The 100th Anniversary of the Formation of the British Machine Gun Corps

By Robert G. Segel

In July 2014, SAR members participated in a live fire of Vickers machine guns at the Bisley Range in the UK- this was to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the retirement of the Machine Gun Corps. This article can be found online at www.smallarmsreview.com Herein, Robert G. Segel, North American Representative of the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades Association, tells of the start of the MGC on its 100th Anniversary.

The machine gun was the most deadly weapon of World War I. When the war broke out on August 4, 1914, every British infantry unit had its own machine gun section of two Maxim guns served by one officer and twelve other ranks. The section was divided into two gun teams. The men chosen to serve in the machine gun section were mostly marksmen with the rifle.

Although the machine gun officer had a certain amount of freedom relating to the training of his men, the Battalion machine gunner enjoyed certain privileges. The Commanding Officer of a Unit usually had the first and last word in placing of the guns in actual battle.

In the first year of the war the fire power of the Maxim gun gave vital support to attacking infantry and also in defensive actions. Even so, two Maxim guns supporting a battalion of eight hundred men, often on a wide frontage of varied depth, could not possibly be everywhere at once. The British High Command soon became aware of these limitations and it was decided to form a Corps of Machine Gunners.

The Machine Gun Corps

The Corps was created by Royal Warrant on October 14, 1915, with His Majesty King George V being Colonel-in-Chief. Its Infantry, Cavalry, Motor and Heavy branches grew into formidable self-contained units in every theater of war. The Corps served in France, Flanders, Russia, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Salonica, India, Afghanistan and East Africa. The last unit of the Corps to be disbanded was the Depot at Shorncliffe on July 15, 1922. A total of 170,500 officers and men served in the Corps, which suffered 62,049 casualties of which 13,791 were killed and 48,258 wounded, missing or prisoners of war.

Very soon after the formation of the Machine Gun Corps the Maxim gun was replaced with the Vickers machine gun with the image of two crossed Vickers under the King’s crown being the insignia of the Corps.

The Corps was continually recruiting from picked men. Both as an armed body, and as an association of men, it was therefore unique.

The story of the Machine Gun Corps is a record of front line soldiers, of those who accompanied the first wave of every assault and who remained to cover every retirement. Throughout the war years not a single day passed but saw the members of the Machine Gun Corps in the front line.

Where other Corps and Regiments may have decades’ long records from which to cite their achievements, the Machine Gun Corps is possessed of but three swift years of combat history and only seven years of existence, being disbanded in 1922. These years are an epic of patience, cheerfulness, endurance, loyalty, sacrifice, courage and comradeship. Every month, indeed every day, the Machine Gun Corps had its Waterloo, its Balaclava, and its Rorke’s Drift. It was a Battalion with backs to the wall facing fearful odds, a company filling a breach; even a single gun team of six men, sometimes a single gunner alone among his dead, holding a vital flank.

There was a lad at High Wood with one arm hanging by a thread who carried ammunition to a heavily besieged post.

There was a driver at the Hindenburg Line who, the target for every hostile gun, shot through the stomach and belching blood, toppled his machine gun limber with its precious load of ammunition into a beleaguered line and perished among his mules.

There was a private on the Menin Road who, when officers and N.C.Os had become casualties, took command of his Company, added a Bar to his D.C.M. (Distinguished Conduct Medal) and gained his direct Regular Commission in the Field.

There was a signaler who, on many-times-mended lines, tapped out a message until overwhelmed by attack.

Or the lad at Arras who crept forward in the darkness, captured an enemy stronghold single-handed and turned the German machine gun against the enemy’s line, raking the parapets when the British attack developed at dawn.

There are, too, the records of the missing, whose last history is unknown beyond the tale of the steady staccato of their guns when everyone else had retired.

Thousands of such actions add luster to the history of the Machine Gun Corps.

Machine gunners knew the quality of comradeship: men in sodden Flanders beneath the scourge of Trommel Feuer; troopers who rode shoulder to shoulder at dawn before Damascus; Australian and New Zealanders on the beaches of Gallipoli; South Africans in the carnage of Delville Wood, Canadians cresting the ridge of Vimy. Men from the blue haze of an English countryside; the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh, from heathered hills and smoke-laden cities, wrestling with death on the Somme and Hindenburg line.

Bare-legged boys from shingled coves wading the mud morasses of Passchendaele; those whose cries echoed among the Dorian crags of Salonica and from the rocky peaks of the Khyber; men who found the enemy among the snow-capped heights of the Piave; and those who faced sand storms, thirst and privations in the deserts of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Those who gripped hands at zero hour, and those who fell in mud and dust and rose no more – men of the Machine Gun Corps knew the quality of comradeship.

In this, the centenary of the formation of the Machine Gun Corps, we must take a moment to reflect upon their heroic deeds and ultimate sacrifices as a tribute to their courage and comradeship.

We shall ever tell the story
How their glory brightly shone,
Who throughout a hell of carnage
Set their teeth and carried on.

(Thanks to C.E. Crutchley for providing a vast amount of history pertaining to the Machine Gun Corps.)

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V19N8 (October 2015)
and was posted online on August 21, 2015


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