Machine guns inflicted appalling casualties on both war fronts in World War One. Men who went over-the-top in trenches stood little chance when the enemy opened up with their machine guns. Machine guns were one of the main killers in the war and accounted for many thousands of deaths.
Crude machine guns had first been used in the American Civil War (1861 to 1865). However, tactics from this war to 1914 had not changed to fit in with this new weapon. Machine guns could shoot hundreds of rounds of ammunition a minute and the standard military tactic of World War One was the infantry charge. Casualties were huge. Many soldiers barely got out of their trench before they were cut down.
A British Vickers machine gun crew at the Somme
This British Vickers machine gun is being fired by a team of two who are wearing early gas masks in case of a gas attack. To ensure that the machine gun’s barrel did not overheat, the weapon was cooled using a large water cooling jacket. An ammunition belt fed it bullets. This machine gun could shoot 450 rounds a minute. As well as the Vickers machine gun, the British used the Hotchkiss and the Lewis gun.
At the start of the war, senior British army officers were less than sure about the effectiveness of the machine gun. Therefore most battalions were only issued with two.
This was a lot less than the Germans who were much more sure as to the effectiveness of the machine gun. The Germans placed their machine guns slightly in front of their lines to ensure than the machine gun crews were given a full view of the battlefield. At the Battle of the Somme, their efficiency lead to the deaths of thousands of British troops within minutes of the battle starting.
Going over the top at the Somme
This still above was taken from film as British troops ‘went over the top’ at the start of the Battle of the Somme. Within a few strides from their own trench, these men were almost certainly the victim of German machine gun fire.