"The Thin Red Line"

I have often heard the use of the expression of the phrase…

“the thin red line that stands between civilization and barbarism, (chaos, disorder, etc.)”, or something to the same general effect.

However, I am ignorant of the origin of this phrase,

I have heard that it refers to the costuming of British soldiers during the 18th century,
I have also heard it to come from the famous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

But’s what’s the real first straight dope?

This site says it has to do with the British.


Just from memory, I’m not going to dig through my books for more details… 'twas the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War, the Charge of the Light Brigade occurred during the battle but there was a sideshow where a massive force of Russian cavalry broke out and was moving down the main valley. All that stood between them and the port of Balaclava was a small British force led by Sir Colin Campbell. With classic British military discipline of the Victorian era they formed up, stood their ground, waited until the much larger Russian force was almost on top of them, and held their ground. I think there was a famous quote from that little battle - when the Russian force was broken and started to fall back some of the British soldiers started to break formation to pursue with the bayonet and Sir Colin bellowed “damn all that eagerness lads”. Anyway, that thin red line saved Balaclava, got a lot of press for it back in England, and it’s now a cliche. The book on it I have somewhere is called “The Reason Why”.

The Flashman novels have a fictional account of it in “Flashman at the Charge”. After the Russians fall back, Sir Colin turns to Flashy and says “Och mr. Flashman, ye’ve go’ a touch o’ colour in yourr cheeks, field maneouvers with the 97th must agree with ye”.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable provides an origin from the 93d Highlanders dating to the Crimean War.

As Oktberfest’s link indicates, the phrase entered 19th Century British mythology regarding the valor and near invincibility of the British army. (Given their record of establishing an empire on which “the sun never set,” they had some cause to take pride in their army. On the other hand, by the end of that century, the myth could be particularly wearing on the men who were supposed to uphold it, as Kipling’s narrator in Tommy remarks:

In a different context, James Jones referred to the purported Midwestern proverb that

when he chose the title of his novel of savage warfare in the Pacific.

Like ** Fyodor ** said, it was a small force, the 93rd Highland Regiment, that withstood a Russian cavalry charge without forming into a square, and was hence a “thin red line”.

Basically, the Scots stood their ground despite being out of the usual formation for repelling a cavalry charge, and in doing so, spooked the Russian cavalrymen, who said afterwards that they expected to face soldiers, not red devils in their charge.

The military historian Richard Holmes has written a vivid book on the history, lifestyle and organisation of the British soldiers of the time that I’d recommend for more information (Redcoat).

I don’t have time to look up the cite, but I think the original quote was indeed the reference to the 93rd’s stand against the Russian cavalry at Balaclava, but the original wording was something like “a thin red streak, tipped with steel.”

I don’t have time to look up the cite, but I think the original quote was indeed the reference to the 93rd’s stand against the Russian cavalry at Balaclava, but the original wording was something like “a thin red streak, tipped with steel.”

Oops! Apologies for the double post. “Hamsters, hamters, Damn all that eagerness!”

Found the exact reference after all. It was Times corresepondent William Russell, observing the brouhaha from above who coined the phrase, but it was “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel.” Pretty easy to see how that got transformed into “Thin Red Line.”

Here’s the webpage of the Argylls:


The significance at the time is as Blank said, that the 93rd Highlanders held off the Russian cavalry charge in line, rather than in square. Standard tactics of the period held that meeting a cavalry charge in line was a recipe for disaster, but in this case, it worked, due to excellent tactical command, the traditional steadfastness and discipline of the British infantry under fire, and the high weight of fire the British were able to put out.

The battle of Balaclava is full of the British doing things that were normally considered to be tactically disaterous (and for good reason) and getting away with it (mostly).

The famous Charge of the Light Brigade broke the rule that cavalry don’t charge artillery (especially down at the end of a long valley with more artillery lined up on both sides as well). The charge was actually a sucess in that they did reach the artillery batteries at the end and kill or drive off the gunners, but the regiments involved suffered very high casualties.

The lesser-known Charge of the Heavy Brigade saw the British heavy cavalry carry out a sucessful charge uphill and through the British camp lines against Russian cavalry, both conditions normally disasterous for a cavalry charge, as the cavalry would arrive disordered and without the momentum normally required to break the cohesion of the enemy.