****An important note about the novel I’ll be discussing here. Published in 1905, it takes place during the Boer War of 1899-1902 and was written by a veteran of that war who was by then a career British officer and who came of age during the height of the British Empire. As such, his perspectives are tinged by a deeply racist world view. In the novel, his protagonist will act in an abominable and (by today’s standards) unlawful manner to both a local Boer family, as well as a kraal of indigenous African people. However this post will (for reasons I hope will become clear) deal primarily with the treatment of the Boer family. It is not my intention to diminish the suffering of the native population in favour of the (white Afrikaner) family, but to discuss very specific issues regarding the Law of Armed Conflict and counter-insurgency warfare. I will be covering the treatment of the African ‘Kafirs’ in footnotes.***
One of the things I wanted to do when I came up with the idea for this blog, was to use it as a way of presenting different things that I personally have enjoyed or found significant. Part of this is a ‘here’s a good piece of work to contrast the sheer awfulness of Uprising’ but part of it is about finding those teachable moments and hopefully promoting further discussion.
Also there’s the fact that a bunch of the references I’ll be invoking as this deconstruction goes on are actually not very well known. So this has the advantage of giving me more content while making future deconstruction posts that much easier.
So for this week, I present to you ‘The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, by Lt Backsight Forethought’ an author eventually known by his actual name Maj-Gen Sir Ernest D. Swinton, KBE, CB, DSO. Although it’s now passed into the world of public domain and can be found for free on very websites, I found the copy shown above in the PX on an American National Guard Base in Michigan back in ’09.
This particular book is considered a landmark in its discussion on small-unit tactics, as well as giving rise to an entire genre of military literature: the instructive work of fiction. Essentially a tactics class wrapped in the veneer of a fictional narrative in which a young British Officer serving in the Boer War struggles to command a platoon(+) formation while establishing some basic tactical concepts for the reader.
The basic story structure has a young British officer (Lt Backsight Forethought) being given the job of guarding Duffer’s Drift, a river crossing that the Boers are using to move supplies to their forces. He has a reinforced platoon of fifty men to do the job, but he will be operating alone, without any support or means of communication. The young officer is a lazy, inattentive douche, so he makes a few half-hearted preparations before retiring for the night, only to have his command ambushed and captured by the local Boer Commando just hours later.
Even as he is contemplating his failure…poof! It turns out it was all a dream! The young officer awakens in the army’s main camp where he is safe and whole…at which point he is again given the job of guarding Duffer’s Drift with a reinforced platoon of fifty men.
The storyline repeats itself five more times after this, with the young Mr Forethought learning lesson after lesson as he fails again and again. Each time he is reprieved when it turns out that it was once again, all just a dream. Over the course of six dreams he makes all the classic mistakes (and in the process, learns a total of twenty two lessons) of small unit combat, and eventually hits upon a strategy that sees his tiny platoon hold off a much larger Boer force in a dramatic firefight that buys the main army time to win a major battle and come to the rescue.
Some of the twenty two lessons are clearly dated. Number 5 for example, deals with the characteristics of the modern magazine rifle – the 1895 pattern Mauser – but a great deal of it is still surprisingly relevant. Number 11, for instance:
“For a small isolated post and an active enemy, there are no flanks, no rear, or, to put it otherwise, it is front all around.”
Several of the early dreams have Lt Forethought orienting his defences to stop the Boer crossing from the north, only to be surrounded by the more mobile troops once he is discovered.
When Duffer’s Drift was first published in 1905, it became an instant hit and quickly spawned a host of imitators of varying quality. It is still a popular work in military colleges and amongst war nerds like me, and to a certain extent the literary tradition it spawned continues to this day.
In the United States it evolved into the genre of ‘speculative fiction’ of which our friend Tom Clancy is probably the most famous author. Along with his works of fiction, he published several non-fiction books showcasing American technological power (Submarine, Armored Cav, Marine, etc…) that included little fictional vignettes in which the titular force overcomes various enemies with ease and style.
I’m not sure if Britain has their own version of this (I never really followed Andy McNab after Bravo Two Zero so I’m not sure if he went there) but in Canada a number of authors and even formal National Defence entities kept up the tradition in a much more literal sense: First Clash, Crisis in Zefra/Crisis in Urlia, and the Emma Gees all seek to emulate the Duffer’s Drift formula. First Clash goes so far as to have each chapter end with a list of lessons learned, while the Emma Gees actually features a visit from a WW I ghost that shows the narrator a Forethought-like vision of his defeat when he fails to properly learn the theory of machine gun fire. And when you get right down to it, Uprising is another title in this same tradition. Based on the author’s experience, it seeks to teach a military lesson through a fictional narrative.
The Defence of Duffer’s Drift is the progenitor of Uprising.
The key difference is that it is possible to separate Swinton’s tactical wisdom from his uglier racists tendencies, whereas Bland’s racism directly informs his tactics and strategy. In reading Swinton, you get the impression of a man sharing his own lived experience. The tone in the first few dreams is distinctly ironic and self-deprecating. He clearly understood the nature of the young officer of the day, having so recently been one himself. You get the distinct impression that Lt Backsight Forethought is more than a little bit autobiographical.
With Douglas Bland, the politics is directly tied into the tactics, to the point where seemingly counterintuitive decisions are made in the service of some very ugly assumptions about race and politics. This is an important difference to remember. And it’s why a story like Duffer’s Drift can still be viewed as a useful instructional work a century after the fact.
There’s two big points that Duffer’s Drift illustrates that I want to emphasize here. I’ll be coming back to them a lot as the deconstruction progresses.
The first is that in his story Swinton articulated one of the great counterintuitive realities military command: Namely that small unit tactics are much more difficult than larger operations. As his bewildered Lt muses in his first dream:
“…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 subaltern’s 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 child’s-pay after a little thought…”
When you have ten thousand troops at your command, they’re not just standing there in one seething mass. There will be sub units, support units and specialist troops. There will be a chain of command based on some combination of skill, experience and personality. There will be subordinates who can assist and advise, possibly even stopping you from making mistakes. Most importantly you can make mistakes and sustain casualties without losing the overall effectiveness of your larger formation.
At the small-unit level, things are much closer and more fragile. While there will be a chain of command, it’s unlikely that there’s going to be more than one other person who can do your job and thereby give you advice. It’s unlikely that you’ll have anything in the way of special units or service & support and even a handful of casualties can badly impair your ability to operate.
This is why Swinton’s first and most important lesson is about moving with a sense of urgency:
“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 your camp mainly with reference to your defence.”
The first few dreams have Backsight Forethought taking half measures, retiring to bed early once he decides that their position is good enough. The more he learns, the greater his efforts until the last two dreams have him racing about on vital self-imposed scouting missions even as the platoon’s gear is being off loaded from the army’s wagons.
Even in the very last dream he barely has the time he needs to make his preparations.
The point here is that when the clock’s ticking and you only have a few dozen pairs of boots on the ground, you need to MOVE. Yet in my experience it’s one of the hardest lessons to impart upon young leaders (at least on the non-commissioned level). Pretty much any NCO who’s being honest with you will admit to that moment of paralysis when they finish reading off those carefully prepared orders – outlining their concept of ops and scheme of maneuver – then suddenly realize that they can no longer hide behind their notepad and actually have to do something.
I’ve been there. It’s a scary moment.
Throughout Uprising, we’re going to see a serious lack of urgency, both on the part of the CF and the NPA. The latter’s victory will arrive more as a result of liberal complacency than any kind of speed, violence and aggression. On a basic level, Bland doesn’t understand one of the crucial realities of war. Complacency kills.
This is a long-winded way of saying I’m going to be referencing the first dream a lot during the deconstruction.
The other point that I want to bring up can be seen in the way that Lt Backlight Forethought treats the local Boers (the Brink family) in the story. In the first dream he approaches them openly and in a friendly manner, visiting their farmhouse and allowing them to sell provisions to his platoon. This proves to be one of Lt Forethought’s biggest early mistakes as the Brink family turn out to be hard core enemy sympathizers, with the three male members of the family actually being members of the local Commando.
This is driven home in the aftermath of the first two dreams where the Boers overrun the British camp and the young Lt witnesses his allegedly neutral neighbour proudly standing with the troops of the Commando, wearing a bandolier and carrying a Mauser. Obviously, Lt Forethought’s friendliness only served to furnish the enemy with valuable information which they then use to wipe out the British force with minimal effort.
This gets rectified in the subsequent dreams where, in order to maintain their operational security the British force preemptively detains first the able bodied men, then later the entire family within their camp. All livestock that could be used by the enemy are shot, and when the wife becomes belligerent Lt Forethought threatens to burn their farm to the ground as well. Inside the camp the men are put to work helping the British troops dig their trenches, and the entire family is kept under armed guard during the course of the battle even as the position comes under fire.
By today’s standards, these are war crimes. Even in 1905 when Duffer’s Drift was first published, the standards were changing rapidly and the second Hague Convention of 1907 would lay down the first rules with regards to conduct towards civilians.
Today, while civilians who are known to be actively supporting the enemy may be detained or even killed under certain circumstances, the preemptive arrest of non-combatants is completely unlawful. That E.D. Swinton was approaching the confrontation from a blatantly racist angle is driven home in the second of the twenty two lessons that Lt Forethought learns.
“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[sic], by numerous “passes,” at once to confide in them.”
The crucial thing is, this was common practice during the later phases of the Boer War, and as a veteran of that war probably witnessed similar practices on numerous occasions (and probably carried out such actions himself). He very explicitly included this scene to drive home the point to future officers that a foreign civilian population was also an enemy population, and had to be treated as such. It wasn’t a side issue either, since the British only finally crushed the Boer resistance once they forcibly evicted the Boer civilian population from their farms and secured them in a new 20th Century invention: the concentration camp.
These were crimes against humanity. The fact that British soldiers committed them would be used, decades later, by Herman Goring as a rhetorical club whenever British diplomats raised objections to the Nazi treatment of the Jews.
Under such circumstances, when faced with a hostile civilian population that is possibly (but not definitely) supporting the enemy, the only lawful option is to hold off, and wait for proof.
I honestly hope that I would have the moral fortitude to do this if I ever found myself in a similar situation. That having been said, I also hope I would be a crafty and vicious enough tactician to survive the battle when those backstabbing cretins sell me out to the enemy. And if worse came to worse, I would hope that I might at least have a chance to shoot the treacherous motherfuckers before I died. Because that’s what this situation comes down to: While there is only one lawful answer, it’s a hard verdict to deliver. In situations like the one presented in Duffer’s Drift, the wrong decision can kill you.
It’s a hell of a thing to tell a soldier to just stand there and die.
A huge part of 20th Century Law of Armed Conflict seeks to reconcile the brutality of military necessity with the basic requirements of human decency. The greatest obstacle to these laws, treaties and conventions is the fact that, at some point enforcement will fall to a bunch of ordinary soldiers one some battlefield nobody’s ever heard of, who fear for their lives.
So what does this have to do with Douglas Bland’s Uprising? The scenario Bland is presenting us with is a deadly Indigenous guerrilla army that is attacking the rest of Canada while using their Reservations as protection. The ‘logical’ outcome of this is that, once the bodies really start piling up, someone is going to come to the ‘logical’ conclusion that the only way to live through this is to destroy the Reservations.
Once this line gets crossed, the only real question is one of severity. Best case scenario, we’re talking government forces, forcible evacuation of the civilian population followed by cordon and searches and the destruction of war fighting material and facilities. More likely, the end state will be a lot less controlled, a lot less professional. We’re talking massacres, we’re talking the burning of entire communities. The British army in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State had to invent the term concentration camp. We would already have a term ready made for the ‘logical’ outcome of an Indigenous insurgency: Ethnic cleansing.
As the storyline in Uprising develops, Bland tries a number of workarounds for this inevitable outcome. He tries to portray the attacks by the NPA as not immediately serious, and underplays the body count that would result from his characters’ actions. He also portrays the Canadian population’s reaction as what he imagines as ’typical liberal.’ The kind of thing that gets slapped with the epithet ‘sheeple.’ As we have seen, the NPA’s rebellion is already proving lethal, and for all of Bland’s protestations it will become more lethal as the novel progresses. And as for the overall Canadian public’s reaction?
I said earlier that the ugliest racial slur of Douglas Bland’s Uprising is that he assumes all Indigenous people will naturally fall into line with the NPA and their leaders? Well, his assumption that the rest of Canada will simply bleat in horror and wait for the end is his most pathetically naive.
 The term ‘kafir’ is originally an Arabic term for non-believer and first entered the popular British lexicon through their occupation of India. By the late 19th Century it was often used as a slang term for local natives living in a state of primitive barbarism (by British standards) regardless of ethnicity. Swinton applies the term to a kraal of Africans throughout the novel.
 One of the things I think the PX does a lot better than our CANEX is that they will have reprints of classic works of military literature available in what is often a surprisingly extensive book section.
 Emma Gees is a Great War slang term for machine gun (MG = emma gee). I got an introduction to this story (full title ‘The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of the Emma Gees Part 1&2’ by Maj K.A. Nettle back in my QL2 (basic training) where I made the mistake of asking the Sgt if there was a manual I could study. He gave me the story instead, and ordered me to read it to the rest of the course as a bed time story. I was further ordered to wear a helmet with a homophobic nickname written on it and read by the light of a glow stick while doing so. Good times.
 It’s interesting to note that, although they are also detained and forced to work, Swinton never assigns any malice to the Kafirs. The native Africans are seen as truly neutral (and rather childlike) and only need to be detained in order to obtain an easy source of labour for the British troops as they dig in. Swinton never seems to think about paying the Kafirs for their work (even though this was a common practice in the British Empire). The thought that this treatment might provoke the Kafirs into betraying also never seems to enter Swinton’s mind either.
 To be absolutely pedantic, the original purpose of the concentration camps was to be a ‘humane’ alternative to the traditional British tactic of just burning the civilian population out of their homes as a way of crippling the enemy’s power base. The starvation and death that resulted was officially accidental, resulting from poor logistical planning. These arguments ignore the fact that intent isn’t magic, and through the actions of the British Army thousands of civilians were taken from their homes and killed. It’s also worth noting that the reason the British opted for the ‘humane’ method was that the Boers were ‘white,’ making the kill it with fire method less palatable than usual.