Nothing was happening a century ago that I feel compelled to talk about, or haven’t already bombarded with my opinions, so let’s have another go at getting down to basics. One of the irritating things about a lot of modern popular history, as transmitted through mass media, is its ability to be simplistic without being basic. It can, for instance, spend a lot of time describing the fear, suffering and fates of soldiers without saying much about what they were doing or how they were doing it.
This kind of behaviour promotes myths without really trying, because ignoring its banal, everyday realities reduces warfare to a highlights reel. We are shown war fought with propaganda-hyped, audience-friendly machines, imprinting their stories on the public mind as central to the conflict’s narrative. In some ways some of them were – the dominance of the machine-gun over attacking infantry in trench conditions was, to pick a relevant example, fundamental to the War’s course – but on the whole the First World War was less to do with machine-guns, tanks, aircraft, submarines, giant guns or gas, more about foot soldiers armed with rifles.
Rifles – that’s to say guns with a spiral groove inside the barrel to improve accuracy and range – had been around since the early eighteenth century, but they had been expensive to manufacture and difficult to maintain in combat conditions, so their battlefield use was largely restricted to the kind of sharpshooter units familiar from the Sharpe stories. Improving production techniques, and the invention of bullets that didn’t leave barrels too dirty for re-use, made it possible for major armies to arm ordinary soldiers with rifles from the mid-nineteenth century, and they quickly became world’s standard infantry weapon.
They were still at the heart of all infantry fighting in 1914. As long as machine-guns and mortars were prohibitively cumbersome for mobile operations, and grenades remained a one-shot weapon, concentrated rifle fire was the most potent attacking force known to contemporary warfare. A spurt of intense development in Europe had seen most major armies introduce a whole new breed of rifle during the 1890s. Small-bore, bolt-action weapons, they fired multiple rounds (usually five) from a spring-loaded clip inserted into the magazine, and they remained the standard infantryman’s friend in all major armies – and the better-equipped units of minor armies – throughout the First World War.
Aside from a preference for short-barrelled ‘carbines’ over clumsier long-barrelled weapons, and the addition of periscopes for trench fighting, wartime development of rifle technology was minimal, because everyone was more interested in mass production than experimentation. Some refinements of the basic design were in place from the start of the War, perhaps the best of them being the German Army’s standard 7.92mm Mauser (1898), which incorporated the clip and magazine into a single detachable mechanism. The British Army developed a 10-shot magazine for its standard 0.303-inch Lee-Enfield (1907), which was also used by US and Canadian infantry during the War’s later years, while the French Army waited until 1916 before replacing its reliable old Lebel (1886), which held eight rounds but took a long time to load, with the 5-round Berthier. Late in the War, Germany developed a one-shot 13mm Mauser for use against tanks, and it achieved some success against early light models.
These are just random examples of the wartime state of the art. Older, wide-bore, single-shot rifles remained in use with the armies of small nations and with the second-line or colonial forces of major belligerents, and as the conflict ate into the resources of every warring state every kind of working rifle, no matter how old, was pressed into service somewhere. British imperial forces alone used more than twenty different rifle types during the War, and attempting to list even the modern weapons used by various belligerents would be very boring for everyone, particularly since their performance was roughly similar across the board. They could be all aimed accurately over about 600 metres and at a general area over about 1400 metres, about half their maximum range – but although design variations did make some difference to the all-important factor of firing speed, the real determinant was the skill of the rifleman.
During the mobile campaigns of the War’s first few weeks rifle skills mattered, and the performance of the small BEF’s highly trained riflemen at Mons, where each apparently fired 15 rounds per minute, is usually seen as their high-water mark. General virtuosity became a lot less relevant once trench warfare had been established on the Western Front and elsewhere, and once rifles were in the hands relatively ill-trained mass armies, but individually skilled riflemen could still have an enormous impact in mobile actions (as emphatically demonstrated by the story of Sergeant Alvin York) and as snipers in static conditions.
Rifles weren’t just about shooting. As the infantryman’s principal close combat weapon they were equipped with a detachable blade, or bayonet. In theory, with a long blade attached to the long-barrelled rifle preferred by pre-War armies, the bayonet enabled a soldier to kill while still out of an enemy’s reach, but although the French Army used a long ‘needle’ blade on its Lebel rifle most bayonets were based on standard knife types. Some German Army ‘pioneer’ units (engineers to you and me) used a saw-bladed bayonet for practical purposes, a refinement worth mentioning because Allied propaganda persisted in describing it as a barbaric anti-personnel device.
Bayonets were much loved by those more orthodox officers in European armies, especially the British and French, who considered a bayonet charge the very epitome of ‘offensive spirit’ and put a lot of faith its psychological effect on defenders (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front). Troops were sometimes required to advance from trenches with fixed bayonets, discouraging them from blowing the element of surprise by firing, and were officially expected to use the bayonet thrust as their primary close-combat tactic.
This official enthusiasm, largely based on colonial campaigns that seldom featured well-entrenched defenders with machine-guns, was not shared by the rank and file. Bayonets were clumsy to use, often spoiled the accuracy of rifles in the hands of inexpert users, couldn’t be used while firing and were usually removed at the first opportunity by experienced infantry troops, who preferred to use a separate blade, club, knuckleduster or anything else they could carry and get their hands on.
As the War grew old light machine-guns, light mortars and sub machine-guns offered infantry soldiers with the best-equipped armies alternative forms of mobile close support, as did aircraft (which were often armed with long-barrelled rifles in 1914, before suitably light machine-guns became available) and tanks. Used with sufficient tactical nous, these weapons improved the chances of success for attacking infantry, but the modern rifle, a state-of-the-art weapon in 1914 and essentially unchanged in 1918, remained the principal weapon of attack all the way through the War on the main European fronts. Sadly for the poor bleeding infantry on all sides, it was a War fought with technology that could almost always beat a rifle attack.