Read THE COMMANDER OF THE “THIN RED LINE”. of Beneath the Banner, free online book, by F. J. Cross, on


It was the 21st Of October, 1808. Colin Campbell, not yet sixteen, had joined the army as ensign; and the battle of Vimiera was about to begin.

It was his “baptism of fire”. Colin was in the rear company. His captain came for him, and taking the lad’s hand walked with him up and down in front of the leading company for several minutes, whilst the enemy’s guns were commencing to fire. Then he told the youngster to go back to his place.

“It was the greatest kindness that could have been shown to me at such a time; and through life I have felt grateful for it,” wrote Colin Campbell in later life of this incident.

Soon after, the regiment to which he belonged formed part of the army that retreated to Corunna, when our troops suffered such terrible hardships. Colin Campbell had a rough time of it then. The soles of his boots were worn to pieces, and so long a time did he wear them without a change that the uppers stuck firmly to his legs; and, though the boots were soaked in hot water, the skin came away when they were taken off.

After the battle of Corunna, when the British brought to bay, turned and defeated their foes, it was Colin’s regiment that had the honour of digging the grave in which their heroic commander Sir John Moore was buried.

Battle after battle followed ere the French troops were driven out of Spain, and Colin Campbell, young as he was, fought like a veteran.

At Barossa his bravery brought him into special notice, and at the San Sebastian he led a storming party, and was twice wounded in doing so.

First of all he was shot through the right thigh; but though a storm of bullets was flying about, and men falling thick around him, he was up again, and pressed onward only to be again shot down.

For his gallant conduct on this occasion he was specially mentioned in the despatch that the general commanding the forces sent to the Duke of Wellington.

A few weeks later the troops moved on, and fought at the battle of Bidassoa, Colin Campbell being left in the hospital to recover from his wounds.

But so little was it to his liking to stay in the rear that he escaped from the hospital, and managed not only to fight at Bidassoa, but to get wounded again!

He was, of course, reproved by his colonel; but who could be seriously angry with a youngster for such conduct? So when he was sent back to England to get healed of his wounds, he was made a captain at the early age of twenty-one.

Among the first things that Colin Campbell did when he received his captain’s pay was to make his father an allowance of L30 or L40 a year; and later on it was an immense satisfaction for him to be able to provide both for his father and sister.

In the Chinese war of 1842 he was in command of the 98th Regiment. The tremendous heat of the country during the summer terribly thinned the ranks of his forces, and he lost over 400 men in eighteen months. He himself was struck down by sunstroke and fever; but, owing probably to his temperate and careful habits, he soon recovered.

After the Chinese war, Colin Campbell was busy in India, and at Chillianwallah was wounded in the arm. It was in this battle he narrowly escaped with his life. The day after the fight, when he was being assisted to take off his uniform, he found that a small pistol which had been put in his pocket without his knowledge was broken, his watch smashed, and his side bruised. A bullet had struck him, unperceived in the heat of the battle, and his life saved by its force having been arrested by the handle of the pistol.

In 1849 Colin Campbell was made a K.C.B. (Knight Commander of the Bath); so we must henceforth speak of him as “Sir” Colin.

March, 1853, saw Sir Colin Campbell in England; but though he had passed his sixtieth year, most of which had been spent in his country’s service, his rest was not of long duration, as in 1854 he went out to the Crimea in command of the Highland brigade, consisting of the 42nd, 79th, and 93rd regiments. Sir Colin was proud of the splendid troops he commanded, and at the battle of the Alma they covered themselves with glory.

The 42nd (the Black Watch) were the first of the three regiments across the river Alma. Whilst ascending the height on the Russian side of the river, Sir Colin’s horse was twice wounded, the second shot killing it; but he was soon mounted on another horse, leading his men to victory.

The Guards and Highlanders strove in friendly emulation who should be first in the Russian redoubt; but Sir Colin, well ahead of his own men was first in the battery shouting:

“We’ll hae nane but Highland bonnets here!” and his troops rushed in after him like lions.

The terrific charge of these fierce Highlanders, combined with their dress, struck terror into the hearts of the Russians; who said that they thought they had come to fight men, but did not bargain for demons in petticoats!

“Now, men,” Sir Colin had said before the engagement, “you are going into battle. Remember this: Whoever is wounded I don’t care what his rank is must lie where he falls till the bandsmen come to attend to him.... Be steady. Keep silent. Fire low. Now, men, the army will watch us. Make me proud of the Highland brigade!”

At the conclusion of that well-fought day the commander-in-chief, Lord Raglan, sent for Sir Colin. His eyes were full, his lips quivered, and he was unable to speak; but he gave Campbell a hearty handshake and a look which spoke volumes.

That was a joyful day for Sir Colin.

“My men behaved nobly,” he writes. “I never saw troops march to battle with greater sang froid and order than these three Highland regiments.”

The Alma had been fought on 20th September, 1854, and on the 25th October was fought the battle of Balaclava, memorable for the “Thin Red Line”. It looked, at one time, as if the heavy masses of Russian cavalry must entirely crush Sir Colin’s Highlanders; and their commander, riding down the line of his troops, said: “Remember, there is no retreat from here, men; you must die where you stand”.

“Ay, ay, Sir Colin, we’ll do that,” came the ready response. Now, it was usual, in preparing to receive a cavalry charge, for soldiers to be formed in a hollow square; but on this occasion Sir Colin ranged his men, two deep, in a thin red line, which has become memorable in the annals of the British army. The Russian cavalry were advancing, but, instead of the masses which were expected to make the attack, only about 400 came on.

Sir Colin’s men, fierce and eager for the onset, would have dashed from behind the hillock where they were stationed, but for the stern voice commanding them to stand firm in their ranks.

The Russians hardly waited for their fire. Startled by the red-coated Britishers rising up at the word of their leader, they broke and fled; and the men of the 93rd, who, but a little before, had made up their minds to die where they stood, saw as in a dream their enemies scattered and broken; and the cloud of horsemen which had threatened to engulf and annihilate them, make no effort to snatch the victory which seemed within their grasp.

Before the Crimean war was over, Sir Colin resigned his command, and returned to England, as a protest against an affront he had received.

Honoured by the Queen with a command to attend her at Windsor, he was asked by her Majesty to return to the Crimea; and the veteran assented at once, declaring he would serve under a corporal if she wished it.

The Russian war was soon concluded; and Sir Colin thought that at length he had finished soldiering. But it was not to be. In the summer of 1857 the Indian Mutiny broke out, and on 11th July he was asked how soon he could start for India. The old soldier of sixty-five replied that he could go the same evening; and on the very next day, Sunday, he was on his way to take command of the British army in India.

As the Mutiny is alluded to briefly in the story of Havelock, I will only state that Sir Colin’s vigorous, cautious, skilful policy ere long brought this fearful rebellion to a close.

For his able conduct of the war he was warmly thanked by the Queen; and at its conclusion was raised to the peerage, under the title of Lord Clyde. Colin Campbell was an admirable soldier, firm in discipline, setting a good example, ever thoughtful for the comfort and well-being of his men, sharing in all the hardships and perils they passed through. It is, therefore, not surprising that his men loved him.

Not that he was by any means a perfect man. He had a temper a very hasty and passionate temper too, and one that troubled him a good deal; but he was on the watch for that to see it did not get the better of him.

Here is an entry from his diary of 5th March, 1846, showing something of the character of the man. “Anniversary of Barossa. An old story thirty years ago. Thank God for all His goodness to me’! Although I have suffered much from ill health, and in many ways, I am still as active as any man in the regiment, and quite as able as the youngest to go through fatigue.”

Let us just glance at the way this victor in a hundred fights regarded the approach of death.

He prepared for his end with a humility as worthy of example as his deeds in the army had been. “Mind this,” he said to his old friend General Eyre, “I die at peace with all the world.”

He frequently asked Mrs. Eyre to pray with him, and to read the Bible aloud.

“Oh! for the pure air of Heaven,” he once exclaimed, “that I might be laid at rest and peace on the lap of the Almighty!”

He suffered a good deal in his last illness, and at times would jump up as if he heard the bugle, and exclaim:

“I am ready!”

And so; when he passed away on the 14th August, 1863, in his seventy-first year, “lamented by the Queen, the army, and the people,” he was quite ready to meet that last enemy, death, whom he had faced so often on the field of battle.