BF’s sixth dream of The Defence of Duffer’s Drift ends… better:
We had about three hours next morning before any enemy were reported from Waschout Hill (the prearranged signal for this was the raising of a pole from one of the huts). This time was employed in perfecting our defences in various ways. We managed to clear away the scrub in the dry riverbed and banks for some 200 meters beyond our line of pits on each side, and actually attained to the refinement of an “obstacle”; for at the extremity of this clearance a sort of abatis entanglement was made with the wire from an adjacent fence which the men had discovered. During the morning I visited the post on Waschout Hill, found everything all correct, and took the opportunity of showing the detachment the exact limits of our position in the riverbed, and explained what we were going to do. After about three hours work, “Somebody in sight” was signalled, and we soon after saw from our position a cloud of dust away to the north. This force, which proved to be a commando, approached as already described in the last dream; all we could do meanwhile was to sit tight in concealment. Their scouts came in clumps of twos and threes which extended over some mile of front, the centre of the line heading for the drift. As the scouts got closer, the natural impulse to make for the easiest crossing place was obeyed by two or three of the parties on each side of the one approaching: the drift, and they inclined inwards and joined forces with it. This was evidently the largest party we could hope to surprise, and we accordingly lay for it. When about 300 meters away, the “brethren” stopped rather suspiciously. This was too much for some man on the east side, who let fly, and the air was rent by the rattle as we emptied our magazines, killing five of this special scouting party and two from other groups further out on either side. We continued to fire at the scouts as they galloped back, dropping two more, and also at the column which was about a mile away, but afforded a splendid target till it opened out.
In a very few moments our position was being shelled by three guns, but with the only result, as far we were concerned of having one man wounded by shell-fire, though the firing went on slowly till dark. To be accurate, I should say the river was being shelled, our position incidentally, for shells were bursting along the river for some half-mile. The Boers were evidently quite at sea as regards to the extent of our position and strength, and wasted many shells. We noticed much galloping of men away to the east and west, out of range, and guessed that these were parties who intended to strike the river at some distance away, and gradually work along the bed, in order probably to get into close range during the night.
We exchanged a few shots during the night along the riverbed, and not much was done on either side, though of course we were on the qui vive all the time; but it was not till near one in the morning that Waschout Hill had an inning.
As I had hoped, the fact that we held the kraal had not been spotted by the enemy, and a large body of them, crawling up the south side of the hill in order to get a good fire on to us in the river, struck a snag in the shape of a close-range volley from our detachment. As the night was not very dark, in the panic following the first volley our men were able (as I learnt afterwards) to stand right up and shoot at the surprised burghers bolting down the hill. However, their panic did not last long, to judge by the sound, for after the first volley from our Lee-Metfords and the subsequent minutes of independent firing, the reports of our rifles were soon mingled with the softer reports of the Mausers, and we shortly observed flashes on our side of Waschout Hill. As these could not be our men, we knew the enemy was endeavouring to surround the detachment. We knew the ranges fairly well, and though, as we could not see our sights, the shooting was rather guesswork, we soon put a stop to this maneuvre by firing a small volley from three or four rifles at each flash on the hillside. So the night passed without much incident.
During the dark we had taken the opportunity to cunningly place some new white sandbags (which I had found among the stores) in full view at some little distance from our actual trenches and pits. Some men had even gone further, and added a helmet here and a coat there peeping over the top. This ruse had been postponed until our position was discovered, so as not to, betray our presence, but after the fighting had begun no harm was done by it. Next morning it was quite a pleasure to see the very accurate shooting made by “Brother” at these sandbags, as betokened by the little spurts of dust.
During this day the veld to the north and south was deserted by the enemy except at out-of-range distance, but a continuous sniping fire was kept up along the riverbanks on each side. The Boer guns were shifted — one to the top of Incidentamba and one to the east and west in order to enfilade the riverbank-but, owing to our good cover, we escaped with two killed and three wounded. The enemy did not shell quite such a length of river this time. I confidently expected an attack along the riverbank that night, and slightly strengthened my flanks, even at the risk of dangerously denuding the north bank. I was not disappointed.
Under cover of the dark, the enemy came up to within, perhaps, 600 meters of the open veld on the north and round the edges of Waschout Hill on the south, and kept up a furious fire, probably to distract our attention, whilst the guns shelled us for about an hour. As soon as the gunfire ceased they tried to rush us along the riverbed east and west, but, owing to the abatis and the holes in the ground, and the fact that it was not a very dark night, they were unsuccessful. However, it was touch-and-go, and a few of the Boers did succeed in getting into our position, only to be bayoneted. Luckily the enemy did not know our strength, or rather our weakness, or they would have persisted in their attempt and succeeded; as it was, they must have lost 20 or 30 men killed and wounded.
Next morning, with so many men out of my original 40 out of action (not to include Waschout Hill, whose losses I did not know) matters seemed to be serious, and I was greatly afraid that another night would be the end of us. I was pleased to see that the detachment on Waschout Hill had still got its sail well up, for they had hoisted a red rag at the masthead. True, this was not the national flag, probably, only a mere handkerchief, but it was not white. The day wore on with intermittent shelling and sniping, and we all felt that the enemy must have by now guessed our weakness, and were saving themselves for another night attack, relying upon our being tired out. We did our best to snatch a little sleep by turns during the day, and I did all I could to keep the spirits of the little force up by saying that relief could not be very far off. But it was with a gloomy desperation at best that we saw the day wear on and morning turn into afternoon.
The Boer guns had not been firing for some two hours, and the silence was just beginning to get irritating and mysterious, when the booming of guns in the distance aroused us to the highest pitch of excitement. We were saved! We could not say what guns these were — they might be British or Boer but, anyway, it proved the neighbourhood of another force. All faces lighted up, for somehow the welcome sound at once drew the tired feeling out of us.
In order to prevent any chance of the fresh force missing our whereabouts I collected a few men and at once started to fire some good old British volleys into the scrub, “ Ready — present — fire!,” which were not to be mistaken. Shortly afterwards we heard musketry in the distance, and saw a cloud of dust to the northeast. We were relieved!
Our total losses were 11 killed and 15 wounded; but we had held the drift, and so enabled a victory to be won. I need not here touch upon the well-known and far-reaching results of the holding of Duffer’s Drift, of the prevention thereby of Boer guns, ammunition, and reinforcements reaching one of their sorely pressed forces at a critical moment, and the ensuing victory gained by our side. It is now, of course, public knowledge that this was the turning point in the war, though we, the humble instruments, did not know what vital results hung upon our action.
That evening the relieving force halted at the drift, and, after burying the dead, we spent some time examining the lairs of the Boer snipers, the men collecting bits of shelf and cartridge cases as mementoes — only to be thrown away at once. We found some 25 dead and partly buried Boers, to whom we gave burial.
That night I did not trek, but lay down (in my own breeches and spotted waistcoat). As the smoke from the “prime segar,” presented to me by the Colonel, was eddying in spirals over my head, these gradually changed into clouds of rosy glory, and I heard brass bands in the distance playing a familiar air: “See the Conquering Hero comes,” it sounded like.
I felt a rap on my shoulder, and heard a gentle voice say, “Arise, Sir Backsight Forethought”; but in a trice my dream of bliss was shattered — the gentle voice changed into the well-known croak of my servant. “Time to pack your kit on the waggon, sir. Corfy’s been up some time now, sir.” I was still in stinking old Dreamdorp.