The Emma Gees: Machine gun warfare in the Western Front

Gunners-Vimy. [c1917], A.S. English Collection, collection CCGW/CCGG
Gunners-Vimy. [c1917], A.S. English Collection, collection CCGW/CCGG
We just had our German MG-08 /15s returned after some maintenance; they may not be the prettiest things but they add some First World War personality to our German display. In comparison to the guns used from the Second World War on these seem huge! They took several people to operate and had to be transported on a sledge, along with hundreds of pounds of ammunition.  It’s no wonder that machine gun emplacements didn’t move very much unless they were absolutely forced.

Machine guns were not new by the time the war broke out; rapid fire weapons had been invented and perfected since the 1500s though the American Civil war saw the rise of the Gatling gun, the first automatically loading gun. In 1914, the Canadian militia had machine guns as part of their arsenal, though not very many, and the first battalions of the CEF included machine gun “specialists” who would operate the Colt machine guns that formed part of their trench defense system. However, the Entente in particular did not put a lot of stock in the utility of machine guns. It was commonly thought that will drilled troops with the appropriate amount of élan could easily storm and overcome isolated machine gun posts, and so the armies of the Entente, with the exception of the French went into the war with sometimes as little as two machine guns per company.

The German army on the other hand embraced the machine gun, as they did many other forms of technology that Entente commanders were reluctant to except. Machine guns were particularly effective in defensive positions and a well defended section of trench would have nests of machine guns that provided overlapping fields of fire, turning the area in front of the trench into a killing zone. Our contemporary image of the First World War, the lines of men advancing into withering machine gun fire where most are killed, is probably more accurate than we might like to think. Certainly in the first years of the war, before the Entente armies started using creeping barrages and long range heavy machine gun covering fire, it was nearly exactly like we envision. Men were lined-up once out of the trench and those who weren`t killed getting out marched across to the enemy trench and into a hail of machine gun fire.

By 1916, the British army and the Canadian Corps had both begun making much more use of the machine gun; the number of guns per length of trench increased dramatically and machine gunners were taught to provide covering fire for the men advancing across No Mans Land. Members of the Machine Gun Corps were also embedded directly into infantry battalions, allowing them to respond quickly to threats and to the changes in the front instead of waiting for deployment or orders from their own headquarters[1]. The Corps also provided Lewis machine guns at the platoon level, meaning that every Canadian platoon could count on at least 2 Lewis guns per group by the end of the war. Though with less horrifying effects than a shell (a machine gun couldn`t vaporise a man or a trench), machine guns remained the work horse of the war; at 500 rounds a minute they could stop an entire battalion in its tracks, leaving only bodies in their wake. It may have been artillery that eventually won the war for the Entente, but by embracing the machine gun Entente commanders ensured that they could keep winning.

[1] See Tim Cook`s At the sharp end : Canadians fighting the Great War 1914-1916 for a comprehensive discussion of the reorganisation of the Canadian Corps’ specialist sections.

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