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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

5th Division

Organization and Employment


Divisional Machine Gun Units

Contributed By Wilson A. Heefner

The infantry divisions in the American Expeditionary Forces contained 260 machine guns, 36 of which were used as antiaircraft weapons within the division field artillery brigade. The remaining 224 guns were distributed among a machine gun company organic to each infantry regiment and among three machine gun battalions.

Assigned to each of the two infantry brigades within the division was one machine gun battalion, commanded by a major, and composed of four machine gun companies; these companies were identical in organization to the regimental machine gun companies. Each battalion had an assigned strength of 28 officers and 748 enlisted men and was authorized 64 heavy machine guns, divided equally among the companies.

Men of the 14th Machine Gun Battalion, 5th Division
Firing a Hotchkiss Machine Gun

The machine gun company, commanded by a captain, had an assigned strength of six commissioned officers and 172 enlisted men, and carried 16 guns, four of which were spares. Within the company there were three platoons and a headquarters section. A first lieutenant led the first platoon, while second lieutenants led platoons two and three. Each platoon with four guns was made up of two sections, each having two guns and led by a sergeant. Within each section were two gun squads, each with one gun and nine men, led by corporals. The gun squad had one combat cart, pulled by a mule, to transport its gun and ammunition as close to the firing position as enemy fire allowed. From there the crews moved the guns and ammunition forward by hand.

The third machine gun battalion was a division unit, under command of the division commander. The battalion had a strength of 16 officers and 377 enlisted men and was motorized. However, it had only two companies, identical to the other machine gun companies in terms of personnel and weapons. Each gun squad used a special motor car to transport its personnel, weapon and equipment. The battalion was generally in division reserve, ready to carry out missions as the division commander ordered.1

The machine gun units of the 5th Division entered combat with the 1914 model of the French-made Hotchkiss machine gun. The gun and mount weighed 88 pounds, fired 8-mm. Lebel Mle 1886 rounds from a 30-round metal strip, and had a rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute. It was gas-operated and air-cooled, and had a maximum effective range of 3800 meters. The Hotchkiss served in both ground combat support and antiaircraft roles.2

In training and in combat each of the four machine gun companies within the infantry brigade was attached to one of the brigade's six infantry battalions; attached to each of the other two infantry battalions within the regiment was the regiment's organic machine gun company. In the 5th Division those attachments remained effective throughout the entire training period or campaign. In the attack, the attached machine gun companies accompanied their battalions by bounds, maintaining close liaison with the infantry battalion commanders. Machine gun companies that were attached to infantry battalions designated as division or brigade reserve for a particular mission were usually placed under direct command of their respective brigade commanders, to fill gaps of fire and to protect the brigade flanks.3

Front View of the Hotchkiss

Since the usual plan of maneuver of an infantry battalion called for three of its four rifle companies to be used as the attacking force, with the fourth company serving as a reserve, the machine gun company commander would usually place one of his three machine gun platoons in support of each maneuver company.4

Machine guns were used for both indirect and direct fire missions. When in the former role, the guns were placed to cooperate with the field artillery units in neutralizing suspected enemy observation posts and machine guns during the attack and to sweep the approaches for possible enemy counterattacks after the capture of the final objective.5

The guns were most effectively used in overhead fire missions to support the infantry attacks. In this role the guns were placed 300 to 1000 meters to the rear of the front line. When they employed their guns in that fashion, the machine gun officers often ran into opposition from the rifle company commanders, who preferred to have the guns farther forward, fearing that their infantrymen would be at risk of stray low rounds as they advanced under the overhead machine gun fire. However, over time the infantrymen came to accept this arrangement as they saw the reliability of the machine guns proved again and again in combat. Furthermore, they soon discovered that the machine guns were high priority targets for enemy fire, and that it was advantageous to have the guns at some distance from the infantry positions.

5th Division Observer Scouts No-Mans-Land

Since enemy machine guns posed the greatest threat to the attacking troops, the machine gun crews made every effort to locate the enemy guns and to concentrate their fire upon them. As the attack moved forward and the overhead fire became less effective, some of the gun squads would carry their guns and ammunition forward either into or on the flanks of the advancing infantry. A proportion of the guns was held back as a reserve under command of the machine gun officer.6

Machine gun tactical doctrine dictated that in the defense the Hotchkiss guns should only rarely be located within 100 yards of the front line and that at least two-thirds of the guns should be echeloned back through the whole defensive position, located so that adjacent guns would be mutually supporting. From such positions all guns could fire in defense of the front line, and in the event of an enemy breakthrough the rear guns could continue to defend even if the enemy overran the forward guns.7

Emplacement Behind Camouphlage

About the Contributors and Notes:

Dr. Wilson A. Heefner, a Great War Society member, is a retired pathologist and physician and Army colonel. He resides in Stockton, CA. His interest in General Patrick derives from his having sailed from San Francisco as a young soldier on the transport bearing his name. This article appears as "Appendix A" in the author's book, Twentieth Century Warrior: The Life and Service of Major General Edwin D. Patrick, published by White Mane Publishing Co., Inc., Shippensburg, PA. Then-Captain Patrick served as commander of Company A, 14th Machine Gun Battalion, 5th Division, A.E.F. This article appeared in slightly different form in the Sping 1995 [Vol.4 Num. 2] issue of Relevance: The Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society. Regular contributors Ray Mentzer and Herb Stickel provided the photos.

1. United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919, vol. 1, Organization of the American Expeditionary Forces (Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, Department of the Army, 1948), pp.341, 344, 348-350; Wendell Westover, Suicide Battalions (New York: G.P. Putman's Sons, 1929), p.22.

2 . The Diagram Group, Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 BC to 2000 AD (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), pp.214-215; Westover, p.22. The U.S. Army had been slow to pay attention to the machine gun as an infantry weapon. In 1910 John M. Browning had produced a prototype of the recoil-operated machine gun that would become the M19l7 later used in France. However, the U.S. Army refused to look at it until February 1917, but still made no decision on adopting the weapon. In May 1917 the Army finally adopted the gun and ordered it into production. The Browning Ml 917 weighed only 41 pounds and had a rate of fire of 450-600 rounds per minute. Until July 1918 American units in France used French machine guns and automatic rifles. Divisions sailing for France after that date carried the Browning M l917 water-cooled machine gun and Browning M l918 automatic rifles, although these weapons were not used in combat until September because of Pershing's fear that the Germans might capture and copy them [Ian V. Hogg, The Encyclopedia of Infantry Weapons of World War II ( Northbrook, Ill.; Book Value International, 1977), pp. 40, 79; Russell F. Weigley, History of the United States Army (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), pp.363-3 64].

3. Station List, 14th M.G. Bn., Company A," File 205-10.7, World War I Organization Records, 5th Division, Record Group 120, National Archives; Society of the 1st Division, History of the First Division during the World War, 1917-1919 (Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1931), p. 427.

4. History of the First Division, pp. 427, 430.

5. History of the First Division, p. 403.

6. Captain H. Douglas, Machine Gun Manual: A Complete Manual to Machine Gunnery (New York: Military Publishing Co., n.d.), pp. 107-108; Westover, p. 153.

7. Westover, p. 152; Douglas, p. 108.

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