About This Unit
Machine Gun Companies and Battalions
This was an administrative grouping to facilitate enlistment and embarkation for personnel who were to be assigned on arrival in the Western Front to first to training schools and then to the Machine Gun (MG) Companies attached to each Brigade with the same numeric designation.
Most of the men listed here will have ended up in a MG Company and/or Battalion. You will need to check their service records to verify which ones.
Thus there were the 1st - 15th MG Companies, one per Brigade, three per Division.
In addition the 16th MG Company was raised as part of the proposed 6th Division forming in the UK in early 1917. However it could not be manned following casualties sustained in the first half of 1917, so its formation was abandoned. The 16th MG Company was absorbed into the 21st MG Company (see below)..
In 1918 the companies were consolidated into Battalions numbered 1st to 5th, each comprising four MG Companies, attached to each Division.
To provide the fourth company, the 21st-25th MG Companies were raised specifically to become the fourth Company in each of the soon-to-be raised Battalions (Bn);
21st MG -to 1st MG Bn
22nd MG to 2nd MG Bn
23rd MG to 3rd MG Bn
24th MG to 4th MG Bn
25th MG to 5th MG Bn
It cannot be assumed that men in any of the 'transient' MG Companies moved with them to the ir assigned Battalion. Cross positings of individuals occurred frequently. Check the service records of individuals of interest in order to determine the specific Companies or Battalions to which they were subsequently posted.
The service histories of MG Companies and Battalions reflected that of their parent Brigades and Divisions. On formation in 1916, the men were often similarly drawn from the Battalions of the Brigades and Divisions to which the Machine Gun Companies / Battalions belonged. Later in the war specific reinforcement drafts were recruited and embarked, which is the case for the men listed against this grouping.
MG Companies and Battalions were equipped with the legendary Vickers Medium Machine Gun. This weapon was served by a crew of three and mounted on a tripod. It was not easily portable and was generally sited in a prepared fixed position. Its direct counterpart on the German side was the Maxim 'Spandau' MG08, a weapon of similar appearance and capability.
Both the Vickers and MG08 had a distinctive appearance largely because of a cylindrical water jacket sleeve around the barrel which was designed to cool the barrel when firing at the rapid rate. The MG08 was mounted on a characteristic 'sled' rather than the tripod of the Vickers. They achieved continuous fire through the provision of ammunition in canvas belts (see photo).
The Vickers was renowned for its reliability and it could maintain blistering rates of fire for extended periods, thanks to its robust design and the fact that it was water-cooled. These weapons were capable of firing at extended ranges, out to 3,000 yards.
They would be sited to provide flanking fire across a defensive front, often covering belts of barbed wire or other obstacles forcing the enemy to attack through their line of fire with devastating results; a tactic known as "enfilade fire".
It was largely the effect of well-sited German machine guns that caused such devastation among the attacking British and Dominion formations on the first day of the Somme offensive in 1916. The British "Pals" Battalions at La Boiselle and the Newfoundland Battalion at Beaumont Hamel were cut to ribbons by machine guns over 2km to their flanks that they would not have been able to hear firing at them.
They were often the lynch-pin of defensive positions and thus the object of enemy attempts to neutralise them as a prelude to attack, by mortar, artillery fire or even raids by parties of grenadiers with hand and rifle grenades.
In attack they would be sited to provide indirect 'plunging fire' into enemy positions in depth at long range to prevent enemy reinforcements reaching the objective of the attack, or to disrupt attempts to withdraw, in a manner not dissimilar to artillery.
Some machine gun teams would also be assigned to follow the assaulting formations where they were to establish themselves in order to provide defensive fire across the front of the "limit of exploitation" of the attack as protection against counter attack by the enemy.
Machine guns and artillery between them were the dominant influences on the battlefields of the Great War until late in the war when manoeuvre regained importance with the advent of armoured vehicles and ground attack aircraft that could suppress enemy defences.
© Steve Larkins July 2013.