How machine guns can sweep No Man’s Land. Seen from above … in a machine gun tactics book of the Allies, a dozen machine gun emplacements saturate the battlefield with deadly fire.
Machine gun tactics – like other killing methods – were evolving rapidly during the war. Human ingenuity.
Machine gun tactics developed from a base of almost nothing prior to 1900 to a situation in 1914 where the relatively small numbers of weapons available were often capable of an extreme and disproportionate influence in battle. As trench garrisons were thinned out and attacking formations were likewise made less dense and linear, machine guns continued to increase their importance. This was not to say that they were the prime killers of trench warfare – this dubious distinction fell to the artillery – nor that machine guns were equally useful in all circumstances. For whilst, as we have seen, machine guns were pushed well forward into German attacks on trench lines early in the war, for a long time they remained most potent in defence. This was partly a question of the evolution of suitable offensive tactics, but it was also a natural function of the attributes of the standard ‘Model 08’ machine gun, which was heavy, water-cooled, and fired from 250-round cloth belts. The gun itself weighed 22kg, whilst the standard Schlitten or ‘sledge’ mount, a thoroughly stable adjustable platform, added a further 34kg. At least one propaganda picture showed a German soldier carrying the whole paraphernalia, mounted barrel and all, on his broad shoulders, but this was a work of Hercules. The Schlitten was designed with handles for relatively easy carriage by two men, stretcher style, at waist or shoulder height, and when the going got tough on longer distances four men could take a handle each. In the deepest mud the load could be broken down even more, dismounting the gun barrel and hauling this between another two men. Broad leather ‘dragging straps’ helped a little when the load became irksome, hot, or freezing cold.
By itself, however, the gun was useless, and a single filled ammunition belt weighed in at 7kg. Little surprise then that for road transport the guns were either on limbered horse-drawn wagons, or hauled in little hand carts. Since a belt was enough for only a minute or less at rapid fire, or perhaps a maximum of four minutes at the slowest rate of ammunition conservation, many metal boxes of ammunition were needed. The usual allotment on hand for each gun in a six-gun company was 12,000 rounds, or forty-eight belts for each gun – a heap of boxes and cartridges weighing in excess of 2000kg for the group. During a battle the whole lot might be shot away very easily, leaving exhausted gunners and supply troops to replenish the stock from ammunition columns to the rear. On a really bad day this process might have to be repeated more than once, by which time it was likely that casualties would have been incurred. Additional inconveniences included the provision of spare parts, and water to cool the barrel jackets, plus a seventh gun held in reserve in case of emergency or catastrophic failure. For defensive work there were also armoured barrel jackets and gun shields. The heaviest of these weighed about 27kg, but protection had to be balanced against the additional weight. In the event, many guns in the West were used without the large crew shield, but often armoured barrel jackets and abbreviated muzzle shields were retained. For highly accurate long-range work – anything up to 2000 metres – another common piece of kit was the Zielfernrohr 12 optic sight. Interestingly, the actual battle range of the heavy machine gun was limited far more by visibility, terrain, weather, presence of cover, and skill of the gun crew than by the range of the bullet, which was anything up to a theoretical maximum of 4000 metres. The manual Feld-Pioneer Dienst aller Waffen of 1911 illustrated basic designs for open-topped machine gun pits which were roughly the shape of a truncated letter ‘T’ with its base toward the enemy. These could be deep to accommodate standing gunners, or relatively shallow for a seated firer; they might either be dug straight into the ground, or could make use of sandbags. All these designs and variations were replicated on the battlefields of 1914.
The importance placed on machine guns was marked by huge efforts to put more of such weapons in the hands of the troops. Supplementary units were soon raised, and with production of MG 08 machine guns steadily increasing, a second machine gun company was added to regiments as soon as adequate numbers of weapons and trained men became available. Special ‘Marksman’ machine gun units were also raised and deployed to points on the front where there was particular need of their services. Almost 5,000 machine guns had been in the hands of the German army at the outbreak of war, but by 1916 a further 10,000 guns had been produced by the plant at Spandau, with several thousand more now coming from the DWM Berlin factory. Thereafter, production figures would rise ever more steeply until the total numbers of MG 08 guns made by November 1918 reached about 72,000 – roughly two thirds from DWM and the remainder from Spandau.
By 1916 experience had advanced to the point where fresh directives on the use of the MG 08 in trench warfare could be issued. One of the most important of these was the document Regulations for Machine Gun Officers and Non Commissioned Officers. This paper made clear that effective concealment was highly important: emplacements were to be so constructed as to avoid telltale heaps of earth as well as to ‘cover the whole of the proscribed field of fire’. Usually, there would be two alternative positions nearby having much the same field of fire. No less than sixteen full boxes of ammunition were to be kept by the gun (4000 rounds), and when a box was expended it was to be replaced immediately from the belt store. During the day the machine gun was to be kept in a dugout, but by the steps ready to move; at night it would stand loaded and ready to fire in its emplacement. Three spare barrels were also to be kept near each gun, as was plenty of water in buckets and a butt for each gun. Protection of the gun and crew were critical, and for close defence six hand grenades were to be kept nearby. One armed sentry was to be posted by day, two by night, each having the use of a periscope.
In the event of ‘sighting a particularly favourable target’ or a surprise attack, the gun was to open fire immediately. Usually, the crew would check if friendly troops were out to the front before commencing fire, but this nicety would be dispensed with if the enemy attacked, not firing being more dangerous than the obvious risk to one’s own men. Where possible, an immediate situation report was to be made to both the platoon commander and the sector machine gun officer. To make rapid and accurate firing possible, likely targets within the zone would be registered, and a range card made for easy adjustment of fire. ‘Daily fire’ could also be organised by the company commander, indicating in advance the targets to be engaged and the number of rounds to be fired.
Machine guns were relied upon more and more as a cornerstone of the defensive battle alongside artillery, rifles and grenades. The crucial thing was that they should be able to survive artillery bombardment, preferably in dugouts, and then be quickly deployed to firing positions on the surface. As eye witness Matthaus Gerster would record of the first day on the Somme, in Die Schwaben an der Ancre (The Schwabians on the Ancre):
Looking towards the British trenches through the long trench periscopes held up out of the dugout entrances there could be seen a mass of steel helmets above the parapet showing that the storm troops were ready for the assault. At 7.30 am the hurricane of shells ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Our men at once clambered up the steep shafts leading from the dugouts to daylight and ran singly or in groups to the nearest shell craters. The machine guns were pulled out of the dugouts and hurriedly placed in position, their crews dragging the heavy ammunition boxes up the steps and out to the guns. A rough firing line was thus rapidly established. As soon as the men were in position, a series of extended lines of infantry were seen moving forward from the British trenches. The first line appeared to continue without without end to right and left. It was quickly followed by a second, then a third and fourth. They came on at a steady easy pace as if expecting to find nothing alive in our front trenches … The front line, preceded by a thin line of skirmishers and bombers, was now half way across No Man’s Land. ‘Get ready’ was passed along our front line from crater to crater, and heads appeared over the crater edges as final positions were taken up for the best view, and machine guns mounted firmly in place. A few minutes later, when the leading British line was within a hundred yards, the rattle of machine gun and rifle broke out along the whole line of shell holes. Some fired kneeling so as to get a better target over the broken ground, whilst others, in the excitement of the moment, stood up regardless of their own safety, to fire into the crowd of men in front of them. Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines. Whole sections seemed to fall, and the rear formations moving in close order, quickly scattered. The advance rapidly crumbled under this hail of shells and bullets. All along the line men could be seen throwing up their arms and collapsing, never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others, less severely injured, crawled to the nearest shell hole for shelter … the extended lines, though badly shaken and with many gaps, now came on all the faster. Instead of a leisurely walk they covered the ground in short rushes at the double. Within a few minutes the leading troops had advanced within a stone’s throw of our front trench, and while some of us continued to fire at point blank range, others threw hand grenades among them. The British bombers answered back, whilst the infantry rushed forward with fixed bayonets. The noise of the battle became indescribable. The shouting of orders and the shrill cheers as the British charged forward could be heard above the violent and intense fusillade of machine guns and rifles and bursting bombs, and above the deep thunderings of the artillery and shell explosions.
As orders of 6th Bavarian Division observed, the Somme showed the ‘decisive value’ of machine guns in defence, and the more the enemy bombarded the German trenches before attacking, ‘the greater the extent to which we must rely on the employment of machine guns.’ However, machine guns would only frustrate an attack if they could be kept in serviceable condition, and then ‘brought up into the firing position in time’. This could now only be achieved if the majority of the machine guns was kept out of the front two lines trenches, as otherwise there was no certainty that the enemy’s assault would be seen in time. Locating the emplacements behind the second, or even the third, line of trenches also put them in places where they were considerably less effected by methodical barrages. The individual fire positions were to be such that they flanked the trench systems, or provided wide fields of fire. A proportion of weapons were best kept well behind the trenches altogether, in covered deep pits, platforms in trees, hedges, or even out in the open provided the enemy could not register them before making an advance.
It was well appreciated that the great weight of a machine gun and its ammunition was a serious impediment, making it difficult to get the pieces out of secure dugouts and hiding places and quickly into firing positions. Accordingly, there were experiments with, and production of, expedient ‘trench mounts’ during 1915. These were in widespread use by 1916. They might incorporate a pivot on a wooden board, or a small, pronged stand which could achieve some stability when pressed into the soil. They were not, however, more than a temporary answer, and not calculated to produce very accurate fire. Moreover, since the gun barrel and jacket were retained along with the trailing belt, neither were they a completely effective solution to the weight problem.
Though German machine guns were rightly feared, in one vital aspect the development of German weapons and tactics lagged well behind what the British had pioneered as early as the end of 1914: the true ‘light’ machine gun. The American-designed Lewis gun, at first designated as an ‘automatic rifle’ had been tested even before the outbreak of war. By November 1914 an experimental handful had made their way to the front, being seen initially as stop-gap supplements to the inadequate numbers of ‘heavy’, tripod-mounted Vickers and Maxim guns on hand. Yet it was quickly realised that a lighter version of the machine gun that was air cooled and had a magazine attached rather than using trailing belts, offered far greater tactical flexibility. It could be carried by one man, set up in seconds, and work its way into positions otherwise impractical with large tripods and water canisters. Whilst in simple terms its raw firepower, range and accuracy were all inferior to the MG 08 or Vickers – points all amply noted by contemporaries – it opened up new possibilities for infantry tactics and organisation that were scarcely dreamed of prior to the war. Initially, both ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ machine guns coexisted within the British infantry battalions, but by 1916, with large numbers of Lewis guns now issued to the infantry, heavier weapons were withdrawn and grouped into companies and battalions of the new Machine Gun Corps. Within an infantry platoon a light machine gun could now operate as a mobile firebase, and a variety of tactics using grenades, rifles, bayonets and rifle grenades as a complementary group of weapons with different characteristics could begin to develop.