The Chatter of the Western Front: 16 Vickers Guns in Action
One of the scariest sounds for any of the Kaiser's foot soldiers in the Great War had to be that of the Vickers gun, ready to rattle away in .303 all day.
The above amazing eight-minute video is the sight and sound of 16 Vickers machine guns rocking and rolling at a recent event saluting the centenary of the disbandment of the British Army's Machine Gun Corps. Held at the Century range at Bisley, Surrey, it was pulled off by the Vickers Machinegun Collection and Research Association. Set up as a machine gun company, the guns represented gunners from 1912 through 1968, including one team of female factory testers.
The Armourer's Bench has a deeper, 13-minute dive into the event, should you be curious.
What is the Vickers?
The Vickers, based on Mr. Maxim's famed heavy machine gun of the 1890s, was a water-cooled MG of the same breed that was adopted by the British Army in 1912. Firing from canvas belts and mounted on a tripod, it weighed upwards of 50 pounds and, rather than general purpose machine guns today, has a relatively low rate of fire of around 450 rounds per minute. Compare this to the FN MAG 58/M240 which has a rate of fire of 650 rpm and a weight of 22 pounds. However, while today's general-purpose machine guns rely on the concept of rapidly-changeable barrels to sustain fire for extended periods of time, the Vickers gun, due to its refillable water jacket, could pour it on for hours at a time.
For proof of this concept, seven guns in one 1916 battle fired no less than 1 million rounds between them in just 12 hours.
Using 250-round cloth belts, the Vickers wasn't too complicated, having about 66 parts including its tripod, but it required a well-trained six-man crew (gunner, loader, assistant loader, and three ammo/water carriers) to keep in reliable action in field condition. This lead to the Machine Gun Corps.
The Emma Gees
Formed in 1915 as the British Army grew rapidly from a small core of regular soldiers with experience in their trade gained around the world to a monolithic force numbering in the millions, the Machine Gun Corps was formed to train and field specialist units of Vickers crews attached to the infantry at roughly the rate of three companies per division. Dubbed "Emma Gee" men (M.G.), ultimately a whopping 170,000 would serve in the MGC during the Great War. As about one in three would become a casualty – be it of gas, shell shock, a German bullet, or artillery shell – the Corps earned the dubious nickname of "The Suicide Club."
Besides "unusual strength of body and suppleness of muscles" men for the MGC had to possess an above average intelligence, and "his mind must be swift as a bullet in flight: he must be resourceful, audacious, possessed of initiative, capable of endurance to the uttermost."
While over 70,000 Vickers guns would be constructed in Britain between 1912 and 1918, ammunition, belts, and components were ordered from America even before the entry of the U.S. into the war in 1917. Colt even made some 12,000 Vickers model guns, the M1915, for use by the U.S. Army chambered in 30-06, of which about half were delivered before the end of the war.
When the U.S. entered the war, it had few reliable machine guns as the M1917 Browning was not in production yet, the Lewis gun was unloved due to Army politics, and the M1904 Maxim and M1909 Benet-Mercie were only available in negligible numbers. This meant that, besides the detested French Chauchat light machine gun, Americans often went with Vickers in the conflict, using British guns re-chambered for .30-06 at first, followed by Colt-made guns by late 1918.
While the British continued to use the Vickers gun through WWII – and the U.S. sent them 7,000 remaining 30.06-chambered Colt-Vickers M1915s as Lend-Lease in 1940 – the Machine Gun Corps was disbanded in July 1922, and its over 15,000 war dead are remembered in a memorial dedicated in London's Hyde Park in 1925. However, there are a few of its members interred here in the States, where they died during the 1917-1918 Military Mission to help get their American cousins ready to go "Over There" in the Great War.