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HBSA Lecture at the Imperial War Museum
19th July 2010

"The Machine Gun in the Great War"
by Paul Cornish


At the outbre...
The German Army understood that the precision of the machine gun made it effective at long
     ranges. It maximised the e...
The Germans maintained this lead in machine-gunnery during 1915 and refined its application
to defensive warfare; tending ...
The Allies - obliged to take the offensive - developed their own machine gun tactics accordingly.
The lead was taken by th...
Second, mathematics was employed to enable guns to fire at targets invisible to the gunners.
This indirect fire essentiall...
By the time of the Battle of the Somme (July 1916) these techniques were being combined to
create machine gun barrages, fi...
The barrage was highly effective. It could saturate areas of ground through which the enemy
may wish to move. It could 'cr...
These techniques were used with even greater effect during the 'set piece' attacks of 1917.
Proof of the efficacy of MG ba...
If the offensive use of machine gun fire was a novel development of the Great War, even more
significant was the introduct...
The French Army simultaneously identified a requirement for portable automatic firepower, and
also had access to an existi...
Neither the Lewis nor the CSRG were very reliable, but they revolutionized the way in which the
Allied infantry fought. Th...
A British infantry platoon in ‘artillery formation’, 1917. The platoon is divided into separate
        sections of Lewis ...
This paper was a distillation of the major themes addressed in
‘Machine Guns of the Great War’.
The Machine Gun in the Great War
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The Machine Gun in the Great War

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HBSA Lecture at the Imperial War Museum
19th July 2010
"The Machine Gun in the Great War"
This is a presentation delivered to a monthly meeting of the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association (HBSA) in London, UK.
www.hbsa-uk.org
by Paul Cornish

Published in: Education
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The Machine Gun in the Great War

  1. 1. HBSA Lecture at the Imperial War Museum 19th July 2010 "The Machine Gun in the Great War" by Paul Cornish At the outbreak of the Great War, no army fully grasped the potential of automatic firepower. A traditional view of First World War machine-gunnery: German machine-gunners bayoneted by British heroes on the Somme – as imagined by The War Illustrated.
  2. 2. The German Army understood that the precision of the machine gun made it effective at long ranges. It maximised the effectiveness of its machine guns by grouping them in regimental companies; rather than attaching them to individual battalions as other armies did. German machine gunners on manoeuvre, with their MG08 on its four-legged ‘sledge’ mount.
  3. 3. The Germans maintained this lead in machine-gunnery during 1915 and refined its application to defensive warfare; tending to emplace guns deep in the defensive zone, rather than in the front line. A German MG08 in an abandoned machine gun nest. It is mounted on an extemporized ‘trench mount’ instead of its cumbersome quadripod. The feed-block has been removed to disable it.
  4. 4. The Allies - obliged to take the offensive - developed their own machine gun tactics accordingly. The lead was taken by the British Army, which took the extraordinary step of creating the Machine Gun Corps, devoted solely to the deployment of the machine gun. The resulting concentration of enthusiastic specialists in a single unit resulted in dramatic developments in tactics. First, the curving trajectory of the ammunition was exploited to develop a system for firing over the heads of friendly troops. British diagram showing the characteristics of machine gun fire.
  5. 5. Second, mathematics was employed to enable guns to fire at targets invisible to the gunners. This indirect fire essentially used the machine gun like a miniature artillery piece. A British machine gun protractor; used to calculate indirect fire.
  6. 6. By the time of the Battle of the Somme (July 1916) these techniques were being combined to create machine gun barrages, fired by groups of guns. British machine-gunners conducting long range fire on the Somme. The tripod legs are firmly dug-in, to ensure that the weapon does not move off aim.
  7. 7. The barrage was highly effective. It could saturate areas of ground through which the enemy may wish to move. It could 'creep' in front of attacking troops - potentially in combination with an artillery creeping barrage. Furthermore, impact areas could be selected for defensive MG barrages; to be brought down in response to SOS flares fired by the infantry when the enemy counterattacked. II Anzac Corps machine gun plan for the Battle of Messines. The shaded areas indicate the impact zones of barrages and the ladder-like lines denote creeping barrages.
  8. 8. These techniques were used with even greater effect during the 'set piece' attacks of 1917. Proof of the efficacy of MG barrage fire comes in the fact that, during 1917, the tactic was adopted by the French, the American Expeditionary Force and the Germans. With the return of 'open warfare' during 1918, it might be supposed that MG barrages, which had been developed for use during the trench deadlock, would become a thing of the past. In fact, they continued to be fired right up to the armistice. Troops in 1918 did not go into action without the benefit of artillery support, and if there was time to arrange an artillery barrage, there was naturally time to arrange an MG barrage. An example of ‘emergency indirect fire’ delivered by the Machine Gun Corps on the Somme.
  9. 9. If the offensive use of machine gun fire was a novel development of the Great War, even more significant was the introduction of light automatic weapons at platoon level. In 1914 light machine guns existed, but were not part of military thinking. Such guns were viewed merely as flimsy, second-rate machine guns. However, the bloodletting of 1914 soon convinced the military that any form of automatic firepower was worth having, so they looked anew at this type of weapon. Britain was at an advantage because BSA already begun small-scale production of the Lewis gun. At first it was perceived as a substitute for the Vickers, but use at the Front revealed that the Lewis had very different capabilities. Incapable of sustained fire, and lacking accuracy at long ranges, it was much more portable and concealable than the Vickers, and therefore better suited to accompanying the infantry in the first line.
  10. 10. The French Army simultaneously identified a requirement for portable automatic firepower, and also had access to an existing design, an experimental Fusil Mitrailleur (machine rifle). This weapon was now put into production as the CSRG. Around a quarter of a million were made, making it the most numerous automatic weapon of the First World War. A French CSRG gunner. His secondary armament is a Spanish 7.65mm pistol, which was carried in a box-like holster on his back.
  11. 11. Neither the Lewis nor the CSRG were very reliable, but they revolutionized the way in which the Allied infantry fought. The infantry rifle, designed for an open battlefield with visible targets, had proved of limited use on the Western Front, with grenades becoming the preferred infantry weapon. Light automatic weapons soon established themselves as the chief source of firepower in the frontline. By 1917, when sufficient guns had become available to issue one per platoon (~40 men), both the French and the British reorganized their infantry platoons to include specialist sections of grenadiers and automatic riflemen. The Germans soon noted the effectiveness light machine guns, but the workings of their war economy delayed the production of a counterpart until late 1916. The gun in question, the MG08/15, was based on the existing Maxim gun in order to assist production. British intelligence drawing of the German MG08/15 light machine gun. This features a light bipod clamped to the barrel, which did not see general issue – being superseded by a heavier pattern which mated with the traversing lug in front of the feed block. It was bulky and inaccurate, but the Germans evolved their small unit tactics to make the most of it - whether surprising the enemy with short range bursts of fire in the forward defensive zone, or aggressively supporting counterattacks. By 1918 the position of automatic firearms within the infantry platoon had become still more dominant. British and German platoons could expect to deploy at least two light machine guns, while the French had three and the Americans four CSRGs. This, and the fact that open warfare had returned, caused a further revision of small unit tactics.
  12. 12. A British infantry platoon in ‘artillery formation’, 1917. The platoon is divided into separate sections of Lewis gunners, rifle grenadiers, bombers and riflemen. The light automatic weapon now became the indisputable core of platoons. Other arms were firmly subordinated to it. Thus the First World War saw the creation of the pattern of small unit tactics which were to dominate for the next seventy years.
  13. 13. This paper was a distillation of the major themes addressed in ‘Machine Guns of the Great War’.

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