The Defense of Duffer’s Drift: Fifth Dream

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Editor’s note:  The following classic essay on small unit tactics, by Capt. E. D. Swinton, is extracted from the Journal of the United States Infantry Association, Vol. I, No. 4 (April, 1905).  All spelling in the original.

(Continued from Fourth Dream)

Fifth Dream

“A trifling sum of misery New added to the foot of thy account.”
– Dryden

“Jack Frost looked forth one still clear night, And he said, ‘Now I shall be out of sight; So over the valley and over the height In silence I’ll take my way.'”
– Gould

Again I faced the same task with a fresh mind and fresh hopes, all that remained with me of my former attempts being nineteen lessons.

Having detailed the two patrols and the guard on Waschout Hill as already described, I spent some twenty minutes—whilst the stores, etc., were being arranged—in walking about to choose a position to hold in the light of my nineteen lessons.

I came to the conclusion that it was not any good being near the top of a hill and yet not at the top. I would make my post on the top of Waschout Hill, where I could not be overlooked from any place within rifle-range, and where I should, I believed, have “command.” I was not quite certain what “command” meant, but I knew it was important—it says so in the book; besides, in all the manœuvres I had attended and tactical schemes I had seen, the “defence” always held a position on top of a hill or ridge. My duty was plain: Waschout Hill seemed the only place which did not contravene any of the nineteen lessons I had learnt, and up it I walked. As I stood near one of the huts, I got an excellent view of the drift and its southern approach just over the bulge of the hill, and a clear view of the river further east and west. I thought at first I would demolish the few grass and matting huts which, with some empty kerosene tins and heaps of bones and débris, formed the Kaffir kraal, but on consideration I decided to play cunning, and that this same innocent-looking Kaffir kraal would materially assist me to hide my defences. I made out my plan of operations in detail, and we had soon conveyed all our stores up to the top of the hill, and started work.

Upon the return of the patrols with their prisoners, the Dutchmen and “boys” were told off to dig for themselves and their females. The Kaffirs of the kraal we had impressed to assist at once.

My arrangements were as follows: All round the huts on the hill-top, and close to them we dug some ten short lengths of deep firing-trench, curved in plan, and each long enough to hold five men. These trenches had extremely low parapets, really only serving as rifle-rests, some of the excavated earth being heaped up behind the trenches to the height of a foot or so, the remainder being dealt with as described later. In most cases the parapets were provided with grooves to fire through at ground-level, the parapet on each side being high enough to just protect the head. As with the background the men’s heads were not really visible, it was unnecessary to provide proper loopholes, which would have necessitated also the use of new sandbags, which would be rather conspicuous and troublesome to conceal. When the men using these trenches were firing, their heads would be just above the level of the ground. These firing-trenches having been got well under way, the communication trenches were started. These were to be narrow and deep, leading from one trench to the next, and also leading from each trench back to four of the huts, which were to be arranged as follows, to allow of men to fire standing up without being seen. Round the inside of the walls of these huts part of the excavated earth, of which there was ample, would be built up with sand bags, piece of anthill, stones, etc., to a height that a man can fire over, about four and a half feet, and to a thickness of some two and a half feet at the top, and loopholes, which would be quite invisible, cut through the hut sides above this parapet. There was room in each hut for three men to fire. In three of them I meant to place my best shots, to act as snipers, as they would have a more favorable position than the men in the trenches below, and the fourth was a conning tower for myself. All the tents and stores were stacked inside one of the huts out of sight.

That evening, in spite of the hardness of the work, which caused much grousing among my men, we had got the firing trenches complete, but the others were not finished—they were only half the necessary depth. The earth-walls inside the huts were also not quite completed. The Kaffirs and Dutch had deep pits, as before, in three of the huts. Ammunition and rations were distributed round the trenches the last thing before we turned in. I also had all water-bottles and every vessel that would hold water, such as empty tins, Kaffir gourds, and cooking-pots, filled and distributed in case of a long and protracted fight. Having issued orders as to the necessity for the greatest secrecy in not giving away our position should Boers turn up early next morning, I went to sleep with confidence. We had, anyhow, a very good position, and though our communications were not quite perfect, these we could soon improve if we had any time to ourselves the next morning.

Next morning broke; no enemy in sight. This was excellent, and before daylight we were hard at it, finishing the work still undone. By this time the men had fully entered into the spirit of the thing, and were quite keen on surprising Brother Boer if possible. While the digging was proceeding, the “dixies” were being boiled for the breakfasts inside four grass-screens, some of which we found lying about, so as to show nothing but some very natural smoke above the kraal. I picked out one or two of my smartest N.C.O.’s, and instructed them to walk down the hill in different directions to the river-bank and try if they could see the heads of the men in the firing trenches against the sky. If so, the heaps of earth, tins, bones, grass-screens, etc., should be re-arranged so as to give a background to every man’s head.

To review the place generally, I and my orderly walked off some half-mile to the north of the river. As we were going some distance, we doffed our helmets and wrapped ourselves in two beautiful orange and magenta striped blankets, borrowed from our Kaffir lady guests, in case any stray Boer should be lurking around, as he might be interested to see two “khakis” wandering about on the veldt. It was awkward trying to walk with our rifles hidden under our blankets, and, moreover, every two minutes we had to look around to see if the sentry at the camp had signalled any enemy in sight. This was to be done by raising a pole on the highest hut. The result of our work was splendid. We saw a Kaffir kraal on a hill, and to us “it was nothing more.” There were the heaps of débris usually round a kraal, looking most natural, but no heads were visible, and no trenches. There was only one fault, and that was that a few thoughtless men began, as we looked, to spread their brown army blankets out in the sun on top of the huts and on the veldt. To the veriest new chum these square blots, like squares of brown sticking-plaster all around the kraal, would have betokened something unusual. To remedy this before it was too late I hastened back.

After we had done our breakfasts, and some three hours after dawn, the sentry in one of the huts reported a force to the north. We could do nothing but wait and hope; everything was ready, and every man knew what to do. No head was to be raised nor a rifle to be fired until I whistled from my conning-tower; then every man would pop up and empty his magazine into any of the enemy in range. If we were shelled the men in the huts could at once drop into the deep trenches and be safe. Standing in my “conning-tower,” from the loopholes of which I could see the drift, I thought over the possibilities before us. With great luck perhaps the Boer scouts would pass us on either side, and so allow us to lie low for the main body. With a view to seeing exactly how far I would let the latter come before opening fire, and to marking the exact spot when it would be best to give the word, I got down into the firing-trenches facing the drift and the road south to see how matters appeared from the level of the rifles. To my intense horror, I found that from these trenches neither the drift nor the road on the near bank of the river, until it got a long way south of Waschout Hill, could be seen! The bulging convexity of the hill hid all this; it must be dead ground! It was. The very spot where I could best catch the enemy, where they must pass, was not under my fire! At most, the northern loopholes of the conning tower and one other hut alone could give fire on the drift. How I cursed my stupidity! However, it was no good. I could not now start digging fresh trenches further down the hill; it would betray our whole position at once. I determined to make the best of it, and if we were not discovered by the scouts, to open fire on the main body when they were just on the other side of the river bunched up on the bank, waiting for those in front. Here we could fire on them; but it would be at a much longer range than I had intended. It was really a stroke of luck that I had discovered this serious fault, for otherwise we might have let the bulk of the enemy cross the drift without discovering the little fact of the dead ground till too late. I reflected, also (though it was not much consolation), that I had erred in good company, for how often had I not seen a “brass-hat” ride along on horseback, and from that height fix the exact position for trenches in which the rifles would be little above the ground. These trenches, however, had not been put to the test of actual use. My error was not going to escape in the same way.

Meanwhile the enemy’s scouts had advanced in much the same way as detailed before, except that after coming past Incidentamba Farm they had not halted suspiciously, but came on in small groups or clumps. They crossed the river in several places and examined the bushy banks most carefully, but finding no “khakis” there, they evidently suspected none on the open veldt beyond them, for they advanced “any way” without care. Several of the clumps joined together, and came on chatting in one body of some thirty men. Would they examine the kraal, or would they pass on? My heart beat. The little hill we were on would, unluckily, be certain to prove an attraction for them, because it was an excellent vantage ground whence to scan the horizon to the south, and to signal back to the main body to the north. The kraal was also a suitable place to off-saddle for a few minutes while the main body came up to the drift, and it meant possibly a fire, and therefore a cup of coffee. They rode up towards it laughing, chatting, and smoking, quite unsuspecting. We uttered no sound. Our Dutch and Kaffir guests uttered no sound either, for in their pits was a man with a rifle alongside them. At last they halted a moment some 250 yards away on the northeast, where the slope of the hill was more gradual and showed them all up. A few dismounted, the rest started again straight towards us. It was not magnificent, but it was war. I whistled.


About ten of them succeeded in galloping off, also some loose horses; five or six of them on the ground threw up their hands and came into the post. On the ground there remained a mass of kicking horses and dead or groaning men. The other parties of scouts to east and west had at once galloped back to the river, where they dismounted under cover and began to pepper us. Anyway, we had done something.

As soon as our immediate enemy were disposed of, we opened fire on the main body some 1,500 yards away, who had at once halted and opened out. To these we did a good deal of damage, causing great confusion, which was comforting to watch. The Boer in command of the main body must have gathered that the river-bed was clear, for he made a very bold move; he drove the whole of the wagons, etc., straight on as fast as possible over the odd 400 yards to the river and down the drift into the river-bed, where they were safe from our fire. Their losses must have been heavy over this short distance, for they had to abandon two of their wagons on the way to the river. This was done under cover of the fire from a large number of riflemen, who had at once galloped up to the river-bank, dismounted, and opened fire at us, and also of two guns and a pompom, which had immediately been driven a short distance back and then outwards to the east and west. It was really the best thing he could have done, and if he had only known that we could not fire on the ground to the south of the drift, he might have come straight on with a rush.

We had so far scored; but now ensued a period of stalemate. We were being fired at from the river-bank on the north, and from anthills, etc., pretty well all round, and were also under the intermittent shell-fire from the two guns. They made most excellent practice at the huts, which were soon knocked to bits, but not till they had well served their turn. Some of the new white sandbags from inside the huts were scattered out in full view of the enemy, and it was instructive to see what a splendid target they made for rifle-fire, and how often they were hit. They must have drawn a lot of fire away from the actual trenches. Until the Boers discovered that they could advance south from the drift without being under rifle-fire from our position, they were held up.

Would they discover it? As they had ridden all round us by now, well out of range, they must know all about us and our isolation.

After dark, by which time we had one man killed and two wounded, the firing died away into a continuous but desultory rifle-fire, with an occasional dropping shell from the guns. Under cover of dark, I tried to guard the drift and dead ground to the south of it, by men standing up and firing at that level, but towards midnight I was forced to withdraw them into the trenches, after several casualties, as the enemy then apparently woke up and kept up a furious rifle-fire upon us for over an hour. During this time the guns went through some mysterious evolutions. At first we got it very hot from the north, where the guns had been all along. Then suddenly a gun was opened on us away from the southwest, and we were shelled for a short time from both sides. After a little the shelling on the north ceased, and continued from the southwest only for twenty minutes. After this the guns ceased, and the rifle-fire also gradually died away.

When day dawned not a living soul was to be seen; there were the dead men, horses, and the deserted wagons. I feared a trap, but gradually came to the conclusion the Boers had retired. After a little we discovered the river-bed was deserted as well, but the Boers had not retired. They had discovered the dead ground, and under the mutually supporting fire of their guns, which had kept us to our trenches, had all crossed the drift and trekked south.

True, we were not captured, and had very few losses, and had severely mauled the enemy, but they had crossed the drift. It must have evidently been of great importance to them to go on, or they would have attempted to capture us, as they were about 500 to our 50.

I had failed in my duty.

During the next few hours we buried the dead, tended the wounded, and took some well-earned rest, and I had ample leisure to consider my failure and the causes. The lessons I derived from the fight were:

20. Beware of convex hills and dead ground. Especially take care to have some place where the enemy must come under your fire. Choose the exact position of your firing-trenches, with your eye at the level of the men who will eventually use them.

21. A hill may not, after all, though it has “command,” be the best place to hold necessarily.

22. A conspicuous “bluff” trench may cause the enemy to waste much ammunition, and draw fire away from the actual defences.

In addition to these lessons, another little matter on my mind was what my colonel would say at my failure.

Lying on my back, looking up at the sky, I was trying to get a few winks of sleep myself before we started to improve our defences against a possible further attack, but it was no use, sleep evaded me.

The clear blue vault of heaven was suddenly overcast by clouds, which gradually assumed the frowning face of my colonel. “What? You mean to say, Mr. Forethought, the Boers have crossed?” But, luckily for me, before more could be said, the face began slowly to fade away like that of the Cheshire Puss in “Alice in Wonderland,” leaving nothing but the awful frown across the sky. This too finally dissolved, and the whole scene changed. I had another dream.

(Continue to Sixth Dream)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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