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What effect did the stabilized MG have on rifles?

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My immediate thought is of paragraphs : )


potted history

Your thinking seems sound to me. Terrain is so important for weapon systems effectiveness. On a bigger scale actual logistics was a consideration and I understand Her Majesty's Government [HMG] disapproved of MG's - which were all HMG's at the turn of the century - as they thought they would mean excess [costly] bullets would be used!

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First problem with Mike's comments - he says in passing that artillery was indecisive, and pretends that LMGs and the squad are the solution to MGs because you close with the enemy and overwhelm him with firepower, and that this matters more than artillery etc. Sorry, that is a maneuver arm fetish and doesn't correspond to reality. He mentions in passing that artillery was the greatest killer, greater even than MGs, but does not actually get the history or tactical relations correct. Then there is his fetish about indirect use of MGs, which is just silly. Could they yes, did they occasionally, did it matter at all for their true tactical role and effects, no not remotely.

Rifles themselves go through two eras. There are rifles before breachloaders with magazines are the norm, and there are breach loading magazine rifles. In the former period, firing lines of them dominate the battlefield but stay thick, the reason being reload time on the one hand and the impotence of the contemporary artillery in comparison. That is US civil war era. Then steel breachloading artillery arrives and lines have to thin as a result, but the artillery is still using blackpowder and contact fuzes are new. That is Franco-Prussian war era. Next the rifles evolve to magazine rifles and the artillery gets high explosive (TNT) with reliable fusing and modern recoil systems. That gives the pre WW I era, including the Boer war and the Russo Japanese war. That is the only era in which the magazine rifle company was the dominant arm depicted in both Mikes and Adams posts.

And it isn't dominant merely through area fire. They learn serious marksmenship, and in open enough terrain kill at extreme ranges. Even skirmish lines are not thin enough. Engagements extend dramatically in time as everyone goes prone and creeps, and field fortifications or use of crestlines dominate the tactics. You already have defense dominance and inability to attack. Infantry fighting moves to a nighttime affair, or positions are turned. Otherwise, artillery attrites defenders or they always hold, attacks on them are far too expensive to be pressed.

What changes in WW I is not the advent of the machinegun, not at first, but the much greater weight of field artillery and much higher force to space, compared to the earlier peripheral wars. In the early maneuver period, it is the field artillery that slaughters. The Russians lose to Germans in the east not because of trenches but because the Germans have 105s everywhere and indirect fire systems fully worked out. The French lose the battle of the frontiers because they adopt tactically offensive stances with their infantry and the Germans simply shoot them down and shell them. German infantry attacks on the right wing always follow barrages, and if the defending infantry hasn't already been broken by them, then their attacks all fail. But defending rifle companies cannot stand in front of a WW I army above ground. They get shelled to death on a time scale of days.

So, early WW I the actual relationship is that rifles on defense beat rifles attacking hands down, same as Boer war, but a fully manned line that isn't entrenched can be shelled to pieces. You only need to locate them with a skirmish line, then you stop and shell and shell until they've bled white - after losses of a quarter to a third they will flat run. And you can get that in days using steel breechloading artillery firing high explosive.

This and not machineguns is what forces recourse to the spade. The machineguns aren't numerous enough yet. Yes they help, but their tactical essential attribute had not yet been discovered - and it wasn't indirect fire or fix firing lines or defending channeled locations.

The discover is made in the course of 1915 by the Germans facing French attacks. The French have learned that artillery must lead attacks, and they try shelling the front trenches on the slogan, artillery conquers, infantry occupies. This works, until the Germans discover the counter - the empty front.

Empty front tactics are a response to artillery-lead tactics for attackers. The idea is to give the attacking artillery nothing to bite on by holding the infantry companies off the front line, in deep dugouts or reserve positions. The front is thinly manned, just enough to see stuff coming and to snipe at exposed individuals - and to man all the machineguns, which are not removed from the sector when the infantry company main bodies are. This is when the discovery is made.

The attacking artillery knocks out few MGs and always leaves many intact and operating. The defense "target signature" in Adam's terms is very low, so high shell expenditure in prep fires are wasted. But what lives through that barrage is still sufficient to inflict painful casualties on full rifle company attacks, while those are exposed in no man's land. Yes wire helps with this, no it isn't the essential component.

Instead the issue is that 20 or so men with MGs can halt 200 with rifles with 50% losses, if the former are at their guns and the latter try to attack in a traditional skirmish line, all moving together and firing if they can see something, which they can't for a long time.

The losses will occur half to stop them and half after they pin. It is only necessary to shoot about 50 men for the attacking company to give it up. 4 heavy machineguns can do that hitting a single man every other burst in the time and with the ammo it takes them to fire 25 bursts apiece, which is a matter of a few belts and a few minutes. You simply don't need to hit multiple anything, nor to deny any fire lane. All you need is a target so numerous and exposed you can always see somebody, from one of 4 vantage points picked to interlock their fields of view. They only stop being so exposed by going to ground and giving up the movement attempt.

A rifle company attack on a denuded front, MG based defense will pay ruinous losses on some parts of the front where the MGs have not been knocked out by the artillery and where the ground does not allow obscured movement to close range with the MGs. It may succeed in some others and typically does. This leaves scattered forces inside the enemy trench system, but with gaps between them, and MGs on their flanks still operating at long ranges into the no man's land behind them.

It is here that range and interlocking matter. None of the MGs is sighted to defend the area to its direct front as its primary sector. This means to silence the MGs defending one area, you have to advance in the adjacent areas on either flank. If you reach and clear one sector, you reduce the outgoing firepower to both flanks for some distance, but those are still covered by the other, outer flank.

To completely clear the covering MG net over a given sector of front, you need a wide area, 800 meters or more, throughout which you have succeeded uniformly. Attempts to construct such an area fail from the outer reaches, inward. This provokes attackers to attempt to attack on a broad front, to clear a sufficient area in its midsection. Needless to say, the wider the attack the more expensive failure is in all the places the attack fails.

Next the defending rifle reserves intervene in their own trench system against the sectors where the attackers have penetrated. The main weapons used in this are hand grenades, "bombing up the traverses", not the rifles. The rifles matter to deny open ground movement and to replace lost MG firepower in the areas where the attack succeeded, but it is mostly a manpower exchange in the trench system. The attacker may have overall numbers, but he needs to trade through the defenders using only his (1) survivors who (2) have advanced furthest, and that is a set that frequently does not outnumber the defenders, overall. Even when it does, the defender can pick particular penetrated sectors (terrain that is important, or shoulders of a wider success area) to overload and stem the intrusion.

The last component of the defense is that every part of the defending trench system is ranged for its own sides artillery fire, and enemy tenanted portions, if static and immobile, are blasted relentlessly. Slow barrages into no man's land also cut them off from reinforcement and resupply.

This system stopped all major attacks in the west in 1915. The French found the counter by 1916, the Brits were greener and slower to adopt it, doing so only in the course of the Somme fighting. The reason the Somme was such a disaster on the first day, for the Brits, was they tried to use the old tactics that the Germans had already mastered in the above sense, against a defense that cannot be defeated by the old "artillery leads then skirmish lines of rifles", tactics.

The French solution was packet movement, and that is where the squad belongs in the story. The LMG is not essential to it in any way, and it isn't about firepower. The idea of packet movement is to extend the engagement in time and to confront the defenders with a battlefield as empty of targets as the denuded front presents to attackers. Instead of attempting to compress the period of danger out of one's own trenches, packet movement entails exposing the minimum number of men at once, with everyone else using maximum cover wherever they are. They reply by aimed fire to all attempts to hit the movers.

Packet movement restored the exchange balance between attackers and defenders, pretty much. But at the cost of driving the loss rate per unit time much lower and the terrain changing hands per unit time almost to zero. This means attacks were slower and defenders had plenty of time to adapt to them, and therefore mutual bleeding and attrition, not decision, was the rule in all attacks.

You can make packet movement much harder by remanning much of the front. The limit a few MG positions face against it is observation and vigilance. 100 rifles at the ready will always find it easier to spot occasional movements, track the movers, sight in before the next bound, and bag a jumper. If the defender therefore decides to reman his front, the attacker can counter with heavy artillery again. We are back to a move and counter game - but the stakes are "who bleeds, how much?"

In this period the LMG comes into its own, and not as a means of overwhelming defenders with superior firepower. Read a Brit trench raid order circa 1916 and you will see what they were for. They are expected to secure positions taken in the enemy trench system, and operate in defense of it the same way ordinary MGs operated on static, prepared defenses. They are still being used as company level defense linchpins, and not as SAWs. The attack is conducted by "bombers" worming their way close enough by packet movement. Rifles matter to pick off the other guys' "jumpers". There are modest supplements by trench mortars and the like.

The sergeant rock comic that Mike derides stems from the relationship set up by those tactics, which recur in later wars. That being, a packet moving "jumper" who gets close enough is frequently the saving agent for the rest of his unit, and his heroism in getting closer than everyone else to deliver his grenade makes a dramatic impression on everyone else, pinned in no man's land, afraid, etc. That is the tactical reality that Hollywood has detected in veteran reports and medal citations and attempts to recreate in its "hero vs. machinegun nest" storyline.

But these small tactics were not really decisive. Heavy artillery was the major killer. Pressure by infantry using such tactics merely drew forth the enemy infantry from his dugouts, where 210 mm howitzers (German) or 155s (French) could massacre them. Battles raged for months and shell expenditures ran into the millions, with 10 heavy shells available to smash each man, and all the time in the world to deliver them.

There were only two other tactical innovations of any importance in the course of the war. The first was the focus on surprise and limited visibility in infantry attacks, which grew out of small scale trench raid tactics, was used on a full army scale by the Russians in the Brusilov offensive, and was made an art form by the Germans as "strosstruppen tactics".

The key ideas here are the short prep fire instead of the long bombardment wasting shells and announcing what is coming, attacking in limited visibility conditions (night, fog, or artificially created obscurity by using gas to force everyone to fight in their masks), and following small bodies of "pathfinders" in reinforce-success, confusion-be-damned fashion. This worked very well and created break-in, though rarely break-through, essentially every time it was tried. It resulted in a melee in the defender's trench system that tended to exchange off, and it was particularly effective against denuded fronts.

Again that sets up a paper scissors game - manned fronts stop raid tactics, but die to heavy artillery; thinned ones are vulnerable to raid break-in, but immune to heavy artillery.

The last tactical innovation was the tank and using it to get through the MG defense zone. It was countered simply by extending the defense zone to many miles depth and incorporating field artillery positions throughout said zone. That remains its proper counter clear to Kursk, though armor reserves to rebalance local odds also matter by then.

It wasn't the MG that made infantry spread out, it was steel breechloaders with high explosive. But MGs, once entrenched, did counter the tactic of following a barrage with a rifle company, the "artillery conquers, infantry occupies" tactic. It is their low target signature that is essential for this - they give heavy artillery a poor target to bite on, compared to a fully manned trenchline. But can still readily counter mass movement of riflemen, together in a skirmish line, minimizing time of exposure (and promised decision) by moving all at once.

I hope this helps.

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On the French role in the critical squad movement innovation - also incidentally in pushing support weapons forward in the attack - the standard work is "the attack in trench warfare" by Andre Laffargue, a French captain. It was published as a book in 1917, but earlier circulated in pamphlet form. Laffargue arrived at his conclusions after witnessing failed British attacks at Vimy ridge in 1915.

There is also good coverage of the French role in the 4 volume British official history of the war, including detailed stuff on how hidden MGs stuffed mass skirmish line tactics. The central role of grenade parties is also clear in those. German strosstruppen innovators acknowledge their own debt to Laffargue; the practically reprinted his pamplet in translation as a manual of their own.

Brusilov's use of similar ideas on an operational scale is less well covered in western histories, and many British and US sources later on present the entire system as uniquely German and late war, which is far from being accurate. There is also an English language tendency to call them "infiltration" tactics, and to overemphasize the changes in weaponry (trench mortars, which Brits innovated in, LMGs likewise, etc) vs the differences in how they are used, movement roles, and the like.

The standard source on the flexible defense in depth aka the denuded front is "the defensive battle" by Colonel Max Bauer and Captain Herman Geyer, which was approved by Ludendorf in 1916 for adoption throughout the German army, but reflected a system already in operation by 1915 under some commanders.


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Jason - a quote from Dorosh that he wanted me to post on his behalf:

If Jason wants to seriously suggest the following:

I think he is mistaken. I would recommend he read Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps (ISBN 0-8020-6002-1) by Bill Rawling, When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War (ISBN 0-394-22388-8) by Desmond Morton, Vimy (ISBN 0-14-010439-9) by Pierre Berton, and Yorkton's Gunners: The Story of the 64th Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery (ISBN 978-0-9782646-7-3) by Michael Dorosh for a good picture of the "history (and) tactical relations".

Or at the very least, cite his own sources.

And a follow up response from him:

Oh, and after you cut and paste that, tell him that he, and anyone else in that thread, is welcome to register at game squad and discuss the article and Jason's excellent response over at GS in the blog thread. :-)
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Wow. A quick Google search shows that Andre Laffargue died in 1994.

I remember reading something about use of Chauchat by French-- in the assault, specifically against German HMGs (but this somehow does not seem borne out by the remarks from Fernch Regimental commanders, in the weapon-by-weapon survey commissionned by Petain in 1917: mostly praise for the Chauchat in the defence-- which perhaps is relevant for this thread)

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Adam - the Boer war is when it is fully in place. Early in that war, Brit conscript forces were not able to match Boer accuracy with their Mausers, largely because long range accuracy had not been emphasized in their training. That changed during the war, and certainly by after it. The British BEF professionals of 1914 were outstanding individual marksmen by contemporary standards, and it showed at Mons --- though it was mostly the same defense dominance desribed above. Night fighting and position turning were prominent in the middle of the Boer war, and the Boers relied on crestline tactics and field fortifications. The Brits countered with superior artillery weight and attrition, and by smarter use of turning movements, and those sufficed to win the conventional phase of the war. (The guerilla portion lasted long after that).

In the Russo-Japanese war, daytime infantry attack proved ruinously expensive and was replaced by sustained attrition by artillery barrage on the one hand, and by night infantry assault on the other.

You asked when it "started", however. Started is ambiguous. There were already some signs of it in earlier wars. E.g. in some of their colonial fights, the Brits fought with rifles at extreme ranges - sometimes volley fire against massed enemies, sometimes individual targets (e.g. on the northwest frontier, what is now Afghanistan or the Pakistan tribal areas - ranges and LOS were very long in the mountains, and targets sparse).

The defense dominance effect of aimed rifle fire from behind field fortifications or in trenches was already starting to be felt as early as the US civil war, but was sporadic then (Fredericksburg may stand as an example).

Similarly it was already begining to be felt in the German wars of unification (Austria and France, 1866 and 1870), using breechloader rifles --- but they were without magazines and significantly shorter in range (early breechloaders were carbine-like compared to the older long rifled muskets). The infantry portion of those engagements tended to be even exchange affairs in which the side that had the tactically defensive stance won, but without lopsided losses. Lopsided losses followed when an enemy force was contained by infantry screens in an area that could be shelled relentlessly.

But the full logic I described of complete defense dominance in infantry vs infantry head on fighting, had not yet appeared. It was there by the time of the Boer war. There are documented cases of less than 20 Boer riflemen pinning a British regiment for hours, for example. At extreme range, in rocky crest cover, overlooking open ground, they could and did hit men with impunity at 1000 yards, who had no chance of replying effectively, and indeed rarely even saw the men firing at them, even for a split second.

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Yep - the beaten zone and enfilading fire.

full-sized rifle ammo as used by MGs in WW1 has a pretty flat trajectory out to 600m or more.

Consider a target of an infantry company advancing in open order - if you place your MG directly ahead of it each burst can only be aimed at one man, and will not hit anyone else if it misses - then you have to reaim teh gun at het next man.

If you place you MG out to one flank then each bullet can travel along the company line - from the nearest man to the furthest, at less than head height. If it misses teh first man it might hit the 2nd or 3rd or 100th.

As the company advances you stil have to re-aim - but each time you fire you get multiple men in the volume swept by the bullets, and inflict a great deal more casualties for a given amount of ammo.

[Crappy ASCI art alert]

Enfilade fire:

> . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (where each "." = a target soldier and > is the MG)

Direct fire:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ......


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Setting up MG's on the flank also creates a direction of attack problem for the Rifle company. For example, if taking MG fire from the flank, should the company reorient to take out the MG? They would have to close the distance just to spot it and then attack it with grenades, aimed fire etc just to KO a few men. All the while their flank is presumably exposed to the enemy's MLR and probably other MG's, now firing from their rear quarter. And this reoriented attack also means that the company is no longer even heading to its initial objective, but chasing after an MG team.

Or the company can proceed with its objective and advance through difficult to spot MG fire the whole way. Even if they reach and take the objective they will likely still be in the MG's fire zone, but still be unable to spot it, as it is far out on the flank. Thus, it is difficult to simply bypass. Hence why it is now standard infantry tactics to use packet movement, use all available cover, attack in limited visibility etc.

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Enfilade fire is exceeded only by fire from the rear in terms of the damage it does to the recipients' morale. This goes clear back to Classical times in which it was best to attack the foe on his unshielded side. With no shields in recent times, either side works. Thus, not only is enfilade fire more effective than frontal fire at casualty production, but in morale reduction, too. It's even more galling when the force is fixed by a frontal threat and is taking fire from both flanks and the front.


John Kettler

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Knowing that your unit/army is set up to fight to the front and then having to fight to some other direction (flank, rear) has always been a problem - I dont' know the psych behind it, but I presume it has to do with girding your loins, plucking up the courage, etc to do one thing......and then finding that you have to do somethign else - suddenly all that courage is misdirected & can be replaced by confusion as to what's happening, fear that you're trapped, etc.

IIRC/AFAIK CM doesn't reward enfilading fire (other than it allows attacking the weaker side armour of vehicles) because MG's have no beaten zones. although I think there may be a moral penalty for it?

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I captured pretty much two whole German squads when I was attacking from the front and shooting them in the rear. Admittedly they were heavily outnumbered so I am not quite sure how the computer calculated the effect - just fire or number of visible enemy units.

Certainly as squads only face one way they become totally ineffective as they swivel one way then another - the amount of FP may or may not be siginificant. Similarly number of enemy units visible.

I do have the case of the crew of a MkIV abandoning when fired with an HMG at the rear when it was aware of enemy tanks to the front.

Another is the crew of a 25pdr surrendering with enemy to the front and a sniper shooting them in the back.

It is curious that in most games because of hard map edges and limited fronts this area of unit reaction is not often seen.

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All this would also apply to anti tank guns right? I'm starting to wonder if almost all the direct fire support weapons ought to be deployed along flanks facing inward (in CM for example) with infantry/artillery teams acting just as ambush shields vs probes to those positions.

yes you should place them along the flanks facing inward (and it goes for AFVs as well). that's how it was done historically and it also pays off in CM.

if i am playing a gamey battle in CM (facing AT-resistant vehicles) i will do my best to place AT guns horizontally or at even higher angles (e.g. pointing towards my rear). the side that is towards enemy rear needs to be protected by LOS block.

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I do have the case of the crew of a MkIV abandoning when fired with an HMG at the rear when it was aware of enemy tanks to the front.

Another is the crew of a 25pdr surrendering with enemy to the front and a sniper shooting them in the back.

It is curious that in most games because of hard map edges and limited fronts this area of unit reaction is not often seen.

regarding tank crews abandoning the vehicle, i'm not sure how much the different angles matter. i think the effect is caused by the combination of one effective threat and the total volume of fire generated by both effective and non effective threats.

i think the code doesn't care how much of incoming fire is actually dangerous as long as even one of them is dangerous.

to deal with Tigers etc i often make an AT net that consists of a single effective AT gun and a number of non-effective AT guns. they all open up together at the same target. the crews tend to abandon the vehicle pretty quickly. they wouldn't if i just used the effective AT gun or just the non-effective AT guns.

that's just the impression i have gotten from experience. i have not run any tests.

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