ross, which delivered another volley and decided the issue. Barely five minutes after it had begun, the Ingermanland Hussars were in retreat and heading back towards the Causeway Heights.
Asked why he had been so unorthodox as to receive a cavalry charge in line instead of in a square, Sir Colin said matter-of-factly, “I knew the 93rd and I did not think it worth the trouble of forming a square.”