On the matter of machine guns on the South-West Front Line 1915

Franz Felberbauer


The machine gun was a product of the industrial revolution and was developed in the USA. At first it was not considered important by the military leaders in Europe. On the contrary, in 1914 it was the rifle with fixed bayonet which was thought to be the decisive weapon. Machine guns were good for colonial wars and were used to control the masses of natives with only few whites. The Machine gun frequently did not even appear in the tactical conceptions of the Europeans. In the beginning of the war 1915 the basic equipment of an Italian division concerning machine guns amounted to one quarter of that of an Austro-Hungarian and/or German and to one fifth of that of a Russian division. Obviously the Italian as well as the English and French general staff did not rank among the supporters of the machine gun. The failure of the first machine weapon organizationally introduced into a European army in the course of the German-French War 1870/71, the French Mitrailleuses, which was caused by their wrong allocation (to artillery instead of to infantry) and by their wrong tactical deployment, led to a rejection of this new type of weapon not only in France, but also in England, although both the French and the English had used machine guns several times with sweeping success during their colonial wars. Not even the horrible bloodbaths the machine guns had carried out among the attacking infantry in Sudan (Omdurman 1898) and in the Russian-Japanese War could bring about a change of opinion. The general rejection of the machine gun by the military did not result from its tactical utilizability or its sensitivity but rather from its weight. The machine guns with a weight of 40-65 kg, which were standard at the beginning of the First World War, required a crew of 4 to 6 soldiers to operate and a carrier animal to move it. Thus they were considered unsuited for attack, usable only as a defence weapon, especially in fortifications. As the English had obviously not learned their lessons, not even from 1916, this cannot be expected from the Italian general staff for the beginning of 1915. Thus one can assume that machine guns were not considered especially important for the Italian offensive warfare in 1915. According to this analysis, the argument that the defensive success of the Austro-Hungarian troops on the South-West Front Line resulted from a higher number of machine guns, although the attacking Italians highly outnumbered the defenders, is not tenable. As has been proved indisputably, especially along the critical Isonzo Front Line the Austro-Hungarian troops had far less machine guns than the Italians. Outdated Italian tactics, the organizational allocation of the Italian machine guns to an unsuited formation (regiment), and their limited mechanical and ballistic performance possibly did not allow their numerical superiority to become effective.