The “Devil’s Paintbrush”- The Maxim Machine Gun at Belleau Wood

I discovered this past week that I will be getting unexpected (but very, very welcome) company in late September. I have to be honest and say that I’ve been so danged busy over the past several months that I let a lot of my house projects slide.  After spending a good part of Saturday painting, I decided to clean my office. Never an easy task…I needed to take all the books off the books shelves to dust. As you can imagine, it’s very easy to get sidetracked while doing that! 

I pulled one of my favorite “technology” books off the shelf, a wonderful volume entitled

The Devil’s Paintbrush, by Dolf Goldsmith. This is a fabulous book on the history of the Maxim gun and it’s use  in the “Great War.”  World War I has always been a favorite subject of mine. It was characterized by tremendous changes in the way war was fought. Technology literally changed the face of warfare. World War I saw the first widespread use of motorized transportation in a military conflict. It was also was characterized by widespread use of the machine gun. I thought what a perfect topic for this week’s blog:  development of  the Maxim gun,  “The Devil’s Paintbrush”- and its use by the Imperial German Army during the battle for Belleau Wood.

I’ve always liked the term “Devil’s Paintbrush.” Those two short words speak volumes about the destructive power of the Maxim gun and paint a grim picture of the carnage seen on the battlefields of Europe in World War I. So, how was the Maxim gun developed? What made it so revolutionary, and so deadly?

Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim was born in February 1840, the firstborn of eight children. As a child growing up in Maine, Maxim worked at his father’s grist mill, becoming familiar with the machinery integral to that vocation. An accomplished woodworker, the young Maxim turned his attention to the mastery of other machinery-tooling and metalsmithing. He studied and in many cases, improved upon the mechanisms of such diverse items as water mills, steam and gas engines, boilers, carburetors, and hydraulic machinery. It was in the science of electricity that Maxim made his most telling mark. In an autobiography entitled My Life, Maxim stated that he beat Thomas Edison to the incandescent electric light by patenting the carbon filament standardization process a full year before Edison realized its necessity. He later patented a current regulator for which he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur at the Paris Electrical Exhibition of 1881.

Hiram Maxim

Armed with the title Chief Engineer of the conglomerate United States Electrical Lighting Company, and for a sum of $20,000 a year, Maxim was persuaded to move to Europe for a period of ten years. In Paris he began the time-consuming process of searching out all the existing European electrical patents…rather bored, he started looking for new avenues for his inventive genius.

In 1882 in Vienna, he met a fellow American whom he had known in the States. This man reportedly told Maxim, “Hang your chemistry and electricity. If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will allow these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.”

Maxim himself stated that “whenever I took up any new thing, I read everything I could find on the subject.” And that’s exactly what he did-he devoted himself to the study of gun mechanisms. He studied the Gatling gun, the Hotchkiss, the Nordenfelt and the Gardner…all four depended on hand power for performing the various operations of loading, firing, and extracting empty shells. (Three of them worked by a crank, one by a lever) With the exception of the Hotchkiss, they had to mounted on a very firm base, in order to withstand the forces created by the operations of the crank, so it was impossible to turn these guns with any degree of freedom. Maxim saw that as a problem.…Another problem? Jamming and the problems associated with cartridges that fail to explode promptly at the moment of being struck. To Maxim these designs were inherently flawed simply because the system demanded perfect performance from less-than-perfect ammunition.

And so Maxim, the inventive genius, turned his attention to those exact problems-the design of a weapon that would initiate its OWN functioning by using the force of the recoil to do the work presently done by man with the crank.…and a search of the British Patent Office soon satisfied Maxim that he had the whole field to himself.

So what do you do next if you are Hiram Maxim? Maxim saw no reason to risk any of his own substantial fortune in this venture so he simply found others to bankroll this venture. Over lunch with some of London’s leading bankers and businessmen Maxim very calmly remarked that he did not think very highly of the weapons used by the British Army. He thought small arms should be fully automatic. As he talked about what he thought modern weapons should be, the men present at the table asked Maxim if he could build such a weapon, and what it would cost. By the end of lunch, Maxim had his money.

By 1884, Hiram Maxim revealed his “Prototype” and announced his accomplishment to the world-the first automatic gun capable of  rates of fire as high as 666 rounds per minute. And finally, in the summer of 1885 Maxim exhibited and fired his prototypes at the International Inventions Exposition, where the gun was awarded a gold medal.  Further modifications brought Hiram Maxim to the machine gun trials in Europe in 1887.

Hiram Maxim with his prototype machine gun

Over the years harsh words have been directed to those who manufacture and sell weapons. Now from Maxim’s point of view, having successfully wrestled with problems no one before him had been able to solve, he saw no reason not to protect his inventions and reap the rewards of his hard work.  The was the first commercially successful machine gun. The British purchased the gun, as did the Austrians, the Russians and Germans. But it should be noted that Maxim hoped to arm the world against war. He looked upon the Maxim gun as a deterrent; He felt the destructive power of his weapon was so great that nations would never again go to war.

The US Enters World War I

On 28 June 1914, a young Bosnian-Serb student, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. Suspecting involvement by the Serbian government, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to the Serbian government. Dissatisfied with the response to its ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war on 28 July 1914. Russia, bound by treaty with Serbia, began mobilization of its Army one day later. Germany, bound by treaty to Austria-Hungary, viewed the mobilization as an act of war and declared war against Russia on 1 August. France, also bound by treaty to Russia found itself at war with both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Great Britain, allied to France by a loosely worded treaty, declared war on 4 August…and thus began the “war to end all wars.”

Official US policy was one of absolute neutrality…and that policy would remain in effect until April 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson outlined the case for declaring war with Germany in a speech to Congress. A formal declaration of war followed that speech on 6 April. The Yanks were going “Over There,” and of all the major powers to enter the war the United States was probably the least prepared.

The Army of the United States was small-troubles on the border with Mexico had led to the federalization of 70,000 National Guardsmen, which brought the size of the army to about 200,000 but the President had released them from service, and the army numbered only about 130,000 men. The US Navy in 1916 counted some 67,000 officers and sailors to man both ships and shore stations. The Navy also controlled another small force-the 15,000 men and officers of the United States Marine Corps. This is literally a fraction of  the size of the forces mustered by Germany, France, Britain and Russia. Even more frightening? American forces lacked the tools of war-rifles, ammunition, automatic weapons, artillery, hand grenades, trucks and even horses were in short supply.

Major General George Barnett, Commandant of the Marine Corps, was mindful of the “First to Fight” slogan and was determined to get his Marines into the fray. Said Barnett, “we had used that slogan on our posters, and I didn’t want that slogan made ridiculous!” Despite the objections of Army Major General John J. Pershing, Barnett succeeded. On 27 May 1917, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that a regiment of Marines be sent for duty with the first elements of the American Expeditionary Force going to France. That regiment would be the 5th Marines, formally established on 7 June. They would soon be joined by the 6th Regiment and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion.

This recruiting poster declares the Marines "First to Fight"

The war was in its fourth long year by the time the American Expeditionary Force reached France. Their beloved Lewis guns were traded for the heavier Hotchkiss, and they were equipped with the French-made Chautchat automatic rifle. Rumor had it that the latter were built by the French in bicycle shops, who then charged Uncle Sam eight dollars each and still made a profit.  One Marine stated “it was about as accurate fired from the hip and from the shoulder-spray and pray for a hit.” The Marines, now attached to the 2d Division, trained and moved in a quiet sector near Verdun. The idea of a “quiet sector” seems to have been lost on the Marines.  They were ready to get into the fight. One Marine stated, “the more Boche we kill, the quicker the end.” One French general was rather horrified at that attitude- “They were irrepressible! They climbed like cats into the highest trees to kill the Boche …and began to fire on the enemy sentries or on the German platoons running between the first and second line trenches.”     

On 23 May a massive German offensive smashed though the British and French lines. The Germans were bearing down on Paris. The 2d Division was ordered to “march to the sounds of the guns.”   As the Marines approached the Paris-Metz Road, Col Wendell “Whispering Buck” Neville, commanding the 5th Marines singled out  Major Frederic Wise and ordered him to form a defensive line. “You’ve got to get there right away…if you don’t hurry up the Germans will get there before we do. And when you get there, you stick! Never mind how many French come through you.”   And remnants of French units passed through their lines in full retreat. “retournez, retounez, la guerre est finie!”-“Turn back, turn back! The war is over!” One French officer ordered Captain Lloyd Williams to retreat. William’s reply? “Retreat hell! We just got here!”  Williams also sent a message to Wise, “The French major gave Captain Corbin written orders to fall back-I have countermanded the order-kindly see that the French do not shorten their artillery range.” It was signed Lloyd W. Williams, Captain, USMC.

Lloyd Williams, seen here as a second lieutenant

And what were the Marines facing as they looked toward Belleau Wood? Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Imperial German Army. One of the salient features of each German regiment was its machine gun section, armed with both light and heavy Maxim machine guns. The heavy machine guns were the 08s. These were usually sled mounted, with an extreme range of about 4400 yards. They fired a 7.92mm round at a rate of 400-500 rounds per minute. The light machine guns were the Maxim Model 08/15. These were the most common machine gun of World War I. Essentially developed to counter the British Lewis gun they were a much-lightened version of the 08, fitted with a bipod, shoulder stock and pistol grip. They too fired a 7.92mm round.

The German machine gunners were elite troops, and great care was taken in their training. Prior to the outbreak of war, a Handbook of the German Army stated “machine guns form a factor of ever-increasing importance in the organization of the German Army. In peace every infantry regiment and Jager battalion was provided with a machine gun company of 6 guns and one spare.”

Additionally, there were a number of independent field and fortress machine gun detachments which were rapidly absorbed in the early stages of the war. By 1915 several infantry regiments possessed two machine gun companies. At the beginning of 1916, the number of machine guns in the German Army had increased from 1600 to something over 8,000. By July that number had risen again to 11,000. In 1917 that number was increased again when the formation of new divisions involved the creation of new machine gun companies-even more important was the increase in the number of guns in a machine gun company from six, to 8, then to 10, and finally 12.  At the beginning of 1918 each German division might be expected to have a total of 108 light and 144 heavy machine guns.

June 2d through the 5th were days punctuated by vicious fighting at Les Mares Farm and Hill 142. The German machine guns had already proven their worth. Merwin Silverthorn later described the fight for Hill 142,  “on our left, approximately two hundred yards, was a little rocky place…teaming with machine guns. They had us enfiladed. It was like a shooting gallery.” The machine gun fire was the most intense the Marines had ever encountered.

The 6th of June is a date that is seared into the collective memory of the United States Marine Corps. It marks the beginning of the battle for Belleau Wood and it would prove to be the most catastrophic day in the history of the Corps. More men would be killed or wounded on this single day that in the entire history of the Corps.

The battle Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood was an old hunting preserve, covering about a square mile. It’s almost two kilometers long from north to south, and a kilometer at its widest point. The woods were characterized by tall hardwood trees choked with heavy undergrowth. The terrain was marked by two sharp ravines, knolls which rose abruptly and enormous boulders. In these woods, the Germans, under the command of Major Josef Bischoff, created the perfect defense. It was later written that “His infantry positions everywhere were stiffened by machine guns and minenwerrfers and his dispositions took full advantage of the great natural defensive strength of the woods.” Bischoff had turned Belleau Wood into “one huge machine gun nest.”

At 1900 on 6 June the officer’s whistled sounded and two battalions of Marines stepped off smartly in French formation, toward Belleau Wood.  In front of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, under the command of Major Ben Berry, was an open wheat field, 400 meters wide. Colonel Albert Catlin later wrote, “Instantly, the beast in the wood bared his claws. The Boche were ready and let loose a sickening machine gun and rifle fire into the teeth of which the Marines advanced” As the line wavered, the voice of a Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly was heard, “Come on you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?” Berry’s battalion suffered 272 officers and men killed or wounded.

Medal of Honor recipient Dan Daly, seen here as a sergeant major

The 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, under the command of Major Berton Sibley, moved to the attack, operating independently of Berry’s. Colonel Catlin said, “I watched Sibley’s men go in and it was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. The battalion, pivoted on its right, the left sweeping across the open ground in four waves, as steadily and correctly as though on parade…never did men advance more gallantly in the face or certain death; never did men deserve greater honour for valour.”

The two left flank companies advanced quickly through the southwestern end of the woods against fairly light opposition…until they ran into the German main line of resistance. Twenty-four year old 1stLt Alfred Noble described the interlocking fields of German fire- “We went in barehanded, and we got slaughtered.”

The two right flank companies were almost immediately driven to ground by a hail of machine gun, mortar and artillery fire. They had run into Bischoff’s entrenched 461st Regiment. One private described “German machine guns everywhere, in the trees, and in small ground holes, and camouflaged at other places so they couldn’t be spotted.” Major Sibley wrote the following message,

“They are too strong for us. The losses are so heavy that I am reforming on the ground held by the 82d Company last night. All of the officers of the 82d Company are wounded or missing and it is necessary to reform before we can advance. Machine guns too strong for us.”

Captain Berton Sibley

In Sibley’s battalion, almost 200 officers and men were killed, wounded or missing.

Fighting raged on in the town of Boureshes. Lt Clifford Cates, who would later rise to become commandant of the Marine Corps, served with the 96th Company. A letter to his mother stated,

“We moved across and open field and stopped in a small woods and my platoon was in a wheat field. The Boche machine guns and artillery had opened up on us and it was some party. At a certain time and signal we got up swept over a ground literally covered with machine gun bullets-it was my first charge, and Mother, it is a wonderful thrill to be out there in front of a bunch of men that will follow you to the death. A lot of men went down…About three fourths of the way over a bullet hit me solid; it knocked me cold but did not go through my helmet.”

2d Lieutenant Clifford Cates in the Verdun sector

It was not until the following morning that the full extent of the losses was known. In a single day, more Marines had been killed or wounded in action than in the 143 years of the Corps. Total losses for 6 June 1918, were 31 officers and 1,056 men, and the battle for Belleau Wood was far from over.

On 11 June, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines was ordered to attack from the southern edge of wood into the teeth of the German defenses and “take the Bois de  Belleau.” An unpublished account of the 2d Division states, “The weight of the German defense lay southward, exactly where the marine attack struck the German line.” Again, they had created a near-perfect defense-light machine guns covered every path and clearing, heavy machine guns protected by infantry, backed them up. Lt Colonel Wise, commanding the battalion, would later write about the horrors of seeing, “men dropping, men dropping, men dropping.” One wounded Marine was asked where was his outfit?  His answer was simple. “The machine guns got ‘em. As far as I know I’m the only one left out of ten officers and two hundred and fifty men.”

As front widened before Wise’s battalion, the Marine line began to break into smaller groups-and with this came a workable technique for taking out the dreaded German machine gun nests. Small groups of squad or platoon size moved forward, firing their Chautchats and Springfields, until they could close on a machine gun position with grenades and bayonets.

“The Boche heard us coming and gave us all they had. Light machine guns, heavy machine guns, grenades, rifles, pistols, everything was turned loose at once. A burst of bullets smashed into a man’s jaw beside me, carrying away the lower part of his face. A grenade fell on the other side, tearing a youngster’s legs to shreds. When sergeants fell, corporals picked up their commands, when they fell, privates took over.”

The German 461st Regiment was finally smashed and the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines broke through to the open ground beyond the northern edge of Belleau Wood. Wise later recalled,

“A sudden ripping burst of machine gun fire would break out. That meant the Marines were advancing on a nest. It would die down. That meant the nest was taken. I came upon one of those machine guns camouflaged behind a brush pile. Dead Marines lay in front of it. Dead Germans lay about it. The youngster in command (a Marine NCO) told me of the terrific fighting they’d had. Foot by foot they had pushed their way though the underbrush in the face of continuous machine gun and rifle fire.”

To the Marines it seemed as though the Germans were sending in a steady flow of reinforcements. Actually, the Germans were nearly spent. Bischoff’s 461st Regiment had just 9 officers left, and fewer than 150 men present and fit for duty.

The Marines were near exhaustion with no relief in sight. In the early evening of 15 June, the commander of the 2d Division ordered that Wise 2d Battalion, 5th Marines be relieved. Army troops were to be moved into the town of Bouresches, freeing up Maj. Tommy Holcomb’s 2d Battalion, 6th Marines. During the relief the Germans shelled the town heavily. This barrage consisted of 7,000 mustard gas shells and 2,000 high explosive shells containing a gas designed to induce vomited and sneezing. It was a diabolical combination-and one that cost 400 casualties. Lt Cates wrote,

“It has been a living hell since I started this. We were shelled all night with shrapnel and gas shells. We wore our gas masks for hours. It was mustard gas and a lot of the men were burned. I am in charge of my company now, as I am the only officer left.”

Wise’s battalion was finally relieved with the coming daylight. Said Wise,

“Two weeks growth of beard bristled on their faces. Deep lines showed, even beneath beard and dirt. Their eyes were red around the rims, bloodshot, burnt out. They were grimed with earth. Their cartridge belts were almost empty. They were damned near exhausted-past physical limits, traveling on their naked reserve…I had left Courcelles May 31st with 965 men and 26 officers; now before me stood three hundred fifty men and 6 officers.”

Wise’s wife, who was in Paris would ask, “How are the Marines?” He could only answer, “There aren’t any more Marines.”

On the 23d of June the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines was once more ordered into the fray to “clear the woods forthwith.” Once again, the Marines ran into a buzz-saw of German machine guns. The 16th Company alone reported 16 heavy machine guns and another 37 light machine guns in their sector.  The battalion commander reported,

“The enemy seems to have unlimited alternate gun positions and many guns. Each gun position covered by others. I know of no other way of attacking these positions with chance of success than one attempted and am of the opinion that infantry alone cannot dislodge enemy machine guns.”

After a lengthy discussion that decision was made to pound the German positions with an overwhelming artillery bombardment. At 1900 on 24 June, the artillery fire lifted and the Marines once again attacked. On the 26th the battalion commander sent word “Woods now US Marine Corps entirely.”

Marine Captain John W. Thomason, writer, artist, himself a veteran of the Battle for Belleau Wood later wrote in his masterpiece Fix Bayonets!

Author John W. Thomason was a veteran of the battle for Belleau Wood

The chance of war made (Belleau Wood) a symbol. The Germans rolled down to it like a flood, driving before him forlorn fragments of wrecked French divisions, all the way from Chemins des Dames. It was the spearhead of the last great thrust on Paris. The Americans of the 2d Division were new troops, untried in this war, regarded with uneasy hopefulness by the Allies. Their successes came when the Allies very greatly needed a success; for not since 1914 had the Boche appeared so terrible as in this, the spring of 1918. For a space the world watched the Bois de Belleau uneasily, and then with pride and an awakened hope…But the men who fought here saw none of these things. Good German troops, with every device of engineering skill, and all their cunning gained in war, poured into the wood. Battalions of Marines threw themselves against it. Day and night for nearly a month men fought in corpse-choked thickets, killing with bayonet and bomb and machine gun. It was gassed and shelled and shot into a semblance of nothing earthly. The great trees were all down; the leaves were blasted off, or hung sere and blackened. It was pockmarked with shell craters and shallow dugouts and hasty trenches. It was strewn with all the debris of war, Mauser rifles and Springfields, helmets, German and American, unexploded grenades, letters, knapsacks, packs, blankets, boots. A year later, it is said, they were still finding unburied dead in the depths of it …and finally, it was taken inches by inches.

Combat in Belleau Wood was savage and brutal, much of it hand to hand. The cost of victory was high. 126 officers and 5,057 enlisted men of the Marine Brigade lay dead or wounded. German survivors spoke of the Marines with grudging admiration.  Marine Corps legend holds that the German troops described Marine ferocity and determination in one word-tuefelhunden- Devil Dogs. One German survivor of Belleau Wood simply described them as ‘remarkable.”

Marine Corps combat art is courtesy of the Marine Corps Art Collection, National Museum of the Marine Corps

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