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Machine Gunners on the Western Front

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Machine Gunners on the Western Front
Leonaur Original
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Author(s): Herbert W. McBride & C. S. Grafton
Date Published: 2014/04
Page Count: 380
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-264-6
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-263-9

Machine Gunners in the trenches

The First World War was waged on an industrial scale, utilising every conceivable advantage of invention and technology. Fought on land, in the skies and on and beneath the sea it was the first true conflict of the modern age. In the land war infantry soldiers were introduced to efficient artillery, poison gas, the flame thrower, the tank and the devastatingly simple killer that was the barbed wire entanglement. Development in firearms had advanced, by comparison, quite slowly and soldiers were still mostly armed with single round firing weapons. However, the invention of the Maxim gun fundamentally changed the nature of war as infantrymen knew it. First proven by the British army against the Matabele warriors and then decisively against the Mahdists at Omdurman in the 1890s, here was the new monarch of close contact conflict. Men would no longer need to been aimed at to be shot, but would be scythed down in numbers by rapidly fired streams of bullets and every army immediately adopted the machine gun of necessity. This book contains two outstanding accounts of the Canadian army’s machine gun corps on the Western Front. Known as the ‘Emma Gees’ (MG—the initials of machine guns) these men not only dispensed death but due to their tactical importance were the focus of enemy assault. The first book in this special Leonaur two-books-in-one edition is a very personal account by a serving gunner at the sharp end of conflict; the second book, written by another machine gunner, also provides for the reader historical context in the form of an invaluable unit history.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

As at Vimy, divisional pack trains were again formed and were to do highly useful work. At Vimy, however, they had been able to establish dumps almost at the positions themselves. In the salient, forced to keep to the solid footing of what were once called roads, they could only get up to very definite points owing to the intense shelling. Much of the huge supply of 1,500,000 rounds of S. A. A. assembled for each division had therefore to be man-handled by the gunners and the infantry carrying parties which, once more, had been detailed to this task.
In the few days preceding the attack itself machine guns in the line carried out a program of indirect harassing fire and the barrage positions were completed under conditions that baffle description. The artillery farther back had little or no protection and were dug in in the open. Trying to get a solid platform for the barrage machine guns in the slimy ooze was a hard, trying task.
The battle order for the first attack found the 4th Division attacking on the Canadian right, with the 1st Australian Division on their flank. The 4th was to attack with one brigade-the 10th-while the 3rd Division was using a two-brigade front and employing the 9th and 8th C. 1. B’s. On the left flank of the Canadian Corps boundary was the 63rd Naval Division. The Canadian frontage gave the two divisions slightly over 3,000 yards at the jumping-off line, extending roughly from the Passchendaele-Zonnebeke Road to Wallemolen. They had as their objectives Hillside Farm, Heine House, Augustus Wood, Lamkeek, Bellevue Spur, Wolfe Copse and the slightly higher ground to the north-west.
Sixteen mobile guns in all were attached to the divisions for the whole attack and in some cases the infantry had detailed sections for the local protection of the machine guns while in consolidation positions. The 10th Company (Major Britton) and the 9th Company (Major McFaul) provided the mobile guns as well as the new innovation—the three “Sniping Batteries.” The 4th Division used only one of these four-gun batteries. The 3rd ordered two up.
Eighty guns in all were given the task of laying down a supporting barrage to fit into the artillery’s fire scheme. Five eight-gun batteries were allotted to each divisional front, on the basis of one gun to every 30 yards of frontage. Positions for these extended, roughly, from Abraham Heights on the right to the northern slopes of Gravenstafel Spur.
In the gray dawn of October 26th, at exactly 5.40, thousands of guns along the 10-mile front rolled out their deafening thunder to herald the attack. Out-gunned as they were to be many times before they left the salient a few weeks hence, the Canadian gunners shouldered their full share of one of the most terrific, most cruelly concentrated and most intense artillery duels in all the history of the Western Front. It seemed as if nothing could possibly live as the gunners from both sides searched up and down whole areas in a scientific hunt for victims. Gradually the volume of the German guns grew perceptibly less and as the attacking brigades pushed off into the sea of shell-churned mud, superiority was definitely with the British gunners.
Waist-deep in mud, the attacking brigades struggled forward. The 10th Brigade wallowed ahead and won their objectives after sharp fighting, especially fronting Crest Farm and Deck Wood, from where a perfect hail of machine gun fire was poured into their struggling ranks. On the extreme right the 10th got as far as Decline Copse and Hillside Farm, Heine House and Augustus Wood were gathered in as the brigade went beyond its objectives to Deck Wood.
But on the left it was a different story. Crossing the swollen Ravebeek stream at “Fleet Cottages,” 1,000 yards beyond Gravenstafel, the 8th and 9th Brigades were stopped in temporary confusion by a withering machine gun fire and by the havoc of the German barrage. When the original attack on Bellevue was halted, Capt. Chris O’Kelly of the 52nd Battalion won a V. C. as by his skill and determination he advanced his command over 1,000 yards unsupported by artillery barrage and took the enemy position on the hill by storm and then organized a series of attacks on pill boxes, which resulted in the capture of six and their stubborn, courageous garrisons, together with 10 machine guns. While both right and left the objectives had been reached, one pill-box known as “Snipe Hall” had successfully withstood all concentrated artillery fire and direct assault and here the line between the 8th and 9th Brigades presented a sharp cleavage. All attempts to dent back this salient in our lines were to fail for four days as elements of the 11th Bavarian Division put up one of the stoutest defences ever offered by German troops.
Since garrisons of the pill-boxes fought to the bitter end and even those isolated shell-hole garrisons knew they were hopelessly fastened in the mud, targets of opportunity during the attack for the machine guns were mighty few. But the principle of this elastic defence plan of the Germans was to provide our mobile and sniping batteries with their real and effective role as the elastic defence, giving away before the first onslaught, was bounced back by counterattacks in force and with a determination, lately lacking in German counter-attacks elsewhere.
On the extreme right Lieut. Hugh Aird had placed his two guns in a sunken road 200 yards to the right of the Zonebeeke-Passchendaele Road so as to cover the right flank and the low ground to the left of the railway in the neighbourhood of Vienna Cottage. The other two guns, under Corp. Carey, were sited in front of Hillside Farm in the centre of the 46th Battalion frontage to the left of the Passchendaele Road and looking to the right flank.
Lieut. Aird’s guns were handled with the utmost skill and daring and did fine execution a the German counter-attack was launched at 4.40 p.m. As the enemy opened a terrific bombardment on the sunken road where the guns were, Lieut. Aird sent all the gunners to the junction of the sunken road with the main Passchendaele Road, where there was less shelling and more shelter. He himself, along with Corp. Thursby, remained at the guns. The Germans were seen massing for the attack in a field near Vienna Cottage about 200 yards off. Both guns came into action, scattering the Germans and causing many casualties. Lieut. Aird’s gun was put out of action as a large shell exploded close to the gun and he joined Sergt. Thursby.
The German counter-attack kept developing and they started advancing in extended order. Shells were falling so close that on hard ground nothing above the ground level could have lived, but the mud proved the salvation in its way of this gun crew, although mud also in the space of a few minutes was to put the gun out of action. It could still fire single shots but Lieut. Aird, realising the danger of being cut off from the left, moved the gun back when the Germans were within 100 yards and mounted it near Hillside Farm. Corp. Carey with the other two guns, having been killed, the three guns were dug in defensive positions. Lieut. Aird was unfortunately killed the same night during one of the frequent bombardments the Germans laid down with so much venom.
On the 3rd Division front, where the fight was more bitter, machine gunners had many difficult moments. Two guns with the 58th Battalion were out of action and only the officer and two other ranks left when the battalion resumed its attack in the afternoon. Two of the four guns with the 43rd were put out of action early, but the other two not only formed a rallying point when the line was withdrawn on the right in the morning set-back but with a little group of infantrymen holding fast inflicted severe losses on the Germans, who attempted to reorganise 250 yards from the gun positions. It was in-fighting with a vengeance. The officer, wounded earlier in the attack, did not leave until the guns were consolidated and No. 1 gunners carried on. At 10 a.m. they caught two companies of Germans on the Weiltje Road in a perfect field of fire and dispersed them and they threw confusion into the Germans assembling for the counter-attack later to be launched at 4 p.m. from Meetoseele and Furst Farm. When the actual counter-attack came these two guns played like a hose on the Germans struggling ahead in the mud in extended order.