1915, Ypres, WW1, first use of poison gas – Captain Fred G. Coxen

 

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The date is April 24th, 1915. Frederick George Coxen, a soldier with the Royal Field Artillery is standing overlooking the town of Ypres, Belgium.

Fred Coxen had been called back into the army at the start of the First World War and had battled his way through Belgium with the British Expeditionary Force. He was a seasoned soldier and had seen action in Mons, Le Cateau, Landrecies, Marne, Aisne, La Bassee, Langemarck and Neuve Chapelle. He had also been in Ypres six months earlier when during what is now called the First Battle of Ypres (19 October to 22 November 1914), the Allies captured the town from the Germans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ypres occupied a strategic position during the First World War because it stood in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France. The neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed by Britain and Germany’s invasion of Belgium brought the British Empire into the war. The German army surrounded the city on three sides, bombarding it throughout much of the war. To counterattack, British, French, and allied forces made costly advances into the German lines on the surrounding hills.

The German use of poison gas for the first time on 22 April 1915 marked the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres, which continued until 25 May 1915. The poison gas used was chlorine which spreads across the ground towards enemy positions and poisons the soldiers causing horrific injuries. 

 

 

The Second Battle of Ypres cost the lives of 69,000 Allied and 35,000 German soldiers. This massive killing occurred over only five weeks and during the period a detailed diary of events was kept by Fred Coxen to provide a personal insight into the life and death of soldiers during that terrible time.Here is the chronological detail of those five weeks at Ypres together with the journal entries (in italics) of Fred Coxen.

 

April 14th 1915

A prisoner taken by the French disclosed the preparation of a gas attack by the Germans but his story was not believed because the use of asphyxiating gas was prohibited by the accepted laws of warfare.

Remained in position firing on enemy’s trenches and guns but aeroplanes were very active and often stop us from firing. Our observation station in the brewery was a veritable trap, for it was continually shelled. In spite of this we stuck it for four days, until one shell hit direct on the little cellar wounding Grogan and Smith (the two telephonists on duty). Lt Richie had a marvellous escape, but poor Grogan died afterwards and Smith was so shook up he was sent away. Can hear sounds of continual heavy fighting far away to our left towards Ypres and on our right by La Bassee; some pretty hard scrapping was in progress on the French front.

April 22nd 1915

It was a spring day with no abnormal enemy attack the entire day. Then, at 5pm the calm was shattered by an outburst of heavy howitzer fire. The town and villages to the north east of Ypres were still inhabited by Belgium civilians and so far had hardly been touched but this time were bombarded furiously. From the front of the German line beyond Langemarck there emerged two yellow clouds that drifted on a gentle wind towards unsuspecting Allied lines. The Allied soldiers were then seen running back pointing to their throats, coughing, suffocating, terrified; a retreat became a rout and at 7pm the guns fell silent. A great breach in the Allied line into which pressed the German infantry.

April 24th 1915

Received orders to move with all speed to Ypres, marched and billeted for night near La Gorgue.

 

April 25th 1915

 

Long march to Odderum and I went forward as billeting party. There was heavy fighting going on at Ypres. I heard of the gigantic German assault, the retirement of the French and of the forced retirement of the Canadians in consequence, the battle was raging fiercely all night and it sounded horrific.

 

April 26th 1915

The 26th April was distinguished by the attack of the Lahore Division. Two brigades advanced upon the enemy at Mauser Ridge and came under appalling fire. Their ranks were devastated but they pushed forward leaving their dead in great heaps. They actually reached within 120 yards (130m)  of the German line. Just as they came to the wire a cloud of gas was released blowing across the advancing troops.

George, Collins and I went with CO to Ypres to reconnoiter a position for the battery. As we neared Ypres, we could see the hellish bombardment going on. On all sides of the road were dead horses, overturned lorries and discarded equipment, as well as hundreds of wounded being carried down, or hobbling along the best way they could.

As we galloped through the town some awful sights met our eyes, men and horses blown to pieces. Every few yards along the road was something dead and bits of men and horses were everywhere. The shells were absolutely falling everywhere – it was an inferno. After a time it abated a little and we started again. We went through the village and it was terrible. Shell burst very near and I said, what a stink and strange smell. My eyes were watering and we all three began coughing. After an exciting half hour we got to the guns and I felt bad and sick.

We learned from an officer that it was due to the gas shells the Germans were using. It was very lucky we decided to get out of it or undoubtedly the three of us would have been gassed properly instead of partially, but it was bad enough, sufficient to stop me eating anything for three days.

April 27th 1915

General Fochs demanded of the French troops that continuous attacks should be made on the Salient (the battlefield zone that thrust into enemy lines) with no artillery support. These attacks were doomed to failure. A combined offensive, French and British, was ordered for the 27th. The Lahore Division once again attacked and came under heavy fire. A fresh attack was launched that evening supported by a composite brigade formed by the only units that could be scraped together, a total of 1,290 men. This started hopefully but unfortunately they were met by gas shells.

 

Much the same as yesterday – continual shelling and firing, the enemy also sending over their great 17″ Howitzer shell. The enemy must have been preparing for this for months for their ammunition expenditure was enormous and unceasing. About midnight we got orders to move at once for the position was absolutely suicidal to hold.

April 28th 1915

Went into action on the edge of a wood on the left of Ypres. Everywhere about here was a scene of desolation.

April 29th 1915

Hostile aeroplanes were very active and one must have spotted us for they gave it to us warm in the afternoon and evening.

April 30th 1915

We fired in the morning by wireless bombardment to support attack by the French which was said to be successful. One 17″ dropped by the French guns. Several fell in front of us and one 30 yards to and in direct line with our left gun, just where I was.

It is impossible to describe these monsters coming through the air. The nearest it is like an express training through a tunnel and the burst is like a terrific clap of thunder. The earthsways as if it were an earthquake. We measured this hole at night and it was 25 foot deep and 43 foot across, great lumps of earth, like rocks, had been scattered many yards.

May 1st to May 4th 1915

On the 1st May General Foch’s views were overridden and all the troops commenced a withdrawal from the tip of the Salient. This was carried out by degrees during the following nights. At noon on the 2nd the north face was assailed by violent bombardment and gas but the enemy was met and the artillery immediately opened fire on the area behind the gas cloud. On the night of the 3rd-4th the infantry moved back from the front lines.

We were still in the same position. The hostile shelling never ceases, day or night. We were ordered to move with Lahore Division (which was now sadly depleted in numbers) on night of May 4th to a place some 1.5 miles from Ypres.

May 5th 1915

Headed out towards Estairs, a long ride.

May 6th 1915

Was a beautiful day which I spent mostly in much needed sleep.

 

 

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This story is based on a World War 1 journal written by Captain Frederick G. Coxen, who served in the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) and the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1905 to 1919.

He was born in Battersea, London in 1887  to Richard and Alice Coxen. When he was 18 he joined the RFA and selected signalling as his specialty. Signalling was a key role since communications between the artillery batteries and the forward observation post were vital for shelling accuracy and target selection.

When an artillery battery arrived at battle position, signallers were responsible for immediately running wire to a forward observation post, to each battery section and to headquarters. When the guns were firing the observer in a forward observation post would watch where the shells were landing and signal back the new range and degrees left or right of the intended target.

It was in August 1914 that Fred Coxen landed in France with the British Expeditionary Force. He was in The First Battle of Mons, The Battle of Le Cateau, The First Battle of Marne, The First Battle of Aisne, The First Battle of Ypres, The Battle of La Bassee, The Battle of Langemarck, The Battle of Neuve Chapelle and finally The Second Battle of Ypres. All of this in nine months.

After these battles Fred was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and sent to Liverpool to inspect the Anti-Aircraft Gun Detachments. During this time he was given the temporary rank of Captain. In November 1917 he returned to France and assigned an anti-aircraft Battery. He returned to England in May 1918 where he was seconded to the RAF as an Observer Officer. He left the services in February 1920 and returned to his civilian occupation of electrician. In 1922 Fred and his family emigrated to the United States and lived in Detroit, Michigan. He died in 1960 and is buried in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Message from the Grandson of Frederick G. Coxen

I am first generation American. My grandfather, Frederick George Coxen, moved his family to the US in 1922 and settled in Detroit, Michigan. In 1905 my grandfather joined the Royal Field Artillery and after serving six years of active duty he transferred into the RFA reserves. Half way through his mandatory six years of reserve duty World War One broke out and he was called into active duty. He went to France with the British Expeditionary Force and fought in the early battles of the war. I was fortunate to inherit his military papers which included his journal. In 2012 I self-published a book, “The Great Promise” which contains all of his journal entries. Since the book had elements of fiction, historians requested I write a non-fiction book, which I published on Kindle, “World War One – An Unkept Promise”. The e-book contains family history back to my great grandfather, Richard Enos Coxen.

[Acknowledgement and sincere thanks to Rick Coxen for allowing the use of excerpts from his book ‘An Unkept Promise’ based on the journal and papers of his grandfather Captain Frederick G. Coxen]

 

World War 1, Remembrance – Our Roll of Honour

ForenamesSurnameHomeDeath DateRegiment
Alfred George Coxon Kingston on Thames 17/09/1914 Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment
Thomas Coxon Hanley, Staffs 30/10/1914 Grenadier Guards
John Edward Coxon Bradford, Yorkshire 20/02/1915 Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment
William Hugh Coxon 11/03/1915 Notts and Derby (Sherwood Foresters) Regiment
Sidney John Coxon Kingston on Thames 24/05/1915 East Surrey Regiment
Joseph Coxon Newcastle upon Tyne 16/06/1915 Northumberland Fusiliers
Richard Humphrey Coxon Derby 21/07/1915 London Regiment
Thomas Coxon Morpeth, Northumberland 09/08/1915 Prince of Wales's Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment
George Ernest Coxon Seaton, Co Durham 19/09/1915 East Yorkshire Regiment
Robert Arthur Coxon Longton, Staffordshire 25/09/1915 Seaforth Highlanders
Herbert Bradfield David Coxen Beaconsfield, Western Province, South Africa 06/10/1915 Rifle Brigade
Johnson Coxon 01/03/1916 Durham Light Infantry
William Coxon West Stanley, County Durham 02/03/1916 Durham Light Infantry
Richard Coxon Murton, County Durham 26/04/1916 Royal Dublin Fusiliers
Thomas Coxon Longton, Staffordshire 04/05/1916 North Staffordshire (Prince of Wales's) Regiment
Herbert Coxon Hanley, Staffordshire 19/05/1916 North Staffordshire (Prince of Wales's) Regiment
William Lawton Coxson Liverpool 06/06/1916 The Kings (Liverpool) Regiment
Charles Coxon Salford, Lancashire 01/07/1916 Lancashire Fusiliers
Robert Coxon Newcastle upon Tyne 01/07/1916 Northumberland Fusiliers
Robert Archibald Coxon 01/07/1916 London Regiment
Matthew Coxon Langley Moor, County Durham 25/07/1916 Durham Light Infantry
George Coxon Beeston, Nottinghamshire 19/08/1916 Duke of Cambridge's Own (Middlesex) Regiment
John Coxon Houghton le Spring, County Durham 15/09/1916 Durham Light Infantry
Peter Coxon 15/09/1916 Northumberland Fusiliers
James Eaton Coxon Newcastle upon Tyne 15/09/1916 Northumberland Fusiliers
John Coxon Ludworth, County Durham 25/09/1916 East Yorkshire Regiment
William Coxon Chester, County Durham 26/09/1916 Durham Light Infantry
Lawrence Frederick Coxson 14/10/1916 Royal Sussex Regiment
Alfred Coxon Christchurch, Stockport, Cheshire 17/10/1916 Cheshire Regiment
James Coxon Hanley, Staffs 04/01/1917 North Staffordshire (Prince of Wales's) Regiment
Robert Coxon Windy Nook, Sunderland 26/01/1917 Yorkshire Hussars (Alexandra, Princes of Wales's Own
Charles Sedgwick Coxan Derby 31/01/1917 Notts and Derby (Sherwood Foresters) Regiment
Oswald Coxon South Shields, County Durham 01/02/1917 Northumberland Fusiliers
John Garner Coxon Burton, Staffordshire 09/02/1917 Royal Horse Artillery and Royal Field Artillery
John Edwin Coxon Pool, Yorkshire 12/02/1917 Northumberland Fusiliers
Albert Ernest Coxon Stillington, County Durham 29/03/1917 Yorkshire Hussars (Alexandra, Princes of Wales's Own
John Henry Coxon Pendleton, Lancashire 09/04/1917 Lancashire Fusiliers
John Coxon Hartlepool, County Durham 09/04/1917 Yorkshire Hussars (Alexandra, Princes of Wales's Own
James Coxon Shincliffe, County Durham 11/04/1917 Northumberland Fusiliers
William Ord Coxon Langley Park, County Durham 12/05/1917 Prince of Wales's Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment
Arthur Edward Coxon 20/09/1917 Gloucestershire Regiment
Frederick Coxon Walsall, Staffordshire 01/10/1917 South Staffordshire Regiment
John Thomas Coxon Shotton Colliery, County Durham 03/10/1917 Durham Light Infantry
William Basil Coxon 28/10/1917 Northumberland Fusiliers
Percy Hunter Coxon 31/10/1917 Border Regiment
Thomas Henry Coxon South Moor, County Durham 23/03/1918 Lancashire Fusiliers
Herbert Coxon Rhodes, Lancashire 24/03/1918 Lincolnshire Regiment
John Coxon South Shields, County Durham 28/03/1918 Durham Light Infantry
William Coxon Longton, Staffordshire 05/04/1918 North Staffordshire (Prince of Wales's) Regiment
Alfred William Coxon Melbourne, Derby 11/04/1918 Royal Army Medical Corps
William Harold Coxan Derby 13/04/1918 Notts and Derby (Sherwood Foresters) Regiment
Alex Coxon South Moor, County Durham 18/04/1918 Durham Light Infantry
Harold Victor Coxon Alton, Hampshire 21/04/1918 The Royal Welsh Fusiliers
Ernest Gough Coxon 27/04/1918 Royal Army Medical Corps
Charles Coxon 05/06/1918 Canadian Engineers
Eric Edward Coxon Queensland 03/10/1918 47th Battalion Australian Infantry.
William Charles Coxon Victoria 03/10/1918 11th Battalion Australia Infantry
Frederick Edwin Coxon South Australia 24/10/1918 27th Australian Infantry Battalion
William Thomas Coxon New South Wales 04/11/1918 53rd Australian Infantry Battalion
Charles Frederick Coxen Cleveland, Transvaal Province 10/11/1918 3rd Regiment South African Infantry

 

 

 

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