Machine Gun Corps in the First World War

This section of the Long, Long Trail will be helpful for anyone wishing to find out about the history of the units of the Machine Gun Corps.

“No military pomp attended its birth or decease. It was not a famous regiment with glamour and whatnot, but a great fighting corps,born for war only and not for parades. From the moment of its formation it was kicking. It was with much sadness that I recall its disbandment in 1922; like old soldiers it simply faded away“. So said former machine gunner George Coppard, in his epic autobiography “With a machine gun to Cambrai”.

The MGC units

The history of each unit of the MGC can be found by clicking the appropriate link below.

The formation and development of the Corps

Early days

In 1914, all infantry battalions were equipped with a machine gun section of two guns, which was increased to four in February 1915. The sections were equipped with Maxim guns, served by a subaltern and 12 men. The obsolescent Maxim had a maximum rate of fire of 500 rounds, so was the equivalent of around 40 well-trained riflemen. However, production of the weapons could not keep up with the rapidly expanding army and the BEF was still 237 guns short of the full establishment in July 1915. The British Vickers company could, at most, produce 200 new weapons per week, and struggled to do that. Contracts were placed with firms in the USA, which were to produce the Vickers designs under licence.

Gun team
An infantry Maxim machine gun team in action during the First Battle of Ypres

The need for specialist skills

The experience of fighting in the early clashes and in the First Battle of Ypres had proved that the machine guns required special tactics and organisation. On 22 November 1914 the BEF established a Machine Gun School at Wisques in France, under Major C. Baker-Carr, to train new regimental officers and machine gunners, both to replace those lost in the fighting to date and to increase the number of men with MG skills. A Machine Gun Training Centre was also established at Grantham in England.

The Machine Gun Corps is created

On 2 September 1915 a definite proposal was made to the War Office for the formation of a single specialist Machine Gun Company per infantry brigade, by withdrawing the guns and gun teams from the battalions. They would be replaced at battalion level by the light Lewis machine guns and thus the firepower of each brigade would be substantially increased. The Machine Gun Corps was created by Royal Warrant on October 14 followed by an Army Order on 22 October 1915. The companies formed in each brigade would transfer to the new Corps. The MGC would eventually consist of infantry Machine Gun Companies, cavalry Machine Gun Squadrons and Motor Machine Gun Batteries. The pace of reorganisation depended largely on the rate of supply of the Lewis guns but it was completed before the Battle of the Somme in 1916. A Base Depot for the Corps was established at Camiers.

The MGC is re-equipped

Shortly after the formation of the MGC, the Maxim guns were replaced by the Vickers, which became a standard gun for the next five decades. The Vickers machine gun is fired from a tripod and is cooled by water held in a jacket around the barrel. The gun weighed 28.5 pounds, the water another 10 and the tripod weighed 20 pounds. Bullets were assembled into a canvas belt, which held 250 rounds and would last 30 seconds at the maximum rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute. Two men were required to carry the equipment and two the ammunition. A Vickers machine gun team also had two spare men.

The infantry begins to be revolutionised

In 1914 the light Lewis gun was in experimental stage. It was a shoulder-held air-cooled light automatic weapon weighing 26 pounds and loaded with a circular magazine containing 47 rounds. The rate of fire was up to 700 rounds per minute, in short bursts. At this rate, a magazine would be used up very quickly. The Lewis was carried and fired by one man, but he needed another to carry and load the magazines. Lewis guns were supplied to the army from July 1915, initially to six selected Divisions and then to more as they were produced in increasing numbers. The original official establishment was 4 per infantry battalion (and per cavalry regiment), but by July 1918, infantry battalions possessed 36 each and even Pioneer battalions had 12. This very significant increase in battalion firepower enabled new and successful infantry tactics to be devised.

Gun team
British Vickers machine gun crew wearing PH-type anti-gas helmets. Near Ovillers during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. The gunner is wearing a padded waistcoat, enabling him to carry the machine gun barrel. IWM photograph Q3995, with permission. Note that the left hand soldier has an MGC badge on his shoulder.

Machine gun tactics develop

There are many instances where a single well-placed and protected machine gun cut great swathes in attacking infantry. Nowhere was this demonstrated with more devastating effect than against the British army’s attack on the Somme on 1 July 1916 and against the German attack at Arras on 28 March 1918. It followed that multiple machine guns, with interlocking fields of fire, were an incredibly destructive defensive weapon. The German army developed their Hindenburg Line, to which they withdrew in spring 1917, and relied greatly on machine guns for defence. The British copied this. In addition, both offensively and defensively, the MGC began to fire in co-ordinated barrages. The guns of the 2nd and 47th (London) Divisions fired an indirect barrage over the heads of their advancing infantry, and behind the German trenches (in other words, this was an interdiction barrage, to stop enemy attempts to reinforce or re-supply their front), during the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. This was possibly the first time an indirect fire tactic was borrowed from the artillery. Later, and certainly by the Battle of Messines in June 1917, machine gunners were also employing creeping barrages, with fire falling ahead of the artillery barrage to catch enemy troops moving to the rear. They would concentrate fire on specific targets, or sweep the enemy ground behind his front and support positions. Machine guns for these tasks were generally placed about 1000 yards behind the advancing infantry and were moved up as soon as the enemy positions were captured. Machinegun tactics had in fact, become more like those of the artillery than of the infantry.

Firepower is further increased

A further proposal to provide each Division with a fourth Company, and to increase the Lewis guns at the battalion to 16, was sanctioned. The Lewis numbers were delivered by 1 July 1916, but the Divisional Machine Gun Company did not come into existence until April 1917. From then onward, there was one MGC Company for each of the three Brigades plus one under Divisional command, in each Division.

The size of the MGC

A total of 170,500 officers and men served in the MGC, of which 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing.




Other Regiments and Corps