Today, the term “the thin red line” refers to the value firefighters serve to society. They are the last line of defense when a fire rages. They stand steady in the face of danger to protect us all.
But the phrase actually has its origins in British military history.
It is traced back to the stand of the 93rd Regiment of the British army during the Crimean War’s Battle of Balaklava. During this battle, a small regiment of soldiers were spread thin across a long distance and were the last line of defense against the Russian Empire during the war.
The phrase was later popularized in in 1881 in Robert Gibbs’s painting depicting the highlanders; and 1890 by Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy. The poem is about the Battle of Balaklava:
Caption: Robert Gibbs’ Painting of the Battle of Balaklava, 1881. Reproduced under Public Domain License. See footnotes for links to the license terms.
Nowadays, the term has been adopted as a phrase to explain the valor of firefighters in protecting the people. It may be derivative from the term The Thin Blue Line, which is also used for police officers. Red, being the color of firefighters, makes sense to be the firefighter adaptation.
You will most commonly see the red line on an adapted version of the US or Union Jack flag. The monochrome flag has a rich red line cutting through the middle. This emblem is often emblazoned on firefighter insignia and regalia.
The Thin Red Line and The Battle of Balaklava
The Battle of Balaklava was a pivotal battle during the Crimean War. The Russians had 2500 Calvary men, while the British – represented by the 93rd Regiment Scottish Highlanders – had just 500 Scottish infantrymen. They were backed by another 1,000 men who were a mix of Royal Marines and Turkish infantry.
The ‘thin red line’ was a group of 200 Highlanders flanked by 350 Ottoman (Turkish) soldiers who stood their line about 1 mile north of the town of Balaklava. Because there were not sufficient troops, the 93rd Regiment stood two men deep, which was far less than the four man deep regulation of the time. The Turkish soldiers were tasked with holding the flanks.
William H. Russell, a war correspondent present at the battle, remarked that the British red coats looked like:
“A thin red streak topped with steel.”
The Russians sent 400 Calvary to charge the line. As the Russians charged, the Turkish fled. But the Scotsmen stood firm.
Their commander, Sir Colin Campbell, called to his men:
“There is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand.”
Two volleys were fired at the Russians – one at 800 feet and one at 500 feet. Then, the Ottoman soldiers fled.
Despite being outnumbered, the fearsome Scottish Highlanders pushed back the Russian Calvary. Remarkably, as the scattered Calvary fled, the Scots charged. Sir Colin was furious:
“93rd, damn you highlanders for all that eagerness!”
The battle gained notoriety in Britain at a time when the war was becoming increasingly unpopular with the public. Furthermore, the heroic battle was highlighted by the British press to cover up the failures of the Charge of The Light Brigade which happened on that very same day.
To this day, the highlanders were presented with more Victoria Crosses – the highest honor in the British and Commonwealth forces – in that battle than any other battle in the regiment’s history.
Caption: Diorama Image by Kim Traynor. Used under Creative Commons License. See footnotes for link to license terms.
Rudyard Kipling’s Poem
Rudyard Kipling’s poem, published 40 years later, re-used the term again:
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy how’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.
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind,”
But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind,
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind.
In this poem, the line is lauded as a group of brave men who stand firm against an overwhelming enemy. They are not phased when “the drums begin to roll”. They have been asked to “walk in front … when there’s trouble in the wind”, and they did so with gallantry.
The Thin Red Line and Firefighters
In recent decades, the term ‘the thin blue line’ started to be used to refer to the police force. It highlights the role of police in standing between chaos and order. While the ‘blue line’ was first used in 1911 (in reference to the US Military), it was popularized as a term for police forces after the 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line was released.
Both the thin red and blue lines when used in regard to Firefighters and Police are a reference to the Battle of Balaklava, but today hold their own in popular culture.
Today, firefighters use the term and its symbol as a sign of pride in their work for the community, respect for fallen firefighters, and a sign of the values of the brotherhood of firefighters: courage, service and bravery.
Today, you will find the thin red line all over the place. Firefighters often have it emblazoned on their hoodies and jackets, wallets, pocket knives, and so forth. You can buy gifts for firefighters with the thin line symbol emblazoned on it as well.
So next time you see this symbol, now you’ll know what it means – and where it comes from! It’s a sign of respect and honor for all that our firefighters do for protecting us and keeping us safe.
- ‘Tommy’ Poem by Kipling: http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_tommy.htm
- Diorama Image by Kim Traynor. Used under Creative Commons License. See Copyright details at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thin_Red_Line_diorama,_Stirling_Castle.jpg
- Robert Gibb image used under Public Domain License. See Copyright details at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thin_Red_Line_(painting)#/media/File:Robert_Gibb_-_The_Thin_Red_Line.jpg