The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, Fifth Dream, Outcome

Monday, May 12th, 2014

BF’s fifth dream of The Defence of Duffer’s Drift doesn’t end well, either:

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 fired until I whistled from 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 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 expected none on the open veld beyond them, for they advanced anyway without care. Several of the clumps joined together, and came on chatting in one body of some 30 men. Would they examine the kraal, or would they pass on? My heart pounded. 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 unsuspectingly. 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 meters 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 1500 meters 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 waggons, etc., straight on as fast as possible over the odd 400 meters to the river and down the drift into the riverbed, 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 waggons 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 from two guns and a pom-pom, 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 riverbank on the north, and from ant-hills, etc., pretty well all round, and were also under the intermittent shellfire 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, 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 making men stand up and fire 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 while the shelling on the north ceased, and continued from the southwest only for 20 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 waggons. I feared a trap, but gradually came to the conclusion the Boers had retired. After a little we discovered the riverbed 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:

  1. 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.
  2. A hill may not, after all, though it has “command,” necessarily be the best place to hold.
  3. 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.


  1. In which our protagonist discovers that prominences have a “military crest” in addition to the one more generally recognized.

  2. Grasspunk says:

    I think I prefer your daily episodic presentation better than reading the book.

  3. Isegoria says:

    Thank you, Grasspunk. Without a break between dreams, it’s too easy to skim ahead to the “right” answer without really thinking through the lessons and taking a stab at what you’d do.

  4. I agree with Grasspunk; I’m quite fond of having them here in general. The only thing that would improve it would be more hashing out of the tactical situation in the comments. Think Isegoria’s 10 instead of Xenophon’s 10,000 :D

  5. Isegoria says:

    From the get-go, I was wondering about the high ground — the table mountain and the sugarloaf hill — and whether 50 riflemen could hold the pass from either position. I assumed they could cover the main way to the pass, but they couldn’t cover the pass itself.

    In this fifth dream though, our protagonist has his men open fire on the main body some 1500 meters away, doing a good deal of damage and causing great confusion. A little research though suggests that the Lee-Metford rifle of the time had an effective range — meaning the average shooter should hit a human target 50% of the time at that range — of 500 to 800 meters.

  6. Ed says:

    In this dream BF is having his unit do volley fire at the Boer column instead of individual aimed fire.

    See Volley fire vs aimed fire for a discussion of volley fire.

  7. Isegoria says:

    I don’t doubt that 50 riflemen could cause great confusion at 1500 meters, but I doubt they’d do a good deal of damage — depending on your definition. I suppose 50 riflemen × 10 rounds/rifleman × 1% accuracy → 5 hits.

  8. My interpretation of the text would indicate that this phase of the battle (fire upon the Boer main body opened out into skirmish line on the flat veldt) lasted probably around 30 minutes, so at 10 rds/rifleman/min with 50 riflemen, 0.005 hits/rd (optimistic, if anything) gives 75 hits. I’d say 30 to 50 hits is more likely.

    Given that the whole Boer force is 500 men, the main body is probably around 300-400 men strong. 30-40 hits decimates them in that case, which is pretty nasty. Their morale would be hurting at that point since they couldn’t see the enemy, and their general and obvious exposure to fire wouldn’t help things. Hence the confusion.

    The Boer commander was in a tight spot, and made the right decision given the information at hand. Sending his men to ground took away any realistic chance at building enough forward momentum for an assault, but since he controlled the surrounding countryside and greatly outnumbered the British force (he would have been able get a rough idea of the numbers from the weight of fire and their passive behavior) there was little cost to simply waiting until night to slip past. His scouts would warn him of any British maneuver forces, in which case he could withdraw, and given the situation there was no chance of the British slipping a runner out in time to warn any such force if it wasn’t already on the way.

  9. Isegoria says:

    I don’t know if British riflemen could achieve 1% accuracy at 1500 meters against men in the open, but I suspect their hit rate would drop below even 0.5% against men who’d dispersed and gone to ground. With an accuracy of 0.1% (1/1,000), that would imply 15 hits out of 15,000. With an accuracy of 0.01% (1/10,000), that would imply 1.5 hits. (Did British riflemen even carry 300 rounds?)

  10. In that opening phase during which the British force did most of its damage the Boers hadn’t gone to ground yet; the tactical situation had not yet developed, the Boer commander wouldn’t have wanted to give up on the possibility of offensive action, and even once he knew what he wanted to do it would take 5-10 minutes just to inform all his subordinates, and another couple of minutes for them to get their men moving.

    The immediate response of the Boers (and I interpret the text to indicate that this is indeed the case) would have been to go from loose column of march to a dispersed skirmish line with the interval anywhere from 1 to 3 meters. Assuming a 300 man main body that’s a total frontage somewhere from 150 to 900 meters depending on whether he stacks his main force or not. Probably the latter, as Boer tactics leaned towards maximum force on line to develop superior firepower, giving up the ability to generate the sequential offensive impulses sought by European commanders.

    Thus the length of time needed for his runners to inform everyone of any new orders once his force had deployed. Dispersing them to defensive positions in cover or concealment as he did later would have been hasty before he knew exactly what he was up against. The amount of time needed to herd them all back together and get them straightened out enough to maneuver might have resulted in more casualties than simply performing that maneuver from the deployed state. Hence, 5-10 minutes to deploy once they had come under fire, 5-10 minutes to figure out what they were up against and that they couldn’t tackle it offensively (without prohibitive casualties), 5-10 minutes for the Boer commander to get his orders to everyone, and 5 minutes or so for them to get into cover where they couldn’t be shot at. Total: 25-35 min. Those are all exceedingly rough estimates, of course.

    As Clausewitz pointed out: “In war everything is very simple, but the simplest thing becomes very difficult.” Everything takes longer than it seems like it should, especially with hundreds of people involved.

    At those ranges, against 300 Boers in open line on the plain, 0.5% accuracy sounds about right. Only way to find out for sure would be to do some experiments. Happily, they’ve already been done. I have a book around here somewhere that was written just after the Boer War, presenting the various positions taken in tactical debates of the time as well as the data resulting from the experiments in long-range rifle and artillery accuracy against bodies of troops made by various countries. I’ll see if I can dig it up.

    This has reminded me that I should write the remaining sections in my “Victorian Tactics” series.

  11. With regards to the ammo, back in the setup for the 1st dream the text mentioned that they were well supplied with ammo. I don’t know if that’s enough for the sort of shooting described in this dream, but quite possible. They were set up for a static defense after all.

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