Great war - machine gun fire

The following are first hand quotes and diary extracts which mention machine guns in the First World War. They are taken from Paul Allens book 'Neath a foreign sky.' They help to bring to life the reality of life under fire in WW1.

Extract:The finest men the world had ever seen

During the night of Monday the fourth of October the utterly worn out men of the 28TH Division had been relieved by the Guards Division. The Guards had first gone into action following the decimation of the 21ST and 24TH Divisions on the morning of Sunday the 26TH of September. The Guards had arrived in the southern sector of the battlefield the same afternoon; a witness to their entry into the bloodbath had recorded:

"Probably the finest men the world had ever seen."

'Our men leapt spontaneously from their cover into machine gun fire to pull aside barbed wire and throw plank bridges across the trenches, anything to help these magnificent soldiers through. They reached us and passed through us, every man in step, ranks closed up, heads erect. Probably the finest men the world had ever seen'

Extract: Urged forward

The Nova Scotians had lay in the thick mud waiting for the promised twelve-minute bombardment that had been expected to subdue any resistance in Batter Trench. In the event the bombardment had never materialised. Nonetheless, at Zero Hour [5.45pm] the men of 'C' and 'D' Companies had risen from their trenches to calmly walk towards their objective. The incident is vividly described by Nicholls;

"They could clearly see the steam rising from the overworked weapons."

'In the watery light of the setting sun which had broken through behind them, the single line of men advanced as fast as the mud would permit. Crossing the German front trench, now in Canadian hands, they pressed for Batter Trench. Astounded at the effrontery of this little group attempting to dislodge them, the weary Prussian defenders automatically clattered back the cocking handles of the heavy Maxims and methodically began to tac-tac along the line of khaki stumbling towards them. Watchers in the wings could clearly see the steam rising from the overworked weapons, and hear the shouts of the two company commanders as they urged their boys forward'[3]

Extract: No chance at all

At midday precisely the Highlanders had scrambled out of the scant cover afforded by Huddle Trench to assemble in 'open order' to begin their advance on their objective some 1,500 yards distant. Afforded little in the way of a supporting artillery barrage there had been nothing to keep down the heads of the Germans who could not fail to see the thin line of four hundred khaki clad Highlanders advancing across the snow covered plain towards them. Awaiting the attacker had been over thirty machine guns, the outcome is terribly obvious. An unnamed survivor would later say;

"We had no chance at all and I lost many good friends that day, ...I am sorry but I cannot talk about it any more'"

'Right from the start it was a dreadful affair. A fine battalion totally destroyed. It was a total disgrace that the powers that be could order such an attack in full daylight and against such defences. We had no chance at all and I lost many good friends that day, including Donald Mackintosh, who of course won the V.C.. I had only gone about 200 yards before I was shot through the chest. I am sorry but I cannot talk about it any more' [16]

[16] Extracted from Cheerful Sacrifice; Jonathan Nicholls; Leo Cooper; 1990.

Killed in action during the attack on the 11TH of April 1917, twenty-one years old Lieutenant Donald Mackintosh of the 4TH Seaforth Highlanders had been awarded with a posthumous Victoria Cross 'For most conspicuous bravery and resolution in the face of intense machine gun fire'.

Extract: A splendid lot of fellows

Despite heavy losses the Battalion had retaken the Brigade's old positions before daybreak and had just begun to consolidate their precarious hold on their old positions when the enemy had launched a counter attack their own, which had fell on the Yorkshiremen with a vengeance. Outnumbered and virtually surrounded the beleaguered West Yorkshiremen had managed to send a final message to Battalion Headquarters asking for more bombs and reinforcements, neither of which had been received. A short while later the enemy had launched another assault. One of the few survivors of the attack had later recorded.

'It was not long before we saw the enemy in open order on the skyline to our left front, advancing in strength down the hill. The sun was in our eyes, making it hard to spot targets below the skyline. The enemy were well covered by machine guns, which harassed us greatly. Soon one gun was enfilading our straight line of trench making it untenable. 2/Lt. F.C. Lambert spotted this gun and with his Lewis gun he either silenced it or made it move. Our next trouble was from a [disabled] tank in front. The Germans were either in it or behind it, and we could not silence it. The position was becoming very unpleasant, we were suffering heavily too.

Extract: They were all dead men

The 5TH K.O.Y.L.I. had launched its assault before dawn [4-15am] on the 28TH of March, the attackers soon coming up against heavy fire from machine guns hidden in Rossignol Wood;

'Three of these, at least, were taken with a rush, but not before they had done fearful execution amongst the assaulting companies. Captain B.A. Beach saw about twenty five men lying in the open and called on them to come on, but found that they were all dead men. Bombs had been issued in time for this advance and there were bombing fights all down the line. It was obvious that the companies had bumped into a strongly held outpost line'[2]

[2] History of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the Great War 1914-1918;Wylly & Bond; 1929.

Extract: Sniper

The tattered remnants of the three battalions had made their way back to the original assembly point in front of Oppy Wood throughout the remainder of the 3RD. With the onset of darkness they had been joined by the men who had been sheltering in 'No Man's Land throughout the day, amongst them had been Private Beeken, who had been with a group of men huddled in one of the many shell craters;

'There was always the possibility of the Germans coming forward so we kept a sharp lookout. We had plenty of excitement during the day for a sniper would persist in firing into our shell hole. He must have been in a tree but we couldn't see him. It turned out to be a very fine day but it was very hot. Aeroplanes of both sides flew over us and of course the guns blazed away at them...At 5pm after having something to eat I was hit in the shoulder by a piece of shrapnel from the German guns firing at one of our aeroplanes. At 9pm we set off and eventually reached the scarcely recognisable trench of our company and then started to dig in. Many wounded men came to our trench and all the time Fritz kept up his shelling'

Extract: The lewis guns got busy

On the morning of the attack, the left hand section of 110TH Brigade's sector [Pezieres to Epehy village] of the line had been held by the 7TH Battalion, and on the right by the 8TH Battalion, whilst the 6TH Battalion had been held in reserve to the west of Ephey in positions known as the 'Yellow Line'. An hour before dawn the Leicesters front line positions had been evacuated as planned thus minimising the risk of the defenders being surrounded and cut off and the number of casualties suffered in the preliminary bombardment. The two front line battalions had then taken up positions in the 'Red Line', a series of concrete blockhouses, which had been dotted round the village, where they had awaited the arrival of the enemy. They hadn't long to wait. Lance Corporal Sydney North [7TH Leicesters] tells of;

"It was like a panorama on a huge canvas and we simply could not believe it"

'The fog became less dense; the sun broke through and almost at once the fog cleared, revealing an amazing sight. The foremost of the enemy infantry, completely disorganised by the fog, were trying to get sorted out. Not far behind them came several platoons of infantry moving in solid blocks, four men abreast. Behind them were groups of cavalry coming on at walking pace and further behind, about 600 yards away, were horse drawn general service wagons and horse drawn ambulances. It was like a panorama on a huge canvas and we simply could not believe it....

The Germans were moving forward as if they expected no opposition. We opened fire. The Lewis Guns got busy and the enemy groups scattered. They had very little cover and no chance of survival...after a while nothing was moving throughout the whole visible front except for a few riderless horses, terrified by the shooting. We could here the screams of stricken horses; I was glad when they eventually galloped away from the scene. We watched, but there was no sign of any further attack and we wondered what had been going on on our right flank.

We had to go down to the front line every day and repair damage and do anything which needed doing, digging latrines etc [never a dull moment]. We had three days of this and then the front line. Here we lived in slits cut in the front [beneath] the parapet, and covered with a groundsheet. Food came up in big containers from the field kitchens carried on stretcher type wooden frames, 'no fires in the line'. At dusk, we had 'stand to' and then it was 'two hours on, four hours off' to stand on the fire step all night, which was a cold and dreary job. Sometimes great rats run just in front of you and put the wind up you. At dawn everyone 'stands to' after which we would have a foot inspection and whale oil would be issued to rub on the feet to prevent frostbite'[12]

[Unlike Private Goodrick, Frank Pothecary had survived the German Spring Offensive and the remainder of the war].

Extract: The battle for the Stuff redoubt October 1916 - a marvellous escape

Accurate descriptions of the action at the Wonderwork from the point of view of the ordinary soldier are rare, however, Private Robert Hepburn of the 9TH West Yorkshire, had thankfully left us this account of his experiences on the 14TH of September 1916;

"six men next to me but one were killed and huddled one on top another in the trench. How I escaped was marvellous"

'When our company went over the top and reached the German first trench it had been cleared of everyone, and our destination being a communication trench, leading from this we made there and had to dig for our lives, our artillery having battered the trench almost beyond recognition. Although open to heavy fire the nightlong and many of my comrades fell. I was unhurt Next night Fritz heavily bombarded our trenches and six men next to me but one were killed and huddled one on top another in the trench. How I escaped was marvellous'[1]

Extract: The village of Flers on the Somme 1916 - the duckboard crawl

'We have a dance of our own here — the duckboard crawl. The accompaniment to the dance is Fritz and his machine gun. We flop at express speed--doesn't matter if your nose is in a bed of thistles -- you like it. It's surprising how little damage is done, - though they say two tons of explosives for each man injured'

Extract: appalling losses

The Fusiliers had been given the impression that the morale of the Germans about to be attacked had not been high as just before the assault a number of the enemy had crossed No Mans Land to surrender, however this was not to be, the History of the Regiment* says this of the subsequent attack;

'At Zero the two right companies A and B decided to leave their trenches and to lie in shell holes; they did so with few casualties. C and D stayed in their trenches till 2-25pm, by which time the enemy machine guns were firing furiously; they were caught in this fire the moment they advanced. Hawkins [Lieutenant V.F.S. Hawkins of 'B' Company] noticed as soon as he advanced that there was a small isolated trench [Zenith Trench] between the lines, manned by about twenty Germans with two machine guns which had escaped the barrage. This party inflicted very heavy casualties and held up the advance as it could pour enfilade fire on the right companies and cause considerable damage to the left. Small isolated parties of B and C Companies in the centre, including one gallantly led by Second- Lieutenant W.C. Bolton, managed to get past this trench and pushed about two hundred yards further on and dug in at about 3pm. Unfortunately, they were later cut off and either all killed or captured'.

The aforementioned Lieutenant Hawkins had recorded a far more graphic account of the unfolding disaster;

"Find myself sitting on the ground facing our own line with a great hole in my thigh"

'2-30pm Fifty per cent of Company already down. Whole Brigade appears to be held up. Lance Corporal Fenton, one of my Lewis gunners, has got his gun going in a shell hole on my left. Awful din, can hardly it. Yelled at Sgt Manin to take the first wave on. He's lying just behind me. Hodgkinson says he dead. Sgt Mann on my right, of 7 Platoon, also dead. Most of the men appear to be dead. Shout at the rest and get up to take them on. Find myself sitting on the ground facing our own line with a great hole in my thigh... Hodgkinson also hit in the wrist. Most of the Company now out... I put my tie round my leg as a tourniquet. Fortesque about five yards on my right still alive... yell at him to come over to me. Show him my leg and tell him to carry on. He gets into a shell hole to listen while I tell him what to do. Shot through the heart while I'm talking to him. Addison also wounded and crawling back to our lines. That's all the officers and most of the N.C.Os. Cant see anything of Serjeant Bolton and 8 Platoon'[3]

Extract: Not a single casualty

The Fifth Battalion had duly received its 'baptism of fire' in Flanders, on St Georges Day, Friday the 23RD of April 1915, when the untried, and barely prepared for battle unit had been cut to pieces in an attack on enemy positions near to the village of St Julien that had cost the unit over one hundred casualties. Private Edwin King, a survivor of the vainglory attack, would later descrided the 'small hell' into which Private Betts and his comrades had been pitched into during that day;

"we could feel the bullets passing by our heads on all sides of us."

'We advanced in showers of shrapnel. The Regulars praised us afterwards unstintingly, stating that they would not have cared to advance under such a fire, but of course we had our orders. It is a miracle that we lost very few under the shellfire. After advancing about half a mile the bullets came and men began to drop...we went a cross a field where the Germans turned several Maxim [medium machine guns] on us. We ran across the field our platoon leading and, although there were bullets, and thousands of them, whizzing by, our platoon managed to cross without a single casualty. How we did it I do not know; we could feel the bullets passing by our heads on all sides of us [2]
[2] Once a Howard twice a citizen; Podmore & Tovey.

Extract: Piles of bodies

On the opening day of the offensive the 31ST Division had been given the task of capturing the heavily defended village of Serre, and at Zero Hour on the 1ST of July Ross Betts and the remainder of 18TH West Yorkshire had left their assembly trench to walk to wards the enemy's positions soon after the whistles ushering the men over the top on that brilliantly sun lit day had quit their shrill song. However, faced almost from the outset by a hurricane of enemy machine gun and rifle fire, few of the West Yorkshires had made little progress into No Man's Land. A German machine gunner that had taken part in the massacre of the once proud unit would later describe;

"They were running as fast as they could but when they reached the piles of bodies they got no further"

'There was a wailing and lamentation from No Man's Land and much shouting for stretcher bearers from the stricken British. They lay in piles but those who survived fired at us from behind their bodies. Later on, when the English tried again, they weren't walking this time; they were running as fast as they could but when they reached the piles of bodies they got no further. I could see English officers gesticulating wildly, trying to call reserves forward, but very few came. Normally, after 5,000 rounds had been fired we changed the barrel of the machine gun. We changed it five times that morning'[3]
[3] Musketier Karl Blenk; First day of the Somme; Martin Middlebrook; 1971.

Extract: Day to day

Hill had spent the ensuing year in the mud and despair of the trenches in the area of Ypres. Whilst there, although the Fifth Battalion had not been involved in any major operations, the front line here had nevertheless been a hazardous place to exist. A survivor of those days's in Flanders had laconically recorded;

"Shelling, mortaring, machine gun fire, and sniping occurred at all times of the day and night."

'Shelling, mortaring, machine gun fire, and sniping occurred at all times of the day and night: no part of the line was ever free from one or the other. Patrol work was assiduous: casualties were sometimes heavy and, at other times extremely light. But generally speaking there were no untoward incidents and those months spent in the trenches at Ypres may be written down as quiet'

Extract: 101st annihilated

The annihilation of the 101ST Brigade is also included in the British Official History

'When 101ST Brigade's leading Battalion, the 2ND Loyal North Lancs, did move forward [at 8am] the Germans were ready, but owing to the many woods and copses and the standing corn, little could be seen of them. The leading wave of the right company, after advancing fifty yards was almost annihilated by the fire of an advanced line of machine guns and by an artillery barrage: the remnant fell back. The left company, overcoming the advanced line of machine guns, went nearly a thousand yards, but the 2ND/4TH Queen's, which attempted to come up on the left, was forced back: and about 9am a counter attack compelled the advanced party of the 2ND Loyal North Lancs to return to the start line' [11]

Extract: Men were being hit everywhere - Passchendaele

Nonetheless, despite sustaining severe casualties this strongpoint had been taken and the advance had been continued, the two lead Brigades again suffering notable losses around 'Spree Farm', 'Capricorn Trench', and 'Pond Farm', to the south east of St Julien At around 10am the supporting 164TH Brigade had begun the advance to capture the Division's final objective, the elusive 'Green Line'.

'We left St Julien close on our left [wrote 2ND Lieutenant Floyd of the 2ND/5TH Lancashire Fusiliers]. Suddenly we were rained with bullets from rifles and machine guns. We extended. Men were being hit everywhere. My servant was the first of my platoon to be hit. We lay down flat for a while, as it was impossible for anyone to survive standing up.... My platoon seemed to have vanished just before I was hit, whether they were in shell holes or whether they had found some passage through the wire I cannot say'

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