Home Land War The Generals Ivor Maxse: The General Who Really Trained His Troops for the Western Front in the Great War

Ivor Maxse: The General Who Really Trained His Troops for the Western Front in the Great War


Before the Great War, Frederick Ivor Maxse (1862 - 1958) had followed the standard career of a professional soldier of the British Empire. Throughout his career he preferred to be called by his second name Ivor (hereafter his name is abbreviated to IM).

IM graduated from Sandhurst in 1882, and was commissioned into the Royal Fusiliers then serving in India. In 1891, he transferred to the Coldstream Guards and served in Ireland and Malta. Spotted by the then Colonel Horatio Herbert Kitchener, he was selected for the post of Major in the Egyptian Army and soon became commander of the 13th Sudanese Battalion. IM successfully led his battalion in the Anglo-Egyptian Campaign in the Mahdi Revolt of 1897 - 98 that culminated in the Battle of Omdurman on 2nd September 1898, and the eventual downfall of the Khailifa of Sudan, Abdullah el Taashi.

In the Boer War IM served as Transport Officer and, ultimately as Commissioner of Police at Pretoria, the then capital of Transvaal Province.

After the Boer War, IM was assigned to various military posts in the UK. At the outbreak of the Great War he was commander of the 1st Guards Brigade which he took to France in August 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

In October 1914 IM was promoted to Major General and repatriated to the UK to command the newly formed 18th (Eastern) Division which was part of Field Marshal Kitchener's Second New Army (K2) of volunteers.

Training for the Western Front
Starting with a very limited cadre of trained officers and NCOs, no billets and minimal supplies of equipment and weapons, IM immediately began the training of this new formation. Based on his experience during the various colonial wars in which he had participated, he employed innovative techniques that emphasised the inculcation of independence and initiative in both junior officers and NCOs. This was opposed to the prevailing discipline of by-the-book uniform action at all subordinate levels within the battalion structure.

IM's philosophy was 'drilling for initiative' in that all tactical movements must be planned and rehearsed beforehand with nothing foreseeable left to chance; a concept later to be labelled by others as 'Battle Drill'.

By the Spring of 1915, it was that decided IM's Division was ready for the Western Front. On the 25th May 1915, the 18th (Eastern) Division landed at Boulogne, France, en route to the Western Front, where it spent the winter of 1915/16 on general duties in the trenches.

IM believed that the training of the troops should be a relentless and continuous process that should even be practised in-the-line at the platoon level - when ever feasible - as well as out of it on a more general basis. This practically oriented training regimen of the 18th Division made it one of the best prepared for the unknown ordeal that lay ahead on the Somme in 1916.

In the Spring of 1916, 18th (Eastern) Division moved into the Albert Sector of the Somme ready for the planned Anglo/French offensive astride the Acre and Somme Rivers in July 1916.

18th Division on the Somme
On the 1st July 1916, the Division participated in the Battle of Albert (1st - 13th July) serving with distinction and attaining its objective on Montauban Ridge. IM's meticulous training regime had clearly paid dividends. It is said that IM 'encouraged' his commanders, if conditions so indicated, to ignore the instructions of the Fourth Army commander (Sir Henry Rawlinson) that they should make a slow measured advance; and most did so. What IM wanted was a rapid advance by the first waves of infantry and 'clearing up' - later called 'mopping up'- of any residual German troops by the following waves of troops. In this way the German machine gunners would be speedily eliminated, or kept in their deep dugouts, and the British reserve battalions following on would have unimpeded access forward.

However, IM's claim - like that of many others - of having invented new techniques in the implementation the 'creeping barrage' did not give due credit to the probable originator of the concept, General James Frederick Noel Birch, the artillery adviser to the BEF.

Other elements of the 18th (Eastern) Division were involved the Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14th - 17th July 1916) capturing the important German strong point of Trones Wood; an award of the Victoria Cross to an NCO of the 18th (Eastern) Division resulted from this action.

Additional major engagements on the Somme in 1916 in which 18th (Eastern) Division, led by IM, participated, were:

  • Battle of Delville Wood (15th July - 3rd September 1916).
  • Battle of the Ancre Heights (1st - 11th October 1916) where the Division took part in the capture of the Schwaben Redoubt and Regina Trench.
  • Battle of the Ancre (13th - 18th November 1916).

In 15th January 1917, the Commander, BEF, impressed by IM's performance as a divisional commander, promoted him to command XVIII Corps.

The major engagements in which IM led XVIII Corps were:

The Arras Offensive - which included:

  • Battle of Arras 9th April - 4th May 1917.

The Flanders Offensive - Battle of Ypres/ Passchendaele 1917 - which included an incredible list of crucial battles:

  • Battle of Pilckem (31st July - 2nd August 1917).
  • Battle of Langemarck (16th - 18th August 1917).
  • Battle of Menin Road (20th -25th September 1917).
  • Battle of Polygon Wood (26th September - 3rd October 1917)
  • Battle of Broodseinde (4th October 1917).
  • Battle of Poelcapelle (9th October 1917).
  • 1st Battle of Passchendaele (12th October 1917).
  • 2nd Battle of Passchendaele (26th October - 2nd November 1917). Relieved by II Corps.

During this time IM produced a pamphlet entitled 'Hints on training issued by XVIII Corps'.

The mediocre performance and piecemeal destruction of IM's XVIII Corps in the 1918 German Spring Offensive was rightly, or wrongly, viewed negatively at BEF GHQ. Particularly so since early 1918 IM had, contrariwise, strongly based his XVIII Corps defence preparations on the Somme on small fighting sections rather than the more reliable and stable complete fighting platoons advocated by the BEF high command.

Maxse relieved and transferred
So, despite the distinction with which XVIII Corps had served in the Arras and Flanders Offensives of 1917, in June 1918 IM was relieved from his command. However, exceptionally, he was transferred sideways to the post of Inspector General of Training for the BEF. Indubitably, IM, and many of his contemporaries, considered this reassignment to be an unwarranted demotion. It took him from the command of around 50,000 front-line troops to a behind-the-lines staff of less than a hundred. But, in view of IM's earlier record of introducing, and maintaining, excellent standards of field training, this appointment can be seen, at least by the impartial outsider, as a compliment to his training ability and a logical use of his skills and knowledge. Moreover, these skills were sorely needed by the BEF at this uncertain juncture of the war on the Western Front: the ending of which in late 1918 was by no means seen as a certainty at the time.

Whatever the shock of his dismissal, the pugnacious IM soon recovered his verve and industry. Once installed in his new job, he began to broadcast his views on tactics and deployment that had served him so well in the field on the Somme and in Flanders; central to which was the 'platoon training' principle. IM renamed his 1917 pamphlet as 'The Brown Book 'which was widely circulated throughout the BEF. Shortly afterwards he issued a authoritative document entitled 'Lessons learnt during the Operations of 21 August - 7 September 1918.'

IM continued in his post as Inspector of Training, BEF, until the end of the Great War.

Major-General Frederick Ivor Maxse was one of the British Empire's late 19th Century professional soldiers whose innovative military ideas were brought to fruition by the cataclysmic events on the Western Front in the early 20th Century. Although refinements of his ideas were later claimed as 'original' by others - e.g. the famous armchair warrior Captain Basil Liddell-Hart - there is little doubt that the basic concept of 'Battle Drill' was conceived and developed on the field of battle by IM.

He was unfortunate that, unlike some other less worthy individuals, his promotion was too slow to allow him to have the authority to promulgate his ideas at a level that would have had a really positive impact on the way the war was fought on the Western Front.

By consensus, Major General Maxse is judged to be one of the best innovative tactians of the Western Front in the Great War and, sadly, one of the lesser known and acclaimed.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 09 July 2008 16:46 )  

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