Home » machine gun » The myth of the machine gun in the First World War and how it came about.

The myth of the machine gun in the First World War and how it came about.

In the final chapter of ‘Machine Gun and the Great War’ Paul Cornish consider those who, in the 75 years after the First World War, ‘seized upon the machine gun as a symbol of both the carnage and the ‘stalemate’ of the Western Front.’ Paul Cornish (2009 : 141)

Debunking myths is my favourite game wherever my command of a subject is such that I feel I can do so with some credibility. I’ve been hooked on the First World War since childhood thanks to a grandfather who served and survived and lived well into his 90s. I’ve also been a sucker for the mythology of the war and too many warped and inventive interpretations of what actually took place. It has taken some serious, postgraduate study of the events of 1914-1918 to find I will chirp along with contemporary historians who are gradually turning the tide: generals were professional and did their utmost in the circumstances with the technology and tactics of the time; they were in more of a ‘learning race’ than on a learning curve constantly assessing ways to end the war. It rained, and inevitably with the volume of shells used the ground was churned into a pulp. But the quagmire was isolated geographically, and seasonally, and the experience of those ‘in the line’ for short spells, rather than the lot of everyone, many of whom would be out on reserve. Cavalry was used, but usually held back. The few times they were used, and often successfully, far from man and horse being thrown at a barrage of machine gun and shell fire, they were sent in where a gap, very occasionally appeared, dismounted, and dug in. Commanding Officers and junior officers were killed in disproportionately high numbers: they led their troops. Staff Officers, rightly held back went to great lengths to plan ahead in a conflict so massive that it became known as an ‘industrial’ war and ‘Total War.’

Winston Churchill (1927) got it wrong in his histories, such as ‘The World Crisis’ writing, ‘fighting machine-gun bullets with the breasts of gallant  men … ‘ in which eloquence replaces hard fact. Cornish (2009 : 142)

Basil Liddell Hart, got it wrong … energetic and self-promoting, he held an idiosyncratic view of the First World War too often espousing radical tactical theories that ‘drove him to take issue with most aspects of British First World War strategy and tactics.’ Cornish (2009 : 142) While through his web of contacts Liddell Hart influenced, cajoled or simply fed the biased views formed by others, not least, the self-agrandising, blame-shifting Lloyd George …Cornish (2009 : 143).

The myth grew through the Second World War and due to the fifty year rule then in place authors had to rely on second hand sources, many of which prolonged this false view. A new wave of Great War histories, from In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff and Lions Led by Donkeys by Alan Clark, the former a protégé of Liddell Hart, followed. Eloquent, commanding, controversial and if read again fifty years after their publication sounding less like history and more like satire and harsh, relentless one-sided opinion. Historians such as A J P Taylor were also tainted by the Liddell Hart school of thinking making quite false claims for the impact of the machine gun compounded by the popular press and stories of ‘daring do’ as our brave Tommies took on machine guns nests. Cornish points also to a massively reproduced section of film from the Battle of the Somme film, seen by over 20 million at the time, an including a shot that is supposedly of ‘Tommy going over the top.’ This sequence was shot behind the lines in a training area. It shows a number of men stumble on the lip of the trench. Close scrutiny, now possibly in the HD DVD release, shows one men fall, then roll onto his back, lift his head as if putting it on a pillow, turn to camera and cross his legs! Cornish rightly points out, as filmmakers have found right up to this century, that is is easy to have an extra ‘fall’ as if shot, than have them eviscerated, limbs and other body parts splattered into the air and earth – the reality of the real killer: artillery.

Cornish goes on to make a compelling argument of why, how and when the machine gun has been used in modern culture, from Westerns for gangster films, as a symbol for the ‘machine’ weapon taking over. He is critical of the poet David Jones, who reworked second hand views of the First World War harking back to ancient battles and the curtain drawn by the machine gun and the First World War. ‘ The repetition of such an easily grasped theme eventually established a new orthodoxy.’ Cornish (2009 : 144)

The view only started to turn back with writers such as the historian Dan Todman in the Daily Telegraph 1986 who recognised how popular perceptions of the First World War had come about and had been reduced to images of ‘ranks of brave men ordered forward through barbed wire and quagmire to throw themselves fruitlessly at fortified machine-gun positions.’ (19)

Cornish would suggest that this false impression of the First World War was reaching its apotheosis by the mid-1980s: ‘the elements of the modern popular conception of the First World War – mud, incompetent (usually British) generals, wire, mud, as the dynamic element – machine guns.’ Cornish (2009 : 144) Only since the 1990s did historians in any number start to return with force, armed with facts from original sources, to question the myths and reestablish the facts; it may take ’til the end of these the ‘centennial years’ 2014-2018 to adjust popular misconceptions: though ill-informed directors risk continuing to get it wrong, feeding the public with invention and myth, rather than the reality: war is no less horrific today, as it was 100 years ago. People die ghastly deaths.

Cornish doesn’t mention either the popular TV series from Catherine Cookson ‘The Cinder Path’ or ‘the final series of Blackadder, ‘Blackadder goes Forth’ yet both of these reinforced the ideas of the idiot officer sending his men to certain death against a barrage of machine gun bullets. Curiously, these programmes are united: they used the same pieces of studio-shot trench reconstruction for their climatic scenes.

Cornish concludes by making us question the work of another First World War favourite, Lyn Macdonald, who eloquently tries paints a picture and sums up the words of the many veterans with whom she spoke and so often quotes naming the machine gun ‘The Queen of the Battlefield’ and the ‘Grim Reaper’ without acknowledging that veterans themselves have had their own perceptions and stories subtly altered by many decades of popularism. Cornish (2009 : 144)



  1. Mikeal Blackford says:

    I disagree. I think you’re missing a valid reason that the machine guns played such a role as bogeymen in the histories, memories, and press. You could *see* the effects of machine guns in a way you could not directly see (or survive seeing) artillery blowing a man to red rags. You could face, and even survive wounds, from a machine gun in a way you had difficulty seeing the artillery shells that got you, firing from well behind the lines, even if you survived the wounds. Artillery was not new. Machine guns and poison gas were new and consequently became the feared weapons out of proportion to the actual casualties they caused. Deaths from artillery remind me of nothing so much as a heat wave. Heat waves kill more people than any other natural disaster but because they’re not visible in the way a tornado or tsunami is, and they’re slow moving, a constant consistent stream of casualties they kill so many more people than the types of disaster that occupy our minds and imaginations. I don’t doubt that the tactics of fall of 1914 or the somme in 1916 had a framing influence on the debate even if they were not representative of the war as a whole. An American newspaper I studied had an article in the fall of 1914 that summed this up perfectly; headlined, “Machine Guns Destructive of Life” it is largely about the shock of casualties directly caused by the first mass deployment of automatic weapons, from Mons to the Marne, and the outraged shocked tone as if the editor-author never expected the infernal machines to be so effective and seemingly deadly. Artillery? Out of sight, out of mind.

  2. Great comment. Thanks.

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