ART02997 Longstaff, John, Brigadier-General Cox (1921), oil on canvas, 76 x 63.8 cm, AWM copyright
Charles Frederick Cox was born on 2 May 1863 at Pennant Hills, Sydney, NSW, the son of a butcher. He was educated in Parramatta and became a clerk with the New South Wales Railways' traffic audit branch in 1881.
Cox enlisted in the New South Wales Lancers in 1891 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the regiment in 1894. In 1897 he was chosen to head a detachment of the regiment in the ceremonies for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Promoted to captain later that year, he travelled to England again in 1899 in command of a squadron of the lancers for training with the British cavalry.
The squadron was training alongside the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers) at Aldershot, England, when the Boer War broke out. Cox volunteered himself and his squadron for service in South Africa. Some 70 of his men went to South Africa; another 31, for various reasons, did not, and returned to Australia. The others' offer was accepted by the British and New South Wales governments and they arrived in Cape Town in December 1899.
The squadron saw action in January 1900 at Slongerstein, where one lancer was killed and ten taken prisoner. He participated in the cavalry sweep to relieve Kimberley that began on 13 February 1900 and the last major battle of the war, the Battle of Paardeberg on 18 February 1900. In May 1900, Cox was attached to the Inniskilling Dragoons, under the command of Major E. H. H. Allenby.
The lancers returned to Australia in December 1900. Cox was promoted to major and given command of the newly formed 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles, with which he returned to South Africa in April 1901. In June he was made an honorary lieutenant colonel. In the latter half of 1901 the 3rd NSWMR joined part of a force led by Colonel M. F. Rimington. They covered 1,814 miles in 153 days. There was little action apart from the occasional skirmish but these cost the regiment 5 killed and 19 wounded.
While the British regulars had doubts about Cox's competence in 1899, by the end of the war in 1902 Cox had earned considerable accolades from Colonel Rimington. From his men he had earned the nickname "Fighting Charlie".
Cox remained with the lancers which became the 1st Light Horse in 1903. He became the commander in 1906 and was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 2 April 1908. In 1911 he was transferred to the unattached list.
In September 1914, Cox was appointed command the AIF's 6th Light Horse Regiment. The regiment trained in Sydney and Egypt before arriving at Gallipoli for dismounted service on 19 May 1915. Two days later, Cox was wounded by shrapnel while asleep in his dugout. He was evacuated and did not rejoin his regiment until 1 July. When Brigadier General H. G. Chauvel took over the New Zealand and Australian Division on 19 September 1915, Cox became acting commander of the 1st Light Horse Brigade. On 6 December 1915 the appointment became permanent and Cox was promoted to colonel and temporary brigadier general. He was to hold this post for the duration of the war.
The 1st Light Horse Brigade arrived back in Egypt on 28 December 1915 and were ordered to draw horses and mounted equipment and given 48 hours to be ready to march. The brigade was sent to Wadi Natrun, south west of Cairo, to protect the Kataba Canal against the Senussi. On 11 February 1916, the brigade, less the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, entrained for Minia, about 140 miles south of Cairo. They remained there until May, patrolling for signs of the Senussi.
In May Cox went to England on sick leave. He rejoined his brigade on 26 August 1916 on the Suez Canal front, where they now formed part of Chauvel's Anzac Mounted Division. At Magdhaba on 23 December 1916, Cox's brigade galloped into heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Cox immediately grasped the situation, swung his brigade around, took cover in a wadi and dismounted, saving his brigade from heavy casualties. Cox sent out his 3rd Light Horse Regiment to assist the 1st and 11th Camel Companies in their assault on the Turkish position. As they were preparing to do so, an order to withdraw came from Chauvel, who was concerned about the water situation in the lick of the lack of progress. "Fighting Charlie" told the bearer to "take that damned thing away and let me see it for the first time in half an hour". The assault was successful and Magdhaba turned into an important victory.
Cox led his brigade at Rafa, Gaza and the fighting north of Beersheba that led to the capture of Jerusalem. On 21 February 1918, Cox's men captured Jericho. The brigade participated in the unsuccessful operations east of the Jordan. On 14 July 1918, the brigade was strongly attacked by the stormtroopers of the Asia Corps at Abu Tellul. Once again, "Fighting Charlie" showed a firm grasp of the situation, sending the Lieutenant Colonel C. H. Granville's 1st Light Horse Regiment into a well timed counterattack with just four words: "Get to them, Granny". Surprised and caught in the cross fire, the Germans broke and fled. In the final campaign that began on 22 September 1918, Cox's brigade, forded the Jordan River and participated in the advance on Es Salt, and then Amman.
Cox returned to Australia on 13 March 1919. In 1920 he was elected to the Senate as a Nationalist representing New South Wales, a seat he held until 1938. He travelled widely through New South Wales and became well known and popular. As a senator, he took an interest in defence policy, the development of the railway system, and the construction of the new national capital in Canberra.
Cox was appointed to command the 4th Light Horse Brigade in 1920, and then the 1st Cavalry Division in 1921. In 1923 he was transferred to the retired list with the rank of honorary major general.
He died at Croyden on 20 November 1944 and was buried in the Carlingford Cemetery with full military honours.
The official historian, Sir Henry Gullett, wrote: "'Fighting Charlie'... had never been a deep student of war. He relied upon his native wit and common sense rather than upon the textbook. He could not claim, like Granville Ryrie to be an outstanding example of the Australian bushman. In the field, except in actual operations, he left the conduct of his brigade almost entirely in the hands of his staff... But if he left much to his brigade staff and his regimental officers, he in more than one crisis in Palestine took hold of his force with the grasp of the real leader, and turned a critical fight into sudden complete victory. These flashes were apparently so unpremeditated and so daring that critics feared Cox would one day sustain a bad failure. But both in South Africa and in Palestine, his instinct, moving in the thick of battle, was always sound and gave him a sure, strong grip on the confidence and affection of his brigade."
Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 8, pp. 128-129; Wilcox, Craig, "The First Australian Unit in the Boer War", Wartime, No. 8, pp. 3-9; Gullett, H. S., Volume VII: The AIF in Sinai and Palestine, pp. 64-66, 210-221, 666-672
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Last update 16 September 2001