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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Captured Lewis Gun Teams


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I completely agree with Chris and as I've said before, the percieved belief that machine gun crews were shot on capture played an important role in deterring men from surrendering to the enemy. German intelligence reports based on the interrogation of Australian troops captured at Mouquet Farm in August 1916 indicate that Autralian prisoners were particularly surprised at their good treatment, as it was widely believed that the Germans shot their prisoners. Like most rumours, there was some element of truth to it. I've come across two instances of German troops executing Australian troops after taking them prisoner. One I've cited above - a lewis gunner, killed for being just that - the other incident at Dernancourt is mentioned in the Australian official history. Pte Sainsbury's execution, however, certainly lends itself to the belief that lewis gunners who were captured were shown little mercy.

But as Chris suggests we need to see things in context. If we just look at specialist formations (ie. not lewis gunners, who were part of infantry battalions) 155 Australian prisoners captured on the Western Front were men from machine gun battalions, and 22 were from trench mortar batteries. This indicates that specialist troops such as machine gunners did survive the transition from combatant to captive. The argument could be made that the ratio of killed to captured in machine gun battalions improportionately favours the former category. But the figures for MG battalions in the AIF at least are consistent with those of infantry battalions, some of which lost fewer men as prisoners than the MG battalions (4th MG Battalion in particular - first at Bullecourt, then at Dernancourt). We know of Sainsbury's killing because there were witnesses (other prisoners) to see it, however I am sure that there are other killings in the similar fashion where there wasn't anybody around to see it or remained alive to report it. There wont be any official figures on these killings because these prisoners fall among the 'killed in action' category.

Prisoners are always important sources of intelligence, so we have to consider whether specialist troops were of more value than the average rifleman who fell into enemy hands. Ive only come across one German intelligence report based on the interrogation of a prisoner from a MG battalion, and his is an interesting - if exceptional - case. Of the 1,100 Australian taken prisoner at Bullecourt, the only interrogation report which made its way up to the GDO of XIII Armeekorps from that engagement was of a wounded crewman of one of the knocked out tanks; a member of the 1st Battalion Heavy Branch MGC. I dont want to stretch it too far, but downed pilots too were given preferential treatment in that more gentlemanly war in the air.

Whether specialist troops were killed on capture or not, the widespread belief that they did prevented men from throwing in the towel and surrendering to the enemy by making them more resolute in holding their post.


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  • 10 months later...

Hi guy's,

Interesting thread! my great grandfather was a lewis gunner with the 1st battalion KLR and was taken POW on 16th April 1918, while i dont no the details after that date, i can tell you he thankfully survived the war in a POW camp in southern germany, and although family history tells me he was treated badly i cant say if it was any worse than any of the other POW's.

I'd also like to add, as a ex soldier myself, and having seen active and campaign service from the age of 18 to 25 i can genuinely say having seen mates killed in action, the urge for payback is immense at the time (the old red mist) I can old imagine what it must have been like for those lads having seen their friends wiped out in one go by heavy machine gun fire! I no i'd want payback! but that just my personal feeling. what they went through is tenfold compaired to my own experiences.


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