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Walter Adams Coxen (1870–1949)

by Warren Perry

This article was published:

Walter Coxen, by William Longstaff, 1919

Walter Coxen, by William Longstaff, 1919

Australian War Memorial

Walter Adams Coxen (1870-1949), soldier, was born on 22 June 1870 at Egham, Surrey, England, son of Henry William Coxen, and his wife Margaret, née Morehead (Moorhead). His father, who owned several large pastoral properties in Queensland, brought his family back to Australia in 1880. Coxen was educated at Toowoomba and Brisbane Grammar schools and joined the Department of Railways as a clerk and draftsman on 18 August 1887; five years later he was retrenched.

In February 1893 he was commissioned in the Queensland militia garrison artillery and in June 1895 transferred to the Queensland Permanent Artillery as a lieutenant. Two years later he was sent to the School of Gunnery, Shoeburyness, England, for the long course in coast defence and siege artillery and, having completed it with honours, trained in field artillery at Aldershot in January-March 1898. On returning home he was appointed officer commanding Queensland's garrison troops on Thursday Island and in August 1899 was promoted captain. He married Adelaide Rebe White Beor at Chatswood, New South Wales, on 26 March 1901. After the post-Federation reorganization of Australia's military forces Coxen, who was a proficient mathematician, become chief instructor at the School of Gunnery in Sydney in July 1902. He held this important post at a time when the artillery lessons of the South African War were being evaluated and when procedures were making gunnery more scientific.

In November 1907 Coxen went to England for further training, gaining an ordnance certificate at Woolwich, and qualifying as an inspector of warlike stores. He was promoted major in June 1908 and returned to Australia in February 1910. Next April he became a company officer in the Royal Australian Artillery and was posted to Queenscliff, Victoria, but soon afterwards was appointed inspector of ordnance and ammunition at army headquarters, Melbourne. From January 1911 he was director of artillery, Australian Military Forces, and on the outbreak of World War I was also made inspector of coast defences and promoted lieutenant-colonel. He was seconded in that rank to the Australian Imperial Force on 21 May 1915 to raise and command the 36th Heavy Artillery Group, commonly known as the Australian Siege Brigade. The only unit to leave Australia with its establishment manned exclusively by regular officers and men, it was the first A.I.F. fighting unit to reach France—in February 1916. It first saw action in the British XVII Corps area, north of Arras. For the rest of the year Coxen commanded the brigade on the Somme, taking part in operations at Serre, Hamel, Ovillers and Pozières.

Coxen was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 1 January 1917. Promoted colonel and temporary brigadier general later that month, he left the siege brigade to command the 1st Australian Divisional Artillery and in January-July served during the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line. He took part in the attacks on Bullecourt in April and May and in the German counter-attack at Lagnicourt on 15 April. Later he commanded the divisional artillery in the 3rd battle of Ypres. He was appointed C.M.G. in January 1918, and, with the creation of the Australian Corps that month, became the senior artillery commander of the corps, retaining this position until after the Armistice. It has been claimed that in the battle of 8 August he commanded the greatest aggregation of artillery in the history of warfare. On 16 November he was made director of ordnance in the A.I.F.'s Department of Repatriation and Demobilization in London. He was created C.B. in the New Year honours of 1919. During the war he was also awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre and was mentioned in dispatches four times.

Coxen returned to Australia in August 1919. His first post-war appointment was that of chief of ordnance and fourth member of the Military Board. In January 1920 he was promoted colonel and in April was made deputy quartermaster general. From May 1921 to December 1924 he was chief of artillery. He became quartermaster general and third member of the Military Board in 1925 and two years later also became adjutant general, temporarily. He reached his final rank of major general in March 1927 and in April 1930 was appointed chief of the general staff. At the time it was said of him: 'if he had not been a captain in arms he would have made a captain of industry. Good temper and a vivid sense of humour characterises this man of action. At the front he was known as “the boss gunner”. Gifted with keen insight, and an outsize memory, he never forgets a face or a fact. Efficiency is his watchword'. Coxen's tenure of office in the army's top post was short; because of new governmental policy concerning conditions of retirement he was prematurely retired on 1 October 1931.

Known throughout the army as 'Wacky' Coxen, he was tall and well built, with strong features and a self-possessed and dignified manner. He was a good public speaker with a pleasing, well-modulated English voice and after his retirement sometimes gave radio talks for the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

He was director of the council for Victoria's centenary celebrations of 1934, a role which he carried out with characteristic efficiency. His chief recreations were ornithology, gardening and cabinet-making. He enjoyed the social life of military society, in which he moved with ease and unpretentiousness. Survived by his wife, a son and four daughters, he died on 15 December 1949 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, and was cremated with full military honours. His portrait, by Longstaff, hangs in the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1893, 2, 731, 1894, 3, 367
  • Reveille (Sydney), May 1930
  • Emu, Apr 1950
  • Army Journal, Mar 1975
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Mar 1929, 1 May 1930, 12 Sept, 3 Oct 1931, 12 Oct 1932
  • Queenslander, 8 May 1930
  • B. M. Morris, ‘The Australian Siege Brigade’, Stand-To, 1957-58, p 9, G. E. Manchester. Australian Siege Brigade in the Great War (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Warren Perry, 'Coxen, Walter Adams (1870–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 14 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Walter Coxen, by William Longstaff, 1919

Walter Coxen, by William Longstaff, 1919

Australian War Memorial

Life Summary [details]


22 June, 1870
Egham, Surrey, England


15 December, 1949 (aged 79)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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