British machine gun tactics on the Western Front 1915–18

Paul Cornish

Few aspects of the history of the First World War are so hedged about with myth and misconception as the use of machine guns, particularly their employment by British and Empire forces. The popular image of the British High Command as being so removed from the realities of the war as to be dismissive of the need for machine gunnery, while eager to send men to their deaths at the hands of expert German machine gunners, is a pervasive one. It is also very far from the truth. The question of military attitudes to the procurement and issue of Vickers guns has long been a subject of controversy, the origins of which lie largely in the very subjective opinions advanced in various political and military memoirs published in the 1930s. The question has since been discussed at such length and in so many publications as to permit any interested person to discover the true state of affairs. Consequently, this article will concentrate on a subject that receives generally rather less attention from historians: namely, developments in the tactical deployment of the Vickers gun on the Western Front.

In common with the other combatant powers, Britain entered the war with no experience of the use of machine guns in a major European conflict. The only employment of such weapons by British forces had occurred in colonial wars. They had proved very successful against attacking hordes of Dervishes and Matabeles; rather less so against dispersed bodies of Boers armed with Mauser rifles. For an example of the use of machine guns in a non-colonial context, tacticians and military thinkers looked to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–5. They took good note of the achievements of machine guns (Maxims for the Russians; the Hotchkiss in Japanese hands) in a defensive role, although they appear to have taken little notice of some successes which were scored in the supporting of attacks. Consequently, in all armies the machine gun was seen as little more than a useful supplement to infantry firepower. They were characterized in the British army as 'a weapon of opportunity'. It should of course be remembered that at this time a great premium was set upon the impressive rate of accurate rifle fire that Britain's highly trained regular infantrymen were able to deliver.

It was the Imperial German Army that had developed the most advanced ideas on the use of machine guns by 1914. The key to their superiority in the field lay not so much in the scale on which machine guns were issued, but in the way in which they were organized. Unlike the British Army, where machine guns were an organic part of each battalion, the German Army had machine gun companies attached to each of its three-battalion regiments. Machine guns could therefore be dispersed among the constituent battalions of the regiment, or concentrated – according to tactical requirements. In addition, independent machine gun detachments were available to corps commanders. Moreover, the vast reservist-based nature of the German Army made intensive and specialized rifle training on the British pattern an impossibility. Instead, the Germans fostered the concept of machine gunners as an elite body, making machine gun marksmanship competitions part of their training. This marksmanship was enhanced by the ready availability of optical sights for German machine guns. The expertise of the Maschine-Gewehr Scharfschützen was not seriously challenged for the first eighteen months of the war.

Nevertheless, the British Army had long contained a cadre of officers who had far-reaching ideas about the potentialities of the machine-gun. Two of these, Maj. C. d'A. B. S. Baker-Carr and Capt. G. M. Lindsay were to play a major role in the institution of specialized training for machine-gunners. Their influence began to make itself felt as early as December 1914, when Baker-Carr was appointed Commandant of the newly formed BEF Machine Gun School at St Omer. Lindsay joined the instructional staff in March 1915. Between them, they composed a memorandum in which they proposed the creation of an independent corps of machine gunners ‘whose personnel would be composed of selected men whose training would be complete and uniform and whose employment in battle would not be at the whim of a commanding officer, enthusiastic perhaps, but hopelessly inexperienced in the first principles of machine gun tactics'.

That such a radical suggestion, coming from relatively junior officers, should be given consideration was, perhaps, due to the fact that the deployment of machine guns in the field had already begun to evolve in response to the harsh imperatives of trench warfare. It was soon found necessary to group machine-guns in action, rather than parcel them out two (four after February 1915) to a battalion, as the official table of organization suggested. In August 1915 machine guns were grouped together at brigade level. This move was a recognition of the advantages of concentrating machine guns, and of the differing capabilities of the ‘medium' machine gun (Vickers) and the light machine gun (Lewis). It was this de-facto separation of the Vickers gunners from other infantrymen which proved to be the major step towards the creation of the Machine Gun Corps, which took place in October 1915. Henceforward each of the three brigades in a division was to have a Machine Gun Corps company of 16 Vickers guns attached. The guns of these companies were organized into four sections, each with four guns.

The organization of this new corps was not actually completed until the spring of the following year, and involved no little heartache for the infantry, who perceived themselves to be losing control of a substantial part of their firepower. It did however signal the beginning of the end of German dominance in machine gunnery. Not only did the creation of the Machine Gun Corps offer the British army increased flexibility in the deployment of its machine guns; it also speeded the pace of tactical innovation.

With the excellent Vickers gun being made available in ever increasing numbers, the Machine Gun Corps began to develop tactics that would maximize its effectiveness. As I have mentioned above, the usefulness of the machine-gun in repelling frontal attacks was recognized in all armies; its potential utility for the attacking troops themselves was less well understood. This was of fundamental significance, for the strategic situation generally obliged the British Expeditionary Force to be on the offensive. On no occasion was this point more brutally driven home than on 1 July 1916. The first day of the battle of the Somme was notable for the dreadful casualties inflicted on the advancing British by German machine gunners. The latter, as soon as the horrendous preparatory bombardment lifted, raced from their dugouts and were able to set up their guns before the first waves of attackers had crossed no-man's land. In many places, where their emplacements had been destroyed, they boldly took up positions in advance of their own front line, the better to conduct the slaughter. In many ways the first day of the Somme marked the zenith of the machine gun's use as a direct-fire defensive weapon.

By contrast, little thought had been given by the British to any specific role for machine guns in supporting the attack, other than sending Vickers teams along with the attacking waves of infantry, with the hope that they would help consolidate any positions captured. On this, and indeed many other occasions during the battle of the Somme, machine gunners suffered disproportionately high casualties from being expected to accompany attacking infantry. However, even as these doleful events were occurring, more enlightened commanders, prompted by Machine Gun Corps officers, were beginning to use their machine guns in a far more enterprising manner.

A case in point was the intelligent use of machine guns in the assault on Delville Wood by 5th Division, on 27 July 1916. The gun teams of 99th Machine Gun Company were not sent forward with the first wave of the attack, but moved up with a supporting battalion (1st Royal Berks). Infantrymen were seconded to the Machine gunners to carry ammunition and water, enabling a reserve of trained gunners to be maintained. In addition, each gun team was accompanied by at least one selected rifleman, to protect it against enemy snipers. Once the far edge of the wood had been reached, the machine gunners assisted in repelling the inevitable German counter-attacks. A historian of one of the infantry battalions involved notes that they had ‘a pleasant time dealing with counter-attacks from the front. The field of fire was good, and they very quickly dealt with all the attempts to push us back'. At nightfall the infantry, with the exception of 400 men with 12 Lewis Guns, were withdrawn, whereupon responsibility for defence of the wood devolved largely upon the Machine Gun Company. In the course of the action the Brigade suffered only 25 per cent of the casualties it had expected. The precious Vickers teams had not been hazarded needlessly in the first wave of the attack, and were therefore able to play a leading role in breaking-up the enemy counter-attacks.

The Somme battle also witnessed increasing use of indirect fire. This tactic had already been employed on a limited scale during 1915, both in the British and Canadian Expeditionary Forces. To conduct such fire the proposed target would be located on a map, and the position of the machine gun relative to it would be determined with ruler and protractor. Calculations, using a graph or slide-rule, would then be made to determine the gun's potential cone of fire and the trajectory of its bullets (an important consideration if firing over the head of friendly troops). A clinometer would be employed to set the gun to the correct elevation, after which a stop on the tripod would be put in place to prevent the weapon from being depressed beyond the lowest point commensurate with the safety of intervening friendly troops.

Finally it was necessary to ensure that the gun was firmly emplaced (generally by placing sandbags on the tripod legs) and unable to sink into the ground. Fire from the flank was preferred to overhead fire, due to the obvious risks of the latter to friendly troops. When overhead fire was carried out, it was usual to ensure that the guns used had relatively new barrels (those with less than 8,000 rounds fired), in order to achieve a tight ‘beaten zone'. Aiming posts would be driven into the ground enabling the gunner to change swiftly between different pre-selected target areas. Such changes would be made either in conformity with a timetable, or in response to pre-arranged S. O. S. signals from the infantry. Incidentally, it was also necessary for the infantry to be trained to operate under the cover of such fire – the sensation of friendly bullets apparently skimming their heads was not initially found to be an agreeable one.

The historian of the 6th Australian Machine Gun Company records that, after being initially dubious about the concept of indirect fire, they ‘developed the practice with such precision and confidence that, some months later, the whole of the company's guns were grouped in batteries, firing creeping and SOS barrages, and switching fire on to given targets at the sign of SOS or the receipt of a telephone message – a proceeding which heartened the attacking infantry and earned their cordial appreciation'.

An early use of such fire in the Somme battle occurred on 14 July, when 27th Machine Gun Company provided vital support for 27th Brigade in the capture of the village of Longueval. They achieved this by means of indirect, overhead fire; with the guns being sited one and a half miles away, outside Montauban.

On 24 August one of the most celebrated machine gun actions of all time took place nearby. This was the famous barrage fired by 100th Machine Gun Company in support of the capture of High Wood. With the assistance of two companies of infantry to do the fetching and carrying, rapid fire (officially laid down as 250–300 rounds per minute) by 10 guns was maintained continuously for twelve hours. At the end of this period they had fired 900,750 rounds. Their target was the area behind the crest-line on which High Wood stands, through which German infantry attempting to counter-attack had to pass. According to a German prisoner, the effect of the machine-gun fire was ‘annihilating'. This barrage was of course rather out of the ordinary, both in terms of its duration and in the lavish expenditure of ammunition. Nevertheless, along with the preceding examples, it shows that by the late summer of 1916 the use of machine guns in the British army was showing signs of increasing sophistication.

The two remaining years of the war saw a continuation of this process, with the techniques of barrage fire being developed to a high degree. It was employed with increasing regularity in both direct and indirect contexts, and in attack and defence. Incidentally the Germans made no use of barrages until late 1917, and then never on the same scale as the British. The effectiveness of British and Empire machine gunnery was further augmented by an increase in the number of guns available. By the spring of 1917 the scale of issue per division was raised from 48 to 64 by the addition of an extra Machine Gun Corps company attached directly to divisional headquarters.

By the opening of the Third Battle of Ypres in July 1917, barrages and other forms of supporting fire had become the largest part of the machine gunner's task. In a typical attack, a division would deploy 16 Vickers Guns with the advancing infantry, while 48 were reserved for barrages and SOS fire. The terrible mud of the Ypres salient gave added importance to machine guns, as it greatly hampered any field artillery that attempted to move forward to support advances. The increasing complexity of operational planning at this time had an important result for the development of machine gun tactics. It became abundantly clear to GHQ that the organization of divisional machine gunners into five companies was a hindrance to the flexible deployment of the machine guns. As a consequence, during the first two months of 1918, a new organization was introduced, which grouped the divisional machine gunners together in a battalion, under a single commander. From March 1918 the machine gun firepower of each Division assumed even greater importance, as manpower shortages resulted in the trimming of brigades from four battalions to three.

It was at precisely this juncture that the Machine Gun Corps was obliged to show what its firepower could achieve in a defensive context, as a series of massive German offensives burst upon the BEF. Lt. Col. Hutchison (the instigator of the 1,000,000 round barrage at High Wood and the great propagandist of the Machine Gun Corps), claims that the inability of 3rd and 5th Armies to hold off the German attack of 21 March was at least partially due to shortcomings in machine-gun planning. Apparently there had been a failure to implement the new battalion organization of divisional machine guns. Moreover, emplacements, ammunition supplies and fire-plans all proved inadequate. On 1st Army's front however, machine guns certainly proved their value.

One of the examples of machine guns in defence taught, to pupils at the Machine Gun Training Centre at Grantham, was an action fought north of Arras on 28 March 1918. Here the 56th Division was obliged to face the German Mars offensive. Well sited machine guns, working to a complicated plan, with interlocking fields of fire and supplemented by fire from the guns of neighbouring divisions, played a major role in stopping an attack by greatly superior German forces. The training notes are at pains to point out that the only significant enemy lodgement in the British lines was gained in an area that was protected by its topography from being swept by Vickers fire. In other areas, particularly the village of Gavrelle, very heavy casualties were meted out to the attackers. One captured German officer claimed that the machine guns had accounted for 12 officers of one regiment and 24 in another.

By the summer of 1918, the British, Canadian and Australian forces had mastered the techniques of both offensive and defensive machine gunnery. The great allied offensives of the final hundred days of the war were to set new challenges, however, bringing, as they did, a return to open warfare. Machine gunners had to keep pace with the advancing infantry. Generally this was done with the aid of mule-drawn limbers or pack-mules, with manhandling frequently necessary in the last resort. Various attempts were made to increase the mobility of Machine Gun Corps units. During the battle of Amiens on 8 August there was a (somewhat unsuccessful) experiment with the transportation of machine gunners into action in obsolete tanks. In the same battle the Canadians deployed their ‘Independent Force', consisting of two Motor Machine Gun Brigades (with lorry-borne guns), heavy trench mortars on lorries and the Corp's cyclists. These efforts unfortunately failed to provide a complete answer to the conundrum of how to bring the guns swiftly into action during an advance. The equipment and techniques available for the conduct of indirect fire were, at that time, ill suited to attacking an enemy who was not firmly established in known positions. Where German resistance crystallized however, there was still call for set-piece barrages. On 27 September 1918, machine-gunners of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fired a barrage in support of the crossing of the Canal du Nord. This involved 24 batteries (192 Guns) firing what one chronicler of the Canadian Machine Gun Corps described as ‘one of the most complicated barrage fire programmes yet devised'.

Thus the willingness to apply intelligent thought to the problems faced, combined with a truly excellent weapon system, enabled the machine gunners of Haig's army to surpass their German counterparts in technical expertise and battlefield effectiveness. The learning process through which they passed closely mirrors that of the army as a whole, as it sought the correct tactical responses to the new challenges posed by trench warfare.

Naturally, these lessons were not taken to heart at a uniform speed throughout the army, and some formations proved less willing to adopt the new tactics than others. It should be noted that the successful barrage at High Wood in 1916 had been preceded on 15 July by a totally wasteful use of machine guns at the same spot when, without the benefit of supporting fire, they were sent forward with the first wave of attacking infantry. Furthermore it is certainly possible to find examples of the misuse of machine guns right to the end of the war. However, by way of summary, it is safe to say that the experience gained from the trials and errors of 1915–16 was built upon in 1917, and culminated in 1918 with the machine gunners playing a full part in breaking the great German offensive, and in the meticulously planned combined-arms offensives of the ‘Hundred Days'.

© 2006 Osprey Publishing Ltd