What was the Thin Red Line, and what does it have to do with the British Empire?

The saying was paraphrased from a dispatch by Times war correspondent William H Russell, but what does it mean?

An engraving of the thin Red Line, depicting the 93rd Regiment at the battle of Balaklava

When a band of soldiers holds out against a larger force – no matter the colour of their uniform – they might be referred to as a thin red line. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the term originated in a battle involving the British redcoats. During the Crimean War, the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment stood against the Russian cavalry at the battle of Balaklava on 25 October 1854.

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Their commander Colin Campbell, 1st Baron Clyde, had told them, “There is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand.” And stand they did. Their line, two deep rather than the usual four, drove off the cavalry within minutes. Watching the action was a correspondent for The Times, William H Russell, who described the Highlanders as a “thin red streak, tipped with a line of steel”.

The victory caused a stir back home, not least as it detracted from the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade on the very same day. Russell’s phrase, while slightly altered, became a banner of British composure in battle.

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This content first appeared in the May 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed