About This Unit
Each Infantry Brigade had a Machine Gun Company under command. They were designated with the same number as the parent Brigade. The 8th Brigade of the 5th Division thus had the 8th Machine Gun Company as part of "Brigade Troops" and the men in it were largely drawn from the Infantry Battalions in the Brigade, in this case, the 29th (VIC), 30th (NSW) 31st (Qld & VIC) and 32nd (SA & WA) Thus numbers of South Australians served in the 8th Machine Gun Company.
Later in the war the Companies were aggregated into Machine Gun Battalions under Divisional command. However their employment was still on the basis of providing the formidable fire support that massed machine guns were capable of. The elements of the MG Battalions and Companies were allocated to sections of the line in detachments of varying sizes depending on the task, but generally as a minimum in pairs as a 'section'.
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.
The 8th MG Coy was engaged in all of the battles in which its parent Brigade took part, from Fromelles to Beaurevoir.
It was heavily engaged in and around Fleurbaix / Fromelles in July1916 and at Polygon Wood from 26-29 September 1917; in both cases sustaining significant numbers of casualties in the process.
On the 17th April 1918 near Villers Bretonneux, the unit was subject to a mustard gas attack fired at 4.45am and catching the men in difficulty getting their respirators on in time. 5 officers and 28 men became casualties as a result (see war diary).
The 8th MG Coy was absorbed into the 5th MG Battalion in early 1918 Detailed deployments need to be referenced to the War diaries particularly during the German Spring Offensive (March / April 1918) when Brigades were deployed independently to plug gaps in the line.
Steve Larkins Feb 2014
Battle / Campaign / Involvement
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