The Thin Red Line was a famous military action by the British Army's 93rd (Highland) Regiment at the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854, during the Crimean War. In this incident the 93rd aided by a small scratch force of Royal Marines and many Turkish infantrymen, led by Sir Colin Campbell, routed a Russian cavalry charge. Previously Campbell’s Highland Brigade had taken part in actions at Alma and Sevastopol.
Campbell 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 grizzled veteran of 41 years military service, had such a low opinion of the Russian Cavalry that he did not bother to form 4 lines, let alone a square, but to meet the charge head on with the 2-deep firing line. Contrary to popular belief, the 93rd discharged 3 volleys and not one at point-blank (as was the case at Minden in 1759) at 800 yards, 500 yards and 350 yards respectively. However, despite the casualties inflicted, the Hussars and Cossacks would undoubtedly have run over the British line. It was providence that saved them; the Russian commander, seeing so thin a line of British 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!.
It was The Times correspondent, William H. Russell, who wrote that he could see nothing between the charging Russians and the British 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 for British sangfroid in battle.
The battle is fictionally characterized in Robert Gibb's 1881 painting of the same name, which is housed at the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regimental museum at Stirling Castle, in Stirling, Scotland.
It is also commemorated in the assembly hall of Campbells former school Glasgow High School, where there is a painting of the action hung in the grand position, a lasting tribute to one of the school's two generals, the other being Sir John Moore who was dismembered by a cannonball during the Napoleonic Wars while fighting Napoleon in Spain and encouraging Spanish resistance.
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.
The derived term "The Thin Blue Line" refers colloquially to the police.
The action was the origin of the now-traditional Scottish song, Scottish Soldier (The Green Hills of Tyrol)The Green Hills of Tyrol is one of the best known, and oldest, 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. Pipe Major MacLeod himself was well liked in his Regiment, and had a reputation for selflessness and amiability. In 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.
In the PC game Age Of Empires III, "Thin Red Line" is an ability only the British can use which significantly strengthens a unit's hitpoints, but slows them down.
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.
The first documented written use of thin red line was "1877 W. H. RUSSELL Brit. Exped. Crimea (new & rev. ed.) III. 156 156 The ground flew beneath their horses feet; gathering speed at every stride, they dashed on towards that thin red line tipped with steel."