Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Morale Versus Technology: the Case of the Machine Gun in World War One

Lt. Col. Price T. Bingham, USAF

Machine guns transformed warfare by vastly increasing infantry firepower. The experience in European colonial wars of the last century strongly suggested that greater firepower made it too costly for massed infantry or horse cavalry to cross a killing zone only a few hundred meters wide. The immense advantage of weapons such as the one produced by Hiram Maxim moved Hilaire Belloc to quip:

Thank God that we have got

The Maxim gun and they have not

The lethal firepower of six Maxim guns explains why the British suffered only 48 dead at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 while the Dervishes lost over 11,000. As Edward Arnold noted, “In most of our wars it has been the dash, the skill, and bravery of our officers and men that have won the day, but in this case the battle was won by a quiet scientific gentleman living in Kent.” Although Sir Edward realized the implications of what had happened, many did not.

While there was some appreciation that improving the lethality of firepower would demand changes in warfighting, European armies were unable to ask the right questions. Not surprisingly, answers to the wrong questions prevented them from anticipating innovations that new technology provided.

The French in particular failed to grasp how improved firepower might affect offensive operations. Not having asked the right questions, they arrived at answers that put too much emphasis on morale versus technology and strengthened the conviction that the offensive spirit of their soldiers would suffice. But the experiences of World War I revealed the limits of the human element when it became clear that “three men and a machine gun” can stop a battalion of heroes.

Only after sustaining immense casualties while attempting to cross the killing  ones on the battlefield of 1914 to 1918—made possible by developments in firepower such as the machine gun—did armies make dramatic changes in warfighting.

Source:  Excerpted from "On Machine Guns and Precision Engagement,"  Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 1997

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