Picked for the Machine Gun, an Instructor's Story
The fortunate preservation of nearly 300 letters which my late father wrote to his parents between October 1914 and January 1919 has made possible an accurate trace of his Army career.
By one of those inexplicable twists of Fate he was one of four men picked from "A" Company, 10th Battalion, The East Surrey Regiment in December 1914 for machine gun training. He showed an above-average aptitude, and was eventually sent on a course at the School of Musketry at Hythe in May 1915. He obtained a 'distinguished' mark in the exams, and was retained on the Staff there as a Sergeant Instructor.
Even a first or second-class pass would have meant being returned to his unit and active duty as a machine gunner. Fortunately for him the huge expansion had created a demand for instructors, and so the former hospital clerk found himself teaching men how to make war with the Vickers and Lewis guns.
Apart from visits by Zeppelins life at Hythe was congenial. Regular working-hours, a fair share of weekend passes, and enough money from his Sergeant's pay to meet his weekly expenses. Already though, the flow of men coming in and the steady increase in courses by the Autumn of 1915 Drought a comment from him that "Hythe was too small".
The consequences of this was that on 18th November 1915 he, and four other Sergeants were posted to Grantham. On arrival at Belton Park they found chaos. They were allocated a hut and beds, but here were no blankets or food. So they returned to the town for supper, and found lodgings there for the night. His description of Belton Park as "A terrible place, full of mud, water, and not much organisation" was grim coming from a man always prepared to make the best of things. Two days later they were moved to Harrowby Camp which was better, but already both camps were rapidly filling up with postings from many units for the machine gun training courses.
For the only time in the war he had Christmas leave at home, and then on 28th December the courses started again. Those who passed successfully went to the new Machine Gun Corps, and early in January he mentions that he is expecting his own transfer to the Corps at any time. In fact it did not happen until the 1st March when the letter of that date gives his new Army Number.
It was in January 1916 too, that he first heard of the 10/East Surrey's casualties - a stark reminder about his old unit. It probably made the hardships of Grantham seem more tolerable.
Between instructing the squads he took a promotion exam in March 1916, and came 15th out of 140. He did not rate his chances too highly, and was agreeably surprised when he was appointed QMS Instructor.
On 23rd May 1916 he was posted to France. From then on his letters become more restrained, but still enthusiastic "...we have been treated splendidly since our arrival. I can't of course, tell you where I am, except that we are under canvas, and the food is far better than at Grantham", and, two days later, "This beats Grantham hollow!": "This" was the MGC Base Depot at Camiers, a few miles north of Etaples.
Unfortunately he was over-cautious about censorship, and his letters contain little of general interest and detail there-after. It emerges that he continued instructing at Camiers until October 1917 when he took his first home leave to get married. After his return he writes about a change of work, but this is not specified other than as reorganisation and administration.
When the German offensive started in March 1918 he clearly expected to be posted to an active unit, but this did not materialise. Although by then most of his fellow-Instructors who had originally come out with him had gone to the Front.
His turn finally came at the beginning of August when he was posted to the 21st Battalion MGC. His first taste of action was in the Third Army offensive which began on 21st August with Beaucourt-sur-Ancre as the immediate objective. Throughout the final battles his letters remain discreet with such references as "We have left civilization" or "I have difficulty in writing as we are now out in the open".
By 11th November the Battalion was at Berliament close to the Sambre, and he was then RSM and received a Mention in Despatches. The letters give no indication of what happened or of personal reaction to these events. In December the Battalion pulled back to the West of Amiens. The teaching, the letter-writing, and the action were over, and by the Spring of 1919 he was back at his old desk again.
Historically, the formation of the Machine Gun Corps marked an about-turn in the 1914 policy of disfavour towards such weapons. From mid-1915 it is clear from the letters that large numbers of men started training on the Lewis and Vickers guns. In all, 170,500 of all ranks served in the Corps of whom 13,791 were killed, and 48,858 were wounded or missing. Of these over 13,000 were casualties from August 21st -November llth 1918. - The Corps was disbanded in 1922, but its Memory will never fade.