Military history


Slaughter Made Industrial: The Great War

Must buck up as I am not dead yet.1

RICHARD GATLING’S VISION HAD BEEN WRONG. GIVING ONE SOLDIER the tool to do the killing of one hundred did not supersede large armies, and exposure to battle had not been diminished so that men might be saved for their countries. By the early twentieth century, industrialization had brought forward all manner of martial developments. Some were natural evolutions in well-established arms: more reliable ammunition that propelled bullets at extraordinary velocities, more powerful explosives, better steels that allowed for artillery to fire more lethal shells with greater precision and over longer range. Others were breakthroughs that made long-awaited technologies ready for war: submarines, war planes, hand grenades, poison gas. All of these would become characteristic menaces of World War I. None of them worked the way Gatling had proposed. Weapons designed to cause more casualties tended to cause more casualties, not fewer. Machine guns fit into this intricate mix of killing tools, and more people were dying before them, many more people than Gatling’s vision had allowed. The remaining questions were behavioral. When would the professional military class realize that machine guns had become a permanent presence in battle? What would they do about it? Machine guns, and the possibilities they created for using massed fire for killing massed soldiers on a large scale, presented new puzzles for officers to ponder and solve. The killing fields of Omdurman and Lieutenant Parker’s innovations in offensive tactics outside Santiago had been widely publicized, providing an impetus to explore the questions at hand. But battlefield results did not bring focus to the necessary minds. Machine gunnery remained misunderstood by senior officers in armies around the world.

The marketplace, though, was enthused. Even before machine guns shaped the outcome of closely watched battles, Maxim guns had been finding customers near and far. Demand meant opportunity. Other designers wanted market share, too. New weapons emerged. In 1889, John Moses Browning, a second-generation American gunsmith whose father had operated a small gun works in Utah, began trying to harness another form of energy from a bullet’s discharge: the muzzle blast. Like almost anyone who had fired a rifle, Browning had noticed that the report of a rifle was accompanied by the rush of gas that followed the bullet out of the muzzle. He had seen how the blast knocked aside bulrushes in marshes in Utah. This represented unused energy. Browning wanted to put that energy to work. But how to capture gas rushing through a barrel, especially with a bullet in the way, moving at more than two thousand feet per second? Browning held a series of firing experiments,2 and ultimately made a prototype weapon with a vent inside the barrel, near the muzzle, to provide an alternative route for a portion of the expanding gases; essentially, a tap. In this system, in the tiny fraction of a second after the bullet passed the vent but before it left the barrel, gas whooshed at high pressure through the vent and forced a rod backward, down the length of the gun, toward the trigger. The excess gas was animating a lever. Now it was only a matter of mechanics for that pulse of energy to be converted to the work once done by hand: extracting the spent casing, loading and locking a new cartridge into the chamber, and, as long as the trigger remained depressed and ammunition available, firing the next round to start the cycle anew. By late November 1890, the Browning Brothers Armory, in Salt Lake City, had offered this new design to Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Company in Hartford. Five years later, a gas-operated automatici sold under the name Colt Model 1895 entered the market.3

All the while, as Maxim’s guns were heading out on colonial expeditions, other weapons were being assembled in gun works around Europe. In Austria, a grand duke and a colonel had created the Skoda machine gun, which a factory in Pilsen produced in many calibers. An Austrian captain had designed another gas-operated machine gun by 1893, and the Hotchkiss firm in France purchased the patent. Nordenfelt introduced a true automatic in 1897, and by 1902 the Madsen automatic machine gun was being touted by the Danes; soon it was tested by the British and the Americans.4 The German gun works at Spandau, prodded by the kaiser, was busily producing its own Maxim knock-offs. Arms firms saw machine guns as weapons of the future. The era of the hand-cranked gun—the Gatling and its brethren—was all but over, even if a few Gatlings and Gardners remained in military armories. Richard Gatling died in 1903 at the age of eighty-four, at his son-in-law’s home in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, after returning from a meeting at the editorial offices of Scientific American. His business had gone bust. His capital was gone. He had kept his entrepreneurial spirit to the end. Recently he had accepted five hundred dollars from one of his sons to help underwrite a new venture in agricultural plows.5 But the armaments industry had moved on. Rapid-fire arms had entered the automatic age.

Military officers, especially senior officers, took longer to catch up. The gap between what the arms industry could see and what professional military circles could not created one of the most baffling chapters in the intertwined histories of military technology and tactics. As the services pondered machine guns, traditionalism permeated most Western officer corps. Old prejudices endured. Old arguments continued, though not quite as fiercely as in decades past; the sheer volume of killing at Omdurman had shown that machine guns had a place in battle. It was not because of hostility so much as because of conservatism, along with administrative disarray and sluggishness, that tactics did not adequately shift. The ignorance was not as total as sometimes portrayed.6 Many armies exchanged their bright uniforms of the nineteenth century for dull-colored field uniforms in khaki or gray. In such attire, soldiers became more difficult for enemy soldiers to spot in rifle and machine-gun sights. And soldiers were instructed to spread out in battle, five paces between each man, to avoid being struck in large numbers by single artillery rounds or bursts of fire. But these changes should have been obvious enough. The blindness that afflicted the senior officer class was extraordinary. In addressing the more difficult questions of developing tactics and doctrine for fighting with and against modern automatic arms, institutional inertia trumped individual intellect. For a range of reasons related to how armies often work, the brighter officers, the gadflies, and the converted who advocated for a material and intellectual investment in machine gunnery were not heard. Some of these officers recognized the potential of concentrated firepower. Others saw the obsolescence of nineteenth-century battlefield tactics and the cherished traditions that adhered to them (one well-known officer observed that “the only advantage in cavalry is the smarter uniform”).7 Some were simply curious, enlivened by tangible shifts in technology or assessments of battles past. Evidence had shown that modern weapons had become sufficiently lethal that opposing soldiers rarely were able to maneuver close enough to one another for a hand-to-hand fight; combatants were getting shot or torn by shrapnel before they could engage in those old-fashioned scrums. One French officer noticed from a review of war records that of sixty-five thousand German casualties listed in the Franco-Prussian War, swords had killed six men.8 But many advocates of machine gunnery either were of junior grade or had achieved their experience in colonial campaigns in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Having used machine guns on practice ranges or to turn back aboriginal rushes, not professional armies, they were regarded as insufficiently schooled in the ways of war between European states.

In the United States, John H. Parker, now an army captain, had published two books on machine gunnery and proposed tactics for the offense and defense. By the early 1900s, he was busy testing a cart that could carry the guns, equipment, and ammunition swiftly about battlefields.9 He had also proposed an organization for a separate machine-gun service, with units dedicated solely to automatic guns. This followed a kernel first put forth in 1880 by William W. Kimball, an American navy officer, who had recommended selecting American sailors for duty with machine guns for shore defense, for firing from ship to ship, and for pummeling the types of close-in targets that the navy anticipated facing, such as a hostile landing party or torpedo boat. Lieutenant Kimball and Captain Parker were radicals. They sketched out the notion of a professional machine gunner, a specialist who would work within a team. In their visions, these men were to be selected for their stamina, daring, and smarts. “In order that the gun may work up to its full effectiveness, the machine gunners must have a very considerable degree of intelligence, and the utmost steadiness; compared with infantrymen armed with single loading shoulder pieces, they must be as clever mechanics are to common laborers—they must be capable of working with a killing machine instead of a killing tool.”10 These officers’ precise organizational proposals would never be accepted, but their underlying idea was sound. Professional machine gunners, with separate training and distinct duties, would in time become common. But not yet.

In the early twentieth century, the idea did not take hold. The military bureaucracy moved bureaucratically. Ordnance officials in the United States continued to test machine guns, and while there was a sense that machine guns had a place in battle, no one was quite sure where. One army major, commanding a battalion at Fort Leavenworth, requested a pair of machine guns for his battalion and the army provided them;11 this hardly signaled that the army as an institution was fully invested in trying to find the weapons’ ideal use. Enthusiasm was further dampened by lingering worries about reliability. The American army had purchased Colt’s Model 1895 guns and used them in the war in the Philippines, but they were air-cooled and tended to overheat; officers in the field found them fussy. This enduring reputation for unreliability undercut the advocates’ cause. Worries about ammunition consumption were also an obstacle. How was an army supposed to supply units with guns that fired 500, 600, 700, or 800 rounds a minute? The answer, which eluded the quarter-masters and generals, was that technical rates of fire were theoretical. In practice, machine gunners fired in short bursts. When facing machine-gun fire, targets were either knocked down or scattered. No target presented itself for very long. Ammunition consumption did pose new logistical challenges. That was irrefutably true. But these challenges were not the impossible demand that detractors imagined them to be.

Richard Gatling, an inventor of killing technologies who cast himself as an idealist, had been a crusader for rapid-fire arms as instruments for peace. Hiram Maxim, the self-taught engineer and mischief-maker from backwoods Maine, became a premier vendor of machine guns in nearly perfected form and converted Gatling’s dream into wealth. Under their hands, machine guns had sprouted from the industrial conditions of nineteenth-century America to become global products that allowed armies to arm themselves for killing on a prodigious scale. But machine gunnery in the United States military remained a haphazard field. The American military entered the twentieth century with inventories of weapons of different calibers and designs, without a machine-gun doctrine, and with neither a standard arm nor a clear training plan. In 1903, the army held new tests and selected a Maxim water-cooled gun as its new standard machine gun.12 This decision would not long hold. There was similar confusion in Britain, even though the British army had adopted the Maxim ten years earlier. Russia had already become a minor machine-gun power. It had embraced rapid-fire arms since the Gatling gun first became available after the Civil War, and had since procured Maxims and distributed them in the field. Otherwise, only Germany kept pressing ahead, manufacturing guns and designing a doctrine to use them in special machine-gun units, which colonels and generals could control, moving them about the battlefield as necessary so firepower could be massed at critical moments and places, roughly as Captain Parker had suggested.13 Germany had certain psychological advantages over the other Western powers as it pursued its arming spree. It had not been interested in machine guns until Kaiser Wilhelm II saw Maxim’s gun in 1887; this meant that it began its association with machine gunnery with a weapon that worked well, and it did not have to overcome an internal institutional bias stemming from having invested in Gatlings or Gardners that jammed in the era when ammunition was unreliable.

Elsewhere, as machine-gun salesmen worked European officer clubs and test ranges, armies hewed to their traditions, assuming that when they fought again they would fight much as they had before, perhaps with victory to be carried by a decisive charge. Courage was praised, the philosophies of disciplined unit formations preached. War was seen as an activity to be carried by determined men, whose foes were broken by fright during a stoic advance to the bayonet fight. The attitude was well established in successful military units: Moral force was superior to material might, and men were supreme. In its way, the attitude marked one of the older and more enduring vulnerabilities of military units steeped in their past success and lore. Unleavened by an understanding of the changing tools available for battle, the attitude led men who should have known better to believe that machine guns were mere devices. Years after officers had personally observed the effects of machine guns in war, the brass clung almost mystically to the romance of close-quarter battle and championed tactics that Maxim guns had made obsolete. In their bias some officers even scoffed at the rifle. “It must be accepted as a principle that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the terror of cold steel,”14 one turn-of-the-century British training manual said.

Such were the daydreams. They could not be extinguished, even by clear accounts from distant wars. Military bureaucracies, as they considered incorporating machine guns into their armies, dawdled indecisively in every Western country but Germany. The thinking was fully blinkered. Senior officers recognized the effects of withering bursts of fire upon massed combatants, having heard reports of the felling of heaps of Arabs and Africans who advanced in formation toward machine guns. They were somehow unable to accept what might happen when such fire was directed against their own ranks. And then they were given another chance.

In 1904, after years of competition between the Russian and Japanese empires in the northwestern Pacific, the contest erupted into the Russo-Japanese War. Here machine guns and poor tactics were to combine for the bloodiest results yet. The origins of the war were simple. During the Boxer Uprising, from 1898 through 1901, Czar Nicholas II had dispatched Russian troops to Manchuria. He had not withdrawn them when the uprising ended. Instead, the Russian garrison grew, angering Japan, which saw Russia encroaching on its sphere of influence. Negotiations for a Russian withdrawal led nowhere, and in 1904 Japan struck, attacking the Russian navy at the Yellow Sea harbor of Port Arthur and sending infantry across the Yalu River to push overland for the port. En route, the Japanese divisions met Russian units, which were equipped with Maxim guns, organized into a company per division. Each company had sections of eight Maxims equipped with sixty-six hundred cartridges per gun.15 The czar’s infantry was not highly regarded. “The Russian soldier, when sober and not brutalized by slaughter, is a great, strong, kind, superstitious child; as good a fellow as ever stepped, but always a child,” wrote the correspondent present for the London Times, who was a former colonel himself. “Given an educated and highly trained corps of officers of a good class, capable of instructing, caring for, and leading him with judgment and skill, the Russian soldier would go far. But there is no such corps of officers in Russia.”16 No matter the poor reputation, machine guns turned the Russians into lethal defenders of held ground. After a battle along the approaches to the port, a Japanese lieutenant, Tadayoshi Sakurai, examined captured Russian Maxims. The Japanese army had its own collection of Hotchkiss machine guns, and its officers were beginning to use them in effective ways, especially in firing in support of Japanese attacks. But Lieutenant Sakurai had seen machine gunnery from the other perspective. He knew what happened to Japanese units when they faced Maxim guns. He looked upon the captured Russian Maxims as almost otherworldly tools. His description marked one of the earliest first-person accounts of the experience of coming under modern automatic fire. “This was the firearm most dreaded by us,” he wrote:

A large iron plate serves the purpose of a shield, through which aim is taken, and the trigger can be pulled while the gun is moving upward, downward, to the left, or to the right. More than six hundred bullets are pushed out automatically in one minute, as if a long continuous rod of balls was being thrown out of the gun. It can also be made to sprinkle its shot as roads are watered with a hose. It can cover a larger or smaller space, or fire to a greater or less distance as the gun wills. Therefore, if one becomes a target of this terrible engine of destruction, three or four shots may go through the same space in rapid succession, making the wound very large. ... And the sound it makes! Heard close by, it is a rapid succession of tap, tap, tap; but from a distance it sounds like a power loom heard late at night when everything else is hushed. It is a sickening, horrible sound! The Russians regard this machine as their best friend, and certainly it did very much as a means of defense. They were wonderfully clever in the use of this machine. They would wait till our men came very near them, four or five kenii only, and just at the moment when we proposed to shout a triumphant Banzai, this dreadful machine would begin to sweep over us with the besom of destruction, the results being hills and mounds of dead.17

Japanese ground forces besieged Port Arthur late in summer 1904. They found that the Russians had prepared. The port was on a peninsula, and the soldiers had spent months fortifying the hills overlooking it. They had also dug extensive trenches and filled the lanes though which the Japanese soldiers might attack with barbed wire. Lights were rigged to cover the approaches in darkness. Maxim guns watched over it all; by one count, thirty-eight Maxims in all.18 Circumstances were ripe for disaster. The Japanese infantry was fired with a culture in which to die in a battle was a supreme honor, and its officers faced a tactical problem for which their training offered no obvious or doctrinal solution. This was not entirely their fault. Until that time, there were no widely understood tactics for overcoming the types of modern defenses before them; the book on machine gunnery and tactics had not yet been written. The result was a horror. Eager for battle, the Japanese officers ordered human wave attacks across the open ground. One of the attacks, the Ninth Division’s assault on East Panlung, showed war’s new shape.

Sappers were sent first, at night, and managed to breach the Russian wire in several places, cutting open lanes through which the infantry of the Seventh Regiment might follow. The Japanese regimental commander ordered the First Battalion through the wire in the darkness before 5:00 A.M.The soldiers went up the hill without cover and were stopped in place by sweeping machine-gun fire; not a man advanced through the breaches. The regimental commander led the remaining battalion in a second attack over the same ground. He was quickly killed. The Second Battalion suffered the same fate as the first. In the predawn gloom, the division commander tried to watch from afar. He knew nothing of what was happening, beyond that the volume of Russian fire was deafening and the absence of a Banzai call was discouraging. The scene which revealed itself at daybreak was worse than any sense of foreboding had anticipated: “The hillside was thickly strewn with dead and dying, and in front and around the gaps in the wire entanglements the dead bodies were piled three or four high. No progress had been made anywhere, and the small surviving force of the gallant 7th was cut off from retreat by the murderous fire.”19 The division attacked again by daylight, sending another regiment of men over the same ground, bayonets high. These men, too, were cut down. A night attack ended in the same fashion.

This was but one episode among many. For weeks the Japanese attacked. The Russian garrisons were too isolated to resist indefinitely. In the end, the Japanese soldiers captured the port. But by the time Port Arthur changed hands in early 1905, the Japanese commanders had lost more than forty thousand20 of their army’s soldiers in the war, and they had repeated their tactical mistakes throughout, sending exposed troops forward again and again. Lieutenant Sakurai, whose infantry company was annihilated, summed up the mentality of soldiers sent on a mission understood to be suicidal. “We were all ready for death when leaving Japan,” he wrote. “Men going to battle of course cannot expect to come back alive. But in this particular battle, to be ready for death was not enough; what was required of us was a determination not to fail to die.”21

In the lieutenant’s last action, he almost got his wish. The soldiers set out on foot with twenty-inch bayonets affixed to their Type 30 carbines, picking their way through stacks of corpses from the waves before. The company commander, a captain, brandished a sword in the charge. He was killed. This was Lieutenant Sakurai’s moment. “From henceforth I command Twelfth Company!” he shouted. His command would be brief. He ordered a renewed charge, but soon the fire was thick and the men around him were few. What had been a company was a handful of survivors, including the lieutenant, who had been shot through the right hand. The Russians counterattacked. The remnants of Twelfth Company fell back, consolidated, and were trapped as the Russians brought up machine guns to finish the fight. The lieutenant was wounded and suffered the indignity of survival. It meant that he was able to tell what happened at the end. “Men on both sides fell like grass,” he said.22

This was not a distant colonial fight. It was a head-to-head conventional war between rival empires and soldiers bearing modern arms, fought in the presence of Western military attachés. The attachés observing the battles did a mixed job of assessing and reporting the discernable facts. Some noted that the Russian guns were effective. Lieutenant Colonel A. Haldane, a British attaché, wrote that Japanese attacks were “checked by machine gun and rifle fire, and there is no doubt that a strong feeling exists in the infantry that the presence of machine guns with the Russian army confers upon it a distinct advantage.”23 American reports were uneven. One officer reported that the Japanese had used their own machine guns quite effectively, and that Japanese officers had learned during the war that machine guns could be used offensively as well as in defense of held ground—an echo of what Captain Parker had proposed for ten years, and had proved outside Santiago. But another American officer wrote that “the machine gun [had] played a useful but not great part in the war.”24 As a body, those who could carry the word out—military observers and war correspondents alike—were distracted from the obvious: that in the age of machine guns assault tactics urgently needed to be rethought. Colonel Louis A. La Garde, of the United States Army Medical Corps, later reviewed casualty data from the war and noticed something that should have been readily observable by any attaché on hand: the military futility of a bayonet charge. Of 170,600 Russian soldiers documented as wounded or killed, bayonet wounds accounted for 0.4 percent.25 More wounds, Colonel La Garde found, were caused by stones. And yet some Westerners present at the war still succumbed to a fascination for the spirit of the Japanese soldiers, missing the technical and tactical points while filing dispatches describing what they regarded as fanaticism, whether bizarre or sublime. What did Westerners have to learn from the Japanese experience, after all, when everyone knew that no Western army would resort to attacks by human wave? One correspondent’s dispatch was typical:

It is said that when men have made up their mind to die they act and speak like gods. That day, when the fight was at its fiercest and the bullets were falling like rain, Lieutenant Sakamoto, who had been sent out towards the right flank on scouting duty, found himself pressed by a greatly superior force of the enemy and unable either to advance or to retreat. He sent an orderly to ask the commanding officer for final instructions. The reply was, “Go back and say to the Lieutenant, ‘Die.’” The orderly, saluting, rode off. What a grand order—“die.” The one word, “die”!26

Germany drew a different lesson. Kaiser Wilhelm II had continued his support for machine guns, and by 1899 the German military had four-gun machine-gun batteries. In 1908, each regiment had batteries of six guns, and the German army underwrote extensive inquiry and experimentation into how best to use them. All the while, the gun works at Spandau were producing more of its Maxim clones. The other Western militaries breezed through the early twentieth century without clarity on how they might use machine guns in the next war. Brigadier General J. Franklin Bell, the American army’s chief of staff, noted that his service did not have a doctrine, or even a plan, for the guns on order.

The War Department is now confronted with this situation: We have adopted a type of gun, mount and pack outfit, and contracted for a considerable number [120 for field service and 75 for coastal fortifications], and actual deliveries [80 guns] are being made pursuant to this contract; but no plan for the distribution and use of these guns has been formulated.27

Everything was set for disaster when World War I broke out.

In summer 1914, as one nation after another declared war, Germany invaded Belgium and made a thrust into France. Under prewar agreements, Great Britain was committed to provide France with military aid. Much of the British army was spread about the globe on imperial duty, but the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF—a contingent of six regular British infantry divisions and another division of cavalry—quickly crossed the Channel and took its place between the beleaguered Belgian and French militaries. Though the expeditionary force was small (Kaiser Wilhelm II called it a “contemptible little army”), it was experienced, highly trained, and professional, and it made a determined fight. But it was outnumbered and outgunned. Within weeks its ranks were thinned. Soon the BEF was joined by the British version of reserves, known as the Territorials. These units, too, suffered heavy losses.

The near destruction of the core of the British regular army meant that Britain resorted to a massive recruiting drive to build what Lord Kitchener, now the minister of war, would call the New Army. “We have been asked who will volunteer for Foreign service and I have said I will,” wrote Alfred Chater, one of the men mobilizing for war, in a note to his girlfriend as he made his choice that summer. “It was put to us in such a way that unless one is married it is almost impossible to say anything else.” A letter soon after was rueful: “It would be a splendid experience for those who come back.”28 The early months in Europe saw a war of movement, with armies racing across the countryside trying to outflank each other and check each other’s advance. But gradually the lines extended, and extended more, and settled by the fall into the Western Front. The opposing sides faced each other across a maze of trenches, pillboxes, and barbed wire. A modern form of siege warfare set in, as the Allies waited for replacement units to reinforce the lines and allow for an offensive to dislodge the entrenched German troops.

The imbalance of firepower was devastating. The German army went to war with more machine guns, and distributed them more widely, than any of their opponents. It began the war having issued sixteen machine guns to every infantry battalion, while the British army had issued two—thus part of the mismatch faced by the British Expeditionary Force in the war’s opening months.29 In 1892 the German gun works at Spandau had entered into an agreement with Ludwig Loewe and Co. (later the Deutsche Waffen and Munitions Fabrik) that gave the German firm the right to manufacture Maxim-pattern machine guns for sales to Germany and its united governments. Though many German officers initially resisted machine guns, the events at Omdurman and the Russo-Japanese War had made their impression, and by the early twentieth century, manufacturing had begun in earnest of the German modification Maschinengewehr 08, or MG08. The German military had at least forty-nine hundred of these Maxims by the start of the war. Manufacturing accelerated after hostilities began.30 Even Germany’s colonial troops were equipped with machine guns, which led to one of the failed British actions outside of Europe and demonstrated yet again that the British military mind did not yet grasp matters at hand.

In November 1914, a British naval and infantry force moved against East Africa, hoping to push aside the thin contingent of German soldiers along the coast and assert British control over the continent. The crown’s plan included an attack on Tanga, a seaport located in what is now Tanzania. An amphibious British force, accompanied by Indian units, landed outside the city and passed through most of the tropical forest around the port. The enemy’s pickets were waiting. As the invasion force drew within six hundred yards of Tanga’s outskirts, the Germans and their colonial units opened fire. “Bullets came thick, men falling in all directions,” wrote Captain Richard Meinertzhagen, a British intelligence officer who went ashore in the landing party’s little boats. “Half of the 13th Rajputs turned at once, broke into a rabble and bolted, carrying most of the 61st Pioneers with them.” In the afternoon, the invasion force managed to round up enough of its scattered soldiers to push forward and into the city. “I had collected some 70 Rajputs and two private soldiers of the North Lancs and got them back to the firing line,” the captain wrote. As these small contingents pressed on, they were met by machine guns in the hands of native African soldiers under German command. This was both a reversal and precursor. For decades the British had used machine guns to bloody effect in Africa. Now Africans were pointing machine guns back.

Machine guns were deadly and swept every approach, every house spitting fire. The Kashmir Infantry and two companies of Rajputs were doing well. I particularly admired the pluck of young Hammick of the Rajputs, quite a lad and appearing to revel in bullets. I joined on to some Kashmiri Dogras and we were doing well, taking house after house near the Customs House, when we came to a broad street which was an inferno of machine-gun and rifle fire. This brought us up short. My party was twenty-five men, and nine fell at the first attempt to cross.

Facing heavy fire, the British and Indian soldiers lost their hold on the city. Soon the troops had “dwindled away or were shot and I found myself with two men in the Customs House,” Captain Meinertzhagen wrote. The British attack was broken. Soldiers were scattered along the route of their advance, many shaking with fear. Bullets had struck beehives in the trees, and the insects swarmed upon the miserable force, stinging soldiers cowering on the ground. A British ship, in the harbor, was shelling the shore randomly. Some of the incoming rounds exploded among the British troops. The breakdown was complete. “Most of the men had gone, we were all parched with thirst, ammunition was short and the last remnants of the British firing line were a few British officers, each fighting their own battle,” the captain wrote. Tanga would remain in German hands. British plans were checked by machine-gun fire. Africa was not ever to be the same, though the salient point about machine gunnery was largely lost on the defeated soldiers, who commiserated not about the difficulties, even the pointlessness, of using old tactics against these modern weapons, but about being defeated by Africans.

“The Lancs are very dejected at having lost so many friends, for their best have gone,” Meinertzhagen wrote. “They also feel the disgrace of losing a fight against black troops. They are not a first-class battalion.”31 The captain offered a similarly dismissive reaction to the Rajputs’ fear when they first came under fire. The Indians, he wrote, “were all jabbering like terrified monkeys.” Both comments were instructive. Racism still informed colonial operations. And Captain Meinertzhagen, who published his diaries years later and with the benefit of seeing the outcome on the Western Front, could not, even with the passing of time, understand the technical picture for what it was: Intensive machine-gun fire could hardly be beaten back by men with rifles using tactics of yore.

By this time, the Western Front was taking on an air of permanence, and the war in Europe was settling into the shape for which it would be remembered. The trench systems were a complicated and carefully considered network. A set of forward trenches served as the front line, supporting trenches were dug farther back, and the reserve trenches farther still—all part of a defense in depth that could absorb an enemy thrust. Along the lines, trenches rarely ran in straight lines for any distance; soldiers dug them according to the contours of the countryside—the sides of hills, across knolls, in positions overlooking concealed routes of approach—in ways that gave the occupants a commanding view of the ground out front. This maximized their defensive potential by providing clear fields of fire into likely infiltration routes. On level ground trenches were typically cut into the earth in zigs and zags, a precaution so that if an artillery or mortar shell landed squarely inside, or an enemy infantryman lobbed in a grenade, the blast would be contained and casualties would be limited to the few unlucky souls in one small bit of ditch. But the defense was not simply linear, weaving, and wide. It was buttressed by strong points, concentrations of soldiers and weapons in woodlots or higher ground where they could fight from even more sturdy positions. These strong points were often near enough to one another to be mutually supporting by interlocking fire. In front of all this were listening posts, from which sentries could give early warning of an attack or approaching patrol. And throughout the front proper, snipers scanned the terrain from concealed positions, ready to shoot any man who dared to expose himself by day. When the sun was up, the warrens of earthworks could seem eerily deserted, save for noise and the smoke rising from cooking fires. Soldiers learned not to lift their heads above their parapets until after dark. This lesson was reinforced by the fate of the incautious, who often were shot by high-powered rifle bullets in the head.

Between the opposing trenches was No-Man’s-Land, a ribbon of unoccupied territory that resembled the ground where Japanese soldiers had perished by the thousands at Port Arthur. No-Man’s-Land was narrow in many areas, and soldiers listened to their enemies’ voices. “In my part of the line the trenches are only 50 or 60 yards apart in some places, and we can hear the Germans talking,” Captain Chater wrote his girlfriend after arriving in France. “They often shout to us in English and we respond with cries of ‘waiter!’”32 In other places, one thousand yards separated the soldiers. This open ground was watched over by machine guns and by artillery observers, who were ready to call down fire onto troops in the open by day, or at night, to send flares aloft that might illuminate enemy patrols. The machine guns of the time only faintly resembled their predecessors of fifty years before. No longer were they wheeled about on heavy timber frames between carriage wheels, to be mistaken for cannon. They had shrunk, some of them to under one hundred pounds, including their tripod mounts and other gear, and could be rigged low to the ground. The tripod served as a stable firing platform, making the guns far more accurate than handheld rifles, and allowing gunners to traverse the barrels in sweeps. Smokeless powder in the cartridges of the time meant that gunners crouching behind a machine gun, firing through a slot in the earth, were difficult to spot.

Given the intricacy of the defenses, and the difficulties they posed, large battles were rare. The soldiers on both sides of the trenches followed routines: a full alert, known as “stand-to,” at dawn and dusk. Nightfall brought patrols or manual labor repairing earthworks, filling sandbags, and the like. The soldiers slept in snatches by day. Helmets, the most valuable piece of personal defensive equipment in the entire war, were rarely issued to British soldiers during the first two years of fighting, and heads were unnecessarily exposed to shrapnel and ricochets. Front-line officers carried pistols and swords, weapons that were useless except at exceptionally short range. The British Lee-Enfield rifles were not often fired. Riflemen almost never saw a clear target. The large British bayonet was almost universally issued, though as one historian dryly observed, it was principally “useful for chopping wood and other domestic work.”33

New battalions arrived at the Western Front with roughly one thousand men. Without major battles, they could expect to lose thirty soldiers a month to injury or death, and another thirty to disease.34 Those not struck by German ordnance or weakened by illness endured a singular ordeal: a maze of rats, rot, tinned food, infection, and trash. They were soaked and muddy much of the year and bitterly cold in winter. Random violence—a sniper shot or an incoming artillery or mortar round—was a constant threat. To fortify the young soldiers, many officers issued swigs of rum before missions, hoping to lift spirits in the face of the fear and ugliness ahead.

In fall 1914, as the British units fought in these woeful conditions, new volunteers were being rushed through preparations to take their place. Swarms of men were being kitted out and drilled. Equipment remained scarce. “Rifles and bayonets are also at a premium,” wrote Private Arthur Anderson, a teenager who joined the Second Battalion, Ninth Royal Scots. “Only a matter of dozen ancient patterns of each being available per company, with the result being that our progress in rifle drill is somewhat slow.”35 Private Anderson was a meticulous penman and easy writer, and his diary documented the state of British training as he was converted from a Scottish boy to an infantryman in kilt, deemed ready for war. By late November, he had been issued a rifle. In December his unit was practicing maneuvers in city parks, and later in a system of training trenches dug into a golf course at Riccarton. There was much prewar monotony and dreariness: inspections, inoculations, church parades, bland food, and crowded quarters. The practice trenches offered a hint of realism and could have been used to drill a wide range of tactics for attacking German lines defended by machine guns, except that thoughtful tactics for that sort of battle did not yet exist. Brigadier General Ivor Maxse, a senior British officer regarded as a premier tactician, dispensed wisdom that looked not much different from what the Japanese army had tried at Port Arthur. “A single line will fail; two will usually fail, three lines will sometimes fail, but four will usually succeed,” General Maxse said—an official endorsement of attack by human wave.36 Private Anderson waited to be old enough to ship to France. In the interim, he stood picket duty against amphibious landing and collared drunken soldiers home on leave. His record of the training he received reads like the chronicle of an alert and intelligent young man sent nonchalantly to die. “The rest of the time is taken up with the usual routine of drills and exercises,” he wrote, “and putting in a good deal of firing practice and bayonet fighting.”

British fascination with the bayonet persisted in the face of all evidence that it was a weapon long outmoded. In theory, the mettle of disciplined men moving forward into fire to slash and stab their foes was enough to unnerve almost any enemy force. In practice, moving forward with a big knife into machine-gun fire, across open ground and in extended lines, was not much different from Zulu warriors attacking British Gatlings with spears at Ulundi in 1879, or Sudanese men rushing with swords toward General Kitchener’s Maxim guns along the Nile in 1898. Casualty reports from World War I were not fully reliable, especially in real time. Lists were incomplete or repetitious, and there was no standardized method among the Allies for collecting and distributing information crucial to assessing the wounding agents in war. But the available statistics, for all of their flaws, virtually roared on one point: Bayonets were unquestionably ineffective in what war had become. One military critic wrote in February 1916 that data collected from a French army corps that had been in heavy action found that bayonets caused 0.5 percent of casualties, while shells, grenades, trench explosions, shrapnel, and bullets accounted for a combined 92.5 percent (7 percent of the injuries were of undetermined cause).37 That even one-half of one percent of the casualties were caused by bayonets was a testimony less to their martial utility than to the fact that both sides insisted on fighting with them. Such data might have suggested to the war’s planners, and to the designers of infantry-school curricula, that perhaps it was time to explore an alternative set of weapons and means of fighting. And yet as fresh troops were being drilled to enter the war, prowess with the bayonet remained near the center of infantry training. Thus the British manual on the subject, a terrifying period piece:

The bayonet is essentially an offensive weapon. In a bayonet assault all ranks go forward to kill or be killed, and only those who have developed skill and strength by constant training will be able to kill. The spirit of the bayonet must be inculcated into all ranks, so that they go forward with the aggressive determination and confidence of superiority born of continued practice, without which a bayonet charge will not be effective.38

There happened to be other factors that made bayonet charges ineffective; Hiram Maxim and the European gun works that received licenses to manufacture his patterns had seen to that. But the romance with cold steel endured. Traditions—and bad ideas—die more slowly than men.

As Private Anderson waited for his turn in France, news from the front was grim. The Royal Scots’ First Battalion suffered heavy casualties soon after it landed, and two of his friends were killed. By this time, early in 1915 and after a winter of misery, British troops had shed illusions of war. The early cheer had vanished. One noncommissioned officer, A. J. Rixon of the London Irish Rifles, also left a diary of his experiences. It was a laconic account of daily life and tactical choices that filled him with anguish and disgust. “Trenches are like a maze only a trifle more dangerous,” he wrote, describing the difficulty of moving any distance on even the friendly side of the line. “An awful time. 1½ miles doubled up like a pocket knife. Reached the corner but then had to go along a road about a mile under fire all the time. One man hit in the leg, almost wish it had been me, if this is a usual thing.”39 As his unit prepared for an attack, his diary entries assumed an air of helplessness and dread. “Once more I wish I was single, no game for a man with responsibilities cant do as would like.iii Life not my own.”40 When he watched another unit return, his emotions almost overwhelmed him. “Not many came out unwounded, those who did all have souvenirs, helmets etc. Some wounds sickening but boys bearing up wonderfully no grumbling. Enemy throwing petrol bombs on wounded, and many burned to death ammunition exploding in meantime. Snipers refuse to let S.Bsiv go near wounded between lines many shot if attempt to move. God help enemy if boys ever get at them.” Sergeant Rixon was not a young man. He was thirty years old and responsible for keeping his company’s soldiers ready and leading them in battle. But he was spent. Worn down and confused, he was near despair. “The language in this trench is awful,” he wrote. “Fed up with everything. Its not war but murder.”

The resolve he finally found within was rooted in resignation. “Must buck up,” he wrote, “as I am not dead yet.”

Still the tactics had not evolved. The London Irish Rifles went into battle with its soldiers marching in extended lines across No-Man’s-Land. Sergeant Rixon saw the madness of this even while urging his men along, enforcing the absurdity by shouting orders to keep the formation intact. He described himself as:

... personally being more or less guilty of inanely and with parrot like frequency exhorting the boys to keep their 5 paces, although after the first 300 yards I couldn’t see more than 50 yards each side of me, owing to the smoke, and vision obscured by smoke helmet. I realised after a time that my efforts were being wasted the smoke helmet smothering my voice so shut up, confining myself to watching if any of the boys went down so as to replace them by carrying men whom we had with us for that purpose. I don’t wish to give the impression by the above that I was absolutely coolness itself; I wasn’t by any means, but in a horrible state of funk, as men were falling all around me.41

As the army gained experience of the sort that was unraveling Sergeant Rixon, the replacement soldiers were drilled to fight in the same ways. Back in Scotland, Private Anderson’s battalion’s “bayonet fighting team” was preparing for a military tourney and exhibition for local dignitaries. “When the great day arrives the weather is broken, and by the time it is our turn to go on the rain is coming down in torrents and the ground is practically deserted, with the exception of the judges and a few notables, all of whom are comfortably settled in a covered stand,” he wrote. “Clad only in shorts and singlets we bravely carry through our performance.” The British army had at last realized that it needed machine guns in far greater numbers than it had them. A royal warrant in fall 1915 had ordered the creation of a Machine Gun Corps.42 And in addition to the redoubtable Vickers, the British army was also issuing Lewis guns, light machine guns of American design that had been rejected in the United States but that were being quickly produced at a gun works in Birmingham, England. The gun weighed less than thirty pounds and could be moved about the battlefield much more quickly than the heavier guns of the day. But in all of Private Anderson’s diary, there is no mention of machine-gun training for the war. He was busy mastering his rifle’s potential as a twentieth-century spear.

All the while, the battalion was shrinking. Its members were being sent to France as replacements for the ravaged battalions on the front. In April 1916, Private Anderson’s turn to ship out came, and he departed for the French countryside, where he soon encountered garish sights. Almost two full years into the war, some soldiers were not yet in dull-colored clothes. “French soldiers, in their red and blue uniforms, are also much in evidence now, and much amusement is caused by the sight of French Cavalry, complete with brass helmets and breast-plates,” he wrote. “In some cases the helmets are covered with sacking and breast-plates daubed with some dull substances, but there is no doubt that such a get-up could hardly be considered appropriate to modern war conditions.”

Private Anderson was assigned to the infamous Labyrinth, a warren of trenches below the Germans in Vimy Ridge. A French unit had held the position in the winter, before the Scots arrived, and had buried its dead soldiers in the parapets; as the soil eroded in the warm spring rains, decomposing bits of corpses slipped out, filling the trenches with nauseating smells and occupying the attention of rats. Private Anderson had his first encounter with the German machine guns, Maxim’s offspring from Spandau, when he was part of a night patrol sent into No-Man’s-Land. A stray round passed through another soldier’s knee. The young Scots huddled near the wounded man, hoping he would not cry out and reveal their location. It was no use.

The Germans heard all right, but their fusillade of bullets passed wide of us. We completed our job and, helping our wounded man along, returned cautiously in what we trusted was the right direction. No sounds could be heard from the trench before us, and we were compelled to lie flat in the mud, hoping to get some sign to let us know we were at our own lines. After a bit, getting fed-up lying in the dirt our sergeant decided to risk giving a shout. Fortunately for us it was answered by one of our own sentries, and we scrambled back to the shelter of the trench, but not before my dear old friend Miller, hit by a bullet, dropped dead over the parapet. This is a hot spot for machine-guns.

Private Anderson’s indoctrination continued its ghastly escalation. In mid-May 1916, the Germans began a heavy bombardment along the lines. Within two days shells were landing and exploding on Private Anderson’s sector through the night. His unit was put on alert ahead of an anticipated ground attack. The battalion began to lose men in the barrage, including a captain, who was carried past dead. The side of his head was gone. That evening the German artillery fell silent. The attack came.

They are moving across the open being pretty well bunched up in places, and affording an excellent target. Our front-line is unable to stop their advance however, and we in the support line get orders to open fire, and pour a steady rifle and machine-gun fire into them. By now, also, our field guns have started shelling and the attackers are being badly cut up but they reach our front line, which has now been vacated, and our own troops are doubling back over the open to our support trenches.

British guns pounded their own front-line trenches, hoping to dislodge the German soldiers. Private Anderson knew what this meant. He waited for the order to counterattack. When it came, he experienced his first taste of running into concentrated machine-gun fire.

It is still twilight when the signal is given and we go over the top, advancing across the open ground with difficulty, as two lines of trenches have to be “jumped” by means of narrow bridges, which causes much congestion. Everyone is in the charge; stretcher-bearers, signalers and the Lewis gunners, and we make our way blindly forward through a chaos of bursting shells and machine-gun bullets. It is only possible to see one’s nearest neighbors in the smoke, the sense of direction is entirely lost, and there is an awful feeling of being very much alone. The noise, which at first was deafening, is hardly noticed after a few minutes, shell splinters and bullets are practically ignored, and dead and wounded lying in the way are only looked upon with a sort of mild interest. The sole idea seems to be to keep on until something happens. It appears as though it would be impossible to get through such an inferno, but at last we reach the trench. The Germans have put up a stout resistance but we managed to get about sixty prisoners before they break away for their own lines.

The fighting stalled. Anderson’s company had retaken its trench. Thirty-five of its soldiers were killed. Nearly one hundred others were wounded. The trench routine returned.

Equipment can drive tactics. In a nimble military organization it often does. The British misapprehension of machine guns was related in part to the fact that British units had few machine guns of their own, which meant few officers and soldiers had experience with automatic fire before facing it from the opposite side. Those who did gain a sound technical and tactical understanding were often incapacitated or killed, which resulted in a regular winnowing of hard-won knowledge. Where were the British machine guns? This was a question being asked at the top. During 1915, David Lloyd George, then serving as the nation’s minister of munitions, tried to determine why the British were underequipped with a weapon that the enemy had stockpiled. He found that from August 1914 to June 1915, the British military requested only 1,792 machine guns from the Vickers plant. “This would work out to two machine guns per battalion with none left for training at home,” he wrote, with palpable anger, and “no margin for losses or breakages.” The munitions minister, soon to become the British premier, excoriated the senior officer class. “It took our generals many months of terrible loss to realise the worth of the machine gun. They were converted by representations from officers who had witnessed its deadly effect in action. The farther they were from the fighting line the less impressed were military commanders with the power and peril of the machine gun,” he wrote. He added a caustic aside: “It is an incredible story for anyone who had no actual experience of the fanatical hostility displayed by the Higher Commands to any new ideas.”

In summer 1915, the munitions ministry confronted Lord Kitchener about the military’s pitiable requests for automatic arms and demanded estimates for future manufacture. Kitchener, having commanded the British and Egyptian forces at Omdurman, might have been expected to know something about the machine gun’s value in combat. But in a meeting with Sir Eric Geddes, one of Lloyd George’s deputies, he was indifferent. He had no idea how many guns the forces would need. Nor was he able to offer guidelines for purchases through early 1916.

“Do you think I am God Almighty that I can tell you what is wanted nine months ahead?” Kitchener said.

Geddes insisted. At last Kitchener answered that “the proportion was to be two machine guns per battalion as a minimum, four as a maximum and anything above four was a luxury.” Geddes was disgusted. (“This was the opinion of the Secretary of War, who was looked upon generally as our greatest soldier,” he wrote.) He asked Kitchener to sign a memorandum to that effect.

Geddes, satisfied that he had a document that would enable him to deliver more machine guns to the front, presented the memorandum to Lloyd George. Lloyd George was aghast. He had quietly taken to talking on his own with soldiers returning from the horrors of France, and had been told repeatedly that the troops needed more machine guns. As minister of munitions, he had no authority to exceed the secretary of war’s request. He seemed not to care. He almost tore up Kitchener’s memo, but Geddes managed to save it for posterity. Lloyd George then broke policy.

“Take Kitchener’s maximum [four per battalion],” he said. “Square it, multiply that result by two; and when you are in sight of that, double it again for good luck.”

In this way, over the objections of its most senior officer, the British military began to get its guns. By 1918 it would have 138,349 more machine guns on order. It planned for nearly 200,000 more in 1919. The stock on hand in June 1915, roughly at the time of the spat between Geddes and Kitchener, was 1,330 machine guns in all. Lloyd George was unapologetic to the end. “Nor do I think that the Army ever had cause to regret that the supply proposed by Lord Kitchener in July, 1915, was increased sixteenfold. Photographs taken of dead Highlanders lying in swaths in front of a single German machine gun on the battlefield of Loos, which I saw some weeks later, taken by Colonel Arthur Lee and brought to me, finally disposed of any qualms I may have had at having taken upon myself the responsibility for overriding military opinion.”

Military opinion was overridden. The material side of machine gunnery was now being addressed, at least for the British. The tactical side remained far behind.

Two years into the war, in summer 1916, Kitchener’s New Army was deemed sufficiently ready to attack. The Allies chose to open a French and British offensive in the countryside near the River Somme, a rural area of northwestern France, striking along a wide belt of front. The battle was meant in part to take pressure off the French at Verdun, where Germany had launched an offensive of its own. For the early part of the war, the front near the Somme had been entirely a French sector. By late 1915, as the Royal Scots arrived at the Labyrinth, British troops had been assuming command on the lines. The ground was hardly ideal for an attack. No-Man’s-Land here was wide-open, usually treeless, and covered with a fine, chalky soil. Cover was all but nonexistent.

By this time, the Machine Gun Corps had come into existence, and gunners attended an eight-week course. Lloyd George’s requisitions were having an effect in the field. A division now had 204 machine guns at its disposal; at the start of the war, a division had 24.43 But while the British had become materially more formidable, their tactics for storming enemy positions remained undeveloped. A veteran French captain from the 153rd Infantry, André Laffargue, had begun working out new methods. His ideas held promise. Laffargue had survived traditional attacks across open ground, into the teeth of German defenses. He grasped that machine guns were not only defensive weapons. Like Captain Parker in the United States, he proposed that the weapons be rushed forward and used to suppress enemy positions as the infantry moved close. “The machine gun should be pushed as far as possible in front of the halted line of fire,” he wrote. “It will enable the infantry line to advance for some time under the cover of its fire; it is the tooth of the attack.”44 Through bloody experience, Captain Laffargue had also learned that enemy machine guns needed to be knocked out for an attack to have a realistic chance of success. He proposed that light artillery move behind the attack, like a gigantic rifle, to blast German machine guns by direct fire whenever German guns appeared. He also proposed a detailed reconnaissance of any trench to be attacked, with the intention of locating the enemy’s machine guns so that they might be silenced before they reaped their toll. “The weapon that inflicts the heaviest losses on infantry is the machine gun, which uncovers itself suddenly and in a few seconds lays out the assailants by ranks. It is therefore absolutely necessary to destroy them before the attack or have the means of putting them out of action as soon as they disclose themselves.”45 Captain Laffargue’s proposals were not flawless; he still believed in the value of rigid open-order formations. But he also urged riflemen to fire their weapons as they advanced, and to suppress German fighters as they fired back. Taken together, his proposals were well enough regarded in French military circles that Joseph Joffre, chief of the French General Staff, circulated an article Laffargue wrote throughout the French army. It was translated into English by the Infantry Journal, an American publication, and given wide circulation among officers in 1916.

None of the proposals appeared to influence British planning for the offensive ahead.

The orders were given: The attack on the Somme would begin with a nearly weeklong artillery and mortar barrage in late June, and on July 1, eighty-four British battalions, more than sixty thousand men, would attack on foot across a sector eighteen miles wide. No operation of this size could be kept secret. Spies worked the lines, and the pilots of German aircraft and spotter balloons watched the buildup. For weeks rumors of the impending offensive filled conversations in the trenches on both sides. “Apparently the Germans know as much about the coming offensive as we do,” Private Anderson wrote in his diary, before the battles began.46

The preparatory barrage appeared terrible, but the Germans had dug sleeping shelters within their trench systems, and they took cover within them with their weapons, ammunition, and even beer.47 They watched from relative safety, keeping watch on No-Man’s-Land and the British lines with mirrors and trench periscopes.

The troops gathered before dawn on July 1. The barrages lifted. At 7:20 A.M., the British engineers detonated explosives in shafts they had cut deep under the German lines. The blasts heaved dirt high into the sky and left craters of smoldering earth. A brief calm ensued. The British soldiers had been told by their officers that the artillery would destroy the German defenses and kill so many German soldiers that survivors would be unable to resist. Confidence was distributed like rum. Bunkers would be crushed, the officers said, and the barbed wire defending them would be severed. The British infantry would quickly carry the other side. At 7:30 A.M., Zero Hour, the time came to find out if any of this would be so.

The first battalions, their soldiers laden with backpacks and loads of at least seventy pounds, carrying Lee-Enfield rifles with bayonets affixed, climbed out of their trenches. As the soldiers stepped over the top, some of them, observing a tradition that marked their boyishness, kicked footballs gamely out into the stillness. The leather balls bounced into No-Man’s-Land, a zone almost without cover. In front of the British soldiers, and in most places uphill, were the German front lines. The British began to walk, in formation, lines of men moving forward parallel to the frontage ahead. This was not the full madness of nineteenth-century close-order drill, but it was close. German machine gunners opened fire. Some of the British soldiers were knocked back into the trenches by bullets before they had taken a step forward. The companies formed up and pushed on in waves, deeper into the trap their officers had designed for them. Survivors recounted the scene.

From their trenches came the “tac-tac-tac” of the guns as they traversed to and fro along the endless lines of advancing men. Whole waves were swept over by the fire. The dead lay in long rows where they had fallen, the wounded lay with them, pretending to be dead, or took cover wherever they could—in a fold in the ground, in one of the rare shell holes. Many huddled behind the body of a dead comrade. If a wave or part of it was missed in the first sweep, back would come the traverse of fire seeking out the survivors. The long line of men came forward, rifles at the port as ordered. Now Gerry started. His machine guns let fly. Down they all went. I could see them dropping one after another as the gun swept along them. The officer went down at exactly the same time as the man behind him. Another minute or so and another wave came forward. Gerry was ready this time and this lot did not get so far as the others.48

Watching from behind their machine guns, German soldiers were amazed. They had weathered fear and frustration through the shelling, waiting for the immense attack they knew was coming. As they peered over their parapets in the sudden quiet, the sights astonished them: thousands upon thousands of men, strolling exposed in neat lines. The British carried their rifles across their chests, in the drill-field posture known as port arms. “The English came walking, as though they were going to the theatre or as though they were on a parade ground,” one German soldier said. “We felt they were mad.” Another saw waves in which the men were so densely packed they “were like trees in a wood.”49 Some of the Germans whooped. They were professional soldiers, the product of a German military system in which conscription was nearly universal in early manhood, and civilian men maintained and updated their skills through mandatory reserve duty into early middle age. They had never seen such targets before. The time for killing was at hand. One German machine-gun team alone would fire at least twenty-five thousand rounds.50

In this withering fire, a Yorkshire battalion, Company A of the Seventh Green Howards, lost 108 of 140 men in minutes. An even more galling destruction fell upon the Tyneside Irish, a brigade of three thousand men, which had to cross almost a mile of open ground behind its own front-line trenches just to reach the British edge of No-Man’s-Land. It took twenty minutes under fire to complete this march. Bullets slammed into the soldiers the entire way. The surviving Irish were ordered on, to press the attack across five hundred yards of open space and breach the German lines. They plunged forward, through the bloodied remains of the battalions that had gone before. Somehow they managed to cross the ground and get a toehold in the German lines. Of the three thousand men who had stepped off, fifty fighting men remained.51 The New Amy, Lord Kitchener’s grand two-year project to replace the battered British Expeditionary Force with volunteers from all walks of British life—the mines, the factories, the clerks, the schoolhouses—was being cut down in an hour. The Dervishes had fought this foolishly. So had Japanese soldiers, who saw duty in death. Now the British army was doing it, too.

A darker hour for England would be hard to measure. By one estimate, 30,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded in the first sixty minutes. The midday tally reached 50,000. By the end of the day, 21,000 British soldiers were dead, 35,000 wounded, and 600 more had been taken prisoner. The survivors were emotionally devastated. One lance corporal, a signaler who had not been assigned to advance, watched his friends try to cross, only, he said, to be “mown down like meadow grass.” He stayed back, weeping.

Private Anderson’s battalion was not ordered to attack the first day. Several days later, as the battle continued, his unit raided German trenches. Before returning to the British side, his platoon lost several men, and a bullet struck and splintered his rifle stock. After several months of war, his platoon had been wrecked. “Of the old crowd only Wightman, Davidson, Tommy Graham, Harvey, and the hefty Irishman Connell and myself remain, as well as Reid and Crossley,” he wrote. Two sentences later he added: “A German sniper also got 2nd Lieut. Stewart through the head when he was having a look over the top.”52 Tens of thousands of men had been lost. Front-line life remained the same.

As news of the slaughter on the Somme trickled out, Hiram Maxim, now seventy-six, was retired comfortably in London. If he was troubled by the killing being done with his namesake invention, he revealed no sign of it. If anything, he seemed proud. After the war had begun, he had published an essay in the New York Times boasting of inventing both the automatic machine gun and the smokeless powder that made it a more effective killing machine. His principal concern appeared to be to make sure that he received credit ushering these developments to form. In 1915, in his memoir, My Life, he crowed more. “I was the first man in the world to make an automatic gun,” he wrote. “The gun was very light, small, and effective, and the automatic system, which was thoroughly worked out by myself, went into universal use throughout the whole civilized world. It is astonishing to note how quickly this invention put me on the very pinnacle of fame.”53 He maintained his detachment and dark humor to the book’s end, where he lamented that an inhaler he had designed to relieve congestion brought him no fame at all. “It is a very creditable thing to make a killing machine,” he wrote, “and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering.”54 Maxim died in November 1916, a few weeks after the end of the Battle of the Somme, which caused more than a million casualties to the armies involved without changing the fundamental contours of the Western Front. To the end he never showed a public hint of regret. Given his history and the record of his public statements, this is neither surprising nor especially significant. The time of sales pitches, claims of inventive genius, and disputes over patents had passed. Machine guns were now firmly in the domain of the common foot soldier, and soldiers both understood their uses and gave the weapons their meaning

War was not for the likes of Gatling and Maxim; neither ever experienced it firsthand. That experience fell to others. It was these young men, who suffered what modern battle had become, who would best explain the experience of automatic fire, as Wilfred Owen did. In 1918, just before he died, Owen wrote “Spring Offensive,” which described a British unit resting behind a hill before trying to cross a valley. The front had been broken by then. The Allies were chasing the retreating German forces. The British unit emerged on open ground and discovered that the Germans were ready with a delaying action. Owen described what Maxim could not. In his poem, the soldiers were a hardened and exhausted bunch. To them the war was old and horribly familiar, and experience had scoured away any expectation of glory, or even of nation or heroism. The soldiers were simply tired. Some felt a sense of foreboding before they tried to cross the valley. It was as if, Owen wrote, they knew “their feet had come to the end of the world.” Then they moved out, to be memorialized in Owen’s elegy for the common soldier, written a month before he himself was killed in action.

Soon, they topped the hill, and raced together

Over an open stretch of herb and heather

Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned

With fury against them; earth set sudden cups

In thousands for their blood; and the green slope

Chasmed and deepened sheer to infinite space

Of them who running on that last high place

Breasted the surf of bullets, or went up

On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge.

Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,

Some say God caught them even before they fell.55

More than fifty years after Richard Gatling gave the world the first reliable rapid-fire arms, the basic questions about machine gunnery had been answered. All doubts about their utility had been erased. All serious military powers armed their ranks with them in large quantities and provided the soldiers assigned to them with generous amounts of ammunition. By late in World War I, spurred at last by an understanding of the futility of attacking well-defended trenches and machine-gun bunkers with masses of knife-wielding infantrymen, ideas about firepower and tactics were shifting, swiftly and finally. Machine guns were being put into use in all forms of warfighting that could be waged within the distance that a bullet could fly. Light machine guns were mounted on aircraft to strafe ground targets and to shoot other aircraft down. Heavy machine guns were mounted on turrets and used to pound boats, aircraft, trucks, and cars. Tanks were created in part so that men could move against machine guns, and to defend themselves, tanks had machine guns mounted on them, too. The British Machine Gun Corps, which began with only a few machine guns and a royal warrant, would grow to have more than 170,000 soldiers and officers, and would suffer more than 62,000 casualties, making it an important part of the history of the war.56 Infantry tactics changed, moving away from inflexible formations and frontal attacks to approaching the enemy via infiltration and with precision supporting fires. The human wave—or extended line, or whatever euphemism the officers endowed it with—was falling from use in professional Western military units, though it would be seen again in a variety of forms in more centralized or less-developed militaries or guerrilla groups. Drab clothing and camouflage became the necessary standard to improve the odds of a soldier’s survival in the era of automatic arms, especially as tracer rounds, which allowed machine gunners to see precisely where their cone of bullets was flying, came into widespread use. By late 1916, as the Battle of the Somme ended and the understanding of its carnage was settling into military and political minds, and as the imperious and unshaken Sir Hiram Maxim was carried off to his grave, the skepticism about machine guns was gone. By the time of the Armistice, in 1918, another question had moved to the fore: How to make automatic weapons smaller, so that their firepower could be carried by a single man?

The question was not entirely new. Hiram Maxim had sketched out an automatic rifle in his earliest efforts to make machine guns, and he dabbled briefly with a possible design. Since the 1890s, other arms designers had been trying, with great frustration and limited success, to make the first reliable and manageable automatic rifle. The idea had proved to be as frustrating as the Civil War–era efforts to make hand-cranked battery guns. One of the first reasonably successful entries was the Madsen, a short-lived Danish creation that was not issued to its army. But there had been many other efforts at a semiautomatic and automatic rifle: by Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher, by John Browning, by Peter Paul Mauser, and by other arms engineers and gunsmiths.57 A Russian armorer, Vladimir Grigorevich Fedorov, began work on an automatic rifle in 1906, and by World War I had produced a working model, though it suffered from problems and was never perfected or moved to mass production. In World War I, a number of machine guns appeared on battlefields at sizes considerably smaller than the big Maxim and Vickers and Colt guns, and had been successful enough in the trenches. These smaller guns, the Lewis among them, hinted at the possibilities of miniaturization. But they remained far too large to be considered rifles, and because they fired rifle-caliber ammunition at a great rate, they were not weapons to be used for any length of time by a single man. The rifle ammunition of the time was large and powerful, capable of propelling bullets out of muzzles at velocities approaching three thousand feet per second. The effect down-range was exactly what ballisticians thought they wanted: a long, flat trajectory for bullets that could strike a man with tremendous force and potential for lethality more than a kilometer away. But one unhelpful and inseparable result was that the heat and recoil associated with firing these cartridges strained lighter-weight weapons and soldiers alike, and made designing small but sturdy automatic rifles, which would blaze though this high-powered ammunition in rapid-fire mode, exceptionally difficult, as Fedorov was finding as he experimented in Russia. And therein was the problem: the ammunition. As long as designers sought to make an automatic rifle that would fire contemporary high-power ammunition, the field of automatic-rifle design remained frustrated by technical problems, and largely undeveloped.

By 1915, after World War I had settled into a siege on the Western Front, Germany took another path toward a portable weapon that could be rushed forward to clear trenches. The underlying concept was the same. Germany sought a weapon that would concentrate fire, but would be small enough to be wielded by a single man, who would carry all of its ammunition, too. With such a weapon, firepower would be as mobile as the infantry, able to go anywhere a man could walk, without much slowing him down. In the narrow confines of trenches, and in the maze of barbed wire in No-Man’s-Land, large rifles were often a hassle rather than a help. German arms designers understood that rifle ammunition was too powerful for small automatics, at least if a solution was to be worked out quickly enough to influence the war. It chose to seek an automatic weapon that would fire the comparatively low-powered and lightweight 9-millimeter pistol round, a class of ammunition that was already in the German inventory and could quickly be produced in quantities necessary for war. The concept had promise for the trenches, and it suggested a style of warfare that had not yet been seen. It would also reduce the weight of a soldier’s ammunition load. The requirements for such a weapon were established by the Rifle Testing Commission in late 1915.58 Working from the Theodor Bergmann weapons factory in Suhl, a German designer, Hugo Schmeisser, gave the concept its shape: the Bergmann Maschinenpistole 18, or MP-18, which had a wooden rifle stock for shoulder fire, but a squat, fat barrel that gave it a blocky appearance. It weighed just over nine pounds, could be fitted with magazines that held twenty or thirty-two rounds, and fired its bullets at more than twelve hundred feet per second. In all it was just over thirty-two inches long, a foot shorter than many standard infantry rifles in the war. This was the submachine gun. It became an ideal complement to the evolving German infiltration tactics being worked out by General Oskar von Hutier and the elite Stosstruppen, or shock troops, who before the war’s end would master the tactics of pinpoint attacks and breaches of front lines.

The MP-18 was the first submachine gun to see combat, but similar ideas were being pursued elsewhere. By 1915, the Italian army had already fielded small quantities of the Villar Perosa, a two-barrel automatic weapon that fired 9-millimeter pistol ammunition, though the gun was fired off a bipod and was used as a lightweight machine gun for fighting in the mountains, and not as a submachine gun.59 A new company in the United States, the Auto-Ordnance Corporation, was at work on its own weapon for trench warfare. Led by General John T. Thompson, a retired army ordnance officer, the company’s engineers were quietly developing a submachine gun chambered to fire .45-caliber pistol ammunition. The war ended before the result, the Thompson gun, was put to a test.

The era of automatic fire was almost fully developed. Two ends of the automatic-fire spectrum had changed the way that people experienced organized violence. The Maxim gun and its offspring had altered how armies were organized and how war was waged, and had killed men in quantities beyond counting. And the MP-18 had been considered a worrisome enough development after its brief debut that the German military was specifically prohibited from possessing them by the Treaty of Versailles. The next question was obvious. Might not there be something between the great weight and power of a true machine gun and the lightweight and ferocious MP-18? Was it not possible to design an automatic rifle that combined the traits of both? Such a weapon would allow foot soldiers to be as mobile as ever, but more lethal than before. If small-arms design was an evolutionary process, and so far it had been just that, then this class of weapon was inevitable. Only details remained. What country would first design and field such a weapon? And when?

i Almost sixty years later, this would be the concept used to make the AK-47 an automatic rifle and usher in the assault rifle era.

ii A Japanese unit of measure, approximately six feet. By Lieutenant Sakurai’s estimates, then, the Russians were opening fire at a distance of about thirty feet.

iii The spelling and grammatical errors of Rixon’s shorthand are retained here.

iv Stretcher-bearers.

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