One of the new aspects of the First World War was the Machine Gun. Although it had a lineage going back to the American Civil War, it was in the static, trench warfare conditions of the Western Front that the Machine Gun began to have a decisive effect.
At the start of the First World War in 1914 British Army infantry battalions each had a machine gun section of two maxim guns, manned by a junior officer and 12 men. However, experience in 1914 and 1915 suggested that the Army would need many more Machine Guns, and that they would need to be manned by dedicated units, using specialist tactics and organisation. On 2 September 1915 a proposal was submitted to the War Office to create a specialist Machine Gun Company per each infantry brigade, instead of Machine Guns being operated by the battalions themselves. These Companies were organised into a new Machine Gun Corps.
The re-organisation was completed by the start of the battle of the Somme in July 1916. Shortly after the Machine Gun Corps was create the Maxim was replaced by the Vickers. Infantry battalions were given the Lewis light machine gun to increase their firepower.
With their rate of fire, machine guns could generate as much fire as hundreds of rifles, and could seriously hamper attacking infantry. This was shown on the first day of the Somme on 1 July 1916 – if Machine Guns were set up along the line, with interlocking fields of fire, the attacking troops would face a death trap.
A total of 170,500 officers and men served in the Machine Gun Corps, of which 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing. A number of them came from Portsmouth.
Lance Corporal Owen Bugden, 20 and from Fratton, was serving with 163rd Company of the Machine Gun Corps when he was killed on 19 April 1917. He was supporting 54th Division in Palestine, and is remembered on the Jerusalem Memorial.
Machine Guns played a critical role in defending against German attacks at Arras. Sergeant Nathaniel Cranley, 40 and from Cosham, was killed on 3 May 1917. He was serving with 93rd Company, who were supporting 31st Division. He is remembered on the Arras Memorial in France. Private Henry Blackman, 21 and from Landport, was serving with 100th Company when he was killed on 20 May 1917. 100th Company were suporting 33rd Division. He is also remembered on the Arras Memorial.
Private J.E. Burridge was killed on 13 March 1918. He was serving with 2nd Battalion, who were supporting 2nd Division. He is buried in Neuville-Bourjonval War Cemetery, France. Also of 2nd Battalion was Private Dennis Cake, 19 and from Southsea, who was killed on 28 July 1918. He is buried at Bienvillers War Cemetery, France.
Private Herbert Exell, 19 and from Copnor, was a member of 49th Company when we was killed on 25 April 1918. 49th Company were supporting 16th Division. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.
Private Arthur Bone, 19 and from Kingston, was killed on 27 September 1918. He had originally enlisted in the Hampshire Regiment, and then transferred to the 5th Battalion of the MGC, who were supporting the 5th Division. He is remembered on the Vis-en-Artois Memorial, France.
Private Frederick Coward, 28 and from North End, was killed on 2 October 1918, seving with the 2nd Company of the Australian MGC. He is buried in Bellicourt War Cemetery, France.
Private Albert Evans, 19 and from Powerscout Road, was serving with the 19th Battalion of the MGC when he was killed on 6 November 1918, only five days before the end of the war. 19th Battalion were supporting 19th Division. Evans is bured in Cross Roads War Cemetery, France. His brother Charles Evans, a Gunner, was also killed in 1918.
What can we tell from this small sample of casualties? Firstly, how young these men were – 6 of the men named above were 20 our younger. Secondly, given that they all died in 1917 and 1918, it seems that the British Army only began using Machine Guns in serious numbers – and incurring losses in Machine Gunners – from 1917 onwards.