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The Killers of 1914, Part 2
Imperial German Machine Guns
By David Hughes
February 2015

In many ways, machine guns demonstrate both the strength and weakness of the German army of the First World War, shown in its first encounters on the Eastern Front in Infantry Attacks: August 1914. Contrary to common belief, German weapons were frequently inferior to those of their opponents, but they used what tools they had with initiative, innovation and competence.

The standard German machine gun, the sMG 08, was a virtual copy of the British Maxim of 1905, modified of course for the German cartridge. As such it was a heavy beast (the s of the title was short for schwere or heavy), at 58 pounds even more than the almost identical Russian gun. It had a couple of minor differences, one being the circular disc mounted just behind the muzzle which was supposed to prevent the thin jacket with its 4 kg of water from being penetrated.


The MG 08 in raised position.

 

Also like the Russian gun it had a distinctive mount. This was a kind of sled, by which a four soldiers (presumably very strong since the sled added another 84 pounds to the already monstrous load, let alone the ammunition belts usually piled on it) could move the gun across a battlefield. They could do this by either dragging it, or by carrying it between them. It is hardly surprising that a far lighter tripod was soon being substituted. As a result of all this a German machine gun was in some respects, notably weight and age of design, inferior to those of most of the Great Powers of World War One. Only the French St. Etienne M 1907 had a comparable deficiency in its case of using strips rather than the almost universal belts to feed ammunition.

To make matters worse the gun was kept in production long after improvements were proven necessary. This was in strange contrast to World War Two where, as player of Panzer Grenadier well know, the Germans initiated endless changes whose multiplicity was probably harmful, in small arms and other weapons. But in World War One almost all guns of all sizes in production at the start were still being made at the end. The sole "innovation" in machine guns was to lighten the sMG 08 by the simplest means, such as replacing some metal parts with wood, the tripod with a lighter bipod and reducing the capacity of the water-jacket by a third, the result being the lMG/15. The "l" stood for leichte or light, a rather derisory label since it still weighed 46 pounds in action. It was far inferior to the British Lewis or even the French Chauchat in any form of mobile warfare.


The MG 08, ready for dragging.

 

This conservative attitude did lead to high production rates, allowing the Germans to equip their infantry with ever increasing numbers of guns. In 1914, the period covered by August 1914, the machine gun company in a regiment had six guns, so that at two guns a battalion the Germans had the same allocation as the Russians, British and most other armies. However by 1915 each battalion added its own six gun company and in the following year, reserve companies were being attached to every pair of front-line companies. This of course was most evident on the Western Front, but a plethora of Maxims became a characteristic feature of German infantry from Riga to Beersheba.

Of course none of this explains how effective these machine guns were in 1914, a time when anecdotal reports comment on their seemingly universal presence on the battlefield. The answer seems to lie in two factors. One was the German belief in "seizing the battleground," which tended to translate into advancing as far as possible to the most favorable terrain. What this did was allow time and space for machine gun crews, towing, dragging or carrying their clumsy weapons, to displace far forward and establish good firing positions. It was quickly learnt by all sides that moving guns under heavy fire and in the open was suicidal, even at ranges that had been considered safe a decade earlier.


The "light" version of the MG 08.

 
The other factor was even more important. The Germans had assigned to the machine gun companies competent officers (unlike the British Army where in some battalions the junior, or most unpopular, officer was given charge of the two Vickers guns). The result was that on several occasions in the extended fighting in Poland and East Prussia a battle was affected by the action of a single company, especially as the dense terrain allowed many opportunities for hidden movement by a small number of men. Of course such moves were made much easier by the lack of initiative shown by both Russian commanders and by their inadequate artillery. It was a different story on the Western Front where the capability of the sMG 08 would only become apparent when the German army went on the tactical defensive in late 1914.

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