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

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

How does BF’s third dream of The Defence of Duffer’s Drift play out?

Next morning dawned brightly and uneventfully, and we had about an hour’s work improving details of our trenches before breakfasts were ready. Just as breakfast was over, the sentry on Waschout Hill reported a cloud of dust away to the north, by Regret Table Mountain. This was caused by a large party of mounted men with wheeled transport of some sort. They were most probably the enemy, and seemed to be trekking in all innocence of our presence for the drift.

What a “scoop” I thought, if they come on quite unsuspecting, and cross the drift in a lump without discerning our position. I shall lie low, let the advanced party go past without a shot, and wait until the main body gets over the side within close range, and then open magazine fire into the thick of them. Yes, it will be just when they reach that broken anthill about 400 meters away that I shall give the word “Fire!”

However, it was not to be. After a short time the enemy halted, apparently for consideration. The advanced men seemed to have a consultation, and then gradually approached Incidentamba farm with much caution. Two or three women ran out and waved, whereupon these men galloped up to the farm at once. What passed, of course, we could not tell, but evidently the women gave information as to our arrival and position, because the effect was electrical. The advanced Boers split up into two main parties, one riding towards the river a long way to the east, and another going similarly to the west. One man galloped back with the information obtained to the main body, which became all bustle, and started off with their waggons behind Incidentamba, when they were lost to sight. Of course, they were all well out of range, and as we were quite ready, the only thing to do was to wait till they came out in the open within range, and then to shoot them down.

The minutes seemed to crawl — five, then ten minutes passed with no further sign of the enemy. Suddenly, “Beg pardon, sir; I think I see something on top of that kop-je on the fur side yonder.” One of the men drew my attention to a few specks which looked like waggons moving about on the flattish shoulder of Incidentamba. Whilst I was focusing my glasses there was a “boom” from the hill, followed by a sharp report and a puff of smoke up in the air quite close by, then the sound as of heavy rain pattering down some 200 feet in front of the trench, each drop raising its own little cloud of dust. This, of course, called forth the time-honoured remarks of “What ho, she bumps!” and “Now we shan’t be long,” which proved only too true. I was aghast — I had quite forgotten the possibility of guns being used against me, though, had I remembered their existence, I do not know, with my then knowledge, what difference it would have made to my defensive measures. As there was some little uneasiness among my men, I, quite cheerful in the security of our nice trench with the thick bulletproof parapet, at once shouted out, “It’s all right, men; keep under cover, and they can’t touch us.” A moment later there was a second boom, the shell whistled over our heads, and the hillside some way behind the trench was spattered with bullets.

By this time we were crouching as close as possible to the parapet, which, though it had seemed only quite a short time before so complete, now suddenly felt most woefully inadequate, with those beastly shells dropping their bullets down from the sky. Another boom. This time the shell burst well, and the whole ground in front of the trench was covered with bullets, one man being hit. At this moment rifle fire began on Waschout Hill, but no bullets came our way. Almost immediately another shot followed which showered bullets all over us; a few more men were hit, whose groans were unpleasant to listen to. Tools were seized, and men began frantically to try and dig themselves deeper into the hard earth, as our trench seemed to give no more protection from the dropping bullets than a saucer would from a storm of rain — but it was too late. We could not sink into the earth fast enough. The Boers had got the range of the trench to a nicety, and the shells burst over, us now with a horrible methodic precision. Several men were hit, and there was no reason why the enemy should cease to rain shrapnel over us until we were all killed. As we were absolutely powerless to do anything, I put up the white flag, All I could do was to thank Providence that the enemy had no quick-firing field guns or, though “we had not been long,” we should have been blotted out before we could have hoisted it.

As soon as the gunfire ceased, I was greatly surprised to find that no party of Boers came down from their artillery position on Incidentamba to take our surrender, but within three minutes some fifty Boers galloped up from the river bank on the east and the west, and a few more came up from the south round Waschout Hill. The guard on Waschout Hill, which had done a certain amount of damage to the enemy, had two men wounded by rifle fire. Not a single shell had come near them, though they were close to the Kaffir huts, which were plain enough.

What an anti-climax the reality had been from the pleasurable anticipations of the early morn, when I had first sighted the Boers. Of course, the women on the farm had betrayed us, but it was difficult to make out why the Boers had at first halted and begun to be suspicious before they had seen the women at the farm. What could they have discovered? I failed entirely to solve this mystery.

During the day’s trek the following lessons slowly evolved themselves, and were stored in my mind in addition to those already learnt:

  1. When collecting the friendly stranger and his sons in order to prevent their taking information to the enemy of your existence and whereabouts, if you are wishful for a “surprise packet,” do not forget also to gather his wife and his daughter, his manservant and his maidservant (who also have tongues), and his ox and his ass (which may possibly serve the enemy). Of course, if they are very numerous or very far off, this is impossible; only do not then hope to surprise the enemy.
  2. Do not forget that, if guns are going to be used against you, a shallow trench with a low parapet some way from it is worse than useless, even though the parapet be bulletproof ten times over. The trench gives the gunners an object to lay on, and gives no protection from shrapnel. Against well-aimed long range artillery fire it would be better to scatter the defenders in the open hidden in grass and bushes, or behind stones or ant hills, than to keep them huddled in such a trench. With your men scattered around, you can safely let the enemy fill your trench to the brim with shrapnel bullets.
  3. Though to stop a shrapnel bullet much less actual thickness of earth is necessary than to stop a rifle bullet, yet this earth must be in the right place. For protection you must be able to get right close under the cover. As narrow a trench as possible, with the sides and inside of the parapet as steep as they will stand, will give you the best chance. To hollow out the bottom of the trench sides to give extra room be even better, because the open top of the trench can be kept the less wide. The more like a mere slit the open top of the trench is, the fewer shrapnel bullets will get in.

While chewing over these lessons learnt from bitter experience, I had yet another dream.


  1. Alex J. says:

    Overhead cover!

    How modern is the modern foxhole? Or, rather, where did DePuy get the idea? (And where did that guy get the idea etc.)

    Field Manual 21-75 Figure 2-1

    Hay Hole

    I found this:

    “In 1976, the German Infantry School at Hammelburg conducted a fighting position test. They fired artillery and mortars at three types of infantry positions, hasty positions in the open, trenches without overhead cover, and trenches with overhead cover.”

    Why the DePuy Fighting Hole

    But, that post-dates DePuy in Vietnam.

  2. X-Ray says:

    In Vietnam, we would often be out on patrol for weeks at a time. The longest such I can remember was forty-seven days straight in the bush; that one made an impression.

    Every night was a new defensive position. Always tried for high ground of course, even if just for a few feet of elevation, but that was not always possible. Anyway, every night was a choreography of determining MG emplacement, fields of fire, enfilade, defilade, interlocking, digging parapet fronted fighting holes (DePuy style), etc. Nearly always the fighting holes were sized for two men, one for the six o’clock if necessary. Concerning fighting holes, only in the rear or at fixed bases was it possible to construct trenches or positions with overhead cover.

    Other than frontal assaults, which I was lucky to have never experienced, we feared mortars more than artillery or rockets as the near vertical trajectory meant they could land dead center into your fighting hole. Of course, arty’ or rockets in open terrain had their own sphincter inducing tension as well.

    Ise’s been giving me quite a few flashbacks these last few weeks with the various discussions of small unit tactics and defense, especially the lessons learned of Duffer’s Drift. It is an interesting and engaging subject for some.

  3. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    When collecting the friendly stranger and his sons in order to prevent their taking information to the enemy of your existence and whereabouts, if you are wishful for a “surprise packet,” do not forget also to gather his wife and his daughter, his manservant and his maidservant (who also have tongues).

    There are a couple levels of deniability being attempted here.

    Within the story, the Brits try to deny to their prisoners that the Brits are really bad people.

    Outside the story, in the context of Brit officers using the text to train Brit soldiers, the writer is giving the officers wiggle room. On the one hand, the officers can broadly hint to their soldiers that they want war crimes carried out. On the other hand, if the Brit government is questioned by civilians, the Brit government can claim the civilians are misreading the text.

    The fourth dream has the officer winking at the color-sergeant, as if to imply, “We would never really burn a farm, but we can have a laugh by pretending that we would. Oh, these silly locals are so naive that they misunderstand our sophisticated joke.”

    This short book is a classic of tactics, but it also contains some very subtle propaganda.

    I’m a wargame player, not a historian, but subtle little things like this activate my “Perfidious Albion” alarm. I have been inspired to research and write about British atrocities in the Boer War.

  4. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    Bad writing on my part: I forgot to connect my quote to my rant.

    The quote above, “When collecting the friendly stranger…” has a humorous tone with Biblical allusions. It suggests that the speaker is a Bible-reading Christian who jokes around a lot. This is public relations for Brit soldiers at home who have to answer criticisms from Brit civilians.

    The propagandistic use of humor and sarcasm — e.g. “friendly stranger” meaning “hostile stranger who won’t fight openly” — is worthy of at least one full-length analysis.

  5. Toddy Cat says:

    It’s not a war crime to detain potentially hostile civilians.

  6. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    The detention described in Duffer’s Drift presumably would not be grounds for a war crimes trial. I presume the author understood the relevant regulations and presented a picture of civilized British soldiers that his superiors would praise.

    However, Duffer’s Drift is fiction, and the actual conduct of the British during the actual Boer War included many, many war crimes.

    Over the weekend I plan to start a series of posts on how a culture of “plausible deniability” can lead to war crimes. Some of my source texts will be from Monbiot, e.g. Dark Hearts.

  7. Toddy Cat says:

    With all due respect, Monbiot is deeply prejudiced against the British Empire, and many people regard his main source concerning the Mau Mau Uprising, Caroline Elkins, to be an anti-British propagandist. You might want to read this for a little balance: Daniel Goldhagen and Kenya: recycling fantasy.

    David Elstein is a leftist and hardly an apologist for the British Government, but he is unconvinced about the scale of atrocities in Kenya.

  8. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    Certainly it is possible that many people have told lies about British troops. Certainly it is possible that Monbiot is a fool who has been tricked by false reports of atrocities that never happened in fact. But there is an awful lot of evidence that the British military was a high-powered atrocity machine for centuries.

    Its scorched earth policy led to the destruction of about 30,000 Boer farmhouses and the partial and complete destruction of more than forty towns. Thousands of women and children were removed from their homes by force. They had little or no time to remove valuables before the house was burnt down. They were then taken by oxwagon or in open cattle trucks to the nearest camp.

    Conditions in the camps were less than ideal.

    By all means, let’s presume Monbiot is incompetent and subject all of his claims to great criticism. I am confident that there is more than enough evidence for perfidy.

  9. Toddy Cat says:

    I have no brief for the British Army, seeing as how my ancestors fought against it twice, but I think that you’ll find that almost every military in history has committed at least some war crimes, especially during insurgencies, and the Brits are far from the worst. Why such a focus on the British? Yes, the Boer War is terrible, but it was hardly unique. And yes, colonialism is so unpopular these days, one can say almost anything about it and be believed, so all claims such as Monbiot’s deserve special scrutiny. The man is not exactly a high-powered intellectual.

  10. Bruce says:

    John Buchan, who was in charge of a concentration camp, thought the big problem was farmers unused to keeping a small enclosed living space clean. Establishment apologist, man on the ground who knew what he was talking about, both?

  11. Isegoria says:

    I don’t know if the Boers’ biggest problem in British concentration camps was their lack of experience living in enclosed spaces, but it seems surprisingly credible to me after seeing a small Indian village firsthand. Any and all trash went straight to the ground there, whether it was biodegradable or not — presumably because everything was biodegradable a generation earlier. And I know Singapore took extreme measures to inculcate modern notions of cleanliness decades ago, with its infamous laws against spitting, chewing gum, etc.

  12. See the passing comments about piles of litter on the periphery of the kraal, for instance.

  13. Though that’s the Kaffirs, not the Boers of course.

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