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.’
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR - NO. 41 SPRING 2018
Matter of record
Concerning my article about the Machine Gun Corps that appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of the magazine, a number of readers have asked why so few records of the Corps exist today. The answer is simple: the vast majority were lost in a fire that occurred in a store at Somerset Barracks, Shorncliffe, near Folkestone, the then headquarters of the Corps, during the early hours of Thursday 18 June 1920.
It took 20 men from two fire stations, together with military fire pickets, three hours to get the blaze under control. The cost of the damage was estimated to be £4,000 (£175,000 today) and the cause of the fire was recorded as being ‘unknown’.
As was explained in the article, the Machine Gun Corps had been considered to be an elite corps and machine gunners were often seen as being mavericks who could decide themselves where they would position their guns and who and what they fired at. This frequently aroused jealousy and outrage at all levels within the army.
The Corps was disbanded soon after the Great War and it has been suggested that the army establishment wanted to quickly forget it had ever existed – for it had taken away from the long-established infantry regiments some of the very best and cleverest officers and the line regiments had been combed for recruits, taking the fittest and the best to meet demands for evermore intelligent young men to man the guns.
Little wonder therefore that its demise was looked upon with satisfaction in some quarters and with suspicion in others, for the entire contents of the store were destroyed – not a single sheet of paper survived and even the partly written history of the Corps was lost.
Paul Hooley, Pitzhanger Lodge, No. 5465, London
Single-handedly rescuing his squadron after they were pinned down by heavy gunfire, Paddy Mayne’s life reads like a wartime page-turner. Matthew Scanlan tells the remarkable story of this SAS legend, wartime hero and Freemason
The dark days of the Second World War saw many a hero come to the fore, but none quite as remarkable as Paddy Mayne. Rugby international, commando and a founding father of the Special Air Service (SAS), Mayne was one of the most decorated Allied soldiers of the war, winning the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) four times, as well as the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’Honneur. But while his warrior exploits are comparatively well known, few people are aware that this extraordinary man was also a Freemason.
Robert Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne was born on 11 January 1915 in Newtownards in County Down, Ireland, and showed an early love and aptitude for sport. Excelling in many areas, Mayne not only became the Irish Universities Heavyweight Champion in August 1936, but was also capped playing rugby for Ireland six times, and in 1938 was selected to play for the British Isles Touring Party of South Africa.
Mayne was already a member of the Territorial Army when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and he soon received a commission in the Royal Artillery. In April 1940 he transferred to the Royal Ulster Rifles before volunteering for the newly formed No. 11 (Scottish) Commando, with whom he saw his first action, attacking Vichy French forces in Lebanon. For his courageous and clear-minded leadership, Mayne was mentioned in despatches. However, he soon lost interest in the Commando and in August 1941 joined a revolutionary new outfit that was being formed in North Africa by former Scots Guards officer David Stirling.
STUFF OF SCHOOLBOY LEGEND
The aim of this unit, known as L Detachment Special Air Service Brigade, was to operate behind enemy lines, obtain intelligence, disrupt Axis communication routes and attack enemy airfields. After some initial setbacks, Stirling struck upon the idea of utilising the well-established Long Range Desert Group to transport his force into action with heavily armed vehicles. It was an idea that would establish the new unit’s credibility, and later render them the stuff of schoolboy legend.
On 5 December 1941, Mayne helped to lead a successful attack on Tamet airfield near Sirte in Libya. The raiders destroyed fourteen enemy aircraft and damaged a further ten, and for his part in this audacious attack Mayne received his first DSO. But he did not rest on his laurels, and just three weeks later, as General Claude Auchinleck pushed Erwin Rommel’s forces back past Benghazi to Agedabia, Mayne and his men returned to the same airfield where they then destroyed a further twenty-seven planes.
Over the next fourteen months, as the North Africa campaign ebbed and flowed across the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian deserts, the SAS mercilessly harried German and Italian airfields, and it is estimated that they either destroyed or immobilised upwards of four hundred enemy aircraft. Mayne reportedly destroyed around one hundred aircraft himself – more than any fighter ace during the entire war – and, on occasion, even resorted to ripping out some of the cockpit controls with his bare hands.
CLIMBING THE RANKS
In January 1943, Stirling was captured by Axis forces in southern Tunisia and soon thereafter the 1st SAS Regiment was renamed the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS), with Mayne, now a major, in command. As the North Africa campaign drew to a close, the SRS went on to play a significant role in the Allied invasion of Sicily and on 9 July 1943, in an action somewhat reminiscent of the Hollywood film The Guns of Navarone, it attacked and destroyed two Italian coastal batteries at Capo Murro di Porco to help ease a path for the landing of General Montgomery’s Eighth Army. Two days later, the SRS also spearheaded the amphibious landings mounted at the ancient Sicilian port of Augusta, forty-seven kilometres north of the cliff-top battery they had just disabled, and for his part in this action Mayne received a first bar to his DSO.
In early September 1943, the SRS pushed on and mounted an attack at Bagnara Calabra in Calabria, helping to establish a bridgehead on the Italian mainland for the Allied advance. A month later they also helped to capture the town of Termoli, although at a terrible cost to the regiment.
This capture signalled an end to Mayne’s Italian campaign, and on his return to England the SRS was subsumed into a larger SAS Brigade, with Mayne as its lieutenant colonel. The main focus of the brigade was to support the Normandy landings, what we now know as ‘D-Day’, which eventually took place on 6 June 1944. In August 1944, Mayne was dropped by parachute into occupied France where, deep behind the lines, he harassed the enemy in his inimitable way and for his actions he was awarded a second bar to his DSO.
LIFE AFTER WAR
As the Allies pushed into Germany in the spring of 1945, Mayne and the SAS worked in conjunction with the 4th Canadian Armoured Division in the capture of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. It was during these closing days of the war that Mayne single-handedly rescued a squadron of his men after they became pinned down by heavy gunfire. The incident occurred near the German town of Oldenburg and, according to several sources, Mayne rescued his men by lifting them one by one into his jeep before despatching the German gunners in a nearby farmhouse. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross, which was personally endorsed by Field Marshal Montgomery, but it was controversially downgraded and instead Mayne received a third bar to his DSO – an act seen as a grave injustice by many.
On 27 March 1945, Eklektikos Lodge, No. 542 (IC), held a ballot for Mayne to be initiated as a Freemason. Accordingly, Mayne was initiated on 25 September 1945; the lodge records modestly give his vocation as ‘Army’. After bailing out of an expedition to the South Atlantic due to serious back problems, Mayne returned to Newtownards in 1946 where he received the second and third degrees on 28 May and 24 September, respectively. An enthusiastic Freemason, two years later he joined a second Newtownards lodge, Friendship Lodge, No. 447, and served as Worshipful Master of his mother lodge in 1954.
With his war years now firmly behind him and the SAS officially disbanded, Mayne tried to settle back into the routine of domestic life but with some difficulty. Physically, he was not the man he once was, and he suffered terribly with his back. However, an intelligent and sensitive man, Mayne took up gardening, found solace in books and he greatly loved Irish culture. He regularly propped up the local bars to enjoy singing, storytelling and poetry recitals, just as he had done with his men under the desert stars in wartime, but herein also lay his Achilles heel: he loved to party, often excessively.
On the night of Tuesday 13 December 1955, after attending a regular meeting of the Friendship Lodge, Mayne continued drinking with a masonic friend in the nearby town of Bangor, before finally making his way home in the small hours. However, he never reached his destination. At about 4am he was found dead in his wrecked red Riley Roadster in Mill Street, Newtownards, having reportedly collided with a farmer’s vehicle. News of his death reverberated across Northern Ireland and, at his funeral, hundreds of mourners turned out to pay their respects and to see him interred in a family plot in the town’s old Movilla cemetery.
Following his passing, his masonic jewel was preserved for many years by an old school friend, before it was eventually presented to Newtownards Borough Council where it can now be seen preserved in the Mayoral Chamber of the Council Offices.
We would like to thank the Mayne family, the SAS Regimental Association and all who helped in the preparation of this article
During the past year English and Scottish Freemasons have found themselves serving together in Iraq. Vern Littley, of Dormer Lodge, No. 7294, in Worcestershire, a Staff Sergeant with the Royal Artillery, based in Basra, has teamed up with Stuart (‘Connie’) Taggart and John McGlen, Scottish Freemasons, both of the Royal Artillery and Terry Wing, a Captain of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and a Master Mason of Lyndhurst Lodge, No. 8012, in Hampshire. Vern Littley is in charge of a 12-man detachment responsible for talking to the local population about their concerns and warn them about the dangers of unexploded ordnance and the importance of reporting any terrorist or suspicious activity to the local Iraqi Police and security forces. What made this friendship special was that between the four there were differences in rank and military experience and that these factors were not an issue.The majority of Vern’s duties have involved talking to the local population. He and his team have distributed thousands of leaflets and many goods promoting the new Iraqi emergency services. Products have ranged from small leaflets to carrier bags for children full of information leaflets, crayons, colouring books and other items of useful information helping to improve the local population’s safety and general awareness. However, because they were carrying ‘goodies’ the patrol has been mobbed by many a child shouting ‘Mister, mister give me pen, mister, mister give me dollar!’ as they distributed these and various other products.
During their tour they have briefly been able to visit the desecrated Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery located in Basra. The cemetery contains a memorial wall, commemorating 2,551 officers and soldiers killed during the First World War and a further 365 Second World War burials. Opposite the cemetery is the Basra Indian Forces Cemetery containing Indian forces burials from both World Wars. Sadly, both cemeteries have now been desecrated and what remains is neglect, smashed headstones and piles of rubbish. Their Iraqi interpreter tried vainly to place the pieces of a smashed headstone back together so that he could read the serviceman’s name and inscription.
At the Memorial to the missing, which bears the names of 40,500 members of the Commonwealth forces who died in Mesopotamia (Iraq) from the Autumn of 1914 to the end of August 1921, John McGlen, a renowned Piper, played the lament ‘Flowers of the Forest’ as a tribute.
Their time in Iraq has not passed without incident; they have had stones thrown at them and recently the vehicle Vern was travelling in was targeted by an explosive device on the outskirts of Basra, where luckily only one soldier received minor injuries and there was only superficial damage to the vehicle.
During their time in Iraq, their responsibilities have included providing training for the newly developing Iraqi Police Service and Iraqi Army, hoping that one day they will be able to take full control of the security of Iraq. Connie Taggart’s main duties were the issuing of weaponry and stores to these new organisations and the running of the Battery’s vehicle fleet, whereas John McGlen’s duties have included being the Regimental piper and vehicle top cover sentry duties during vehicle moves between military locations. Both have also been involved in the storage of confiscated weapons from warring Iraqi factions.
They all feel that during the last 6 months the British Army has made a positive contribution to a new and safer Iraq, and their fraternal interest has made made thelow points and other aspects of the tourgo easier. They hope that perhaps someone on the outside looking in on their masonic association may finally take ‘that first step’ now.