The British Vickers machine-gun in action during the First World War.
When the first Vickers machine-guns were introduced in 1907, few British army officers knew exactly what their new weapon was all about. A few appreciated the potential firepower of this weapon, but they were seen as eccentrics.
Originally, Vickers machine-guns were only issued in a two-piece rate to each infantry battalion. Within only a few cavalry battalions they existed and only a small portion of them took them over to France in 1914.
Once there, however, they quickly learned that the machine-gun was a powerful weapon, and the first to have had this painful experience were the cavalrymen. A single machine-gun, hidden somewhere on the distant horizon, could nail an entire cavalry battalion as long as it had ammunition. The Battle of Loos increased the lesson for the British, and they saw the Vickers machine-gun in a different light.
The Vickers Gun was developed from the former Maxim machine-gun. Vickers built the Maxim machine-guns at their factory in Crayford, Kent, and although the Maxim sold very well to many customers, Vickers engineers thought they could improve the design beyond the basic concept to make a lighter and more efficient weapon.
They did this by reworking Maxim’s toggle lock device so that it opened upwards rather than downwards.
Prolonged firing made the barrel very hot and so it was cooled by water which was in a metal jacket around the barrel. This sheath contained 7 pints (3.31 liters) of water, which cooked after three minutes when 200 shots per minute were fired.
At first this cooking supported the cooling process, as tiny air bubbles carried the heat away from the barrel, but soon the heat evaporated the water. Initially, this steam was released through an opening in the jacket, but it soon turned out that it betrayed the position of the machine-gunner and attracted the enemy fire. So a simple solution was quickly found to drain the steam through a movable hose into a canister of water, where it condensed back harmlessly as water and could later be refilled into the cooling jacket. This was especially important in areas where water was scarce.
Despite the water-cooling system, the barrel had to be changed every 10,000 rounds. Since it was possible to fire 10,000 rounds per hour, a drill was introduced in which the barrel was changed every full hour. A well-trained crew could do this in two minutes without losing the cooling water, except what was in the barrel when it was pushed in from behind.
In fact, it was this activity that led only specialists to use the Vickers machine-gun. Initially, men from common battalions were assigned to the weapon, but the experience the weapon required ling to the formation of the Machine Gun Corps. The machine-gunners not only had to have practical experience with the weapon, they also had to use it tactically, which had to be practiced regularly over a longer period of time.
Gradually the heavy machine-guns which the divisions possessed were handed over to the companies of this new corps of specialists. Their ultimate importance is recognized by the fact that at the end of the First World War the machine-gun corps consisted of 6,432 officers and 124,920 crews.
These men gradually improved the way the machine-gun was used in combat by developing techniques that allowed it to be used not only as an isolated weapon, but as part of a mutually supportive fire plan. They continuously improved these fire plans so that they were sometimes even similar to those of artillery. In fact, machine-guns and artillery were used on appropriate occasions to pressurize the enemy.
However, when the machine-guns were given the task of providing longer fire support, it was soon discovered that this required not only well-trained crews, but also a perfectly organized supply system. The Vickers machine-gun was able to consume an enormous amount of ammunition, which meant that considerable supplies had to be available on a short supply line. The catch was the transport, because on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 there were only a few places where supply vehicles could reach their own lines somewhere close, so that the ammunition could usually only be carried by men over a considerable distance.
But when the ammunition reached the front, it could not simply be loaded into the machine-guns, because the cartridges were delivered in metal cases, often containing small cardboard boxes of 100 rounds each. These were intended for all kinds of weapons, including the Lee-Enfield rifles, the Lewis Gun and some others, so it was not practical to deliver the cartridges with ammunition belts for the Vickers machine-gun. Therefore, these belts had to be loaded manually by the men, which took a lot of time, even though a loading machine was later designed and issued.
Therefore, much more was needed to use the Vickers machine-gun than simply to pull the trigger and see the enemy fall. Over time, the members of the Machine Gun Corps became just as experienced as their colleagues in the German army when it came to the use of machine-guns and were sometimes a bit more inventive when it came to the tactical use of their weapons.
The famous action of the Vickers Gun at the Somme
One example was the ten Vickers machine-guns of the 100th Machine Gun Company used during the battle to secure the High Forest on 24 August 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. This battle was a dirty business under the most terrible conditions, with the British attacking most of the time.
After an attack in the area of the High Forest, it was recognized that a barrage, known as the Savoy Trench, would provide a good firing position, as from there the German front line could be overlooked over a length of 2,000 yards (1,830 meters).
So it was decided that the next attack on the German trenches should be supported by the machine-guns of the 100th company from there. If this attack was successful, the inevitable German counter-attack was to be stopped by a machine-gun fire for 12 hours on the area behind the front line trenches.
This demanding fire plan required extensive preparations. The night before the attack, two infantry companies were needed to move the ammunition and cooling water for the machine-guns forward. The Vickers guns were carefully set up, hidden under camouflage nets and prepared for the coming battle.
When the infantry attack began, the Vickers machine-guns maintained fire for the next twelve hours. At intervals the gunners were replaced, together with the men responsible for the ammunition supply. They also had to make sure that the machine-guns didn’t move away from the spot when firing, thus picking up dirt.
The gunner had nothing more to do than to pull the trigger with his fingers between the two grips. He didn’t feel much of the recoil when firing, as most of it was caught by the heavy tripod. From time to time he gave the side of the weapon a sharp push to move the barrel towards a larger surface and a moment later another push to move the barrel a bit again.
If necessary, the water in the cooling barrel was replenished by the supplies that had been stored the previous night. The hot barrels were changed every hour. During this twelve-hour period, a group of men was busy bringing ammunition from the stockpile built last night, while two men were constantly working on an ammunition loading machine for the machine-gun belts. Another group dragged the loaded cartridge belts from the loader to the weapons.
By the end of the operation, the ten Vickers machine-guns had shot almost one million cartridges. Only 250 cartridges were missing to fill the million. One of the machine-guns alone shot an average of 10,000 rounds per hour.
During the twelve hours, only two machine-guns had problems. One broke the ejection latch and the other had something wrong with the breech mechanism, causing arbitrary jamming of the ammunition supply.
All the available water had been used up and the machine-guns could only continue firing because the company’s water bottles and other drinking supplies were used.
But finally the plan worked out. The German front trenches were taken and the expected counter-attack did not take place. This for the simple reason that the German troops could not cross the area due to the constant fire of the ten Vickers machine-guns of the 100th Machine Gun Company.
However, the heavy machine-gun was a mainly defensive weapon and in the Battle of the Somme the Germans were the defenders. Even if the heavy Vickers machine-gun could be brought forward during the attack, the enormous quantities of ammunition needed had to be brought in, which it used in battle.
The German machine-guns, on the other hand, were all in prepared positions with large ammunition stocks, while the British could usually only bring the light Lewis machine-gun with some ammunition over no man’s land.
In addition, the machine-gun not only fired much faster than rifles, but was also much easier to control and direct. In combat, it’s hard for officers and non-commissioned officers to direct the fire of their riflemen; it’s much easier to do so for a single machine gun, which develops the same firepower.
For the British losses of 57,470 men, including 19,240 killed, on the first day of the Somme battle on 1 July 1916, only about 100 German machine-guns were mainly responsible.
At the Somme not only the fighting power of the machine-gun showed up, but also the first tactical and technical counter-measures developed, in order to break their dominance.
In addition to more flexible and smaller infantry formations, the requirements also arose for the first tanks, which in turn were to fight down the enemy machine-guns with own machine-guns and cannons.
Also the ‘creeping’ artillery barrages developed with artillery fire moved further and further forward to hold down the enemy machine-gunners during the infantry attack, to which gas attacks and night attacks were added later.
But also the gunners of the Vickers gun developed fire tactics to shoot over the heads of their own attacking infantry.
to Part I: history, development, service, specifications and pictures of the Vickers Gun.
References and literature
Illustrierte Geschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs (Christian Zentner)
History of World War I (AJP Taylos, S.L. Mayer)
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War I (Chris Bishop)