Osborn was the younger son of Henry Osborn, a seed and general dealer merchant, living in Park Place. The 1901 Census records Henry, then aged 45, his wife Clara, also 45, and the two boys Ernest aged 12 and Osborn aged 9, together with 3 ‘servants’, two of them rabbit-trappers. Clearly, rabbit trapping on Winkleigh Moor was a thriving part of the business and offered a supply of cheap fresh meat to all classes. By 1911, Osborn aged 19 had taken over the rabbit trapping part of the business, because thus he is described, together with three more rabbit trapping ‘servants’. Thus in 1914 Osborn was 22 and if he had not volunteered would be very liable for conscription when it was introduced in 1916.
Sadly, we know very little more. Osborn’s military documents were destroyed in the London blitz and there are no pension records. His medal card shows his service in the Machine-Gun Corps, not volunteering in time to be in France in 1915, but with the awards of the Victory and British medals.
Osborn may well have served in an infantry regiment before joining the Machine Gun Corps, or of course he may have joined direct at a later stage of the war. This newly-formed branch of the army was created in late 1915. In 1914 the British army had less than 300 machine-guns in service, which amounted in fact to usually two guns per battalion. In response to the overwhelming number of machine-guns in the German army, 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 reorganization 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.
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. 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, in the months before the battle of Cambrai 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 reorganization. All the machine-gun companies within each division were consolidated into machine-gun battalions. Thus, for example, on 16th February 1918 the 88th Company within 29th Division became the 29th Battalion of the Machine Gun 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..
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 so-called ‘female’ tanks. The infant Tank Corps followed the organization of the Machine Gun Corps, formed by the end of 1917 into the Royal Tank Corps.
10 December 2012