As most of us know, machine-guns inflicted appalling casualties during the First World War. Thousands of men, charging towards the enemy line, were mown down by the rapid fire of these devastating weapons.
In theory machine-guns in WW1 could fire up to 600 small-calibre rounds per minute. In reality they were prone to overheating and would break down without some sort of cooling system in place. Water jackets were initially used, but the guns would still overheat quite quickly and large supplies of water had to be kept on hand. As such, they were typically fired in short bursts rather than sustained fire. However, by the end of the war machine-gun design had drastically improved. They could fire double the rate that was capable in 1914 with sophisticated air-cooling systems built into the designs.
Of course, the WW1 machine gun was primarily used as a defensive weapon and, even in 1914, was extremely effective when used against charging soldiers. However, by 1915 they were light enough to be mounted onto the front of aeroplanes for aerial assaults and towards the end of the war they were even adapted to be used on tanks and other armoured vehicles. Indeed, several reports from The Illustrated War News, The Illustrated London News and The Sphere emerged throughout the war, indicating the success of machine-guns not only in the trenches but also as mobile weaponry.
But if the machine-gun was so effective, why did the British have so few at the start of the war? The Maxim-gun, an oil-cooled machine-gun designed by Hiram Maxim in 1884 that didn’t require hand-cranking or any other kind of manual intervention, had been offered to the British military by Hiram. However, the British High Command rejected the inventor’s offer, believing that there was no real need for it. The Germans, on the other hand, quickly grasped the strategic advantages that it offered and began developing their own version of Maxim’s design. Consequently, when the war broke out in 1914, Germany had a much greater arsenal of machine-guns. This is reflected by articles in The Sphere, which reported in 1914 that Germany had a new type of machine-gun with a telescopic sight, and The Illustrated War News, which noted that the weapon had revolutionised German artillery tactics.
Though the British remained sceptical of the practicality of machine-guns at the beginning of the war, by 1915 they had come to realise that it was an effective weapon. The Illustrated London News quoted David Lloyd George as the Minister of Munitions in 1915:
“The superiority of the Germans in material was most marked in heavy guns, in their high explosive shells, in their rifles, and, perhaps most of all in their machine guns. They have proved to be about the most formidable weapons of the war. They have almost superseded the rifle, they have almost rendered the rifle unnecessary…”
Another article in The Illustrated London News similarly indicates the desire of the French military to have more machine-guns – a French soldier had lined up several rifles that could be fired, one after the other, using a wire cable.
Though the machine-gun had its flaws it was undoubtedly one of the defining elements of the First World War. Without them, it would have been a very different scene on the Western Front then the one we know about today.