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Remembered Today:

Captured Lewis Gun Teams


Bingo794

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As I watched the 'Last Tommy' from my semi-permanent post in front of the TV/computer, (well, until I am able to get out) I was informed of Harry Patch and his sad departure, by my Mrs.

A part of the family, well known to us all with his wisdom, unique character and kind voice. :poppy:

Something he said has kept popping up in my mind with regard to Lewis Gun teams. This was his statement about the men captured in the possession of a Lewis gun or as part of the team, being shot by the German soldiers, often with their own weapon.

Was this a common occurance?

Did we do the same to their MG'ers if they surrendered?

I know the heat of battle would have had a bearing, seeing your comrades cut down, adrenalin banging through the veins.

It is well known that things happened on both sides of course.

DickW

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Unfortunately it was quite common. The MGC was known as the "Suicide Squad" because machine gunners would be targeted by the enemy and, if captured, shot or bayonetted. Gunners who were about to be overrun would rip off any MG insignia from their uniforms and throw away their machine guns in the hope that the enemy would not realise they were machinegunners and treat them as normal prisoners.

Much the same happened to snipers too and both sides engaged in this practice. I remember reading about one case where a British platoon hung a sniper they had captured and another where a British sergeant shot a German machine gunner who was trying to surrender moments after wiping-out this sergeant's platoon.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence which describes this practice. Two books I have read recently both mention this:

"Machine Gunner 1914 - 1918" by C E Crutchley

"Sniping in the Great War" by Martin Pegler

Simon

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Good Day Gentlemen. Simon, a question here about this. Why would the Germans have more hatred for the Lewis machine gunners than other infantry since, after all they had their own machine gunners and the Australians/British/Canadians could retaliate in kind to any "special treatment" from the Germans ???

Joe

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Good Day Gentlemen. Simon, a question here about this. Why would the Germans have more hatred for the Lewis machine gunners than other infantry since, after all they had their own machine gunners and the Australians/British/Canadians could retaliate in kind to any "special treatment" from the Germans ???

Joe

I can't answer that question, I'm just going on the first-hand accounts I have read. If I had to guess why, I would say it had something to do with the fact that one enemy on a machine gun could mow down an entire unit of your mates before your very eyes... I'd want some payback for that, wouldn't you?

Simon

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Simon

I have not heard much on this, it is not surprising in the circumstances that these things happened.

The MGC it seems, had a rough time of it.

Many years ago I heard of something which happened at Narvik WW2, where a position was being attacked by the British, casualties were high because of an MG34 having a rip. The naval personnel manning the offending weapon put up their hands and tried to surrender, after their post had been overtaken but not cleared out.

'They were throwing stick grenades and feeding the MG one minute and the next had their hands in the air.' was his argument. Heat of battle. No action taken. Fair enough.

It is easy to condemn people for their actions, sat at a computer in the safety of our homes, we were not there.

Cheers, Simon.

Dick

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Simon

The MGC it seems, had a rough time of it.

Cheers, Simon.

Dick

A couple [three!] of points.

In the main, the Lewis was an infantry section weapon, not an MGC weapon [MGC used Vickers].

The nature of the Vickers implies that it was only likely to be over-run during a decisive enemy break in, such as Spring 1918.

I have never seen any comparative statistics for MGC dead and wounded per 100 men, compared with either the infantry or the artillery. I have a sneaky feeling that the MGC was a rather better number to be in than implied above.

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"A POW is a man who tries to kill you and fails, and then asks you not to kill him".....quote attributed to Winston Churchill.

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[quote name='GRUMPY' post='1230327' date='Jul 26 2009, 04:59 PM

I have never seen any comparative statistics for MGC dead and wounded per 100 men, compared with either the infantry or the artillery. I have a sneaky feeling that the MGC was a rather better number to be in than implied above.

What I was saying is that if they were captured, in amongst a gaggle of infantry soldiers, they could be segregated because of their MG insignia.

Or if equipped with certain items recognised as belonging to an MG team, be it Vickers or Lewis gun, the likelihood of them being executed may have been higher.

I wasn't comparing casualty figures for Infantry or any other branch statistically. I was initially talking about Harry Patch and his team who were with the DCLI.

Yes, it may well have been a better number to be in, many of the infantry types medals in my collection are from men who after being quite badly wounded, returned to the front attached a unit of the MGC.

A bit of a rum do, though.

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Thank you Simon.

Joe

Thanks Simon, I will have a look for these books, I have a bit of time on my hands at the mo.

Dick

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I would have thought that if a number of men were singled out from a larger group even on an occassional basis and executed then it would have been mentioned and formally documented. Are there any official records of this happening at all? While not discounting anectdotal evidence why would there be any less lamp swinging stories after WW1 than any other time when old soldiers get together?

Mick

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Having read many books on the Somme offensive I have noticed that where the British troops did get into the German trenches there were often comments like 'there were few prisoners taken' or 'the machine gun team tried to surrender but were put to the bayonet', if you will allow me to paraphrase. I would have thought that having seen such carnage caused by the Maxim teams they would have received little sympathy if they tried to surrender. The reverse could equally have been true.

John

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'there were few prisoners taken' or 'the machine gun team tried to surrender but were put to the bayonet', if you will allow me to paraphrase. I would have thought that having seen such carnage caused by the Maxim teams they would have received little sympathy if they tried to surrender. The reverse could equally have been true.

John

John

You are right with that, to know how these men felt is impossible for someone like myself to understand. I suppose I should read up a bit more.

By reading this forum, I hope to get to understand more.

Dick

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You might like to read page 192 of "Somme Mud" by EPF Lynch where he describes the killing of a German machine gun crew after they have surrendered. Finishes with "They've gone the way most machine gunners go who leave their surrender too late. War is war".

Glen

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I know they had their Laurel Wreath LG badges held on by a few threads so they could rip them off if they thought they were going to get captured.

Aye

Malcolm

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You might like to read page 192 of "Somme Mud" by EPF Lynch where he describes the killing of a German machine gun crew after they have surrendered. Finishes with "They've gone the way most machine gunners go who leave their surrender too late. War is war".

Glen

I'll have a look out for the book, Ta. GB

Nice one Malcolm, sounds like a good move if you want to get home.

DW

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Something he said has kept popping up in my mind with regard to Lewis Gun teams. This was his statement about the men captured in the possession of a Lewis gun or as part of the team, being shot by the German soldiers, often with their own weapon.

There's a similar story in Middlebrooke's "Kaiser's Battle" of a soldier chucking his Lewis gun into a shellhole before surrendering.

Of course, it doesnt matter if the the fears were well founded or not, only that the men believed it.

John

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I take what you say John, as the belief that the Germans were killing captured specialist troops was the greatest disincentive to fall into enemy hands. But spare a thought for Pte Noel Sainsbury, 28th Bn (AIF), who was captured at Pozieres on 28/29 July 1916: See here.

Cheers,

Aaron

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There's a similar story in Middlebrooke's "Kaiser's Battle" of a soldier chucking his Lewis gun into a shellhole before surrendering.

Of course, it doesnt matter if the the fears were well founded or not, only that the men believed it.

John

Hi John,

I don't have the book to hand, but I think in the same book there was a story from a young British Soldier who is cut-off and left behind. He is firing a MG by himself when he feels a jab in the ribs and a German Officer tells him "OK Tommy, stop now you've done enough". The soldier thanks the German Officer for not shooting him. Nice story.

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Unfortunately it was quite common.

Simon,

I too was intrigued by this statement and more so to find it is based largely on reading two personal accounts. Are there any other accounts which have led you to believe this was quite common? Quite common infers it was the majority of the the time and bordering on the norm. To date in reading a variety of sources both primary and secondary I have not had the impression it was a common practice.

Lynch's comment at post 14 refers to machine gunners who kept firing until the very last moment and then threw their hands in the air as the Australians were on top of them. This was considered as trying to have your cake and eat it too and there are several instances of German machine gunners in these instances being killed. Nonetheless there are many more instances of German machine gunners made prisoner who did not fire up to the very last moment.

I think it is important things are kept in context and we don't create more myths based on incomplete information or a slim sampling of reading.

I would be interested to see just how many sources mention this as a fact (ie that it was quite common for British Lewis gunners to be killed on being captured) , or was it a perception based on rumour?

Cheers

Chris

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There's a similar story in Middlebrooke's "Kaiser's Battle" of a soldier chucking his Lewis gun into a shellhole before surrendering.

Wouldn't this have more to do with making sure the weapon didn't fall into enemy hands (as the Germans made extensive use of captured Lewis guns, even converting them to fire their own ammunition), rather than the soldier thinking he'd be in trouble for being caught with it?

I would be interested to see just how many sources mention this as a fact (ie that it was quite common for British Lewis gunners to be killed on being captured) , or was it a perception based on rumour?

I think you've hit the nail on the head - from my own reading, there seems to be a lot saying it was common with little evidence to back it up. There's a picture in "Covenants with Death" I think that shows two captured MGC soldiers - and you know they're MGC soldiers as all their MGC insignia is still intact, and nothing nasty seems to have befallen them. I think it was accepted (as in the story by Vista) as long as you didn't leave surrendering too late you'd probably be treated alright.

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My grandfather who served in the MGC told me that he witnessed soldiers (in this case Australians) killing captured prisoners. This is certainly anecdotal but is it realistic to believe that this would have been statistically recorded?

Glen

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Glen,

There is nothing anecdotal about Australians killing prisoners. Bean's Official History describes instances and the circumstances of surrendering and surrendered Germans being killed by AIF men. You make a valid point that this is something that is unlikely to have been statistically recorded.

I think the issue here is about making statements that it was quite common for captured machine gunners to be killed when in fact we really don't know how common it actually was. The fact that machine gunners on both sides were killed after surrendering is accepted. There is also ample evidence that men who were not machine gunners were also killed after surrendering, but that doesn't translate into it was "quite common for non machine gunner prisoners to be killed."

We really don't know if it was quite common or simply individual instances depending on the circumstances and state of mind of the captors at the time, although I am inclined to think it was the latter. Furthermore, there is often a tendency to turn rumour into fact and hence give credence to something that in fact was not common. Having been on active service I can say without a doubt, rumour outweighs fact by a factor of about five or more to one.

That there may have been, say for example sake, 30 recorded instances of captured machine gunners being killed doesn't necessarily make it a quite common act. We would need to know how many machine gunners were captured and how many were killed on being captured before we could say with any certainty whether or not it was quite common for them to be killed on being captured.

All I am saying is we have to be careful about statements claiming something was quite common when in fact we don't know.

Regards

Chris

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I have never seen any comparative statistics for MGC dead and wounded per 100 men, compared with either the infantry or the artillery. I have a sneaky feeling that the MGC was a rather better number to be in than implied above.

Just a snippet of info on this, from LLT;

"A total of 170,500 officers and men served in the MGC, of which 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing."

Therefore 36.4% apparently for MGC.

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