*This article originally appeared on The Cimmerian, 25th October, 2009. Were I writing this article now, it’s interesting how much I would choose to change – and how much I’d leave untouched. Funny, the difference only five years can make.
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,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O, it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.
–“Tommy” Rudyard Kipling
We Scots have something of a reputation for patriotism. Be it reminders of victories over invaders at Largs, Ancrum Moor, Stirling Bridge, and Bannockburn, or even glorious defeats such as Mons Graupius, Flodden, or Culloden Muir, the Scots tend to wax patriotic as a matter of course. Despite our country’s small size, we have much to be proud of: even outside military victories, the realms of poetry, philosophy, science, invention and song are well represented by Scottish individuals. Sometimes these intersect, where a military event inspires literature and art. Such was the case of the Crimean War, in which the Scots played a very special part.
The Crimean War was on the cusp of modern warfare–some consider it to be the first modern conflict–but elements of medieval and even ancient battle were still present. While the thunder of guns and cannons deafened the battlefield, the charge of sword-weilding, cuirass-clad cavalry was still a formidable force. The infantry square was as likely to engage in the melee as its historical ancestors, the phalanx and schiltrom. One thing that can be found in any battle no matter the period, however, is bravery.
25th October is a day marked by military heroism. Henry V’s triumph at Agincourt, immortalised by Shakespeare; the legendary charges of the Heavy and Light Brigades; the triumph of Canadian militia and Mohawk warriors against a larger American army at the Battle of the Chateauguay; the sprawling battle of Leyte Gulf in the Second World War. One almost gets the sense of some sort of astrological conjunction for the date which lends itself to military glory.
In modern times, war has often seemed a grim, futile, hopeless endeavour, tainted by corruption, politics and horrific atrocities that astound the mind. Although the more terrible aspect of war should never be ignored, neither should those acts of heroism from which the myth of glorious battle stems. Even tactical defeats can be brightened by acts of incredible courage: Thermopylae, the Alamo, Hastings. One such moment in the famous Battle of Balaklava, a battle with more than one famous heroic action, would go on to popular idiom as a symbol of British resoluteness in what seemed like annihilation: the Thin Red Line.
The line in question is that of the 93rd Regiment of Foot, Sutherland Highlanders. They were raised in April of 1799, from the northernmost reaches of Scotland–Ross, Caithness, Sutherland, and the Orkney and Shetland islands–lands which were once the dominion of the northern Picts. Young men were drawn from the Sutherland estates, and were inspected by General Wemyss. Those deemed to have potential were then invited for a dram of whisky and some snuff from a large, silver-bound, horned mull: an old feudal clan form of gathering for warfare, and the 93rd were the last to be inducted so. Afterward, the chosen men were designated a time and place for assembly: every single one appeared punctually. Befitting a Highland regiment, the majority were native Gaelic speakers, and raised in the old traditions of clan, family and parish: the regiment became the “clan,” led by the commanding officer–the “chief.”
The 93rd quickly established themselves as worthy soldiers. When sent to quell a rebellion in Dublin, they were highly regarded by their fellow Gaels for their ability to converse in the mother tongue, as well as their exemplary discipline and professional conduct. So highly thought of were the Highlanders that they were exempted from corporal punishment: used as an example to discourage unruly soldiers, the 93rd were deemed so disciplined that the exercise was unnecessary. A popular anecdote from their time in Ireland recalls a group of Highlanders enjoying a drink in a tavern: a local bullhead challenged them to a fight. The challenge was accepted by the shortest of the Highlanders, who rose up, lowered his head, and rammed the Irishman in the gut, throwing him to the ground. His fellows drew their bayonets and cleared the tavern before returning to their drink.
The Highlanders saw action in many theatres: the participated in the recapture of Cape Colony from the Dutch, where they received their first battle honour, and operated from Cape Town for the next eight years. There the Highlanders built a church, taught school (unlike many regiments, nearly every Highlander could read and write) and gave to charity, both local and back home in Scotland. They also saw action in New Orleans during the War of 1812, a disastrous defeat for the British, but the resolute steadfastness of the 93rd was still present: one American observer saw them standing “firm and immovable as a brick wall,” remaining while other units routed on all sides.Even here, one can see the stoic, sardonic demeanour of the 93rd: after New Orleans, many Highlanders were wounded grievously. One story has a Highlander’s arm amputated: the man lying next to him comments, “Jock, you’ll never strike a man again with that arm.” The Highlander asked the surgeon for one last moment with his lost limb, and after a space, smote his neighbour with it, declaring “You’ll be the last!”
After New Orleans, the 93rd spent years in Britain, Ireland, the West Indies, Canada and occassionally back home. Then, in 1854, they were called to the Crimea, and the battle at Balaklava.
It has all the makings of a classic last stand: a small force of infantry against foes that outnumber them greatly, against whom they face almost certain annihilation. The 93rd and their Turkish and Royal Marine allies were the second defensive line, which was severely undermanned: one of many examples of the strategic and logistic mangling that blighted the Crimean War. Under the command of Field Marshal Sir Colin Campbell, a veteran of many campaigns including the War of 1812 and the First Opium War, had already led the Highland Brigade to esteem at the Battle of Alma. He was loved and respected by his men, and the feeling was mutual: ever since the victory at Alma, Campbell sought permission to wear a Highland bonnet in place of a general’s hat for the rest of the campaign. Though he was often derided by rivals for his slow pace and insistence on carefulness, his command at Balaklava was a bold and dangerous gamble.
In the early morning of the 25th, a 2,500-strong Russian cavalry squadron group split from the larger force which would meet the Heavy Brigade, where they met the British camp. Campbell had to act fast: he roused his men, and had the 93rd drawn up in line, two deep. This was highly unorthodox, as a two deep line would be unable to stop a cavalry charge, but Campbell did not think much of the Russians, and he was confident in the stopping power of his Highlanders: “I knew the 93rd, and I did not think it worth the trouble of forming a square.” This sight, a great line of Highlanders in red uniform with gleaming bayonets shining in the morning sunlight, would be recorded by The Times correspondent William H. Russell as a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel.” So long was the line, Russell could see nothing between the Russians and their target but the blazing red-and-silver vein.
Despite Campbell’s audacious disdain for his foes, he was taciturn in the foreboding circumstances. Two Turkish regiments routed before the charge, and it’s difficult to blame their pragmatism. As he rode down the line, his words were as immortal and timeless as any pre-battle speech, with a rather Scottish frugality: “There is no retreat from here, men, you must die where you stand.” With the stoic bleakness of his race, the right-hand man John Scott replied: “Aye, Sir Colin. An needs be, we’ll do that.”
The specifics of the battle are unclear. Some reports say the Highlanders fired off two volleys, splitting the charging cavalry in two, causing them to retreat. Others say three volleys were fired at 800, 500 and 350 yards respectively. Still others assert a volley at near point-blank range. Whatever the case, even the Highlander’s heroism could so easily have been too little: the cavalry could have run down the line without difficulty, smashing it into fragments. However, the Russian commander was nonplussed by Campbell’s unusual formation. He knew that a two deep line wouldn’t be enough to stop a charge: what was Campbell’s game? The commander suspected this was a diversion, possibly masking a greater force which would fall upon the charging horsemen in a trap. After a few volleys downed Cossack and Hussar alike, the commander decided not to tempt fate, and ordered a retreat. Seeing their numerically superior force repulsed, a few Highlanders forgot themselves in the heat of excitement, and made for a counter-charge with their bayonets. Ever the cool-headed commander, Campbell called them back: “93rd, 93rd, damn all that eagerness!”
A combination of confidence and unshakable morale on the Scots’ part, and misreading on the Russians’, meant what could’ve been a Crimean Thermopylae instead became a Rorke’s Drift. The Highlanders would receive the only infantry honours for the Battle of Balaklava, and to this day, the phrase “The Thin Red Line” serves as the ultimate depiction of Scottish–and British, as a whole–composure in battle.
The event has been commemorated in song: the now traditional A Scottish Solder was inspired by the event, as well as modern bands such as Saxon and Glass Tiger. As referenced above, Rudyard Kipling wrote of the Thin Red Line in his poem Tommy. The phrase inspired the World War 2 book by James Jones and its subsequent film adaptations. Even Harry Flashman gets involved in George MacDonald Fraser’s fourth Flashman novel, Flashman at the Charge, which is graced by a dynamic Frank Frazetta illustration for the American paperback.
It’s easy to see parallels of the Thin Red Line in later fiction, not least in Robert E. Howard’s work. Consider this excerpt from “Kings in the Night”:
Now the first line of the legionaries, compressed because of the narrowness of the gorge, crashed against the solid wall of shields–crashed and recoiled upon itself. The shield-wall had not shaken an inch. This was the first time the Roman legions had met with that unbreakable formation–that oldest of all Aryan battle-lines–the ancestor of the Spartan regiment–the Theban phalanx–the Macedonian formation–the English square.
Here too, we see a small force of Northerners holding a line against a greater force from the East, with resolute strength and determination despite the odds. Compare to this, from The Hour of the Dragon:
The pride of the Gundermen was no less fierce than that of the knights. They were not spear-fodder, to be sacrificed for the glory of better men. They were the finest infantry in the world, with a tradition that made their morale unshakable. The kings of Aquilonia had long learned the worth of unbreakable infantry. They held their formation unshaken…
Slowly, stubbornly, sullenly, the grim knights fell back, counting their empty saddles. Above them the Gundermen made no outcry of triumph. They closed their ranks, locking up the gaps made by the fallen. Sweat ran into their eyes from under their steel caps. They gripped their spears and waited, their fierce hearts swelling with pride that a king should fight on foot with them.
One can see echoes of the 93rd’s discipline, and the admiration of their leader Sir Colin, who himself knew the worth of his men: the same mutual respect and inspiration shared by Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (and 7,000 allies), by Bromhead and the 24th Regiment, and countless others.
In modern times, where talk of war is nearly always grim and miserable, sometimes one can lose sight of any hope. In spite of the bloodiness, brutality and ultimate futility of war, human valour finds a way to inspire in the darkest of circumstances. Few such circumstances are more dire than overwhelming odds, and for every devastating massacre, there is a story of young men reaching beyond their human fears and limits: to defend their country, to uphold their freedom, or even just to do their honour-bound duty. 25th October is the anniversary of many such deeds, and we would do well to remember them.