from ‘The War Illustrated’, 5th October, 1918
'Value of the Little Gunners'
by Hamilton Fyfe


Men and Cities of the War

two coverpages with illustrations of British machine-gun teams


Carried his gun fifteen miles. Wouldn't have parted with it so long as life was left in him. And the first thing he did when he was able to settle down quietly was to. start cleaning the blessed gun."

"And how much does a machine-gun weigh ?"

"Twenty-eight pounds. Quite enough to carry on your shoulder for five miles, let alone fifteen."

That was a scrap of conversation between a Machine Gun Corps officer and a recent visitor to the front. The visitor had not known that the machine-gunners had a corps of their own, though it has existed for a long time now. He was shown their carts in which the guns and stands are carried. He heard how there had arisen already a tradition and a fine spirit of comradeship among the "little gunners."

He saw something of the training they are put through, and he went back to England with a very high opinion of the corps.

If he had been out during the March and April lighting he would have had every opportunity to judge for himself of their "stoutness," to use the word which is so much used by the Army to denote the qualities of a good soldier. He would have seen them delaying the German advance, refusing to leave their positions until the enemy were "right on top of them." He would have heard numberless tales of their courage and skill which, in very many places, gave the infantry time to withdraw to lines on which they could put up further resistance.

A Prediction Fulfilled

I do not look back upon what I have written during this war with any feeling of pride. It would be indecent to harbour such a feeling even if one had reason for patting oneself on the back. When men are dying and being broken by the thousand, any self- congratulation upon one's futile efforts to describe their sacrifice would be as hateful as

To peep and botanise Upon a mother's grave.

But there is one prediction which I recall sometimes with complacence. I wrote in the second month of the struggle : "This is going to be a machine-gun war," and I urged the necessity of supplying our troops with all the weapons of this kind possible. It was a long time before they had enough, but eventually the automatic bullet-discharger became our most effective means both of attack and of defence, and since then the importance of the machine-gun has even further developed. To it was due, in large part, German success in the March offensive, and to it we owed more than to any other factor our success in bringing the enemy's rushes to a standstill.

At first the regular machine-gun, the mitrailleuse, as it was named upon its first appearance during the Franco Prussian War (from the French word mitraille, meaning grape-shot), or the Vickers-Maxim, as we called it in South Africa, was supplied to the infantry.

But the formation of a special-force was seen from the beginning to be only a question of time.

Now the infantry use the Lewis gun, which can either be fired from the shoulder or placed on a stand. The machine-gun, mounted on a tripod, and firing from a belt of cartridges, is the weapon of the Machine Gun Corps.

The tribute of which the corps is most proud came from a German soldier. This man wrote a letter, to a friend in Germany, which fell into our hands. In this he said :

"How the battle is going I would rather not say, but I will tell you that the English are tough opponents, and they give us an extremely bad time with their machine-guns."

M.G.'s Hold Henin Hill

One of the most spectacular exploits of the machine-gunners was the holding of Henin Hill during the Battle of Ajras at the end of March, that battle in which the enemy's hopes were so crushingly disappointed. All day the crews of five guns kept the German forces back in order to give the infantry time to reorganise.

At that moment time was of the utmost value to us. The enemy tried to storm the hill. They did their best to shell our men off it. Every time they advanced they were met with streams of bullets. After every fierce bombardment our tap-tap-tap began again. Not until evening did this magnificent defence yield.

The most characteristic sound of the battle of to-day is this quick tap-tap-tap-tap-tap of the Vickers' gun. It is more alarming than the noise of artillery. It is so insistent. It seems to say, "I am looking for you — yes, for you, you, you."

The roar of the heavies and the field-guns may go on for hours without attracting more than languid attention from those who are not actually under fire. As soon as the machine-guns start chattering the atmosphere becomes more tense. One knows that the troops have come to closer quarters, that the infantry action will soon begin.

"Trickling" Through

The way machine-gunners are used in an advance, such as that of the Germans last spring, is this : They are sent forward to "trickle" in among the enemy; to sound his line for weak spots ; to make little gaps which are immediately signalled back and into which more troops can be pushed if the command thinks fit. For defence they are in "nests" ; that is to say, prepared positions from which they can obtain a good field of fire in the direction of the enemy's probable advance.

The Germans did not expect our machine-gunners to cause them such heavy casualties as they suffered in the early days of the offensive. They were obliged to change their tactics in consequence of these losses. That is another tribute to their effectiveness with which the officers and men of our Machine Gun Corps are, and have a right to be, thoroughly satisfied. They were not so pleased with General Ludendorff's discovery that "the proper way to fight machine-guns is with field-gems and trench-mortars." This brought upon them, whenever their nests could be accurately located, a most unpleasant shower of shells and "mines."

In some cases the gunners and their guns were buried more than once by explosions, and they had to dig themselves and their guns out in order — what do you suppose ? To retire ? Not a bit of it. To start their guns again. In the Battle of the Lys they held their ground while the Germans were within bombing distance of them, fifty yards or so. They had bombs, too, and used them to good purpose. Now and then parties of the enemy would work round on to the flanks of the guns. Then, while the gunners went on winding off their cart ridge-belts, their comrades did their best and for a long time were able to keep the Germans off with their revolvers and with hand-grenades.

One of the finest feats of the machine-gunners was the complete check they inflicted upon the enemy in the neighbourhood of Kemmel on April 30th. Our troops were then on one side of the little stream called the Kemmel Brook, with the Germans on the other side. Each had a high bank ; down in the hollow the brook ran between them.

In the German bank were a number of Nissen huts which we had left there, very simple round-backed structures made of "iron roofing." The enemy's idea was to gather his attacking force in these huts, then rush them down the bank and up on our side. The machine-gunners spoilt that scheme. Every time the Germans showed themselves they were driven back by a terrific volume of well-directed fire.

Cool Courage of a Sergeant

Nor did the machine-gunners content themselves with strafing the enemy when they could see him. They kept up jets of bullets on to those huts, which prevented the German soldiers from staying in them in any position save a grovelling one on the floor. Their intended action was an utter failure.

Of individual machine-gunners' deeds of cool courage I think there is none finer than that of the sergeant who found himself and his party isolated far in front of our line. He told his men to make their way back, lying down for a bit, then making a dash for another shelter. He himself kept one gun working to protect their retreat, and when he saw that they had most of them reached a place of safety (several of them had been knocked out on the way), he picked up the gun and rejoined them, untouched.

Another sergeant, by cleverly manoeuvring among trenches that he knew very well, managed to keep a mass of the enemy in check for an hour or more. He changed his position frequently and enfiladed the advancing Germans with disastrous effect until, by sheer weight of numbers, they forced him to retire. He got all his men and guns away, thanks to his acquaintance with the trench system. He had never once let them come under direct fire from the puzzled Boche.


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