John Maxwell (British Army officer)

Sir John Maxwell

Staff officers at Sir John Maxwell's Headquarters: Maxwell is on the right
Born (1859-07-11)11 July 1859
Liverpool, England
Died 21 February 1929(1929-02-21) (aged 69)
Newlands, South Africa
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service 1879–1922
Rank General
Commands held Northern Command
Commander-in-Chief, Ireland
British Troops in Egypt
14th Brigade
Battles/wars Mahdist War
Second Boer War
First World War
Awards Knight 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)
Grand Cross Order of the Order of the White Eagle (Russia)

General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, GCB, KCMG, CVO, DSO, PC (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, but he is best known for ordering the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. He retired in 1922.

Early life

Maxwell was born at 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

In 1882 Maxwell was part of Wolseley's expeditionary force to Egypt, he rose to captaincy and served with the famous Black Watch in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882. For his part in the storming of the rebel fortifications at Tel-El-Kabir, he won his first decoration, medal and Khedive's star. He was first mentioned in despatches as an assistant provost-marshal and as camp commandant during his campaign with the Nile expedition in 1884 and 1885. He played an active role with the Egyptian frontier forces and won a Distinguished Service Order in the engagement at Giniss, he was also present in the battle at Bemazaih in 1888 where he was made brevet lieutenant colonel. He served in the Battle of Omdurman leading the 2nd Brigade. He personally led the march on the Khalifa's palace. In 1897 he was appointed Governor of Nubia and in 1898 was appointed Governor of Omdurman.[4][5]

Boer War and First World War

Maxwell served during the Second Boer War (1899–1902) where he commanded the 14th Brigade on Lord Roberts' march to Pretoria. He was appointed Military Governor of Pretoria and the Western Transvaal in 1900, and served as such until March 1902, when he relinquished the office to allow for gradual extension of civilian rule.[6] As governor he filled a difficult post "with great tact and ability ... gained the confidence and esteem of the general public".[6] He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) and a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for his services in South Africa,[7] and returned to the United Kingdom in July 1902,[8] following the end of the war two months earlier. Maxwell served at army headquarters at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham from 1902 to 1904.[9] He became General Officer Commanding British Troops in Egypt in 1908 and was then deployed on the Western Front in the First World War until he returned to his role as General Officer Commanding British Troops in Egypt in late 1914 and, in that capacity, successfully held the Suez Canal against the Ottoman Raid on the Suez Canal.[10]

Easter Rising

Maxwell is best known for his controversial handling of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. After it broke out on 24 April 1916, Martial law was declared for the city and county of Dublin by the Lord Lieutenant Lord Wimborne,[11] 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.[12]

Maxwell arrived in Ireland on Friday 28 April as "military governor" with "plenary powers" under Martial law. Afterwards he set about dealing with the rebellion under his understanding of Martial law. During the week 2–9 May, Maxwell was in sole charge of trials and sentences by "field general court martial", which was trial without defence or jury and in camera. He had 3,400 people arrested, 183 civilians tried, 90 of whom were sentenced to death. Fifteen were shot between 3 and 12 May.[13]

Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and his government became concerned at the speed and secrecy of events before intervening to stop more executions. In particular, there was concern that DORA regulations for general courts martial were not applied. These regulations called for a full court of thirteen members, a professional judge, legal advocate and being held in public, which could have prevented some executions. Maxwell admitted in a report to Asquith in June that the impression that the leaders were killed in cold blood without trial had resulted in a ‘revulsion of feeling‘ that had set in, in favour of the rebels, and was the result of the confusion between applying DORA as opposed to Martial law (which Maxwell actually pressed for himself from the beginning).[14] Although Asquith promised to publish the court martial proceedings, they were not published until the 1990s.


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-in-Chief for Northern Command at York.[15] 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.

Location during Irish events

During most of the key events in Irish history, Maxwell was abroad at war. In Ireland in 1902, the UK Liberal Party stopped its support for home rule. During this time, Maxwell was serving in Egypt as chief staff officer and in 1908 he was made the commander of the force in Egypt. He was a key part in the 1916 rising in Ireland as he commanded the British Troops in Ireland during the Easter Rebellion. In 1919, the War of Independence took place. During this time, Maxwell was serving in Britain and was made the full general for Northern Command at York. [16]

Acknowledgements and remembrances

At the same time that Queen Elizabeth II was in Dublin in 2011 attending a ceremony honouring those who died fighting for Irish independence, the medals of Maxwell were being auctioned off in London. Maxwell's honours and awards realised £26,000 to an unnamed bidder at Dixon Noonan Webb auctioneers in Mayfair. The collection included all of Maxwell's major medals from his time serving in the Battle of Omdurman in Sudan, the Boer War in South Africa and his time commanding British Troops in Egypt during the First World War. It also included his award for helping with King Edward VII's royal visit to Ireland in 1903, where he was appointed a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.[17]

On 16 March 1929, Maxwell's ashes were placed in the crypt in York Minster, right in front of the altar. 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 right in front of the crypt altar. The ceremony was officiated by The Dean of York. This was the first time that such a ceremony had taken place in York Minster.[18]


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


  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.
  2. World War I: A – D., Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. 2005. p. 763. ISBN 978-1-85109-420-2.
  3. Watteville, H. de . (2004). "Maxwell, Sir John Grenfell (1859–1929)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 6 September 2015. (subscription required (help)).
  4. "Sir J. maxwell, soldier hero of britain, dead". New York Herald Tribune (1926–1962). 22 February 1929. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
  5. "General Sir John Maxwell". The Irish Times. 14 July 1926. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
  6. 1 2 "Latest intelligence – The War – The Transvaal". The Times (36720). London. 20 March 1902. p. 5.
  7. The London Gazette: no. 27306. p. 2695. 19 April 1901.
  8. "The Army in South Africa - Troops returning home". The Times (36821). London. 16 July 1902. p. 11.
  9. General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell,
  10. "John Maxwell". First World War. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
  11. 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.
  12. Hardiman (2007), p. 225.
  13. Hardiman (2007), pp. 225–226.
  14. Hardiman (2007), pp. 240, 244.
  15. Princeton University
  16. "General Maxwell Dies at Cape Town". The New York Times. 22 February 1929. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
  17. "Medals of General who suppressed 1916 rising sold". The Irish Times. 28 May 2011. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
  18. "Sir John Maxwell". The Manchester Guardian. 16 March 1929. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to John Maxwell (British Army officer).
Military offices
Preceded by
George Bullock
General Officer Commanding the British Troops in Egypt
Succeeded by
Julian Byng
Preceded by
Julian Byng
General Officer Commanding the British Troops in Egypt
Succeeded by
Sir Charles Monro
Preceded by
Sir Lovick Friend
Commander-in-Chief, Ireland
April 1916 – November 1916
Succeeded by
Sir Bryan Mahon
Preceded by
Sir Henry Lawson
GOC-in-C Northern Command
Succeeded by
Sir Ivor Maxse
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