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"The grim reaper", "The devil´s paintbrush" ... Hiram Maxim´s invention was one of the deadliest weapons on the battlefields of the First World War adding incalculable misery to a landscape drowning in mud, clouded in gas, crisscrossed with barbed wire and pulverized by artillery.

More men were killed by artillery during the first world war than any other weapon, but it was the machine gun rounds sweeping across no mans land that held the enemy captive between the lines until the artillery got their range.

The machine gunners were the infantryman´s hated nemesis, the cold eyes that squinted from behind behind a stream of deadly bullets.

A study of period photographs shows the men behind the guns to be a " regular bunch of guys". From the pale youth hiding behind a huge moustache to the ruddy ex farmer, the men of the machinegun units were soldiers like any other... but with a weapon that would gain them a notoriety that lives on today.

This section of the site will cover the evolution of the German machine Gun troops as well as show documents to machine gunners and period photographs. There is no way to stop people using online photos. Please feel free to use these... but please credit them to kaiserscross.com.

Click HERE for the Photo Album

The evolution of the Machine Gun Troops

The German army had just finished issuing machine guns to its units before the outbreak of the war. With the exception of the 1st and 2nd Bavarian Jäger Bataillons every regular Infantry regiment and Jäger Bataillon had a machine gun company. There were also Fortress machine gun units (Festungs M.G. Abteilung). The creation of machine gun battalions for the reserve regiments was not yet completed by the time the war broke out.  

At the outbreak of the war there were 219 M.G.K. in the active regiments, 16 M.G.K. in the Jäger Bataillon, a further 88 Reserve M.G.K. in the Reserve Infanterie Regimenter, 11 M.G. Abteilung attached to the Kavallerie Divisions and 43 Ersatz M.G. Züge (sections) in the Ersatz Divisions.  

On its roll each M.G.K. had four officers and 95 NCOs and other ranks. There were 45 horses to pull the six machine gun wagons and a reserve machine gun wagon. There were also three ammunition wagons, a field kitchen, and supply, fodder, and baggage wagons.  

Each M.G. Abteilung had four officers, 115 NCOs and other ranks. 87 horses (including 27 riding horses) and fifteen wagons, including six machine gun wagons, one reserve machine gun wagon, and three ammunition wagons.  

Due to its performance on the battlefield it soon became apparent how important machine gun would be during the conflict. The first step was to increase the amount of machine guns so all units were on the same level as the regular units. This meant equipping the 26 new divisions formed in 1914.  

At the beginning of 1915 new divisions were formed by stripping the fourth infantry regiments from the old divisions and forming new divisions with them. In order not to reduce the fire power of the divisions who had lost their fourth regiment, it was decided to increase the amount of machine guns.  

To cover their needs for the new units the Germans had five reserve M.G.Abteilung, 105 Festungs (fortress) M.G. Abteilung and 155 Festungs M.G.Truppen.

Right: A team of MG08 gunners pose with their pride and joy.

The Fortress units became available once it was established that their fortress was no longer under any danger from the enemy and were reformed into reinforcement or field sections. Wherever possible the regiments in the field were over supplied with machine guns with the specially created new units.  

On orders from the Oberste Heeresleitung (O.H.L.) the Kriegsminiterium created the Feld M.G. Züge (Field machine gun sections) 1-530 and bayerische Feld M.G. Züge 1-38 in the first twelve months of the war. Between August 1915 and September 1916 the M.G. Ergänzung (reinforcement) Züge 531-878 and bayerische M.G. Ergänzungszug 1-6 were created and joined their comrades in the field.  

With these reinforcements most divisions had two extra M.G. Züge. At the same time the amount of machine guns in a M.G.K. began to increase from six to twelve guns.  

At this stage the O.H.L. was able to implement its plan to give each battalion a M.G.K. of its own. Each of the Aktive, Reserve, and Ersatz regiment as well as Landwehr and Landsturm regiments in the Etappen areas and in the General-Gouvernement Belgien and Warschau areas was to get a M.G.K. for each of its battalions. There were six machine guns in each company. Jäger, Sturm, and independent battalions each received two M.G.K.  

To achieve this new distribution each M.G.K. gave up its excess machine guns and the Feld and Ergänzungs M.G. Züge were disbanded.

Above: An Iron Cross 1st class awarded to an expert machine gunner, Unteroffizier Federschmid of the Machinengewehr Scharfschützen Abteilung 77

This new system allowed each battalion to develop as a fighting unit and grow to know and trust its own integrated machine gunners. For all matters of a technical nature each regiment and independent battalion had its own M.G. Offizier.  

In the process of giving the Armee-Oberkommandoes their own corps units the O.H.L. received requests for experienced machine gunners to form a reserve pool of machine gunner troops to be used in precarious hot spots on the front. At the beginning of 1916 M.G. Scharfschützen Truppen were formed from veteran front fighters; 200 between the middle of February and middle of May 1916. Soon after the Kompagnie sized Truppen were united, three to an Abteilung and the M.G. Scharfschützen Abteilung were formed. The O.H.L. itself retained the authority to transfer and use the M.G.S.S.A. as it saw fit. In practice however, some of the Abteilung would spend months attached to a certain division.  

Although the O.H.L. was still eager to get as many Machinengewehr 08 into the front lines as possible, it also recognized that the heavy machine gun was not always able to move as fast as an Infantry unit. For this reason it authorized the introduction of the lighter MG 08/15 and the Leichten M.G. Truppen 1-111 were formed. As there were already 170 divisions with approximately 1530 battalions in service, the Truppen could at this stage be considered largely experimental. They would not come of age until after Falkenhayn had left the O.H.L.  

When the Alpenkorps was sent to support the Austrians in the Tirol in May 1915 it had 10 M.G. Abteilungen specially equipped for mountain warfare.

This basically meant the machine guns and ammunition were carried by mules. Due to the positive experiences in the Alps the system was adopted for other sectors and the Gebirgs M.G. Abteilungen 201-251 were created. A few more would follow.  

During Falkenhayn’s period of command the number of machine guns had tripled, Reserves of experienced/selected men had been created. A new light machine gun had been approved and introduced and mountain machine gun units were created.

The Hindenburg years  

By the time Hindenburg took command the heavy machine gun units were already firmly established. It was, however, decided to increase the number of guns in the M.G.K. and M.G.S.S.A., reaching nine then finally twelve heavy machine guns per Kompagnie. Hindenburg's command also appreciated the advantages of the light machine gun and in December 1916 saw to it that each Infantry and Jäger company would receive three light machine guns and an ammunition wagon. Five months later the final distribution of light machine guns was established. The 111 L.M.G. Truppen were disbanded and each of the above mentioned companies established its own M.G. Trupp. The number of light machine guns was increased from three to six per Kompagnie.  

In the same way that the heavy M.G.K. became an integral part of its Battalion, the light M.G. Trupp became an integral part of its Kompagnie.  

Left: The light MG 08/15

In the time leading up to the 1918 offensive the Germans did everything to get the Infantry and the light machine guns to work together as a single well oiled unit. The task was not easy, as Ludendorff wrote   

"The light machine gun needed to become an integral part of the infantry (company). At that period the machine gun was still seen as a secondary weapon of the infantry. In fact, they had to learn that the light machine gun WAS the infantry, the infantryman just the weapon carrier. This fact had not been realized by either the infantry or the high command. The light M.G. with its high rate of fire had to carry the weight of the combat. That is not to say that the rifleman was redundant. He was very important. Light machine gun and riflemen were a team, which in need and danger, in the fight for life or death, HAD to bond together. ... The heavy machine gun with its long range and better performance had the task of covering the infantry during its advance on the enemy positions from behind our lines. It needed, however, to accompany the infantry when it advanced. The heavy machine gun, although also infantry, became a support weapon."

In August 1918 each bicycle company also received 3 light machine guns.  

Restructuring by the O.H.L. affected the Gebirgs M.G. Abteilung as well. Eighteen Abteilung were renamed as Kompagnie and were amalgamated to form the Gebirgs M.G. Abteilung 260-265.  

It bears mentioning that each M.G.S.S. Abteilung and Gebirgs M.G.Abteilungen 260-265 had three Kompagnies, while the Reserve M.G. Abteilungen, M.G.Abteilungen of the Kavellerie Division and the rest of the Gebirgs M.G. Abteilungen each had just one.  

Another branch of the M.G. troops was the gunners in the armoured units. In November 1916 the Panzer-Kraftwagen M.G. Abt. 1 was formed. The tanks were supposed to appear out of nowhere and suppress enemy infantry positions. Unfortunately they had to travel by road and were good targets for the artillery. They did however achieve good results in the Ukraine and Caucusus where they were engaged mainly against partisans. In 1917-1918 ten new sections were created, each with two Panzers.

Right: A veteran machine Gunner on Anti Aircraft duty

A systematic training program for M.G. personnel in the field was introduced under Hindeburg’s command to train the M.G. "Elite". The M.G. Scharfschuetzen Kommando West was created at Rozoy, later moving to Tongern.  

The training for regular machine gun units remained in the hands of the respective Armee Ober Kommandoes, a Maschinengewehr Schule being put on strength for each of them in November 1917. At the same time each Armee recieved a M.G. Instandsetzungs-Werkstat (workshop) for repairs in the Etappe.  

The machine gun was not only an infantry weapon. It was also issued to other branches of service.  

Originally there had been eleven Kavallerie Divisions, each with its own M.G. Abteilung. By the end of the war this was down to four. In October each dismounted Kavellrie regiment and Kavellerie Schützen regiment received a M.G. Eskadron with six machine guns in a cart pulled by two horses. The mounted Kavellerie Regiments also received an Eskadron with six guns pulled in wagons with six horses per wagon. They also received three light machine guns for each dismounted and Schützen Eskadron. The mounted Kavallerie received their light machine guns in August 1918.

For anti aircraft defense and to protect them in case of an enemy breakthrough the artillery on the western front began to get machine guns in 1917. In the winter of 1917-18 each Feld and Fuss artillery battery received a M.G. section with two guns.  
In August 1918 each supply column also received two machine guns.   To protect important bases and railway stations in the occupied parts of France from enemy airplanes 25 Flugabwehr M.G. Abteilung were created, each with three companies of twelve machine guns each. 103 independent sections were also formed.  

Starting out as a purely infantry weapon the machine gun became an important support weapon for the cavalry, the heavy and light artillery, the flying corps, the armoured units and the supply units. It was, however, with the infantry that the weapon came into its own. At the outbreak of the war there were 323 M.G.K. with six machine guns and 43 mobile Ersatz sections. By the end of the war there were 2500 M.G.K., a sevenfold increase. Include the fact that the amount of weapons per company doubled from six to twelve machine guns and that each infantry and Jäger company had six light machine guns, it can be reckoned that by the end of the war the fire power of the machine gun units had increased eighteen fold.

Above: An Iron Cross and wound badge document that follow the evolution of the Machine Gun troops. The Iron Cross was awarded as a mamber of the M.G. Ergänzungs Zug 700 attached to the Reserve Ersatz Regiment 4. By 1918 it had become the 1. M.G.K. of the Reserve Ersatz Regiment 4.
 
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