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Charles Frederick Cox (1863–1944)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

Charles Cox, by Howard Harris Studios, 1920s

Charles Cox, by Howard Harris Studios, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24081715

Charles Frederick Cox (1863-1944), soldier, railway auditor and politician, was born on 2 May 1863 at Pennant Hills, Sydney, son of Frederick Charles Cox, butcher and later orchardist, and his wife Eliza, née Anderson. Both parents were native-born. He was educated at Parramatta and entered the colonial railways in 1881 as a clerk in the traffic audit branch. Over the next ten years he developed an increasing interest in the volunteer movement and joined the New South Wales Lancers in 1891. He was commissioned in 1894 and that year, on 7 March, married Minnie Elizabeth Gibbons at All Saints Anglican Church, Parramatta.

Cox was tall and had a fine presence. Showing himself to be a forceful and reliable officer, he was given command of the lancer detachment which went to London for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in April 1897; he was promoted captain in November. On returning home he resumed work with the railways then, two years later, commanded a squadron of lancers who went to England, at their own and their regiment's expense, to train with regular cavalry. On the outbreak of war in South Africa in October 1899, Cox and most of his men volunteered for active service and their offer was approved by the New South Wales government. They were the first colonial volunteers to land at Cape Town. From May 1900 Cox was attached to the Inniskilling Dragoons, serving under Major (later Field Marshal) E. H. H. Allenby who was to be his commander-in-chief in 1917-18. He took part in almost every major action including the relief of Kimberley, the battles of Paardeberg and Diamond Hill and in operations in the Eastern Transvaal.

He and his lancers returned to Sydney at the end of their year's service. There, as a major, he was appointed to command the newly raised 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles and was back in South Africa with this regiment in April 1901. In June he was made an honorary lieutenant-colonel and joined a force led by Colonel M. F. Rimington, perhaps the ablest of the British column commanders in the guerilla phase of the war. He remained in the field with Rimington until the end of April 1902, winning the respect and admiration of the British regulars. Rimington's glowing farewell order to Cox and his regiment reflected great credit on their commander: 'They have shown, by their dash in attack, steadiness in action and alert behaviour on outpost duties, that they are thorough good soldiers of whom the Empire may well be proud. Their cheerful conduct under privation and exposure is above all praise. Under splendid officers, their coolness, self-reliance and dash brought them out of difficulties where other troops might have suffered severely'. Thus Cox and his mounted rifles foreshadowed the great light horse regiments of 1914-18.

He was appointed C.B. while still a major, an uncommon decoration for so junior an officer, and was mentioned in dispatches. In two years in the field he had won a reputation as a spirited leader and had earned the affectionate nickname of 'Fighting Charlie'. Cox returned to the railways in June 1902 and in 1912 was appointed an inspector in the traffic and audit branch. His heart, however, remained with the Lancers, now named the 1st Australian Light Horse, which he commanded in 1906-11. On the outbreak of World War I he resigned from the railways and, in the rank of lieutenant-colonel, raised the 6th Australian Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Force. They fought dismounted on Gallipoli in the 2nd Light Horse Brigade. Cox was wounded on 21 May and did not resume duty until 1 July. From late September to early November he was temporary commander of the brigade then, as an honorary brigadier general, succeeded Brigadier General H. G. Chauvel in command of the 1st Light Horse Brigade which he led until the end of the war.

When Chauvel was forming the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division in March 1916, Cox was far up the Nile around Minia patrolling against the Senussi; owing to the shortage of mounted troops he was not released to join the division until May. He then went to England on sick leave, thus missing the battle of Romani, when his brigade fought with great distinction. He resumed command on 26 August. At Magdhaba, on 23 December, Cox showed his quick grasp of a situation when, caught in the open by Turkish artillery, he handled the brigade with great flexibility, thereby saving heavy casualties. Later in the same fight, when a stalemate appeared to have been reached and no water was available for the horses, Chauvel sent an order for withdrawal just as Cox was preparing to assault a Turkish position. 'Take that damned thing away', said Fighting Charlie, 'and let me see it for the first time in half-an-hour'. The successful assault by his 3rd Regiment was the beginning of the end of Turkish resistance at Magdhaba.

In 1917-18 Cox commanded the brigade in Palestine and Syria. At Abu Tellul in the Jordan Valley on 14 July 1918, he again revealed his instinctive grasp of a battle situation when he launched his 1st Light Horse Regiment in a counter-attack against a strong German and Turkish force which had penetrated far into his position. His timing was exact; the enemy, caught between the 1st Light Horse and the fire from Cox's posts, surrendered in hundreds. In November he was evacuated to hospital in Cairo, resuming command on 10 December.

Cox was not without his critics, some of whom disliked what they saw as vanity and a seeking after popularity, even at the expense of discipline. Major (later Brigadier) W. J. Urquhart, an officer who knew him during the Sinai-Palestine campaign, provides an engaging picture: 'No academic soldier he, but a leader in battle whom his men would follow, a man of the sword and the warhorse, of the night march and the attack at dawn, a beau sabreur, who wore … an emu plume of large dimensions and had a roving eye'. If command of a brigade was the limit of his capacity it must be observed that, in this role, his record was one of unbroken success over more than two years of strenuous campaigning. He was appointed C.M.G., awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and mentioned in dispatches many times.

Soon after his return to Sydney in 1919 Cox was elected to the Senate as a Nationalist, holding his seat until 1938. Although he made no mark in politics and never attained ministerial office, he found life as a senator more congenial than that in the railways. He did not speak often in debate, especially in his later years, but he travelled widely in New South Wales, becoming one of the best-known politicians of that State. His speeches reflect a sturdy nationalism balanced by firm support for the British connexion: if they lack weight they reveal a considerable range of interest, especially in defence, the development of trunk railways and the Federal capital.

For a time after the war Cox had continued to serve with the Australian Military Forces, commanding the 4th Light Horse Brigade in 1920 and the 1st Cavalry Division temporarily in 1921-23. He was placed on the retired list in 1923 as an honorary major general. In 1929 he was made honorary colonel of the New South Wales Lancers, now 1st/21st Light Horse. He devoted himself to the welfare of returned soldiers until age and failing sight restricted his activities, and was much in demand at soldiers' ceremonies and on public occasions. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died at Croydon on 20 November 1944 and was buried in the Anglican section of Carlingford cemetery with full military honours. Cox's portrait, by Longstaff, hangs in the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Watkins Yardley, With the Inniskilling Dragoons: The Record of a Cavalry Regiment During the Boer War, 1899-1902 (Lond, 1904)
  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • H. S. Gullett, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine (Syd, 1923)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1924)
  • P. V. Vernon (ed), The Royal New South Wales Lancers, 1885-1960 (Syd, 1916)
  • Reveille (Sydney), July 1937
  • Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook (1919-38)
  • C. F. Cox papers (National Library of Australia)
  • contemporary letters (Australian War Memorial).

Additional Resources

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Cox, Charles Frederick (1863–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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