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The date was 1887. Richard and Alice Coxen were adding a son, Frederick George, to the four children that already filled their house. Living in Battersea, Richard was a sail-maker whose trade was vanishing due to Britain’s Industrial Revolution. (Figure 3) The modern vessels were propelled by coal fired steam engines that bellowed out dark black smoke.
Little is known about Fred’s childhood, until he turned eighteen in 1905. That is when he enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery (RFA), assigned to the 55th Battery. His reasons for enlisting are unknown, but it could be argued that he did so in order to further his education. Even though the law of 1870 provided schooling for all children, it was common that children of working class parents were given only a rudimentary education at best; many never had an opportunity to attend school beyond the age of 12.
When children turned the age of eighteen, the British military offered soldiers a basic education in return for six years of active and six years of reserve duty. In 1907 Fred earned both his third and second class education certificates in composition (Figure 4) – leading one to believe that his desire to obtain an education may have been a major inducement in his decision to enlist.
Along with a classroom education, he was also trained in all aspects of operating artillery, yet he selected Signalling as his specialty. When new field telephones were introduced, Fred was sent to Ireland in 1909 for training (Figure 5). Communications between the artillery batteries and the forward observation post were extremely vital for shelling accuracy and target selection.
In 1911 he was awarded the “Assistant Signal Instructor” certificate, just prior to his departure from active duty to begin his RFA reserve obligation. (Figure 6)
Serving in the RFA Reserves allowed Fred more time to pursue his training as an electrician. During this period of time he lived in Westminster, at 28 Berkley Street, an address which proved to be romantically significant. The attractive Lillian Turner, who lived with her parents at 32 Berkley Street, provided an alluring and convenient dating arrangement. It did not take long for Lillian to put a twinkle in Fred’s eyes. After a brief courtship, they were married on October 12th, 1912, at the Parish Church, in the Parish of St. Mary, Lambeth (Figure 7). By 1913 the young couple moved to 93 Rectory Lane, Tooting Bec Common, where Lillian gave birth to a baby girl they named Doris.
It could be assumed that Fred would have kept abreast of what was happening in Europe, after years of escalating turmoil. Rising political strife between Germany, France, and Russia, fuelled by the escalating tensions between Austria– Hungary and Serbia produced whispers of war.
Otto von Bismark, a German ambassador, predicted that “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans,” would ignite the next war[i]. On June 28, 1914, the assassination of the Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationals, brought his prediction to fruition. The house of cards, constructed of alliances between key countries in Europe, was beginning to collapse.
This descent into the abyss of war resembled the tumbling of a row of dominoes, when one falls the rest will follow.
It started when Austria–Hungary attacked Serbia in response to the assassination of the Archduke. Russia had an alliance with Serbia; therefore Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary. As Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany, Germany declared war on both Serbia and Russia. Russia and France had an alliance, so France slid into the abyss alongside the others. This cascading effect would continue as other countries entered the war, with the exception of Britain.
Britian was not involved in alliances with other countries; however she did have a loose agreement with France, although not politically binding. It was an agreement that they would openly discuss providing mutual aid should either country be attacked. However, under the existing circumstances, this agreement took on deeper meaning and greater importance to Britain once she considered the consequences if France should lose the war. Parliament was debating this issue when the game changed.
Germany declared that they were going to use Belgium, a neutral country, as an avenue for attacking France. This outraged Britain since she had strong ties with Belgium. Britain sent an ultimatum; if Germany invaded Belgium, Britain would enter the war.[ii]
Germany’s Kaiser Welhelm was unconcerned by the threat, and ordered his army to invade Belgium on August 4, 1914. When the German Army crossed over the Belgian border the British Parliament signed the General Mobilization Decree; Britain was officially at war with Germany.
Within a few hours after the decree was posted, Fred received his orders to report for duty on August 5th at Newcastle upon the Tyne. The forces that had been put in motion prior to this date would forever alter Fred’s life.
Fred’s first journal entry:
“General Mobilization”, will it be declared? was the thought with me all day. My dear wife first gave me the news, but then I could not believe it, until, we walked to the post office and saw the Official Declaration. [iii]
And then I knew that, I should have to leave my home and dear ones — for “Where”, that was my one great thought. And until then I never realized what it all meant; with the conflicting thoughts, of my dear ones, and the fascination that I was going to participate in a real scrap. My mind was in a real whirl, and was so until I left home next day, for Newcastle-on-Tyne.[iv] And then — “Where?”
I do not dwell on the thought of leaving my dear little wife, my mother, and baby — the journey up north was one of enthusiasm, for the train was packed with reservists, rejoining the Colours, as I, and all seemed absolutely mad to go and obliterate Germany!
Drawing kit, passing Doctors, etc: - was detailed to join the 39th Bde R.F.A Surplus Details, as acting Q. M Sergt, at Borden Camp, [I] was very disappointed, for this meant that I should, not go to the front yet.
As I was informed that we should form the nucleus of a Reserve Brigade at Shorncliffe.[v]
August 8th – 14th
Arrived at Borden, gave great satisfaction to C.O. - and volunteered for immediate Service.
After a little trouble and help of Brigadier Clark, I was detailed to join 43rd Bde RFA. At Deepcut[vi] – I joined them late on night of 14th, and was glad to meet a couple of chums in the Battery. I joined – 40th Btty RFA.
Getting ready to embark – “Where”, that was the burning question for all orders were secret. [vii]
Embarked at Southampton on the SS City of Chester - uneventful trip – disembarked at Boulogne next morning - I knew well that I was in France, grand reception.
[i] Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August pp 85
[ii] Marshall, S.L.A. World War 1 pp 50-53
[iii] Coxen, Fred G. World War Journal 1914-1915
[iv] By the time of the First World War, existing coastal batteries on the east coast, most of which had been built during the nineteenth century against the perceived threat of France, had been adapted or new batteries created to take the new breech-loading guns. At the outbreak of hostilities, it was the Admiralty that was responsible for overseeing the home shore defences, as the Army was overstretched providing men and equipment in France, Belgium and the Middle East. Because of the concentration of strategic factories and installations (in Tyne and Wear for example, twelve armaments factories) the North-East coast was one of the most heavily defended areas in the country; the perceived threat was initially against bombardment or invasion from the sea, but by 1916, when the Army took over command of the home defence, the aerial threat from Zeppelins and, in southern Britain, heavy bombers, was the most pressing concern, fuelled by panic among the civilian population, who were under attack from the enemy for the first time. In 1916 a network of searchlights was established 25 miles inland from Sussex to
[v] Shorncliffe is located on the coastal plain where the North Downs meet the Straits of Dover. The British government purchased a large piece of land at Shorncliffe in 1794 and fortified it in preparation for the expected French invasion. The Shorncliffe Redoubt is significant as the birthplace of modern infantry tactics.
[vi] Deepcut: Military barracks were started in the late 19th century near Surrey Heath village Deepcut.
[vii] Coxen, Fred G.