Machine Guns WWI: Issue, organization and doctrine


The German MG08, fitted with an optical sight and an armoured cover for its water-jacket.


A graphic representation of machine gun cones of fire and beaten zones. Taken from British machine gun training notes.

The level of machine gun issue in the armies of the major powers in 1914 was roughly equivalent. The Russians were actually the most lavishly equipped on paper, with an eight-gun company attached to each regiment. However this remained a sadly theoretical scale of issue for some Russian regiments, for whom even riles were a scarce commodity. The Russian Army was 833 machine guns short of its official scale of issue at the outbreak of war. Once the fighting began this situation worsened, as pre-war forecasts of wastage proved to have been far too low. Efforts were made to increase production and to negotiate purchases from abroad. It was not until 1916, however, that production exceeded the average rate of wastage, which stood at 600 guns per month. Russian machine-gunnery was further hampered by a severe shortage of small arms ammunition, which prevailed throughout 1915.

Austria-Hungary, Russia’s chief enemy in 1914, also suffered from a shortage of riles, due to pre-war parsimony. Conversely, small arms ammunition was very plentiful – undoubtedly to the benefit of the machine-gunnery of the Habsburg Empire’s armed forces. When their former ally, Italy, attacked in May 1915, machine guns were to prove the mainstay of the successful defensive campaign mounted by the outnumbered Austro-Hungarian forces. They took a particularly high toll of Italian troops attempting to force the valley of the River Isonzo. Italy had rather neglected the machine gun, with only two guns attached to each regiment (which were composed of either three or four battalions). The elite Alpini fared rather better, with two guns per battalion. Italy purchased 892 Vickers ‘C’ Class machine guns between 1910 and 1914. Reports reaching Britain suggested that they were intended for the defence of Italy’s northern frontiers. The coming of war cut off any further possibility of commercial purchases from Britain: such was the need for machine guns in the British Army that selling them to neutral nations was out of the question. Consequently the Italians were obliged to turn to an indigenous design: the Revelli, named for its designer Abiel Bethel Revelli. Like the Schwarzlose, the Revelli worked on the delayed blowback principle, although, just to complicate matters, the barrel also recoiled for a short distance after firing. The delay was effected by a swinging wedge mechanism. In another echo of the Schwarzlose, the cartridges had to be lubricated to ensure clean extraction. The Revelli did not possess the ruggedness of its Austrian counterpart and its potential for unreliability was only enhanced by its use of a unique open magazine, containing fifty rounds. The troubles of Italian machine gunners were compounded by the fact that the Italian Army used a rather underpowered 6.5mm cartridge. As the war progressed the Revelli was supplemented by considerable numbers of the St Etienne gun, supplied by France – thereby augmenting the quantity, if not the quality, of Italian machine guns.

The most effective user of machine guns in the first year of the war was the German Army. German machine-gunners held a decided advantage over their opponents: not because they possessed more guns, but for organizational reasons. Ostensibly the German provision of two guns per battalion matched arrangements in the British and French Armies. However the German guns were organized in a separate company, which was considered the thirteenth company of each three-battalion regiment. This meant that instead of being distributed piecemeal to the three battalions of the regiment, the machine guns remained under the direct control of the regimental commander, and were often grouped together in action. Indeed German regulations specifically stipulated that machine guns should always be under the command of the senior officer present. In addition to the machine gun companies of infantry and cavalry regiments, eleven independent machine gun ‘detachments’ (Abteilungen) were available to corps commanders – these had originally been intended for use in conjunction with the cavalry.

One of the earliest lessons learnt by machine-gunners during the First World War was that this type of ‘brigading’ of guns could greatly enhance their effectiveness, by concentrating their firepower at crucial points. A clear example of this occurred on 26 August 1914, during the Battle of Tannenberg, when, near that village, a Russian counter-attack was shattered by the concentrated fire of the six machine guns of the German 150th Infantry Regiment. In the West, the battle of Le Cateau witnessed the offensive use of ‘closely massed’ German machine guns. The Germans went further than other nation in laying down field regulations for the employment of machine guns. Concentration of fire was encouraged and it was considered a ‘mistake’ to advance machine guns closer to the enemy than 800m if effective supporting fire could be delivered without so doing. Nevertheless, in common with other armies, the Germans still thought in terms of a war of manoeuvre; thus their regulations contained instructions for such activities as firing upon enemy bivouacs by night.

Another advantage held by the Germans was the specialist nature of their machine-gunners and machine gun officers. American historian Dennis Showalter has pointed out that this effect was enhanced in wartime because the limited numbers of trained machine-gunners meant that there was little interchange of machine gun officers and NCOs between first line and reserve regiments (the reverse being the case with their counterparts in rile companies), therefore ‘an active machine-gun company was likely to take most of its peacetime cadre into the field, with corresponding benefits to morale and stability’. However, before attributing too high a level of preparedness to the Imperial German Army, it would be wise to reflect on what this meant for machine-gunnery in reserve formations, which were expected to fight at the Front and which, in many instances, lacked machine gun companies altogether. This fact, added to the natural wastage of the stock of machine guns that occurred in combat, meant that German divisions in the field were running short of them by the autumn of 1914. Of the eight German divisions primarily involved in the Battle of the Marne (those of III and IX Armeekorps of von Kluck’s First Army and X and X Reserve Armeekorps of von Bölow’s Second Army), only one could deploy its full complement of machine guns (twenty-four). Others fared less well, with one division having only six – the average per division being fifteen. Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham, in their indispensable work Fire Power, assert that each German battalion was furnished with a machine gun company. This is certainly not so, except in the case of Jöger Battalions, which were not grouped in regiments. This fact is not only implicit in the levels of equipment quoted above, but is also proved by the reliable figure we possess for the total number of guns available (quoted in the previous chapter), which simply would not support such a scale of issue. Contemporary Allied observers certainly did credit the Germans with more Maxim guns than they possessed, with estimates of up to 50,000 being bandied about. This might be taken as a sign of the effective use made by the Germans of the guns that they did have, but was also a consequence of the general pre-war tendency to underestimate the potential effect of machine gun firepower.

The situation in the French Army could hardly have been more different. Although the French level of machine gun issue met the two guns per battalion ‘norm’ of the period, their policy was to use only one at a time. This was due to the unreliability of their guns. It was thought better to keep at least one gun firing continuously, rather than risk two failing simultaneously. Naturally, the grouping of guns was not a consideration in this context. The reliability problem was not just a fault of the bizarre mechanism of the St Etienne gun. It was a general failing of air-cooled machine guns. Due to the state of metallurgy at that date, air-cooled guns inevitably began to lose accuracy in sustained fire, due to expansion of the barrel. Tests conducted with Hotchkiss guns revealed that the expansion was such that bullets began to fail to take the riling after three to four minutes of sustained fire. The Colt ‘Potato Digger’ became dangerously hot after 500 rounds had been discharged. Water-cooling, although more cumbersome, was far more efficient.

Such considerations were of marginal interest to most in the French Army of 1914. Their tactical doctrine was one of attack. The infantry assault with the bayonet was to be pressed home as soon as the enemy’s defensive fire had been neutralized. The riles and machine guns of the infantry would play a part in this neutralization phase, but the main work would be done by the artillery – specifically by the 75mm field gun. The French Soixante-Quinze was an excellent weapon, but the reliance that the French placed upon it certainly retarded the development of machine-gunnery in their army. As it turned out, the 75 was found to be vulnerable when brought forward to aid the assault. The Germans had not invested all their hopes in a single weapon system and, although their 77mm field gun could not match the 75, they could engage it in counter-battery fire with the 105mm howitzers with which their infantry divisions were also equipped. Moreover, field guns firing in the open made a tempting target for enemy machine guns.

The situation altered as France was forced onto the defensive. In other armies in 1914 the machine gun came to the fore as the primary source of defensive firepower – indeed the French infantry suffered grievously at the hands of German machine-gunners during the Battle of the Frontiers. How-ever, in the French Army this role was performed with great success by the Soixante-Quinze, which could indeed develop a frightening level of destructive power. A four-gun battery of 75s, firing at a rate of ten rounds per minute (just half of the twenty rounds theoretically possible) could put 10,000 shrapnel balls per minute into an area 100m by 400m. That is to say ten times more projectiles than four machine guns firing at the standard French cadence moyenne of 200–300 rounds per minute. Little wonder that the German soldiers referred to the French gunners, in their dark blue uniforms, as the ‘Black Butchers’.

Thus, for the time being, the machine gun remained a mere adjunct of infantry firepower, although the French field regulations made the following succinct differentiation: ‘The infantry must advance and shoots to advance; the machine gun must shoot and advances to shoot.’ This phrase, agreeably elliptical though it is, cannot mask the fundamental absence of machine gun doctrine in the French Army of 1914.

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