WWI Machine Gun Tactics II


An air-cooled and thus water-free and lighter version of the MG 08/15, designated as the MG 08/18, was battlefield tested in small numbers during the last months of the war. The MG 08/18’s barrel was heavier and it could not be quick-changed, thus overheating was inevitably a problem.

Many German commanders would have liked to have tried similar things at an early stage, but for most it was not to be. So it was that whilst the Battle of the Somme inflicted massive casualties on the attackers, the impact of the light machine gun was noted with considerable trepidation and envy by German commanders. As General von Stein, commander of XIV Reserve Corps, in charge of the front between Monchy and the Somme reported to First Army headquarters:

The attack on the 1st July was well prepared, and the [British] infantry was splendidly equipped with all kinds of weapons for close combat. It was provided with large numbers of Lewis guns which were brought into action very quickly and skilfully in newly captured positions. It is very desirable that our infantry should be equipped with a large number of light machine guns of this description in order to increase the intensity of its fire.

A few months later German IV Corps was commenting on the way that British infantry had learned much since the autumn of 1915, specifically that ‘The English infantry showed great tenacity in defence. This was especially noticeable in the case of small parties, which, once established with machine guns in the corner of a wood or a group of houses, were very difficult to drive out’. One way to counter these developments would be to increase the numbers of German guns, preferably to thirty or more per regiment. Tactically, it might then be possible to secure thinly held lines by ‘placing supports (infantry and machine guns) distributed in groups according to the ground, as close as possible behind the foremost front line’. As regards specific designs of guns and mounts, the following suggestion was made:

Machine guns usually have to be brought up over open ground under a heavy barrage. The great weight of the gun has again proved to be a serious disadvantage under these conditions. Even if the gun is dismounted, it is very difficult to drag up the heavy sledge over ground which is under fire. All regiments are unanimous in recommending the introduction of a lighter form of gun carriage, modelled on that of the improvised gun carriage used by machine gun marksman sections. One regiment has obtained good results with a gun carriage of its own invention, which is even lighter.

Design and production problems ensured that no quick answer was forthcoming. A few light machine guns had been obtained relatively quickly, and these were predominantly of three types: the Danish-designed Madsen, the home-grown Bergmann and some captured Lewis guns. The small numbers and disparate models used did not help, nor were the early tactics devised particularly advanced. The few Madsen-equipped Musketen units, for example, are recorded as being used essentially in a ‘back stop’ defensive role during the Battle of the Somme – the four-man gun teams being deployed just behind the front line to cover vulnerable gaps.

The ideal answer would have been a home-designed and produced true light machine gun that took the Lewis and other Allied and Central Powers weapons as a starting point and improved upon them in such a way as to make a highly portable arm to supplement the long-range heavy machine guns. This did not happen for a number of reasons. For one thing there was a fear that a truly new and effective design would take too long to produce, for another there were worries that it was difficult enough to train sufficient men on one type of gun without introducing something radical and untried in the midst of war. Therefore, the gun which was produced played safe, but still took time to get into the hands of the troops. The MG 08/15, as its name suggests, was first conceived in 1915, and was essentially a lighter variant of the old heavy MG 08. It retained the basic Maxim mechanism and a slightly smaller water jacket, but added a shoulder stock and small bipod. The whole outfit was still 20kg with the water jacket filled – or almost fifty per cent heavier than the Lewis gun.

Though eventually produced in large numbers by seven manufacturers, the MG 08/15 reached the troops only gradually. About 2,000 were made by the end of 1916, less than 50,000 during 1917, and the vast majority (over 80,000) were made during the last year of war. This cannot but have hindered the development of small-unit tactics, since the British, by comparison, had enough Lewis guns to begin the evolution of platoon action based around light machine guns as early as 1916. The total number of Lewis guns may eventually have been roughly the same as the total number of MG 08/15s produced, but British production was running roughly a calendar year ahead of German, with 25,000 made before 1916 was out. Elementary distinctions between the tactical roles of ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ machine guns were determined by the British early in 1916, with the manual The Tactical Employment of Machine Guns and Lewis Guns appearing in March. The widespread adoption of ‘Lewis gun sections’ within platoons in 1917 was formalised by February of that year with the Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action.

Ludendorff was clearly frustrated by the slow tactical progress made with German light machine guns, as he later explained in his memoirs:

In the infantry company the light machine gun had to become accepted as a normal part of the unit. It was still viewed as a weapon ancillary to the infantry. The fact that the light MG is itself part of the infantry and the infantry carry the gun had not yet penetrated into the marrow of the infantry, never mind the army. The light MG, because of its firepower, was and had to become the main component of the infantry’s firepower in combat … Light machine gun and gun carrier formed groups of infantry marksmen who, if danger arose, if the fighting was a matter of life and death, had to hold together…

This statement was, however, at least slightly disingenuous for two reasons. Firstly, the infantry had very few light machine guns except what they could capture from the enemy until early 1917. It was not, therefore, reasonable to assume that they would absorb every tactical nuance as quickly as troops that had been armed with similar, or better, weapons for many months. Secondly, as First Quarter Master and most senior figure next to Hindenburg, it can reasonably be suggested that deficiencies in this department were at least partly Ludendorff’s own responsibility.

So it was that although German light machine gun experiments and theory, as developed through the Stormtroops and other small units, may have been almost as well advanced as the enemy, practical implementation ran far behind and was made worse by the fact that the German front was inevitably much longer than that covered by the British. The result was that at first there were only two MG 08/15s per infantry company, with a goal of three set for February 1917. Initially, these were pooled together within the fourth platoon of the company. By the end of 1917 some companies on the Western Front could boast as many as six light machine guns, but in the East one or two remained the norm long afterwards. Only in January 1918 were there enough light machine guns to have a minimum of four per company, making it possible to fully equip the assault units deployed in the Spring Offensive. Now each platoon could have at least one light machine gun squad of eight men, with four gunners and ammunition carriers and four riflemen supporting them. This allowed infantry tactics universally based upon platoons made up of different types of Gruppe or squad, with each platoon having the fully effective integral fire support of a machine gun. In some instances, where there were enough machine weapons, a Gruppe even operated as a mix, having a four-man machine gun section combined with a larger number of riflemen. These fully integrated squads were known as Einheitsgruppen, being ‘uniform’, ‘single’ or ‘standard’ squads.

During 1918 the different types of squad were put together in various proportions to create platoons with the flexibility required for the task in hand. A good example of how this was achieved is furnished by the elite Bavarian Leib Regiment. In its Kampfzugen, or ‘battle platoons’, there were two Einheitsgruppen and an assault squad or Stossgruppe. In the ordinary or ‘line’ platoons there were four squads: two light machine gun, and two rifle. There were also ‘expansion’ platoons consisting essentially of a reserve of men, and specialist squads for the grenade launcher and reconnaissance. After the war, as the army was boiled down to its irreducible minimum, there would be greater uniformity and a generalised use of the mixed Einheitsgruppen as genuinely standard units. So it is that Bodo Zimmermann’s inter-war manual Die Soldatenfibel shows fourteen-man Gruppe comprising two Truppe, or sub section ‘troops’, one being the LMG Trupp of four men, the other the Schutzentrupp, or rifle troop of nine, the whole being led by a Gruppenfuhrer, or squad leader.

The clear distinction now drawn between the roles of the ‘heavy’ and the ‘light’ machine guns was well illustrated by the ‘Machine Gunner’s Catechism’ captured from a prisoner of the 2nd Machine Gun Company of the 13th Wesphalian infantry regiment, by the French early in 1918. This simple ‘question and answer’ style document was apparently intended as a simple aide-mémoire of tactical battle tips for troops. According to this, the purpose of the ‘heavy’ MG 08 was to be the weapon of the Zwischenfeld, literally the ‘mid-field’ or intermediate zone. Set up in reserve positions, supporting points and machine gun nests, and provided with dugouts and camouflage, its job was to act as a stop against any enemy penetrating through the first line so as to threaten German artillery. Given alternative positions, and guarded by a sentry to prevent it being taken by surprise, it was best located for flanking fire. It could similarly be used over obstacles, and against aircraft and tanks. It could also shoot over advancing friendly infantry, provided that there was at least five metres of overhead clearance.

For particular fire missions, heavy machine gun special tasks might include harassing fire and barrage fire. In the harassing role during daylight, it could be aimed ‘upon the most frequented routes’, and single shots used to discomfit anyone attempting movement. The weapon might also then be locked into position to cover the roads with bursts of fire at opportune moments. Barrages fired by groups of guns could be shot at long range to saturate particular target areas. Again, the objective might be as much to deny an area to the enemy as to destroy a designated target. By contrast, the ‘light’ machine gun was seen only as a front-line piece, to be ‘par excellence … a weapon of defence against assault in the infantry lines’. Its usual position was loaded ready to fire in a dugout. From here it could also be carried forward into the attack. The first duty of its ‘No 1’ crewman, having reached the enemy trench was to ‘make sure of a good field of fire, so as to be able to annihilate the enemy with his fire when the counter-attack is made’. Unlike its heavier cousin, the light machine gun was to limit its shooting to ‘well-placed and visible’ targets.

Useful as the MG 08/15 proved to be in finally liberating squads to act under their own covering fire, German commanders, including Ludendorff, were aware that it was not as light or handy as comparable US or British weapons. To this end, a new ‘light’ machine gun was under development at the end of hostilities. This was the Erfurt-made 08/18 which married up the familiar Maxim mechanism with a lighter air-cooled barrel. The new gun reached production stage, but it is unclear what, if any, combat they saw before the war ended.

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