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.
“O wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us!”
Again did I find myself facing the same problem, this time with ten lessons to guide me. I started off by sending out patrols, as described in my last dream, but their orders were slightly different. All human beings were to be brought into our post, and any animals which could be of use to the enemy were to be shot, as we had no place for them.
For my defensive post I chose the position already described in my last dream, which seemed very suitable, for the reasons already given. We consequently dug a trench similar in plan to that already described, but, as I feared the possibility of guns being used against us, it was of a very different section. In plan it faced north generally, and was slightly broken forward to the front, each half being quite straight. In section it was about three feet six inches deep, with a parapet about twelve inches high in front of it; we made the trench as narrow as possible at the top compatible with free movement. Each man hollowed out the under part of the trench to suit himself, and made his own portion of the parapet to suit his height. The parapet was about two feet six inches thick at the top and quite steep inside, being built up of pieces of broken ant-heap, which were nearly as hard as stone.
The patrols returned shortly with their bag of a few men, women, and children. The women indulged in much useless abuse, and refused to obey orders, taking the matter less philosophically than their mankind. Here was evidently an opportunity of making use of the short training I had once had as A.D.C. I tried it. I treated the ladies with tons of “tact” in my suavest manner, and repeated the only Dutch words of comfort I knew— “Al zal recht kom”—but to no purpose. They had not been brought up to appreciate tact; in fact, they were not taking any. I turned regretfully round to the color-sergeant, winked solemnly and officially, and seeing an answering but respectful quiver in his left eyelid, said:
“Which do you think is the best way of setting alight to a farm?”
“Well, sir, some prefer the large bedstead and straw, but I think the ‘armonium and a little kerosene in one corner is as neat as anything.”
There was no need for more—the ladies quite understood this sort of tact; the trouble was over.
The Dutchmen and Kaffirs were at once started digging shelters for themselves and the women and children. The latter were placed together, and were put into a small ravine not far from the trench, as it was necessary to place them in a really deep trench, firstly to keep them safe, and secondly to prevent their waving or signalling to the enemy. The existence of this ravine, therefore, saved much digging, as it only required some hollowing out at the bottom and a little excavation to suit admirably.
All dug with a will, and by night the shelters for the women and children and men prisoners, and the firing trench, were nearly done. All arrangements for the guards and sentries were the same as those described in the last dream, and after seeing everything was all correct and the ladies provided with tents to crawl under (they had their own blankets), I went to sleep with a feeling of well-earned security.
At daybreak next morning, as there were no signs of any enemy, we continued to improve our trench, altering the depth and alignment where necessary, each man suiting the size of the trench to his own legs. In the end the trench really looked quite neat, with the fresh red earth contrasting with the yellow of the veldt. As one of my reservists remarked, it only wanted an edging of oyster shells or ginger-beer bottles to be like his little “broccoli patch” at home. Upon these important details and breakfast a good two hours had been spent, when a force was reported to the north in the same position as described in the previous dream. It advanced in the same manner, except, of course, the advance men were met by no one at the farm. When I saw this, I could not help patting myself on the back and smiling at the Dutch ladies in the pit, who only scowled at me in return, and (whisper) spat!
The advanced party of the enemy came on, scouting carefully and stalking the farm as they came. As they appeared quite unwarned, I was wondering if I should be able to surprise them, all innocent of our presence, with a close-range volley, and then magazine fire into their midst, when suddenly one man stopped and the others gathered round him. This was when they were some 1,800 yards away, about on a level with the end of Incidentamba. They had evidently seen something and sniffed danger, for there was a short palaver and much pointing. A messenger then galloped back to the main body, which turned off behind Incidentamba with its wagons, etc. A small number, including a man on a white horse, rode off in a vague way to the west. The object of this move I could not quite see. They appeared to have a vehicle with them of some sort. The advanced party split up as already described. As all were still at long range, we could only wait.
Very shortly “boom” went a gun from the top of Incidentamba, and a shrapnel shell burst not far from us. A second and third followed, after which they soon picked up our range exactly, and the shell began to burst all about us; however, we were quite snug and happy in our nice deep trench, where we contentedly crouched. The waste of good and valuable shrapnel shell by the enemy was the cause of much amusement to the men, who were in great spirits, and, as one of them remarked, were “as cosy as cockroaches in a crack.” At the expenditure of many shells two men only were hit—in the legs.
After a time the guns ceased fire, and we at once manned the parapet and stood up to repel an attack, but we could see no Boers, though the air began at once to whistle and hum with bullets. Nearly all these seemed to come from the river-bank in front, to the north and north-east, and kept the parapet one continual spirt of dust as they smacked into it. All we could do was to fire by sound at various likely bushes on the river-bank, and this we did with the greatest possible diligence, but no visible result.
In about a quarter of an hour we had had five men shot through the head, the most exposed part. The mere raising of a head to fire seemed to be absolutely fatal, as it had on a former occasion when we were attempting to fire at close range over a parapet against the enemy concealed. I saw two poor fellows trying to build up a pitiful little kind of house of cards with stones and pieces of anthill through which to fire. This was as conspicuous as a chimney-pot on top of the parapet, and was at once shot to powder before they had even used it, but not before it had suggested to me the remedy for this state of affairs. Of course, we wanted in such a case “head cover” and “loopholes.” As usual, I was wise after the event, for we had no chance of making them then, even had we not been otherwise harassed. Suddenly the noise of firing became much more intense, but with the smack of the bullets striking the earth all round quite close it was not easy to tell from which direction this fresh firing came. At the same time the men seemed to be dropping much oftener, and I was impressing them with the necessity of keeping up a brisker fire to the front, when I noticed a bullet hit our side of the parapet.
It then became clear, the enemy must evidently have got into the donga behind us (to which I paid no attention, as it was to the rear), and were shooting us in the back as we stood up to our parapet.
This, I thought, must be what is called being “taken in reverse,” and it was.
By the time I had gathered what was happening, about a dozen more men had been bowled over. I then ordered the whole lot to take cover in the trench, and only pop up to take a shot to the front or rear. But no more could be done by us towards the rear than to the front. The conditions were the same—no Boers to be seen. At this moment two of the guard from Waschout Hill started to run in to our trench, and a terrific fusillade was opened on to them, the bullets kicking up the dust all round them as they ran. One poor fellow was dropped, but the other managed to reach our trench and fall into it. He too was badly hit, but just had the strength to gasp out that except himself and the man who had started with him, all the guard on Waschout Hill had been killed or wounded, and that the Boers were gradually working their way up to the top. This was indeed cheering.
So hot was the fire now that no one could raise his head above ground without being shot, and by crouching down altogether and not attempting to aim, but merely firing our rifles over the edge of the trench, we remained for a short time without casualties. This respite, however, was short, for the men in the right half of the trench began to drop unaccountably whilst they were sitting well under cover, and not exposing themselves at all. I gradually discovered the cause of this. Some snipers must have reached the top of Waschout Hill, and were shooting straight down our right half trench. As the bullets snicked in thicker and thicker, it was plain the number of snipers was being increased.
This, I thought, must be being “enfiladed from a flank.” It was so.
Without any order, we had all instinctively vacated the right half of our trench and crowded into the left half, which by great good luck could not be enfiladed from any point on the south side of the river, nor indeed by rifle-fire from anywhere, as, owing to the ground, its prolongation on the right was up above ground into the open air, and to the left did not touch ground for some 3,000 yards away on the veldt on the north bank.
Though we were huddled together quite helpless like rats in a trap, still it was in a small degree comforting to think that, short of charging the enemy could do nothing. For that we fixed bayonets and grimly waited. If they did make an assault, we had bayonets, and they had not, and we could sell our lives very dearly in a rough-and-tumble.
Alas! I was again deceived. There was to be no chance of close quarters and cold steel, for suddenly we heard, far away out on the veldt to the north, a sound as of some one beating a tin tray, and a covey of little shells whistled into the ground close by the trench; two of these burst on touching the ground. Right out of rifle-range, away on the open veldt on the north, I saw a party of Boers, with a white horse and a vehicle. Then I knew. But how had they managed to hit off so well the right spot to go to to enfilade our trench before they even knew where we were?
Pompom pompompom again, and the little steel devils ploughed their way into the middle of us in our shell-trap, mangling seven men. I at once diagnosed the position with great professional acumen—we were now enfiladed from both flanks, but the knowledge was acquired too late to help us, for—
“We lay bare as the paunch of the purser’s sow,
To the hail of the Nordenfeldt.”
This was the last straw; there was nothing left but surrender or entire annihilation at long range. I surrendered.
Boers, as usual, sprang up from all round. We had fought for three hours, and had twenty-five killed and seventeen wounded. Of these, seven only had been hit by the shrapnel and rifle-fire from the front. All the rest had been killed or hit from the flanks, where there should be few enemies, or the rear, where there should be none! This fact convinced me that my preconceived notions as to the front, and its danger relative to the other points of the compass, needed considerable modification. All my cherished ideas were being ruthlessly swept away, and I was plunged into a sea of doubt, groping for something certain or fixed to lay hold of. Could Longfellow, when he wrote that immortal line, “Things are not what they seem,” ever have been in my position?
The survivors were naturally a little disheartened at their total discomfiture, when all had started so well with them in their “crack.” This expressed itself in different ways. As one man said to a corporal, who was plugging a hole in his ear with a bit of rag—
“Somethink sickening, I call it, this enfilading racket; you never know which way it will take yer. I’m fairly fed up.” To which the gloomy reply, “Enfiladed? Of course we’ve been enfiladed. This ‘ere trench should have been wiggled about a bit, and then there would not have been quite so much of it. Yes, wiggled about—that’s what it should have been.” To which chipped in a third, “Yes, and somethink to keep the blighters from shooting us in the back wouldn’t ‘ave done us much ‘arm, anyway.”
There were evidently more things in earth than I had hitherto dreamt of in my philosophy!
As we trekked away to the north under a detached guard of Boers, many little points such as the above sank into my soul, but I could not for some time solve the mystery of why we had not succeeded in surprising the enemy. There were no men, women, children, or Kaffirs who knew of our arrival, who could have warned them. How did they spot our presence so soon, as they evidently must have done when they stopped and consulted in the morning? It was not until passing Incidentamba, as I casually happened to look round and survey the scene of the fight from the enemy’s point of view, that I discovered the simple answer to the riddle. There on the smooth yellow slope of the veldt just south of the drift was a brownish-red streak, as plain as the Long Man of Wilmington on the dear old Sussex downs, which positively shrieked aloud, “Hi! hi! hi!—this way for the British defence.” I then grimly smiled to think of myself sitting like a “slick Alick” in that poster of a trench and expecting to surprise anybody!
Besides having been enfiladed and also taken in reverse, we had again found ourselves at a disadvantage as compared with the concealed enemy shooting at close range, from having to show up at a fixed place in order to fire.
Eventually I collected the following lessons:
11. For a small isolated post and an active enemy, there are no flanks, no rear, or, to put it otherwise, it is front all round.
12. Beware of being taken in reverse; take care, when placing and making your defences, that when you are engaged in shooting the enemy to the front of your trench, his pal cannot sneak up and shoot you in the back.
13. Beware of being enfiladed. It is nasty from one flank—far worse from both flanks.
Remember, also, that though you may arrange matters so that you cannot be enfiladed by rifle-fire, yet you may be open to it from long range, by means of gun or pompom fire. There are few straight trenches that cannot be enfiladed from somewhere, if the enemy can only get there. You can sometimes prevent being enfiladed by so placing your trench that no one can get into prolongation of it to fire down it, or you can “wiggle” it about in many ways, so that it is not straight, or make “traverses” across it, or dig separate trenches for every two or three men.
14. Do not have your trench near rising ground over which you cannot see, and which you cannot hold.
15. Do not huddle all your men together in a small trench like sheep in a pen. Give them air.
16. As once before—cover from sight is often worth more than cover from bullets.
For close shooting from a non-concealed trench, head cover with loopholes is an advantage. This should be bullet-proof and not be conspicuously on the top of the parapet, so as to draw fire, or it will be far more dangerous than having none.
17. To surprise the enemy is a great advantage.
18. If you wish to obtain this advantage, conceal your position. Though for promotion it may be sound to advertise your position, for defence it is not.
19. To test the concealment or otherwise of your position, look at it from the enemy’s point of view.
 “Everything will be all right.” [ed.]