At the start of World War One in 1914, just two machine guns were held in each battalion, either a Vickers Mk 1 or a Maxim model, each operated by a small section of six men, led by a sergeant or corporal, with just one Junior Officer as overseer. By February 1915 the number of guns per Battalion had already doubled and, according to ‘The Great War Handbook’ by Geoff Bridger, by the end of the war not only would a separate Machine Gun Corps have been created, but that corps would consist of 70 Battalions, each with 64 machine guns and with a Lieutenant Colonel in charge, and with a total strength of 124,000 men.
All this expansion was due to a realisation of the devastation that this weapon could cause if used skilfully, as in the First Battle of Ypres, from which less than half of the 160,000-strong British Expeditionary force emerged unscathed. Something had to be done. Hastily, a specialist machine gun training school was put in place in France, along with a training centre in England. The machine guns were withdrawn from Battalions, and instead became the responsibility of each Brigade. Each Division would be made up of three specialist machine gun companies, one from each Brigade (and taking the ID number of that Brigade), in theory along with a fourth reserve company, although in practice there weren’t enough guns to implement these reserve companies until 1917. The soldiers in the Corps would wear a new cap badge of crossed Vickers guns. In 1918 the format changed again, as the four companies in each Division were merged to form a Machine Gun Battalion.
The Vickers guns would now be operated only by Machine Gun Corps, while the Infantry Battalions would now be armed with lighter Lewis machine guns. Both were .303 calibre weapons, but, as Mark Admin explains in his ‘The Western Front Companion’, that was where the resemblance ended. The Vickers gun was a big heavy thing weighing 42lb, which had to be paired with a 48lb tripod, not to mention a magazine of 250 rounds weighing a further 22lb. The Lewis gun, meanwhile, weighed just 28lb, and while it should still be drawn by a horse and cart, one man could carry it if necessary. It could also be fired from a sling on a shoulder or hip. The Vickers was water-cooled and belt-fed, and fired at a rate of 450-550 rounds per minute, while the Lewis air-cooled and fully automatic and fired 500-600 rounds per minute. Then again, the Vickers gun had a maximum range of 3,500 yards and the attack could be sustained for up to half an hour. The Lewis gun, meanwhile, held just 42 rounds to the Vickers’ 250, and could fire at a maximum range of 600 yards. It was best fired in short aimed bursts, not continuously, or it would run out of ammunition within just a couple of minutes. Weighing the two up, despite some obvious drawbacks, the Vickers gun was more reliable and effective.
Most of the Machine Gun Corps fought in support of the Infantry, but some were assigned to travel along with the Cavalry in their anticipated rushes at (or ideally through) the Axis Front Line. The Motor Machine Gun branch fitted for this job was mobile, since the guns were mounted on side cars and armoured vehicles; it was this branch that would eventually be christened ‘Heavy Branch’, and when tanks came along morphed into the Tank Corps (known today as the Royal Tank Regiment).
The MGC soldiers were extremely good at what they did, and they had to be very brave. The problem with the big fixed Vickers guns was that, being hard to transport, they usually remained stationary in a given battle, and could therefore be easily located. They were noisy and very lethal, so the enemy forces would of course zero in on them as an early and primary target, to be eliminated at all costs. ‘The Western Front Companion’ says that, of 170,500 soldiers who served in MGC in World War One, 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing by the end.
However, they were very good at standing their ground against seemingly insurmountable odds, and seven men from the Corps were awarded the Victoria Cross. You can read more about their heroic deeds at the website of the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades’ Association: http://www.machineguncorps.co.uk/heroes.html. The Corps was downsized at the end of the Great War, and well before the start of the Second World War, in 1922, was disbanded as a cost-cutting measure. Its history is not long, but it is certainly a distinguished one.