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The Defence of Duffer's Drift is a short 1904 book by Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton. It purports to be a series of six dreams by "Lieutenant Backsight Forethought" about the defence of a river crossing in the Boer War. The infantry tactics in the early dreams are disastrous, but each time BF learns something until in the final defence he is successful.

The Defence of Duffer's Drift
The Defence of Duffer's Drift cover.jpg
AuthorMajor General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton
GenreMilitary art and science
PublisherW. Clowes & Sons, London, reprinted from the United Service Magazine
Publication date
Map of Duffer's Drift



The Defence of Duffer's Drift was published in 1904 when Swinton was a Captain. It appeared in the British United Service Magazine under the pseudonym, Lieutenant N. Backsight Forethought ("BF"), who is the narrator of the book. The book is an exploration of small unit tactics in a fictional encounter in the Boer War. Swinton served in South Africa during the Boer War, and the book "embodies some recollections of things actually done and undone in South Africa, 1899–1902."

Lieutenant Backsight Forethought and his command of fifty men are given the task to defend Duffer's Drift, a natural ford to a river. A large force of Boers, unknown to BF, is moving toward his position. This scenario is played out six separate times, in six "dreams." In the early scenarios, BF and his British troops are ignominiously defeated. After each defeat, BF learns lessons and adapts his strategy for the later encounters. The later dreams end more inconclusively, and in the final dream, BF and his command successfully hold out long enough to be relieved. The book encourages critical thinking and careful use of position and terrain to mount a successful defence.

The Defence of Duffer's Drift was reprinted in the April 1905 edition of the Journal of the United States Infantry Association. The book, especially intended for young lieutenants, has become a military staple on small unit tactics, read far afield in places such as the United States, Russia, and Canada.[1] While some of the advice has become rather dated—notably, BF eventually decides to imprison all nearby locals, shoot any livestock that could be of aid to the enemy, and impress both Boer and black alike into building fortifications for his men, an "approach to the human terrain that would spell disaster" in modern times—the book is still considered relevant and interesting in modern times.[2]


Lieutenant Backsight Forethought (BF to his friends) has been left in command of a 50-man reinforced platoon to hold Duffer's Drift, the only ford on the Silliassvogel River available to wheeled traffic. Here is his chance for fame and glory. He has passed his officer courses and special qualifications. "Now if they had given me a job, say like fighting the Battle of Waterloo, of Gettysburg, or Bull Run, I knew all about that, as I had crammed it up..." While BF's task appears simple enough the Boer enemy causes a multitude of problems, but the astute reader, with a sharp mind and quick intellect, will no doubt, solve the problem before the first shot is fired.[3]

In his first two dreams, the British force is ambushed without much of a fight. Fortifications are not prepared and the sentries announce their locations, allowing the Boers to easily sneak up and defeat the sleepy British soldiers without resistance. In the third and fourth dreams, BF takes more paranoid preparations - digging trenches, impounding local blacks for forced labour, and arresting the local Boer civilians rather than attempting to trade or communicate with them. While able to slow the Boers down some, poor placement of trenches, lack of supplies, obvious fortifications that the enemy can easily detect and plan around, and other problems hamper the British resistance. The fifth and sixth dreams are the most successful; in them, BF creates a spread-out and concealed force that greatly hampers and slows the enemy, even so much as to turn them back and allow for reinforcement in the sixth dream.

Lessons learnedEdit

The following are the lessons learned discussed in this book.[4]

  1. Do not put off taking your measures of defence till the morrow, as these are more important than the comfort of your men or the shipshape arrangement of your camp. Choose the position of your camp mainly with reference to your defence.
  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 hypnotised, 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 (as if it could be picked up and carried away), unless the locality is suitable to hold for other and defensive reasons. It may even be much better to take up your defensive position some way from the spot, and so away from concealed ground, which enables the enemy to crawl up to very close range, concealed and unperceived, and to fire from cover which hides them even when shooting. It would be better, if possible, to have the enemy in the open, or to have what is called a clear "field of fire." A non-bullet-proof parapet or visible serves merely to attract bullets instead of keeping them out—the proof of thickness can be easily and practically tested. When fired at by an enemy at close range from nearly all round, a low parapet and shallow trench are not of much use, as what bullets do not hit the defenders on one side hit those on another.
  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—even though they should not be under temptation to impart any knowledge they may have obtained. "Another way," as the cookery book says, more economical in lives, would be as follows: Gather and warmly greet a sufficiency of strangers. Stuff well with chestnuts as to the large force about to join you in a few hours; garnish with corroborative detail, and season according to taste with whiskey or tobacco. This will very likely be sufficient for the nearest commando. Probable cost—some heavy and glib lying, but no lives will be expended.
  7. It is not business to allow lazy black men (even though they be brothers and neutrals) to sit and pick their teeth outside their kraals whilst tired white men are breaking their hearts trying to do heavy labour in short time. It is more the duty of a Christian soldier to teach the dusky neutral the dignity of labour, and to keep him under guard, to prevent his going away to talk about it.[5] (This lesson has often been edited in later revisions to be merely "lazy men" rather than "lazy black men" or "dusky neutral", and "soldiers" rather than "white men.")
  8. 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.
  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 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.
  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. 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.
  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 of often worth more than cover from bullets. For close shooting from a non-concealed trench, head cover with loopholes is an advantage. This should be bulletproof and not be conspicuously on the top of the parapet, so as to draw fire, or it will be far more dangerous than having none.
  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. Choose the exact position of your firing trenches, with your eye at the level of the men who will eventually use them.
  21. A hill may not, after all, though it has "command," necessarily be the best place to hold.
  22. A conspicuous "bluff" trench may cause the enemy to waste much ammunition, and draw fire away from the actual defences.


Start of the prologue. The book is attributed to a Lieutenant N. Backsight Forethought, otherwise known as Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton.

The Defence of Duffer's Drift's style of literary fiction has been copied by several authors, making this author an influence upon the writings of others. Some examples are provided below, including: a primer on World War I battalion level combined arms tactics incorporating new types of warfare (tanks, machine guns, and aviation), a mechanized battalion level primer, a military combat service support example, one that is non-military related, and one adopting the parable to operations in Iraq.

The first example is "Battle of Booby's Bluffs,"[6] originally published in 1921 by an Army officer under the pseudonym, Major Single List. It is important for its "lessons-learned" examination of the new weapons introduced in the Great War (most notably tanks, machine guns and aero planes) and how these innovations required learning new combined arms tactics. In the style of "Duffer's Drift," a hapless battalion commander faces a battle scenario in a series of six dreams. In the first dream, he makes so many mistakes as to prove catastrophic for him and his men. But he learns a few more things about tactics and leadership through each dream, until at last he leads his men to victory through the treacherous terrain of Booby's Bluffs. Included with the dreams are notations to real life mistakes made by American commanders during the War.

"Defense of Hill 781", written by James R. McDonough in 1988, deals with a somewhat larger combat element than "Duffer's Drift,", and having a slightly different reason for the "dreams."

"The Defense of Duffer's Drift Brigade Support Area," was written by Staff Sergeants Reginald Scott and Steve Newman, along with Sergeants William Baucom, Rodney Weathers, and Louise Chee in the September 2001 edition of NCO Notes, number 01-2, from the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Institute of Land Warfare. Instead of trying to teach infantry tactics, the authors of this story focused upon a supply company of a forward support battalion in an effort to teach units inside of a Brigade Support Area to become more effective in defensive operations during combat.[7]

Premonitions of the Palladion Project: A Modern Project Management Fable, was written by Dr. Scott S. Haraburda, PhD, PE, in 2008 for a non-military topic, even though it involved the Department of Defense. It contains information about what works and what does not work when managing a project, which can be used to assist anyone in managing a more successful project. This book provided a project management framework illustrating twenty-four project management rules. The general thesis in this book was that using just the best project management tools while forgetting everything else about running the project would doom the project to failure.

The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa was written by Albert J. Marckwardt and Michael Burgoyne. The book follows a young lieutenant through successive lessons while conducting stability and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq.[8]

The winter 2005 edition of the Canadian Army Journal contained the following praise:

The South African War (1899–1902) provided the next opportunity for literary fiction to play a role in future army concepts. The publication of The Defence of Duffer's Drift by Captain (later Major-General Sir) Ernest Swinton, KBE, CB, DSO, in 1905, was extremely well received and became required reading for many subsequent generations of young officers. Set at a river choke point on some generic veldt anywhere in the Transvaal, the story's main character, a young and energetic Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, has a series of nightmares in which he loses battle after battle against his Boer adversaries. After each dream, however, a series of lessons are highlighted, and each of these was incorporated into the next battle, which eventually leads Lieutenant Forethought to victory and relief in the final dream. Although written as a fictional tale, Swinton's aim was to teach tactical lessons as well as generate discussion and debate on the planning and execution of operations.

— Godefroy, Andrew B., "Fictional Writing and the Canadian Army of the Future," Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 8.1, pp 93–94, Winter 2005

Paul Hoffman, in his sequel to The Left Hand of God, The Last Four Things, used the example of Duffer's Drift by name as an exercise for Thomas Cale to solve for a defensive position for The Redeemers against the more mobile Commandos of the Folk. The problem set for Cale is to discover how to defend such a position with a lightly armoured small group of "Redeemers" against attack from a larger force, that would not tie down many "Redeemer" troops un-necessarily.


  1. ^ Godefroy, Andrew B., "Fictional Writing and the Canadian Army of the Future," Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 8.1 Winter 2005 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-08-14. Retrieved 2008-08-17.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)"Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-06-10. Retrieved 2008-08-17.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ "B.F.'s approach to his human terrain would have spelled disaster [in the Iraq War]" —John T. Fishel, on The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa, a book inspired by The Defence of Duffer's Drift. [1]
  3. ^ Combined Arms Research Library, book republication and brief review of Defense of Duffer's Drift, United States Command and General Staff College, U.S. Government Printing Office: 1991 - 554-001/42036.
  4. ^ Combined Arms Research Library, book republication and brief review of Defense of Duffer's Drift, United States Command and General Staff College, U.S. Government Printing Office: 1991 - 554-001/42036.
  5. ^ The Defence of Duffer's Drift pg. 21, for the original version.
  6. ^ List, Major Single (2016). Battle of Booby's Bluffs. Silver Spring, Maryland: Dale Street Books. pp. 1–102. ISBN 978-1941656341.
  7. ^
  8. ^

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