The date was 1887. Richard and Alice Coxen were adding a son, Frederick George, to the four children which already filled their house in Battersea, England.
Richard was a sail-maker, a trade he learned while serving in the Royal Navy. By the late 1800’s sail making was a dying art since modern vessels were being propelled by coal-fired steam engines.
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 – 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. He and George Millington graduated together in the 168th Class, School of Signaling, at Aldershot. When new field telephones were introduced, Fred was sent to Ireland in 1909 for training. 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.
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 Berkeley 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.
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.
The Great European Powers Germany, France, Russia and Austria – Hungary were escalating their military strength against one another. Germany’s army was the largest in Europe and Kiser Wilhelm was in the process of building a navy to rival that of Great Britten, which was disturbing.
Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of the aging emperor Franz Joseph, would be turning fifty years old in the spring of 2014. He was heir apparent to the Hapsburg thrones of Austria and Hungary, after the untimely death of Franz Joseph’s only son. The emperor, as well as most of the populous disliked the fact that Ferdinand would become the next monarch.
Austria and Hungary both claimed ownership of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Austria wanted to annex it, which might be the reason Austrian officials made arrangements in 1913 for the archduke to travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina in late June 1914 to inspect their armed forces maneuvers. His official visit might substantiate Austrian’s claim.
After the Bulkan Wars of 1912-1913, Austria– Hungary and Serbia still harbored hard feelings against each other.
Serbia and Russia had political ties, which prevented Austria from attacking them. Knowing this, Franz Ferdinand sought support from the Kiser in hopes that Germany would give Russia pause if Austria attacked Serbia.
Otto von Bismarck, a German ambassador, predicted that ‘some damn foolish thing in the Balkans,’ would ignite the next war. On June 28, 1914, the assassination of the Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationals, brought his prediction to fruition.
When the Kiser heard of the assassination he became irate and his temper was used to offer Austria a blank check in dealing with Serbia. The house of cards, constructed of alliances between key countries in Europe, would begin to collapse when Austria attacked Serbia.
Russia had an alliance with Serbia; therefore Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary. As Austria-Hungary had a partnership with Germany, Germany declared war on both Serbia and Russia. Russia and France had an agreement, so France slid into the abyss alongside the others. This cascading effect would continue as other countries entered the war, with the exception of Great Britten.
Since Great Britten 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. Belgium’s neutrality was part of the 1839 Treaty of London.3 Under that treaty the European powers would recognize and guarantee the independence and neutrality of Belgium. The significant part of the treaty was in Article VII, which required Belgium to remain perpetually neutral and the signatory powers would be committed to guard that neutrality in the event of invasion. The cosigners of the treaty were Great Britten, Austria, France, the German Confederation (Prussia), Russia, and the Netherlands. Since Germany’s intention was to break the treaty, Britain felt that under Article VII it was their responsibility to come to Belgium’s defense. Therefore they sent an ultimatum to Germany; if they invaded Belgium, Britain would enter the war.4
German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg could not believe that Britain would go to war against Germany over a mere ‘scrap of paper’. Kaiser Wilhelm 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.
Fred, at the age of 26 was working as an electrician and still committed to the RFA Reserve, it can be assumed that he was very aware of the escalating tensions in Europe and the possibility of war. He would have had mixed emotions between serving his country and taking care of his family.
Within a few hours after the decree was posted, Fred received 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.
His journal begins with ‘My Diary from notes and well remembered incidences’ and proceeds with a nearly daily account of his experiences from August 4th 1914 to May of 1915.
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.
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.[i] And then — ‘Where?’
[i] 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