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.
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
|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|
|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|
|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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