Sir Ivor Maxse was a British soldier who rose to command of 18th Corps during the First World War. His otherwise impressive service record was somewhat blotted by his controversial performance during the second battle of the Somme of 1918.
He was the son of Admiral Frederick Augustus Maxse, but chose the army over the navy. He was educated at Rugby and Sandhurst (1881-2) and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers in September 1882. While in the Fusiliers he rose to captain (1889), spending much of that time in India.
The British army of the 1890s was far from the professional body of the First World War. In 1891 Maxse demonstrated this by buying his way into the Coldstream Guards after his father paid a serving captain £2,200 to stand aside. However, once in the Coldstreams, Maxse began his serious military career, serving as aide-de-camp to Sir Arthur Lyon Fremantle from 1893-1894, first in Scotland and then in Malta. In 1897 he was seconded to the Egyptian army so that he could take part in the campaign in the Sudan. He served as a brigade major and was present at the battles of Atbara and Omdurman.
From the Sudan he was sent to South Africa, with a promotion to brevet lieutenant-colonel. He had a short Boer War career, serving on Lord Robert’s staff and then as commander of the Pretoria police, before returning to Britain in November 1900.
In the years before the First World War Maxse rose through the regular ranks, until in 1901 he was appointed brigadier-general commanding the 1st (guards) brigade. Despite an apparently conventional army career he was already thinking about the nature of war, taking the business of the army seriously. In a biography of his best man (Lieutenant Colonel C.F.S Vandeleur) Maxse criticised the amateurishness that had characterised much of the British war effort in South Africa. Despite this he did accept the pre-war view that the offensive would always overcome the defensive.
At the outbreak of war the 1st brigade was part of the BEF. Maxse led the brigade at Mons, the first battle of the Marne and the battle of the Aisne, seeing most action at the last battle. He was then sent back to Britain to help train Kitchener’s New Army, as commander of the 18th Division. His new division benefited from his interest in training, while Maxse was impressed by the volunteers of the New Army.
The division was sent to France in July 1915. It took part in the disastrous fighting on the first day of the battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), but unlike many British divisions actually achieved its objectives for the first day, partly because it was located close to the more experienced French army. It remained in the line on the Somme throughout the summer, taking part in the battle of the Ancre of October 1916.
At the start of 1917 Maxse was promoted to temporary lieutenant-general and given command of 18th corps in the Fifth Army. This corps took part in the third battle of Ypres and was then transferred to the Somme front.
It would be while on the Somme that Maxse would (possibly) blot his copybook. The Fifth Army under General Sir Hubert Gough had the duty of defending the weak defensive line on the Somme, created after the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line early in 1917. The Fifth Army would be the target of the first of General Ludendorff’s great offensives of 1918 (Second battle of the Somme).
On 21 March seventy six German divisions, attacked twenty eight British divisions. Gough was forced to order a retreat, giving corps commanders permission to retreat to the Somme if needed. On 22 March Maxse ordered 18th Corps to disengage from the Germans and immediately pull back to the Somme. This created a gap in the line, forcing the corps on either side to withdraw.
After the war Maxse defended his actions, claiming that the retreat of 18th corps was carefully planned, but if it was the orders did not survive. His view of the retreat was perhaps not shared by British headquarters, as in April 1918 he was promoted to a new post, inspector-general of training in France. However, he provided to be the ideal person for that role, adapting British tactics to reflect the new German tactics used on the Somme.
Post-war Maxse served as general officer commanding, northern command (1919-1923). In that role he continued to have an impact on training, and was an early sponsor of Basil Liddell Hart. In 1923 he was promoted to full General and retired in 1926. Aged 64 he began a second, rather surprising career, as a commercial fruit grower!