6 min read ⌚
If a drink can profoundly change the world, then why shouldn’t the same hold true for a gun?
A machine gun, to be more precise.
That’s the cue for our summary of John Ellis’ “The Social History of the Machine Gun.”
Who Should Read “The Social History of the Machine Gun”? And Why?
John Ellis has been described by none other than Len Deighton as “one of the best historians” out there, so if you like to read historical books, be sure to check his full bibliography.
In this case, Ellis is masterful in recounting the social history of the machine gun from the 19th century to the present day in no more than 180 easily-read pages, which should make the book appealing even to those who care about history only in so far it gives them a neat fuller picture of the present world.
Of course, those who are interested in weapons and weaponry, should check this book out right away!
About John Ellis
John Ellis is an English historian.
He obtained an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex before taking a PhD course in Military Studies at the University of Manchester.
He is the author of more than a dozen highly praised books, including “A Social History the of Machine Gun,” “Brute Force,” “Eye-Deep in Hell,” “One Day in a Very Long War” and “The World War I” and “World War II Databooks.”
“The Social History of the Machine Gun PDF Summary”
In 1861, just as the American Civil War got under way, the world had the unfortunate privilege to experience for the first time the monstrosity on this photograph.
Its inventor, the American Richard Jordan Gatling, was a doctor by profession, and his idea behind creating a rapid-fire gun which is considered today the precursor of the machine gun, was a rather strange one.
Namely, since one machine gun could effectively substitute several soldiers, Gatling believed that his invention will reduce the size of the armies and, thus, reduce the number of war casualties.
“My gun,” he noted” bears the same relation to other fire-arms that McCormack’s Reaper does to the sickle, or the sewing machine to the common needle.
Little did Gatling knew that half a century later, his gun – and its offshoots (the Maxim gun and the Thompson submachine gun) – will be responsible for the deaths of millions of people, in the unprecedented bloodshed we, unfortunately, remember merely as the First World War.
However, John Ellis argues that it wasn’t merely Gatling’s fault.
Even more, it was the fault of European – mostly British and French officers and generals – who, unlike their American and German counterparts, believed in the old “élan and esprit de corps” Napoleonic type of warfare way into the first half of the 20th century.
In fact, even after the First World War, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig had the audacity to claim that “airplanes and tanks are only accessories to the man and the horse – the well-bred horse.”
Audacity – since Lord Haig is today mostly remembered as “Butcher Haig,” the guy whose “epic but costly offensives at the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917) have become nearly synonymous with the carnage and futility of First World War battles.”
And that’s the main thesis of John Ellis’ fascinating book:
Untold millions died due to the fact that numerous British and French officers were aristocrats and conservatives, who didn’t want to introduce machine guns into warfare, since they were still firm adherents to romantic military ideals and values such as heart and courage, putting their faith in the horse, the sabre, and the cavalry charge!
News flash, rattled the machine gun on the fields of modern Europe:
Heart and courage mean nothing in the face of new technologies!
In fact, Ellis recounts one example when two German machine guns defeated a six-hundred-man British infantry battalion in just a few hours, experiencing not one casualty.
In other words, six hundred were defeated by six – since the officers of the former believed that machine guns are an abomination to the beautiful thing that is a horse and a sabre battle!
Ah, the British!
They just never learn, do they: this happened barely half a century after the Charge of the Light Brigade! Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred… twice.
And it’s not like the British didn’t know the terrifying power of the Gatling gun!
They just didn’t think it’s honorable to use it against other civilized nations!
Which means they didn’t blink an eye to use it in Africa, against the savages. The first time they did this in 1874, when they sent a few Gatlings into action against the Ashanti, under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley.
“The Times” was poetic and vivid – not to mention utterly inhuman – in its desires and descriptions:
…if by any lucky chance Sir Garnet Wolseley manages to catch a good mob of savages in the open, and at a moderate distance, he cannot do any better than treat them to a little Gatling music…. Altogether we cannot wish the Ashantees worse luck than to get in the way of a Gatling well served.
Well, some of the very people who used the Gatlings in Africa will find themselves on the other end of them (and much better-developed machine guns) just a few decades later.
In fact, David Lloyd George calculated that about 4 in 5 deaths during the First World War were caused by machine guns.
Needless to add: the world was red with blood.
And warfare was never the same.
Key Lessons from “The Social History of the Machine Gun”
1. The Machine Gun Was Invented and Developed in the United States a Reason… or Two
2. For the Africans, Machine Guns Were Giant Penises
3. The Machine Gun, a Contemporary Icon
The Machine Gun Was Invented and Developed in the United States a Reason… or Two
In “The Social History of the Machine Gun,” John Ellis’ main premise is that European notions of Napoleonic military ideals and a romantic love for sabers and horses led to the death of millions by means of machine guns.
In fact, it should surprise no one that Americans were the first to invent the machine gun: a country of immigrants, the United States didn’t care too much about aristocracy or guild craftsmen.
And the first Europeans to use it: the new-formed countries, the ones without a feudal, aristocratic past!
For the Africans, Machine Guns Were Giant Penises
Even the fabulously romantic British used machine guns here and there.
And by “here and there” we mean Africa, where things like “honor” and “heart” and “courage” didn’t seem to mean as much as they did in Europe.
The Africans, on the other hand, had no idea what was happening to them.
And they started to confuse the reality with their myths, believing that these machine guns were giant penises ejaculating bullets.
The only reason why they rebelled from time to time was because, their priests encouraged them to, convincing them that the next time, the Gatlings will be impotent.
They never were.
The Machine Gun, a Contemporary Icon
The machine gun, writes John Ellis,
has become something of a contemporary icon. The sheer violence of its action, and the indiscriminate deadliness of its effect, has made it a useful symbol for expressing modern man’s frenzied attempts to assert himself in an increasingly complex and depersonalized world.
[I]n the First World War the machine gun helped to engender this feeling of individual irrelevance in the face of the new technology of death.
Since then, however, technological innovations have left the machine gun far behind. The machine gun has now become personalized, itself the means by which men desperately try to make their mark on a world in which they feel increasingly powerless. In the fantasy world, at least, technology is turned against itself.
Yeah, we know what you’re thinking about right now:
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“The Social History of the Machine Gun Quotes”
Our Critical Review
Heavy on anecdotes and engagingly written – in addition to being appealingly illustrated – “The Social History of the Machine Gun” is, as one reader has described it, “a light read about a gruesome topic.”
It’s also an interesting one – since its thesis – though sometimes flaky and too generalized not to be flawed – is very original and well worth a serious thought.