The British Army’s 100th Machine Gun Company Rained Down 1,000,000 Rounds in 12 Hours in 1916
Barrage-fire tactics proved devastating
by MATTHEW MOSS
The British Army entered World War I with just two machine guns per battalion. In contrast, the Imperial German Army had long embraced the new weapon — and had already fully integrated it into its infantry regiments.
As the stalemate of trench warfare took hold, the British quickly learned how to best use the machine gun. In October 1915, the British Army stood up the new Machine Gun Corps to handle the powerful new weapon.
The Machine Gun Corps grouped the infantry’s Vickers Guns into companies of 10 guns apiece and attached a company to each brigade. Meanwhile, the infantry got their own Lewis light machine guns that fell outside the Corps’ purview.
The army wrote new tactics for the massed use of machine guns and published them in the official manual The Employment of Machine Guns. Shortly thereafer in 1916, the British Army’s new machine-gun concept underwent a trial by fire.
One of the new tactics was “barrage fire,” whereby groups of gunners fired indirectly — that is, without necessarily seeing their targets — in order to prevent enemy troop movements, to give covering fire or to generally harass and suppress the enemy.
The gunners angled their weapons high so the rounds would arc over the battlefield, much like artillery does.
The 100th Machine Gun Company was among the first to put into practice this long-range barrage technique — at High Wood during the bloody Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916. The company fired a staggering 1,000,000 rounds in just 12 hours.
That’s 10 rounds every three seconds for each of the company’s seven operational guns.
The Machine Gun Corps fought in every major theater of World War I. Its men won seven Victoria Crosses. The Corps finally disbanded in 1922, but the venerable Vickers remained in service into the 1960s.
Amid the chaos and carnage of the Battle of the Somme, a small forest became a focal point of the battle. High Wood had originally been part of the Germans’ secondary trench line, but when British troops advanced, the wood became the center of German defenses.
Over three months, the British mounted several attacks against the wood. During the Battle of Bazentin Ridge on July 14, 1916, the British briefly occupied High Wood, but the Tommies withdrew the next day.
The Allies were determined to retake the forest for good, but the area’s geography meant that Allied artillery was unable to support the attacks with accurate shelling, for fear of hitting friendly troops.
Allied commanders decided that a concentrated machine-gun barrage would support the next attack. They ordered the 100th Machine Gun Company to provide arcing fire in support of the infantry’s advance.
On Aug. 24, the 100th Machine Gun Company training its guns on German positions 2,500 yards away. At 5:45 in the evening, seven of the company’s Vickers Guns opened up with barrage-fire in order to prepare the way for the infantry.
At 6:26, the battery ceased fire, as it feared its fire was falling short. Capt. Seton-Hutchison, the company commander, ordered the firing to resume at 6:40. The seven guns again rained down indirect fire onto the German line.
For two hours, the guns fired non-stop and with no mechanical failures. Later that evening, the company ran short of water for the guns’ cooling jackets. The men stayed busy loading ammunition into the weapons’ 250-round cloth belts. At 8:00 in the evening, the company began to alternately overhaul, clean and replace the guns’ barrels, while keeping up the shooting at a somewhat slower overall rate.
Sections from the Highland Light Infantry of the 33rd Division worked hard bringing up fresh supplies of ammunition and water for the cooling jackets.
The guns’ barrels became red-hot and the company grew so desperate for water that, during the night, the machine gunners began filling the jackets from their personal water bottles.
Despite the shower of supporting gunfire, the three attacking battalions of the 100th Brigade were unable to break through the German line. The next morning at 6:10, the company finally ceased firing, having expended a total of nearly a million rounds in just over 12 hours. The gunfire had held German reinforcements at bay and covered the 100th Brigade’s attack and retreat.
Attacks in the sector continued throughout August. The Allies finally captured the wood on Sept. 14.
The British army continued to use its Vickers Guns in the barrage-fire role through World Wars I and II, finally retiring the weapons in the 1960s.