‘The Thin Red Line’: The 93rd Sutherland Highlanders at Balaklava

The 93rd Sutherland Highlanders became immortalised as ‘the Thin Red Line’ after facing down the Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaklava on October 1854. War correspondent William Russell described them in his despatch to The Times as ‘that thin red streak tipped with a line of steel.’ Read on to find out more about the role of the 93rd during the the Crimean War.

The Crimea War took place between Russia and the combined forces of the British, French and Turkish. Its causes were complex; Russia was unhappy at the treatment of their large Christian population by the Turkish, and occupied present-day Romania to defend the Orthodox population. The Allies, concerned by Russia’s global expansion and the threat it posed to trade routes, intervened. The 93rd Sutherland Highlanders sailed from Plymouth on 27th February 1854, arriving in the Crimea via Malta on 14th September. They would remain there until 1856.

The 93rd were first involved in a successful attack at the Battle of The Alma on 20th September, before advancing to Sevastopol.

Highland Charge: The 93rd at Alma, a watercolour painting by Richard Simkin ((c) The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum).

On 25th October the Russians attempted to seize the British supply base at the port of Balaklava. The 93rd were dispatched to fend off the advance. Sir Colin Campbell, the Commander of the Highland Brigade, addressed his force: ‘Remember there is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand!’ The British Cavalry – both the Heavy and the Light Brigade – had taken up positions overlooking the plain in front of the 93rd’s position.

The Russian attack started on the Redoubts at 0500hrs and the Turkish soldiers soon fled across the plain towards Balaklava. The guns in the Redoubts were successfully spiked and by 0830hrs they had all fallen. The first phase of the Battle of Balaklava was complete.

Campbell increased the numbers supporting the 93rd with a Turkish battalion. When Russian artillery fire started causing injuries to the 93rd, he ordered them to lie down behind a small mound, hiding them from the Russian cavalry.

Kadekoi Cross: Stone cross from the church at Kadekoi, Balaklava. The church was the site of a field hospital used by Surgeon William Munro.

A Russian force of four cavalry squadrons had been ordered to attack Kadekoi, a small village on the road into Balaklava. When this force was seen approaching, the Highlanders stood up and were ordered in two lines rather than the customary four, doubling the length of the line. However, their flanks were dangerously exposed and some of the Turks again fled. Despite this, the sudden reappearance of the Highlanders was enough to check the Russian advance, who were within 200 yards of the Highlanders. Seeing this pause, some of the 93rd started to advance towards them. Sir Colin shouted, ‘93rd! 93rd! Damn all that eagerness!’.

A volley of fire from the Highlanders’ new Minie rifles caused the Russian charge to wheel to its left, exposing its flank for the second volley. The combination of the two forced the Russians to retire in disarray. The inner defences of Balaklava held and by 0900hrs the second phase of the Battle of Balaklava had been won.

Being in the front rank, it seemed like a wall of fire in front of the muzzles of our rifles. The Russians turned, we ceased fire and cheered.” – Private D. Cameron, 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, 25th October 1854

Did you know? The Argylls are unique among infantry regiments in carrying the battle honour ‘Balaklava’.