Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Fall of France, X: A Machine For Controlling Space, VII: The Payoff

Since time began, men have longed to destroy the Sun. 

Wait, no, that's just an ancient Simpsons reference to an even more ancient TV show, taking us down into a search for lost time. What I meant to say is that since time began, men have longed to build a repeating missile weapon.  Exactly why isn't too clear given that we're talking about a weapon that by definition either puts large numbers of missiles in the same place or disperses them across a set field. Neither project sounds like a winner compared to shooting bigger missiles. Especially once cannon came along to allow the firing of grape and case shot.

What if you have a cannon that has been improved to fire conoidal rounds down a rifled barrel? Now case and grape shot don't work so well, and artillery brigades can no longer be all Napoleonic and "charge" the enemy (and the longer-ranged Krupp steel guns), since they can't defend themselves against infantry counter-assault. So maybe you want to take one of those "machine gun" concepts that has been gathering dust and turn it into a battery close-in defence weapon. Which is where you're at if you're a French ordnance officer in 1866. Warning: not only will an American patent troll steal the popular credit, but gales of uncomprehending, derisive laughter and ethnic stereotyping will be elicited by the failure of a few hundred support weapons to win the war single handed.

This taught ordnance officials two very important lessons: i) until such time as the US courts start treating foreign patents as something more than treasure-laden galleons a-ripe for the plunderin', it might be for the best to have an American figurehead for your invention; and, ii) it might also be good be if the next generation of machine guns didn't have the same column space requirements as a field piece. 

Fortunately, American trolls can't practically steal inventions if they can't actually be made in the United States, yet, and no-one cares about chemistry. Chemistry is for girls. So when someone invents a smokeless powder that can drive a recoil mechanism, you can put your American on top of a gun that fires the standard  rifle round, which generates more than enough momentum for a tiny, delicate mechanism to chamber another round. Use a chain belt feed and find a way to carry heat off the barrel faster than the gas adds it, and you can have a marvelously compact weapon capable of keeping up a continuous stream of fire, potentially for hours on end.

Now, to be sure, I'm cheating here in my search for irony quotes around "compact." The Russian version of the Maxim machine gun went with a gunshield, which made it too heavy to be manhandled, which led to the wheeled undercarriage and tow bar. It's perfectly possible to push the weight of the first generation machine guns under 50lbs. Throw in a tripod, ammunition and its bearers, and a few sandbags, and you get a weapon that can be carried in a single wagon, set up in a small nest, and served by four or  five men. With 800+ men to an infantry battalion, you can easily squeeze two-to-four of these weapons into the organisation without squeezing the all-important riflemen out of the table of organisation. A French infantry division of 1914, for example, can manage 24 machine guns and 36 75s and still have 9,600 Lebels with which to thrust bayonets into the squirming, sauerkraut-loving Boche. 

But that's not enough: is it, Mr. Prime Minister? "Take Kitchener's maximum; square it, multiply that result by two - and when you are in sight of that, double it again for good measure." This is one of those quasi-apocryphal Lloyd George quotes, in that he said it, but probably not in 1914. As John Terraine points by 1918, the machine gun battalions of the British army actually did have 64 machine guns by 1918, but the number is ludicrous for an infantry battalion. It is, of course, open to be argued that it's a waste to put infantry behind bayonets instead of Vickers, all other things being equal, but a moment's attention to the crew and logistic requirements of a 64 gun unit will show that you can't have both. As Lieutenant Colonel Laure, source for my last count (via Army Quarterly 16 (1927), 2: 411-12), points out, by 1917 a French infantry division mustered 2800 rifles, 48 guns, and still only 72 machine guns.

That's not all, however. Laure adds in 324 "light machine guns" (and 27 "trench mortars.") What, you might ask, is a "light machine gun?" One answer is that it is what you get when you ask an American inventor to "add more lightness" to one of the big old Hotchkiss/Maxim/Vickers monsters. Certainly it was the lightness that everyone who used the Lewis Gun liked about it, because it wasn't anything else about the design! Lightness, however, was not an inconsequential virtue, and the French went their own way, introducing the Fusil-mitrailleur Mle 1915 CSRG "Chauchat" in a not-entirely successful attempt to improve on the Lewis, although the French-made Chauchat was never as bad in French service as the American-made version, and if you think I'm harping on this whole "the American arms industry wasn't up to snuff in the world wars" point, wait 'till next week.  

So it is the Chauchat that Lt. Col. Laure is talking about when he refers to "light machine guns," even though the translation is more accurately "automatic rifle?" So what's the difference, you ask? We go now to Youtube to completely miss the point!

At one level, the point is that the whole reason that the BAR remained in American service through 1960 is because of the supposed value of being able to fire it at the walk. This is most definitely not what the z.B. 26 was designed, for, nor any of its descendants, whether the Chatellerault or the Bren gun. 

The other point is that 1914-18 has changed the nature of the Nation in Arms.

Woah, dude. Back up for a moment there. 

The problem facing France through the 1920s and 30s is elegantly stated. It is necessary to make the maximum use of the national reserve of manpower. Young men will be conscripted, young women and colonial subjects will not be. Given conscription, for how long? Each incremental period of service implies the availability of a larger force of men at the outbreak of war for the vital couverture behind which the reserves will mobilise, but it also implies a larger number of medium-service soldiers, mainly non-coms and officers, to staff the training/frontline formations.

By 1928, it is clear that the state can't afford to pay enough to attract more than about 75,000 of these men. There's no point in complaining about this, or wishing that it were otherwise. The solution is, must be, a twelve-month conscript service period, squaring the circle of the couverture by arranging the organisational infrastructure of the army so that the reserves of the previous three classes are available for immediate service without national mobilisation. This is a huge matter that implies keeping track of three annual cohorts of the French, and providing for their prompt and reasonably smooth integration into the army. (I guess it also implies that for three years after your service, you can't qualify as exempt labour.) 

For historians, the 1928 Twelve Month Service Law belongs to politics. It is part of the long trajectory from 1918 to 1940 that features the inevitable overthrow of the Third Republic by the inherently anti-democratic, if not crypto-fascist general officer corps; or possibly the semi-supine betrayal of the Third Republic by the politicians' girly-man unwillingness to spend enough on guns, and also the kids these days with their baggy pants and hippity-hop music.* I'll let the reader guess which side of the political spectrum might be populatd by these respective arguments. 

Myself, I find the investment of vast research labours into the question of the political origins of the overthrow of the Third Republic  on 24 June 1940 to be a bit of wasted effort (non-political explanations are at least possible), not that I'm not grateful to Notre Dame for putting this thesis online, or for Andrew Orr's careful research into an unjustly neglected subject. I'm just going to take it in a different direction that I hope will be important to someone besides the kind of gun nut who fires 150 rounds of rifle-calibre ammunition from the hip without ear protection for fun. 

Well, okay, now back up for a moment, specifically to a debate that's going on in Britain at this very moment. It's between two young officers, the relentlessly prolific Lieutenant Wardle and the somewhat less so Lieutenant May. I won't bother you with the details, but both officers are concerned with the fact that the basic British infantry formation, the platoon, is having a hard time finding the perfect tactics for attack. Should it have one, or two "Lewis Gun" sections involved in unloading the platoon's accompanying Lewis Guns from the wheelbarrow-like wagons that they carry the things around in, and then firing the "rifle sections" of the platoon onto the objective, for ensuing bayonet-sticking-into-people?  

It's perhaps no wonder that Major-General Rowan Robinson wants to cut out the platoon Lewis Guns altogether. Even if you can trundle them into battle, where are you going to find space to set them all up? But, then, Major-General R-R wants to replace the army's inconvenient field guns with tanks armed with massive 3 pounders (47mm), figuring that that's quite enough firepower for the mobile army of the future. Cra-a-zy, is what I'm saying. Moonbeams. 

But, then, so are wheelbarrows loaded with Lewis Guns. As early as the 1926 Statement introducing the Army Estimates, the Secretary of State for War outlined where this all might go in the future. The department, he suggested, was looking at either a "self-loading," that is, semi-automatic, rifle to replace the Lee-Enfield, or a more practical "light automatic" to replace the Lewis Gun. Either way, the concept is to push up the firepower of the infantry platoon without forcing it to rely on the cumbersome Lewis Gun and its wagon.

Role on up to the latter part of 1928, then, and the publication of the new French Infantry Manual to go along with the Twelve-Month Army.Let us read along with the editor of the Army Quarterly who is in his "smart and perceptive" mode, and not his horrid apologise-for-Amritsar mode:

"The publication of the first part of the new French Infantry Manual discloses considerable change in frill and battle formations. No longer is the groupe de combat to consist of two equipes, one formed of riflemen and the other of a light automatic team: these are to be merged into a single fire unit composed of one light automatic and nine rifles under the immediate control of the chef de group.

It is the new one-year-service law which is primarily responsible for the change, as the shorter period of training will now make it impossible to provide junior non-commissioned officers in sufficient numbers to furnish the necessary leaders of the equipes. On  mobilization, moreover, the majority of the chefs de groupe will be reservists and not serving soldiers, so that it is considered necessary to simplify infantry battle formations as much as possible. 

Training amendments have more strictly defined the role of the groupe, which is never to manoeuvre, but merely to advance upon the objective. . . . The section -consisting of three groupes and more or less equivalent to our platoon-- is the smallest unit considered capable of independent manoeuvre; that is to say, one or more of its groupes may be called upon to provide covering fire during the advance.

The riflemen of the groupe will generally  lead the attack and may be used ass scouts, but the automatic will  be ready at all times to develop its maximum fire-power. When arrived within assaulting distance of the enemy, the groupe will close with him, each man using his own weapon to best advantage. Weapon training now, therefore, assumes an importance it never had before in the French army.

The efficiency of the new light automatic, which has trebled the fire-power of the company, contributes to the simplification of infantry attack training. Machine guns are no longer required to accompany the infantry in close support --a difficult operation which used to be adjudged necessary in order to compensate for the deficiencies of the lighter weapon-- and can be utilised for their proper role of providing covering fire from a distance. As a rule, their tasks will be allotted by the battalion commander.

The bayonet strength of a french infantry company is now comparatively weak. Fire-power, in all cases, is the prime consideration and infantry minor tactics are based on the necessity of directing the maximum volume of fire on the most vital points and areas. . . . Even counterattacks are to be carried out chiefly by fire; it is laid down that in exploiting a success, reserves will usually seek to enlarge the gap in the enemy's line by fire assault on the two salients created by the gap rather than by following through after the first echelon. 

It is contemplated that a considerable extension of the frontage usually allotted to a battalion in the attack will be possible when methods of observation, inter-communication and supply have been improved to meet the needs of the new organization. The difficulty would seem to be in training sufficient short-service men for these highly specialized duties, and in being obliged to rely, to a great extent, upon the reservist whose knowledge will need refreshing.

Comparing the fire-power of the French battalion on the latest basis with a battalion of our own Army, it appears that we have ten fewer light automatics, about the same number of rifles, twice as many rifle-bombers, and the same number of machine guns. . . ."
(Unsigned Editorial, Army Quarterly 17, 2 (1928): 234--5) 

At one level, no more to be said. It has not been quite three hundred years since the fusil displaced the pike as the arm of the "queen of battle." With this manual, the era of the fusil has ended, and been replaced by the era of the light machine gun. The quibble at the end is the last kick of the old order. By 1940, every army on Earth except the American will be organised into sections of 8--12 men built around a light machine gun. Semantically, the transition of the infantry from a fire-and-movement team built around platoon fire and  bayonet assault by section into modular light machine gun teams is signified by the new term. "Light automatic" still persists. So does "automatic rifle;" but the new weapon, the new tactical concept, is the "light machine gun."

At another, level, this is not a technical or tactical change. It flows, rather, from a recognition that society has moved, irreversibly, from one that can raise an army built around the rifle to one that cannot. That's not a trivial change, and as powerful a statement of the change as I find the quote above, I think we can go deeper and talk about --what else-- the relationship of society in its new technical modes of production and the landscape of the light machine gun. The landscape point doesn't come out here because the professional soldier is worried about infantry on the attack. The light machine gun's impact on defence is, if anything, even greater. 

Oh, and having begun with my usual excoriation of American patent trolls, may I end by pointing out that the single greatest (yet completely forgotten) tactical revolution of the interwar period was carried out by the French army? Something to think about.

*Yes, I do that line at work a lot. Now marvel with me at this level of missing the point.


  1. Exactly why isn't too clear given that we're talking about a weapon that by definition either puts large numbers of missiles in the same place or disperses them across a set field. Neither project sounds like a winner compared to shooting bigger missiles

    Because the blast radius of an explosion doesn't scale linearly with its size. At a much higher scale, this is why Tsar Bomba was a weird prestige-project outlier and most nuclear bombs are between 100 Kt-1MT. One of the various nuclear-bomb calculator web sites will demonstrate the point rather well.

    If you want to, ahem, control space, you need to cover the space. You also need to control time - if you can only control the space once in however many hours, you don't actually control it.

  2. True, but you can only shoot your repeating crossbow until you run out of arrows.

    I could cover the weird history of the pre-machine gun at length, but it has always seemed to me that asking "why didn't Leonardo da Vinci's machine gun take off?" is asking the wrong question from a logistical standpoint. People kept proposing the things without a clear idea about what they would actually accomplish.

    If you don't answer that question, you can't make a case for your column space. The mitrailleuse was such a breakthrough because it had a tactical case. Rifled cannons had longer ranges than smoothbore, but, at least in 1870, couldn't fire caseshot.

    The argument for the first true machine guns was less clear, but the idea of "fire superiority" was out there, and the weapon required very little column space, so it was in. (I guess that this implies that when you ask what controls space, the ultimate answer is meters of road column.)

    The light machine gun, on the other hand, is both the consequence and a driver of a fundamental change in the practice of war. And yet, because it crept up on us under the cover of a noisy armoured assault, we hardly even notice it.

    As you may see from this discussion, I think that that military change sheds a great deal of light on the failure of 1940. However, as usual, my original ambitions for the posting were too ambitious. We only get the payoff when we consider the light machine gun in the context of the "barriers" that it was meant to cover (and create) on the defensive. Unfortunately, the Sperrenfeld is going to have to wait. Perhaps 'till Alamein?