The Defense of Duffer's Drift

The Defence of Duffer's DriftThe Defence of Duffer’s Drift by E. D. Swinton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Defense of Duffer’s Drift is a fascinating little book that anyone can read in a short afternoon. Written by Capt. Ernest Dunlop Swinton around the dawn of the 20th century, it is a meditation on small unit tactics, based on experience gained in the Boer War.

The most fascinating thing about the book is its insouciant tone. The protagonist, Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, has a dream in which he is given command of 50 men and told to defend the ford to a river. Arriving with his men, he sets up a perimeter, is generally irresponsible, and the unit is subsequently attacked by the enemy with disastrous results.

The next night, Lieutenant BF has the same dream — only this time, he remembers what he did wrong the last time, and so corrects those mistakes. Again, his unit is attacked and is lost, although slightly less ignominiously than before. This Groundhog Day scenario plays itself out six times. Each time it is replayed, BF learns something new, and helpfully summarizes it for the reader, (“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.“)

Dunlop obviously intended the book for a military audience; it reads as though he wrote it for his friends. The prose is conversational, easygoing, and unpretentious. Whether the tactical lessons in the book are still valuable and operative I am not qualified to judge. But as a method of getting into the mindset of a turn-of-the-century British infantry officer, it’s quite effective.

The book is available for free as an eBook from Project Gutenberg here.

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