As part of the history of the Vickers, there are a number of potential myths and legends associated or attributed to the gun. In this section, the facts relating to those ‘myths’ are explained and confirmed or denied.
“The Whole Nine Yards”
This is commonly associated with the length of the Vickers ammunition belt and the phrase “Giving them the whole nine yards” being attributed to firing off the full belt. A 250-round ammunition belt for the Vickers MG is 20 feet long (6.1 metres) and, therefore, only 6⅔ yards. This was measured using an empty 250-round ammunition belt. If it was filled, it would have been shorter.
NOTE: The Vickers MG Collection and Research Association has been contacted by Mr Paul Smith who has identified that the US .50 Browning MGs, using .50 ammunition in metal links, carried 350 rounds. His research has shown that there are 13 rounds per foot, thus equating to 351 rounds in 9 yards. This may well be the origin, or at least an appropriate use, of the phrase.
Urinating in the waterjacket
When water got low in the waterjacket, it was important to top it up and a funnel was carried for this purpose. If the water was allowed to get too low, the gun would overheat and seize. It was important to keep the water levels high and it is talked of that soldiers would urinate into the gun so it would keep going. There is evidence that urine was used. This quote is attributed to the 100th MG Company in August, 1916.
During the attack of the 24th, 250 rounds short of one million were fired by ten guns: at least four petrol tins of water besides all the water bottles of the Company and the urine tins from the neighbourhood were emptied into the guns for cooling purposes.
Goldsmith (1994) cites an interview with a veteran, Corporal John Young, 12th MG Company who states:
Often, in a pinch, when water was short we were forced to fil the barrel jacket with urine – it helped make the war a bit more personal.
Boiling tea in the waterjacket
The Vickers is water-cooled and after approximately 1,000 rounds being fired, the water in the jacket begins to boil and the steam is condensed into the condenser can. It is often talked of that the soldiers would use this boiled water for making tea. However, the water would have been tainted with oil from the barrel and the asbestos packing string. George Coppard recollects:
I must mention here that Captain Graves in Goodbye to All That refers to machine gun crews indiscriminately firing off belt after belt to boil their water. This suggests that machine gunners who fancied a cup of tea or a shave simply loosed off a couple of belts. In fact, this was not the case, as tea laced with mineral oil would taste pretty ghastly. Also machine-gun crews who seemed to be firing ‘indiscriminately’ might well be engaged on barrage fire, and infantry officers would not necessarily be aware of that fact.
However, in Goldsmith (1994), the author cites an interview with a veteran, Corporal John Young, 12th MG Company, who says:
…During the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, and later at Ypres, Belgium in 1918, we used the watercooled Vickers machine gun. When we would run short of water for tea we would frequently empty the barrel jacket of the gun. The tea was a wee bit greasy but tasted alright.
As there are conflicting accounts, it seems that it may have been a personal choice.
One million rounds fired in 12 hours?
On 24th August 1916, it’s recorded that six guns from 100 MG Company, Machine Gun Corps, fired nearly one million rounds within twelve hours in support of the advance on High Wood – an action as part of the Battle of the Somme.
This was first reported in 1919 by Lt Col Graham Seton Hutchison authoring as ‘Members of the Battalion’ in the memoir of companies and the machine gun battalion of the 33rd Division. He wrote about it again in 1938 when he authored ‘Machine Guns’. Since then if has become part of the story of the Vickers machine gun and the sustainability of their fire.
However, after extensive research (the background is explained in a blog post) using the war diaries of 100 MG Company and by calculating the logistical requirements for such a feat, it’s been possible to determine that it didn’t happen and only 99,500 rounds were fired.
This has been written up as an academic article in the First World War Studies Journal. If you don’t have academic access then you can read the ‘pre-print’ through Richard Fisher’s ResearchGate page or the ‘post-print’ for download here.
- Hutchison, 1938
- Members of the Battalion, 1919