Review by Ian C. Purdie
Joe Maxwell's rivetting, yet always entertaining book "Hells Bells and Mademoiselles". Written in 1932, how the "hell" does any reviewer do justice to a book of this calibre? Pun intended but read on and see what I mean.
Joe Maxwell V.C., M.C. and bar, D.C.M. was a true living legend in his own time, for a very young man that is. Exceptional in fact.
Not simply a legend over a long and fruitful lifetime as most legends usually become, although I'm certain Joe certainly added much further to his life after his return from WW1. Writing this book alone must be considered further accomplishment. I'm speaking of a man who rose to greatness by the time he was only 22 years of age, greatness which no doubt was imposed by the circumstances of the day.
"Hells Bells and Mademoiselles" is Joe's quite candid and, often hilariously funny account of his experiences between 1915 - 1919. My copy of this book [Angus & Robertson, 4th edition - 1936], was lent to me by my friend Jean Willet who also happens to be Joe's daughter. This book, as has Joe's medals, is destined for repository in the Australian War Memorial
I have completed this review for no other reason than simply because there is absolutely nothing in the public domain on the internet to record "Hells Bells and Mademoiselles" and its precious contents. Indeed there is little record of Joe himself beyond stark facts available from public documents and records, certainly nothing revealing the inner man himself.
It would be a great tragedy if this information were not available to future Australian students researching Gallipoli, the Western Front and Australia's role during WW1
For this sole reason I will be quoting extensively from the book. Hopefully founding a public record for future students and other interested parties. I do this in the belief the original copyright has expired by 2004.
To me falls the responsibility to do justice to a fine Australian and in particular his record of his personal life between the period between 1915 - 1919. May I do justice to Joe's work and justify the faith Jean seems to have in me.
An excellent and logical starting point must be the foreword [in entirety] by Lt. Col. G.F. Murphy, C.M.G., D.S.O.
My reasoning in so doing is that Joe never really mentions himself in a real context throughout the book. As Lt. Col. Murphy himself correctly observes: "Lieutenant Maxwell has said little of his own exploits". Joe simply relates in a much understated way his role in many actions. This does him no justice at all. His first reference to his Victoria Cross is toward the end of the book: "On Christmas Eve I was agreeably surprised to learn that I had been awarded the Victoria Cross".
Lt. Col. G.F. Murphy indeed puts a great deal more of our man into a much proper perspective.
Lieutenant Joe Maxwell has asked me to write a Forward to his war reminiscences. After reading them, I feel they need no introduction. But, with commendable modesty, Lieutenant Maxwell has said little of his own exploits. It gives me great pleasure, therefore, to seize this opportunity of introducing Joe Maxwell to his readers.
Joseph Maxwell joined the 18th Battalion in Sydney on 6 February, 1915, and embarked on the s.s. Ceramic on 25th June the same year. He held various non-commissioned ranks from lance-corporal to company sergeant-major until on 29 September, 1917 he was given a commission as 2nd Lieutenant. He returned to Australia after the Armistice.
Joe is a queer mixture. He had been brought up in a very hard school, and well able to take care of himself in a rough and tumble. As a non-commissioned officer he frequently took what to him the "easier way" of ensuring that his orders were obeyed. I cannot recall any instance where I, as Commanding Officer, had to adjudicate on any charge laid by Maxwell. The difference of opinion was invariably settled on the spot.
In these pages he has openly confessed that he was more than a handful "behind the line". In the presence of the enemy, however, he became a different personage. On the several occasions that I accompanied him on patrol, I marked an utter change the moment he stepped over the sandbags into No Man's Land. I had an uncanny feeling of being accompanied by a descendant of the Redskins of North America. To Maxwell, patrolling No Man's Land was a chess problem; he balanced the objective to be attained against the risks to be run, and as the scales tipped so he acted. When the situation demanded he was reckless with his own life, but never of those under his command
Back over the sandbags into our own territory he was again the devil-may-care, happy-go-lucky fellow depicted in this book.
I well remember one occasion when a number of newly-joined men were creating a disturbance in an estaminet. Maxwell was the orderly sergeant. They had heard of Maxwell and were ready to try conclusions with him. Without enlightening the sergeant, I instructed him to proceed to the estaminet to see whether he could he could induce the noisy ones to depart without the necessity of calling out the picket. Then I stood afar off to witness developments. Maxwell's quietly voiced request for all to leave the estaminet was greeted with derisive laughter. One asked the sergeant's name, and immediately led an attack upon him. Then there was one of the finest scraps that was ever been my lot to witness. Within a few minutes, five of the burliest were sorrowfully making their way from the middle of the adjacent midden. The remainder evacuated the estaminet without further instructions. Sergeant Maxwell reported to me at the orderly room some minutes later that the disturbance had ceased. To my query as to whether any opposition had been offered to his orders he replied: "Oh, nothing much".
On another occasion several men of the battalion decided that one or the other of the towns behind the Ypres salient would offer more attractions than a certain "hop over". Maxwell was instructed by me to round these men up, and see they took part in the attack. He collected several of them some three or four miles behind the line, and added to these several from other battalions. They filed past me, along the duckboards at early doors, Maxwell bringing up the rear with a pickaxe handle in his hand. I do not know whether he had ever read McGlusky, but he certainly "reformed" that little band. Whenever a shell whistled unpleasantly close, and one showed a disposition to duck, the pickaxe handle reminded him of Maxwell's threat to the one who ducked, unless Maxwell himself set the example.
On 20 September 1917, the Australians took Anzac Ridge and went on towards Zobbebeke. Maxwell then a company sergeant-major, took command of a platoon, the officer having been killed, and led them forward to the attack. At a later hour, seeing one of our newly-formed posts under very heavy artillery fire, he dashed in and moved men to a safer position. I witnessed the episode and, undoubtedly Maxwell saved the lives of the men there. For this, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
In the early morning of 3 March 1918, he was on patrol just east of Plougstreet. He had obtained information and ordered his patrol to withdraw. Although no enemy had been seen he followed the usual custom of remaining with three others to form a covering party. The main body had almost reached our line, when a party of some thirty Germans was observed some sixty yards off. Maxwell immediately recalled his patrol, organized them for assault, and led them forward. The enemy took shelter in an old trench; they were attacked by our patrol with rifles and bombs, and the position was then rushed. The enemy at once evacuated, leaving four of their comrades-one wounded and three dead-in the trench. For his conduct on this occasion Maxwell was awarded the Miliary Cross.
On 9 August of the same year, east of Amiens, the battalion was drawn up ready for attack. Maxwell, the junior officer of his company, saw all his brother officers wounded or killed a few moments before the attack was launched. He assumed command, and under a hail of machine-gun fire led his men forward. His company was preceded by a tank, and as it was heading for their objective Maxwell and his men followed closely in the rear. The tank came under fire from an anti-aircraft gun and a battery of 77 mm's. A shell hit the tank and put it out of action. Although Maxwell, who was close by, was badly shaken by the explosion, he at once rushed to the doors and opened them to allow the crew to escape. During the whole time the tank was the target of heavy fire from the battery, and burst into flames as Maxwell opened the door. The tank commander was assisted back by Maxwell for some distance. Maxwell then returned to his company and consolidated the position under extremely heavy machine-gun fire. For this action he was awarded a Bar to the Military Cross.
On 3 October 1918, an attack was launched upon the Beaurevoir Fonsomme line near Estrees. His company commander was severely wounded as the men moved off, and Maxwell took command. When the enemy wire was reached it was found to be of exceptional thickness. A hail of machine-gun fire caused numerous casualties amongst the company, and all the officers, with the exception of Maxwell were put out of action. The wire at this point was six belts thick, each belt being from twenty to twenty-five feet wide. Narrow passageways through the wire were protected by machine-guns. Maxwell rushed forward, single-handed, through the wire and attacked the most dangerous machine-gun. He killed three of the crew, and the four remaining Germans surrendered to him with the machine-gun. His company then made their way through the wire and captured the system on that sector.
Shortly after, it was noticed that the company on his left was held up in the wire by a very strong force on the left flank of the battalion. He at once organized a party and moved over to attack the enemy from the rear. His party was met with heavy machine-gun fire. Again Maxwell dashed forward, single-handed, at the foremost machine-gun and, at a few yards range, shot with his revolver five of the crew and silenced the gun. An English-speaking prisoner had stated that the remainder of his company were willing to surrender. Maxwell with two men and the prisoner walked over to the post containing some thirty Germans. Maxwell and his party were at once seized and disarmed. Maxwell waited his opportunity, and with an automatic pistol he had concealed in his box respirator, shot two of the enemy, and with his two men escaped under heavy rifle fire. One of the men was wounded, but Maxwell brought him in. He then organized a small party and attacked and captured the post.
For his conduct over this period, marked as it was by outstanding personal bravery, tempered with excellent judgement and fine leadership, Maxwell was awarded the Victoria Cross.
It was men such as these who formed the A.I.F.
Geo. F. Murphy.
19 August, 1932.
Here Joe, in part, wryly observes: "In 1932 one sees the futility of 1914-18; the insane folly that costs millions of lives and disorganized the whole world. Yet behind the sense of uselessness lurks that peculiar fascination of war". Joe proceeds by saying: "Back through the years of disillusion flashes to the mind some cameo of heroism, some epic of self-sacrifice, and the constant expression of good-fellowship that illuminated those red pages..."
Now in 2004, one is hard pressed to imagine if the world really ever really learned anything from the "War to end Wars" given history since then.
Joe goes on to say:
"Out of the wreckage emerges nothing finer than the memory of that splendid comradeship of the troops".
"I wish to make it clear that I did not keep a diary. Here will be found simply a synopsis of my life as a soldier. I have tried to breathe life again into those thousand and one little vignettes of heroism, self-sacrifice, and resolution that I saw around me those years. I have tried to recapture, if possible, the flitting scenes, both at the front and during those periods of leave, when we relaxed, perhaps recklessly, always reckoning against the time which seemed destined to come to all of us when we would go on a last long 'leave'".
Against those background words Joe Maxwell, an 18 year old youth, on 5th February, 1915 enters Liverpool Camp situated on the outskirts of Sydney, a raw recruit. Joe candidly admits he wasn't motivated by patriotism, flag waving, save the empire or any other jingoism's of those days.
Simply, in Joe's words: "As an apprentice I earned the munificent sum of eight shillings a week. Behind all the glamour and the hysteria of those days one of the big lures the war held out for me was the six shillings a day paid to the Diggers. I confess candidly that this pay, which to my youthful mind represented 'the wealth of the Indies', prompted me more than motives of patriotism".
I have heard those words, in many forms, many times from different fellows, and from different wars. Even my own father who signed up in the R.A.N. as a boy in 1916 said much the same thing. They always often omitted to mention the subtle draw of the prospects of adventure, especially if you were a country boy. Such are Australians.
So here's Joe in Liverpool Camp "as a recruit, filled with as many illusions about war and soldiers as ever fluttered in the minds of adventurers in fiction". Nineteen were allotted to one tent, including "dead-beats, out-of-works, and hard citizens of Sydney" according to Joe Maxwell.
Here Joe learns life among men, in a crowded tent which years later when living in the foetid trenches seemed, in retrospect, a veritable palace, yet for the moment was horror. On his first night, "delicate qualms beset the mind, at two o'clock in the morning I stepped over the blanket hillocks and walked under the waning stars". Too scared to return, for fear of stepping on someone and upsetting them in a disagreeable way, Joe decided he would "wander aimlessly about the grey and silent camp till the reveille bugle".
Joe doesn't fail to mention, "I was 'green', I admit I was horribly green. So in those early days, I was imposed on by the older hands, the grim-jawed crew who knew the ropes". Here Joe meets up with "Bill Murray", a hard-bitten, outback man of large physical appearance who becomes Joe's self-appointed "guide, philosopher and friend". A man of destiny.
Bill Murray after a month in camp with all the drudgery, collects his first pay and develops "a terrible thirst". When he "steers unsteadily back into camp in the truculent mood of a man who longs for someone to dispute the right of the road with him". Bill encounters an officer, throws a swing and is thrown out of the army the next day.
A week later, among a new batch of recruits, filled with the same illusions as Joe had, one of them bellows: "Now, men, I do not expect you to know everything, but when I was a corporal..."
"It was Bill. He had re-enlisted under a new name. Two years later I ran across him in France. He wore the ribbon of the Military Medal. But he was again a private" writes Joe.
Arrival in "Egypt!" exclaims Joe, the reader can only begin to imagine what the impact of a far off exotic land might have on an impressionable Australian youth. Again Joe recalls disillusion. "But once again my mental pictures were shattered; once again came disillusion. Scented, sensuous nights on the Nile... became a stifling heat that stewed the brain... desert dust... and the flame that poured from the sun and made men mad".
To be continued...
Another small biography of Joe Maxwell VC
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