The Vickers and Lewis Machine Guns of the First World War

This article first appeared in RCMI Members’ News March-April 2017, written by Ryan Goldsworthy, Curator, RCMI Museum.

Photo credits: Billy Bishop: Department of National Defence; Lewis and Vickers: Eric Morse.

“Keep it up, boys; do not let them get through!”

The artifacts being featured in this edition of RCMI Members’ News Museum Pieces’ are the Vickers Machine Gun and the Lewis Gun. Both the Vickers and Lewis were widely used by the Allies in the First World War and both proved to be extremely reliable and effective. These particular weapons are being featured in this edition as a pair, because both guns were recently installed in dynamic displays on the 3rd floor short bar of the RCMI. The examples on display at the RCMI, both dating to 1915, were originally donated to the Institute in 1966 by Captain S. G. Sigel. Though the RCMI has been in possession of these weapons for over 50 years, they have never before been on display for members and their guests.

The 1915 Vickers on display in the RCMI is exhibited as it would have been mounted on the Western Front. The Vickers display is complete with a fluted barrel, tripod, water can and hose, ammunition box, 250-round canvas belt, and an oil can and brush. The RCMI’s Vickers is a spectacular specimen of its kind and this specific artifact was originally a gift from the 5th Prime Minister of Nepal of the Rana dynasty to the British Army in 1915. The Vickers Machine Gun, with a calibre of .303, was accurate from 2,000m and fired at a rate of 400-500 rounds per minute, but it could also fire indirectly as far as 4,000m. It was preferred by Allied soldiers in the First World War, because it rarely jammed or malfunctioned, it was relatively simple to operate and it had considerable range and power. The Canadians used the Vickers to great success at Vimy Ridge, utilizing its coverage and power to “thicken” the barrages that liquefied many of the German defences in the lead up to the battle. Indeed, the Vickers established itself as one of the iconic instruments of the Great War and it was notably featured on the badge of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s Machine Gun Corps.

The Lewis Gun, though significantly smaller than the Vickers, fired the same calibre and had a more rapid rate of fire at 500-600 rounds per minute and was air-cooled instead of water. Though the Lewis was only accurate up to 800m, it was more portable than its larger and heavier counterpart and was used by both the army and the air force. The 1915 Lewis on display at the RCMI is suspended in a vertical case accompanied by several of its original tools, required for repair and maintenance, and a very rare anti-aircraft sight on the barrel. Unlike the belt-fed Vickers, the Lewis is instead loaded with a pan magazine on the top holding 47 rounds—which can be seen on display (the air force used 97-round magazines, pictured on Bishop’s aircraft). The Lewis was a versatile weapon that could be mounted by its bipod into nearly any terrain on the Western Front including trees and stumps. Becoming a Lewis-gunner in the CEF was equivalent to a trade and those proficient with the weapon had an “LG” patch stitched on to the arm of their tunic.

The Lewis Gun has also been featured in several citations of Canadian Victoria Cross winners during the Great War in otherworldly acts of heroism. In June 1918, Cpl. Joseph Kaeble of Saint-Moise, Quebec, repulsed or killed over 50 advancing Germans with a Lewis Gun on his hip. Despite being wounded numerous times by shrapnel and bullets, Kaeble “emptied one magazine after another into the advancing enemy” until he was mortally wounded and finally succumbed to his many wounds (his last words are the titular quote). During the Hundred Days Offensive, Pte. Thomas Ricketts of St. John’s Newfoundland, was able to save his entire platoon. When his Lewis Gun had run out of ammunition and his platoon was exposed to the advancing Germans, Ricketts ran over 100 yards and back through withering fire to procure more ammunition and then returned to his Lewis Gun to pin the Germans into a nearby farm. His platoon was then able to move forward without a single casualty and captured 4 field guns, 4 machine guns, and 8 prisoners.

In a last example, and perhaps the most famous, Capt Billy Bishop of Owen Sound, Ontario earned his VC in 1917 with a Lewis Gun affixed to his aircraft. Bishop single-handedly attacked a German aerodrome and downed several German aircraft—emptying out several drums of his ammunition. Though all three of these VC acts of “most conspicuous bravery” are rightly and roundly about the individuals who earned them, they also speak to the effectiveness of the Lewis Gun.

Ultimately, the strength of both the Vickers and the Lewis is confirmed by their longevity, both being used through WWII and well into the Twentieth Century. I would highly recommend the new exhibit of these weapons to all RCMI members, as they represent an important part of Canada’s military history.

Ryan Goldsworthy
Curator
Royal Canadian Military Institute

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