CHAPTER IV

EIGHT DAYS IN

As the subject of machine guns is one of great interest at this time, it may not be amiss to devote a little space to explaining some of the salient features of the most commonly used types.

All automatic arms are divided into classes, as determined by the following characteristics:

1st. Method of applying the power necessary to operate: (gas or recoil).

2nd. Method of supplying ammunition: (belt, magazine or clip).

3rd. Method of cooling: (water or air).

Another well-defined distinction is made between the true machine gun and the automatic rifle; the former being so heavy that it must be mounted on a substantial tripod or other base, while the latter is so light that it may be carried and operated by a single man. Of the former class, the Colt, (35 lbs.), the Vickers, (38 lbs.) and the Maxim, (63 lbs.) may be taken as representative. They are all mounted, for field work, on tripods weighing fifty pounds or more. In the latter class, the Lewis, Benet-Mercie, and Hotchkiss, running from 17 to 25 lbs., are fair examples. They are all equipped with light, skeleton “legs” or tripods, which, by the way, are never used in the field although they are still considered essential for training purposes.

In the gas-operated arms, a small hole is drilled in the under side of the barrel, six to eight inches from the muzzle, so that, when the bullet has passed this point, and during the time it takes it to traverse the remaining few inches to the muzzle, a certain portion of the enclosed gas is forced through this hole, where it is “trapped,” in a small “gas-chamber” and its force directed against a piston or lever which, being connected with the necessary working parts of the gun by cams, links or ratchets, performs the functions of removing and ejecting the empty cartridge case, withdrawing a new cartridge from the belt, clip or magazine, and “cocking” the gun: that is, forcing the “hammer” or striker back and compressing its spring. As the pressure generated in the barrel by our ammunition is not less than 50,000 lbs. to the square inch, very little gas is required to do all this. There must also be sufficient force to compress or coil a strong spring or springs called “main-springs” or retracting springs which, in their turn, force the mechanism forward to its original position, seating the new cartridge in the chamber and releasing the striker, thus firing another shot. This action continues as long as the “trigger” is kept pressed or until the belt or magazine is emptied. The Colt, Benet-Mercie, Hotchkiss and Lewis are in this class. They are all of the air-cooled type.

In the recoil operated guns, the barrel itself is forced to the rear by the “kick,” as we commonly call it, and the force applied directly to the working parts, thus performing the same operations above described. The Maxim, Vickers, Vickers-Maxim and Maxim-Nordenfeldt belong to this class. They are all water-cooled, having a water-jacket of sheet metal entirely surrounding the barrel.

All the last-mentioned class, and also the Colt, have the ammunition loaded in belts containing two hundred and fifty rounds each. The Hotchkiss and Benet-Mercie use clips of from twenty to thirty rounds, while the Lewis is fed from a round, flat, pan-shaped magazine holding forty-seven rounds. (For aircraft guns these magazines are made larger; about double this capacity, I think.)

During the early part of the war, before the advent of the Lewis and other automatic rifles, the only machine guns in general use were of the heavy, tripod-mounted type and it was necessary for them to advance with or even ahead of attacking troops. As the guns and tripods were very conspicuous objects they naturally became the especial targets for enemy riflemen and snipers and the casualties among machine gunners ran far above the average for other troops. It was this that caused the Emma Gee sections to be named Suicide Clubs.

Now, however, the Lewis gun, being light and inconspicuous, can be carried by advancing troops and used effectively in the attack without its operators suffering excessively, and at the same time it has been demonstrated that the true machine gun, of the heavier type, mounted on its firm base, can effectively cooperate with the artillery in maintaining protective or other barrages and in delivering harassing fire upon the enemy at points behind his front line. As this fire is, necessarily, over the heads of our own troops, sometimes but a few feet over them, it must be extremely accurate and dependable and it has been proved that guns of the lighter, automatic-rifle type, can not be safely used for this purpose, even when mounted on the heavy tripods of the other guns. This is probably due to the excessive vibration of the lighter barrels.

For the benefit of any who are not familiar with the word, I might say, in passing, that “_barrage_” is a French word meaning a “barrier” or a “dam” and when used in a military sense it means a veritable barrier or wall of fire, where the shells or bullets, or both, are falling so thickly as to make it impossible for any body of troops to go through without suffering great loss.

I know nothing of the Browning gun, as it is a new invention and has never been used in the field. We can only hope that it will prove as good as the Vickers and Lewis which are giving perfect satisfaction on the battle-fields of Flanders and France. No real machine gunner expects or requires anything better, but I can not imagine any _one_ type of gun that can replace both of them, any more than a single class of artillery can combine the functions of both the light field guns and the heavy howitzers.

The Germans evidently had good spies within our lines as they always knew when we changed over; that is, when we took over a new line. At first they would call out: “Hello, Canadians, how are you,” sometimes even naming the battalion. Later on, however, they used much stronger language but they knew who we were, just the same. Their methods of communicating information from our lines were many and very ingenious. For instance, at one time it was learned by our intelligence department that spies were making use of the many windmills to signal messages across the line. They did this by stopping the sails of the mills at certain angles and moving them about from time to time. When this was discovered the orders went out for all windmills to be stopped in such a position that the arms should always be at an exact forty-five degree angle whenever the mill was not running, with the understanding that failure to observe this regulation would result in our artillery in the immediate vicinity turning their guns on the offending mill. At one place we discovered a large periscope with a heliographic attachment by which a seemingly inoffensive Belgian peasant kept in constant communication with the boche. This periscope was concealed in the chimney of a partially ruined farm building within our lines. At other places underground cables were discovered, with telephones or field telegraph instruments concealed in cellars or old buildings. Carrier pigeons were also much used and, without a doubt, many men passed back and forth between the lines, some of them, as we learned from time to time, regularly enlisted in our armies. At several places we had men shot down and killed by snipers masquerading as farmers, behind our lines. Needless to say, such affairs were promptly attended to, on the spot, “_tout de suite_” as the French say.

So, although that part of the line had been very quiet for a long time, they began at once to give us a reception. While the shelling was as nothing compared to bombardments we went through later, still it gave us an opportunity to make the acquaintance of the various kinds of shells from “whizz-bangs” up to something of about eight-inch caliber.

The first casualty in the battalion was a scout named Boyer who was killed on his initial trip into No Man’s Land the first night in the trenches. Next day Starkey decided he could not see enough with a periscope, so took a look over the parapet. Both men are buried in the garden back of the St. Quentin Cabaret together with many from the best and most famous British Line Regiments.

The Emma Gees came out pretty lucky, having but one man seriously wounded. His name was Mangan, a Yankee, who had served in the U. S. Army in the Philippines. He was badly wounded by shrapnel and was sent back to England. We used to hear from him occasionally until about a year later the letters stopped.

After eight days we were relieved by the Twentieth Battalion and went back to Dranoutre for our first “rest.” We went by way of Neuve Eglise but, as it was night, we could see but little of that much shot-up city. It commenced to rain before we started out and kept it up until we went back again, four days later. At that time it was customary to carry in and out everything, including ammunition, and we soon learned to dread the days when we had to move. We would have preferred to stay in the front line for a month at a time rather than carry all that heavy stuff in and out so often. However, we managed to get a bath and some clean clothes, which made everybody feel better. We had no regular billets at Dranoutre but rigged up little shelter tents, somewhat similar to those used in the U. S. Army, by lacing two or more rubber sheets together. Our cooking was done by gun crews, somewhat on the order of a lot of Boy Scouts, in that no two crews had the same ideas or used the same methods. My squad dug out a nice little “stove” in a bank, and by covering it with flattened-out biscuit tins and making a pipe of tin cans of various sorts, managed to get along very well. Here we received our first pay since arriving in France; fifteen francs each. It doesn’t sound like much but, believe me, we made those “sous” go a long way and bought lots of little delicacies we could not otherwise have had.

While at Dranoutre we associated with the inhabitants, in the stores and estaminets. The Germans had taken of whatever they needed in the way of live stock and foodstuffs, but the town itself happened to be one of the many scattered up and down the line, which had miraculously escaped even an ordinary bombardment.

There were refugees, hundreds of them; from the towns and cities farther to the eastward, whence they had fled with little or nothing besides the clothes on their backs. There were children who had lost their parents; wives who knew not what had become of their husbands, and men whose wives and families were somewhere back in the German-occupied territory. They told of enduring the direst hardships and suffering; of cold and hunger.

Every town behind the lines that had escaped destruction was crowded with these poor homeless people. Every habitable house sheltered all who could find no room to lie on the floor. Those who could, worked on the roads or in the neighboring fields. Many of the women worked in the military laundries. They all received some assistance from the French Government and from the many charitable societies. When talking with them they would tell their stories in a monotonous sort of way, seldom making any complaint; seeming to think that all these things were to be endured as a matter of course.

I have read all the available reports on the subject of atrocities and have no doubt that they are true, but none ever came under my personal observation.

In the midst of a battle many men do things which would, at other times, fill them with horror. The excitement of combat seems to breed a lust for killing and the sight of blood is like a red flag to a bull. This, unfortunately, is not confined to Germans. One of our officers who had had a brother killed a few days before deliberately shot and killed several unarmed prisoners. He was, himself, killed the same day. On another occasion, a wounded German, lying in a shell-hole, stabbed and killed one of our wounded and attacked another only to be beaten at his own game and killed with his own knife. A soldier of the Royal Fusiliers, at St. Eloi, was detected by his sergeant in the act of shooting an unarmed prisoner, whereupon the sergeant immediately shot and killed the soldier. I saw this, myself.

But the deliberate shooting of wounded men and stretcher-bearers has been, so far as I know, confined to the Hun. On numerous occasions, some of which are mentioned elsewhere in this story, German snipers deliberately and in cold blood shot down our helpless wounded and the men who were endeavoring to succor them.

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