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November 18, 2005

Duffer’s Drift
Posted by Teresa at 01:00 PM * 16 comments

I was delighted to learn that The Defence of Duffer’s Drift by Captain E. D. Swinton, D.S.O., R.E.* is once again available in its entirety online. It’s a classic work on minor tactics, also highly readable, also short.

It’s narrated by young Lieutenant Backsight Forethought. He’s been left in command of a fifty-man reinforced platoon to hold Duffer’s Drift, the only ford on the Silliaasvogel River that can be used by wheeled vehicles. He’s not quite sure what to do. Fortunately, his ignorance is enlightened by a series of dreams:

The local atmosphere, combined with a heavy meal, is responsible for the following nightmare, consisting of a series of dreams. To make the sequence of the whole intelligible, it is necessary to explain that though the scene of each vision was the same, by some curious mental process I had no recollection of the place whatsoever. In each dream the locality was totally new to me, and I had an entirely fresh detachment. Thus, I had not the great advantage of working over familiar ground. One thing, and one only, was carried on from dream to dream, and that was the vivid recollection of the general lessons previously learnt. These finally produced success. The whole series of dreams, however, remained in my memory as a connected whole when I awoke.

Good thing, too, because in the beginning he’s a sitting duck:

The only “measures of defence” I could recall for the moment were, how to tie “a thumb or overhand knot,” and how long it takes to cut down an apple tree of six inches diameter. Unluckily neither of these useful facts seemed quite to apply.

Now, if they had given me a job like fighting the battle of Waterloo, or Sedan, or Bull Run, I knew all about that, as I had crammed it up and been examined in it too. I also knew how to take up a position for a division, or even an army corps, but the stupid little subalternís game of the defence of a drift with a small detachment was, curiously enough, most perplexing. I had never really considered such a thing. However, in the light of my habitual dealings with army corps, it would, no doubt, be childís-play after a little thought.

He gets trounced, of course. Then he learns better, though it takes him six dream-scenarios and 22 hard-learned lessons to get it right.

Addendum: A thing that was in the back of my mind when I recommended The Defense of Duffer’s Drift is that if warfare, miliary history, weapons systems, etc., aren’t usually your thing, TDDD is as clear, instructive, and concrete an introduction as you’re likely to find. (And after that, try Michael Shaara’s superlative novel The Killer Angels, which among other things will teach you why firing rates matter.)

A long time back, when the subject of guns came up in Making Light—that was the first time one of my comment threads went over a hundred messages—I observed what seemed to me a division between people who felt that they had some comfortable degree of acquaintance with guns and other military subjects, and who therefore assumed that they were going to be able to follow all parts of a discussion where they cropped up; and others who saw such things as somehow being insuperably alien to their experience. It seemed a shame to me that people in the latter category were handicapping themselves for so little cause. This stuff isn’t rocket science—except, of course, when it is.

Comments on Duffer's Drift:
#1 ::: Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2005, 04:23 PM:

This is great. But why is it also linked from "Kansas morons" in the particles?

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2005, 04:52 PM:

Um, because stupidity is catching?

I've fixed the Kansas link.

#3 ::: Kieran ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2005, 04:59 PM:

That was fun. I imagine the reference to "shite sandbags" in the last dream should really read "white sandbags," but I am not a military man.

#4 ::: Nick Fagerlund ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2005, 08:29 PM:

Rather like shite bricks, I would expect.

This looks very cool; getting down to reading it as we speak.

#5 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2005, 10:47 PM:

I read this with true pleasure. I wonder if young Mr Forethought might have given consideration to the certainty that the Boer Commando, riding up to the farm, would immediately see that it had been inhabited and in use until the day before, and that its owners had removed in haste. That is, the Boers would certainly know that the British were in the vicinity. The only place the latter could be interested in would be the drift. No Boer commander with a grain of sense would therefore bring formed bodies within effective rifle range of it until it and surrounds had been thoroughly scouted. There was never, therefore, any real chance of an effective ambush.

The final deployments suggested would certainly have come under fire from both flanks and the rear, though that would be the case with any. I would have suggested that the slit trenches should be in two rough saw-tooth lines, all at slightly different angles to each other, so that there was no enfilading all of them, and that lateral trenches were needed at both ends. Concealment of all these would be vital, of course.

The Boers would certainly have been able to approach quite close during darkness, and the ant-mounds make excellent rifle-fire cover from any one angle. I wonder if Mr Forethought gave any consideration to detached foxholes within easy range of the main works, with a sniper or two to discourage Brother Boer from taking up positions behind a convenient mound?

There could be no movement in the lines once contact was made, of course, and therefore no redeployment. It has to be got right first time.

#6 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2005, 05:16 AM:

This reminded me of some text adventure games. There's one called Lock and Key, for instance, where you play the designer of a dungeon. You have various traps at your disposal, which you emplace; then a strong-thewed barbarian hero is put in the dungeon, and you get to see whether your traps will keep him from escaping. On your first play-through, they certainly won't. (In fact, on your first play-through, you most likely make some very basic mistakes, since some of the rules of trap emplacement don't get explained up front.) As you keep starting over, you gradually learn more about the hero and his equipment ("Who plans to raid the king's treasury and says, 'I think I'll bring along seven pounds of BEEF! Yeah, that'll come in handy!'??" "Well, it did." "Oh, shut up.") and what will work against him -- just as our Lieutenant BF learns more about what will work against the Boers -- until you hit on the exact combination that will win the game.

It makes me wonder about the possibility of adapting Defence as IF....

#7 ::: Neil Rest ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2005, 11:36 AM:

Somewhat off-topic -- I love the little gimmick with the semi-footnote.

#8 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2005, 05:55 PM:

Lock and Key, as recommended by David Goldfarb. Requires an interpreter.

#9 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2005, 08:13 AM:

In the spirit of not-rocket-Science, my attempt at at recreating an old wargaming concept for the Internet generation:

A Simple Wargame

#10 ::: Paul Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2005, 07:23 AM:

There's also a modern version, The Defense of Hill 781 by James McDonough. The commander's mistakes in this are, to my tactically inept eye, much less obvious than in Duffer's Drift, so I'd guess armies have learnt something about tactical training in the intervening century.

#11 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2005, 10:01 PM:

Would "duffer's drift" be a tendency for conversations between duffers to drift in all sorts of odd directions?

If so, thank you for defending it!

#12 ::: Ashley Bowers ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2005, 12:32 AM:

Very cool read. I think we should and can learn from our dreams.

#14 ::: Clark E. Myers ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2007, 06:19 PM:

For researchers or gamers who happen on this see also and currently free on the web:

JCAS and The Defense of Duffer's Wadi

D. Matthew Neuenswander
This article updates E.D. Swinton's book The Defense of Duffer's Drift written about combat in the Boer War and printed in the US in 1905. Like its predecessor, the article outlines a series of dreams of a main character in combat--in this case, a captain in command of a Stryker company who is tasked with the defense of a key piece of terrain, Duffer's Wadi. A "wadi" is a valley, gully or riverbed that remains dry except during the rainy season.

Reminiscent of Duffer's Drift, the main character makes mistakes in the first dream that result in disaster for him and his unit. In his subsequent dreams, he learns from his previous mistakes until he finally is successful in accomplishing his mission. Unlike Duffer's Drift, this article focuses on a single mission area: the ground commander's use or misuse of fires, specifically, joint close air support (JCAS).

The lessons the captain learns in these dreams are actual lessons gleaned from Air Warrior I and II after-action reports (AARs). Air Warrior I is the USAF exercise flown in support of brigade combat team (BCT) rotations at the National Training Center (NTC), Fort Irwin, California. Air Warrior II is the USAF exercise flown in support of BCT rotations at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), Fort Polk, Louisiana.

JCAS and The Defense of Duffer's Wadi

D. Matthew Neuenswander
This article updates E.D. Swinton's book The Defense of Duffer's Drift written about combat in the Boer War and printed in the US in 1905. Like its predecessor, the article outlines a series of dreams of a main character in combat--in this case, a captain in command of a Stryker company who is tasked with the defense of a key piece of terrain, Duffer's Wadi. A "wadi" is a valley, gully or riverbed that remains dry except during the rainy season.

Reminiscent of Duffer's Drift, the main character makes mistakes in the first dream that result in disaster for him and his unit. In his subsequent dreams, he learns from his previous mistakes until he finally is successful in accomplishing his mission. Unlike Duffer's Drift, this article focuses on a single mission area: the ground commander's use or misuse of fires, specifically, joint close air support (JCAS).

The lessons the captain learns in these dreams are actual lessons gleaned from Air Warrior I and II after-action reports (AARs). Air Warrior I is the USAF exercise flown in support of brigade combat team (BCT) rotations at the National Training Center (NTC), Fort Irwin, California. Air Warrior II is the USAF exercise flown in support of BCT rotations at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), Fort Polk, Louisiana.

FA Journal, Sept-Oct, 2004 by D. Matthew Neuenswander, D. Wayne Andrews

#16 ::: Simon Reynolds ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 11:26 AM:

Can anyone point me in the direction of a document similar to TDDD which focuses on offence, rather than defence? I have found some like it, Nightmare on Wazir Street as an example, and would like to know if there are more.

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