Not for parades
A model of ruthless efficiency, the Machine Gun Corps was only in existence for seven years. Paul Hooley charts its beginnings, endings and the creation of a masonic lodge
As the First World War began, the tactical use of the machine gun was largely unappreciated. There was no coordinated training, and infantry and cavalry units were allocated two guns each. This was added to in November 1914 by the formation of the Motor Machine Gun Service, administered by the Royal Artillery, which consisted of motorcycle-mounted machine-gun batteries.
However, a year of warfare on the Western Front highlighted the need for larger machine gun units crewed by specially selected and trained men. After much debate, this led to the formation of the Machine Gun Corps in October 1915.
From the start, it was perceived as being an elite corps that drew many of the best men from infantry and cavalry regiments. This frequently aroused jealousy and resentment at all levels within the army. While machine gunners always attracted admiration, they were also viewed as being mavericks who, out of necessity, showed an independence of thought and action. Tony Ashworth in Trench Warfare, 1914-18: The Live and Let Live System references ‘a lance corporal in charge of a gun in action who became detached from his superiors, would be the sole judge as to the best position for his gun, and when and where it should be fired’. Collectively known as the ‘Suicide Club’, they were always first in and last out of every action, as the moment a gun started up it became the target of every enemy weapon within range.
Following its formation, brigade machine gun sections were transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, while its headquarters, together with a depot and training centre, were established at Belton Park near Grantham, Lincolnshire. It was from here that all new machine-gun companies were raised.
‘The lodge was named Maguncor after the telegraphic code word used for “machine gun corps” during the First World War’
Initially there were three branches to the corps – Infantry, Cavalry and Motor. In early 1916 a Heavy Section (renamed Heavy Branch that same year) was added, and the men of that branch crewed the first tanks at the Battle of the Somme. In 1917, the Heavy Branch separated from the Machine Gun Corps to become the Tank Corps – although some of the men continued to display the Machine Gun Corps insignia.
The corps gained a reputation as a frontline force. Some 170,500 officers and others served with the corps, of whom 62,049 became casualties. Among those who died manning their guns in the Battle of Arras in May 1917 were my grandfather, Richard Foot, and his brother, Roland. They and a third brother, John, had joined the corps in late 1916, where they were issued with consecutive numbers, and they did their training at Grantham before being sent to the Western Front.
While my grandfather and great uncles were undergoing their intensive training at Grantham, a group of officers were in discussions with Brigadier-General Henry Cecil de la Montague Hill concerning the possibility of establishing a masonic lodge dedicated to the corps. The idea was approved, and this led to the formation and consecration of Maguncor Lodge, No. 3806, at the Guildhall, Grantham on 20 September 1917, with the brigadier general himself becoming the first Senior Warden.
The lodge was named Maguncor after the telegraphic code word used for ‘machine gun corps’ during the First World War. Before the lodge was formed, 10 meetings were held in 1917 under the aegis of Grantham’s long-established Doric Lodge. The Consecration ceremony was conducted by the Provincial Grand Master of Lincolnshire, the Earl of Yarborough. By the end of the lodge’s first year, 72 candidates had been initiated and a further 48 officers had become joining members, raising the membership to 132.
In August 1918, a large number of Maguncor members were moved to Alnwick in Northumberland to form a Machine Gun Corps sub-depot. Because they were unable to attend meetings in Grantham, the Alnwick Lodge allowed members to meet at its premises. Then in early 1919, the Machine Gun Corps was moved to Shorncliffe in Kent. Again, this would have proved difficult for some to attend meetings, so with the help of Castle Lodge, which offered its premises, meetings were held at nearby Sandgate from October 1919 until January 1921.
In early 1921, with the Machine Gun Corps being absorbed into various other corps, a decision was made to apply to the United Grand Lodge of England for Maguncor to become a London lodge. This was granted, and in August, the 45th Regular meeting was held in the old Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street. After the building of the current Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street, Maguncor Lodge meetings were held there until 2007, when the lodge moved to its present home: Mark Masons’ Hall on St James’s Street.
Thirteen members of Maguncor Lodge were killed during the war, and three more during the Second World War. The lodge annually lays a wreath of poppies at the Machine Gun Corps Memorial at London’s Hyde Park Corner, where the inscription on the main column reads: ‘Erected to commemorate the glorious heroes of the Machine Gun Corps who fell in the Great War.’ And then below, a quotation from the Book of Samuel: ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands’.
OPEN TO CIVILIANS
Membership of Maguncor was originally restricted to Machine Gun Corps officers. After it disbanded in 1922, this was extended to serving officers of any army units, followed by ex-serving officers, officers of other armed services and later to other ranks. Membership was opened to civilians in the 1960s.
Maguncor Lodge is proud to have had two Victoria Cross-holders – Captain William Allison White and Major James Palmer Huffam – as members. Another of Maguncor’s members, Col William Musson, was awarded the George Medal for his bravery as a civilian in the Second World War.
Lodge members of the Machine Gun Corps would have been unable to fire machine guns while wearing gloves, and this resulted in brethren of Maguncor Lodge not wearing gloves during their ceremonies. There are a number of other subtle differences in its ceremonies, including the use of the sword of the aforementioned Captain White, VC and the apron of Brigadier-General Noble Fleming Jenkins, seventh Master of the lodge, who died in 1927 after trying to save a woman from drowning at St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. A solid-silver model of a Vickers gun is also displayed at each Festive Board.
The Machine Gun Corps was disbanded in 1922 as a cost-cutting measure after just seven years. All of its operational records, its establishments and regimental orders were destroyed in a fire at its last headquarters at Shorncliffe in 1920. Not a single sheet of paper survived the fire, and even the partly written history of the corps was lost.
In his book With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, machine-gunner George Coppard wrote of the corps: ‘No military pomp attended its birth or decease. It was not a famous regiment with glamour and whatnot, but a great fighting corps, born for war only and not for parades.’