Book Review: The Social History of the Machine Gun – John Ellis

October 18, 2014 — Leave a comment

Book review I wrote for my Technology and Culture in American History Class

John Ellis’ Social History of the Machine Gun documents and details the development of the rapid, automatic fire weapons in the late 19th century and its uses and effects in the immediate regional and global conflicts that followed. The primary timeline of Ellis’ work covers early attempts at automatic, continuous fire weaponry to the eventual implementation during World War I. This timeframe allowed Ellis to examine the early uses, acceptance and consequences of the technology, first in the United States and their subsequent use and acceptance as a tool in global conflicts. This time span is pivotal in the evaluation of the role class structure played in the implementation and use of the machine gun and by extension the racial undertones of the early utilization.

John Ellis gained his MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex and took a PhD course in Military Studies at the University of Manchester and has written extensively on technology and warfare. He is the author of multiple military histories including Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I, Cavalry: The History Of Mounted Warfare (Pen & Sword Military Classics), From the Barrel of a Gun: A History of Guerrilla, Revolutionary, and Counter-Insurgency Warfare, from the Romans to the Present and A Short History of Guerrilla Warfare.

The Social History of the Machine Gun is a well written treatise on the human aspect of one of the most ubiquitous tools of modern warfare – the machine gun. By extension, this book also examines the historical development of the United States as the initiators and purveyors of industrialized warfare. Ellis’ book is very personal and is more focussed on the individuals involved in the design, creation, marketing and usage of the machine gun rather than the technical aspects.

Ellis’ other conceit asserts general advances in industrialization made the development of the machine gun possible, however there were a number of preconditions only present in US society that were necessary for that development to be successful, they were: American expertise and interest in the manufacture of more complex machinery, combined with a willingness to use this knowledge in the creation of small arms and an unlimited faith in machines. These conditions and the Civil War – “the first truly modern war, in which the effects of new technology first made themselves apparent.” – helped demonstrate how technology could be used to “intensify scope, deadliness, …with a speed that would have been previously impossible.” (Ellis, 24) Simply put, the Civil War proved that war could be industrialized not just in the realms of transportation, clothing and supplies but weapons and ammunition.

Although Ellis dedicated an entire chapter to industrialization and the developments that precluded the introduction of the machine gun, much of the book is spent documenting the social and class structures that prevented not just implementation of the machine gun by the British during the World War I but also a continued refusal to accept that technology had become an integral part of warfare. In the chapters – Officers and Gentlemen and Making the Map Red, Ellis spends time explaining the social mores that held military industrialization back in the European Theatre while willing using the machine gun technology to subjugate people believed to be inferior in the African colonies.  One  of the key points of the slow adoption of military technology was the make up of military leadership. Specifically the British Army, leadership was most made of up the aristocracy and they were, as one scholar observed, “romantics in an industrial age.” (Ellis, 49) There was a strong belief in the supremacy of man versus machine. Even in face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this British military leadership continued to send wave after wave of soldiers to attack in time-honored formations, German machine gun embankments during the war, with disastrous consequences.

Ellis also tackles the overt racism in the use of the machine gun by British colonial forces leading up to World War I. The machine gun was used repeatedly as a tool of colonization and a method to suppress rebellion in Africa. The rational behind this according to Ellis was “…the ideology of British imperialism, whose very essence was an unquestioning belief in the innate superiority of the white race…” (Ellis, 101) This thinking allowed the British leadership to set “a low price on African lives.” and allowed them to regard colonial warfare “as an amusing diversion that had little in common with the ‘real’ wars that had been fought in Europe…” (Ellis, 102) The belief that “…the European was obviously superior to the African so why would he be ever so stupid to be baulked by a weapon that was only good for bowling over… and ‘Kaffirs’?” (Ellis, 102) came back to haunt an unprepared British military during World War I.

Ellis has put together a comprehensive and interesting work on the beginnings of the industrialization of war. He covers in great detail the folly of ignoring the changing technological landscape of warfare and how slow military leadership is to accept and adapt new methodologies. Ellis in his own way also documented the the death knell of British Aristocracy. The book is an easy read at 192 pages, with well researched notes, bibliography, bibliographical essay and index for quick reference. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly.

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