The British Army entered World War I with just two machine guns per battalion. In contrast, the Imperial German Army had long embraced the new weapon — and had already fully integrated it into its infantry regiments.
As the stalemate of trench warfare took hold, the British quickly learned how to best use the machine gun. In October 1915, the British Army stood up the new Machine Gun Corps to handle the powerful new weapon.
The Machine Gun Corps grouped the infantry’s Vickers Guns into companies of 10 guns apiece and attached a company to each brigade. Meanwhile, the infantry got their own Lewis light machine guns that fell outside the Corps’ purview.
The army wrote new tactics for the massed use of machine guns and published them in the official manual The Employment of Machine Guns. Shortly thereafer in 1916, the British Army’s new machine-gun concept underwent a trial by fire.
One of the new tactics was “barrage fire,” whereby groups of gunners fired indirectly — that is, without necessarily seeing their targets — in order to prevent enemy troop movements, to give covering fire or to generally harass and suppress the enemy.
The gunners angled their weapons high so the rounds would arc over the battlefield, much like artillery does.
The 100th Machine Gun Company was among the first to put into practice this long-range barrage technique — at High Wood during the bloody Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916. The company fired a staggering 100,000 rounds in just 12 hours.
That’s one round every three seconds for each of the company’s seven operational guns.
The Machine Gun Corps fought in every major theater of World War I. Its men won seven Victoria Crosses. The Corps finally disbanded in 1922, but the venerable Vickers remained in service into the 1960s.
Amid the chaos and carnage of the Battle of the Somme, a small forest became a focal point of the battle. High Wood had originally been part of the Germans’ secondary trench line, but when British troops advanced, the wood became the center of German defenses.
Read the Remainder at War is Boring