ART02989 Longstaff, John, Brigadier-General Walter Coxen (1919), oil on canvas, 76.4 x 63.4 cm, AWM copyright
Walter Adams Coxen was born at Egham, Surrey, England, on 22 June 1870, the son of a Queensland pastoral property owner. The family moved to Australia in 1880. Walter was educated at Toowoomba Grammar and Brisbane Grammar. He took a job with the Queensland Department of Railways as a clerk and draftsman on 18 August 1887 but was retrenched five years later, during the depression of the 1890s.
In 1893, Coxen was commissioned into the Queensland Militia Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant. In June 1895 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Permanent Military Forces, in the Queensland Artillery. In 1897 he was sent to England for a course on coast defence and siege artillery at the Royal School of Gunnery at Shoeburyness, and then training with the Royal Artillery at Aldershot in early 1898.
On returning to Australia in 1899 he was appointed commander of the garrison on Thursday Island, with the rank of captain. In July 1902 he succeeded Major W. T. Bridges as Chief Instructor at the School of Gunnery at Middle Head. A skilled mathematician, he held this post at a time when artillery procedures were becoming more scientific. In November 1907, Coxen went to England for ordnance training at England for training at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich.
He was promoted to major in 1908 and returned to Australia in February 1910. Coxen served briefly with the coast artillery at Queenscliff, Victoria, before becoming Inspector of Ordnance and Ammunition at Army Headquarters in Melbourne. In January 1911 he became Director of Artillery. On 14 August 1914, Coxen also became Inspector of Coast Defences with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
On 28 April 1915, the Chief of the General Staff, Colonel J. G. Legge wrote to the Minister of Defence, Hon. Mr George Foster Pierce, to suggest that Australia offer a brigade of siege artillery for service in Europe, the brigade to consist of two batteries, with eight siege guns to be supplied by Britain and 415 officers and other ranks, about half of whom would be permanent garrison artillery gunners. The offer was made and accepted, and on 21 May 1915 Coxen was ordered to raise the brigade.
The brigade, which became known as the 36th Heavy Artillery Group, departed Melbourne for England on 17 July 1915 and landed in England on 25 August 1915. A delay in England was necessitated because heavy artillery pieces were in short supply. Eventually the 54th Siege Battery was equipped with 8 inch howitzers and the 55th Siege Battery with 9.2 inch howitzers, the largest guns ever operated by the Australian Army. The batteries moved to France on 26 February and 2 March 1916 respectively.
The 36th Heavy Artillery Group began operations in support of the British XVII Corps in the Arras sector before moving south to join the British Fourth Army for the Somme Campaign, which opened on 1 July 1916. In due course it joined I Anzac Corps Artillery at Pozieres. This campaign highlighted the increasingly important counter battery role of the heavy artillery, the only arm capable of neutralising the enemy guns which wreaked havoc on the Australian infantry at Pozieres. For his services, Coxen was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in the 1917 New Year's list.
On 18 January 1917, Coxen replaced Brigadier General J. J. T. Hobbs as commander of the 1st Division Artillery. Coxen had already been considered for the post of commander of the 3rd Division Artillery some months earlier and had been passed over only because it was felt that he was invaluable as commander of the Siege Brigade; the job instead went to Brigadier General H. W. Grimwade. This time Coxen was given the job and was promoted to brigadier general. He served in that capacity through the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, the battle of Bullecourt and the Third Battle of Ypres. All this time, the tactics of the artillery, on which success in battle now relied, became more and more refined, complex and sophisticated.
In line with the Australian government's policy that all senior posts should be held be Australians, Coxen took over as commander of the Australian Corps Artillery on 18 October 1917. This time, it was Coxen who was promoted over the heads of two senior artillery officers, Brigadier Generals G. J. Johnston and H. W. Grimwade. Lieutenant General J. Monash worried that Coxen, whom he described as "a dour, sour, unsympathetic creature, and difficult to get along with" might be out of his depth as corps General Officer Commanding Royal Artillery (GOCRA). But he soon discovered that his fears were groundless, and soon came to rely on his advice. At Hamel, Coxen counselled Monash to combine tanks with an artillery barrage, arguing that artillery would make an absolute certainty of the result. It did.
As Corps GOCRA, Coxen was in charge of some of the greatest concentrations of artillery of the war, such as the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918. For this battle , Coxen, had 18 field artillery brigades, 9 heavy artillery brigades and a long range brigade of 6 inch and 12 inch guns. A barrage by 432 field and 30 heavy guns fired according to a detailed scheme while the heavies, two thirds of which were detailed for counter-battery tasks, bombarded the enemy gun positions and other targets. This represented a barrage density of 1 gun per 15 metres. Compared with the battles of 1917, the barrage was very simple: perfectly straight. It was hoped that this would minimise difficulties, since once again the barrage would be largely unregistered. Arrangements were made to have all guns recalibrated on the Army ranges and battery positions resected by the 1st Topographical Company. Coxen's gunners fired barrages that aided the advance of the infantry and protected them from counterattacks, harassed the enemy by day and night, and and brought accurate counter battery fire onto enemy gun positions.
On 16 August 1918, Coxen became Director of Ordnance in the AIF's Department of Repatriation in London. He returned to Australia in August 1919 and became Chief of Ordnance, and a member of the Military Board. In January 1920 he was promoted to full colonel. He became Deputy Quartermaster General in April 1920, Chief of Artillery in May 1921 and Quartermaster General in 1925. In March 1927 he was promoted to major general and finally became Chief of the General Staff in April 1930. Due to a new government policy on retirements, he was retired on 1 October 1931.
In retirement he was director of the council for Victoria's Centenary Celebrations in 1934.
Coxen died at the Repatriation General Hospital at Heidelburg, Victoria, on 15 December 1949 and was cremated with full military honours.
Known as "Boss Gunner", Coxen had keen insight and a tremendous memory. In a complex technical environment, he performed with great efficiency.
Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 8, pp. 130-131
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Last update 8 June 2010