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Maxwell, Joseph (1896–1967)

by E. J. H. Howard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Joseph Maxwell (1896-1967), by unknown photographer

Joseph Maxwell (1896-1967), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P00171.002

Joseph Maxwell (1896-1967), often claimed as the second most decorated Australian soldier in World War I, was born on 10 February 1896 at Annandale, Sydney, son of John Maxwell, labourer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Stokes.

Employed as an apprentice boilermaker in Newcastle, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 8 February 1915. He was posted to the 18th Battalion and served at Gallipoli before proceeding with his battalion to France in March 1916. Promoted sergeant in October, he went to a training battalion in England, briefly returning to France in May 1917 before being sent back to attend an officer training school. Involved in a brawl with civil and military police in London, he was fined and returned to his unit. He was promoted warrant officer in August and appointed company sergeant major.

In September, during the 3rd battle of Ypres, Maxwell took command of a platoon after its officer had been killed and led it in the attack. Later he safely extricated men from a newly captured position under intense enemy fire. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and a few days later was commissioned in the field as second lieutenant; he was promoted lieutenant in January 1918. In March he led a scouting patrol east of Ploegsteert and after obtaining the required information ordered his men to withdraw. He was covering them when he saw a large party of Germans nearby. Recalling the patrol, he organized and led a successful attack, an action for which he was awarded the Military Cross.

In August, during the offensive near Rainecourt, Maxwell, the only officer in his company who was not a casualty, took command and, preceded by a tank, led his men into the attack on time. The tank received a direct hit and Maxwell, although shaken by the explosion, rescued the crew before the tank burst into flames. He continued the attack and the company reached its objective. He was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross.

Maxwell was awarded the Victoria Cross after an attack on the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line near Estrées on 3 October. After his company commander was wounded he took charge. Reaching the strong enemy wire under intense fire, he pushed forward alone through a narrow passageway in the wire and captured the most dangerous machine-gun, disposing of the crew. His company was thus able to penetrate the wire and take the objective. Shortly afterwards, again single-handed, he silenced a machine-gun holding up a flank company. Later, with two men and an English-speaking prisoner, he encouraged about twenty Germans in a nearby post to surrender, and in doing so was briefly captured himself. Awaiting his opportunity, he drew a pistol concealed in his respirator haversack, killed two of the enemy and escaped with his men under heavy rifle-fire. He then organized a party and captured the post.

In just over twelve months Maxwell was awarded the D.C.M., the M.C. and Bar and the V.C., and he was only 22 when the war ended. After returning to Australia in 1919 he worked in a variety of occupations in Sydney, Canberra and New South Wales country towns. On 14 February 1921, describing himself as a reporter, he married a 19-year-old tailoress, Mabel Maxwell (not a relative) at Bellevue Hill, Sydney, with Catholic rites. There was a daughter of the marriage which was dissolved in 1926 with his wife as petitioner.

In 1932, helped by Hugh Buggy, Maxwell published the very successful Hell's Bells and Mademoiselles, an account of the war as he saw it; at the time he was working as a gardener with the Department of the Interior in Canberra. His health was often very unstable. He attempted, unsuccessfully because of his age, to enlist in the 2nd A.I.F., but eventually succeeded in enlisting in Queensland under a false name; his identity was discovered and he was discharged. On 6 March 1956, stating that he was a journalist of Bondi, he married a widow Anne Martin, née Burton, in Sydney. In 1964, with his wife, he attended the opening of V.C. Corner in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. He was adamant that his V.C. would not end up there, as he took the view that 'lumping' all the V.C.s together cheapened the award.

On 6 July 1967 Maxwell collapsed and died of a heart attack in a street in his home suburb of Matraville; he had for some time been an invalid pensioner. After a service with military honours at St Matthias Anglican Church, Paddington, he was cremated. His widow donated his medals to the Army Museum, Victoria Barracks, Paddington.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Wigmore (ed) They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Sept, Nov 1932, July 1967
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Feb 1921, 7, 11, 31 July 1967
  • Wentworth Courier, 26 Sept 1979.

Citation details

E. J. H. Howard, 'Maxwell, Joseph (1896–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/maxwell-joseph-7534/text13141, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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