23 JULY, 1918: Tipping Points

By July 1918 the War’s big picture was getting clearer and something resembling a logical conclusion was slowly coming into focus for most observers on both sides, informed or propagandised. So I’m going for slight change of approach today, aimed at providing a few snapshots, and ideally a flavour, of the Great War’s last summer.

The Second Battle of the Marne may have begun as a German attack on 15 July, but within five days it was clearly turning into an Allied victory.  After four months of near-panic among the Allies, especially the British and French, as German offensives on the Western Front suddenly threatened to turn a fast tide against them, the battle was also emerging as the moment the world as a whole realised Germany wasn’t going to win.

No such clarity could be drawn from the other side of the big picture, the puzzling and potentially frightening spectacle of the Russian Empire collapsing into civil war.  Would Lenin’s soviets triumph and form a completely new kind of state, or would the multi-faceted, multi-headed forces of counter-revolution restore something resembling the old order?  Nobody, including Lenin and Trotsky, had much idea of the answers, and by no means everybody outside Russia was sure which side they wanted to win – but most of them were sure they wanted to see the Czech Legion get home.

By now a global cause célèbre and, with a total strength of around 100,000 troops, the single biggest coherent military force in the civil war zone, the Legion was strung out along the Siberian railway en route for Vladivostok.  Advanced Czech and Slovak forces took Irkutsk on 13 July and, far to the west, rear elements took Kazan the following day.   Both occupations were duly celebrated as victories in the Allied press, which also reported Japanese agreement, on 18 July, to US proposals for a joint intervention in Siberia, and the proclamation, five days later at Vladivostok, of a Siberian Government Council.  But the big story coming out of Russia that week was the news that Bolsheviks had executed the Tsar and all his family at Ekaterinburg on 17 July, a measure apparently hurried through for fear that the Czech Legion was on its way.

There are more accurate images concerning the Tsar’s death – but this one has the best eye rolls.

One thing becoming clear about Russia’s meltdown was that it wasn’t going to end the War in a hurry.   Fears that Bolshevik success would spark immediate popular revolution in Europe’s other great powers had faded, and the theory that release of German troops from the Eastern Front would turn the battle in the West had been proved false, though only just.  By mid-1918 both sides also recognised that Germany’s submarine-led campaign against shipping lanes had failed to end the conflict, but that didn’t mean the global war on trade was over.

Adoption of convoy systems had reduced Allied merchant losses to manageable, sustainable levels, and U-boats had switched their priorities accordingly, targeting the ongoing transfer of US forces to Europe.  Submarines sank five Allied transports between 15 and 19 July – at the cost of one submarine sunk by a British destroyer – and a British armed merchant cruiser on 23 July.  The victims included the Cunard liner Carpathia, sent to the bottom on 17 July while sailing with an Atlantic convoy from Liverpool to Boston, and famous as the first rescuer on the scene after the Titanic went down in 1912.

The British meanwhile persisted with their own, more successful version of economic warfare, in place since the start of the War, which combined the Royal Navy’s blockade of enemy ports with some serious diplomatic bullying to prevent neutral countries from trading with the enemy.  Nobody needed more bullying than Germany’s close neighbours, particularly Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, and all three countries spent the war years juggling the threat of invasion across the German frontier, the threat of starvation or conquest by the British, and the benefits of an economic boom generated by trade with both.

The Dutch juggling act almost came to grief during the spring and summer of 1918.  In March, just as the Allies were trying to requisition Dutch ships to address a critical shortage of transatlantic transports, Berlin demanded increased supplies of sand and gravel along the Rhine or the railway from Antwerp to the Ruhr. Agreements with the Allies allowed the Netherlands to export only certain, specifically non-military supplies along these routes, with some sand and gravel permitted for civilian road-building purposes, but German demands coincided with a need for materials to build new fortifications on the Western Front, and everybody knew it.

The German press responded to initial Dutch refusal with barely veiled threats of imminent invasion, and while the Dutch military braced for war the Allies considered a preemptive ‘friendly’ occupation of coastal provinces.  Fortunately for a Dutch government that could not agree to either side’s demands and remain neutral, Ludendorff’s plan to invade Zeeland was rejected (for once) by the rest of the Third Supreme Command, and Germany’s massive commitment to the Western Front offensive soon rendered a full-scale invasion of the Netherlands impossible.  The British, having already seized the Dutch ships in question (and paid compensation, of course), also needed every available body at the Western Front and advised the Hague to reach a compromise with Berlin, so the Dutch government accepted a reduced German sand and gravel demand, and agreement to restart trade was reached on 2 May.

Quite a lot harder than this made it look…

Reaction from right-wing editors and politicians in Britain was noisy and predictable, denouncing what they saw as Dutch collusion with Germany and becoming increasingly hysterical as the crisis on the Western Front deepened.  The British government finally responded to their outrage by issuing a formal protest about the sand and gravel arrangement on 15 July – just as the pivotal battle on the Marne was beginning – and the Dutch quickly agreed to talks aimed at arranging military cooperation in the event of German aggression. The talks began in August, proceeded in friendly, constructive fashion and continued until the Armistice, but by the time they got going much of the tension had gone out of diplomatic atmosphere in Europe because the German end of the neutrality tightrope had sagged.

Within few days of the British protest, the battle at the Marne had revealed the true weakness of Germany’s military position in France, and as Anglo-Dutch relations eased so did the sense of crisis that had gripped British and French society, military and civil, since the shocks of the spring.  A generalised fear of impending defeat gave way to an equally broad belief that victory was assured once the US was fully in the fight.  The change was both swift and obvious to contemporaries, as nicely illustrated by the immediate outbreak of labour trouble in Britain.

British trades union leaders had agreed to suspend industrial action for the duration in 1914, and the agreement had largely held. Strikes still took place throughout the War but were led by local union leaders or shop stewards, and usually concerned with local disputes over pay and conditions.  Even these tended to abate in times of national crisis, and Britain experienced almost no significant strike action amid the manpower shortages and military disasters that blighted the first half of 1918.  Victory at the Marne changed that.

On 23 July, as news of German withdrawal from the Marne was still coming in, engineering and munitions workers in Coventry took strike action, and their counterparts in Birmingham followed suit the next day.  The strike was, typically, called in response to a perceived infringement of workers’ rights by the government, in this case the ’embargo’, an official ban on the employment of additional skilled labour by certain firms.  It was also based on a misunderstanding, because the embargo was a far more trivial matter than shop stewards realised, and only applied to very few companies.

Munitions workers were crucial to the war effort and protected from conscription, so the strike came as a shock to the pubic and brought a punitive response from the government, which announced that all strikers would be liable to conscription if the action continued.  It ended after a week, but the shift it reflected in the British national mood, from relatively obedient pessimism to increasingly militant expectation, was destined to outlast the War.

Striking munitions workers didn’t get much sympathy from Punch magazine…

Major distractions have helped make this one of my clumsier efforts, but its vague purpose has been to commemorate a historical turning point that, if not exactly hidden, passed without the kind of totemic event that provides a passport to posterity.   During the summer of 1918, sometime after the middle of July and before the start of August, the planet as a whole decided that the result of the Great War was no longer in doubt, and that predictions of its imminent end – fanfared at the beginning of every campaigning season since 1914 – could finally be taken seriously.   After four years of fixation on survival, the minds of politicians, generals, ordinary fighters and civilians in every warring state could at last focus on the future peace and their places in it.  The battles between states were almost over, and the battles within states were just beginning.

12 JULY, 1918: The Way We Were

A crucial battle was about to erupt on the Western Front in mid-July 1918.  Known as the Second Battle of the Marne, it was a case of two offensives clashing.  In Berlin, Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command planned one last attempt to turn the German Army’s great Spring Offensive, begun in March, into tangible strategic success (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs).  Short of supplies and experienced troops, raddled with influenza and suffering an unprecedented crisis of morale, German forces on the Marne were almost ready to launch a two-pronged attack towards Reims, as a prelude to a bigger offensive further north, in Flanders.

Meanwhile, despite the manpower crisis that faced both Britain and France after the bloodletting of the spring – and ignoring French c-in-c Pétain’s insistence that his exhausted troops were incapable of major offensives until US forces were ready to join the fight – Allied supreme commander Foch planned an attack on the western flank of the German salient (that’s a bulge to you and me) at the Marne. Thanks to prisoners and deserters, each side was fully aware of the other’s plans.

Not the world’s most useful map, but it was the best I could do…

The German attack began first, on 15 July, but had turned into an orderly withdrawal from the Marne positions by 20 July, and by the time it ended on 3 August French attacks (with some British and US support) had driven the line back beyond the Rivers Aisne and Vesle. The fighting was heavy and horrible, costing more than 95,000 French, 13,000 British and 12,000 US casualties on the Allied side, and an estimated 168,000 German losses.  The battle finally put an end to the Third Supreme Command’s offensive ambitions on the Western Front, and ushered in a series of, ultimately decisive, Allied offensives during the autumn.

There’s a lot more to say about the Second Battle of the Marne, its turning points, tactical nuances and military-political fallout, but it’s a popular choice with the posterity industry and I’ve got something less stirring and triumphal to talk about.  On 12 June 1918, the ‘Denaturalisation Bill’ passed through its first and second readings in the British House of Commons, on the way to receiving royal assent in early August and becoming law the following January.

Denaturalisation in this context meant the revocation of citizenship granted to those born in foreign countries but qualified as British through long-term residence.  The bill itself (properly known as the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1918), its bumpy passage into law and the noisy public debate surrounding it shine some light on a social norm of the time that hit one of its wartime peaks in Britain during the summer of 1918.  I’m referring to xenophobia, which was uncontroversially indivisible from patriotism for most Britons a century ago and has been making something of a comeback in the last couple of years.

Until 1914, the law concerning British nationality had been based on the 1870 Naturalisation Act, which allowed aliens to become citizens after five years of residence, but successive governments had come under press and political pressure to make it more difficult for hostile foreigners to pose as loyal Britons.  Promoted by influential right-wing and ‘diehard’ imperialist elements, this xenophobic pressure mounted in an atmosphere of increasing mistrust towards other European powers and their subjects, especially Germans, in the years leading up the War.  It bore fruit just as the conflict was erupting.

The 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act received royal assent on 7 August and became law on 1 January 1915.  It came in three parts. The first defined ‘natural’ British nationality as belonging to anyone born in the British Empire, anyone born with a British father (even a naturalised father) and anyone born on a British ship.  The second section concerned naturalisation, which the Home Office (interior ministry) could grant to any applicant who had lived in Britain for five years and intended to stay there, was of ‘good character’ and spoke ‘adequate’ English.  Candidates were required to take an oath of allegiance, and their status could be revoked if obtained by fraud.

The third part of the 1914 Act dealt with particulars, including the treatment of married women, who were deemed to hold the nationality of their husbands, so that a British-born widow (or ex-wife) of a foreigner was considered an alien and required to apply for naturalisation.  The section also made clear that although naturalised foreigners could hold any property (except for a British ship) in the manner of natural citizens, they were barred from voting or holding any kind of local or national political office.

Confirmed as law just as national paranoia became government policy, the Act came under shrill attack even before it became active, with the popular press and the right wing of the Conservative Party demanding stronger powers to denaturalise aliens from hostile countries.  Hysteria inevitably focused on some 6,000 naturalised former Germans living in Britain, who were portrayed as potential hostile agents, and critics decried the Act’s failure to require naturalised aliens to renounce their former nationality, raising the spectre of British citizens bound by loyalty to the Kaiser.  In fact, under the German constitution, Germans choosing naturalisation elsewhere were automatically stripped of their original nationality, but a clause in the same constitution that allowed dual citizenship in certain, officially sanctioned circumstances was portrayed as a loophole through which Berlin intended to destabilise foreign societies.

This one from 1915 – they got more virulent as the War went on.

Amid a tsunami of government propaganda based on the idea that Germans and German culture were intrinsically violent, militaristic, devious and bad, what now seems like hysterical paranoia found ready acceptance among many people at all levels of British society. It crystallised into a campaign in the press and in parliament for a legal means to denaturalise ‘hyphenated’ Anglo-Germans at the whim of the Home Office, and the demand soon became impossible for even a Liberal government to ignore.

The Home Office was considering an extension of revocation powers by early 1916, but civil servants considered it difficult to apply and the idea was still bouncing around committees when the Imperial War Conference of April 1917 was asked to approve a draft bill of amendments to the 1914 Act.  This proposed giving the minister power to denaturalise anyone obviously disloyal, of obvious poor character, convicted of a serious crime or absent from the Empire for seven years.  It also suggested extending the wartime ban on naturalisation of aliens from Germany or Austria for five years after the end of hostilities.

The Conference – representing British state departments along with representatives of the ‘white’ dominions (which had hyphenation issues of their own) and India – gave the draft bill its overall approval without stipulating any timescale for change.  Spared the rod, the coalition government took its time before finally introducing such an intrinsically illiberal piece of legislation for its first parliamentary reading in May 1918.  Meanwhile the increasingly furious impatience of the political right, the jingoist press and a considerable section of military opinion (including the Admiralty) were coalescing to turn fear of naturalised Germans into a major national issue.

Rampant anti-German sentiment was reaching a wartime peak by the time the new Act went through its second reading on 12 July. The anti-German ultras were already denouncing the new legislation as soft on aliens, and a proposal to strip citizenship from all Germans naturalised within the last thirty years (and their children, including many men in senior military and civil service positions) was being widely touted to general acclaim from the political right.  In this atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that the 1918 Act – essentially a reprise of the 1917 draft proposal – became a little tougher as it passed through parliament, adding contact with enemy states to the list of reasons for denaturalisation, and banning the children of naturalised citizens from public service jobs unless they were given exemption by a special loyalty tribunal.

Some politicians get to be important but forgotten. This is wartime British home secretary George Cave, the (rather vexed) face of the 1918 Nationality Act.

The new Act still fell far short of the Draconian discrimination against anyone born outside the Empire demanded by the ‘radical’ right and a massively self-important Fleet Street barony, and as such it can be seen as a rescue success for the liberal values at the heart of the Lloyd George coalition.  And because the War against Germany and Austria-Hungary had ended by the time it came into force at the start of 1919, momentum drained from the tide of populist xenophobia that had threatened to make the Act the thin end of a very nationalist wedge.

British public xenophobia would be back.  An instinctive reaction to fear that feeds on ignorance to identify targetable threats, it is always likely to surface in times of popular panic, especially when encouraged by powerful voices with an eye for populist profit.  Over the decades since 1918 it has only tended to come all the way out of the closet during major wars, but these days it’s flouncing around naked in peacetime.  So the only point I’d make around the flood of race hatred that almost carried the day in post-Edwardian Britain is this:  today’s demagogues of modern economic insecurity are tapping into a form of escapism that runs deep and dangerous in our collective psyche, so maybe we should work harder at coping with reality.

4 JULY, 1918: Little Big Stuff

This exercise in vanity publishing has been largely inspired by a desire to shout about the First World War in all the ways popular sources don’t, but today I’m sticking to the populist script.   US Independence Day marks the anniversary of the Battle of Le Hamel, a small Allied victory on the Western Front that has long been celebrated as a highly significant indicator of the final victory to come.  It was that and more, so here’s what happened and then I’ll talk about its extra dimensions.

The Allied attack around Le Hamel was originally conceived as an attempt to straighten a small westerly bulge (or salient) in the front line east of Amiens, opposite the British Fourth Army, and was never more than a minor operation in the context of major offensives being prepared on the Western Front.  A succession of German spring offensives had taken the front back to where it had stood in the late summer of 1914 – threatening Paris at the River Marne – and both sides were planning attacks there for later in July. Erasing the Le Hamel salient would prevent German forces from launching flank attacks on the massed artillery support being gathered for the proposed Allied offensive.

I like this map. It includes Hamel and gives a nice, easy picture of the flux on the Western Front in 1918.

The Le Hamel operation was planned by the new commander of the Australian Corps, General Monash, and executed by its 4th Division, with support from sixty heavy tanks and every machine gun unit that could be mobilised, along with four companies of US troops that had been attached to the Corps for training.  Launched on 4 July, the attack was a complete success, sweeping the surprised and lightly entrenched defenders of the German Second Army out of the salient.  Its limited objectives, the village of Le Hamel and the woods on either side, were achieved within an hour and some 1,500 prisoners were taken for the loss of about 1,000 Allied troops.

Australians and Americans sharing a trench for the first time in history…

Leaving aside the coincidence of its date with one of the first major actions fought by US troops, the reasons this little success has been so well remembered across the decades are primarily tactical.  The victory provided the most strategically significant demonstration of a new approach to the problems faced by attackers in the context of contemporary trench warfare.   Refined and perfected during three years of trench fighting, and able to flourish once the Allies enjoyed significant numerical superiority in most forms of infantry support weaponry, it was given the oddly insouciant title of ‘peaceful penetration’.  The man generally regarded as its leading pioneer was the aforementioned General Monash.

General John Monash – tip your hat to this guy, because he was as good as it got.

John Monash ended the War as Australia’s most famous soldier, and is still well known there, but these days he’s nobody’s idea of a big star anywhere else.  That’s a shame, because he stands out as an example of excellence in a War dismissed by posterity as a command black hole.  A reservist, called up to lead a brigade of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in September 1914, he led his troops at Gallipoli, where they suffered horribly and he learned some hard lessons.  Given command of the Australian Third Division, which he trained and took to France, he soon gained a reputation for meticulous and efficient organisation, reflected in the division’s much-praised work at Messines and Passchendaele as part of General Plumer’s Second Army in 1917 (7 June, 1917: Listen and Learn).  By the time he was promoted to lead the Australian Corps in France, in May 1918, Monash was ready to put his ideas into concerted action – and they made a difference at once.

The basis of peaceful penetration was the concept that infantry should be used to simply occupy territory, rather than expended attempting to reach it.  In practical terms, that meant making maximum possible use of mechanised weapons – machine guns, tanks, artillery and aircraft – to devastate a limited quadrant of enemy territory.  Ground troops, usually supplied from the air, would then move in to occupy and secure the ground taken, while other mechanised forces were concentrated to prevent counterattacks. Carefully planned coordination between the various battle arms, a speciality of Monash, was obviously vital to any success, but the key word here was ‘limited’, because the difference between peaceful penetration and everything the British and French had done before on the Western Front was that it sought no ‘breakthrough’ into undefended territory beyond enemy lines.

Strictly limited aims, tight secrecy, overwhelming mechanised force and pinpoint coordination had demonstrated their effectiveness during the early summer in a series of highly successful Australian raids across no man’s land, which quickly began to make a noticeable difference to the position of the frontline, albeit metre by metre. Mopping up forward German trenches and taking prisoners with only minor losses, the peaceful penetration raids exposed defenders’ vulnerability to the tactics and prompted the experiment in larger-scale action around Le Hamel.

The success on 4 July did the trick as far as the Allied high command was concerned, and Allied generals would go on to imitate peaceful penetration tactics with varying degrees of success during the offensives of the autumn.  The other message received loud and clear by Allied leaders analysing Le Hamel was that the German Army was not the force it had been four years earlier.

The German Third Supreme Command had, characteristically enough, gambled everything on the success of its spring offensives on the Western Front, betting that it could achieve, if not total victory, at least a strong bargaining position from which to negotiate a compromise peace agreement.  By the summer, with the front line moved but unbroken, the gamble was failing, and the loss of around a million troops since March could not be made up.  If the British and French were already reduced to conscripting men in their fifties, German manpower shortages were far more acute, so that old men and boys now populated large swathes of the German trench system in France, while German economic atrophy was sharpening supply shortages that were already critical.  These were recognised by contemporaries as the prime reasons for an evident decline in German Army morale and operational discipline by mid-1918, and that’s still the heritage industry’s line – but the most cursory use of hindsight reveals another important factor:  the ‘flu.

It’s in Europe, and it’s coming here – Washington DC gets ready for the ‘flu epidemic.

The global influenza epidemic of 1918–19 (of which much more another day) is generally regarded as a post-War phenomenon.  It certainly killed a lot of people in 1919, but its first wave had arrived in Western Europe by the summer of 1918 and in France it hit the German side of the trenches first.  In other words, the victory at Le Hamel was in part the product of intelligent tactics, carefully planned, and partly an accident of nature.  This basic, unplanned change in the military situation during the Western Front’s last months has tended to get left out of standard popular narratives written by the winners, and is still being ignored by most of today’s heritage peddlers.  If you’re wondering why, I’m afraid you’re being naive about the enduring influence of nationalist triumphalism in a world that imagines itself more socially mature than the one that tore itself apart a century ago.  World Cup, anyone…?

30 JUNE, 1918: Busy Going Nowhere

So the world as people know it is going to Hell in a handcart, and the pace of scary change is accelerating all the time.  Some kind of big, global endgame is surely imminent, and local or regional endgames are already blowing away political certainties unchallenged in decades, even centuries.  In case you’re in any doubt, I’m talking about the middle of 1918.

Tsarist Russia was gone, and the Habsburg Empire was all but gone. The Ottoman Empire had already lost most of its outlying provinces, and had finally given up its attempt to expand into the Caucasus when it made peace with Armenian nationalists in May.  On 11 June, in a belated attempt to spark nationalist outrage at the Empire’s failure to gain more from the Treaty of Bucharest (7 May, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy), the Young Turk government in Constantinople gave up on the strict press censorship it had imposed throughout the War, releasing a torrent of internal criticism that would soon tear apart a corrupt and reckless regime.

Any excuse for a shot of Constantinople in 1918…

Germany, the other major player destined for defeat, was screeching towards economic collapse and political revolution, while those big hitters with better immediate prospects – France, Britain and the USA – were in the throes of momentous (if often temporary) internal change, self-consciously on the brink of a victory they expected to create a new world order.

Wherever you lived in the world at war in June 1918, except possibly Japan, a peep over the local parapets meant a disquieting glimpse of a bigger picture in rapid flux.  The old certainties were evaporating and the prospects kept shifting.  In that context, and without providing much in the way of reassurance, trench warfare had become something of a constant by 1918, if only because it had been around for almost four years and didn’t seem to have changed. For ordinary people in major belligerent nations, the static horrors of trench warfare had become a relatively well-established fact of modern life.  Reported and debated at enormous length and in great detail by press and politicians, war in the trenches had become the conflict’s principle and most consistent narrative strand, a status it has maintained ever since.

The wartime trench narrative was, of course, a mythic creation, a rolling propaganda tapestry of constant victories that made no difference to anything, side-lit by the ghastly, first-hand evidence of trench veterans.  These days, the heritage industry’s core narrative still resides in the trenches and is still steeped in mythology, but presents an anti-propagandist picture of constant defeats amounting to nothing, heavily arc-lit by memoirs of personal suffering.  Both pictures have conspired to turn our view of Western Front trench warfare into a collection of one-dimensional snapshots that stress lack of change during the course of four years.  Fair enough on one level; the Western Front trenches were static in terms of geographical movement, and the human suffering they inflicted remained the same – but the snapshot obscures the basic truth that trench warfare itself went through plenty of changes.

Trench warfare wasn’t completely new in 1914 – it had, for instance, been a terrible feature of the American Civil War half a century earlier – but the world had never seen anything to compare with the long lines of opposing, massively defended trench systems, invulnerable to flank attack, that were established across northeastern France and western Belgium during the War’s first months.  Although the Western Front was by no means the only theatre to experience trench warfare at its most gruesome, it was generally the test-bed for new weapons, defences and techniques, and after a brief phase of desperate improvisation both sides geared up for what they defined, quite understandably, as a gigantic form of siege warfare.

The first requirement of a siege, heavy artillery, was ranged behind the lines to destroy enemy earthworks, kill any troops in the open and take out enemy artillery, all tasks particularly suited to high-trajectory howitzers.  As I’ve mentioned before, wartime developments in the use of big trench guns involved increasing their size, trying (with little success) to find ways of moving them around efficiently, and improving their support mechanisms with advances in ballistic science, ammunition technology and aviation techniques (12 April, 1916: Crater Makers).

At closer quarters, whether across the narrow strip of ‘no-man’s land’ or in direct combat, reliance on the rifle as the soldier’s basic weapon never changed, with refinements of existing designs again the main thrust of wartime development (31 August, 1917: It’s All About The Riflemen).  More radical progress was made in the development of heavier anti-personnel weapons with greater killing potential, such as machine guns and mortars.

Universally pigeonholed as trench warfare’s great defensive weapon, the machine gun was a bulky, cumbersome, unreliable piece of kit in 1914.  Guns weighed between 40kg and 60kg – not counting carriage, mounting, ammunition or (sometimes) an armoured shield – and required a crew of between three and six men.  Generally mounted on a flat-trajectory tripod, they could fire 400-600 rounds of small-calibre ammunition per minute from a fabric belt or metal strip, but they were apt to overheat and needed cooling with air vents or a water bag to prevent buckling and jamming.  Water bags often needed changing every couple of minutes but machine guns still jammed all the time, so they were usually deployed in sections of three or more for defensive purposes.

Even when put on wheels or broken down for haulage the machine guns of 1914 couldn’t keep up with advancing infantry, so they were of little use when attacking and most wartime development was concerned with finding ways to turn them into viable offensive weapons.  They were attached to armoured cars for use on roads or in flat conditions, and eventually mounted on tanks for use in all ground conditions, at least in theory – but neither solution provided reliable direct support for advancing infantry on a regular basis, and the big change in wartime use of machine guns for trench conditions was a general shift to lighter weapons.

Light, portable machine guns existed in 1914 – a few Danish Masden models were in Russian service when war broke out – but were soon being churned out in large numbers by all the world’s arms manufacturers, and had become standard additions to all infantry units by 1918.  Weighing between 9kg and 14kg, they could be carried by one man and fired at a rate comparable with heavy models.  Ammunition still had to be carried on belts, drums or magazines, and was still heavy, but by late 1917 aircraft were being used to drop ammunition for attacking machine-gunners.  The War’s last year saw the appearance in the trenches of automatic rifles and sub-machine guns that were even lighter but often carried only 10- or 20-shot magazines.

Light machine guns could also be fitted to aircraft, for use against ground troops (and other aircraft) when weather conditions permitted, and became standard after the German invention of interrupter gear in 1915 enabled pilots to shoot through their propellers.  The mushrooming threat to trenches from the air meanwhile gave heavy machine guns a new role as high-trajectory anti-aircraft weapons, sometimes mounted on lorries.

No army enjoyed any great advantage over its rivals in the design and development of machine guns.  Among the most commonly used heavy weapons, the British Vickers and the German Maschinengewehr 08 – both derivatives of the original machine gun design, the American Maxim, as was the Russian standard Pulemyot Maxima – were generally more reliable than the French Hotchkiss and fired more quickly than the Austro-Hungarian Schwarzlose.

Maschinengewehr 08 – your standard German heavy machine gun.

The British Lewis and the German Maschinengewehr 08/15 were similarly well-matched light machine guns, although the former’s incompatibility with interrupter gear meant British planes mounted stripped down Vickers guns, but the most commonly used French light gun, the Chauchat, was notoriously unreliable.  The United States produced some 57,000 Browning guns after April 1917, along with a slightly smaller number of Browning automatic rifles, but although both were reliable, rugged weapons they didn’t enter service until the autumn of 1918 and the AEF fought most of its battles using borrowed French guns.

When it came to mortars – portable high-trajectory artillery, designed to launch the heaviest possible projectile from its stubby barrel – the German Army began the War with an enormous head start.  Mortars had been a feature of siege warfare in the 18th century, but had fallen out of use until the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, when they were deployed with some success by Japanese troops. This was ignored by most European armies but noticed in Germany, which had about 150 of its own Minenwerfer design in service by August 1914.  Production was stepped up once trench warfare became established on the Western Front, and they served throughout the War in light (76mm), medium (170mm) and heavy (245mm) versions.  Grouped in specialist engineering companies, they all had a maximum range of about 1,000 metres, and during the first year or more of trench warfare on the Western Front they made an important contribution to German tactical superiority.

By contrast, British and French forces entered the War with no modern trench artillery, and relied on antiquated siege weapons, improvised catapults or other crude projectors for a very long time. Allied forces could seldom deploy anything with an effective range of more than about 250 metres until the British Stokes mortar became widely available to trench fighters in early 1916.  Probably the most successful Allied design, the Stokes was a very light weapon and easy to construct, but it was relatively inaccurate and its effective range was only 750 metres.  By 1917 a full spectrum of French and Belgian mortars was also available, but though the Allies enjoyed an increasingly obvious numerical advantage during the War’s last year they never produced anything to match the Minenwerfer.

The Stokes mortar – second-rate but solid.

The arc of machine gun and mortar development was matched in almost every technical aspect of trench warfare between 1914 and 1918, and nobody seeing the entire Western front campaign from the inside could possibly have called it static.  Barbed wire, grenades, camouflage, ammunition, communications and trench design spring to mind as undergoing important changes, but the list could be a lot longer with a bit more effort on my part and might get some proper attention another day.  For now, this has been a small reminder that, no matter how often posterity freeze-frames them, the First World War’s trench fighters were experiencing the same tsunami of change that was sweeping the world beyond their shrunken horizons.