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Saturday 15 June 2013

The Canadian Machine Gun Corps

Of all the new weapons that emerged during World War I, the machine gun is often considered the most deadly.  Although its role is sometimes exaggerated, its impact cannot be overlooked.  While artillery fire caused 60 % of the conflict's casualties, the machine gun had a menacing presence on the battlefield.

The machine gun traces its origins to the American Civil War (1861- 65), the first conflict in which modern mechanical and industrial technologies were applied to weapons production.  By 1914, manufacturers had produced several models capable of firing hundreds of rounds a minute.  Unfortunately, military tactics had not adapted to the weapon's development - the 'infantry charge' remained a basic battlefield strategy.  As a result, battalions suffered catastrophic numbers of casualties during the war's early months.

At the beginning of the war, military commanders were so skeptical about the weapon's effectiveness that each British and French battalion was equipped with only two machine guns.  In contrast, the German high command placed greater emphasis on its use, deploying the weapons slightly in front of their lines to provide gunners with a full view of the battlefield.  Their effectiveness in battle was quickly apparent, perhaps no more so than during the Somme offensive.  On its first day - July 1, 1916 - British Imperial forces suffered an astounding 60 000 casualties.

World War I machine guns were belt- or drum-fed weapons capable of firing up to 500 rounds a minute.  Older models used a water-filled jacket to cool the barrel during use, while sustained rapid firing accelerated barrel wear.  Mounted on large tripods for stability and greater accuracy, the first guns were considerably heavier than later models, limiting their mobility.  This was not a major concern during static trench warfare, but became an issue in the later stages of the war when the front lines were set in motion.

Canadian Soldiers test-firing a Vickers gun.
Canadian units initially used the British Vickers and American Colt-Browning machine guns.  The British model was equipped with a larger water-cooling jacket and was capable of firing 450 rounds a minute.  Its large size was its major drawback, making it considerably heavier than recently developed models.  Nevertheless, it was the 'workhorse' of British Imperial forces throughout the years of static trench warfare.

The American Colt-Browning was developed in the 1890s.  Used by the United States Marines during the Spanish - American War (1898) and by Canadian soldiers fighting in the Boer (South African) War (1898-1902), it was equipped with a contoured, finned barrel that used an air cooling system.  The gun weighed 35 pounds (16 kilograms), while its tripod and operator's seat added another 56 pounds (25 kilograms).  As a result, it was quite cumbersome on the battlefield.  The weapon saw action in 1915 with Canadian infantry units in France, but by mid-1916 was replaced with the Vickers model.

As the war progressed, Canadian and British forces gradually adopted a newer weapon - the Lewis Gun - as a more suitable option.  Invented by American Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911, it was 12 kilograms lighter than the Vickers model.  Utilizing an air-cooled sleeve, the weapon was portable enough to be easily carried by one soldier.  Its ammunition was loaded into circular drums holding either 47 or 97 rounds.

Colonel Lewis left the United States in 1913, establishing a manufacturing plant for his weapon at Liege, Belgium.  A production agreement with British Small Arms (BSA), Birmingham, England proved most convenient for British Imperial forces after the war's outbreak.  The factories could produce six Lewis Guns in the time required to manufacture one Vickers gun, further enhancing its attractiveness as demand for machine guns increased.

Firing a Lewis Gun from 'standing position'.
The Lewis Gun fired .303 shells, the same calibre ammunition used by the standard British Lee-Enfield rifle and Vickers model.  Air was drawn into its cooling shroud when the weapon was fired.  Gas emitted from the shell casing rotated the cylinder, loading the next round.  Capable of firing 550 rounds a minutes with an effective range of 850 yards (777 meters), the weapon's bullets had a maximum travel range of 3500 yards (3.2 kilometres). 

On October 15, 1915, the British military officially adopted the Lewis Gun to serve alongside the Vickers in its machine gun units.  In total, British and American armies order 50 000 Lewis Guns during the war, with Russian forces purchasing an additional 20 000 on the Eastern Front.  By war's end, the Lewis Gun outnumbered its Vickers counterpart on the battlefield by a ratio of 3 to 1.

On the battlefield, a machine gun team consisted of a gunner and three to six soldiers who carried loaded ammunition belts or pans in canvas bags.  While the gunner fired the weapon, his 'number two' looked after reloading as well as maintaining the gun's moving parts.  As the war progressed, Lewis Guns were mounted on tripods for use against low-flying enemy aircraft.  Royal Flying Corps pilots also fixed the weapon to the top of the wing immediately above the cockpit for use in aerial combat. 

By early 1916, each Canadian battalion was equipped with 8 Lewis Guns.  This number increased to 16 by early 1918 and reached 32 by war's end.  The weapon remained the standard machine gun in Western armies until the adoption of the Bren Gun in 1939.  After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Lewis Gun continued to be used as a training weapon.

Not surprisingly, the Canadian military possessed no 'machine gun' capabilities at the beginning of the war.  Official records indicate that there was only one in the entire country, in the possession of the 43rd Battalion (Ottawa).  As with several of Canada's first infantry battalions, in August 1914 a group of wealthy individuals led by Montreal lawyer Clifford Sifton and militia officer Raymond Brutinel donated the finances required to outfit the "Automobile Machine Gun Brigade No. 1".  Its initial equipment consisted of 16 machine guns, 8 armoured cars, 6 trucks and 4 automobiles.

Armoured car, Automobile Machine Gun Brigade No. 1 - Ottawa, September 1914
Recruitment commenced immediately and the response was overwhelming.  The unit sailed for England on September 29, 1914 - four days prior to the departure of the First Canadian Contingent.  On June 16, 1915, the Automobile Machine Gun Brigade - re-named 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade - landed in France.  Designed for 'mobile warfare', it quickly became apparent that it was poorly suited for the static trench fighting that dominated the Western Front.

At the beginning of the war, with the exception of the Automobile Machine Gun Brigade, Canadian Expeditionary Force possessed no separate machine gun units.  Rather, each battalion was outfitted with a machine gun section consisting of four guns - in some cases eight - often sponsored by individuals or communities connected to the unit.  As the war entered its second year, British military commanders slowly recognized the machine gun's important role in battle. 

As a result, on October 29, 1915 - two weeks after the official adoption of the Lewis Gun - Imperial authorities approved the formation of Brigade Machine Gun Companies.  Initially staffed from the existing battalion machine gun sections, each company consisted of 10 officers and 161 'other ranks'.  An initial shipment of 10 000 Lewis Guns was expected in March 1916, with an additional 10 000 scheduled for delivery in mid-summer.  The machine gun had finally 'arrived' as a critical battlefield weapon.

The Brigade Machine Gun Companies officially came into existence on January 1, 1916 with the mobilization of three Brigade Companies (1st, 2nd and 3rd) within the 1st Canadian Division.  An additional three companies - 4th, 5th and 6th - were formed in the 2nd Canadian Division, with a final three - 7th, 8th and 9th - organized in March and April 1916 as part of the 3rd Canadian Division.  In mid-August, the 4th Canadian Division arrived in France accompanied by the 10th, 11th and 12th Machine Gun Companies.

Recruitment poster - 86th Machine Gun Battalion, Hamilton, Ontario
Meanwhile, volunteers in Hamilton, Ontario formed the 86th (Machine Gun) battalion in August 1915.  The unit mobilized in southern Ontario during the winter of 1915-16 and departed for England in May 1916, where it continued training at Risborough Barracks, Shorncliffe.  On May 22, 1916, the battalion was re-designated the Canadian Machine Gun Depot and its members were transferred to existing brigade machine gun companies at the front as need arose.  Upon its formation, the Depot relocated to Crowborough, England, where it assumed responsibility for training Canadian machine gunners for front line deployment.

Brigade machine gun companies carried out normal tours at the front with their brigades.  The three units served an entire tour with their Division without the benefit of a 'relief' rotation, placing considerable strain on personnel.  As a result, Canadian authorities ordered the formation of a fourth machine gun company within each Division.  This allowed commanders to keep one unit in reserve for emergency situations, significantly easing the demands placed on machine gunners.

On January 18, 1917, the four new brigade machine gun companies - 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th - assembled at Floringhem, France for training.  Personnel were recruited from existing machine gun companies and infantry battalions in the field as well as from the recently established Canadian Machine Gun Depot.  Upon completing training, one company was assigned to each of the four Canadian infantry divisions.

By this point in the war, military strategists began exploring alternative strategies for machine gun use on the battlefield.  Several characteristics enhanced its effectiveness.  The use of a mount or tripod absorbed its recoil, giving it greater precision.  The supports also eliminated the effects of operator 'excitement', making it much more 'deadly' than the standard infantry rifle.

Canadian Machine Gun Corps badge.
When fired in bursts, its bullets did not follow the same trajectory.  Rather, they formed a 'cone of fire' distributed in an elliptical pattern.  This fact, combined with its three-kilometer range, made the weapon particularly effective for defending a specific area.  Military strategists adopted the term 'indirect fire' to describe this battlefield strategy.

At close range, the machine gun was used to "sweep enemy parapets, fire on fixed lines, or conduct night fire on lines set during daylight" (Clode).  When deployed from the flanks, the weapon inflicted devastating 'enfilade' fire on advancing troops.  German forces in particular employed this tactic with great effect throughout 1915 and 1916. 

The British decision to form specialized machine gun corps was in effect an admission that the weapon was not being used to maximum effect.  As the war entered its third year, strategists employed the weapon as a small artillery piece, firing indirectly at unseen targets with the aid of maps, clinometers (an instrument for measuring angles of slope, elevation or depression) and mathematical calculations.  Procedures were also developed for safely firing over the heads of friendly troops on level ground.  A new strategy, known as the 'machine gun barrage', combined indirect and overhead fire against specific battlefield locations.

By the spring of 1917, British Imperial machine gun corps adopted 'barrage fire' as their main battlefield tactic.  This strategy was utilized to support an infantry attack in conjunction with a 'creeping artillery barrage', or to disrupt an enemy counterattack.  'SOS barrages' were also fired as required upon receipt of signals from infantry units.  This new approach was first tested in April 1917, when all 16 machine gun corps, along with 4 British companies and the 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade - a total of 358 machine guns - supported the Canadian Corps' successful attack on Vimy Ridge.

Lewis Gun mounted to wing of Canadian air ace Billy Bishop''s plane.
Even prior to the success achieved at Vimy, another organizational change was underway.  On January 15, 1917, Lt. General Sir Julian Byng requested the establishment of a Canadian Machine Gun Corps (CMGC), to be composed of the companies then under the command of each infantry brigade.  One week after the victory at Vimy - April 16, 1917 - British authorities approved Byng's suggestion.  Over the summer months, the sixteen machine gun companies were united under one separate command structure.  This new approach to machine gun deployment received its first test in the autumn of 1917 near Ypres, Belgium.

As the Canadian Corps prepared for its assault on Passchendaele, the 7th and 15th Machine Gun Corps were assigned to provide support for the 3rd Canadian Division's infantry units.  Machine guns assumed the role of barrage and mobile light artillery weapons, in addition to providing four-gun sniping sections.  For two weeks prior to the assault, personnel dragged their equipment through the mud-sodden battlefield.  Lt. Col. C. S. Grafton, the machine gun corps' biographer, describes the challenge:  "Trying to get a solid platform for the barrage machine guns in the slimy ooze was a hard, trying task."

After supporting the successful Canadian attack, the CMGC returned with the Canadian Corps to the Lens-Vimy sector, where it logged an astonishing 33,500,000 'man days' over the winter of 1917-18.  The victory at Passchendaele had come at a considerable price - the loss of 44 officers and 655 'other ranks' - creating a pressing need for reinforcements.  In addition, the muddy conditions led to a demand for lighter weapons, increasing the preference for the Lewis Gun over its heavier Vickers counterpart.  The men of the Corps, commonly known as the 'Emma Gees', exhibited a strong 'esprit de corps' in the days following their first major accomplishment as a separate fighting unit.

In early 1918, the Corps itself was reorganized into 16 machine gun battalions, each equipped with 64 guns.  The new structure required an additional 2 officers and 288 personnel per battalion, bringing each unit's total strength to 1039.  A battalion consisted of two companies, each divided into four 8-gun platoons that in turn were organized into two 4-gun sections.  Platoons were subsequently re-named 'batteries', further acknowledgement of the weapon's increasing role as an artillery weapon.  This new structure was put into effect in March and April 1918, amidst the chaos of the massive German 'spring offensive'.

CMGC armored cars preparing for battle.
At the same time, General Arthur Currie ordered the creation of an additional company in each machine gun battalion, increasing each division's allotment to 96 guns.  New personnel were recruited from within existing infantry units.  The machine gun had clearly established itself as a key component of the Canadian Corps.

The machine gun battalions played an active role in the war's final battles, beginning at Amiens in August 1918.  A massive Allied counterattack set the static front in motion, creating a situation much more suitable for the weapon than static trench warfare.  Portable and easily deployed, machine gun battalions supported advancing infantry with strategic 'indirect fire' and were called to the front lines when stiff enemy resistance halted their steady advance.

During the period from August 22 to October 11, 1918, infantry and machine gun battalions participated in battles at Canal du Nord and Cambrai, suffering significant casualties.  Infantry units recorded 4367 men killed in action, 1930 missing and 24,509 wounded during this time.  Machine gun battalions, much smaller in size, nevertheless paid a heavy price, with 282 men killed in action, 23 missing and 1502 wounded.

As the war drew to a close in November 1918, the dramatic increase of the machine gun's role in combat was evident in the Canadian Machine Gun Corps' steady growth.  As of June 21, 1915, the Canadian Corps contained 591 personnel - including 24 officers - assigned to machine guns.  By March 31, 1917, its specialized 'machine gun corps' contained 3374 men, 182 of whom were officers.  At war's end, the Canadian Machine Gun Corps commanded 8871 men - 422 of whom were officers - on the battlefields of France and Belgium.  In total, over 16,000 Canadians served in the Corps, 5777 of whom were killed in action.  British Imperial forces contained 6427 officers and 123,835 'other ranks' serving in various machine gun companies.

CMGC Organizational Chart, 1918 (Source: Grafton, "The Canadian Emma Gees").
As Canada's military returned to 'peacetime' status, the machine gun was not forgotten.  On November 3, 1919, the Canadian Machine Gun Corps' wartime role was officially recognized when the government created the Canadian Machine Gun Brigade as part of a restructured Canadian Permanent Force.  The machine gun also became an important component of the militia with the formation of 12 machine gun battalions, 2 motor machine brigades and a machine gun squadron. 

In 1924, the Canadian Machine Gun Brigade was disbanded and its personnel absorbed into permanent military units.  The militia's machine gun battalions, however, continued to train as separate units.  The Canadian Machine Gun Corps Association, founded in 1926, oversaw militia training and maintained the 'esprit de corps' established on the battlefields of France and Belgium.  In 1933, the Association established several central camps across the country for machine gun militia training.

When the Canadian militia was reorganized in 1936, the number of machine gun battalions was increased to 26, while infantry battalions were reduced from 135 to 91.  These changes acknowledged the critical role of the machine gun in modern warfare, based on its achievements on the battlefields of World War I.

Additional Resources:

Click on the link below to view a 4:27 minute video of a restored World War I Lewis gun in action.

Lewis Light Machine Gun


86th (Machine Gun) Battalion, CEF. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.

Canadian Machine Gun Corps. .  Available online.

Clode, George.  Machine Gun on the Western Front.  Military History Monthly, April 14, 2011.  Available online.

Grafton, Lt. Col. C. S.. The Canadian 'Emma Gees' - A History of the Canadian Machine Gun Corps.  The Canadian Machine Gun Corps Association.  London, Ont.: Hunter Printing Co., 1938.  Available online.

Heavy Machine Guns.  Battle Organization during the Second World War.  Available online.

Interesting Firearms: The Lewis Gun.  Vince's Worthwhile Website.  Available online.

Lewis Gun.  Available online.

Lewis Gun.  Spartacus Educational.  Available online.
M1895 Colt-Browning Machine Gun.  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.

Machine Guns. The History Learning Site.  Available online.

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