Guildford soldier recounts the horrors of the Somme

Major Francis Maxwell VC, c1912
Major Francis Maxwell VC, c1912

The National Army Museum is publishing the account of Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Maxwell VC in which he reveals the difficulties faced by commanders during the Battle of the Somme, and how they had to adapt to new weapons on the battlefield.

For many, the attritional struggle on the Somme exemplified futile slaughter and military incompetence. These views ignore the fact that the Somme was a tough lesson for an inexperienced army in how to fight a modern war against a skilled and experienced enemy. A good example of this was the capture of Thiepval on 26 September 1916, in which Maxwell played a leading role.

The Allies had first tried to capture Thiepval on 1 July 1916 and the fight for the town continued over the next three months. On 26 September, four British and Canadian divisions attacked Thiepval again. The troops were supported by six tanks, weapons that had made their debut on the Somme just days before. Maxwell described the scene, 'it is not possible to describe the sight except that it looks like heavy monsoon clouds filled with thousands of fire bursts and the air is rent with the roar of guns and the burst of shells'.

After a three-day bombardment that cut wire barricades, the attack began in the early afternoon. 18th (Eastern) Division advanced, including a battalion under Maxwell’s command, fighting its way through the village across 'the most awful country that human beings ever saw or dreamt of' to be held by machine gun fire. Two hours later, a tank moved forward and fired into the German entrenchments, before breaking down. A trench mortar was then brought forward to continue the work. Finally, after vicious hand-to-hand fighting, the British gained control of most of Thiepval.

Losses amongst officers meant that Maxwell eventually found himself leading four different battalions, 'as regards officers I have, of the 20 who went over, nine killed, seven wounded and four (including myself) untouched…I lost all my regimental staff, with three officers and regimental sergeant major killed'.

Maxwell had always been a brave and resourceful officer having been awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the Boer War, but his Somme experiences turned him into one of the finest combat officers of the war. He was particularly concerned with the need for the infantry and the tanks to better co-ordinate their efforts so that the tanks were not following, and running over, the men. He also realised that often those giving orders had little idea of what was happening on the field due to lack of telephone lines while 'by lamp it is laborious' and there was a danger that 'the enemy should see the replying lamp'.

Dr Peter Johnson, Head of Collections Development and Review at the National Army Museum said:

'Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Maxwell’s accounts of the capture of Thiepval show how much of a learning curve the Battle of the Somme was for the Allied Forces. With the introduction of new weapons such as tanks, trench mortars and grenades the way that war was fought had to adapt and change quickly during a period of great loss of life. Maxwell raised many of these key issues facing the Army whilst finding solutions on the battlefield.'

Soldiers began to fight in smaller units, with riflemen working closely with those using the new weapons and artillery tactics improved, with creeping barrages offering closer support to advancing infantry. The tactics Maxwell and others developed on the Somme helped lay the foundations of the Allies’ successful attacks in 1918.

First World War in Focus Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Maxwell

Notes for editors

For more information, please contact the National Army Museum press office at pr@nam.ac.uk or 020 7881 2433.

Corporal Joseph Egerton

Francis Aylmer Maxwell was born in Guildford, Surrey, on 7 September 1871 and was one of 11 children. He was educated at the United Services College at Westward Ho! and entered the Royal Military College Sandhurst in 1889. He served in India before fighting in the Boer War (1899-1902) with Lord Roberts’ Light Horse, taking part in the anti-guerrilla campaign during which his convoy was ambushed at Sanna’s Post on 31 March 1900. Maxwell was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in saving soldiers lives whilst under heavy enemy fire.

Maxwell became Lieutenant-General Lord Kitchener’s aide-de-camp twice and was created a Companion of the Order of the Star of India in 1911. In 1906, after being posted in Australia, he married and had three children, one who sadly died at only 18 months. In June 1915 he was given command of 12th (Service) Battalion of the Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment).

Following his exploits on the Somme, Maxwell was awarded a bar to his DSO for ‘conspicuous bravery and leadership’ and promoted to brigadier-general. He was shot dead by a sniper during the Battle of Menin Road Ridge on 21 September 1917 whilst reconnoitring a section of ground that was to be attacked.

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