BF’s second dream about The Defence of Duffer’s Drift ends slightly better than the first — but only slightly:
Just before dawn much the same happened as already described in my first dream, except that the ball was started by a shot without challenge from one of our sentries at something moving among the bush, which resulted in close-range fire opening up to us from all sides. This time we were not rushed, but a perfect hail of bullets whistled in from every direction — from in front of each trench, and over and through our parapet. It was sufficient to put a hand or head up to have a dozen bullets through and all round it, and the strange part was, we saw no one. As the detachment wag plaintively remarked, we could have seen lots of Boers, “if it wasn’t for the bushes in between.”
After vainly trying until bright daylight to see the enemy in order to do some damage in return, so many men were hit, and the position seemed so utterly hopeless, that I had to hoist the white flag. We had by then 24 men killed and six wounded. As soon as the white flag went up the Boers ceased firing at once, and stood up; every bush and ant-hill up to 100 meters range seemed to have hid a Boer behind it. This close range explained the marvellous accuracy of their shooting, and the great proportion of our killed (who were nearly all shot through the head) to our wounded.
As we were collecting ourselves preparatory to marching off there were one or two things which struck me; one was that the Dutchman who had presented me with eggs and butter was in earnest confabulation with the Boer commandant, who was calling him “Oom” most affectionately. I also noticed that all male Kaffirs from the neighbouring kraal had been fetched and impressed to assist in getting the Boer guns and waggons across the drift and to load up our captured gear, and generally do odd and dirty jobs. These same Kaffirs did their work with as if they enjoyed it; there was no “backchat” when an order was given usually by friend “Oom.”
Again, as I trudged with blistered feet that livelong day, did I think over my failure. It seemed so strange, I had done all I knew, and yet, here we were, ignominiously captured, 24 of us killed, and the Boers over the drift. “Ah, BF, my boy,” I thought, “there must be a few more lessons to be learnt besides those you already know.” In order to find out what these were, I pondered deeply over the details of the fight.
The Boers must have known of our position, but how had they managed to get close up all round within snapshooting range without being discovered? What a tremendous advantage they had gained in shooting from among the bushes on the bank, where they could not be seen, over us who had to show up over a parapet every time we looked for an enemy, and show up, moreover, just in the very place where every Boer expected us to. There seemed to be some fault in the position. How the bullets seemed sometimes to come through the parapet, and how those that passed over one side hit the men defending the other side in the back. How, on the whole, that “natural obstacle,” the river-bed, seemed to be more of a disadvantage than a protection.
Eventually the following lessons framed themselves in my head — some of them quite new, some of them supplementing those four I had already learnt:
- With modern rifles, to guard a drift or locality does not necessitate sitting on top of it (as if it could be picked up and carried away), unless the locality is suitable to hold for other and defensive reasons. It may even be much better to take up your defensive position some way from the spot, and so away from concealed ground, which enables the enemy to crawl up to very close range, concealed and unperceived, and to fire from cover which hides them even when shooting. It would be better, if possible, to have the enemy in the open, or to have what is called a clear “field of fire.” A non-bullet-proof parapet or visible serves merely to attract bullets instead of keeping them out — the proof of thickness can be easily and practically tested. When fired at by an enemy at close range from nearly all round, a low parapet and shallow trench are not of much use, as what bullets do not hit the defenders on one side hit those on another.
- It is not enough to keep strange men of the enemy’s breed away from your actual defences, letting them go free to warn their friends of your existence and whereabouts — even though they should not be under temptation to impart any knowledge they may have obtained. “Another way,” as the cookery book says, more economical in lives, would be as follows: Gather and warmly greet a sufficiency of strangers. Stuff well with chestnuts as to the large force about to join you in a few hours; garnish with corroborative detail, and season according to taste with whiskey or tobacco. This will very likely be sufficient for the nearest commando. Probable cost — some heavy and glib lying, but no lives will be expended.
- It is not business to allow lazy men (even though they be brothers and neutrals) to sit teeth outside their kraals whilst tired soldiers are breaking their hearts trying to do heavy labour in short time. It is more the duty of a soldier to teach the lazy neutral the dignity of labour, and by keeping him under guard to prevent his going away to talk about it.
By the time the above lessons had been well burnt into my brain, beyond all chance of forgetfulness, a strange thing happened. I had a fresh dream.