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Literature / The Defence of Duffer's Drift

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The Defence of Duffer's Drift—written in 1904 by British Major-General Ernest Dunlop Swinton under the pseudonym Lt. Backsight Forethought—is a short book on military tactics set during The Second Boer War. Over the Framing Device of a sequence of six dreams, Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, or BF, must defend a river crossing, the eponymous "Duffer's Drift", against a numerically superior force of Boers. The scenario starts out the same way over each dream, and BF doesn't remember the terrain or the events each new time the scenario is replayed. What he does remember are a series of tactical lessons learned, which he applies to good effect in each new iteration. Eventually, his force does better and better until, on the sixth run-through, he manages to successfully defend the crossing.

The tactics that BF uses are a little dated for today, but many of his observations on entrenching and terrain tactics are still valid. It is all-but-required reading in military academies today and spawned a series of Follow the Leader works of varying quality, using the same dream format to examine logistics, procurement, and ever-changing military technology and tactics, up to Second Iraq War counterinsurgencies.

In the Public Domain. Project Gutenberg's copy is available here.

This work contains the following tropes:

  • Book Smart: In the first run-through, BF reflects that his training has left him with plenty of knowledge about historical battles, but he has no idea how to apply any of that to the current situation.
  • Big Book of War: Not that big at less than 50 pages, but otherwise fits the bill.
  • Combat Pragmatist: The Boers are this, all the way; they use civilians to both gather intelligence and infiltrate the camp, use stealth to surround the camp by night, take advantage of confusion and the natural landscape to attack without being exposed to return fire, and so on. BF himself develops from a fresh-faced new lieutenant into a combat pragmatist in direct response to the varied tactics they employ.
  • Deployable Cover: At the beginning, BF has no earthly idea what to do with the sandbags and entrenching tools he's been handed (over his protests), since to him warfare is about volley fire and bayonet drill, not about digging. He learns his lesson soon enough, the hard way.
  • Do Well, But Not Perfect: Dream No. 5 - BF builds properly fortified camp, safe from enemy attacks and keeps everyone in his unit alive... except the enemy managed to cross the drift, while the task was to prevent exactly that. All the Follow the Leader books have the same format, with Dream No. 5 always going smooth, with all the lessons learned being enforced to great effect, only to still fail the main objective. It's always up to Dream No. 6 to get the job done right.
  • Ensign Newbie: BF starts out this way. It's his first time commanding anything on his own, and he clearly has no idea what he's doing. He places an unguarded camp in the open because the enemy isn't supposed to be nearby, and he easily believes that local Dutch farmers are actually loyal to England. The book tracks his development into a more experienced and skilled officer, without having to endure real-life failures.
  • Follow the Leader: The framing story became a popular concept in military manuals, and there were many imitators in many languages. Notably, the follow-ups stick to the format to the letter, with 5th battle going smooth, but the actual objective failing, requiring the final, sixth iteration, solely to point out the difference between winning the battle and securing your mission objective.
  • Geo Effects: The whole point of the book is how to use them effectively.
  • "Groundhog Day" Loop: Each dream is set the same way: defend Duffer's Drift against an unknown enemy force. It differs from the norm in that BF remembers nothing of the previous loop except for general tactical lessons learned to prevent him from "cheating" at the scenario. This novel is sometimes called the Ur-Example of the "Groundhog Day" Loop, but in fact the episodes are explicitly dreams and not a time loop, so it's more of an Unbuilt Trope. The true Ur-Example is probably a 1939 episode of The Shadow called "The Man Who Murdered Time".
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • A minor example, but when BF talks of 'guns', he explicitly refers to the Boers' cannon and Nordenfeldt guns, and not small arms (rifles, muskets or anything smaller).
    • The term Kaffir, used to describe the black natives, is incredibly offensive in Africa nowadays. Back in 1904, however...
  • Hold the Line: The mission in all six dreams is "to hold Duffer's Drift at all costs," in the author's own words.
  • Imagine Spot: Following the final, successful defense in the last dream, BF begins dreaming that his actions ended up being so decisive to the conduct of the whole war that he receives a knighthood—just before he's woken up for good.
  • Impromptu Fortress: The original and its various remakes commit themselves entirely to this trope. In the first iteration alone, advised places to fortify range from river crossings to hillside villages to riverbeds - with varying degrees of success.
  • Lemony Narrator: BF's naivete at the start is so painful that he himself plays up his earnestness for comical effect.
  • Nicknaming the Enemy: The Boers are referred to ironically as the "brothers" or the "brethren".
  • Rebel Leader: Guess who the friendly farm-owner turns out to be? One of the first lessons learned: during times of guerilla warfare, do not trust strangers.
  • The Second Boer War: The setting.
  • Stupid Enough To Work: BF finally wins in the sixth dream by throwing away the standard military advice of "hold the high ground" and entrenching in the riverbed itself—an idea that he dismissed as crazy nonsense when he first thought of it since it went against all of his conceptions of warfare. One of the key lessons learned is "a hill may not, after all, though it has 'command,' necessarily be the best place to hold".
    • The Boers actually did entrench in the Modder River, to great success, which is probably where Swinton got the idea.
  • War Is Glorious: BF invokes the trope early on, thinking of massed volley-fire and desperate bayonet clashes. The reality, of course, is very different. In the early scenarios, he and his men are simply massacred, without ever getting to see their enemies. And one of his early lessons is to treat all civilians as potential spies or guerilla fighters.
  • Won the War, Lost the Peace:
    • Dream No. 5 ends like this. Using the previous four dreams and their "lessons", BF manages to hold his position and not a single of his men gets killed or even wounded despite the fierce skirmish... but the Boers managed to cross the river, thus making him fail his only objective: preventing them from doing just that.
    • The Defense of Jisr Al Doreaa makes it far more literal. Dream No. 5 is a perfectly executed initial defense, followed by a stellar job as occupying and stabilising troops. Eventually the troops are called home, the military operation ends up as a great success... and few months later the confused lieutenant is watching news showing the very village he was stationed in being burned to the ground and all of his former operatives and members of the administration being hanged as traitors and collaborators, with the "insurgents" taking over the country, completely unpossed.
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: BF's goal is to avert this through his "Groundhog Day" Loop. It still doesn't keep him from suffering the full brunt of Murphy's Law every time he commits a mistake or disregards a vital tactical precaution. He puts up sentries and sends the rest to bed? The sentries get shot and the camp overrun. He orders the soldiers to stay alert? The Boers snipe them silly from all sides. He has them dig in? The Boers produce cannon and Nordenfeldt guns on the hills. He has them dig in and properly fortify on a nearby hilltop? The Boers simply ride through the drift past them, taking advantage of their self-inflicted immobility.