Developing Technology and Social Change: The Story Behind the Barnes County Historical Society’s Maxim Machine Gun

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Developing Technology and Social Change: The Story Behind the Barnes County Historical Society’s Maxim Machine Gun

Robert E. Kibler
The poets of the day conveyed the sense of loss felt by the European world after the Great War of 1914. "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” wrote William Butler Yeats, and “everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” (Yeats 158) "God, how the shadows of dead men... grin" at us, wrote Alfred Noyes, because of so much human loss for so little human gain. (Noyes 306-308) How shall we mourn for those, asked Wilfred Owen, who died "in herds as cattle [do]." (Owen 44) Never such innocence. . . .never such innocence again," (Larkin 28) wrote Philip Larkin. Social historians agree. The world before World War I was dramatically different from the world that came afterwards. (Marwick 11) Something had been lost.

Part of what had been lost was a sense of certainty, a sense that individuals and nations possessed both the moral right and the necessary will to control both their own destinies as well as the destinies of others. The war effectively broke the body and spirit of Europe, and made participating individuals and nations feel smaller, and far less certain about their sense of cultural superiority than they had in the past. But why had this happened? There had always been wars, and wars devastate both individuals and nations participating in them. And yet for centuries, men and woman have risen out of the devastation of war in order to begin life again in a way that those participating in the Great War were collectively less able to do.

What made the Great War particularly devastating was its large-scale deployment of mechanized weaponry in an age that did not quite understand that machinery. Before 1914, soldiers, not machines, had dominated battlefields. Yet as the social historian John Ellis notes, the Great War “represented the culmination of years of industrial progress." (Ellis 11) This industrial progress resulted in war machines whose lethal potential had never been put to a full-scale test before 1914. As a result, those who gleefully joined the fighting ranks never could have imagined how different their war experience would be from what past reports of war had told them they should expect. (Ellis 16-17)

Narrative descriptions of nineteenth-century military campaigns suggested that war was to be waged by men as if on a non-mechanized field of honor. The Napoleanic, the Crimean, and the Prussian Wars--all of them comparatively low-tech wars--continued to serve as the models for European military tactics and training well into the 20th century. Accordingly, the 20th century European soldier was trained to cross open terrain, charging the enemy on foot or on horseback, firing small arms, or brandishing lances and sabers. And indeed, World War I started out in just this way. (Ellis 17) It very quickly progressed, however, into a muddy defensive war of attrition, where men fought one another out of 500 mile long parallel systems of trenches, mercilessly pitted against newly invented tanks, fighter planes, chemical weapons, and other types of what in the early going of the war were referred to as “accessories.” (Baker 8) Men were hardly a match. They especially were no match for the infamous Maxim machine guns. (Bruce 79)

Interestingly, one of these World War I machine guns is part of the Barnes County Historical Society’s permanent collection, and is on display in the Society’s showroom in Valley City, North Dakota. How it came to be in North Dakota is a secret lost to time, but its role in the Great War is not. The Valley City model is a Model MG-08/15 German-made Maxim Machine Gun. This model was mass-produced in Spandau, Germany, in 1918. Spandau was the site of Germany's largest armory both before and during the Great War. It produced better than 12,500 (HMG, 3) Maxims before 1914, and had already planned the manufacture of 50,000 more before the outbreak of hostilities. (Chinn, 149) Spandau eventually produced 72,000 Maxims for battlefield use. (Bruce, 15) Like all of the Maxims, the MG-08/15 is fully automatic. Each fired cartridge drives the gun barrel backwards three-quarters of an inch. This action starts a mechanical sequence that ejects the spent shell, feeds the new one into the chamber, then cocks and fires another cartridge--all in about 1/60th of a second.

The MG-08/15 model weighs 45 pounds with its water jacket filled, and fires 7.92 millimeter belt-fed, armor-piercing rounds at a rate of 700 rounds per minute. It can fire 500 rpm all day and night long, and its effective lethal range is 1200 meters. (Chinn 141) In its day the MG-08/15 Maxim was durable, reliable, and deadly--the perfect weapon of war. Its engineering specifications were of the same standard as that of its predecessor, the heavier MG-08. Its American inventor, Hiram Maxim, had successfully fired 200,000 rounds from the MG-08 before announcing his invention to the world in 1884. (Chinn 131)

When the Germans first tested Hiram Maxim's new machine gun in July 1888, the results left Kaiser Wilhelm nearly speechless. At 200 and 400 meters against a standard ring target, 30 shots fired in 3 seconds all made direct hits. At 600 meters, 40 rounds fired in 4 3/10 seconds made direct hits. At 1000 meters, 40 shots, fired in 4 seconds, produced 36 direct hits. Further, after having fired 20,000 rounds, the accuracy of Maxim's gun remained undiminished (Chinn 141). “This is the gun,” the Kaiser told Maxim. “There is no other."(Chinn 138)

There were of course several other types of machine guns available by 1914--all of them the result of 19th century technological advances. (Ellis 34) The American Richard Gatling submitted his machine gun to the U.S. patent office in 1862. His gun had six rotating barrels, and had to be hand-cranked to fire. It was heavy, took several men to operate, and nearly always jammed. The French produced their own heavy, inaccurate mitrailleuse, and the Swedes produced the Nordenfelt. The Nordenfelt had ten separate barrels, and fired shots when a crank was turned. Like the Gatling gun, the Nordenfelt depended on human strength and speed on the crank, so lacked the sheer lethal efficiency of the Maxim. (Ellis 35) The Americans produced models by Browning, Colt, and Thompson. The British produced the Vickers, the Hotchkiss, the Lewis, and the Gardner. Collectively, the development of all these weapons of war pointed not only to the increasing speed with which technology was coming to hold dominion over human creativity, but also to the growing desire in early 20th century Europe for a large scale show of strength, for some kind of military action.

The British and the Germans, especially, desired some kind of action--but for very different reasons. British journals and newspapers before the start of the war often suggested a certain fatigue resulting from prosperity and ease. As the dominant European and world power at the turn of the century, the British were apparently suffering from better than 60 years of peace, supreme power, and economic success. British essays, poems, and newspaper articles often bemoaned the faltering will of the British people, and suggested that some kind of call to action was necessary to rescue the nation and empire from lethargy. Charles Hamilton Sorley epitomizes this general concern in Britain in his poem entitled “Call to Action,” written in 1912, two years before the war. He writes:

We preach and prattle, peer, and pry,

And fit together two and two:

We ponder, argue, shout, swear, lie—

We will not, for we cannot, DO.

Pale puny soldiers of the pen,

Absorbed in this your inky strife,

Act as of old, when men were men,

England herself and life yet life

(Stephen 37)

By contrast, the Germans did not seek to “act as of old.” They were the new people of Europe. Their national sovereignty had only been established in 1871 with the successful conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war. (Ecksteins 71) From their national beginning, Germans identified with everything that was new, fast, dynamic, and technical. The late nineteenth-century German cult of Technik, which put its emphasis on scientism, efficiency, industrialism, and management, produced dramatic results. While the Imperial British were lamenting their status as the unchallenged military and economic powerhouse of Europe, German industry was quickly overtaking the British edge in very practical ways. In the 1870s, for example, British steel production was four times that of Germany. By 1914, German steel production equaled that of Britain, France, and Russia combined. (Ecksteins 68) In 1900 for example, British output of sulphuric acid-- necessary for the manufacture of fertilizers, explosives, textiles, and dyes--was double that of Germany. By 1913, German firms were producing 1.7 million tons of sulphuric acid to Britain's 1.1 million. (Ecksteins 68) More than any other nation, the new Germany embraced technology, and while the British were complaining about the "curse of inactivity," the Germans in the 1890s adopted a different approach. They would make a Flucht nach vorne," a flight forward, into the next century. […] It is little wonder, then, that they would have placed the largest order for the very best and newest weaponry--Maxim machine guns.

The capabilities of Maxim's gun far surpassed that of its competition as a result of its single barrel design, and its ability to harness the surplus gas from fired cartridges to produce a smooth and speedy automatic recoil action. The best engineers of Maxim's day had dismissed the idea of harnessing cartridge gasses in order to automate weaponry. (Chinn 129) But Maxim was self-educated, so continued his attempts at automation unhindered by professional bias. And he was an inventor. He had already invented an electric lamp, a fire-activated sprinkler system, and a better mousetrap before turning his attention to developing a machine gun. In his London lab, he tested the possibilities of gas-recoil until he could control it. He then depended on the latest developments in precision engineering to produce the parts. Amazingly, his machine gun worked the first time Maxim tried it, firing all three test rounds in an instant. The mechanism that he originated "worked so [well] that even today, the principles of machine gun fire remain basically the same as those tested by Maxim in the 1880s." (Chinn 123)

When Maxim announced his invention in London, the world was cautious. Many arms makers were making big unsupportable claims for their weapons. The marketers for Nordenfelt, for example, had done a particularly good job of selling their inferior product. Many nations had placed large orders for a weapon that could not do half of what was promised. But news of Maxim's fully automatic gun spread. Soon every nation in Europe wanted its representatives to have a look. Sir Donald Currie of Britain was the first person of prominence to see the weapon fire. A day of so later, the Duke of Cambridge came to Maxim's workshop. Lord Wolsey, accompanied by high-ranking officers of the British War Office, came next. Wolsey told Maxim to simplify the gun so that "components could be taken out, examined, and cleaned with no other instruments than the hands." (Chinn 131) Maxim quickly redesigned all of the moving parts so that they could be replaced within 6 seconds. (Chinn 131) In 1887, he took his gun to an international competition held in Switzerland, and tried it against the Vickers, the Gardner, and the Nordenfelt. None could compare to the Maxim.

In another test, the Italians insisted that Maxim submerge his gun in the sea for 3 days before testing. Pulled from the sea bottom, without cleaning of any kind, "the gun performed as well as it did before subjection to the unusual [Italian] demand."(Chinn 137) All of the European nations soon placed their orders and Maxim sold licenses of manufacture to them. He became rich, but the world, as we know, paid a horrible price. From 1914 through 1918, over 65 million fighting men went to the first large-scale machine gun war. Of these, 37.5 million--better than half--either died or were wounded within a four-year span of time. Entire towns and cities were destroyed, and whole towns and villages of men marched off to war together, never to return.

Massive human losses directly attributed to the Maxim began in 1886, when the British Colonial Forces fired on the warring Matabele tribe of the Northern Transvaal, in what was then called Rhodesia. 5,000 Matabele warriors charged 50 colonial soldiers five times within a little more than an hour’s time. But the soldiers happened to have four Maxims with them, and so the Matabele left 3,000 dead on the field. The same thing happened to the Ashantis and to the Zulus during the African wars of the 1890s. It happened to the rebellious Afghani mountain tribes in 1895, and to the Sudanese of the African desert in 1898, when British Colonials killed no fewer than 20,000 wildly charging dervishes within minutes. Three-fourths of these deaths were directly attributed to the four Maxim machine guns that the British force had with them. British casualties, by contrast, amounted to less than 2 percent. The Colonials soon came to depend on the Maxim to keep imperial order, and colonial soldiers returning to Britain praised it as a weapon. Yet oddly, very few people listened. (Chinn 142) They did not want to acknowledge the effectiveness of the Maxim, or the changes that its deployment in the field of battle would necessitate. As General Haig noted during the war, he still believed that innovations such as the machine gun were mere accessories on the battlefield to men and horses.

Even as late as 1916, British resistance to the Maxim—and to innovations in military technology generally--resulted in the most dramatic machine gun massacre of the war--the Battle of the Somme. In that battle, British troops charged across "no-man's land," and directly into the sights of German Maxim machine guns. After two years of trench warfare, even the Germans were stunned to see them coming. Of the 110,000 British who climbed out of their trenches on July 1 at 7:30 in the morning, 60,000 were killed or wounded on the first day--many within the first hour. (Fussell 13) It took days before the wounded and dying, trapped in No-Man's Land, stopped screaming. (Fussell 13) All told, British casualties along the twelve-mile front of the Somme exceeded a quarter-million men. (Ellis 139) Ninety percent of these casualties were the direct result of machine gun fire. (Bruce 79)

So why did the Somme happen? There are many reasons, not the least of which was the role that imagination played in formulating early 20th century British attitudes towards war. By the turn of the century, the British sense of warfare was more taken from books than from life. Even the language with which the British referred to their wars suggested that their sense of warfare had become literary rather than historical. They referred to their dead, for example, as the "fallen," or the "slain." Both terms took the hard plain fact of a corpse and put a soft literary blanket over it. Horses in 1916 were still often called "steeds" or "chargers." Legs and arms were still called "limbs." Warfare was still called "strife," and the troops who undertook it were dubbed the "gallant," the "manly," and the "brave." When soldiers died, they "perished," and were referred to as having "gone west." (Fussell 22).

Such literary language helped the British of 1914 imagine their role on the contemporary battlefield as part of a great and noble tradition of empire builders and warriors past—Greeks, Romans, and the medieval knights. British men, for example, often gathered in pubs to recite lines of poetry that substantiated these imaginings. A favorite was Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem in praise of the Greek warrior Ulysses. Tennyson's Ulysses told the world that despite hardships, loss, and old age, he would continue to "fight, to seek, to find, and never yield." Likewise, King Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, and a wide array of knights and heroes appearing in novels and poems served as models of honor and noblesse for quite literally generations of British soldiers and civilians alike.

Indeed, throughout the nineteenth-century, the British loved this imagined heritage of heroic and imperial action far more than they loved the very different reality industrialism had brought to their country since the beginning of the century. Between 1800 and 1850, for example, Britain experienced better than a 50% shift in population from small towns and villages to major cities. People who had lived in one way for generations now lived in radically different ways, in other places. Most often, according to the literary record of the century, this change was one that made the ordinary Brit very uncertain about both the present and the future, despite what seemed to be a general prosperity. Given such dramatic change, it was perhaps natural that the British would find both stability and a preferred identity in literary models based in an imagined idealized past. And they did. So did their military.

The British belief in a mythology of empire and war was so strong in the nineteenth and pre-war 20th century, that even in official records, battle descriptions were almost always idealized (Keegan???). Official military accounts of battles often were written by officers who had steadily inculcated a diet of such literary works as another of Tennyson's famous poems, "The Charge of the Light Brigade, which until Vietnam, was still required memorization for students--even in American classrooms:

Cannon to right of them

Cannon to left of them

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell,

Rode the six hundred. (Tennyson 509)
Tennyson's literary description was based on a fated British cavalry charge against cannon fire during the Crimean War of 1854. An ornate idealized version of battle, it nevertheless remained representative of the attitude that the British brought with them to the 20th century battlefield. Yet as we might guess, and military historian John Keegan notes, such battle descriptions differed greatly from the reality of battle—and yet they were overwhelmingly preferred by soldiers and civilians alike, and served as part of the overall cultural apparatus that compelled the British in 1914 to continue believing that a courageous soldier, making a final bayonet or cavalry charge, would be the decisive factor in battle. (Ellis 50) Yet such a charge had been nearly impossible against canon fire in 1854. In 1914, the soldier on the modern battlefield faced mechanized weaponry far more efficient at killing than were cannons. The epitome of this new efficiency was of course, the Maxim machine gun.

It was specifically the Maxim that eliminated the battle tactic of the open field charge. However courageous the individual soldier might have been, he stood little chance of survival against a machine gun. Simply put, man could not beat the machine he had created. He was instead its fairly innocent, pitiable, victim. "Industrial and technological progress had made [the soldier] secondary to [all war] machines, and had robbed him of his primacy on the battlefield." (Ellis 50) This the British, especially, could not endure. Consequently, British war posters and war art continued to show dauntless British soldiers, able to overcome German machine gun nests, and win the day. But it was only in the posters and in the military manuals where the individual soldier reigned supreme. He rarely was able to beat the machine gun in the field.

This truth about the new kind of warfare in which they were engaged slowly became clear to the British and the French. They came to recognize that the only way to beat an enemy armed with machine guns was to acquire more machine guns than the enemy--or better--to invent other deadly types of industrial strength weaponry. This is of course what happened, and chlorine gas, tanks, airplane fire, and delayed fuse artillery were added to the modern soldier's woes. Yet on the British and French side especially, the soldier was still regularly ordered to rise out of his trench and charge the enemy. Not surprisingly, in a large number of letters sent home from the front, soldiers intimated that they fully expected to die in the war, and strangely, had come to see such a death as preferable to a life among those back home who did not and could not understand them and their world. On the front, they were with other soldiers who lived the nightmare, and gained comfort from this fellowship of death. And they were right to expect death. Collectively, British and French infantry soldiers were each replaced three times during the war. An entire Allied Army was destroyed. Another replaced it. That army was destroyed, and again replaced, again destroyed, again replaced. (Walter Cronkite) In all of history, never had there been such a collective loss of life. Hence the poet Larkin’s cry: never such innocence again. Yet British innocence had a stubborn will and did not die easily.

Members of the British officer corps were especially reluctant to give up their innocent and idealized version of war. Collectively, many officers simply refused to let reality get in the way of their imaginations. There were some very clear historical reasons for this. The British officer corps was composed largely of members of the aristocracy and of the landed gentry. Their wealth and social position cut them off from the outside world. They were insulated from life, and that meant insulation from change. In 1875, for example, 18% of British officers were aristocrats, and 32% came from landed gentry. In 1912, among those officers who make the decisions--Major Generals and above--24% were from the aristocracy, and 40% were from the landed gentry. (Ellis 48) The same situation existed in all of the European nations, and the net result--everywhere except in Germany--was widespread military contempt for anything new. The typical officer who took the field in 1914 brought with him only honor, esprit de corps, and what the British generally referred to as "dash." In short, he was a confident but ill-prepared romantic. In 1904, for example, General Haig attacked a writer who had dared to mock the military effect of the sword and lance. Haig suggested that the writer neglected the "moral factor," in warfare. This moral factor, according to Haig, "carried the soldier at highest speed towards the [enemy] rifleman, affecting the rifleman's nerves and his aim."(Ellis 56) We find the same attitude as that of Haig in a British Officer's training manual of 1907. In that manual, young officers were offered the following up-to-date military advice:

It must be accepted as a principle that the rifle, effective as

it is, cannot replace the effect produced [on the enemy] by

the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the

terror of cold steel."(Ellis 55)

The moral factor, and the terror of cold steel! How far removed from the world in front of them had their social and military training made the officers of 1914.

But officers were not immune to machine gun fire, and so their attitudes towards warfare gradually changed. In fact, officer casualty rates were extremely high, and as they faced wholesale slaughter time and again they often began to harbor thoughts of losing control, or of going mad. Even the most patriotic grew cynical, and at times, sardonic. In many trench newspapers, for example--the production of which was overseen by officers to ensure that they remained upbeat and on-message--articles and advertisements began to reflect the mad irony of the war situation. The “Somme Times,” for example, offered the following quarter-page ad:


You Don’t Know?


  1. Do you suffer from cheerfulness?

  2. Do you wake up in the morning feeling that all is going

well for the allies?

  1. Do you sometimes think that the war will end within

The next twelve months?

  1. Do you consider our leaders are competent to conduct the

war to a successful issue?



Two days spent at our establishment will effectively eradicate all traces of it

from your system. Do not hesitate—Apply for terms at once. (Somme Times)
Many officers also kept private diaries, and produced literally hundreds of poems. As their attitude towards the war changed, so did their diary entries, and the contents of their poems. In 1917, for example, Sigfried Sassoon described one of the soldiers under his command. The soldier had found out that his brother had been killed--or to use the standard euphemism—had ‘gone west’:
. . . With puzzled, patient face

The sergeant watched him; it was no good trying

To stop it; for he howled and beat his chest.

And all because his brother had gone west,

Raved at the bleeding war. . . .

Moaned, shouted, sobbed, and choked, while he was kneeling

Half-naked on the floor. In my belief

Such men have lost all patriotic feeling. (Sassoon 86)

No British soldier, let alone an officer, would have written of such circumstance, or voiced such a darkly humorous attitude towards it three years earlier. None. But in 1917, it had come to this--a dramatic loss of belief--a loss of belief in cause, in country, and ultimately, in self. It was understandable, perhaps, given what another officer-poet, Wilfred Owen, described as the landscape of modern war. It was a place full of vile, unnatural machine sounds, where soldiers lived in mud and water, surrounded by the "distorted and unburied bodies" of their comrades. They had to listen day and night to the "howls of the wounded" (Owen 22) left out in No-Man's land, and watch as the giant trench rats ate the dead. And in this world, they fully expected to die.

Yet all of them did not die, and in the aftermath of such a war, the survivors lived with what seemed to be a permanent sense of uncertainty and doubt. And so the poet T. S. Eliot wrote in 1917--"think/neither fear nor courage saves us," and the European world agreed. And again in 1921, imagining London Bridge crowded with both the stunned living and the ghostly dead of the war, Eliot wrote:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many

I had not thought death had undone so many
But it had. The American writer, Gertrude Stein, called those involved in the war the "lost generation." Her observation is not without merit. We sometimes forget, for example, that Sigmund Freud's theories about human psychology were considered little more than party chat when they were first introduced in 1900. But after the war, thousands of returning soldiers were absolutely unable to readjust to civilian life. This had never happened on a large-scale before. As a result, a desperate Europe turned to Freud's theories, seeking answers to their questions concerning the workings of the human mind. So many people quite literally were lost, or had in some way, gone mad. In 1919, the poet Yeats summed up this social situation by suggesting that people were now of two kinds of disposition:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.
Of these, Adolph Hitler, who had been a trench runner during the whole of the Great War, had developed his passionate intensity. Because of his post-war leadership in Germany the world was destined to repeat it all again.

But blaming any war on machine guns or crazed soldiers is perhaps too easy. We always seem to turn to war for one reason of another anyway. The history of humankind is in many ways the history of war. War seems to be part of our destiny, no matter how deadly war becomes. Were we to somehow regain control of our technology, for instance, and to somehow put our Hitlers in the nuthouses where they belong, many of us would agree that nothing concerning the future of war would change. We are, after all, the inventors, the ones who drew modern weaponry from out of our own hopes, fears, and dreams. I am not passing any moral judgement on humanity here. Nor do I have a message to deliver, or any wisdom to impart concerning the infernal mix of humanity, technology, and war. Only, perhaps we should count our lucky stars that war is not all that we dream about, and machine guns are not the only thing that we have made, or that we yet hope to make.


George M. Chinn, The Machine Gun: History, Evolution, and Development of Manual, Automatic, and Airborne Repeating Weapons, Washington DC: Department of the Navy, 1951

Robert Bruce, Machine Guns of World War I, London: Windrow and Greene, 1997

Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, NY: Doubleday, 1990

John Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1975

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, NY: Oxford Press, 1975

Majore D. Laing, The Matabele Rebellion, London: Dean and Son, 1896

Arthur Murch, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War, NY: Norton, 1965

Wilfren Owen, Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by C. Day Lewis, NY: New Directions, 1963.

Siegfried Sassoon, The War Poems, edited Rupert-Hart-Davis, London: Faber, 1983

Martin Stephen, editor. Never Such Innocence Again: A New Anthology of Great War Verse, London: Buchan and Enright, 1988.

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