Joseph Maxwell was born in a house recorded as 268 Hereford Street Forest Lodge on Monday 10 February 1896, to labourer John Maxwell and his wife Elizabeth. Joe was the youngest of five surviving children and had one older brother and three older sisters. John and Elizabeth lost their first-born son in his infancy.
Joseph Maxwell was an apprentice boilermaker when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 8 February 1915 and, like many other volunteers of the time, the prospect of better pay attracted him. Joe had spent three years in the army cadets and a further two years in the Citizen Military Forces so when he arrived at Liverpool for his basic training it wasn’t long before his experience had him promoted to Lance Corporal. On 25 May 1915 he was assigned to B Company of the 18th Battalion that sailed to Egypt aboard HMAT Ceramic. After the battalion trained in Egypt for about two months they proceeded to Gallipoli and landed at Anzac Cove on 22 August. The Battalion fought its first battle on the day of arrival. It lasted for seven days and the Battalion suffered almost half of their number as casualties. Joe acted as a stretcher-bearer for some of this time. He was admitted to hospital on 2 December 1915 and evacuated from Gallipoli suffering from jaundice.
Joe Maxwell rejoined the 18th Battalion in Egypt on 5 January 1916 and arrived with them at Marseilles but was admitted to 7th Field and then 3rd Canadian General Hospital following wounds sustained in battle. Joe was reduced to the ranks following a minor absence transgression in May of that year but was later promoted to Sergeant following his involvement in the Battle of Pozieres in October. He was again hospitalised in November 1916 suffering from synovitis of the right knee and after a short stay was posted to a training battalion
in England where he stayed for five months. Joe rejoined the 18th Battalion in France in May 1917 and was shortly thereafter nominated for officer training back in England. He was only back in England for a brief period when he was charged by the military police for being involved in a boisterous party. He was fined ₤20 and sent back to his unit in France.
Commissioned in the field as a Second Lieutenant in September 1917, Maxwell took part in the battles around Poelcappelle, Belgium the following month and he quickly earned promotion to full Lieutenant in January 1918. On 8 March 1918 Joe Maxwell commanded a scouting patrol that was operating to the east of Ploegsteert and was ordered to withdraw the patrol. He and three of his men were covering the withdrawal when he noticed about thirty Germans nearby so he recalled the patrol and led an attack against the German party who were sheltering in an old trench. The Germans subsequently withdrew after losing casualties and a POW. Joe Maxwell’s Military Cross was awarded as a result of the encounter and was followed within days by the award of the bar to the MC.
These were not the first bravery medals awarded to Joe Maxwell nor would they be the last. Joe was a Warrant Officer in September 1917 when he was involved in an action near Westhoek during the third Battle of Ypres where he performed deeds that earned him the Distinguished Conduct Medal. During the battle his platoon commander was killed and Maxwell took command and led the platoon into attack. Noticing that one of the newly captured positions was under heavy fire he led the men to a safer and more tactically secure position thus minimising possible casualties.
The award of the Victoria Cross, regarded as the highest military bravery award, was to follow and his citation reads:
For most conspicuous bravery and leadership in attack on Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line near Estrees, north of St. Quentin, on 3rd October 1918. His company commander was severely wounded early in the advance and Lieutenant Maxwell at once took charge. The enemy wire when reached under intense fire was found to be exceptionally strong and closely supported by machine guns, whereupon Lieutenant Maxwell pushed forward single handed through the wire and captured the most dangerous gun, killing three and capturing four enemy. He thus enabled his company to penetrate the wire and reach their objective. Later, he again pushed forward and silenced, single handed, a gun which was holding up a flank company.
Subsequently, when with only two men he attempted to capture a strong party of the enemy, he handled a most involved situation very skilfully, and it was due to his resource that he and his comrades escaped. Throughout the day Lieutenant Maxwell set a high example of personal bravery, coupled with excellent judgement and quick decision.
(London Gazette, 6 January 1919)
After being discharged from the army in August 1919 Joe worked as a gardener in Canberra, Moree and Maitland before moving back to Sydney where in 1921 he married Mabel Maxwell (unrelated). The marriage ended in 1926 but not before producing a daughter they called Jean.
Joe attempted to join the services again in 1940 but because of his age and worsening health he was rejected in Sydney so he moved to Warwick in Queensland. In June that year, he used the alias Joseph Wells and even named his next of kin as Elizabeth Wells, supposedly his mother. He was listed for a position with the 7th Cavalry Division but by September his identity was discovered and he was discharged.
Joe was certainly one of the most decorated soldiers in the AIF, and possibly the bravest, depending on the interpretation of ranking of gallantry medals awarded. Ask an infantryman and I’m sure they will tell you that this brave Glebe born boy was the bravest of them all.
Joseph Maxwell died of a heart attack near his home at Matraville in July 1967 at the age of 71. His second wife,
Anne, presented his medals to the Army Museum at Victoria Barracks which subsequently presented them to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra in 2003.