The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, Fifth Dream

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

BF begins his fifth dream of The Defence of Duffer’s Drift with even more lessons to keep in mind:

Again I faced the same task with a fresh mind and fresh hopes, all that remained with me of my former attempts being 19 lessons.

Having detailed the two patrols and the guard on Waschout Hill as already described, I spent some 20 minutes — whilst the stores, etc., were being arranged — in walking about to choose a position to hold in the light of my 19 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 manoeuvres 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 19 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 debris, 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 huts on the hilltop and close to them, we dug some ten short lengths of deep-firing trenches, 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. Once these firing trenches were 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 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 sandbags, pieces 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 favourable 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 perfect quite, 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 camp I picked out one or two of my smartest NCOs, and instructed them to walk down the hill in different directions to the riverbank 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 rearranged 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 veld. It was awkward trying to walk with our rifles hidden under our blankets, and, moreover, every two minutes we had to look round 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 debris 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 veld. 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.

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