Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Machine Gun War

In contemplating the 'inevitability' or otherwise of great historical moments it is extremely difficult to separate the intentions that led to these events from the contingent circumstances and conditions of the time. The Great War of 1914-18, for example, was the culmination of decades of national rivalry between the European states, but the new forms of warfare that it brought were only made possible by the industrialisation of weaponry that had taken place over the same period. These factors were inextricably linked; but whereas there was nothing particularly new in large-scale hostilities between nations, the extraordinary advances in the means of killing an enemy was an entirely new factor in the equation - and its outcome entirely unanticipated by the protagonists. Although the intentions of the European powers were far from innocent prior to the war of 1914-18, there is a real sense in which they stumbled into a catastrophe that none of them foresaw - the mechanisation of mass slaughter.


The tendency towards nationalism in Europe in the mid 19th century was bound up with the drive towards industrialisation that was affecting every country in the continent. Amongst other things there was a massive expansion of railway systems and steel production at this time, and it seemed that no one wanted to be left behind in this race towards modernity. But the rivalry between nations led to new political tensions, and the increasingly belligerent mood of the time lead to an ever-increasing demand for weapons. The old, craft methods of gun making could not meet the new requirements, so mass production techniques were adopted. Very soon an international armaments industry, based on these methods of production, came into being, and the various nations of Europe began to build up stocks of weapons. These industrial/military developments were changing the face of European society, but they were also creating a far more risky international situation. In effect, the mechanisation of weapons production paved the way for the mechanisation of war itself. Almost unnoticed, new and terrible modes of warfare were ushered into being.

The invention and development of the machine-gun was very much part of this process - in a sense it was a typical product of the brutal, dynamic spirit that characterised the second half of the 19th century. The idea of a rapid-fire gun had, in fact, been around for centuries, but it was not until this period that the technical difficulties involved in making such as complex weapon had been overcome. By the 1850ies there was a greater and more general mechanical expertise and, for the first time. the high-quality metals necessary to make such weapons were widely available. The patent registers of this time list a steady stream of rapid-fire guns, each more refined and deadlier than the last. Among the more important were the Gatling gun (1862), the Maxim (1884), and the Browning (1892). There were two surprising features to this programme; all of these guns were invented by Americans (the European contribution to their development was minimal), and the principle European military establishments disregarded them all.

Despite this cool initial response, the very appearance of the machine-gun on the European stage had laid the scene for a grand tragedy. And just as the invention of the weapon was the first act in this ghastly drama, the responses to it by military conservatives was undoubtedly the second...

The reason why the machine-gun was first developed in America was partly to do with the innovative spirit in that country at that time, but also because, unlike Europe, it had no tradition of weapon production - as a result there were no vested interests to overcome. Industrial manufacturing techniques of all kinds were introduced earlier in America out of necessity, due to the lack of skilled workers there, and guns were among the first items to be made using the new production-line systems. The advantages of this mode of manufacture were such that they were widely adopted in America, and in a very short time an entirely new body of expertise was built up. It was in this environment that the Gatling gun, the first true machine-gun, was invented and put into production. Primitive though it was by later standards, the Gatling gun could fire 200 rounds per minute, an incredible advance in firepower for the time. It was soon being used in the American Civil War, making this the first in which machine-guns were involved. Even with the limited numbers that were used in this conflict they were to play a pivotal role but, curiously, its military effectiveness in this war did not gain it the sort of recognition it seemed to deserve, either in America itself or further afield. The dubious benefit of first-hand experience of the machine-gun did not overcome the unwillingness of the American military establishment to take the gun seriously, and when the Civil War ended they lost interest in it. In Europe, where the military were even more conservative, the weapon made even less of an impression.

At this time European military establishments were notoriously suspicious of new weapons. The machine-gun was regularly demonstrated to them, and the enormous increase in firepower that it offered should have been obvious to all. But it was (rightly) seen as a modern product of the Industrial Revolution, and as such it represented everything that the military instinctively mistrusted. As a social group the military tended to be drawn from the aristocratic and landowning classes, and were largely isolated from the changes that were affecting the rest of European society. They were in a real sense the last bastion of pre-Industrial attitudes, and were highly defensive of their values and privileges. The mechanisation of fighting, epitomised by the invention of the machine-gun, was difficult for them to accept, since it was completely at odds with their concepts of the way that wars should be fought. So, by and large, they responded to the new invention by ignoring it - except in one important area, namely that of Imperialistic expansion.

When the explorer Stanley first saw a Gatling gun in 1867 he declared that 'It is a fine weapon and will be invaluable for subduing the heathen'. So it proved to be. Soon after its introduction the machine-gun became the indispensable tool of Imperialism. In the African context in particular, its enormous fire-power enabled relatively small numbers of settlers and soldiers to enact the Imperialist agenda, that is to say, to steal land, appropriate resources and generally impose their will on much larger native populations - a pattern of events that was repeated over and over again. Wherever European incursions were met with local resistance, it was suppressed by superior firepower, increasingly involving the machine-gun. This occurred in various locations in West Africa, in East Africa, Southern Africa and the Sudan. Attacks on European troops by hordes of poorly armed native warriors frequently resulted in machine-gun massacres. Even given the small numbers of rapid-fire guns that were usually deployed in these skirmishes, the odds were entirely against those armed with little more than spears and bows. All over the African continent in the second half of the 19th century, machine-gunners left piles of bodies and bewildered, angry populations. There were, of course, imperialistic justifications for the violent suppression of native 'insurgency'. That of Sir Arthur Harding was typical - 'In Africa to have peace you must first teach obedience'. The Imperialist venture was of course supported by an unshakeable conviction of racial superiority.

The contemporary reports of the extraordinary successes of small contingents of European (esp. British) soldiers against much greater numbers of warlike 'savages' invariably attributed the infliction of defeat to the superiority of white soldiery and white civilisation. The role of the machine-gun in these encounters was played down, or if it was mentioned, it was as yet another marvellous product of a culturally advanced people. The machine-gun was used in many other reaches of Empire, notably in India, China and Tibet, with similarly gruesome results for the indigenous forces. There was, however, an unfortunate side effect of the constant reporting of these Imperial triumphs, namely, that they tended to promote the idea that white men would never be exposed to the sort of reverses that had been inflicted upon hapless 'natives' in so many remote parts of the world.

In a piece of monumental hubris then, the machine-gun gained the reputation of a weapon that was only suitable for use against non-Europeans, and to which white men were in some way invulnerable. This peculiar blindness to reality added a further element to the dreadful nemesis to come.

In the latter part of the 19th century European military strategists became increasingly aware of the existence of the machine-gun, if only through the persistent attempts by arms salesmen to promote their wares. But most of the officer class were suspicious of recent (and not so recent) advances in weaponry, or indeed of innovation of any kind. That the machine-gun had been so effective in the Empire cut little ice with them; Africa was not Europe, and their focus was on a future war in Europe. Their notion of warfare was highly traditional, rooted as it was in the infantry block formations and cavalry charges of the past, where the emphasis was on frontal assault. The idea of closing with the enemy at the first opportunity was, in their view, the proper way to fight wars as it always had been. There was an appalling lack of understanding of the extent to which rapid-fire weapons had made this way of fighting entirely redundant. To any objective observer it should have clear that the machine-gun would transform warfare, that it would no longer be safe for troops to charge across open ground as they had in the past. But the officer class were not objective; their whole ethos was at stake.

In the years prior to the First World War the Generals and their officers clung stubbornly to these outdated notions, especially in Britain. Defensive tactics, they felt, would only encourage a defensive spirit, leading to despondency and the loss of morale. Any number of objections were raised against the use of machine-guns, essentially rationalising their prejudices. They were too expensive and too complicated; they were too heavy; they required too much ammunition; they would 'destroy mobility', and 'lose the advantage of surprise'. There were some ominous indications of the shape of war to come that should have disturbed this reactionary traditionalism, in particular the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, where both sides used machineguns fairly extensively, to deadly effect. The French and German military drew some lessons from this war, and began to take the weapon more seriously; but the minds of those running the British military establishment remained as closed as ever. Their response was strangely irrational; it was apparently impossible for them, as a group, to admit that a mere machine could have done away with their, essentially heroic, concept of warfare.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 then, there was, particularly on the British side, a virtual chasm between prevailing military ideas and the new realities of war, between notions of how warfare ought to be conducted, and the terms that would inevitably be set by modern weaponry, especially the machine-gun. It was, of course, the ordinary soldier who was to suffer the consequences of this dreadful misreckoning - and, unfortunately, these soldiers were going to be available in unprecedented numbers.

By 1914 Europe was gripped by war hysteria. All the main continental powers already had large conscript armies, and each, by virtue of their industrial base, was in a position to wage a sustained war. In Britain hundreds of thousands of young men had volunteered to fight within days of the declaration of war, and when these had been mobilised conscription was introduced in this country. Every country that was to become involved was capable of dedicating its entire national resources to this conflict. Nothing like this sort of total war had ever been contemplated before - but despite all indications of the scale of the coming hostilities, it was believed by strategists on all sides that this would be a war of rapid movement and limited casualty lists. No one expected it to last more than a few months; they were wrong on every count.

Decades of prejudice against machine-guns meant that the combatants on all sides entered the First World War with surprisingly few of these weapons, but this situation changed very rapidly. Once the war had started the realisation dawned on the Generals that, given the unprecedented numbers of conscripts that were to be involved and the ease with which they could be now be delivered to the battle-front (by railway), that this would be a war of numbers. Presented with this urgent situation they then turned to those weapons that promised to annihilate the enemy in as great a number as possible; machineguns, it seemed, would be needed after all. There followed a panic ordering of huge quantities of every available version of the gun by each the powers involved in the war. After decades of disappointing sales the manufacturers of machine-guns suddenly received orders of a magnitude beyond anything they could have imagined; by the end of the war the British forces alone had ordered nearly a quarter of a million automatic guns. Such was the precipitate manner in which this instrument of mechanised slaughter made its entry onto the European stage.

But the Generals inability to adjust to the changed realities of warfare caused by the introduction of this lethal new weapon thoroughly compounded the dangers of the situation. Within months of the outbreak of hostilities the infantry brigades of both sides had reached a virtual stalemate, with each dug into trenches facing the other, a few hundred yards apart. It soon became clear to those directly involved in this confrontation, through bitter experience, that machine-guns, even in the limited quantities that were available early on in the war, had made frontal attack quite impossible without enormous losses. This remained the stark reality throughout the 1914-18 war - but the High Command never seemed to be able to come to terms with the fact. Their basic tactics remained the same to the end, that of breaking through enemy lines in a concerted movement. These hopes were seldom realised - and the numbers of men (and machine-guns) involved steadily increased.

At the beginning of the Great War there were some 4 million men in uniform, by the end there this had increased to 20 million; the machine-gun was to claim literally millions of these lives. The pattern of events was set quite early in the war. In the course of one of the first British offensives, at Neuve Chapelle, two units, the 2nd Scottish Rifles and the 2nd Middlesex were virtually wiped out in a frontal attack on two machine-gun posts. In purely military terms this meant that a handful of German soldiers with just two rapid-fire guns were able to immobilize two entire battalions. There were similar experiences all along the line of attack, but the High Command learned nothing from these experiences. They continued to send men against machine-gun emplacements, protected by hundreds of yards of barbed wire, with the same tragic results. The Generals were willing to accept enormous casualties in these attempts; time and again waves of soldiers were sent out of their trenches to almost certain death. This was all far from heroic, but the Generals only response to the complete and continuing failure of their strategy was to increase its scale.

The Somme offensive of 1916 began with an intensive artillery bombardment of the German positions, followed by waves of assaulting troops. It soon became clear that the bombardment had failed to reach the enemy in his deep dug-outs, and that they had rapidly repositioned their machine-guns. The lines of British soldiers, advancing slowly towards the German lines presented an ideal, unmissable target. A German soldier later recalled that 'You didn't have to aim, you just fired into them'. As the first wave was mown down the second were sent 'over the top', as they in turn were destroyed a third wave was sent, then a fourth. The first day of the Somme offensive saw 57,000 casualties, still the greatest loss suffered by any army on any single day. The utter futility of sending men to face a device that could kill entire battalions in minutes did not appear to deter General Haig, who kept the offensive going for a further three months. A quarter of a million men lost their lives in this battle, which at its furthest managed to advance just 8 miles. And in 1917 Haig did it all again.

The Somme was not the only theatre of mass carnage. In 1916, in Verdun alone the French army suffered half a million dead or wounded - the great majority through machine-gun fire. By this time the war had acquired a momentum of its own, all the original political objectives had long been forgotten. The 'War to end Wars' had become 'War for its own sake', and was indeed a war of numbers. The final figures of dead and wounded make extremely depressing reading: France lost 1,700,000 young men from a population of 40 million, Germany 2,000,000 from a population of 70 million, Britain and its Empire 1,000,000, Italy 600,000.

The war that had begun in a jingoistic, belligerent mood, with most countries prepared to accepted conscription on an unprecedented scale, turned into a war that became habituated to death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. The best that can be said of the Generals who sent so many young men to their deaths was they were unprepared for the numbers involved and were never able to come to terms with the new technologies of war.

From a British perspective one of the most extraordinary, and telling, aspects of this mass-conflict concerns the role played in it by the cavalry regiments. Most of the British Generals were, in fact, cavalry men. They retained an unyielding faith in the bayonet push and the cavalry charge for the duration of the war, despite the constant fiascos that occurred when they sent their cavalry into the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements of the 'fire-zones' (which were frequently several miles deep). Whenever they were used the cavalry were mown down by machine-gun as ruthlessly and as efficiently as the infantry had been. The Generals great cavalry 'break-throughs' never came, and most of the cavalry brigades that were kept behind the front lines for the duration of the war (at huge expense) were never used. That they ever could have been any military use in the sort of trench warfare that was being fought was pure fantasy on the Generals part. The tragedy was that the innate conservatism of those running the war prevented them from accepting and adjusting to the consequences of technological progress.

The true figures will never be known, but at the time it was estimated that up to 80% of all deaths in the Great War of 1914-18 were caused by machine-gun fire.