It is the night of 15th December 1915 and the 8th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry are on the Western Front near Armentières, France. It is just over a year since the beginning of the First World War. They are preparing for action and Sergeant John William Coxon was one of the soldiers ready for battle.
The Battle of Armentières had been fought between British and German troops and the two armies were now entrenched facing each other on the Western Front. The Western Front comprised a line of elaborate trench and dugout systems to protect soldiers from small arms fire and artillery. Sergeant Coxon and 134 men from the 8th Battalion were about to go ‘over the top’ into no-mans-land to attack the enemy.
This area between the British and German trenches is completely exposed to fire from both sides. John Coxon knew that no-mans-land was a killing area and that earlier in the year the casualties by attacking and defending from trenches had been enormous. In March, the British had 11,200 casualties at Neuve Chapelle. In April, another 59,275 casualties at Ypres and as recently as September another 59,275 casualties at Loos.
Coxon had also just been issued with a gas mask because the Ypres battle was the first time that the Germans had used mustard gas on British soldiers. He had seen soldiers blinded by the gas having to walk in a straight line holding the man in front. Their skin had blistered and they vomited. The mustard gas caused internal and external bleeding, was extremely painful and it took four or five weeks for a soldier to die.
Lt-Colonel D.C. Howard, Commanding Officer of the 8th Battalion is very worried. His Battalion had been selected to organise an attack on the night of the 15th/16th December and while he was proud to be chosen he was determined that this attack should be planned and executed in a professional manner to achieve results but minimise casualties.
He knew of the huge number of British losses in the last six months on the Western Front and that the tactics were causing massive casualties. Both the British and German army used methods where men rushed forward in small groups, bombing the trenches and used whatever cover they could find. It wasn’t just the scale of the losses that worried Howard but also that the attacks were achieving very little.
Howard decided that this attack should involve only 120 men and he asked for volunteers. Of those that came forward 135 were selected with the majority being officers and NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officers).
Howard’s planning for the action was meticulous. Days before the real attack, trial trenches were dug to represent the German position using photographs from air reconnaissance. The attack team was led by 2nd Lieutenant Withers and they practised day and night for three days with each man using the exact equipment he would use in the real attack. Each man knew his place thoroughly so the attack would go like clockwork.
They practised for the last time at 5.00 am on the morning of the 15th December and then rested all day. Lt-Colonel Howard had organised a bombing of the German trenches during that day to minimise the number of soldiers in the area and Sergeant Coxon watched as the planes went over on their mission.
It is midnight on the 15th December and the attacking group was getting ready to go over-the-top. John Coxon thinks about his home and family. About his mother, father, his brother and five sisters who seemed so far away. He grew up in Backworth, Northumberland, a small coal mining village where just like his father he had gone ‘down the pit’ as a boy.
His job had been coal putter, the worker who pushes a wagon from the narrow coal face to the pit ponies that pull them to the lift shaft. It was dirty, dangerous and physically demanding work but it made him very fit and prepared him well for life in the army.
He was first drafted into the Northumberland Fusiliers and was quickly promoted to Lance-Corporal and then Corporal before being promoted again to Sergeant in the Somerset Light Infantry.
At twenty fours years of age he was a seasoned soldier but nothing had prepared him for life in the trenches. It was awful. They were dirty, smelly places and riddled with disease with millions of rats feeding on scraps and bodies. The constant shellfire from the enemy brought the possibility of random death by being buried by the trench itself following a large shell-burst. The natural inclination to peer over the trench often brought instant death from sniper fire.
So, on that night of 16th December 1915, Sergeant Coxon was ready to go across no-mans-land towards the German trenches. The timing of the attack was purposely fixed for an hour and a half after the moon had set.
The night was wet and dark and it suited an attack. Coxon and the other men blackened their faces to help distinguish between friend and foe and to frighten the enemy. They also blackened their bayonets so they wouldn’t be seen in the darkness.
At 12.15 am, Sergeant Coxon watched as a small reconnaissance party went out from the trenches and saw them return at 1.30 am. They reported that they had reached the enemy wire and stayed for 20 minutes. The German listening post was unoccupied, the enemy was not alert; they heard voices and whistling from the enemy trenches.
At 2.45 am the order was given for the bridging ladders to be taken over the trench wall and 2nd Lieutenant Withers together with Sergeant Coxon and the other men followed into no-mans-land laying down in their correct order for the advance. Everything was quiet.
At 3.00 am the signal was given for the advance which was carried out very quietly and slowly over no-mans land. Withers took with him broad white ribbon that he unrolled as he went leaving behind a white path for others to follow to the enemy wire.
The plan was that the ribbon would also allow the men to return quickly after the attack. Coxon and the men carried mats that they used to throw over the wire to enter the enemy trench.
At 3.15 am, Withers entered the German trenches followed by Sergeant Coxon and the other men. The last soldier entered at 3.20 am.
Withers saw three Germans as he entered the trench and shot one. The blackened faces frightened the enemy and many ran down the communication trenches towards the rear.
A German officer and two soldiers rushed Sergeant Coxon and he shot both the officer and one of the soldiers and took the third soldier prisoner. The attack team searched for mines and tried to take a large machine gun but they couldn’t get it up the muddy wall of the trench.
At 3.35 am, Withers gave the signal to return to the trenches and this was complete by 3.50 am without a single British casualty. The enemy had been completely surprised and the assaulting troops were into their trenches before any alarm was given.
The attack had been a total success and there was jubilation in the 8th Battalion. The bravery of 2nd Lieutenant Withers and Sergeant Coxon are mentioned in the daily intelligence report from the front.
On December 28th 1915 news came through of awards for gallantry. Lt-Colonel D.C. Howard was awarded The Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
Sadly, it was also noted that Colonel Howard had been killed in action on the night of 23/24th December while making a reconnaissance and was not aware of his gallantry award. 2nd Lieutenant Frank Dean Withers was awarded the Military Cross.
Sergeant John William Coxon was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was only 24 years old. The Distinguished Conduct Medal is the second highest award for gallantry in action for NCO’s (Non Commissioned Officers).
The citation in the London Gazette of 21st January 1916 summarised the heroism of Sergeant Coxon.
‘For conspicuous gallantry near Armentières on the night of 15th/16th December, 1915. He was with a party of his battalion which raided successfully the German trenches.
After jumping into the trench he was attacked by three Germans, of whom he shot two and made the third a prisoner. He set a fine example to his men.’
The secret intelligence records of the 8th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, now publicly available, recorded the action of that night:
15th/16th December 1915. An enterprise was carried out with the object of searching for mineshaft and destroying them if found, as well as to capture prisoners, inflict loss on the enemy and lower his moral.
During the 15th a bombardment of the enemy’s trenches was carried out, the wire was cut by Field Artillery in 4 or 5 places.
The assaulting troops consisted of 5 officers and 130 men of the 8th Somerset Light Infantry who advanced from the trench and rushed over the enemy’s wire and into the trench without a pause.
The men had their faces blackened which apparently frightened the Saxons and such that were not shot or bayoneted ran down the communication trenches. 7 prisoners were brought back of whom four were unwounded. 40 German dead are stated to have been found in the trench.
Lieutenant Withers and Sergeant Coxon continued to fight together with the 8th Battalion but during January 1916 they both received wounds in action and had to be ambulanced away from the Western Front.
This was reported in the Newcastle Daily Journal dated January 14th 1916 and Sergeant Coxon was honourably discharged from the Army on the 11th August 1916.
John William Coxon DCM went home to Backworth to a heroes welcome and married Margaret Ann in September 1916. Sergeant Coxon’s home village of Backworth donated to buy him a gold pocket watch.
The inscription reads “To Sergeant J.W. Coxon DCM from friends of Backworth District to commemorate his work in the field. Dec: 1915”
He returned to work in the coal mine this time as a coal hewer. The coal hewer digs the coal and fills the tubs alternately hewing and filling. It is very dangerous and physically challenging work.
The coal seam at Backworth is so thin that John Coxon must creep in on his hands and knees. To work in the small space his feet are kept wide apart, his body bent at right angles to his hips and his head held well down with his face turned forward.
Terrible conditions for anyone to work but it must have felt good compared to the trenches of the Western Front. He continued to work ‘down the pit’ until he died.
John William Coxon DCM died on 11th March 1941 at the age of 50 years leaving a widow and three sons (aged 23, 16 and 13). Ironically on the day of his death his eldest son Robert was in the army fighting during World War 2.
At his burial in Earsdon Churchyard the army provided a stone commemoration plinth and both the grave and commemoration plinth are still there today but in some state of disrepair.
During 2015, to mark the centenary of the start of World War 1, the Museum of Somerset displayed the heroism of John William Coxon DCM as a feature of their tribute to the men and women of that time.
John William Coxon DCM: born 1891 in Backworth, Northumberland, England; September 1916, married Margaret Ann and they had three sons; Robert, George and John.
Acknowledgements and References: COXON CLUB is grateful that for this life story we have used information and images from the following: The Imperial War Museum, The National Archives, London Gazette, Newcastle Daily Journal, Wikipedia, Google Images, Museum of Somerset, Ancestry.com, Durham Mining Archives, The Family of Sergeant John William Coxon DCM.