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
There is no mention of Freemasonry in the Oscar-winning film about King George VI. Paul Hooley puts us right
The King’s Speech has been critically acclaimed as one of the finest motion pictures of recent years and has renewed the public’s interest in, and aff ection for, King George VI, who reigned from 1936 to 1952.
The film, which chronicles the constitutional crisis created by Edward VIII’s abdication and George’s struggle to overcome his pronounced stammer, focuses on the moving relationship between the King and speech therapist Lionel Logue, which had such a happy ending.
What the film does not mention, however, is that both men were members of the Craft; or that the King believed Freemasonry had also helped him overcome his disability – which rarely surfaced whenever he performed masonic ritual. Logue, who had been the Master of St George’s Lodge, Western Australia, was also speech therapist to the Royal Masonic School.
KING GEORGE'S LOVE OF FREEMASONRY
Following service with the Royal Navy in the First World War, he was initiated in December 1919 into Navy Lodge, No. 2612, of which his grandfather King Edward VII had been founding Master. On that occasion he noted: ‘I have always wished to become a Freemason, but owing to the war I have had no opportunity before this of joining the Craft’. From that moment he became a most dedicated and active Freemason. He was invested as Duke of York in 1920 and the following year installed as permanent Master of Navy Lodge. He joined other lodges and degrees and was appointed Senior Grand Warden of the United Grand Lodge in 1923.
George V died in January 1936 and was succeeded by his eldest son Edward, who had been initiated (also in 1919) into the Household Brigade Lodge, No. 2614. But before the year was out Edward had abdicated. Of the moment of change King George VI wrote, ‘On entering the room I bowed to him as King… when [he] and I said goodbye we kissed, parted as Freemasons and he bowed to me as his King.’
Protocol required George to resign his masonic affiliations, however when it was suggested a new position of Past Grand Master be created especially for him, he immediately accepted, declaring, ‘Today the pinnacle of my masonic life has been reached.’
THE VICTORY STAMPS
After the Second World War, King George wrote that ‘Freemasonry has been one of the strongest influences on my life’ and in collaboration with engraver Reynolds Stone helped create a postage stamp, part of the ‘1946 Victory Issue,’ which is filled with masonic symbolism.
The 3d Victory Stamp was widely praised for the ‘strength and simplicity of the design’. It depicts the King’s head in the East, his eyes firmly fixed on illustrations of a dove carrying an olive branch (representing peace and guidance), the square and compasses (in the second degree configuration) and a trowel and bricks (the sign of a Master spreading the cement that binds mankind in brotherly love).
On the stamp the images appear in white, the colour of purity, out of purple, the colour of divinity. the three coupled illustrations are surrounded by a scrolled ribbon made up of five figure threes – sacred numbers in Freemasonry – and was the unusual positioning of the wording meant to represent two great pillars? By its name and intention, the stamp proclaimed victory over evil, yet by its appearance it expressed compassion and hope.
King George VI once stated, ‘ the world today does require spiritual and moral regeneration. I have no doubt, after many years as a member of our Order, that Freemasonry can play a most important part in this vital need.’
The Victory Stamp captured those words in a graphic representation that also expressed the King’s belief that the building of a new and better world could best be achieved by adhering to the principles of the square and compasses.
He reinforced those thoughts in 1948 in an address he gave to Grand Lodge: ‘I believe that a determination to maintain the values which have been the rock upon which the masonic structure has stood firm against the storms of the past is the only policy which can be pursued in the future. I think that warning needs emphasising today, when men, sometimes swayed by sentimentality or an indiscriminate tolerance, are apt to overlook the lessons of the past. I cannot better impress this upon you than by quoting from the book on which we have all taken our masonic obligations: “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set".