Thursday, February 17, 2011

How The Machine Gun Changed Warfare

Desire for rapid fire has dated back millennia. Ancient commanders wanted an increased rate of fire from bows, and modern generals wanted a higher rate of fire from rifles. Due to slow, manual loading times of rifles from the 18th and 19th centuries only a few rounds could be expected to be fired a minute. Despite the best generals plans, war is chaotic. Rapid fire was needed on the battlefield in order to better control it. The machinegun changed the nature of war from a focus of offensive maneuvering to managed, defensive positioning.

In warfare prior to the advent of the machine gun, war was about maneuvering. The purpose of war was to shift troops to a spot where the enemy was most vulnerable. War was fought in formations that often were positioned with a distinct front, rear, and sides. Often times attacks directed at the sides, the flanks, would be the goal. This is because a forward facing military unit would have to shift around to best deal with attacks on its sides. This could often cause chaos and routes as made famous by Hannibal’s double envelopment at Cannae.

As late as the Civil War flanking was a primary means of achieving battlefield success. The tactics of this era dictated lining up in a line of hundreds to thousands of men, and shooting across a field from a distance of roughly a football field. Because of the linear formations, opposing units would often try to maneuver towards the opponents flank where the line of fire would be greatly thinned out. The only way to engage such flanking was to turn entire units around to meet the threat. As a result many battles of the Civil War resulted in opposing sides simply trying maneuver towards the opponents’ sides.

The one thing that was constant in warfare from Ancient Times up through the Civil War was the act of engagement. To best engage and overwhelm one’s flanks to achieve a total victory, a commander needed to smash through their enemy’s lines. This could result from a frontal or flanking assault. Bows and arrows were not enough to achieve such a hammering blow and neither were guns during the Civil War Guns could only shoot so far and so fast. To outflank an opponent infantry needed to engage the opposing flanks in hand to hand combat. Cavalry would be used to outmaneuver the opponent at faster speeds. Often at the climax of battle there would be an ordered charge to try and smash through the ranks of the enemy.

Technology from the Civil War onward until World War I shifted. Rather than being meant to aid in maneuver, it was meant to slow down maneuvers. Trenches were used towards the end of the Civil War in the battle for Petersburg. Barbed wire emerged as a threat to charges because of its ability to maim its victims. Mines were used to make swaths of land deadly to cross.

The machine gun reversed the equation of maneuver guaranteeing success. The machine gun with its high capacity to carry rounds prevented maneuvers from occurring. Because it could cut down so many men so quickly, units did not have the time to reform to outmaneuver their opponents. Stagnation on a battlefield with a machine gun means death. Adding to this, large groups of men charging at a fixed machine gun could be mowed down by one gun alone. In ten seconds a German Maxim machinegun could accomplish what 33 well trained soldiers in the Civil War could fire off in one minute. Charges became obsolete because in the 15 seconds it took to charge 100 yards over torn up Earth, 150 men could be killed by one gun. Add that the men would have to avoid mines, potholes from artillery tearing up the Earth, and cutting barbed wire along with overcoming any other defensive earthworks to prevent such a charge and the effect of the charge was negated.

Trying to use the tactics of a bygone era could not work in the new defensive oriented world of World War I battlefields. Part of the reason the war was such a stagnant war was because a revolution had happened under the noses of the generals of Europe, and they missed it. The generals failed to adjust. Trying to use old maneuvering tactics like charges to take trenches failed. Men were mowed down. Then new technology was invented to deal with defeating the superiority of defense but it was in its infancy. Such new technology could not stand up to the defensive technology that had been gradually produced over the 70 years prior to the war.

Mass movements with infantry largely became obsolete because there was no good way to protect or bypass the defensive schemes where machine guns were the prominent component of defense. As a result taking land became nearly impossible because defenses were impregnable. Soldiers had not protection from the hail of bullets.

War only shifted back to having an offensive conscience when technology was developed that was impervious to bullets and could bypass it. This came in the form of the tank and the plane. Armored tanks could withstand the bullets of machine guns and speed past them. Planes, such as dive bombers, once an enemy position was located could target the position and drop a bomb on it. It took the revolution of the Blitzkrieg to shift war back from defensive to offensive minded. Yet the technology was never truly present in necessary quantity to alter the battlefield of World War I. If it was used, the intrinsic implications of such technology was lost on most generals during World War I. World War I is remembered for its stagnation and there is not greater culprit for this then the machine gun.