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

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

BF’s fourth dream of The Defence of Duffer’s Drift yields many more lessons:

The advanced party of the enemy came on, scouting carefully and stalking the farm as they came. As they appeared quite unwarned, I was wondering if I should be able to surprise them, all innocent of our presence, with a close-range volley, and then magazine fire into their midst, when suddenly one man stopped and the others gathered round him. This was when they were some 1800 meters away, about on a level with the end of Incidentamba. They had evidently seen something and sniffed danger, for there was a short palaver and much pointing. A messenger then galloped back to the main body, which turned off behind Incidentamba with its waggons, etc. A small number, including a man on a white horse, rode off in a vague way to the west. The object of this move I could not quite see. They appeared to have a vehicle with them of some sort. The advanced party split up as already described. As all were still at long range, we could only wait.

Very shortly “boom” went a gun from the top of Incidentamba, and a shrapnel shell burst not far from us. A second and third followed, after which they soon picked up our range exactly, and the shell began to burst all about us; however, we were quite snug and happy in our nice deep trench, where we contentedly crouched. The waste of good and valuable shrapnel shell by the enemy was the cause of much amusement to the men, who were in great spirits, and, as one of them remarked, were “as cosy as cockroaches in a crack.” At the expenditure of many shells only two men were hit – in the legs.

After a time the guns ceased fire, and we at once manned the parapet and stood up to repel an attack, but we could see no Boers though the air began at once to whistle and hum with bullets. Nearly all these seemed to come from the riverbank in front, to the north and northeast, and kept the parapet one continual spurt of dust as they smacked into it. All we could do was to fire by sound at various likely bushes on the riverbank, and this we did with the greatest possible diligence, but no visible results.

In about a quarter of an hour, we had had five men shot through the head, the most exposed part. The mere raising of a head to fire seemed to be absolutely fatal, as it had on a former occasion when we were attempting to fire at close range over a parapet against the enemy concealed. I saw two poor fellows trying to build up a pitiful little kind of house of cards with stones and pieces of ant-hill through which to fire. This was as conspicuous as a chimney-pot on top of the parapet, and was at once shot to powder before they had even used it, but not before it had suggested to me the remedy for this state of affairs. Of course, we wanted in such a case “head cover” and “loopholes.” As usual, I was wise after the event, for we had no chance of making them then, even had we not been otherwise busy. Suddenly the noise of firing became much more intense, but with the smack of the bullets striking the earth all round quite close it was not easy to tell from which direction this fresh firing came. At the same time the men seemed to be dropping much oftener, and I was impressing them with the necessity of keeping up a brisker fire to the front, when I noticed a bullet hit our side of the parapet.

It then became clear, the enemy must evidently have got into the donga behind us (to which I had paid no attention, as it was to the rear), and were shooting us in the back as we stood up to our parapet.

This, I thought, must be what is called being “taken in reverse,” and it was.

By the time I had gathered what was happening, about a dozen more men had been bowled over. I then ordered the whole lot to take cover in the trench, and only to pop up to take a shot to the front or rear. But no more could be done by us towards the rear than to the front. The conditions were the same – no Boers to be seen. At this moment two of the guard from Waschout Hill started to run in to our trench, and a terrific fusillade was opened on to them, the bullets kicking up the dust all round them as they ran. One poor fellow was dropped, but the other managed to reach our trench and fall into it. He too was badly hit, but just had the strength to gasp out that except himself and the man who started with him, all the guard on Waschout Hill had been killed or wounded and that the Boers were gradually working their way up to the top. This was indeed cheering.

So hot was the fire now that no one could raise his head above ground without being shot, and by crouching down altogether and not attempting to aim, but merely firing our rifles over the edge of the trench, we remained for a short time without casualties. This respite, however, was short, for the men in the right half of the trench began to drop unaccountably whilst they were sitting well under cover, and not exposing themselves at all. I gradually discovered the cause of this. Some snipers must have reached the top of Waschout Hill, and were shooting straight down our right half trench. As the bullets snicked in thicker and thicker, it was plain the number of snipers was being increased.

This, I thought, must be being “enfiladed from a flank.” It was so.

Without any order, we had all instinctively vacated the right half of our trench and crowded into the left half, which by great good luck could not be enfiladed from any point on the south side of the river, nor indeed by rifle-fire from anywhere, as, owing to the ground, its prolongation on the right was up above ground for some 3000 meters away on the veld on the north bank.

Though we were huddled together quite helpless like rats in a trap, still it was in a small degree comforting to think that, short of charging, the enemy could do nothing. For that we fixed bayonets and grimly waited. If they did make an assault, we had bayonets, and they had not, and we could sell our lives very dearly in a rough-and-tumble.

Alas! I was again deceived. There was to be no chance of close quarters and cold steel, for suddenly we heard, far away out on the veld to the north, a sound as of someone beating a tin tray, and a covey of little shells whistled into the ground close by the trench; two of these burst on touching the ground. Right out of rifle-range, away on the open veld on the north, I saw a party of Boers, with a white horse and a vehicle. Then I knew. But how had they managed to hit off so well the right spot to go to enfilade our trench before they even knew where we were? Pom-pom pom-pom-pom again, and the little steel devils ploughed their way into the middle of us in our shell-trap, mangling seven men. I at once diagnosed the position with great professional acumen; we were now enfiladed from both flanks, but the knowledge was acquired too late to help us, for —

“We lay bare as the paunch of the purser’s sow,
To the hail of the Nordenfeldt.”

This was the last straw; there was nothing left but surrender or entire annihilation at long range. I surrendered. Boers, as usual, sprang up from all round. We had fought for three hours, and had 25 killed and 17 wounded. Of these, seven only had been hit by the shrapnel and rifle-fire from the front. All the rest had been killed or hit from the flanks, where there should be few enemies, or the rear, where there should be none! This fact convinced me that my preconceived notions as to the front, and its danger relative to the other points of the compass, needed considerable modification. All my cherished ideas were being ruthlessly swept away, and I was plunged into a sea of doubt, groping for something certain or fixed to lay hold of. Could Longfellow, when he wrote that immortal line, “Things are not what they seem,” ever have been in my position?

The survivors were naturally a little disheartened at their total discomfiture, when all had started so well with them in their “crack.” This expressed itself in different ways. As one man said to a corporal, who was plugging a hole in his ear with a bit of rag –

“Something sickening, I call it, this enfilading racket; you never know which way it will take yer. I’m fairly fed up.” To which the gloomy reply, “Enfiladed? Of course we’ve been enfiladed. This ‘ere trench should have been wiggled about a bit, and then there would not have been quite so much of it. Yes, wiggled about — that’s what it should have been.” To which chipped in a third, “Yes, and something to keep the blighters from shooting us in the back wouldn’t ‘ave done us much ‘arm, anyway.”

There were evidently more things in earth than I had hitherto dreamt of in my philosophy!

As we trekked away to the north under a detached guard of Boers, many little points such as the above sank into my soul, but I could not for some time solve the mystery of why we had not succeeded in surprising the enemy. There were no men, women, children, or Kaffirs who, knowing of our arrival, could have warned them. How did they spot our presence so soon, as they evidently must have done when they stopped and consulted in the morning? It was not until passing Incidentamba, as I casually happened to look round and survey the scene of the fight from the enemy’s point of view, that I discovered the simple answer to the riddle. There on the smooth yellow slope of the veld just south of the drift was a brownish-red streak, as conspicuous as the Long Man of Wilmington on the dear old Sussex downs, which positively shrieked aloud, “HO Hi! Hi! – this way for the British defence.” I then grimly smiled to think of myself sitting like a “slick Alick” in that poster of a trench and expecting to surprise anybody!

Besides having been enfiladed and also taken in reverse, we had again found ourselves at a disadvantage as compared with the concealed enemy shooting at close range, from having to show up at a fixed place in order to fire.

Eventually I collected the following lessons:

  1. For a small isolated post and an active enemy, there are no flanks, no rear, or, to put it otherwise, it is front all round.
  2. Beware of being taken in reverse; take care, when placing and making your defences, that when you are engaged in shooting the enemy to the front of your trench, his pal cannot sneak up and shoot you in the back.
  3. Beware of being enfiladed. It is nasty from one flank-far worse from both flanks. Remember, also, that though you may arrange matters so that you cannot be enfiladed by rifle fire, yet you may be open to it from long range, by means of gun or pom-porn fire. There are few straight trenches that cannot be enfiladed from somewhere, if the enemy can only get there. You can sometimes avoid being enfiladed by so placing your trench that no one can get into prolongation of it to fire down it, or you can “wiggle” it about in many ways, so that it is not straight, or make “traverses” across it, or dig separate trenches for every two or three men.
  4. Do not have your trench near rising ground over which you cannot see, and which you cannot hold.
  5. Do not huddle all your men together in a small trench like sheep in a pen. Give them air.
  6. As once before — cover from sight is of often worth more than cover from bullets. For close shooting from a non-concealed trench, head cover with loopholes is an advantage. This should be bulletproof and not be conspicuously on the top of the parapet, so as to draw fire, or it will be far more dangerous than having none.
  7. To surprise the enemy is a great advantage.
  8. If you wish to obtain this advantage, conceal your position. Though for promotion it may be sound to advertise your position, for defence it is not.
  9. To test the concealment or otherwise of your position, look at it from the enemy’s point of view.

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