BF edges closer to success in his sixth dream of The Defence of Duffer’s Drift:
Once more was I fated to essay the task of defending Duffer’s Drift. This time I had 22 lessons under my belt to help me out, and in the oblivion of my dream I was spared that sense of monotony which by now may possibly have overtaken you, “gentle reader.”
After sending out the patrols, and placing a guard on Waschout Hill, as already described, and whilst the stores were being collected, I considered deeply what position I should take up, and walked up to the top of Waschout Hill to spy out the land. On the top I found a Kaffir kraal, which I saw would assist me much as concealment should I decide to hold this hill. This I was much inclined to do, but after a few minutes’ trial of the shape of the ground, with the help of some men walking about down below, and my eyes a little above ground level, I found that its convexity was such that, to see and fire on the drift and the approach on the south side, I should have to abandon the top of the hill, and so the friendly concealment of the Kaffir huts, and take up a position on the open hillside some way down. This was, of course, quite feasible, especially if I held a position at the top of the hill as well, near the huts on the east and southeast sides; but, as it would be impossible to really conceal ourselves on the bare hillside, it meant giving up all idea of surprising the enemy, which I wished to do. I must, therefore, find some other place which would lend itself to easy and good concealment, and also have the drift or its approaches under close rifle fire. But where to find such a place?
As I stood deep in thought, considering this knotty problem, an idea gently wormed itself into my mind, which I at once threw out again as being absurd and out of the question. This idea was to hold the riverbed and banks on each side of the drift! To give up all idea of command, and, instead of seeking the nearest high ground, which comes as natural to the student of tactics as rushing for a tree does to a squirrel, to take the lowest ground, even though it should be all among thick cover, instead of being nicely in the open.
No, it was absolutely revolutionary, and against every canon I had ever read or heard of; it was evidently the freak of a sorely tried and worried brain. I would have none of it, and I put it firmly from me. But the more I argued to myself the absurdity of it, the more this idea obtained possession of me. The more I said it was impossible, the more allurements were spread before me in its favour, until each of my conscientious objections was enmeshed and smothered in a network of specious reasons as to the advantages of the proposal.
I resisted, I struggled, but finally fell to temptation, dressed up in the plausible guise of reason. I would hold the riverbed. The advantages I thus hoped to obtain were:
- Perfect concealment and cover from sight.
- Trenches and protection against both rifle and gunfire practically ready made.
- Communications under good cover.
- The enemy would be out in the open veld except along the riverbank, where we, being in position first, would still have the advantage.
- Plentiful water supply at hand.
True, there were a few dead animals near the drift, and the tainted air seemed to hang heavy over the riverbed, but the carcases could be quickly buried under the steep banks, and, after all, one could not expect every luxury.
As our clear field of fire, which in the north was only bounded by the range of our rifles, was on the south limited by Waschout Hill, a suitable position for the enemy to occupy, I decided to hold the top of it as well as the riverbed. All I could spare for this would be two NCOs and eight men, who would be able to defend the south side of the hill, the north being under our fire from the riverbank.
Having detailed this party, I gave my instructions for the work, which was soon started. In about a couple of hours the patrols returned with their prisoners, which were dealt with as before. For the post on Waschout Hill, the scheme was that the trenches should be concealed much in the same way as described in the last dream, but great care should be taken that no one in the post should be exposed to rifle fire from our main position in the river. I did not wish the fire of the main body to be in any degree hampered by a fear of hitting the men on Waschout Hill, especially at night. If we knew it was not possible to hit them, we could shoot freely all over the hill. This detachment was to have a double lot of water bottles, besides every available receptacle collected in the kraal, filled with water, in anticipation of a prolonged struggle.
The general idea for the main defensive position was to hold both sides of the river, improving the existing steep banks and ravines into rifle-pits to contain from one to four men. These could, with very little work, be made to give cover from all sides. As such a large amount of the work was already done for us, we were enabled to dig many more of these pits than the exact number required for our party. Pathways leading between these were to be cut into the bank, so that we should be able to shift about from one position to another. Besides the advantage this would give us in the way of moving about, according as we wished to fire, it also meant that we should probably be able to mislead the enemy as to our numbers-which, by such shifting tactics might, for a time at least, be much exaggerated. The pits for fire to the north and south were nearly all so placed as to allow the occupants to fire at ground level over the veld. They were placed well among the bushes, only just sufficient scrub being cut away to allow a man to see all round, without exposing the position of his trench. On each side of the river, just by the drift, were some “spoil” heaps of earth, excavated from the road ramp. These stood some five or six feet above the general level, and were as rough as the banks in outline. These heaps were large enough to allow a few pits being made on them, which had the extra advantage of height. In some of the pits, to give head-cover, loopholes of sandbags were made, though in most cases this was not needed, owing to the concealment of the bushes. I found it as necessary to examine personally every loophole, and correct the numerous mistakes made in their construction. Some had the new clean sandbags exposed to full view, thus serving as mere whited sepulchres to their occupants, others were equally conspicuous from their absurd cock-shy appearance, others were not bulletproof, whilst others again would only allow of shooting in one direction, or into the ground at a few meters range, or up into the blue sky. As I corrected all these faults I thought that loopholes not made under supervision might prove rather a snare.
The result was, in the way of concealment, splendid. From these pits with our heads at ground level we could see quite clearly out on to the veld beyond, either from under the thicker part of the bushes or even through those which were close to our eyes. From the open, on the other hand, we were quite invisible, even from 300 meters distance, and would have been more so had we had the whiskers of the “brethren.” It was quite evident to me that these same whiskers were a wise precaution of nature for this very purpose, and part of her universal scheme of protective mimicry.
The numerous small dongas and rifts lent themselves readily to flanking fire, and in many places the vertical banks required no cutting in order to give ideal protection against even artillery. In others, the sides of the crooked waterways had to be merely scooped out a little, or a shelf cut to stand upon.
In one of these deeper ravines two tents, which, being below ground level, were quite invisible, were pitched for the women and children, and small caves cut for them in case of a bombardment, The position extended for a length of some 150 meters on each side of the drift along both banks of the river, and at its extremities, where an attack was most to be feared, pits were dug down the riverbanks and across the dry riverbed. These also were concealed as well as possible. The flanks or ends were, of course, our greatest danger, for it was from here we might expect to be rushed, and not from the open veld. I was undecided for some time as to whether to clear a “field of fire” along the river-banks or not, as I had no wish to give away our presence by any suspicious nudity of the banks at each end of our position. I finally decided, in order to prevent this, to clear the scrub for as great a range as possible from the ends of the position, everywhere below the ground level, and also on the level ground, except for a good fringe just on the edges of the banks. This fringe I thought would be sufficient to hide the clearance to any one not very close. I now blessed the man who had left us some cutting tools. Whilst all this was being carried out, I paced out some ranges to the north and south, and these we marked by a few empty tins placed on ant-heaps, etc.
At dusk, when we had nearly all the pits finished and some of the clearance done, tents and gear were hidden, ammunition and rations distributed to all, and orders in case of an attack given out. As I could not be everywhere, I had to rely, on the outlying groups of men fully understanding my aims beforehand, and acting on their “own.” To prevent our chance of a close-range volley into the enemy being spoilt by some over-zealous or jumpy man opening fire at long range, I gave orders that fire was to be held as long as possible, and that no man was to fire a shot until firing had already commenced elsewhere (which sounded rather Irish), or my whistle sounded. This was unless the enemy were so close to him that further silence was useless. Firing having once started, every man was to blaze away at any enemy within range as judged by our range marks. Finally we turned in to our pit for the night with some complacency, each eight men furnishing their own sentry.