Forward to next post: Sweetness and Light
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:
Good thing, too, because in the beginning he’s a sitting duck:
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.
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.
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.
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.