Review: The Defence of Duffer’s Drift

Othon Leon Conflict & Security, Global, Reviews

6 minute read

Sir Ernest D. Swinton’s classic on the fundamentals of small infantry units’ tactics.

For over 100 years (published first in 1904 in the U.K.), “The Defence of Duffer’s Drift” has been in the list of basic books of military academies and war studies universities all over the world (including the U.S.Army, the Marine Corps) although modern warfare has significantly changed in that same period, however, the fundamental ideas regarding small unit’s minor tactics have not: led by officers, infantrymen holding a weapon still assault enemy positions, take and hold key positions, inspect facilities, houses and buildings, etc.

One of the “curiosities” of this work is that it was written by one man involved in the invention of a technology that would change the way to fight wars forever: the tank. Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton was not only a notable soldier and writer but also a remarkable professor of military history at Oxford University (1925-1939) and later (almost naturally) the Commandant of the Royal Tank Corps (1934-1938), where and when he earned the rank of Major General of the British Army.

“The Defence of Duffers Drift” continues being an invaluable educational resource for both military and civilian (war) students. The main reason is that the principles depicted throughout this fictional account of a novice British officer, who during the (Second) War of the Boers (1899-1902) is suddenly given with the mission of holding a key position (a river crossing) with 50 men against the efforts of much superior enemy units, are very much untouched by the advances of new military technologies, at least in the basic sense of things. Besides this, it also makes up a relevant lesson of the rewards of endurance and learning willingness in spite of adverse conditions (a non-unusual occurrence of military operations). All of the failures of this inexperienced officer at the beginning of each episode, inevitably lead to a learning experience, which eventually leads to his unit’s final victory. Swinton wrote his account while being a Captain, shortly after having served during the Boer War.

“The Boers, Dutch for farmer, first settled in what is now Cape Province, Republic of South Africa in 1652. After Great Britain annexed this territory in 1806, many of the Boers departed on the Great Trek” and created the Republic of Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal. Gradual commercial control by the British and discovery of gold and diamonds, among other things, served to create hostility between the Boers and British, resulting in the South African War or Boer War from 1899 to 1902.  The Boers initially outnumbered the British and were well equipped, scoring impressive victories in the areas adjacent to their territories.” (Ernest D. Swinton, 1904: Loc. 81-92).

In his work, Swinton uses six dreams as the points of departure for each learnt lesson. Each one of those is both, a lesson to be introjected and the reason to discover the right minor tactic to overcome the enemy. After explaining the actions taken after each one of those dreams (nightmares, more likely), at the end of the book, he synthesizes all the gained knowledge in 22 lessons or principles. This is an over-simplified version (edited by me) of that list1:

1. Do not put off taking your measures of defence till the morrow, as this is more important than the comfort of your men.

2. Do not in war-time show stray men of the enemy’s breed all over your camp, be they never so kind and full of butter, and do not be hypnotized, by numerous “passes,” at once to confide in them.

3. Do not let your sentries advertise their position to the whole world, including the enemy, by standing in the full glare of a fire, and making much noise every half hour.

4. Do not, if avoidable, be in tents when bullets are ripping through them: at such times a hole in the ground is worth many tents.

5. With modern rifles, to guard a drift or locality does not necessitate sitting on top of it, unless the locality is suitable to hold for other and defensive reasons.

6. It is not enough to keep strange men of the enemy’s breed away from your actual defences, letting them go free to warn their friends of your existence and whereabouts.

7. It is not business to allow lazy men (even though they be brothers and neutrals) to sit and pick their teeth outside their kraals whilst tired men are carrying out heavy labor in short time.

8. When collecting the friendly stranger and his sons in order to prevent their taking information to the enemy, do not forget also to gather his wife and his daughter, his manservant and his maidservant.

9. 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 bullet-proof ten times over.

10. 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.

11. For a small isolated post and an active enemy, there are no flanks, no rear, or, to put it otherwise, it is front all round.

12. Beware of being taken in reverse; take care, when placing and making your defences, that when you are engaged in shooting the enemy to the front of your trench, his pal cannot sneak up and shoot you in the back.

13. Beware of being enfiladed. It is nasty from one flank—far worse from both flanks.

14. Do not have your trench near rising ground over which you cannot see, and which you cannot hold.

15. Do not huddle all your men together in a small trench like sheep in a pen. Give them air.

16. As once before—cover from sight is often worth more than cover from bullets. For close shooting from a non-concealed trench, head cover with loopholes is an advantage.

17. To surprise the enemy is a great advantage.

18. If you wish to obtain this advantage, conceal your position. Though for promotion it may be sound to advertise your position, for defence it is not.

19. To test the concealment or otherwise of your position, look at it from the enemy’s point of view.

20. Beware of convex hills and dead ground. Especially take care to have some place where the enemy must come under your fire.

21. A hill may not, after all, though it has “command,” be the best place to hold necessarily.

22. A conspicuous “bluff” trench may cause the enemy to waste much ammunition and draw fire away from the actual defences.

About the Author
Othon Leon

Othon Leon

Othon A. Leon is the managing director and senior research analyst at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. A current student at the PhD program in Political Science at Concordia University, with three masters’ degrees from ITAM, Université de Montréal and HEC Montréal. He currently lectures in universities around the world. His fields of research include International Relations, Comparative Politics, and War Studies.

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Footnotes

  1. Swinton, Ernest Dunlop (1904).The Defence of Duffer’s Drift. Praetorian-press.com, Kindle Edition, (2012)