2/Lt Erin Stevens (US Army)
The National Museum of Ireland, Decorative Arts and History’s permanent exhibition, Soldiers and Chiefs: The Irish at War at Home and Abroad 1500-2001 includes a World War I era German Maxim MG08 Machine Gun on loan from the Irish Defence Forces. The history of the killing power of the machine gun during the Great War is a tragic feature of the war’s devastating technological advances.
Hiram Maxim’s fully automatic water-cooled machine gun debuted in 1885 but saw its greatest levels of destruction in the Great War. The Battle at the Somme is particularly representative of the gun’s killing power. British casualties on the first day of battle numbered 57,470—a seventy-five percent casualty rate. On the German side, only 8000 men were lost. The devastation at the Somme resulted in part from poor British decision making in terms of their artillery barrage, but the Maxim MG08 played its role in the high casualty levels.
These compact weapons had a speed of 600 bullets fired per minute over a distance of a kilometre or more, and a single gun could stop two battalions of men. 2LT W.V.C Lake of B Coy of the 1st Royal Irish Rifles described the Somme, reporting that, ‘The German machine guns had not been eliminated and at once they opened up accurate fire… The men simply got up and fell back into the trench, either killed outright or badly wounded.’ Companies that advanced under heavy fire were annihilated by the machine-gun and artillery barrages.
At Gallipoli, the Royal Munster Fusiliers experienced similar devastation at the hands of machine gun power. Landing off the River Clyde on “V” Beach in 1915, some men were able to find shelter behind an embankment. Yet any who left the safety of this cover was killed almost instantly. Sir Ian Hamilton wrote of the Munster Fusiliers at Gallipoli in a 1915 despatch: ‘few men ever reached the farther side of the beach through the hail of bullets which poured down upon them.’
The Maxim machine gun and its successors, such as the Vickers machine gun, were used by every major power in World War I. The killing power of these technological advances was unprecedented and led to total devastation throughout much of Europe. Though the initial hope for machine-guns was to lessen the effects of war, its invention created the opposite effect, with ruinous consequences.