Photo: A Lewis gun on display at the Anzac Memorial's permanent exhibition.
The Lewis gun was arguably the most effective light machine gun of the First World War (1914-18). At a cumbersome 13 kilograms it was still light enough to be carried and used in attack.
The gun revolutionised infantry tactics. For the first time an automatic weapon could move as quickly as the infantry soldiers that needed the essential support machine gun fire provided. When the artist and Great War veteran George Rayner Hoff was selecting subjects for the buttress figures that crown the Anzac Memorial among them he chose a Lewis gunner. For that reason, the Anzac Memorial has gone to great lengths to acquire a representative of the weapon. Our recent acquisition has just been added to the displays.
Designed by a US Army officer, Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, the invention was rejected by the US, so Lewis took his creation to Belgium. The Belgians began production but, with the threat of German invasion in 1914, Lewis and his weapon moved to Britain. The earliest models were plagued with flaws but by 1916 the improved version of the weapon was widely issued to units of the British Expeditionary Force.
When the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) arrived on the Western Front they too received the new weapon and took to it with great enthusiasm.
The Lewis gun features extensively in acts of bravery by members of the AIF. The weapon is mentioned in recommendations for decorations from the Military Medal (MM) to the Victoria Cross (VC). Lifelong VC researcher Anthony Staunton described the VC as “the supreme decoration for gallantry in battle by a member of the British and Commonwealth Armed Forces.”
One of the first accounts of a Lewis gun included in the description of an Australian soldier’s courage, that I encountered, was the citation for the MM awarded to Private Attilo Caprari of the 44th Battalion. The recommendation for Private Caprari’s decoration reads:
“For coolness and devotion to duty. On 16 August 1918 during the advance east of Bray an enemy machine-gun caused casualties and at one time held up the advance. Private Caprari single-handed, with his Lewis gun worked around the flank and put the gun out of action. This man was aggressive throughout the whole advance and showed splendid initiative and devotion to duty.”
Wielding a 13 kg Lewis gun would have been child’s play for Caprari, an axeman from the Karrawang woodline near Coolgardie.
Photo: This photograph shows an AIF infantry section training with a Lewis gun at Liverpool camp in 1916. In the foreground of the line of infantrymen firing their rifles from the prone position is a Lewis gun team of gunner, loader and an observer crouching behind. Beside the bipod of the Lewis gun is a canvas pannier to carry spare magazines.
AIF Lewis gun VCs in France 1916–17
At Pozieres on the Somme the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions faced stubborn German resistance in July 1916. The fighting from Pozieres to the Hindenburg line cost the AIF over 20,000 casualties. Of the dozen Victoria Crosses earned by members of the AIF at this time some of the most outstanding include the use of the Lewis gun.
When Gallipoli veteran and recently commissioned Lieutenant, Arthur Blackburn, led 50 South Australians from the 10th Battalion in the attack on the German positions at Pozieres, that earned him his VC, his gallant band included both Lewis gunners and grenade throwers.
The citation for the VC awarded to Private Thomas Cooke, 8th Battalion, in the same battle, states:
“For most conspicuous bravery. After a Lewis gun had been disabled, he was ordered to take his gun and gun-team to a dangerous part of the line. Here he did fine work, but came under very heavy fire, with the result that finally he was the only man left. He still stuck to his post, and continued to fire his gun. When assistance was sent he was found dead beside his gun.
He set a splendid example of determination and devotion to duty.”
Captain Henry Murray’s VC, earned for leading a small force of grenade throwers and Lewis gunners in capturing and holding Stormy Trench, was a vital step on the advance to the Hindenburg line in February 1917.
Another Captain, Percy Herbert Cherry, 26th Battalion, was killed before he learned that his: “most conspicuous bravery determination and leadership when in command of a company detailed to storm and clear a village … he organised machine gun and bomb parties and captured the position …” resulted in his posthumous VC. Those machine gunners were armed with Lewis light machine guns.
Private Jorgen Jensen, 50th Battalion, was awarded his VC after the fighting around Noreuil. While bringing in a party of captured Germans and wounded comrades he was fired on by Lewis guns but, using his helmet and Australian uniform, he convinced the machine gunners to cease firing.
Another company commander, Captain James Newland, 12th Battalion, led an attack against a strongly defended enemy position at Lagnicourt. Newland and his men then held it against repeated counterattacks, only a few kilometres from where Captain Cherry had died. Newland was awarded the coveted cross. He and his men relied on Lewis guns and hand grenades during their VC action in April 1917.
A fellow 12th Battalion man, Sergeant John Whittle, performed a similar act to Newland on a nearby section of the front when he took over a platoon, led it, and held out against heavy enemy attacks.
When Lieutenant Charles Pope and his handful of Western Australians eventually ran out of ammunition and were overwhelmed and killed near Louverval on 15 April 1917 the evidence of the lethal efficiency of his Lewis gun and rifle fire were the 80 German dead in front of his position. His posthumous VC was the only one awarded by the 11th Battalion.
In the account of the action for which Lieutenant Rupert ‘Mick’ Moon, 58th Battalion, earned his Victoria Cross during the attack at Bullecourt, the researcher Anthony Staunton describes “Moon organised a Lewis gun team to enfilade the trench. After a minute or so of the Australians firing down the length of the trench the enemy broke and ran.”
AIF Lewis gun VCs in Belgium, 1917
The company attack led by Captain Robert Grieve, 37th Battalion, at Messines on 7 June 1917, that resulted in a VC for Grieve, included several Lewis gun teams. The same would be said for the parties of bombers and machine gunners led by 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Birks, 6th Battalion, that earned him a posthumous VC in the fighting near Glencorse Wood east of Ypres in September.
Like Birks the month before, Sergeant Lewis McGee, 40th Battalion, was posthumously awarded the VC for leading his depleted platoon during the attack on Passchendaele. McGee’s platoon comprised Lewis gun teams, bombers and bayonet men.
Lance Corporal Walter Peeler was another Passchendaele VC. According to Staunton ”Peeler was attached to the 37th Battalion to provide anti-aircraft fire with his Lewis gun during the attack but he actually led the fight at several points in the advance”. His citation reads:
“For the most conspicuous bravery when with a Lewis gun accompanying the first wave of the assault, he encountered an enemy party sniping the advancing troops from a shell-hole. Lance Corporal Peeler immediately rushed the position, accounted for nine of the enemy and cleared the way for the advance.”
Captain Clarence Jeffries, 34th Battalion, used his Lewis gun teams to provide essential suppressing fire for his company as he led his men to overcome one German blockhouse or gun position after another in the attack up the slope towards the village Passchendaele. He was killed in front of the last enemy strong point his men took. As the attacks on the flanks bogged down in the mud, and with Jeffries dead, the company’s senior NCO, James Bruce, took over and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for leading the survivors as they fought their way out. The action involving Jeffries and Bruce is the subject of the picture plan model in the permanent gallery. The model includes Lewis guns providing suppressing fire as the attack goes in.
In early 1918 the northern advance of the German Spring offensive tried to swing around the Ypres salient. They were stopped outside Hazebrouck. In a June counterattack near Merris Corporal Phillip Davey, 10th Battalion, earned the VC.
Again Staunton begins the description of Davy’s action stating that ”[I]t was decided to attack enemy positions in front of Merris with rifle grenades, smoke bombs and Lewis gun fire in order to divert fire from being directed against the main attacking forces further south.”
AIF Lewis gun VCs back on the Somme in 1918
Sergeant Stan McDougall, 47th Battalion, a blacksmith and amateur boxer, obviously had no trouble using a heavy Lewis gun to deadly effect as he delayed the German Spring offensive advancing on Dernancourt.
The final sentence of his VC citation reads “he used a Lewis gun on the enemy, killing many and enabling us to capture 33 prisoners. The prompt action of this non-commissioned officer saved the line and enabled the enemies advance to be stopped.”
A month later, on the opposite bank of the Somme, Lieutenant Cliff Sadlier’s Western Australians of the 51st Battalion, used their Lewis guns and grenades on the Germans as they attacked Hangard Wood on the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux in an action that resulted in a VC for Sadlier and a DCM for his platoon sergeant Charlie Stokes.
The VCs awarded for the Monash’s victory at Hamel either directly involved the Lewis gun like that awarded to Private Henry Dalziel, 15th Battalion, whose citation begins:
“[F]or most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when in action with a Lewis gun section. His company met with determined resistance …. A heavy concentration of machine gun fire caused many casualties and held up our advance. His Lewis gun having come into action and silenced enemy guns in one direction, an enemy gun opened fire from another direction. Private Dalziel dashed at it …”
… or were associated with the weapon like the act of Lance Corporal ‘Jack’ Axford inspired to charge the enemy alone after “machine gun fire from the German frontline … pinned down a platoon that had been delayed by the wire obstacles. The platoon’s company commander, Sergeant Major and a Lewis gun team were immediately lost.” Axford bombed and bayoneted the enemy out of their position.
A fortnight after the battle of Hamel Lieutenant Albert Borella MM, 26th Battalion, a Gallipoli veteran and one of four brothers serving in the AIF, earned the VC while leading his platoon in an attack near Villers-Bretonneux. His citation mentions the Lewis gun:
“For most conspicuous bravery in attack. Whilst leading his platoon with the first wave Lt. Borella marked an enemy machine gun firing through our barrage. He ran out ahead of his men into the barrage, shot two German machine-gunners with his revolver, and captured the gun.
He then led his party, now reduced to ten men and two Lewis guns, against a very strongly held trench, using his revolver and later a rifle, with great effect, causing many enemy casualties. His leading and splendid example resulted in the garrison being quickly shot or captured. Two large dug-outs were also bombed and thirty prisoners taken.
Subsequently the enemy twice counterattacked in strong force, on the second occasion outnumbering Lt. Borella's platoon by ten to one, but his cool determination inspired his men to resist heroically, and the enemy were repulsed with very heavy loss.“
In August Monash’s Australian Corps led the great counteroffensive against the Germans on the Somme. It opened 100 days of fighting that would smash the German army in the field and drive their high command to the armistice table on 11 November. The war of movement provided the opportunity for several acts of extraordinary courage involving the Lewis light machine gun.
The citation for the VC awarded to Tasmanian farmer Sgt Percy Statton MM, 40th Battalion, is a strong illustration:
“For most conspicuous bravery and initiative in action when in command of a platoon which reached its objective, the remainder of the battalion being' held up by heavy machine-gun fire. He skilfully engaged' two machine-gun posts with Lewis gun fire, enabling the remainder of his battalion to advance.
The advance of the battalion on his left had been brought to a standstill by heavy enemy machine-gun fire, and the first of our assaulting detachments to reach the machine-gun posts were put out of action in taking the first gun. Armed only with a revolver, in broad daylight, Sgt Statton at once rushed four enemy machine-gun posts in succession, disposing of two of them, and killing five of the enemy. The remaining two posts retired and were destroyed by Lewis gun fire. Later that evening Statton went out again under fire and bought in two badly wounded men.”
When the AIF reached the great bend in the river Somme dominated by Mont St Quentin and the fortress of Peronne the savagery of the fighting and the courage of the diggers was recognised in the award of eight VCs.
The citation for the VC earned by Private William Currey, 53rd Battalion, illustrates the hectic pace of the fighting in the streets of Peronne:
“For most conspicuous bravery and daring in the attack on Peronne on the morning of 1st September, 1918.
When the battalion was suffering heavy casualties from a 77mm. field gun at very close range, Pte. Currey, without hesitation, rushed forward under intense machine-gun fire and succeeded in capturing the gun single-handed after killing the entire crew.
Later, when the advance of the left flank was checked by an enemy strong point, Pte. Currey crept around the flank and engaged the post with a Lewis gun. Finally, he rushed the post single-handed, causing many casualties. It was entirely owing to his gallant conduct that the situation was relieved and the advance enabled to continue.
Subsequently he volunteered to carry orders for the withdrawal of an isolated company, and this he succeeded in doing despite shell and rifle fire, returning later with valuable information. Throughout the operations his striking example of coolness, determination, and utter disregard of danger had a most inspiring effect on his comrades, and his gallant work contributed largely to the success of the operations.”
Staunton takes up the story of the VC earned by Temporary Corporal Lawrence Weathers, 43rd Battalion, a day after Currey’s fight:
“the Germans checked the Australian advance with a great volume of fire. Weathers rushed in and bombed the Germans, killing the garrison’s leader. He retrieved more bombs and went out with three comrades, including a Lewis gunner. As the Lewis gun covered him, he ran to the enemy parapet and bombed the trench …”
A little over a month later the AIF fought its last major action of the Great War by capturing Montbrehain. At the Battle of Montbrehain Lieutenant George Ingram MM, 24th Battalion, who had participated in the capture of German New Guinea in 1914, awarded the Military Medal in Belgium in 1917, earned the VC for leading his platoon in the attack. Each time his men were pinned down Ingram rushed forward alone, neutralised the enemy and moved on. His repeated single-handed attacks were covered by Lewis gun fire.
The Lewis gun may have been one of the formidable and versatile weapons of the Great War but before the Second World War it would be replaced by the lighter and more reliable Bren.
The Bren gun VCs of the Second World War are another story.
Brad Manera, Senior Historian and Curator, The Anzac Memorial.
- Skennerton, Ian, .303 Lewis Machine Gun. Small Arms Identification Series. (Arms & Militaria Press, Qld. 2001).
- Staunton, Anthony, Victoria Cross; Australia's Finest and the Battles They Fought (Hardie Grant Books, Victoria. 2005), page v.
- https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx... page 44
- London Gazette, 9 September 1916.
- London Gazette, 11 May 1917
- Staunton, op. cit., p 87.
- Staunton, op. cit., p 110.
- London Gazette, 26 November 1917.
- Staunton, op. cit., p 126.
- London Gazette, 3 May 1918.
- London Gazette, 17 August 1918.
- Staunton, op. cit., p 133.
- London Gazette, 16 September 1918.
- London Gazette, 27 September 1918.
- Staunton, op. cit., p 179.