Whatever happens, we have got, the Maxim gun…

A friend recently sent me a link to this article:


It has the potential to be an interesting piece, discussing the relative absence of machine guns in Victorian military artwork, but quickly veers off into political-correctness and essentially says that it was only thanks to machine guns that the wicked old Brits were able to build their Empire… ignoring the inconvenient reality that places like Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Cape were British long before anyone had even heard of a machine gun.

The thrust of his argument seems to be that, because a lot of military artwork from the period features cavalry charges, that means the British were cunningly pretending that the machine gun didn’t secretly win them all their victories. Of course, it might just be that cavalry charges make for much more exciting paintings? To use a modern example, how many paintings from the Falklands War feature Sea Harriers screaming across the sky, rather than depicting the chefs on the HMS Invincible doing the (equally important) task of cooking breakfast for the crew?

Anyway, back to the article… first up we are told a ‘shocking’ tale about an (un-named) battle in the Matabele War of 1893:

‘In 1893 in Southern Africa, British colonial police slaughtered 1,500 Ndebele warriors, losing only four of their own men in the process. This astronomical, almost unfathomable victory was earned not through superior strength, courage, or strategic skill, but because the British were armed with five machine guns and the Ndebele were not’.

Unfortunately, this chap is too busy clutching his pearls to tell us which battle this claim is made about, though presumably it is either Shangani (25 October 1893) or Bembesi (1 November 1893). Total Matabele losses (ie. killed and wounded) at Shangani, however, were estimated to be 500, while at Bembesi they were reckoned at between 800 and 1000[i]. Perhaps he has rolled both battles into one? Who knows.

Either way, the author (deliberately or otherwise) neglects to mention that, in addition to the machine guns, the Rhodesian forces also had artillery and (obviously) several hundred rifles. Indeed, in terms of rifles, so did the Matabele – at Shangani, some 5,000 Matabele attacked the Rhodesian laagers and it was reckoned several thousand of them had a rifle[ii]. So if anyone should have had an advantage in firepower, it was the Matabele, not the Rhodesians. The problem was, and as politically-incorrect as it is to say this, that they did not have the first clue how to make the best use of them.

As upsetting as it might be to modern-day, leftwing armchair critics, simply having impressive, modern weapons does not equate to being able to use them well: that takes training, discipline, education, steadiness, courage, tactical awareness and skill (ie. all the things this author wants us to believe the British / Rhodesians didn’t have). Simply put, any weapon system is only as good as the men operating it.

While there is no doubting the raw physical courage of the Matabele warriors, it is abundantly obvious that the Rhodesians demonstrated far greater tactical skill. The Matabele failed to attack the invading columns when they were on the move, or in close country, or when they were engaged in any of their numerous river crossings. Nor did the Matabele generals think of attacking the two invading columns (one from Salisbury, one from Fort Victoria) before they could unite. Instead, the Matabele waited until the Rhodesians had consolidated their forces, then – despite having many more rifles than the Rhodesians – charged their laagers and got shot to pieces. At Bembesi, they even did this in broad daylight: something of a blunder, one might say.

Similarly, at Omdurman in the Sudan Campaign of 1898; Kitchener’s fear was that the Dervishes (who were well-supplied with rifles and, albeit antiquated, artillery) would attack his position against the Nile in darkness – which could have been a blood bath. Instead, they naively (stupidly?) attacked the following day in broad daylight, allowing the steady and disciplined British forces to destroy them with relative ease. But no doubt it would be politically incorrect and / or ‘racist’ to point out the total lack of tactical nouse of the Matabele or Dervish commanders, whereas ridiculing British generals is, of course, de rigueur.   

We are then assured the following:

‘A common feature shared by all machine gun models was not only their provision of a staggering increase in firepower, but also their relative invulnerability on the colonial battlefield. By invulnerability, I refer to the fact that the effectiveness of the gun was impervious to mass casualties—as long as one man survived to aim a functional gun, the odds remained in his favor. Manpower was rendered almost irrelevant, and the gun reigned supreme’.

and finally:

‘Behind the boastings of the British soldiers’ physical and racial superiority over their colonial conquests, whether in Africa, China, or India, lurked the knowledge that the machine could lay waste to them all; any person, regardless of race, class, or nationality was capable of pulling a trigger’.

Though certainly an important weapon system, it is stretching it a little to claim early machine guns provided a ‘staggering increase in firepower’. They were not wonder weapons: they jammed, they over-heated and they could chomp through a huge amount of ammunition – not ideal in far flung Colonial small wars. A Maxim gun was reckoned to have the same firepower as 30 magazine rifles – and then only in a defensive action and when well-sited. In an attack, they were so bulky and heavy as to be essentially useless. Though the (privately funded) Rhodesian forces were well supplied with machine guns (to compensate for their paltry numbers), the standard for a British army battalion of the day was a Maxim Section consisting of a single gun: so, essentially, adding the fire power of 30 extra rifles to a battalion which boasted about 1,000 already.
How can that reasonably be considered a ‘staggering’ increase?[iii]

Some are resolute in their determination to downplay the bravery and skill of the British army of the period, and it would seem that claiming they only achieved anything thanks to machine guns is just yet another such excuse.

[i] Willoughby, p.227-235

[ii] Burnham, p.136

[iii] When I first joined the British army, we had a GPMG in every rifle section – and this ‘gun-group’ was reckoned to provide 80% of the firepower of a section. Obviously, having 30-odd, highly mobile machine guns in a battalion is a very different story to having just a single bulky and heavy one – as was the case in the late-Victorian era. Writers should always be cautious of viewing things through a modern-day lens.


  • Lewis Lynch Posted May 7, 2020 3:59 pm

    Very well put and argued. Most folk, including myself, are unaware of these counter points. Logical indeed. Training, field intelligence, skill and bravery all count for a lot more than battle weapons. Vietnam springs to mind. And of course Rorke’s Drift where pure bravery and dogged perseverance won the day against all odds.

    • Bulldog Posted May 8, 2020 6:26 am

      Many thanks.
      Rorke’s Drift is actually an excellent example – most lefties dismiss that epic defence by squealing: ‘but the British had rifles!’… ignoring the fact that the Zulus had many more rifles than the redcoats did.

  • AM Posted May 15, 2020 1:06 am

    “although Zulu, Dervish, Herero, Ndebele, and Boer forces vastly outnumbered British settlers, all were rendered helpless in the face of the machine gun’s phenomenal firepower”

    Chris, perhaps I am mistaken, but didn’t the Boer’s have cutting edge weaponry (from Europe) at the outbreak of the Second Boer War and that’s partly why they inflicted several decisive defeats on the British in the early stages of that conflict?

    • Bulldog Posted June 16, 2020 8:14 pm


      Yes – you are spot on – the Boers had certainly splurged on the latest weaponry in the 1890s, as Kruger planned for war. Interestingly, however, the British won most of the opening battles of the war: Talana, Elandslaagte, Belmont, Graspan and Modder River. The only significant battle of the opening clashes which the Boers won was Lombard’s Kop / Nicholson’s Nek. Of course, they then won three defensive victories in the Black Week of December 1899.

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