The Great British Machine Gun Controversy

The Vickers was used for indirect fire against enemy positions at ranges up to 4,500 yards (4,115 m) with Mark VIIIz ammunition. This plunging fire was used to great effect against road junctions, trench systems, forming up points, and other locations that might be observed by a forward observer, or zeroed in at one time for future attacks, or guessed at by men using maps and experience. Sometimes a location might be zeroed in during the day, and then attacked at night, much to the surprise and confusion of the enemy. New Zealand units were especially fond of this use. A white disc would be set up on a pole near the MMG, and the gunner would aim at a mark on it, knowing that this corresponded to aiming at the distant target. There was a special back-sight with a tall extension on it for this purpose. The only similar weapon of the time to use indirect fire was the German MG 08, which had a separate attachment sight with range calculator.

As the Armistice of 11 November 1918 brought an end to the most destructive war that the world had yet known, all parties had come to accept that machine guns constituted the indispensable core of infantry firepower. Nevertheless, in the British and Dominion armies controversy reigned with regard to the correct methods by which to apply it. The infantry had never quite become reconciled to their loss of control of the Vickers gun and, while many officers appreciated the support of machine gun barrages, others felt that the firepower was more effective if aimed directly by guns in close support of their own men. Meanwhile there were some in the artillery – the arm which had risen to a position of vast power and influence during the course of the war – who resented the activities of the ‘Little Gunners’ and went out of their way to dismiss them as ineffective.

The apparent difficulty of assessing the effects of indirect machine gun fire formed a major element of this inter-corps controversy. Unlike artillery fire, it could not be observed from the air, nor did it send plumes of earth and smoke into the air when it struck home. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, it was frequently possible to observe the strike of machine gun fire, even in the thick of battle. Early in the war the German expert von Merkatz had written that:

While before the war, I was of the opinion that the machine-gun sheaf [i.e. cone of fire] would often disappear in the volume of the infantry sheaf and of striking shrapnel so that it could not be observed, this was not substantiated in the war. The machinegun sheaves could generally be recognized even in the most intense firing of our own troops. In battle, the difficulty of observation lies not so much in the visibility of the striking projectiles as in the invisibility of the targets.

The British pamphlet SS201 made specific reference to the fact that the bullet strikes of a machine gun barrage fired at Shrewsbury Forest in the Ypres Salient on 20 September 1917 were clearly visible. This event occurred during a dry period; mud obviously made observation more difficult.

This fact did nothing to quiet the debate which raged about indirect fire. The reluctance of many regimental officers to acknowledge the effectiveness of barrages is clear from Dunn’s comments regarding bullets being wasted on patches of ground and his jibe about ‘the jawbone of an ass’. Nonetheless, his diary is actually unusual in alluding to the support provided machine gun barrages at all – they seldom receive a mention in regimental histories or infantry battalion war diaries. Even among the advanced thinkers of the Canadian Corps a simmering row persisted regarding the effectiveness of unobserved machine gun fire: the chief antagonists being Brutinel and the Corps artillery commander Andrew McNaughton.

The proponents of the machine gun barrage were swift to counter this scepticism with reports from prisoners regarding the effectiveness of the barrages which they had to endure. These reports were evidently plentiful, although it should be remembered that newly captured men are generally inclined to tell their captors whatever they think they wish to hear. It is interesting to note that, in the wake of the Canadian barrage fired at Mont Huoy, near Valenciennes on 2 November 1918, McNaughton compiled his own report from prisoner interviews, which suggested that the artillery, rather than the machine guns, had provided the most effective element ofthe barrage. This survey is however put into perspective if we take into account the fact that, such were the material resources of the Allies at this time, McNaughton was able to deluge the German positions with over 2,000 tons of shells – roughly equivalent to the quantity expended during the entire Boer War!

Another brilliant artillerist, Sir Herbert Uniacke, gave a very curious appraisal of British machine-gunnery, which is quoted by his fellow gunners Bidwell and Graham:

In the first place the Germans in 1918 provided their own machine gun barrage from their forward troops which was successful. Yet our own counterattacks were very often stopped by counter machine-gun fire. The whole machine gun question needs to be closely examined to discover wherein our inferiority lies, whether in the number of guns employed, the training of the companies, the technical and tactical training of the officers, or any other cause. The matter is very important; it has been our chief weakness throughout the war.

This outburst is of interest less for the quality of its forensic rhetoric than for what it tells us of writer’s perception of his subject matter. Nobody would dispute the effectiveness of German machine gun fire. However, Uniacke might have reflected that the neutralization of this fire was not the chief role of the MGC, but rather the preserve of Lewis gun and rifle grenade teams, trench mortars and, ultimately, the field-gunners of his own corps. His complaint also betrays an ignorance of barrage fire in the sense that officers of the MGC would have understood it. Unfortunately this is a typical example of the compartmentalized thinking which, despite all the technical and tactical progress, still prevailed in the British Army at the close of the war. Reference has already been made to a contrasting parallel, in the form of Hutchinson’s ignorance of tactical training for Lewis guns. This compartmentalization was a symptom of unfortunate traits which lay deeply embedded in the psyche of the British Army. Tim Travers has alluded to the ‘Hidden internal war’, which ‘pitted the power of prewar ideas and the power of the prewar army structure [emphasis added], against the encroaching reality of a ‘‘modern’’ technological war’. A French interpreter who worked with the BEF for three years gave an interesting outsider’s view: ‘The British army has improved a lot, but yet there is still much to improve. An Englishman is not prepared to learn from another, and only wants to learn through his own experience, and hence many thousands of lives and lots of money are wasted and precious time is lost.’

Any impartial reading of the available evidence must surely lead to an acceptance of the effectiveness of the techniques developed by the MGC – although we might stop short of Colonel Luxford’s opinion that ‘The British machine gun, its uses and its tactics developed wonderfully, and completely overshadowed the German machine guns from June, 1917, until the end of the war.’ Whether in grand set-piece battles or in the course of the victorious advances of the ‘Hundred Days’ the MG barrage reigned supreme, and it was generally fired with considerable effect. However this assessment is the result of ex post facto analysis. In the heat of battle the contribution of the MGC must have been difficult for others to perceive – be they the eighteen-year-old conscript advancing into the attack, or the Brigadier General Royal Artillery at divisional HQ. In 1918 British infantry might expect to have the support of an artillery creeping barrage, smoke shells and, possibly, tanks and ground-attack aircraft. All of these are far more noticeable on the battlefield than a machine gun barrage. Herein might lie another key to failure of the Army as a whole to embrace the concept of a specialist corps of machine-gunners. The inability of the MGC to gain universal acceptance of its techniques and their efficacy was to cost it dear.

In 1918, the future of the MGC and the continued organization of machine guns into battalion-sized formations were by no means taken for granted. A survey was conducted by the committee charged with planning the post-bellum army, which asked a number of questions regarding machine gun organization. Copies of George Lindsay’s answers to Papers ‘E: Machine Guns with a Division’ and ‘K: Corps and Army Machine Guns’, are preserved. Not surprisingly this most enthusiastic of machine-gunners took the opportunity to go further than the contemporary status quo, and recommend that MG battalions be expanded to comprise ninety-six guns, and that extra battalions should be available at Corps and Army level. Evidently the majority of officers did not share his vision and, most importantly, neither did those in charge at the War Office for, in 1922, the MGC was disbanded. The Corps’ memorial to its 12,498 wartime dead stands at Hyde Park Corner. It is a statue of the Boy David, and the biblical quotation on its plinth makes not only grim reference to the wartime effectiveness of the MGC, but also hints at how members of the Corps envisaged themselves within the hierarchy of the Army: ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.’

The circumstances of the MGC’s disappearance from the British Army’s order of battle are curious, particularly when compared with the anguish which has invariably accompanied the disbandment or amalgamation of county regiments (themselves, as Gary She field likes to point out, akin to the ‘traditional’ Christmas – merely an invention of the late nineteenth century). The dispersal of the MGC’s officers to other units meant that no proper history of the corps was ever written. The Corps’ mess silver was melted down to make a font for the Royal Memorial Chapel at Sandhurst. The fact that the MGC’s history was erased in this manner has caused dark suggestions to be made about the role which inter-corps rivalry might have played in the decision. The main impetus behind the disbandment of the MGC was undoubtedly financial, but was there malice in the decision to let the axe fall on this new Corps? This might be difficult to prove and circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise. It was hardly unknown in the inter-war British Army for decisions on organization and equipment to default back to the status quo ante bellum. Furthermore, with the Army returning to its pre-war role as a sort of colonial gendarmerie, and with no European war imminent, the War Office can perhaps be forgiven for seeing no vital role for a separate corps of machine-gunners. When the time came for massed Vickers guns to open fire once more, the face of warfare itself had changed.