History | Hunter's almost forgotten hero | Mike Scanlon

ELEGY: John Ramsland's book on war hero Maxwell.

ELEGY: John Ramsland's book on war hero Maxwell.

WE seem to take Anzac Day heroes for granted. It’s easy to forget they were just ordinary people doing extraordinary deeds at great personal risk.

Take the case of Hunter Valley World War I hero Joe Maxwell (1896-1967), a winner of the Victoria Cross, the world’s most famous symbol of bravery.

The former Hexham boilermaker, Lieutenant Joseph Maxwell VC, MC and Bar, DCM (to give him his full military title), had his own demons, which haunted him despite his jovial front to the world.

A great soldier, master storyteller and later popular author, Maxwell was the second most highest decorated Australian solider of the First World War (1914-1918).

With Anzac Day fast approaching, let’s turn the spotlight on this almost forgotten Aussie soldier.

Any study of his war service prominently features his battlefield courage during an attack near Estrees, in France, in October 1918. It was this episode that won him the Victoria Cross.

With his commander wounded he took charge, capturing a dangerous machine-gun post under intense fire. Soon, again single-handed, he silenced a second machine gun, seized 20 prisoners, but was himself then captured.

Maxwell, using a concealed pistol, shot two of his captors and escaped with his men under heavy rifle-fire, then returned to capture the post. 

In 1919 Maxwell was invested with the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace. They were heady days. The veteran had won four gallantry awards in a little over 12 months.

But he was only 22 when the war ended, and this brilliant soldier later had trouble adjusting to peacetime.

There were hints early on to the strain he was living under when he sought solace in liquor. There was a wartime hotel brawl in London involving civil and military police. Then there was the reported stealing of a double-decker bus while on leave in wartime London. 

In 1932, long after WWI ended, Maxwell found fame again with the publication of his classic wartime memoirs, featuring his horrific memories of the Western Front, in his (now scarce) book Hell’s Bells and Mademoiselles. 

The book sold like hot cakes and made Joe Maxwell, the man with a jaunty smile and always a yarn, a national celebrity.

It’s easy to see why his exciting story grabbed the public’s attention. Few Aussie veterans could, or did, write about their painful experiences in the “vast open-air slaughterhouse” of WWI. But Maxwell did, and colourfully well.

Here’s a sample of how he felt being under enemy bombardment: “A flash blinds me. A terrific roar splits the air. A shell has landed almost in our bay. We are lost in a chaos of flying mud, flying bags, flying duckboards and barbed wire that twists in the air like mad serpents. Smoke, filth, confusion, racket! I spit and splutter and swear. A voice comes above the thump of falling sandbags. ‘Oh Christ! I think I’m flamin’ well dead’.”

And then there’s his laconic humour, like remembering the time Aussie general Birdwood visited the trenches and asked soldier Mick Clarke how is father was.

“My father is dead, sir,” he replied. Moving about the troops, Birdwood soon encountered Clarke again.

“How is your father?” the general absent-mindedly asked.

“He’s still dead, sir,” Clarke replied.

Years later, however, Maxwell could never duplicate the fame and success his best-seller brought.

In 1933, Maxwell was a defence witness in the trial of a former soldier accused of housebreaking.

Maxwell testified that the man, Jamieson, had been of good character but was poverty stricken and a victim of the Great Depression. It was not an uncommon story among ex-soldiers.

Three years before, in 1930, Maxwell himself had had a bitter, humiliating experience of being flung in Long Bay jail after being unable to pay maintenance arrears due to his divorced first-wife Mabel and young daughter Jean.

Probably traumatised by the experience, he didn’t remarry until 35 years after his brief first marriage.

Earlier, after his divorce, he’d become restless, changing jobs in Sydney, then Newcastle and constantly moving to places like Moree and Canberra, often working as a gardener or labourer.

In 1929, the Repatriation Department slashed his pension to a quarter of what it had recently been. So much for the once famous WWI slogan promising Australia after war’s end to be a “land fit for heroes”.

But in many ways, Joe Maxwell was a reluctant hero. At Gallipoli in 1915, in his baptism of fire, a scared Maxwell asked himself what on earth he was doing there.

Born at Glebe, in Sydney, Maxwell was educated at Gillieston Public School, near Maitland. Maxwell’s father had moved the family there to find work on the East Greta coalfields during the 1890s economic depression in Sydney.

Maxwell was working at J & A Brown’s Hexham Engineering Workshop when war was declared in August 1914. Management suddenly panicked, assuming the overseas coal trade and ship repair work was finished. The large Hexham works closed, throwing 250 men out of work.

As a direct result, Maxwell enlisted for war. The daily Army pay of nine shillings (90cents) was one shilling (10cents) better than being an apprentice boilermaker, anyway.  

Joe Maxwell might have stayed a mere mention in war histories except for John Ramsland, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle.

In 2012, Ramsland published an outstanding, long overdue biography of the decorated war hero called Venturing Into No Man’s Land, subtitled ‘The charmed life of Joseph Maxwell VC’, describing it as an elegy of mud, blood and darkness.

In his carefully researched tribute, Ramsland revealed Joe Maxwell had perfected a ‘devil-may-care’ public persona as a defence against anyone really knowing him and his deep feelings of sadness and loneliness. Mental depression hovered over him in the inter-war and post WWI years.

His life spiralled downwards despite his witty anecdotes spun at the bar as he regularly entertained his hard-drinking comrades of the time when they all had once entered the ‘mouth of hell’.

According to Ramsland, the remarkable Maxwell was haunted by many grim memories, including once helping bury hundreds of decaying corpses at Gallipoli.

Ramsland’s personal link with the restless Joe Maxwell stretches back from childhood, to the 1950s, when he went to help the war veteran stumbling his way home from a Manly pub.

Joe Maxwell was the only neighbourhood celebrity, but his eyes were bloodshot.

Then he spoke: “Never let the grog get you, son”.

Ramsland wrote that time eventually mellowed the sorrows and horrors of war for Maxwell. At one occasion in Canberra he stoutly defended the heavily criticised widow of another VC winner who said she needed to sell his medal. 

Maxwell argued that a Victoria Cross for valour was all very well, but “you couldn’t cut it up and feed your kids with it . . . you couldn’t eat it.”

The itinerant former soldier collapsed and died on a Sydney street in 1967. He was 71.

By then, besides probably suffering for decades from post-traumatic stress disorder, most of his original war medals, except his VC, had long disappeared.

Maxwell said he lost many when a motor launch capsized on Lake Macquarie in the 1920s.

Some years later he said he lost the rest of his war decorations in a Brisbane fire.    

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