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The First World War began in August 1914 after ten years of building tension. It was a result of diplomatic failure, imperial ambition and treaty obligation. There were three main phases of the war in the West:
- Fire and Movement, 1914
- Attrition, 1915 - 1917
- Fire and Movement, 1918
In all these phases, the machine gun ruled supreme, and it was only towards the end that an effective answer was found - the tank. Before looking at the machine gun, it is worth looking at the philosophy of the major protagonists in the West, the British and Empire, the French and Colonial, and the German Armies.
British and Empire
Britain's small Regular Army was the only one composed solely of highly-trained professional soldiers. All other European Armies relied on a core of professional officers and NCOs, the bulk of the troops being National Service and reservists. The lessons of the Boer War were taken to heart and the British infantryman was taught the principles of fire and movement. He was dressed in khaki to make as poor a target as possible. In addition, he was taught to fire his rifle accurately, as an individual, at targets up to 600 yards at a rate of 20 rounds/min. Company and battalion targets could be up to 1,200 yards distant. The machine gun was still seen as a point defence weapon and was issued two to a battalion. It merely enhanced the fire of the infantryman, who was far more mobile. The Empire troops mirrored this organisation and training.
French and Colonial
The French philosophy was 'attack, attack, attack'. This had started with Napoleon and had stuck. The idea that 'attack' would solve all the problems on the field had some support, for it is the attacker that decides the run of play. From the enemy's point of view, it can be damaging to morale to be attacked unexpectedly, especially if the foe seems defeated. The uniform had changed little since the Franco-Prussian War and so the poilu1 went to war in kepi2, red trousers and dark blue greatcoat. Once again, the machine gun was too heavy for the mobility required by this tactic and was relegated to defensive measures, mainly to provide a base for attack.
The camouflage effect of a dull uniform had not passed unnoticed to the Germans, but they adopted feldgrau, a greeny grey. Black shiny helmets and shakos were covered with a grey cloth cover. The 'German' Army as such, did not exist, as each of the states of Greater Germany sent their own troops, each with slightly different details to their uniform. Command, however, was Prussian and central. The Germans took the machine gun to heart and employed it as an organic part of an Infantry Regiment. Each of the three battalions had a machine gun company of six guns. The ratio of guns to men was about the same as the British army, but the Germans adopted a more concentrated tactical unit. Once again, the gun was too heavy for the attack, but followed behind for quick defensive deployment.
Fire and Movement, 1914
The rifle and the infantryman marked this stage of the War. The machine gun's chief victory was decimating cavalry, who charged with élan, and died with their horses. The small British army on the left flank delayed the Germans by weight of fire and rapid, disciplined retirement. At one point, the Germans thought the British were deploying machine guns with each platoon, so accurate and rapid was the rifle-fire they received. It was a war of outflanking and rapid retirement.
The French attacked, and attacked, and attacked. Most succeeded in delaying the German advance, but at a cost. The Battle for the Frontiers, as this part of the War became known, resulted in 300,000 casualties but eventually they stopped the German advance on Paris. They were too visible and attacked en mass, an ideal target for the German machine guns and Rifle battalions.
It was the Germans who attacked first, using the bludgeoning tactic of mass infantry manoeuvre, supported by accurate artillery. Unfortunately, this was an ideal target for artillerymen, and the British Infantry in particular. The Germans had the initiative, but were fighting against the French, whose country was in danger from another German invasion and another defeat, as in 1871. The will to fight is greater for those who are defending their land and people. The Germans eventually lost too many troops to continue. The rapidity of the advance wore out the infantry, who, as usual moved on foot, then fought, then moved on.
By the end of 1914, all the Western armies were fought out, losing many trained soldiers and the will to continue the attack. The small British force of professionals took too many casualties and rapidly lost the trained infantrymen it relied on. The survivors called themselves 'The Old Contemptibles', mocking Kaiser Wilhelm II's insult of 'Britain's contemptibly small army'. The French died and bled to keep their country French. Most of the experienced troops became casualties, especially their more volatile native and quasi-native infantrymen.
Armies held, rather than gained, territory and the attacking war became a defensive war. Fox-holes and gun pits became joined together and deepened as the trench systems developed from the Belgian coast to the French Alps. Advances would be pitifully small, and successful occupation hard to retain. By mechanising defence, the machine gun became the king of the battlefield almost by default, for attack was definitely not mechanised.
Attrition, 1915 - 1917
Stalemate had set in. Troops were not fully trained, nor had the experience of the Armies of 1914. Generals still relied on the bayonet to settle ownership of the battlefield. The machine gun kept the bayonet at bay. Britain trained a Volunteer Army while France and Germany drained more of their reserves and trained conscripts. German defence became more dependent on the machine gun and there was an increasing reliance on concrete machine gun posts, which used interlocking arcs of fire for mutual defence. All parties used barbed wire to restrict movement near to their trenches or fortifications.
The machine gun was used to deny ground to the enemy, restrict free movement and break up mass attacks. In short, it was still being used as artillery, but now controlled in the British Army by specialists. Like the Germans, the British brigaded the machine gun in machine gun companies of the Machine Gun Corps (MGC) formed in 1915. The Allies also developed a cheap and easy way of supplementing the heavy and costly machine gun, which was slow to manufacture - the light machine gun and its lighter equivalent, the automatic or machine rifle.
The British used an American weapon, the Lewis Gun, which (despite its faults) was a good and reliable Light Machine Gun. It suited the British tactics of bayonet attack and hold. The French (and later, the Americans) had the Chauchat, a machine rifle, which was a brute to fire but was light enough to fire from the hip in the French style of frontal attack. The Germans were slow to adopt a more portable machine gun and came out with a rather heavy, although lightened, version of the Maxim. By the end of this period, the British had 36 Lewis Gun per battalion (800 men) but the French had one Chauchat for each 10 men.
As ever the reclassified Medium Machine gun, the Vickers, Maxim and Hotchkiss dominated the battlefield. Over 1 million men, French and German, were casualties at Verdun. Over half this figure were killed, many by the machine gun. On the first day of the Somme offensive on 1 July, 1916, German machine guns accounted for 90% of the 80,000 British casualties. Of these, 20,000 were killed outright and 35,000 seriously wounded. In a supporting action on the Somme during August 1916, 10 Vickers MGs fired just under a million rounds on target areas over 2000 yards away, over a period of 12 hours. There were no mechanical failures and all were serviceable after the action. Most of this was indirect fire, successfully denying ground to the enemy.
It was at this time that aircraft began carrying machine guns. As the Navy before them, Air Forces realised that a fast, manoeuvrable target must be engaged by a fast firing weapon. With the invention of interrupter gear, which allowed the machine gun to shoot through the arc of a propeller without shattering the blades, the fighter aircraft was born and continued the slaughter in the air.
Sir Hiram Maxim died in November 1916. He must have been aware that the machine gun, one of his many inventions, perhaps the most successful, had been so effective.
In 1915, the British began to develop the answer to the machine gun's mechanised defence. This was a method of mechanised attack - the tank. Appropriately, it was first deployed with the MGC's heavy companies before reorganisation into the Tank Corps. It was a new weapon and results were variable, but it was a start.
Fire and Movement, 1918
It was the Germans that started the beginning of the end. The Spring Offensive - Operation Michael - was designed to split the French and British Armies, and reach the Channel coast. Troops from the now unnecessary Russian Front were brought in to add extra manpower. Portable machine guns were used, but this action also saw the introduction of the submachine gun by the Germans. It very nearly succeeded, but stubborn defence from the Allies brought it to a halt, held it, then pushed back into former German territory. The tank, with its armoured machine guns and cannon, played an important part in the success, but, as usual, it was the infantry and artillery that had the major role.
The British used fire and movement as they had done in 1914, but without the trained marksmen. In their place was the Lewis Gun, providing local covering fire out to 300 yards as a body of men advanced to attack. The French and Americans used a 'fire on the advance' technique, in which advancing troops on the move put down enough fire to keep the enemies heads down. In the end, it was probably casualties and war-weariness, as well as a naval blockade, which prompted revolution in Germany and a negotiated end of hostilities which took effect from 11.00am, 11 November, 1918.
The machine gun and artillery were the main weapons of the First World War. Artillery caused the most casualties, an estimated 67%. Of the other casualties, it would be difficult to differentiate between rifle and machine gun fire as both used similar ammunition, and chemical weapons must also be taken into account. The artillery created the terrain in which the Armies fought and the machine gun dominated it. The machine gun was preferred as it left the barbed-wire entanglements intact. Although the machine gun probably caused more casualties in the open, it was the artillery that churned up the trenches and battlefield, scattering the bodies time and time again, to create the accepted image of the Great War.
The only answer to the machine gun, the tank, was still a relatively undeveloped resource, although it had promise. No one at the end of the 'War to end all Wars' could foresee what was to follow. The machine gun was still king of the battlefield, but nearing the end of its reign.