How does a machine gun work 1

The soldier on the Western Front - The use of machine weapons

“Soon there was a light or heavy machine gun behind every shoulder parapet. I stood behind one of these syringes and shot until my index finger was blackened with smoke. When the cooling water had evaporated, the boxes were passed around and, with little joke, were refilled using a very simple process. " (Source 1: Ernst Jünger: In Stahlgewittern)

As early as autumn 1914, the German advance in the west came to a standstill. The failure of the Schlieffen Plan, which was expressed in the solidification of the fronts, led to a change in the conduct of the war: In ever new offensives, which grew into gigantic material battles, attempts were made primarily by means of massed artillery bombardment, which on both sides through wire obstacles and Tripping hazards to overcome heavily fortified, complex trench systems.
This kind of warfare had to have an impact on the equipment of the soldiers. In the trenches, modern hand-to-hand weapons met archaic-looking spades, daggers and clubs of nails, which were made by the soldiers themselves but also industrially manufactured as "trench clubs". In addition to the artillery, machine weapons caused the worst injuries. In the case of the German troops, they were even the main cause of death and wounding. This finally brought about the breakthrough in the era of machine warfare in the First World War, which tended towards "total war" due to the mobilization of all industrial resources. The domestic industry's ability to perform and innovate increasingly became a factor relevant to the war (source 2).
With a rate of around 500 rounds per minute, the use of machine guns meant an immense increase in the performance of firepower, which made the military importance of cavalry obsolete (source 3). In the battles of Flanders in 1914, the infantrymen were still almost helpless at the mercy of the machine gun. Later, in the course of the trench warfare, all armies introduced steel helmets to protect against fragments and projectiles and equipped advanced guards with steel breastplates.

Bavarian field machine gun platoon 18

In an early training regulation for the foot troops, machine guns were still referred to as "bearers of resistance". This underestimation as a purely defensive weapon was also due to the limited mobility of the approximately 5,000 machine guns that the German troops had at the start of the war. The water-cooled MG 08 designed according to the Maxim system, which was mainly manufactured in large numbers in the German weapons and ammunition factories in Spandau, weighed around 23 kilograms. In addition, more than 30 kilograms were estimated for a rifle slide or a tripod. This made the weapon too heavy to be able to easily follow one's own infantry in an attack. Therefore, the MG 08 was primarily used in separate machine gun troops, while the infantry had been equipped with the further development of the MG 08/15 since 1917. This lighter variant, including the bipod and cooling water, still weighed almost 20 kilograms, but could be carried along in an attack (source 4). However, the course of the war meant that this weapon, which became the most widespread German machine weapon of the First World War with around 130,000 units produced, often only performed defensive tasks during trench warfare (source 5). The air-cooled successor MG 08/18 would have been far better suited for assault attacks due to its low weight and the ease of use by two soldiers, but because of its late introduction only served to secure the German retreat.
In addition, another machine weapon was spread among the German troops as part of a tactic that had changed in the last years of the war. Assault companies and battalions had been formed since 1917, which were supposed to quickly overcome trenches and wire entanglements using the shock troop method, covered by a short artillery fire. By renouncing permanent fire, the aim was to avoid an advance warning and thus the tracking of enemy reserves. The elite formations were equipped, among other things, with the Bergmann MP18 submachine gun, which was intended to increase their effectiveness in trench warfare, because the 5.2 kilogram weapon was equipped with a 32-round magazine. By November 1918, 30,000 units had been produced, half of which made it to the front. This first real submachine gun was also used in the German spring offensive in 1918 as part of the raid troop procedure; its mythical reputation as a "trench sweep" was one reason for the German Reich's ban on the production of machine weapons in the Versailles Treaty (source 6).

Uwe Fraunholz, Dresden 2015

  • Peter Berz: 08/15. A standard of the 20th century, Munich 2001.
  • Michael Epkenhans: Weapons of War - Strategy, Use, Effect, in: Rolf Spilker, Bernd Ulrich (ed.): Death as a machinist. The industrialized war 1914–1918, Bramsche 1998, pp. 69-83.
  • Laurent Mirouze: Infantrymen of the First World War, Düsseldorf 1990.