The Defense of Duffer’s Drift: Sixth 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 Fifth Dream)

Sixth Dream

“Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

Once more was I fated to essay the task of defending Duffer’s Drift. This time I had twenty-two lessons below my belt to help me out, and in the oblivion of my dream I was saved that sense of monotony which by now may possibly have overtaken you, “gentle reader.”

After sending out the patrols, and placing a guard on Waschout Hill, as already described, and whilst the stores were being collected, I considered deeply what position I should take up, and walked up to the top of Waschout Hill to spy out the land. On the top I found a Kaffir kraal, which I saw would assist me much to concealment should I decide to hold this hill. This I was very inclined to do, but after a few minutes’ trial of the shape of the ground, with the help of some men walking about down below, and my eyes a little above ground-level—I found that its convexity was such that, to see and fire on the drift and the approach on the south side, I should have to abandon the top of the hill, and so the friendly concealment of the Kaffir huts, and take up a position on the open hillside some way down. This was, of course, quite feasible, especially if I held a position at the top of the hill as well, near the huts on the east and southeast sides; but, as it would be impossible to really conceal ourselves on the bare hillside, it meant giving up all idea of surprising the enemy, which I wished to do. I must, therefore, find some other place which would lend itself to easy and good concealment, and also have the drift or its approaches under close rifle-fire. But where to find such a place?

As I stood deep in thought, considering this knotty problem, an idea gently wormed itself into my mind, which I at once threw out again as being absurd and out of the question. This idea was—to hold the river bed and banks on each side of the drift! To give up all idea of command, and, instead of seeking the nearest high ground, which comes as natural to the student of tactics as rushing for a tree does to a squirrel, to take the lowest ground, even though it should be all among thick cover, instead of being nicely in the open.

No, it was absolutely revolutionary, and against every canon I had ever read or heard of; it was evidently the freak of a sorely tried and worried brain. I would none of it, and I put it firmly from me. But the more I argued to myself the absurdity of it, the more this idea obtained possession of me. The more I said it was impossible, the more allurements were spread before me in its favor, until each of my conscientious objections was enmeshed and smothered in a network of specious reasons as to the advantages of the proposal.

I resisted, I struggled, but finally fell to temptation, dressed up in the plausible guise of reason. I would hold the river-bed.

The advantages I thus hoped to obtain were—

Perfect concealment and cover from sight.

Trenches and protection against both rifle and gun fire practically ready made.

Communications under good cover.

The enemy would be out in the open veldt except along the river-bank, where we, being in position first, would still have the advantage.

Plentiful water-supply at hand.

True, there were a few dead animals near the drift, and the tainted air seemed to hang heavy over the river-bed, but the carcasses could be quickly buried under the steep banks, and, after all, one could not expect every luxury.

As our clear field of fire, which in the north was only bounded by the range of our rifles, was on the south limited by Waschout Hill, a suitable position for the enemy to occupy, I decided to hold the top of it as well as the river-bed. All I could spare for this would be two N.C.O.’s and eight men, who would be able to defend the south side of the hill, the north being under our fire from the river-bank.

Having detailed this party, I gave my instructions for the work, which was soon started. In about a couple of hours the patrols returned with their prisoners, which were dealt with as before.

For the post on Waschout Hill, the scheme was that the trenches should be concealed much in the same way as described in the last dream, but great care should be taken that no one in the post should be exposed to rifle-fire from our main position in the river. I did not wish the fire of the main body to be in any degree hampered by a fear of hitting the men on Waschout Hill, especially at night. If we knew it was not possible to hit them, we could shoot freely all over the hill. This detachment was to have a double lot of water-bottles, besides every available receptacle collected in the kraal, filled with water, in anticipation of a prolonged struggle.

The general idea for the main defensive position was to hold both sides of the river, improving the existing steep banks and ravines into rifle-pits to contain from one to four men. These could, with very little work, be made to give cover from all sides. As such a large amount of the work was already done for us, we were enabled to dig many more of these pits than the exact number required for our party. Pathways leading between these were to be cut into the bank, so that we should be able to shift about from one position to another. Besides the advantage this would give us in the way of moving about, according as we wished to fire, it also meant that we should probably be able to mislead the enemy as to our numbers—which, by such shifting tactics might, for a time at least, be much exaggerated. The pits for fire to the north and south were nearly all so placed as to allow the occupants to fire at ground-level over the veldt. They were placed well among the bushes, only just sufficient scrub being cut away to allow a man to see all round, without exposing the position of his trench. On each side of the river, just by the drift, were some “spoil” heaps of earth, excavated from the road ramp. These stood some five or six feet above the general level, and were as rough as the banks in outline. These heaps were large enough to allow of a few pits being made on them, which had the extra advantage of height. In some of the pits, to give head-cover, loopholes of sandbags were made, though in most cases this was not needed, owing to the concealment of the bushes. I found it was necessary to examine personally every loophole, and correct the numerous mistakes made in their construction. Some had the new clean sandbags exposed to full view, thus serving as mere whited sepulchres to their occupants, others were equally conspicuous from their absurd cock-shy appearance, others were not bullet-proof, whilst others again would allow of shooting in one direction, or into the ground at a few yards’ range, or up into the blue sky. As I corrected all these faults I thought that loopholes not made under supervision might prove rather a snare.

The result was, in the way of concealment, splendid. From these pits with our heads at ground-level we could see quite clearly out on to the veldt beyond, either from under the thicker part of the bushes or even through those which were close to our eyes. From the open, on the other hand, we were quite invisible, even from 300 yards’ distance, and would have been more so had we had the whiskers of the “brethren.” It was quite evident to me that these same whiskers were a wise provision of nature for this very purpose and part of her universal scheme of protective mimicry.

The numerous small dongas and rifts lent themselves readily to flanking fire, and in many places the vertical banks required no cutting in order to give ideal protection against even artillery. In others, the sides of the crooked waterways had to be merely scooped out a little, or a shelf cut to stand upon.

In one of these deeper ravines two tents, which, being below ground-level, were quite invisible, were pitched for the women and children, and small caves cut for them in case of a bombardment. The position extended for a length of some 150 yards on each side of the drift along both banks of the river, and at its extremities, where an attack was most to be feared, pits were dug down the river-banks and across the dry river-bed. These also were concealed as well as possible. The flanks or ends were, of course, our greatest danger, for it was from here we might expect to be rushed, and not from the open veldt. I was undecided for some time as to whether to clear a “field of fire” along the river-banks or not, as I had no wish to give away our presence by any suspicious nudity of the banks at each end of our position. I finally decided, in order to prevent this, to clear the scrub for as great a range as possible from the ends of the position, everywhere below the ground-level, and also on the level ground, except for a good fringe just on the edges of the banks. This fringe I thought would be sufficient to hide the clearance to any one not very close. I now blessed the man who had left us some cutting tools. Whilst all this was being carried out, I paced out some ranges to the north and south, and these we marked by a few empty tins placed on ant-heaps, etc.

At dusk, when we had nearly all the pits finished and some of the clearance done, tents and gear were hidden, ammunition and rations distributed to all, and orders in case of an attack given out. As I could not be everywhere, I had to rely on the outlying groups of men fully understanding my aims beforehand, and acting on their “own.” To prevent our chance of a close-range volley into the enemy being spoilt by some over-zealous or jumpy man opening fire at long range, I gave orders that fire was to be held as long as possible, and that no man was to fire a shot until firing had already commenced elsewhere (which sounded rather Irish), or my whistle sounded. This was unless the enemy were so close to him that further silence was useless. Firing having once started, every man was to blaze away at any enemy within range as judged by our range marks. Finally, we turned in to our pits for the night with some complacency, each eight men furnishing their own sentry.

We had about three hours next morning before any enemy were reported from Waschout Hill (the pre-arranged signal for this was the raising of a pole from one of the huts). This time was employed in perfecting our defences in various ways. We managed to clear away the scrub in the dry river-bed and banks for some 200 yards beyond our line of pits on each side, and actually attained to the refinement of an “obstacle;” for at the extremity of this clearance a sort of abatis entanglement was made with the wire from an adjacent fence which the men had discovered. During the morning I visited the post on Waschout Hill, found everything correct, and took the opportunity of showing the detachment the exact limits of our position in the river-bed, and explained what we were going to do. After about three hours’ work, “Somebody in sight” was signalled, and we soon after saw from our position a cloud of dust away to the north. This force, which proved to be a commando, approached as already described in the last dream; all we could do meanwhile was to sit tight in concealment. Their scouts came on in clumps of twos and threes which extended over some mile of front, the centre of the line heading for the drift. As the scouts got closer, the natural impulse to make for the easiest crossing place was obeyed by two or three of the parties on each side of the one approaching the drift, and they inclined inwards and joined forces with it. This was evidently the largest party we could hope to surprise, and we accordingly lay for it. When about 300 yards away, the “brethren” stopped rather suspiciously. This was too much for some man on the east side, who let fly, and the air was rent by the rattle as we emptied our magazines, killing five of this special scouting party and two from other groups further out on either side. We continued to fire at the scouts as they galloped back, dropping two more, and also at the column which was about a mile away, but afforded a splendid target till it opened out.

In a very few moments our position was being shelled by three guns, but with the only result, as far as we were concerned, of having one man wounded by shell-fire, though the firing went on slowly till dark. To be accurate, I should say the river was being shelled, our position incidentally, for shells were bursting along the river for some half mile. The Boers were evidently quite at sea as regards the extent of our position and strength, and wasted many shells. We noticed much galloping of men away to the east and west, out of range, and guessed that these were parties who intended to strike the river at some distance away, and gradually work along the bed, in order probably to get into close range during the night.

We exchanged a few shots during the night along the river bed, and not much was done on either side, though of course we were on the qui vive all the time; but it was not till near one in the morning that Waschout Hill had an inning.

As I had hoped, the fact that we held the kraal had not been spotted by the enemy, and a large body of them, crawling up the south side of the hill in order to get a good fire on to us in the river, struck a snag in the shape of a close-range volley from our detachment. As the night was not very dark, in the panic following the first volley our men were able (as I learnt afterwards) to stand right up and shoot at the surprised burghers bolting down the hill. However, their panic did not last long, to judge by the sound, for after the first volley from our Lee-Metfords and the subsequent minute’s independent firing, the reports of our rifles were soon mingled with the softer reports of the Mausers, and we shortly observed flashes on our side of Waschout Hill. As these could not be our men, we knew the enemy were endeavoring to surround the detachment. We knew the ranges fairly well, and though, as we could not see our sights, the shooting was rather guesswork, we soon put a stop to this manœuvre by firing a small volley from three or four rifles at each flash on the hill-side. So the night passed without much incident.

During the dark we had taken the opportunity cunningly to place some new white sandbags (which I had found among the stores) in full view at some little distance from our actual trenches and pits. Some men had even gone further, and added a helmet here and a coat there peeping over the top. This ruse had been postponed until our position was discovered, so as not to betray our presence, but after the fighting had begun no harm was done by it. Next morning it was quite a pleasure to see the very accurate shooting made by “Brother” at these sandbags, as betokened by the little spurts of dust.

During this day the veldt to the north and south was deserted by the enemy except at out-of-range distance, but a continuous sniping fire was kept up along the river-banks on each side. The Boer guns were shifted—one to the top of Incidentamba and one to the east and west in order to enfilade the river bank—but, owing to our good cover, we escaped with two killed and three wounded. The enemy did not shell quite such a length of river this time. I confidently expected an attack along the river bank that night, and slightly strengthened my flanks, even at the risk of dangerously denuding the north bank. I was not disappointed.

Under cover of the dark, the enemy came up to within, perhaps, 600 yards on the open veldt on the north and round the edges of Waschout Hill, on the south, and kept up a furious fire, probably to distract our attention, whilst the guns shelled us for about an hour. As soon as the gun-fire ceased they tried to rush us along the river-bed east and west, but owing to the abatis and the holes in the ground, and the fact that it was not a very dark night, they were unsuccessful. However, it was touch and go, and a few of the Boers did succeed in getting into our position only to be bayoneted. Luckily the enemy did not know our strength, or rather our weakness, or they would have persisted in their attempt and succeeded; as it was, they must have lost 20 or 30 men killed and wounded.

Next morning, with so many men out of my original 40 out of action (not to include Waschout Hill, whose losses I did not know), matters seemed to be serious, and I was greatly afraid that another night would be the end of us. I was pleased to see that the detachment on Waschout Hill had still got its tail well up, for they had hoisted a red rag at the masthead. True, this was not the national flag, probably only a mere handkerchief, but it was not white. The day wore on with intermittent shelling and sniping, and we all felt that the enemy must have by now guessed our weakness, and were saving themselves for another night attack, relying upon our being tired out. We did our best to snatch a little sleep by turns during the day, and I did all I could to keep the spirits of the little force up by saying that relief could not be very far off. But it was with a gloomy desperation at best that we saw the day wear on and morning turn into afternoon.

The Boer guns had not been firing for some two hours, and the silence was just beginning to get irritating and mysterious, when the booming of guns in the distance aroused us to the highest pitch of excitement. We were saved! We could not say what guns these were—they might be British or Boer—but, any way, it proved the neighborhood of another force. All faces lighted up, for somehow the welcome sound at once drew the tired feeling out of us.

In order to prevent any chance of the fresh force missing our whereabouts, I collected a few men and at once started to fire some good old British volleys into the scrub, “Ready—present—fire,” which were not to be mistaken. Shortly afterwards we heard musketry in the distance, and saw a cloud of dust to the northeast. We were relieved!


Our total losses were 11 killed and 15 wounded; but we had held the drift, and so enabled a victory to be won. I need not here touch upon the well-known and far-reaching results of the holding of Duffer’s Drift, of the prevention thereby of Boer guns, ammunition, and reinforcements reaching one of their sorely pressed forces at a critical moment, and the ensuing victory gained by our side. It is now, of course, all public knowledge that this was the turning-point in the war, though we, the humble instruments, did not know what vital results hung upon our action.

That evening the relieving force halted at the drift, and, after burying the dead, we spent some time examining the lairs of the Boer snipers, the men collecting bits of shell and cartridge-cases as mementoes—only to be thrown away at once. We found some 25 dead and partially buried Boers, to whom we gave burial.

That night I did not trek, but lay down (in my own breeches and spotted waistcoat). As the smoke from the “prime segar,” presented to me by my Colonel, was eddying in spirals over my head, these gradually changed into clouds of rosy glory, and I heard brass bands in the distance playing a familiar air: “See the Conquering Hero comes,” it was they were playing.

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and heard a gentle voice say, “Arise, Sir Backsight Forethought;” but in a trice my dream of bliss was shattered—the gentle voice changed into the well-known croak of my servant. “Time to pack your kit on the wagon, sir. Corfy’s been up some time now, sir.” I was still in stinking old Dreamdorp.


Ernest Dunlop Swinton

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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