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Schwink or Wynne: Mythology and 1914


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Introduction. In 1919 Capt G C Wynne member of the Historical Section (Military Branch) Committee of Imperial Defence translated

 

“YPRES 1914 – An Official Account Published by the Order of the German General Staff” by Otto Schwink. 

 

He also added copious analytical footnotes in an attempt to verify or counter German claims. In the Introduction Capt Wynne states:

 

“As regards to rifle and machine gun fire we [the British Army] are credited with ‘quantities of machine guns’, ‘large numbers of machine guns’ etc .. and that ‘over every bush, hedge and fragment of wall floated a thin film of smoke betraying a machine-gun rattling out bullets' ........ 'the only inference to be drawn is that rapid fire of the British rifleman were he infantry, cavalryman or sapper, was mistaken for machine-gun fire both as regards to volume and effect'”

 

He adds:

“ ..the lavish praise were it not for the result of the battle might be deemed exaggerated. Part of it undoubtedly is. It is fair however to deduce that the German nation had to be given some explanation why the ‘contemptible little Army had not been pushed straightaway into the sea ..... In fact the book is largely an apologia and confession of failure which mere protestations of victory cannot alter”

 

It is important to recognise that the German author did not state that the German Army mistook British rapid fire for machine gun fire. This was Capt Wynne’s speculation. It was this comment that Edmonds picked up and weaved into the British Official History as ‘fact’.

 

Aim: This thread is about exploring the background to these claims. The relevant passages appear on pages 72-75 of the original publication and are reproduced below, along with Capt Wynne’s original footnotes. The comments about ‘quantities of machine guns' relate to the British troops lining the edge of Nonne Bosschen Wood on 31st Oct 1914 rather than Gheluvelt. These are the troops whose musketry skills were allegedly mistaken for machine-gun fire by the Germans.  I am hoping to draw out first hand accounts of these events.

 

 

Background: Wynne’s translation in Blue, his footnotes in.

 

YPRES 1914 – An Official Account Published by the Order of the German General Staff

 

After sufficient artillery preparation the British stronghold of GHELUVELT 1 was to be attacked from the south and east simultaneously.  Colonel von Aldershausen commanding the 105th Infantry Regiment was to direct the attack from the east. Besides two battalions of his own regiment there were placed under his command the 1st Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment and a strong mixed detachment from the 54th Reserve Regiment and the 26th Reserve Jaeger Battalion. The 99th Infantry Regiment was to make the attack from the south. During the heaviest fighting no success was achieved and isolated attacks were repulsed by British counter-movements. 

 

At about 11 a.m. our converging attack was begun. The commanders of the 54th Reserve and 30th Infantry Divisions with their artillery leaders as well as the general commanding XV Corps were again in the foremost lines though the last, General von Deimling was wounded almost at once by a shell splinter. Towards midday the attack began to gain ground. His Majesty the Kaiser who had arrived at the battle headquarters of the Sixth Army watched the infantry working its way through the maze of the enemy’s obstacles and entrenchments. It was well supported by artillery, some of the guns being moved forward with the front line. The British and French artillery fired as rapidly as they knew how 2 and over every bush, hedge and fragment of wall floated a thin film of smoke betraying a machine-gun rattling out bullets. But it was to no avail: the attackers kept on advancing. More hostile strongholds were constantly being discovered: even all the points known to be of importance could not be given sufficient bombardments by our artillery, so that many attacks had to be delivered against fresh troops in good sheltered entrenchments untouched by our guns 3. Many of our gallant men were killed and the officers who were the first to rise in the assault were well the special target of the enemy’s sharpshooters, well trained in long colonial wars 4. Once our troops entered an enemy’s position the resistance was only slight and the Germans showed his superiority in single combat. It was only the enemy’s counter-attacks, delivered with remarkable accuracy and rapidity that regained some of his lost ground but they did not however compromise the general success of the day.

 

The XXVII Reserve Corps pressed forward into the dense woods near REUTEL 5 which were defended by a strong system of obstacles and by a quantity of machine guns hidden in some cases up in trees 6. While this was in progress the last assault on GHELUVELT was taking place. The attacks from the east and south broke into the village and by 3 p.m. the whole place with its chateau and park was in German possession 7. Colonel von Hugel took his storming parties of the 54th Reserve Division northwards through and beyond the village, while Captain Reiner galloped his batteries close up to it. It was then however that fresh hostile reserves were launched against GHELUVELT. The 16th Reserve Regiment of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division was hurried up to meet them, its gallant commander Colonel List dying a hero’s death during the movement. For a short time our own artillery fired into the backs of the Bavarian ranks: for the men were wearing caps and were thus mistaken for British troops. Nevertheless the enemy’s counter-attack failed and GHELUVELT became and remained ours and we captured besides 17 Officers and 1,000 men and 3 guns  8. The enemy prevented our further advance beyond GHELUVELT.  By heavy fire from a new and strong position along the edge of the woods west of GHELUVELT. Here a new fortress had been made which would have to be broken down by our artillery before it could be attacked.


Translation and end-notes by “GCW” [Capt G C Wynne, KOYLI and member of the Historical Section (Military Branch) Committee of Imperial Defence ]

 

1. The troops holding Gheluvelt consisted of two battalions of the 3rd Infantry Brigade with portions of the 2nd Infantry Brigade at most 2,000 men. Against these the Germans by their own account put in about eight battalions

2. It would not be gathered from this account that the British artillery had, as was the case, already been severely restricted as to ammunition expenditure.

3. The statement that ‘many attacks had to be delivered against fresh troops in good sheltered entrenchments’ is almost ludicrous in its travesty of facts.

4. It was not ‘long colonial wars’ but in careful training on the ranges that the majority of the defenders of Ypres had learnt that the mastery of the rifle which was the mainstay of the success of the defence. Between the close of the South African War (1902) and the outbreak of war in 1914 scarcely any British troops had been on active service.

5. The position west of Reutel was maintained intact on 31st October, the right of the 2nd Division and left of the 1st Division holding on successfully even after the centre of the 1st Division had been pierced at Gheluvelt.

6. The picture of the great profusion of machine guns in the British possession is a little dimmed by the recollection that the war establishment allowed two machine-guns per infantry battalion , that by 31st October 1914 there had been no time to produce enough machine guns to increase the establishment; indeed most battalions had already one or both their guns out of action. The Germans clearly took for machine gun fire the rapid fire which the infantry of the original Expeditionary Force could maintain.

7.  The capture of Gheluvelt was earlier than 3 p.m. by at least an hour, 1 or 1:30 p.m. seems more like the correct time. The ‘chateau and park’ north of Gheluvelt were held by the 1st Bn South Wales  Borderers who maintained their ground although their right was left in the air by the loss of the village until the 2nd Bn Worcesters came up and delivered their celebrated counter-attack past the right of the SWB. This apparently occurred about 2 p.m. The German account is however accurate in saying that Gheluvelt was not retaken; what the Worcesters did was that they completely checked the German efforts to push forward; the position their counter-attack reached enabled them to flank any advance west of Gheluvelt.

8. The German claim to have captured three guns does not seem founded on fact; one gun of the 117th Field Battery was lost but was subsequently retaken.

 

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Wynne's footnote No. 6

 

"The picture of the great profusion of machine guns in the British possession is a little dimmed by the recollection that the war establishment allowed two machine-guns per infantry battalion, that by 31st October 1914 there had been no time to produce enough machine guns to increase the establishment; indeed most battalions had already one or both their guns out of action. The Germans clearly took for machine gun fire the rapid fire which the infantry of the original Expeditionary Force could maintain."

 

My underlining. The diaries, personal accounts and regimental histories would suggest this was not the case

 

The British line ran roughly North to South facing the German advance coming from the East. The position opposite Reutel, where the Germas saw 'quantities of machine guns' started along the Eastern edge of Polygone Wodd, running along its Southern edge, then down towards Gheluvelt. Between 31st Oct to 14th Nov the German Army's main attacks were made. Wynne argues that most battalion had lost one or both of their machine guns.

 

The battalions were rather mixed up and many were detached from their Brigades and attached to others. Battalions were typically very depleted, some down to less than 100 men (1st Bn Coldstream Guards). and some units came in and out of the line over the dates or changed position. By contrast the 2nd and 3rd Bns Coldstream Guards remained in position for 23 consecutive days and nights. Here are the Battalions that faced the German massed attacks of 31st Oct through to mid November 1914  opposite Reutel (slightly north of Gheluvelt) starting in the North and running South, and the records of their Machine Guns:

 

2nd Bn Grenadier Guards............2 machine guns while at Polygone wood. Bn later detached.

1st Bn Irish Guards.......................2 machine guns while at Polygone wood. Bn later detached. Present at clearing of Nonne Bosschen

3rd Bn Coldstream Guards........... no mention 2 machine guns (see post below)

2nd Bn Coldstream Guards.......... no mention

1st Bn King's Liverpool Regt........ 2 machine guns brigaded

2nd Bn Highland Light Infantry ..... 2 machine guns

1st Bn KRRC.................................2 machine guns (one put out of action on 2nd Nov)

1st Bn Coldstream Guards...........2 machine guns and 2 machine guns from 1st Bn Glosters

1st Bn Black Watch.......................2 machine guns

1st Bn Cameron Highlanders........2 machine guns (one overwhelmed in attack of 7th Nov)

1st Bn Scots Guards.....................2 machine guns (one overwhelmed in attack of 7th Nov)

2nd Bn OBLI..................................2 machine guns (into the line in early Nov). Cleared Nonne Bosschen on 11th Nov

 

Some Battalions in the immediate vicinity with the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades and the 5th and 6th Inf Bdes recorded as having both machine guns at certain stages of the critical fight:

2nd Bn KRRC............................... 2 machine guns

1st Bn Loyals............................... 2 machine guns

2nd Bn R Sussex Regt................. 2 machine guns

1st Bn Northamptonshires............diary missing, no mention in history.

2nd Bn SWB................................ 2 machine guns - survived Gheluvelt 31st Oct 1914. Later detached to 1st Guards Bde but MIA.

2nd Bn Welsh Regt.......................2 machine guns - survived Gheluvelt 31st Oct 1914

1st Bn Glosters..............................2 machine guns - temp detached to 1st Bn Coldstreams Guards

1st Bn Queen's............................ no record but possibly destroyed when the battalion was annihilated in front of Gheluvelt

1st Bn R Berkshire Regt................2 machine guns

 

Sources: Battalion war diaries, Brigade war diaries, Official History, Regimental Histories

 

So, where we have records, the British battalions opposite Reutel not only had machine guns, some had more than their usual complement; the 1st Bn Coldstream Guards (down to around 100 men commanded by the Quartermaster) and straddling the Reutel Road had four machine guns. In addition the 2 machine guns of the SWB were sent to the 1st Guards Brigade but were never heard of again. Potentially the 1st Guards Brigade had 4 extra machine guns attached at one point. All the battalions above mentioned their machine guns between 29th Oct and mid November. There is no record of replacements. The MGO of the HLI was awarded the VC for hauling one of his guns onto the traverse and firing down the trench line full of Germans. The British OH (page 435) describes the Scots Guards and Cameron machine guns firing at point blank range before their crews were overwhelmed.

 

The 2nd and 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards make no mention of their machine guns. If they had been lost we might expect this to have been mentioned. Similarly any replacement guns might have been mentioned. We have neither so it is an area requiring some further research. It is also worth noting that the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards recorded 7 enemy machine guns captured on 8th September. on 2nd Nov a charge by the remnants of the 2nd Bn Queens, 1st Bn RWF (86), 1st Bn South Staffs (one VC for this action), 2nd Bn Royal Warwicks and 1st Bn Glosters succeeded in capturing three German machine guns. The 1st Bn Loyal North Lancs (2nd Inf Bde)  also captured a German machine gun on 8th Nov. This might suggest there were in fact net gains in the number of machine guns during the earlier campaign and during First Ypres. It is unclear what happened to these captured weapons, but there clearly is potential for these to have been used as replacements. My speculation. Casting the net wider, it becomes apparent that the vast majority of battalions in the 1st and 2nd Divisions each had two machine guns during Ypres. Wynne's arguments don't appear to stand up to scrutiny. 

 

There are over a dozen mentions of the machine guns. A typical example from the 1st Bn Cameron Highlanders in the very spot that Wynne suggests the Germans were confused; 

 

29th Oct 1914. In trenches between REUTEL and POEZEL.  

We were warned that an attack was probable on the right of our line at 5:30 am.  About that hour some GERMANS crossed our front about 300 yards distant.  

We mowed them down with rapid and machine gun.  

 

I would be interested in seeing other accounts of the fighting and specific mentions of British fire and machine gun fire. 

 

Any mistakes are mine. 

 

MG.

 

An extract from HQ 1st Guards Bde war diary showing how the 1st Bn Coldstream Guards was reinforced with machine guns from other units: 27th Oct 1914 astride the Reutel road: four additional machine guns. 

MGs at Polygone.JPG

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1st Btn figures vary  - I have seen then quoted between 39 and 80  - the only agreement being the one officer was left standing

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  • 3 weeks later...

According to the diary of 2nd Lt R M Synge, 3rd Coldstream Guards: 

Monday 2 November 1914: We had now been one week in these trenches.

We again fired all morning to cover another French attack, this time on our right. I believe the attack was very successful.

A night attack was made on No. 7 platoon on the right. As my position was between the two platoons on the left I do not know how close the Deutschers got, but I do not think they got beyond the dead-ground about 200 yards in front. We lost Sergt. Wyer (31 year old  Herbert Wyer, of Fulham, London) who was shot through the head. As we had machine guns under Lawrence, one on the left, the other on the right, our position was rather difficult to attack; especially difficult was it, because, in addition to this, whatever part of the line the enemy might choose to attack, he would encounter an enfilade or oblique fire from the company on our right or left.

 

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According to Equipment Regulations, Part I, all machine guns were provided with four barrels: two reserved specifically for use on mobilisation (one in the gun and one as spare), and two for peacetime use (including one for drill purposes only) which were returned to store on mobilisation. It seems likely, therefore, that in many cases guns put out of action in late 1914 could at least be fitted with replacement barrels more or less immediately.

 

My copies of John Terraine's books The Smoke and the Fire and White Heat are not currently to hand but I think he mentions that a planned increase from two guns to four per battalion was made very early in the war. The changes to War Establishments to allow for the doubling of machine gun sections can be dated to Dec 1914. However, this increase, plus the need to start supplying the New Armies as well, did depend on the manufacturers' ability to meet the substantially greater need for new weapons. Again, I think John Terraine comments on this.

 

Ron

 

 

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My sources are not immediately available but "machine guns" were partly Vickers and partly Maxim in the early days. Others better informed might like to say if there was any interchangeability but I think not. If not, then a unit was stuck with what it had "in stock", which, using Ron's information, would amount to a total of two spare barrels.

And a potential nightmare with wrong replacements in the pipeline. It is possible that, within a brigade, both sorts of MG might coexist.

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Thanks Gents for the informed thoughts. 

 

At the beginning of the war most Vickers Guns were with the Cavalry as they were significantly lighter than the Maxims (approximately half the weight). To my knowledge only a few of the Infantry Battalions had been issued with Vickers. Given the Vickers was an improved variant of the Maxim, the terms Vickers and Maxim were used interchangeably during the war. Using the diaries is an unreliable guide as the terms were used interchangeably; it is impossible to tell whether the unit had a maxim or a Vickers unless they specifically differentiate between the two. Few did. What we can be certain of is that over 90% of newly issued machine guns were Vickers as the production of the old Maxim virtually ceased in 1914. The history of the Ministry of Munitions has the data. I cant be bothered to look them up. 

 

When the TF deployed most were still carrying the old Maxims, so the army had a requirement to service both types of the weapon through all of 1914and probably all of 1915. It would be interesting to establish exactly when the last Maxim fell out of use on the Western Front. 

 

Back in the real world of the trenches, machine guns were often captured (as well as ammunition). It is clear that all armies had the ability (and  a rather immediate incentive) to improvise and use captured weapons. Given the tolerances of the working parts of the weapon, I doubt many parts could be swapped between weapons (happy to be corrected). They would have been fitted at the factory. That said, it was not beyond the ken of a decent armourer with access to a Workshop to machine the parts to fit. I suspect it was more likely that captured weapons were utilised before they wore out or were rendered beyond economic repair and then cannibalised for parts or the raw material to make parts that might fit. 

 

A different war, but when the British handed over the plans of the Bailey Bridge in WWII to the Americans, their engineering skills were not up to the job and US manufactured Bailey Bridges did not meet the British standards and tolerances. Bethlehem Steel works I believe, the same company that couldn't make British shells in 1915. A consequence of this is that the Bailey Bridge panels were not inter-changeable which slightly missed the whole point of the universal bridging system. The Bailey Bridge of course was probably one of the finest engineering designs the world has seen. Up there with the Spitfire and (on topic) Maxim's original gun, much improved by Vickers. 

 

One of the earlier challenges was the web belt which caused problems when damp or wet. That is another story. MG

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2 hours ago, grantmal said:

According to the diary of 2nd Lt R M Synge, 3rd Coldstream Guards: 

Monday 2 November 1914: We had now been one week in these trenches.

 

We again fired all morning to cover another French attack, this time on our right. I believe the attack was very successful.

 

A night attack was made on No. 7 platoon on the right. As my position was between the two platoons on the left I do not know how close the Deutschers got, but I do not think they got beyond the dead-ground about 200 yards in front. We lost Sergt. Wyer (31 year old  Herbert Wyer, of Fulham, London) who was shot through the head. As we had machine guns under Lawrence, one on the left, the other on the right, our position was rather difficult to attack; especially difficult was it, because, in addition to this, whatever part of the line the enemy might choose to attack, he would encounter an enfilade or oblique fire from the company on our right or left.

 

 

Thank you. This has filled a very critical hole in the history. I have amended the earlier table. This is exactly the level of detail that I hoped could be teased out of the GWF. I am in your debt. MG

 

PS Can I ask the source of the diary? i.e which archive? 

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7 hours ago, QGE said:

 

Thank you. This has filled a very critical hole in the history. I have amended the earlier table. This is exactly the level of detail that I hoped could be teased out of the GWF. I am in your debt. MG

 

PS Can I ask the source of the diary? i.e which archive? 

 

You're welcome. The diary is from IWM: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030007950

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