The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, First Dream

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

In his first dream of The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, BF comes up with these orders:

After a moment’s consideration, I decided to pitch my small camp on a spot just south of the drift, because it was slightly rising ground, which I knew should be chosen for a camp whenever possible. It was, moreover, quite close to the drift, which was also in its favour, for, as every one knows, if you are told off to guard anything, you mount a guard quite close to it, and place a sentry, if possible, standing on top of it. The place I picked out also had the river circling round three sides of it in a regular horseshoe bend, which formed a kind of ditch, or, as the book says, “a natural obstacle.” I was indeed lucky to have such an ideal place close at hand; nothing could have been more suitable.

Duffer's Drift Map 2

I came to the conclusion that, as the enemy were not within a hundred miles, there would be no need to place the camp in a state of defence till the following day. Besides, the men were tired after their long trek, and it would be quite as much as they could do comfortably to arrange nice and shipshape all the stores and tools, which had been dumped down anyhow in a heap, pitch the camp, and get their teas before dark.

Between you and me, I was really relieved to be able to put off my defensive measures till the morrow, because I was a wee bit puzzled as to what to do. In fact, the more I thought, the more puzzled I grew. The only “measures of defence” I could recall for the moment were, how to tie “a thumb or overhand knot,” and how long it takes to cut down an apple tree of six inches diameter. Unluckily neither of these useful facts seemed quite to apply. Now, if they had given me a job like fighting the battle of Waterloo, or Sedan, or Bull Run, I knew all about that, as I had crammed it up and been examined in it too. I also knew how to take up a position for a division, or even an army corps, but the stupid little subaltern’s game of the defence of a drift with a small detachment was, curiously enough, most perplexing, I had never really considered such a thing. However, in the light of my habitual dealings with army corps, it would, no doubt, be child’s-play after a little thought.

Having issued my immediate orders accordingly, I decided to explore the neighbourhood, but was for a moment puzzled as to which direction I should take; for, having no horse, I could not possibly get all round before dark. After a little thought, it flashed across my mind that obviously I should go to the north. The bulk of the enemy being away to the north, that of course must be the front. I knew naturally that there must be a front, because in all the schemes I had had to prepare, or the exams I had undergone, there was always a front, or “the place where the enemies come from.” How often, also, had I not had trouble in getting out of a dull sentry which his “front” and what his “beat” was. The north, then, being my front, the east and west were my flanks, where there might possibly be enemies, and the south was my rear, where naturally there were none.

I settled these knotty points to my satisfaction, and off I trudged, with my field-glasses, and, of course, my Kodak, directing my steps towards the gleaming white walls of the little Dutch farm, nestling under the kopje to the north-east. It was quite a snug little farm for South Africa, and was surrounded by blue gums and fruit trees. About a quarter of a mile from the farm I was met by the owner, Mr. Andreas Brink, a tame or surrendered Boer farmer, and his two sons, Piet and Gert, “Such a nice man too,” with a pleasant face and long beard. He would insist on calling me “Captain,” and as any correction might have confused him, I did not think it worth while to make any, and after all I wasn’t so very far from my “company.” The three of them positively bristled with dog’s-eared and dirty passes from every Provost Marshal in South Africa, and these they insisted on showing me. I had not thought of asking for them, and was much impressed, to have so many they must be special men. They escorted me to the farm, where the good wife and several daughters met us, and gave me a drink of milk, which was most acceptable after my long and dusty trek. The whole family appeared either to speak or to understand English, and we had a very friendly chat, during the course of which I gathered that there were no Boer commandos anywhere within miles, that the whole family cordially hoped that there never would be again, and that Brink was really a most loyal Briton, and had been much against the war, but had been forced to go on commando with his two sons. Their loyalty was evident, because there was an oreograph of the Queen on the wall, and one of the numerous flappers was playing our National Anthem on the harmonium as I entered.

The farmer and the boys took a great interest in all my personal gear, especially a brand-new pair of the latest-pattern field-glasses, which they tried with much delight, and many exclamations of “Allermachtig.” They evidently appreciated them extremely, but could not imagine any use for my Kodak in war-time, even after I had taken a family group. Funny, simple fellows! They asked and got permission from me to sell milk, eggs and butter in the camp, and I strolled on my way, congratulating myself on the good turn I was thus able to do myself and detachment, none of whom had even smelt such luxuries for weeks.

After an uneventful round, I directed my steps back towards the thin blue threads of smoke, rising vertically in the still air, which alone showed the position of my little post, and as I walked the peacefulness of the whole scene impressed me. The landscape lay bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, whose parting rays tinged most strongly the various heights within view, and the hush of approaching evening was only broken by the distant lowing of oxen, and by the indistinct and cheerful camp, noises, which gradually grew louder as I approached. I strolled along in quite a pleasant frame of mind, meditating over the rather curious names which Mr. Brink had given me for the surrounding features of the landscape. The kopje above his farm was called Incidentamba, the flat-topped mountain some two miles to the north was called Regret Table Mountain, and the gently rising hill close to the drift on the south of the river they called Waschout Hill. Everything was going on well, and the men were at their teas when I got back. The nice Dutchman with his apostolic face and the lanky Piet and Gert were already there, surrounded by a swarm of men, to whom they were selling their wares at exorbitant rates. The three of them strolled about the camp, showing great interest in everything, asking most intelligent questions about the British forces and the general position of affairs and seemed really relieved to have a strong British post near. They did not even take offence when some of the rougher man called them “blarsted Dutchmen,” and refused to converse with them, or buy their “skoff.” About dusk they left, with many promises to return with a fresh supply on the morrow.

After writing out my orders for next day — one of which was for digging some trenches round the camp, an operation which I knew my men, as becomes good British soldiers, disliked very much, and regarded as fatigues — I saw the two guards mounted, one at the drift, and the other some little way down the river, each furnishing one sentry on the river bank.

When all had turned in, and the camp was quite silent, it was almost comforting to hear the half-hourly cry of the sentries. “Number one — all is well!; Number two — all is well!” By this sound I was able to locate them, and knew they were at their proper posts. On going round sentries about midnight, I was pleased to find that they were both alert, and that, as it was a cold night, each guard had built a bonfire silhouetted in the cheerful blaze of which stood the sentry — a clear-cut monument to all around that here was a British sentry fully on the qui-vive. After impressing them with their orders, the extent of their “beat,” and the direction of their “front,” etc., I turned in. The fires they had built, besides being a comfort to themselves, were also useful to me, because twice during the night when I looked out I could, without leaving my tent, plainly see them at their posts. I finally fell asleep, and dreamt of being decorated with a crossbelt made of V.Cs and D.S.O.s, and of wearing red tabs all down my back.

It doesn’t go so swimmingly.

Leave a Reply