War Machine, Volume 9

light Machine-Gun Tactics 1915-1918 T The first machine-guns were not the most mobile of weapons, being emplaced in battle rather like pieces of artillery. It did not take long for the troops on the Western Front to appreciate how effective a machine-gun could be advancing with them intobattle andso the light machine-gun wasborn. When World War I started the light machine-gun was virtually unknown. Belgian troops did carry into action a number of Lewis Guns but these were used at that time inexactly the same way as conventional heavy machine-guns i.e. they were carefully emplaced before an action and used to provide supporting or covering fire. As the troops moved forward into an attack the machine-guns stayed where they were being considered too heavy to be carried forward. This was unfortunate for in the Lewis Gun the Belgians had an excellent infantry weapon that was quite capable of taking on anew role. This n§w role was indicated during 1915 when the first of the setpiece attacks along the German lines began with their massive artillery overtures and the subsequent confusion and carnage when the planned infantry attacks stalled either on the barbed wire orin front of emplaced heavy machine-guns. At times like these there was noway in which the infantry could get themselves out of their predicament. Using their rifles alone they could rarely produce enough firepow­er to make an enemy machine-gunner keep his head down and there was noway that artillery or machine-gun support could be called upon for radio was in its infancy and telephone wires were soon cut. For this reason all artillery and machine-gun fire plan support had to be prepared beforehand using rigid fire plans on a timetable basis. If an enemy machine-gun intervened there was noway any supporting fire could be diverted from the fire plan and the 'poor bloody infantry' thus had to suffer. Fire support But by the end of 1915 the first inklings of how supporting machine-gun fire could be produced to counter this problem had been suggested by a few forward-looking officers. It was 1916 before their ideas came to the hardware stage: the overall solution to the crossing of no man's land was of course the tank but an interim solution was found with the service introduction of the Lewis Gun. This had been adopted by the British army for economic rather than tactical reasons: the expanding British armies clearly had to be equipped with machine-guns and it was found that five or six Lewis Guns could be churned out in the time that it took to produce one of the heavier and more complex Vickers machine-guns. Initially there were four Lewis Guns to a battalion to replace the Vickers machine-guns that had been passed to the newly-formed Machine Gun Corps. By mid-1916 this allotment had been increased to eight and a month later a further four were added. By the end of 1916 there was one Lewis Gun to every four platoons and by the end of the war every two platoons shared one Lewis Gun. By that time there were even four Lewis Guns in every battalion dedicated to the anti-aircraft defence role. This rapid growth in numbers was pushed through by a realization that in the Lewis Gun the long-suffering infantry battalions could have their own local fire support weapons. No longer did the infantry have to rely upon Vickers machine-guns emplaced away to the rear for local fire support. If a target presented itself the Lewis gunners operating upright in the front lines with the first waves of infantry were on the spot to throw themselves down and open fire right away. In this way isolated pockets of resistance left behind by the artillery bombardment could be overcome as quickly as possible. Some units even devised a drill whereby the Lewis Guns were moved forward by tw omen in the first wave of attackers One man held the Lewis Gun by looping his arms around the barrel. The other man fired the gun at anything that presented itself. In this manner the gun could be fired without the gunner having to adopt the prone position and fire could also be opened up all the more rapidly. But these tactics were not universal. Despite the firepower potential of the Lewis Gun the men that used it were just as vulnerable to enemy fire as the rest and all too often the Lewis gunners were among the first to be picked off by the carefully-emplaced defenders. In time the infantry tactics changed: they had to for men were simply notable to walk through a hail of enemy fire to carryout an attack. Instead of proceeding forward in a sedate manner the infantry instead adopted a method whereby small sections of men rushed forward one after the other. As each section moved forward the other sections provided covering fire over the trench system being attacked. The French adopted this method after suffering from its effects when it was used by the Germans at Verdun in 1916. French infantry operate in theVosges mountains with the unfortunate soul in the foreground carrying a Hotchkiss m le l 900 on his back others would have to carry the tripod and the boxes of ammunition strips. Note tha tall have rifles or carbines to carry as well while most carry their packs. Above: This Indian cavalryman is seen ashe would have been on the Western Front during 1914-5. The Lewis Gun was ideal for use with cavalry as it was relatively light. Left: The German M G 08/15 was an air-cooled machine-gun developed from experience gained during World War I. Designed by Rheinmetall it had an ‘all-in-line’ layout and a novel form of locking mechanism. 1924
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