The date is August 1914. The British Expeditionary Force is in France and You're in the Royal Field Artillery. You're riding alongside one of the battery's gun limbers on its way to the assigned position on the east side of Mons, Belgium. This begins your journey into the Hell they called World War One. To purchase this historical memoir go to https://createspace.com/3649268

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

January 1915

I was hard out, and handed over the instruments to Collins. I went in a stable and slept throughout the day - a little shelling took place, but I slept through it all.

Jan. 2nd to 23rd
During this period it was the usual give and take. We fired every day at any targets that presented themselves, and were occasionally shelled, very often at night.
The REDOUBT was retaken and lost many times, each attack meaning a fierce couple of hours work, till at length it was undecipherable 'no man's land' for neither side could hold it.
Rifle bullets at night made it rather uncomfortable.
The weather was very cold and wet, a few heavy snowstorms. I sometimes had a fever in a bucket.
Night attacks were very frequent - we were lucky in having only a very few casualties, or wounded, although quite a few went away sick.
One day during this period, I went to Bethune and had a much needed bath and change of underclothing. It was a relief for I, as most, was overstocked with 'livestock'.

Jan 24th
During the day the enemy bombarded the lock of the canal and railway line (by our observing station) with their 8' Howitzers. Sending over 129 shells, which did no material damage, one shell fell plumb on the railway line and flung a piece of the rail (about 4 foot) right over our guns fully a thousand yards, and fell a few yards from where I stood, I thought it was a shell coming over.
We afterwards read in the papers of this incident and smiled to read the lot they made of it, whereas when it happened, we took little notice. We were rather more interested watching the effect of their fire on the lock, which they failed to hit.

Jan 25th
The night passed rather quiet, rather less than the usual amount of shooting taking place.
About 7:15 am I received a message from 25th Brigade R.F.A. that information had been given them by a German deserter that a big attack on our front at GIVENCHY and CUINCHY was to take place at 7:30, preceded by a heavy bombardment.
I sent the message to the observing station, and hurriedly rousted the gun detachments and the officers. When it started, it was horrific, and we replied with rapid gun fire.
The enemy captured our first line trenches and our infantry fell back to our observing station.
Two out of my three lines got cut by shells, and while I attended to the instruments, Collins ran a line to the left Section.
He was knocked in the knee, the same shell wounding two men and fatally wounding Mr. Watkins, a young officer that had only joined us 8 days previous. I sent two of my chaps along the observing line, and then the line to the 25th Battery got broken.
I hastily got Collins, who was limping, to attend to the phones and I went along the line to the 25th.
It was warm for we were heavily shelled, but I found a couple of yards of the line had been cut out by shrapnel, where the wire ran along the top of a wall. I climbed on the wall and dropped very quickly, for a shell seemed to whiz inches by my head, bursting a little way behind. I got a piece of wire that had been holding up a vine of some description, and managed to fire up the line. I was very glad when I reached the 25th to find that communication was through.
I stopped a little while to recover my breath. On my return to the Battery I had a very close shave from a splinter from a shell, which burst directly in front of me. I fell on the ground, I think just in time.
Reached the battery without mishap - just as I reached them, another big shell burst right in the farm, about 20 yards from where my little shed was, luckily doing no damage except to the building.
Just opposite, a shell came right into the shelter where the telephones for the left Section was, severely wounding one man.
It was in all a horrific morning, our infantry had been forced to retire right back, and we thought it was all up.
We were the foremost Battery, and knew if our infantry lost the small ridge in front of us, it was the finish of us and our guns. Luckily the third line stood, and we kept up firing at ground range, and were credited with doing great execution among the masses of advancing Germans.
The Guards Brigade, consisting of the London Scottish, Seaforths, Camerons and Guards were brought up as reinforcements, and stopped the German advance, by entrenching themselves behind our original line. In spite of all attacks the Germans held on to the ground they had gained by overwhelming odds.

Jan 26th
At 7am our troops made a counter- attack on the lost ground. After a fierce bombardment, of about 3 hours, the Guards regained a little, but failed to get our six fire trenches, which was the objective. We fired feverously and were shelled in return. One 6' going right into the cellar of the farm by the left Section, quite a few near the guns, but only two men were wounded.
The fight went on more or less all day, but we failed to get any further forward, but repulsed an attack from the Germans in the afternoon.
The 1st Siege Battery, on our left rear, got it hot, shell going right into the farm where they were in action. It was very soon ablaze - but in spite of the heavy shelling, I watched the gunners pluckily go to and from the farm, moving the wounded. After a while they managed to put out the fire in spite of the persistent shelling. It was grand to watch them, although at times they were obscured from view by smoke from the shells and fire. But they stuck it grandly and after putting the fire out, they started shooting again, as if it were to get their own back.
During this time some shells fell very near us, but did no damage.

Jan 27 and 28th
In two days of attacks and counter attacks, very fierce and severe scrapping, we regained all the lost ground, and numbers of prisoners were taken.
No further casualties at the guns, which was lucky considering the shell fire they put over at intervals.
The Germans did a great deal of entrenching during the night's and we had some good targets to shoot at during the day. Our guns were dandy, for considering the enormous amount of shooting they had done throughout this campaign, they were still perfectly accurate and our lyddlite accounted for many things.

Jan 29th to Feb. 5th

A rather quiet period, the enemy seemed to have undecipherable off a little, for at times they never replied to our fire, and the attacks of the previous week seemed to have quieted them considerably. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Royal Field Artillery - The Early Battles

The journal of Captain Fred G. Coxen is now available on Kindle  Royal Field Artillery - The Early Battles of WWI the book also contains Captain Coxen's life before and after the war. The book contains many personal photos and images of original documents.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

December 1914

Marched to PONT DE NEIPPE and billeted in a farm just outside the village. We could hear the old familiar sounds in the distance, the rockets from the trenches.

Dec 14th
Marched through PLOEGSTRESTTE,  and took up position beside the 35th Battery, behind a ruined chateau, on the grounds of which had once been a beautiful garden.
We ran our line beyond the chateau to some ruined houses, from where we had a good view of the German trenches and MESSINES beyond.
On my way back, I went into a partly wrecked house and was surprised to find a young woman and her brother, and her five little children. The baby I took from its bed, for it reminded me of my own, she gave me some hot milk. As well as I could I tried to induce her to go away to a safe place, but she would not. She told me her husband a soldier, had been killed. I was rather upset I think over the poor little kiddies - I gave them my peppermints and odd money and came away. I never had time to go that way again, but I thought of the kiddies very often.

Dec. 18th to 20th
Remained in position for a bombardment of MESSINES. Did little firing until 20th, when the bombardment took place - it was horrific, but we had nothing much at the guns in return. The wagon line was shelled out in the morning, but fortunately only one man was wounded. We left position at 5 o'clock and marched back to our rest billet.

Dec. 21st to 23rd
Remained in rest billet until morning of 23rd, then marched to BETHUNE and billeted in a school house. George and I having no blankets, resolved to find a bed somewhere, and while asking a Frenchman in our best French, his daughter came along and invited us to their house, which was only a little way down the street. They were very poor, but treated us handsomely.
The mother, an elderly woman, doted on us, and gave us as much as we could possibly eat and drink. She made us up a bed on the floor, she called us at 3:15 am and had coffee ready for us. On leaving she was indignant when we went to make payment.
We marched at 4:30 am towards LA BASSEE to take up position. It was Christmas Eve - a very grim Christmas Eve, and my thoughts were far away.

Dec. 24th
We took up position at CAMBRIN, CUINCHY and GIVENCHY were just on our left; all were in a state of ruin, for heavy scrapping had been recently taking place.
George and I took over the wires of the 47th Btty, and were very busy firing up our communications. We had a grand observing station - a ruined brewery - It was beautifully furnished - but everything was ruined, lovely carved furniture and ornaments - in pieces - a piano, and large gramophone, everything had been left as it stood. I secured plates, cups and an assortment of cooking utensils and took them back to the guns.
Late that night I had orders, to get into communication with 2nd Infantry Brigade. It was uncomfortable laying the line on account of rifle bullets, but did the job without mishap and got back to my dugout.
The thoughts of the previous Christmas Eve were with me, and I felt anything but happy.

Dec. 25th
I forgot it was Christmas Day for I was busy firing up communications all day. All was very quiet - it was a mutual truce.
I had a piece of bacon for dinner - one of the chaps secured a chicken and some vegetables, and at night we had a feast. George came down from the observing station, and with couple more, we went to a large house nearby and collared a piano, and brought it to the guns.
We had a concert, it was not a great success - but we made the best of it. There were many poor devils much more worse off than us.

Dec 26th
Rather quiet, occasional shelling.
I had a sorely needed wash, the first for four days.
We did little firing. The dugout was swamped, so we moved into a small shed at rear of farm. It was very cold and drizzling rain.

Dec 27th - 28th
Nothing unusual, we fire at intervals, at working parties of Germans, and into trenches. They search for us but all over, and save for a shell now and again, nothing near us.
Kept up very slow fire at long intervals throughout nights.
Am on duty day and night with phone, but am so used to it, that it takes little or no effect, although I never have a complete night's rest when in action.

Dec. 29th and 30th
Did much firing - and were credited with smacking up a German Field Battery near LA BASSEE.

Dec. 31st
The morning was rather quiet.
At 2:30 pm we were subjected to a fierce bombardment and a heavy attack. The enemy capturing the KEEP, by the railway embankment, from the Kings Royal Rifles, who then recaptured it again late in the afternoon.
About 10pm the Germans again attacked and gained the KEEP and REDOUBT. We were firing heavily all night, it was very cold. After two attacks we succeeded in again retaking the lost ground about 3 am, but could not hold it, the KRR's being 'bombed' out soon after gaining possession.

Throughout the night until about 8 am we kept up hot fire - the New Year had came in, in real war like style. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Royal Field Artillery - The Early Battles

Royal Field Artillery - The Early Battles

Captain Fred G. Coxen RFA served in the 40th Battery, which supported the 1st Division of I Coprs. They went to France with the BEF and fought in the early battles of the war - Mons to Second Ypres.

I've written two books based on his journal, which have been received well, but some readers suggested I bring out a book that only contains the journal entries, which is now available on Kindle at Royal Field Artillery - The Early Battles of WWI.

However, I did keep the brief battle descriptions to help readers understand how the journal entries relate to the overall battle. I also included Fred's personal story prior to and after the war.

I hope everyone will enjoy the compelling journal entries as told through the sight of a Howitzer.

More important to me is publishing this book as a remembrance to my grandfather, as well as those who gave their lives for what they believed in and their country.

I wish I could have been in London on Remembrance Day to honor my grandfather and his contribution to the war and history.

Frederick L Coxen

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembrance Day 2014 - Nov 1914

From the journal of Captain Fred G. Coxen RFA

October 31st – Nov 6th

[We] marched through the beautiful old town of YPRES, which contains some very fine buildings, notably the Cloth Hall and Cathedral.
[We] took up a position of readiness outside the fortifications of the town, [where] we dropped into action in various places around, doing little firing.
The enemy commenced bombarding the town on Nov. 2nd with their great 17’ Howitzers. The noise of these shell[s] passing over our heads is almost indescribable.

On Nov. 5th a few of us in the morning had made one of our famous ‘Bully stews’ and we were about to commence the feast, when we heard some of these monster shell[s] coming; they fell in the fields on our right and rear.[i]

We had to move, [and] as we moved, we heard more coming. They dropped almost in the same place. One shell burst near a cow and threw it bodily about 30 yards. One came by the sound, directly for us, it was like an express train roaring through the air.

We crouched behind one of the ammunition wagons, the shell landed about 15 yds and exactly in line on our front. The concussion was terrific, and the wagon rocked as if it were near a minimum earthquake. 

We afterwards measured the hole; it was gigantic, 23 foot deep and 20 foot in diameter – fully three to four times as big again as the often met ‘Jack Johnson’s’.  I afterwards found out that these shell[s] were 11.2” and not 17” as we thought.
We moved by the river, and although very cold, I had a plunge – the first since the time of the retreat. It’s a very common thing to go a week or even more without having a wash. Since the time of the Aisne, food is a little plentiful.
[The] weather very wet, and the whole country is a veritable sea of mud.
The enemy seemed to shell everywhere haphazard, especially at night.
On the morning of 6th we were read an appeal from Gen. French urging us to hold on despite the overwhelming masses of the enemy, until reinforcements could be brought up.
Attacks were ‘twice daily’ and were nightly occurrences.
Our losses were very great, but despite the fact of our trenches being so thinly manned, and our guns so few, our line was formed and maintained. As the enemy were stopped in France, so were they in Belgium. [ii]

Thanks to the splendid leadership of our little army, and our chaps…[sic]… love for dangerous scraps, and [to] the splendid Infantry in the trenches who suffered infinitely more than us, in every way.

Nov. 7th – 12th

[We were] in various positions in front of YPRES – these days with Head ‘ Q[uarters] 25th [Brigade].

The Battery returned each night to a field off the main road, things were very quiet, but for occasional shelling.
On the night of 10th, I waited at the 25th [Brigade], for my horse to be brought over. After some time, George came and told me it was impossible to get over with horses, [so] we walked across to where the horses were, and [then] started to find the Battery. After travelling some good way we knew we were lost, it was very dark, and the road was being shelled. On coming to a deserted farm, where some Infantry were, we decided to anchor till morning - by a friendly straw stack. We got some food and tea from the infantry - with some straw from the stack and blanket from our horse, we had the best bed we had had for some time. We found the Battery next morning and there had been the usual speculation that we had got nipped.

When dawn arrived on 11 November it greeted the BEF’s 1st and 2nd Divisions with a heavy downpour, which set the stage for what the Official History described as ‘the most terrific fire the British had yet experienced’. The German artillery concentrated its fire on I Corps and on Wing’s ‘division’ of II Corps.
On the night of 12th we came through the most severe storm I have ever experienced.  I was simply blinded by the fierce rain and wind, [and I] had no cap. We were simply like drowned rats, [and] we had an awful march in the pitch darkness.
 [In the] storm I could not open my eyes, [so] I simply held on the saddle and let my old charger follow the rest. 

We were too wet to sleep in mud and rain that night, and after a deal of skirmishing, George, Collins and I got into a deserted estaminet[1] and remained there till morning. [iii]  
It was a horrible night and the shelter we got was acceptable. It took me two days to get dry – I would have given a deal to had [sic] sit before a fire in dry clothes.

Nov. 13th
One section of the Btty [Battery] was in action near ZONNEBEKE[2], I went with [the] other two Sections to a position by a small wood[3] –
about 3 or 4 miles NE of YPRES.
We did a little firing, and towards evening I ran a line to K Battery R.H.A. to get into communication with the trenches. It was very wet, and everywhere was bog and mud.

I was beside a railway embankment [and] the CO K Battery and I had high words about the communication. He promised to get me 5 years or shot – I told him to get on with it, etc.; he treated me quite differently next morning.

Another night in the rain, could not lie down, had a wet ‘standing up sleep’ by the embankment.

Nov. 14th

Went with left Section and positioned beside 51st Battery, [which was] on a ridge a thousand yards in rear of the trenches. We could see the German fire trench - and watch our own lyddite[4] burst. [It was] a very near position and we had hardly began to fire when they had us spotted.

That day the Prussian Guard made a big attack, [but] our guns with the 51st did great slaughter, and from the trenches, the ground was covered with dead Germans and many of our chaps.
During the morning they peppered us, but we kept on replying, and the 51st with the quick-firing 18 pounder did grand work keeping up a wall of fire on the German foremost trench. [iv]

Early in the afternoon we had to desert our guns, for it was suicide to stay. We took cover in some small trenches about 30 yards behind the guns. About every twenty minutes, [we would] run up to the guns, loosed off a couple of rounds gun fire, and back to cover. The 51st rushed up and let go six rounds gun fire in grand style, and ran back to cover.
I was with the 51st at this period, [and] we had been two days almost without a drink of any description and my thirst was troubling me more than the shell and bullets. When running from the guns, I came across the Officers’ cook in a dugout, about 50 yds in rear of the guns, and he gave me a mug of rather dirty water, but it tasted grand.
I went back to the guns with the Sergt Major of the 51st, and a shell dropped within 10 yards of us. The concussion rather shook us and we immediately fell down and dodged splinters. On getting up we were both surprised to find that the other was not hurt - the shell cut down a tree, which fell across my overcoat, which was lying close by.

We kept up firing until dark.
George, Collins and I were beside a wagon getting something to eat, when the enemy’s infantry attacked, and the bullets rained over.  We ran to the guns for shelter of the shield when Collins pushed me a little aside, a few seconds later [he] got a bullet in the foot – the thick boot, luckily diverting its course. Had he not pushed me, I should have caught it, and with perhaps not such lucky result.

After a while George and I managed to get into a small trench, he had dug during the day.
The attack dropped off, but they shelled us throughout the night.  We had a good sleep [even though] it was cold and wet, but we were strictly exhausted and slept. [v]
In the morning the ground all around was peppered with shell-holes and we were indeed fortunate that one did not drop in our little trench, for quite a few were very near.

Nov. 15th

The section continued firing during the morning – we were shelled a little, but nothing in comparison with previous day - I went over to the 51st Btty, to get my telephone, which I had left in a dugout the day before when we had to leave the guns - but found that a shell had dropped plumb into the dugout and destroyed the instrument - there was two other telephonists with me the previous day and had we not run when we did - undoubtedly we should have all shared the fate of our instruments.

I went back to the Section and about noon we had orders to take up position with our right Section - [while] the 51st Bty remained and had it as bad, or even worse than the previous days. Two guns were put out of action, and their casualties were heavy. One shell killed five and while they were being buried, another dropped among the burial party killing four more.
We reached our right Section in the afternoon and I remained with the wagon line, and was in PIEGUAT – very wet and cold, shelling all night.

Nov. 16th

I removed some wagons into an adjacent wood for aeroplane cover.
While going to a ruined farm nearby, a bullet hit a wooden gate post as I was passing. I dodged behind the post, for I thought a sniper had me, but it must have been a spare bullet, for nothing else came near me. During my look round the farm - I got some water, a few potatoes, and a couple of onions. On returning to the wagon line, [upon] getting a tin of ‘bully’ prepared a dinner, which I had not had for a considerable time. [vi]
I had just got it nicely on the go, when I was sent for from the guns, and was ordered to run a line to the reserve trenches.

 George and I ran the line and I remained with a borrowed instrument from a Sergeant of the R.E’s in a dugout with a Gordon named Bruce (whom I afterwards learned was the famous runner).

I was warned by him to keep low, as snipers were pretty busy – and almost as he spoke a fellow coming towards me got a bullet in the chest - the bullet just missed me, so I took his word and kept low.
It was terribly cold – he gave me some bread and cheese, which I gratefully took. I sent the orders to the guns until after midnight, and things seem to quite down.

 I pitied Bruce in his bare legs and kilt, but he slept sound, but I could not sleep a minute for the cold, and was glad when morning came. I was stiff with cold, and dared the snipers in running up and down for a few minutes to [undecipherable] warm myself.

Nov. 17th

I was under the direction of Major Baird,[vii] Gordon Highlanders, to send the orders for our guns to cover the trenches, as much as possible.
Shortly after dawn, the enemy made a big attack and considering the small number of men in the trenches, it was marvelous that the enemy didn’t break through. About 9 o’clock they started to shell us. The first shell went into a dugout a few yards in front of me and killed a Lieut. Colonel and his servant, [while] another fell 10 yards to my right, and killed or wounded 3 officers, who were buried – they were hastily dug out, and presented a pitiful sight. Many were wounded during these first few minutes. [viii]

 An Artillery Officer and a man rode up and dismounted. The man jumped into my dugout, hitching the two horses to a tree about one yard away. Almost immediately a shell burst right over - [and] killed the two horses, one of whom fell dead, right on top of the dugout - the blood running in.
Then the shells came in terrific force – all the Gordons had to run, for it was murderous – I felt like running – but could not leave my instrument, as the guns would not be firing.
So I stuck [while] they all ran, bar Bruce. He asked me if I was going to stop, I said yes, and he answered – ‘If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me’ as he stopped with me. In the run, a chap passing got a splinter in the leg and a bullet in the arm. I dragged him in and we bandaged him up; he was with us throughout the day.
Two more attacks took place, and every available man was pressed forward – and that was very few.
During the day Bruce was telling me that of the 1400 hundred in the regiment who left Plymouth in September – all that remained of the number was 34, and he was one of them. They had had some terrible times, he said, but this is worse than any of them. I fully believed him, for I was sick with the smell of powder and blood.     

Bruce very pluckily ran to and from where Major Baird and the rest were in trenches outside the wood, to take messages from me, and to bring the orders for the guns.

All day the enemy kept up the fierce bombardment.    
Old George came and relieved me that night, for I was fairly done and felt bad, [because] four nights out of six I had had no sleep and very little food. I was absolutely more like a sponge than a man, and on reaching the guns, Collins took on the instrument and I got my two blankets. They were wet – it was snowing and freezing hard, but I slept like a top, and in the morning [I] felt a little better and quite able to carry on with the business. [ix]
Nov. 15th – 21st

I remained with the guns and George with the Gordons. We did considerable firing, but [with only] an occasional shell coming over, it was peace compared with the previous 17th.

We were informed that we were to [be] relieved by the French. [We] were to be withdrawn and to have a rest, to refit and get made up in horses and men.

 I was also told that the Centre Section had had a warm time. Hodges[5], my lube offman, was killed. Taylor[6], Farmer and several others wounded.

We were elated at the idea of a rest, and a change from the ceaseless scrapping of the last weeks – and we sadly needed a rest.

Nov. 22nd

Left our position at dawn and marched to YPRES, the whole country was in a terrible condition, not a farm was standing – and the town itself was ruined. The beautiful buildings destroyed, how different when we marched through less than a month before. We got safely through the town and marched all day. It was very cold, [and] I walked most of the time, for my old charger could not keep his legs on the slippery roads.
 We arrived at night and billeted at a farm a few miles from MERRISS, where we were to stop and rest. How strange it seemed to be away from the ceaseless roar of gun fire, etc. The sheds, barns, cow-houses in which we slept seemed to us like mansions. [x]

Nov. 22nd – Dec. 12th

This, our period of rest, was greatly appreciated for a time, but soon became monotonous.
 Our Officers had short leaves, and I was fortunate, through the good graces of Major Madocks, to obtain 48 hours to BOULOGNE. He kindly gave my dear wife instructions on his arrival in England, how to get to BOULOGNE, time etc.
I left camp on the evening of the 1st Dec and rode into HAZEBROUCK. [I] arrived by train at BOULOGNE 7 o’clock next morning, [and] I expected to meet my wife at 5 o’clock. [I] was delighted to see her at 11 o’clock – our stay together was short, the shortest 28 hours of my life, and to leave her next day was the hardest thing for me through the campaign.

 I arrived back in camp next day – and we were all getting impatient to get to business again. [We] were pleased to hear on the 11th that we were [leaving] for the firing line next day.

[1] Estaminet: a small and simple cafĂ©, bar, or bistro.
[2] The Battle of Nonne Boschen – ‘Nun’s Wood’ began on 10 November with an attack on the French positions north-east of Ypres. The attack convinced the French generals – incorrectly – the new German attack would fall on the lines between Bixschoote and Zonnebeke. Neillands, Robin, The Old Contemptibles – The British Expeditionary Force, 1914 location 5848
[3]  The small woods may have been Polygon Wood
[4] Lyddite: British explosive used for filling artillery shells in World War One. Actually molten and cast picric acid.
[5] Corporal   George James   HODGE   42275   43rd Brigade, 40th Bty 
[6] Corporal  Frank W  Taylor   54212  rpt wounded 8/12/14 – killed in action

[i] Ibid

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii]  Alexander Walter Frederick Baird was born on 2 October 1876 - He fought in the First World War, where he was mentioned in despatches nine times and gained the rank of temporary Brigadier General of the Gordon Highlanders.
[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid