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