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Pte. John Heale     
27329 Machine Gun Corps

      Little is known about John Heale, and we can only hope that family descendents or relatives might be in contact to help tell us more. There is no record of a Heale family in Winkleigh in the 1901 census, but in 1911 there was a young George Heale, aged 21 a labourer born in Roborough with his wife Gertrude Ellen aged 19 born in High Bickington, living in Gosland Down. There was also Catherine Heale, a widow aged 72 living on Church Hill. Born in Ashreigney and married 54 years, she had had eleven children, tragically nine of whom had died. It may be that John Heale was related.

      John’s medal card shows his army number and his service in the Machine Gun Corps. If he had joined before October 1915 he would have been enlisted first into another unit or regiment, as this short history of the M.G. Corps explains: sadly, the medal card does not show this, and John’s service records were lost like the majority of these documents, in the London Blitz. John was awarded the British and Victory medals which shows that he was not in France or Belgium prior to 1916.

      In 1914 the British army had less than 300 machine-guns in service, which amounted in fact to usually two guns per battalion. Production of the Mark1 Vickers machine-gun was rapidly increased. Between August 1914 and June 1915 1,800 guns were sent to France to replace losses and to increase the allocation of guns to battalions, since by December 1914 most guns had already been abandoned in the retreat from Mons or put out of action, and in any case the majority of the machine gun personnel were already dead. By contrast, by the end of the war, some 75,242 guns were in use in France. This rapid expansion could only be organised by the creation of the Machine-Gun Corps, a separate force with its own headquarters at Harrowby Camp, Grantham, Lincolnshire and a further training school at St Omer in France, and with each machine-gun company attached to the brigade in which it served. On the 15th October 1915 Lord Kitchener had ordered the Machine-Gun Corps into existence, and from the very first it was considered to be an elite group selected from marksmen posted to join the Corps from many battalions, supplemented by many who also volunteered from other units. Not the least of motives to join the Corps was the higher pay offered for what was called throughout the army ‘the suicide club’. The reorganisation was rapid, and as the war progressed the Corps included infantry, cavalry, motor and heavy branches. This latter became the origin of the Tank Corps. When tanks were first introduced in September 1916 the crews were drawn from the Machine-Gun Corps, because although the ‘male’ tanks carried a gun the tanks were seen primarily as machine-gun mobile platforms to crush the defensive wire and fire directly onto the defenders in their trenches. The infant Tank-Corps followed the organisation of the Machine-Gun Corps, formed by the end of 1917 into the Royal Tank Corps. The Machine-Gun Corps, an elite force, itself had a short life, October 1915 to February 1919. Casualties were heavy. In all, between its formation and the end of the war 170,500 officers and men had served. Of these the suicide club lost 13,791 officers and men, with 48,258 wounded.

      Between November 1915 and early 1916, all the remaining machine-gun crews within infantry battalions had been formed into Companies, each carrying the number of the brigade in which they served. Brigade machine-gun companies were armed with 16 guns, so that each division of 3 brigades carried an establishment of 48 guns. The Companies had three main tasks: to provide covering fire for units moving forward into front-line positions, to provide fire while in the line for a multitude of tasks – preventing the build-up of enemy units, harassing the enemy during their relief operations, covering trench raids, eliminating snipers and enemy machine-gun posts, covering our own reliefs, as well as covering our own retreats or retirements from ground that had been won but was being abandoned. The unofficial motto of the suicide club was ‘first-in, last-out’. Each gun had an allocation of 6 men. No1, a Cpl. or L/Cpl. fired the gun, decided the best site to locate and when on the move carried the tripod weighing 48 lbs. No.2 carried the gun (42 lbs.) and 4 litres of water for the cooling system. Nos.3 and 4 carried and fed the ammunition, No.5 was the scout spotting targets and No.6 was the range finder. These tasks were interchangeable of course. A gun could if necessary fire 600 rounds per minute, which meant that 33 lbs. weight of cartridges could be fired in 60 seconds, and in prolonged use 1,500 rounds per hour was normal, weighing one-third of a ton. A Company of 16 guns could easily consume 5 tons of ammunition per hour. Such prodigious amounts of ammunition carried either by mules or by horse-drawn limbers meant that the transport section of a machine-gun company was larger than that of an entire infantry division. The infantry were not at all pleased to be associated with the suicide club: it meant assisting with the wearing fatigue of handling the extra ammunition in the front line areas, and when in use in the line machine-gun fire would often bring down German counter-battery shell fire putting everyone at greatly increased risk. In attack, however, machine-guns were invaluable life-savers. Situated just behind the attacking infantry, and forward of the artillery creeping barrage, they could fire over the heads of the attacking force to fire direct into the enemy trenches to help neutralize the defence. The Germans, of course, used the same tactics and moreover throughout the war had greatly superior numbers of guns.

      So successful and necessary was the work of the machine-gun companies, that in 1917 the 3 machine-gun companies attached to each brigade were increased to 4, the additional company being regarded as ‘corps troops’ and acted as a reserve and reinforcements as required. The crisis of near defeat in March 1918 and the advance of the allies in the last months of the war brought a further reorganisation. All the machine-gun companies within each division were consolidated into machine-gun battalions.

16 July 2011



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Medal Card