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Remembered Today:

Casualty rates: machine gun officers v. others


FrancesH

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Has anyone any knowledge of comparative data of casualty rates amongst Machine Gun officers (either before creation of MGC or after), as compared with those of officers (2nd Lt-Captain) generally? If so is there any difference?

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According to Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War (available on-line) the ratio of officer casualties to men for the MGC was 1:14.8. This compares to 1:23.9 for the Infantry, 1: 12.3 for the artillery and 1:5.5 for the Tank Corps. This work has a number of interesting statistics with comparisons between MGC and other arms.

Hope this helps, gp

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Thank you for this, GP. However, of course it's not possible to make use of these figures as they stand, because one would need to know the proportion of officers to other ranks in each of these separate groups. Do you (or does anyone else) have any thoughts about this?

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For what it is worth, Frances, 4.7% of all officers killed on the first day of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (15 September 1916) were MG officers (19 of 402). Seven of the 19 were from the 2nd Guards Brigade MGCoy. The other two officers in the Coy were wounded. I am writing about this MGCoy on this day, to see why there was such a great discrepancy (the OC, 1st Guards Brigade MGCoy, wrote in his diary that it was 'very bad luck', but, seeing that he had only one officer killed although they advanced at the same time, he wondered 'how they [2nd Brigade] managed it').

The tactical use of machine guns is probably the key to answering your question. In 1916 MG offensive tactics were still in flux and a comparison with a few other MGCoys on the Somme show that there were a variety of approaches to best using MGs in combat. In the case of 2nd Guards Brigade, the confined start-off point, the inability to reconnoitre the ground beforehand and the fear of a counter-barrage on Ginchy (immediately behind the Guards' start-off point), led to the embedding of the MG sections in the infantry waves. Yet earlier they had practised only coming up after the infantry had gained their first objective (they reverted to this on 25 September when they took Lesboeufs). The infantry waves were enfiladed on the 15th and the proportion of MG officers killed was pretty much the same as Foot Guard officers, as one might expect. My guess is that the OC MGCoy, 2nd Guards Brigade, thought facing the machine guns in front was less risky than remaining behind to be caught by counter-battery fire. He turned out to be wrong (although he did not go up in the advance but was killed by a shell at Brigade HQ, so who really knows?).

In 1916 MGCoys usually had nine or ten officers, 2 for each section of 4 guns, an OC and sometimes a deputy. This was at the time that MGCoys (now part of the Machine Gun Corps), were controlled at Brigade level. Things changed by 1918 in all sorts of ways.

Mike

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There are a number of figures out there but I am not sure that an accurate casualty rate could be calculated. Pages 216 to 217 of the Statistics... book gives the monthly strength of the MGC. For example, on October 1918 the total strength (including all sections) was 6091 officers and 118311 men, roughly 1:20. Obviously, officers killed, POW or discharged due to wounds would not be included though I doubt the overall ratio is different so on this basis it would appear the number of officer casualties was greater than the ratio of officers to men (1:14.8). Officers Died in the Great War gives total MGC officers killed (including attached) as 1124. Taking 1:14.8 as the casualty ratio and using the 118311 other ranks figure gives 7994, a rate over 100%! On the other hand, the usual figures given for the total number of men serving in the MGC 1915-1922 is 170500 with 62049 casualties - a casualty rate of 36%. Making an allowance for the apparent greater casualty rate among officers, this would suggest an MGC officer casualty rate of around 40%.

Hope this is of interest,

gp

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Thank you both for these extremely helpful contributions -- once again I am amazed by the quality and expertise of the GWF. What a fantastic resource it (you) are.

You may both be surprised to learn that my original impulse for raising this issue at all was that in my sample of 10 individuals (of whom five died in the war), two of those who survived were MGC officers and I wondered if this was a contributory reason for survival -- quite clearly not the case! One of my subjects, Douglas Wimberley (later a WW2 general) has some interesting comments about the positioning of MGs in his unpublished autobiography, as you probably know. Originally it was more or less left to him where to put the guns but this quickly ceased to be the case. It was clearly a considerable physical challenge to move them, especially if this had to be done in a hurry -- the guns themselves obviously awkward and heavy, and the mules recalcitrant and/or terrified.

It's probably a pointless exercise in any case, especially with such a small sample, to try to see any pattern in their survival -- the only thing which is obvious is that if you got a serious injury (such as losing your leg) you were then unlikely to be back in a position where you'd get killed -- hardly a triumph of analysis on my part.

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Dear Frances

You are quite right about the Forum; I have been helped in numerous ways over the years by a large number of members too.

I was unaware of Wimberley's autobiography. Do you know how I could access it, please?

Best wishes

Mike

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Hi Mike -- happy to help. Please get back to me if this link doesn't work. For some reason it's really hard to find this microfilm in the IWM's own catalogue.

http://apps.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/records.aspx?cat=062-dnw&cid=-1#-1

However, I also note that you are 'Perth Digger' and thus may not be located in the UK! If so I'm not quite sure what you could do. There is another copy (whether microfilm or the actual thing) in the National Library of Scotland. Note also that the IWM microfilm does not include the various photographs and maps of the original, ie I haven't seen them either. Obviously if you use it and want to quote from it you need permission from the Wimberley family, but I have found them really helpful and supportive of anything which keeps the General's memory green.

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Dear Nick

I am staggering slightly at the thought of your database. What an undertaking! I am sure many GWF members will be excited to learn of its existence and that it has the potential to be of immense assistance to many members. However, not being a statistics person, I am not totally sure where it leaves my original query. Before your post I had more or less decided that MG officers appear in fact to have had higher casualty rates than infantry officers -- is this or is this not born out by your figures? Sorry to sound thick, but I am when it comes to statistics! I take the additional point that the actual nature of fighting in 1914 was more mobile than in subsequent years.

Please translate in words of one syllable!

Sorry!

F

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Dear Nick

Thank you for your clarification -- but really sorry it got you up at 4 am! I am most grateful. It is interesting and surely significant that MGO casualties do appear to be higher than for infantry officers in general, which, as I said before, was not what I originally expected. The question then arises, why is this? Surely it must be because MG positions were an obvious target for the enemy, and it would be difficult for the MG crews (including the officers) to move, even when they became aware that they were targeted. Going back to General Wimberley's autobiography (mentioned above) he gives a vivid description of a desperate attempt to keep firing knowing that he and his crew had no way of escaping from their position. Eventually the gun became red hot and emitted a plume of steam which immediately attracted heavy German fire and killed the remaining crew members except for Wimberley, who was seriously injured but managed to crawl away.

I think a large-scale analysis like yours of casualties offers the opportunity for much serious thought and investigation as to why the rates differ and I am sure many others more expert than me will expand on this topic in the future. Thank you again for your help.

F

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I am impressed by the amount of work you must of done on your database - and the figures for MGO casualties have been duly noted. I would offer, however, that the casualty rates you give might not apply to casualty rates for MGC officers. First, there was only two MGs and one MG officer per battalion/regiment in 1914 so in effect (on a battalion level) we can have only 100% or 0% casualty rates. For example, Lieutenant Maurice Dease of the 4 Royal Fusilers was killed at Mons - 100% rate for that battalion - whereas the MG officer of the Queen's Bays at Nery (Lieutenant AJR Lamb) was unscathed - 0%. More to the point, the MGC had a very different role from that of regimental MG sections that evolved from late 1915 through 1918. In 1916, there were 3 companies per division, with a fourth divisional company added in 1917. By 1918, the companies had been merged into Battalions. On top of this, there were clear differences in casualty rates depending on whether the units were deployed in the trenches, as part of offensive actions or in defensive situations. For example, on 1 July 1916, all 3 section officers with 109 Company (36 Division) that went over the top were killed while on 21 March 1918, 61 Battalion had 13 officers POW and 3 officers KIA or DOW.

I am going to look into this issue in more detail and will post later. But I still think as per my previous post that a reasonable estimate of MGC officer casualties is 40%.

gp

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This is such an interesting discussion. I think I should mention at this point (*ducks in case Nick wants to hit me*) that I am in fact interested in the casualty rates for later in the war than 1914, as my ten chaps entered Sandhurst in Dec 1914 and left it in May 1915. Quite apart from this being my personal POV, as GP has just reminded us, the role and positioning of MGCs changed very significantly during the war. (My third MGO, incidentally, had a very short career with 6th/DCLI as he lost his leg from a shell in Dec 1915 after just three months at the front. (He survived the war, however.)

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An interesting thread and Nick's database sounds amazing.

I am not sure you will be able to extract meaningful figures for 1914 and early 1915 (or for any other period for that matter). It is a lot more complex. There are a few other factors which will challenge some of the statistical conclusions.

1. The number of Officers in an Infantry battalion was reduced by 3 before a shot was fired leaving Battalions with 26 Officers not 29. Given the MGO was retained, he was one of 26 not one of 29. If one adjusts for the Company Officers, that number drops further and just for Captains and below the numbers change again.

2. The BEF lost a very high proportion of their MGs early on and production could not replace them immediately. As one example the 5th Div (12 Infantry battalions) had a scale of 24 MGs (2 per battalion) and by 27th August just one week after disembarkation they had only 2 left. The lost/damaged 22 were not replaced for many weeks, so the MGOs that survived were in fact without their MGs for significant parts. If an MGO became a casualty (as many did) it does not necessarily mean he was acting as an MGO at the time.

3. Officers would be replaced many times over during a hard campaign and most diaries and histories failed to record most of the changes. Typically, if one is really lucky with a battalion war diary for this period one might see the list of Officers and their roles on disembarkation and maybe one or two times more during the period. Most battalion war diaries didn't bother to record nominal rolls of Officers on a regular basis, so we really have little idea of who was doing the MGO role. I suspect it was often no-one and an NCO was running the show.

4. Casualty rates were so high that most battalions were running on a fraction of the number of officers dictated by War Establishment. Through 1914 to end of 2nd Ypres in May 1915 it was very common for battalions to be reduced to less than 10 Officers and in many cases less than five. In these scenarios the few remaining Officers were required to lead companies and platoons, leaving the MG sections under the command of an NCO. The war diaries simply don't record the allocation of officers in enough detail to do any statistically reliable calculations. I think it unlikely that there was always an MGO at battalion level during this period.

It is extremely difficult (I would argue impossible) to calculate comparative 'casualty rates' for a number of reasons;

1. "Casualty" needs to be accurately defined. Casualties include Battle Casualties (KIA, DOW, WIA, WAMIA, MIA and POW) and Non Battle Casualties (Sick, Injured, Died of sickness or injury) and the available stats were not recorded with sufficient accuracy. Statistics 1914-20 (published in 1922) still shows tens of thousands of MIA when in fact it was known if they were KIA, POW or a straggler.

2. "Casualty Rate" also needs to be tightly defined. What is the denominator of the equation? All MGOs and All Battalion officers at Captain and below? MGOs only when they are with their guns? etc.

3. How does one adjust for the different arrival dates? One might try and see how long they last from disembarkation but one immediately gets tripped up on deciding whether the casualty rates of MGOs sitting in billets really should be compared to those on the front, so it immediately becomes significantly more complicated if one tries to use the entry date into the trenches....and departure dates... i.e. casualty rates need to be adjusted for the actual time spent in the front and the time spent in billets.

4. Multiple casualties - wounded more than once...etc.. The list of caveats is very long and the danger is that the definition becomes so long it loses any meaning. The books 'Six Weeks' fell into this trap when claiming the average life of a junior infantry officer during the harder phases of the war was just six weeks. It is a false claim that has no supporting evidence for the simple fact that it is impossible to calculate.

The data simply was not recorded in sufficient detail and how the available data is manipulated (in a good sense) to try and tease out some conclusions becomes highly subjective. To say that X Officers became 'casualties' of Y Officers that served would be a rather simplistic and rather meaningless calculation as it ignores a host of very complex factors; length of service, time in the trenches, double counting multiple wounds, role, etc ad nauseam.

As a simple example the 1st Bn Rifle Brigade war diary shows a very long list of Officers who became casualties. Only one is shown as an MGO but it is very likely that others took his place and their role was unrecorded. Multiply this 128 times and one begins to see the challenges of doing this just for 1914 and early 1915.

MG

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Martin, thank you for a very clear and helpful exposition of 'what is the meaning of casualty'. I think one thing that's been interesting for me in researching thus far is exactly what you are saying, how many other fates apart from death were possible. That sounds like a statement of the obvious but actually it isn't. Of course the finality of death and the number of deaths was overwhelming but many others -- the majority of course -- experienced different outcomes, and even of course several different outcomes according to the length of their service. In a way focusing on the classic story of the young officer 'he was brave and we loved him and he died' clouds the picture. Martin's comment 'how do we define a casualty?' is the essential one.

Nick, when do you do things like sleep and eat?! Another database!! I would say that the collection of data in itself as you are doing is the first of two essential tasks (and a mammoth one of course). The second one, which requires considerable careful thought before embarking on it, is the analysis -- and any statistician will immediately tell you that your choices will affect your outcome, a fact you need to be aware of and allow for from the start.

None of that means that you shouldn't do it, in fact we must, despite the fact that as Martin has eloquently explained above, there are huge problems in both collecting and analysing WWI data. The issue of casualties is particularly emotive and perhaps a series of small studies analysisng individual battalions might be the way forward. Re war diaries -- out of the around 15 I've read so far, only one carefully recorded all officer casualties with names and what had happened every time. One didn't give any casualty details of officers or numbers of other ranks casualties even when the battalion was at the Somme, just said 'casualties were heavy'!

I had no idea when posing my original question that it was going to lead to such an interesting discussion but I am delighted it has -- we seem to have broadened out from the casualty rate of MGOs into wider issues.

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Indeed, these are extremely valid points and really get to the heart of casualty complexities. I started off just collecting "Fatal" casualties which I thought would take about 1 year then thought I'd look at "Non-Fatal" as well. Then break this out further into the various categories - big mistake as I'm now about 8-9000 hours in & still have huge gaps in the latter! On the positive side I have very tangible numbers, who, when, often where(general locality) etc plus lots of bio & other information by regiment and battalion with corrections for assigned officers. Even the CWGC database has gaps in forenames etc which I've been able to fill in. I'm particularly pleased with results in the PoW category where I have been able to correct a significant number of inputs where Cox & Cos list is liable to misinterpretation as these are just dates when recorded with no relation to actual battle dates etc. Many of the PoWs shown as 10th September are in fact Mons/Le Cateau or the Retreat and from study of many War Diaries and contemporary reports I have found actual capture dates/places(itself an area of complexity....such as when was the officer officially a prisoner in a mobile situation). However, no room for complacency. I am hoping over the next few months the great expertise of the GWF can help fill in lots of gaps.

Nick

If anyone is interested I also have a very large database of generals(1914-18) which far exceeds the numbers discussed in the literature especially if temporary brigadier ranks are included...but that's another story.

Nick I would be very interested in hearing more about your database (the first one you mentioned) - how you built it, the sources you used, scope, definitions etc.

The reason I ask is that I have a rather large database of transcribed diaries for 1914 and 1915 (BEF Infantry and cavalry) and (nearly) every published regimental history (Infantry, Yeomanry and some Cavalry) which I have had digitally scanned and put through OCR. The source material is now searchable (not possible with the original material) and the database is over 22 million words. I am about to start adding the 1914 and 1914-15 Star medal rolls although they don't yield to OCR as easily as I had hoped so it will take some time. The idea is to create an archive of source material that is searchable, has high integrity and is cross referenced against other benchmark source material.

Take Officers in the BEF for example - every name in the diaries (8 Divisions' worth plus Cavalry plus TF battalions) has been checked against the 1914 and 1915 Army Lists and where fatal casualties occurred they have been checked against the CWGC data, Bond of Sacrifice and the Cross of Sacrifice where possible. I have created lists of Officers for each battalion who are known to have served. As I am sure you know there are some errors in the source material although it would be fair to say that the vast majority of the data is pretty good. I have found names in diaries that don't appear in the 1914 Army List or the May 1915 Army list or their published histories. As Officer casualties rose, most battalions ended up with young Officers from many different regiments and while the diaries recorded most Officer arrivals, departures and casualties by name, some didn't and some failed to note the regiments that they came from which causes some headaches trying to trace them back to their original units. The incorrect spelling of names (occasionally phonetically) and shortening hyphenated names also adds to the challenge.

I have yet to consolidate the Officers into one database (they are currently on individual Battalion and Regimental rolls) but this is something that will happen quite soon. Another GWF colleague has done extensive work on the biographical details - background, education, type of school, military connections (father in the military?), etc which adds another interesting dimension to the data.

It would be really interesting to understand more about your database and particularly the sources that is is built on.

MG

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Wow! This is going to be a magnificent source of information. If it's any help I would be happy to offer you what I've got on my ten (feels a bit like offering Google the fruits of a village website). I look forward to hearing more about this in due course, as I am sure many other people will. Congratulations, Martin, to you and your colleague on what sounds like a major contribution to WW1 research.

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Hi Martin

If I am your GWF colleague (#21), I should point out for the benefit of others that my database is only a 1 in 5 sample of all officers killed in 1914, using Bond of Sacrifice, Vol. 1, as the source (TF officers excluded). But it is true that I have focused on their social backgrounds, so have data on family, school, OTC, university, occupation, place of birth, father's occupation (sorted into categories, including whether ever served in the army), father's estate at death, soldier's estate at death, marriage, children, wife's remarriage, brothers who fought and a few bits more. I have collected this data for a specific project (on 1916!), but at some point I hope to set up a website on which I will put all the data. But don't hold your breath!

Mike

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Hi Martin

If I am your GWF colleague (#21), I should point out for the benefit of others that my database is only a 1 in 5 sample of all officers killed in 1914, using Bond of Sacrifice, Vol. 1, as the source (TF officers excluded). But it is true that I have focused on their social backgrounds, so have data on family, school, OTC, university, occupation, place of birth, father's occupation (sorted into categories, including whether ever served in the army), father's estate at death, soldier's estate at death, marriage, children, wife's remarriage, brothers who fought and a few bits more. I have collected this data for a specific project (on 1916!), but at some point I hope to set up a website on which I will put all the data. But don't hold your breath!

Mike

Hi Mike when my data is consolidated it might help. It will be online quite soon. I think your research will take us into interesting avenues. It would be nice to expand on Gliddon's work. MG

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Dear Martin, just spent 2.5 hours describing for you in detail my database but unfortunately it doesn't seem to have posted!

Most frustrating. I will try and update you on another occasion.

Nick

I know the feeling. having just switch to BT infinity there are the usual teething problems and I lose connectivity on a regular basis. Long posts...hit send...freezes....lost. I have taken to writing in Word (auto saves) and pasting into GWF.

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