John Maxwell (British Army officer)

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Sir John Maxwell
General Sir John Maxwell 1916.jpg
General Sir John Maxwell, 1916
Born(1859-07-11)11 July 1859
Liverpool, England
Died21 February 1929(1929-02-21) (aged 69)
Newlands, Cape Province, Union of South Africa
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service1866–1921
Commands heldNorthern Command
Commander-in-Chief, Ireland
British Troops in Egypt
14th Brigade
Battles/warsSecond Boer War
First World War
Easter Rising
AwardsKnight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George
Commander of the Royal Victorian Order
Distinguished Service Order
Mentioned in Despatches
Order of Osmanieh (Ottoman Empire)
Grand Cross of the Order of the Nile (Egypt)
Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown (Italy)
Knight of the Order of the White Eagle (Russia)

General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, GCB, KCMG, CVO, DSO (11 July 1859 – 21 February 1929) was a British Army officer and colonial governor. He served in the Mahdist War in the Sudan, the Second Boer War, and in the First World War. As military governor in Ireland, he played a key part in the response to the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, including ordering the execution of the leaders of the rising. He retired in 1922.

Early life[edit]

Maxwell was born in Aigburth, Liverpool, on 11 July 1859 to a family of Scottish Protestant heritage.[1] He attended school at Cheltenham College, studied at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, from 1878 and was commissioned into the 42nd foot (Royal Highlanders) in 1879.[2][3]

Military career[edit]

Maxwell served with the Black Watch in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, taking part in the storming of the Egyptian fortifications at Tel-El-Kabir and rising to the rank of captain. He was first mentioned in despatches as an assistant provost-marshal and camp commandant during the Nile Expedition of 1884–1885. He played an active role with the Egyptian frontier forces in the Sudan, and won a Distinguished Service Order in the engagement at Ginnis and was also present in the battle at Gemaizah in 1888 where he was made brevet lieutenant colonel. During the reconquest of Sudan he led the 2nd Egyptian Brigade, and was present at the 1898 Battles of the Atbara[4] and Omdurman, where he was among the first to enter the Khalifa's palace.[5] In 1897 he was appointed Governor of Nubia and in 1898 was appointed Governor of Omdurman.[6][7]

Boer War and First World War[edit]

Maxwell served in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899–1902). He departed Southampton in the SS Mexican in February 1900,[8] and arrived in Cape Town the following month to take up a staff appointment.[9] He commanded the 14th Brigade on Lord Roberts' march to Pretoria, and after the city's successful occupation served as Military Governor of Pretoria and the Western Transvaal from 1900 to March 1902, when he relinquished the office to allow for gradual extension of civilian rule.[10] As governor, he filled a difficult post "with great tact and ability ... gained the confidence and esteem of the general public" according to a contemporary news report.[10] After leaving Pretoria he held a command in the Western district, before returning to the United Kingdom in July 1902,[11] a month after the end of the war. In his final despatch from South Africa in June 1902, the Commander-in-Chief Lord Kitchener described Maxwell as an officer with "an energetic mind, and a sound judgment, which, coupled with his kindly and considerate disposition, have enabled him to render valuable service".[12] For his service in the war, he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in the April 1901 South African Honours list (the order was dated to 29 November 1900[13]) and a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 1902 Coronation Honours list,[14][15] and was invested to both orders after his return home, by King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace on 24 October 1902.[16]

After his return, Maxwell was in November 1902 appointed Chief Staff Officer of the Third Army Corps stationed in Ireland,[17] with promotion to the substantive rank of colonel but to hold the temporary rank of brigadier general on the Staff.[18] In August 1903 he was made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order for assisting with King Edward VII's 1903 visit to Ireland.[19] Maxwell accompanied the Duke of Connaught to Coburg for the coming-of-age celebrations of Charles Edward, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in July 1905, and in September 1906 visited Silesia to observe the maneuvers of the Imperial German Army before continuing on to Baden.[20] In September 1907 they visited Vienna to review the Duke's Austrian regiment, where he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Franz Joseph.[21]

He became General Officer Commanding British Troops in Egypt in 1908, and was deployed on the Western Front at the start of the First World War. Returning to his Egyptian Command in late 1914, he successfully held the Suez Canal against the Ottoman Raid on the Suez Canal.[22] In September 1915 General Godley at Gallipoli complained that too few of the recovered sick or wounded casualties from Gallipoli were being returned from Egypt, and Maxwell commented to Godley that "the appetite of the Dardanelles for men has been phenomenal and wicked".[23]

Easter Rising[edit]

After the Irish Easter Rising broke out on 24 April 1916, Martial law was declared for the city and county of Dublin by the Lord Lieutenant Lord Wimborne,[24] but the British government at the same time took measures to allow for the court martial of persons breaching the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), passed 8 August 1914.[25]

Maxwell arrived in Ireland on Friday 28 April as "military governor" with "plenary powers" under Martial law, replacing Lovick Friend as the primary British military commander in Ireland. He set about dealing with the rebellion under his understanding of Martial law. During the week of 2–9 May, Maxwell was in sole charge of trials and sentences by "field general court martial", in which trials were conducted in camera, without defence counsel or jury. He had 3,400 people arrested and 183 civilians tried, 90 of whom were sentenced to death. Fifteen were shot between 3 and 12 May.[26]

However, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and his government became concerned with the speed and secrecy of events, and intervened in order to stop more executions. In particular, there was concern that DORA regulations for general courts martial were not being applied. These regulations called for a full court of thirteen members, a professional judge, a legal advocate, and for the proceedings to be held in public, provisions which could have prevented some of the executions. Maxwell admitted in a report to Asquith in June that the impression that the leaders were killed in cold blood and without a trial had resulted in a "revulsion of feeling" that had emerged in favour of the rebels, and was the result of the confusion between applying DORA as opposed to Martial law (which Maxwell had actually pressed for from the beginning).[27] As a result, Maxwell had the remaining death sentences commuted to penal servitude. Although Asquith had promised to publish the court martial proceedings, the transcripts were not made public until 1999.[28]

Leaving for England later in 1916, this was Maxwell's last posting in Ireland.[29]


Memorial to General Sir John Maxwell and Louise Selina Maxwell in the crypt at York Minster

In 1916 Maxwell was assigned to be General Officer Commanding, Northern Command, at York.[30] He was promoted in June 1919 to full general and he retired in 1922. He died on 21 February 1929 and his memorial is in the crypt of York Minster.[31]

Personal life[edit]

Maxwell married in 1892 Louise Selina Bonynge, daughter of Charles Bonynge, and had one daughter.[32]

During his time in Egypt, Maxwell developed an interest in archaeology. He was a member of the Egypt Exploration Society, becoming its president after he retired from the army. Through the Society, Maxwell knew Lord Carnarvon and was an executor of his will.[33] In this capacity, Maxwell advised Lady Carnarvon on taking on her late husband's concession to excavate Tutankhamun's tomb, and advised both her and Howard Carter on the management of various legal disputes with the Egyptian authorities.[34]

Acknowledgements and remembrances[edit]

After 1916, the German medallist Walther Eberbach issued a satirical medal mocking Maxwell's handling of the Rising.[35]

On 16 March 1929, Maxwell's ashes were placed in the crypt in York Minster. His body was cremated in London but because he served as a general for the Northern Command at York, it was thought that York was the best resting place for the soldier. His ashes were placed in an urn, the urn was placed into a casket and the casket was placed into a bigger casket to act as a coffin. His ashes were taken by train from London to York and were escorted by military personnel to York Minster. The casket containing his ashes was placed in a cavity in the ground in front of the crypt altar. The ceremony was officiated by The Dean of York. This was the first time such a ceremony had taken place in York Minster.[36]

In May 2011 Maxwell's orders and medals were auctioned by Dixon Noonan Webb in London, they realising £26,000 to an unnamed bidder.[37]


  1. ^ Harvie, Christopher (2008). A floating commonwealth: politics, culture, and technology on Britain's Atlantic coast, 1860–1930. Oxford University Press. p. 243. ISBN 978-0-19-822783-0. Archived from the original on 26 June 2020. Retrieved 7 November 2016.
  2. ^ World War I: A – D., Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. 2005. p. 763. ISBN 978-1-85109-420-2. Archived from the original on 26 June 2020. Retrieved 7 November 2016.
  3. ^ Watteville, H. de . (2004). "Maxwell, Sir John Grenfell (1859–1929)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  4. ^ Churchill, Winston (1899). The River War Vol. II (1st ed.). London: Longmans, Green & Co. p. 425.
  5. ^ "Datelines". Finest Hour. No. 113. Churchill Centre. Winter 2001–2002. p. 5. Archived from the original on 19 September 2016. Retrieved 21 February 2021.
  6. ^ "Sir J. maxwell, soldier hero of Britain, dead". New York Herald Tribune (1926–1962). 22 February 1929. ProQuest 1111732962. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ "General Sir John Maxwell". The Irish Times. 14 July 1926. ProQuest 520905588.
  8. ^ "The War – Embarkation of Troops". The Times. No. 36075. London. 26 February 1900. p. 10.
  9. ^ "The War – Appointments". The Times. No. 36076. London. 27 February 1900. p. 7.
  10. ^ a b "Latest intelligence – The War – The Transvaal". The Times. No. 36720. London. 20 March 1902. p. 5.
  11. ^ "The Army in South Africa – Troops returning home". The Times. No. 36821. London. 16 July 1902. p. 11.
  12. ^ "No. 27459". The London Gazette. 29 July 1902. pp. 4835–4836.
  13. ^ "No. 27306". The London Gazette. 19 April 1901. pp. 2695–2696.
  14. ^ "No. 27448". The London Gazette (Supplement). 24 June 1902. p. 4196.
  15. ^ "The Coronation Honours". The Times. No. 36804. London. 26 June 1902. p. 5.
  16. ^ "Court Circular". The Times. No. 36908. London. 25 October 1902. p. 8.
  17. ^ "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times. No. 36866. London. 6 September 1902. p. 8.
  18. ^ "No. 27502". The London Gazette. 9 December 1902. p. 8512.
  19. ^ "No. 11540". The Edinburgh Gazette. 14 August 1903. p. 846.
  20. ^ "The nationally important group of Honours & Awards to General Sir John Maxwell". Dix Noonan Webb Ltd. Archived from the original on 10 April 2021. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  21. ^ "Ritter-Orden", Hof- und Staatshandbuch der Österreichisch-Ungarischen Monarchie, 1918, p. 264, archived from the original on 10 April 2021, retrieved 9 April 2021
  22. ^ "John Maxwell". First World War. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
  23. ^ Crawford, John; Buck, Matthew (2020). Phenomenal and Wicked: Attrition and Reinforcements in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli. Wellington: New Zealand Defence Force. ISBN 978-0-478-34812-5. pp83,111 "ebook". New Zealand Defence Force. 2020. Archived from the original on 8 August 2020. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
  24. ^ Hardiman, Adrian (2007). Shot in cold blood": Military law and Irish perceptions in the suppression of the 1916 Rebellion, in "1916, The Long Revolution". Mercier Press. p. 237. ISBN 978-1-85635-545-2.
  25. ^ Hardiman (2007), p. 225.
  26. ^ Hardiman (2007), pp. 225–226.
  27. ^ Hardiman (2007), pp. 240, 244.
  28. ^ "The secret court martial records of the Easter Rising". The History Press. Archived from the original on 26 April 2019. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  29. ^ "General Maxwell Dies at Cape Town". The New York Times. 22 February 1929. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
  30. ^ Princeton University Archived 6 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ "Why is Sir John Maxwell interred at York Minster?". 19 April 2016. Archived from the original on 10 September 2018. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  32. ^ "General, Sir John Grenfell Maxwell PC GCB KCMG CVO DSO 1859-1929". Maxwell Society. Archived from the original on 25 February 2021. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  33. ^ Winstone, H.V.F. (2006). Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, Pages 116; 171; 203.. Barzan, Manchester. ISBN 1-905521-04-9. OCLC 828501310. Archived from the original on 8 November 2020. Retrieved 21 February 2021.
  34. ^ Winstone, H.V.F. (2006). Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, Pages 216, 235; 257.. Barzan, Manchester. ISBN 1-905521-04-9. OCLC 828501310. Archived from the original on 8 November 2020. Retrieved 21 February 2021.
  35. ^ "Description of the medal". Numismatics. Archived from the original on 23 September 2021. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  36. ^ "Sir John Maxwell". The Manchester Guardian. 16 March 1929. Archived from the original on 23 September 2021. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
  37. ^ "Medals of General who suppressed 1916 rising sold". The Irish Times. 28 May 2011. Archived from the original on 23 September 2021. Retrieved 27 June 2015.

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by General Officer Commanding the British Troops in Egypt
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Julian Byng
General Officer Commanding the British Troops in Egypt
Succeeded by
Preceded by Commander-in-Chief, Ireland
April 1916 – November 1916
Succeeded by
Preceded by GOC-in-C Northern Command
Succeeded by