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

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Canada's Armored Machine Gun Autocar

The First World War began for Canada on 4 August 1914, when the British Empire declared war on Germany. Just a week later, on 11 August, Sam Hughes, the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence, gave his approval for the formation in Ottawa of "one of the most revolutionary fighting units put into the field by any country." This was the Automobile Machine Gun Brigade No. l, later renamed the 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, which is believed to be the first motorized armored unit formed by any country during the war. The brain behind this innovative unit was Raymond Marc Pierre Brutinel (1882–1964), a Frenchman from the Department de l'Aude in the south of France, who immigrated to Canada in 1905.

The 1915 Version of the Autocar

Combining his fascination with the machine gun with an interest in the potential of the motor vehicle stemming from his days in the Canadian west, Brutinel developed with Sifton a proposal "to organize a mobile motorized machine gun unit. . . The guns being mounted in pairs on lightly armored trucks." After receiving ministerial approval, recruiting for the new unit began on 24 August in the lobby of the Chateau Laurier hotel, where a plaque still commemorates the event. In the meantime, Brutinel proceeded to the United States to acquire equipment. First, he returned to the Colt Firearms Company and ordered 20 of their Model 1895 .30in. "Potato Digger" machine guns. He later recalled that German workers at the plant attempted to prevent the guns from being shipped, which necessitated their being spirited away surreptitiously at night. He next proceeded to the Autocar Company in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, to acquire the vehicles. They made a light truck that Brutinel had earlier noticed being used by American Express in New York, and which he thought would make an excellent basis for his envisioned armored machine gun carrier.

The cabs and engines of the eight machine gun-carrying vehicles were covered in armor plate, except that the roof was open and the driver's head protruded over the top. The front plate bore two headlights and a large searchlight in the middle for nighttime operations. The two machine guns were mounted centrally at the rear, while steel ammunition chests, capable of holding 12,000 rounds of .303 ammunition, extended the length of both sides and enclosed the rear. When raised, the lids of these chests provided armored protection for the gunners. Nonetheless, when operating their weapons the gunners remained dangerously exposed, which resulted in very high casualties in action. The vehicles ran on four solid rubber tires and could reach speeds of 64 kilometers per hour (40 mph). As noted they were first equipped with Colt machine guns, but on 9 August 1916 these were dispensed with in favor of the classic British machine gun of the war, the Vickers, which they continued to use until the war's end.

Upon arriving on the Western Front, the unit soon went into the line at Chateau la Hutte, in Flanders, in support of the 1st Canadian Division. By then, however, the trench lines had begun to solidify, and the conflict turned into a static slugging match that lasted three more years. Opportunities for mobile operations no longer existed for the eight armored Autocars. For most of the next three years the vehicles were used as machine gun transporters remaining stationary or else move on foot, with little opportunity for the type of mobile operations using their motor vehicles that Brutinel had envisioned. In April 1917 at Vimy Ridge, the 1st CMMGB was given an especially demanding task. Its five batteries were required to leapfrog forward to successive firing positions over a distance of about five kilometers, while covering one another with protective fire. This was all done on foot.

The 1918 Version of the Autocar, Which Saw Service in the 100 Days Campaign

The opportunity for mobile operations finally came in 1918. In March, with Russia out of the war, the Germans launched their great offensive aimed at pushing through to Paris and, they hoped, knocking Britain and France out of the war as well. The bulk of the initial attack fell most heavily on the British Fifth Army, under the command of General Sir Hubert Gough, in the area of the River Somme. Because the trench lines had been broken and units were ranging widely over the open countryside, conditions now existed where it seemed mobile forces might be put to good use. Cavalry was thrown into the action, while the British put in a special request to the Canadians for the services of the one available armored car unit amongst the British armies on the Western Front at that time, the 1st CMMGB. They remained fully engaged in the fighting for the next two weeks. Prevailing opinion at the time was that the unit played a significant role in helping to stiffen Fifth Army's resistance through their capacity to intervene in one sector, then withdraw and move to another, to reinforce isolated outposts and maintain communications amongst widely scattered units.

By the time the Allies launched their great counterattack against the Germans in the Battle of Amiens of 8 August they were fully convinced of the advantages of armored mobility. The British, for example, commenced the battle with a total of 604 tanks as well as the recently formed 17th Armored Car Battalion. The Canadian order of battle included 42 British tanks per division and a formation designated the Canadian Independent Force, commanded by Brutinel. This latter formation consisted of the two Motor Machine Gun Brigades, machine gun bearing lorries, about 60 motorcycles, a trench mortar section with the weapons borne on two lorries, together with ancillary vehicles. Six Autocars were divided between the two brigades.

In the ensuing offensive campaign, Brutinel learned that the one constraint on the use of his lorry-mounted units, motorcyles, and the Autocars was that they were road-bound. He sought and received cavalry units to cover the open areas on his flanks. Also, As in the Second World War, the Germans proved themselves highly adept in conducting an effective, and to their opponents, costly, retreat. The result was that the mobile units of Brutinel's various formations often found themselves stymied and unable to move due to effective return machine gun fire, and to blown bridges or roads that were either cratered or blocked by felled trees. The Autocars—down to four by the time of the Armistice—had served well during the 100 days offensive, but their original design was proving vulnerable to the emerging counter-armor tactics of the German Army. They had reached their full useful lifespan as a weapons system.

Sources: Excerpted from "Canada’s First Armored Unit: Raymond Brutinel and the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigades of the First World War" by Cameron Pulsifer of the Canadian War Museum

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