July 27 - August 2, 2014: Issue 173

 A Kind of Victory: Captain Charles Cox and His Australian Cavalrymen

  A Kind of Victory: Captain Charles Cox and His Australian Cavalrymen

Craig Wilcox

"When I was a kid we lived in half of an old holiday house on the beach. Yet we almost never went to the beach, never made anything of the location. That was the old working-class or suburban style, I think, to focus on what was going on within the four walls and complain about the sea air warping the weatherboard and rusting the car."

Craig (middle) with his brother, Scott (left), and sister Tracey, taken 1969. 

Former Narrabeen resident and Military Historian Craig Wilcox, whose parents still live at Mona Vale and whom he visits regularly, has released a wonderful book, on a little known chapter in Australia’s Light Horse. The story behind this book from the National Library is that the 100 (or so) men that went to England, and ended up fighting in the Boer War at the time when Break Morant reached notoriety, came from Parramatta, Singleton, Maitland, Lismore, Casino and Berry, in the main. 

This Friday, August 1st, 2014, Craig will be doing an interview with David Harris at Radio Northern Beaches (in the 12-1 timeslot, A Good Book or Two), in the Terrey Hills studio, which will make for a good listen. In the meantime we’d like to share a few insights into a great read and a great record of our own New South Wales Lancers.

For those who enjoyed our preface for this year’s Avalon Tattoo- Mona Vale Training Grounds - From Lancers on Horses to Lasses on Transport Courses, or those who have relatives that were once part of the Light Horse or the Lancers, this thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated work is one not to be missed. This week Mr. Wilcox kindly answered some queries about his new work.

Why or how did you choose this subject? 

The idea for the book came to me a dozen or more years ago in Britain’s National Archives, when I found two files containing seventy or more blue slips of paper, each one signed by an Australian soldier and stating whether or not he agreed to go to war. It was soon clear what I was looking at. A squadron of Australian cavalry had been training in England when the Boer war began and their captain, Charles Cox, had offered his men for combat. The British army had overridden him, insisting each man make up his own mind. So the old legend about British generals wanting to get their hands on Australian troops needed some investigation. Then there was the curious fact of the Australians being in England at all. What were they doing there, and what did they learn? I wrote an essay about venture while I was in London, but I always thought it deserved a complete book. Now here it is, courtesy of the National Library.

The horse has been a means of transport with an element of romance/glory added since settlement in Australia; an early pioneer in Pittwater (Andrew Thompson) was breeding and selling these from the Hawkesbury as early as 1803, and many people have stated they still rode horses from Palm Beach to St Ives into the 1930s. How much did the perceived glory and status of these noble beasts influence Charles Cox in pursuing being part of the Lancers and the Light Horse rather than some other form of military service?

To be a horse soldier had a double lure in the Australia of Charles Cox’s day. There was the age-old prestige that came from riding rather than walking, from looking down on colleagues and enemies, from scattering footsoldiers with a wild charge or just the threat of one. Then there was the status that came in colonial Australia with working on horseback and showing you could stay on a troublesome animal with ease. Colonial Australian horse soldiers had superior status to infantrymen officially, preceding them in the Army List as well as in everyone’s mind. To be a light horseman was to combine, as one politician put it, the skills of riding and shooting that so many Australian men wanted to excel at. But to be a genuine cavalryman was to make an even greater claim to superiority. You could ride, you could shoot, and you could launch a charge as well—perhaps the most difficult bit of military choreography at the time. Plus you looked wonderful on parade in an age of bright uniforms, when soldiers were public entertainers as well as warriors.

George Lee states it was “absolutely impossible to train our mounted troops up to the standard of Imperial cavalry.” What was this standard, how was it defined, and why was it impossible to reach—distance, lack of trained personnel here or…?

Lee was right (he usually was). The British cavalry was a professional mounted force, trained to march without exhausting their horses and to fight in all sorts of ways as circumstances required—firing rifles while dismounted, or on horseback using sword against other cavalry or lance against infantry. Just learning to wield a lance took months of daily practice. Learning to ride took even longer, as a certain seat had to be acquired, without using stirrups, so your horse wasn’t injured or worn out during several days of riding. Australia had almost no professional soldiers then—we relied on part-timers, the ancestors of today’s army reservists. They trained only for a few hours each week and were never housed in barracks. They had no time to learn the cavalry art, too few instructors to teach them, and no punishment hanging over them if they took things easily. Plus there was a national image of Australians as daredevil riders—the antithesis to careful horse management that was the basis of the cavalry art.

The British government almost rejected the Lancers as colonial troops rather then part of the Imperial troops; and then quickly seemed to use the presence of Cox and his contingent as an instance of another step towards imperial federation. Did Britain really need all these extra troops from far-flung places in the world when so many in their defence forces realised an Australian defence force was needed in Australia?

What London wanted was for Australians to help defend the empire as well as their own colonies—and let me go out on a limb and say that London was in the right. The bulk of Australian troops, everyone agreed, should always remain in Australia, and they did so until about half way through the first world war. But while British taxpayers supported an expensive British army and navy that among their other tasks kept rival powers away from Australia, Australians contributed nothing—and at a time when the conscript armies of Europe were growing huge, and Germany and Japan and the United States were building massive navies. Australians were, when you start to think about it, the spoilt children of the empire, protected almost entirely by Britain and with most of their troops tied down to unnecessary local defence. 

When the empire went to war in South Africa, London wasn’t expecting much of a fight and wanted a few Australian troops there more or less as a gesture to impress the world and also to remind Australians the empire ought to pull together. Then the war became serious, and white men from around the empire rushed to help anyway. Don’t forget, though, that more Australian soldiers always stood ready in Australia to repel an opportunistic attack by a rival great power than went to South Africa to fight

Tell us about Charles Cox.

Born in Parramatta, son of an orchard owner, grandson of a convict—still a shameful ancestry in his day. A clerk with the railway department during business hours, outside them a junior officer in one of the few cavalry units in Australia—and, like nearly all our military then, a part-time one. Fair haired and grey eyed, tall and powerfully built, magnificent in a ballroom, he was imposing on parade, with a bulldog alertness "Looks like a bloke as would like to be carvin’ ye up," someone joked. He had the toughness and endurance for war and for command in it, and later on he turned out to be a useful cavalry brigadier. But he had the stereotypical cavalry brigadier’s bluster. Cox attracted many women and alienated many men, generally those he commanded. Biographies conventionally cite his nickname as Fighting Charlie, but the real F-word customarily attached to his name might have been rather different. 

Right: A portrait of Brigadier General Charles Frederick Cox (1921), CB, CMG, DSO, MID, (1863–1944), also previously in (Boer) War, 1st Australian Imperial Force, 6th Australian Light Horse Regiment, 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade. By John Longstaff (1861–1941). Image ART02997 courtesy Australian War Memorial.

Cox was in London for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. His subsequent actions and what he said seems to point to wanting to maintain imperialism in a country striving to develop its own federation, defence forces from Australians themselves, and establish a uniquely Australian character on the world stage. What caused this to evolve in his character, or was it a product of upbringing?

Cox and others like him would have seen no dissonance between Australian patriotism and imperial loyalty, no disjunct between creating an Australian army and fighting within a larger British one. They were true colonials, children or grandchildren of British migrants and comfortable citizens of the greatest empire of its day. Sydney and Melbourne counted as British cities in the guidebooks, and Sydney was a British naval base. Most Australian authors were published in London, most of Australia’s successful artists and singers worked there, and nearly all loans taken by Australian governments were raised there. Nearly half Australia’s exports went to Britain and more than half Australia’s imports came from there. So the Australian economy would have collapsed overnight without the British connection. 

Some people then believed that Australian federation was just a step toward a wider federation of Britain and all its settler colonies, and that Australian military forces would be part of single imperial army one day. We know this was wrong, but men like Cox couldn’t see that. What they could see, or thought they saw, was that the Australian character was becoming part of a pantheon of British characters, alongside the Welshman, the Irishman, the highlander etc. So the more Australian a man like Cox behaved the more British he became, the more he contributed to a global British identity and British pride.

The Boer war broke out as the Australians were finishing up in England—and they wanted to go to war as members of the British army, didn’t they?

Some did, the London crowd was wild for the idea. The lancers were already attached to a British cavalry regiment, there was no clear distinction back then between an Australian and a Brit, and as Robert Menzies said as late as 1939—when Britain was at war, Australia was at war too. Back in Australia, as the Boer war began, Australians were raising their own contingents to go to the war. But during the war maybe seven thousand Australians fought in regiments raised by the British army in South Africa. Hundreds fought in standard British regiments. So it didn’t seem odd if the Lancers went to war within a British cavalry unit—in fact it meant they’d be under professionally trained officers, which they mightn’t have been had Australians been leading them. The London crowd thought this was a way to tighten the bonds of empire at a moment when it faced an enemy in war that would be no less challenging than, say, Vietnam would be for the United States. The British government loved the idea too. But everyone expected the lancers to form in their own little squadron from Australia within any Brit military formation, and the British government wanted the New South Wales government—remember, this is before an Australian federal government existed—to sign off on the lancers going to war. So they would have been Australians at war after all.

Were these men in love with wearing gorgeous uniforms and being almost attached to the British army, or were they striving to establish the Australian soldier on the world stage?

Both, probably. The Lancers wanted to arrive in their ancestral home as Australian fighting men, then learn to fight just as professionally as the British cavalry. But it turned out the first aim undermined the second. The Lancers performed for the London crowd, literally, in mock skirmishes in hall in Islington, but this and similar appearances took them away from drill all too often. Then there was the riding problem. Almost everyone assumed that Australians were natural horsemen—and some were—but the Lancers had learnt to ride as civilians, in various ways and to varying degrees of skill. As one English newspaper pointed out, “It is one thing to stick on a buckjumper, or ride a horse long and hard; it is quite another to so ride and use a horse as to get out of him all the work that is in him.” So the British army set the lancers to work by asking them to learn to ride all over again. The Australians thought this time-wasting at best, humiliating at worst. The Brit’s didn’t want to humiliate their guests. So Brits and Australians agreed the lancers, being colonials, just rode differently. They were excused from riding drill and, I suspect, from a lot of other drill too. When the big summer manoeuvres came the Australians went with the infantry, not the cavalry, and they were used as mounted riflemen—infantry who just happened to ride horses to get from A to B.

A Kind of Victory has some beautiful artwork from the times, adding insight to the history it relates. Many of these are the covers of musical works written for those events related; marches, national songs etc. Have you heard any of these, and if so which do you like in particular and why?

Jemma Posch, image coordinator for the National Library’s publications unit, chose the illustrations. She worked hard, rifling through thousands of images in the library’s collection to put together a kind of album of the age, evoking the once-close Australian relationship with England and impact of the lancers on the popular imagination…they appeared in adverts, and there were tributes to them in the form of popular songs that survive today as sheet music.

The music itself? I’m afraid I haven’t listened to any. (But if any serious piece can sum up those brittle tragic times, it’s probably Elgar’s Serenade for Strings.)



Craig Wilcox

A Kind of Victory exposes unusual sides of Australia’s military history - before Anzac rather than after it, our national identity undermining our military ability, British generals standing for the right of Australian soldiers to refuse to go to war for the empire, and war shading into outright murder.

In many ways Australia seemed a modern place in the 1930s. Memories of a colonial past were fading. Australians sang a national anthem asking a Christian god to save England’s king or queen, but church attendance was declining as surely as British imperial power and popular pride in it. Factory workers and their families often lived in cramped nineteenth century terrace houses, but social reformers and Labor politicians were planning new, lightfilled flats for them. Motor vehicles were hustling the last horses and carts off the roads. Radio soap operas and Hollywood films shaped a million collective daydreams, obscuring old folk stories about convicts and the Bush.

All the more reason, then, to value living links with the past. One of those links was the Senator and retired General, Charles Frederick Cox. Now in his 70s, Cox had led a Light Horse regiment and then brigade from 1914 to 1918 in the First World War and, before that, two colonial contingents to the Boer War fought in South Africa from 1899 to 1902.

That he was the grandson of a convict was not quite an open subject of discussion. Convict settlers might seem colourful in the abstract, but descent from them remained a little too embarrassing for most Australians. More obviously admirable and almost as antique were the beginnings of Cox’s military life. He had been first commissioned back when Queen Victoria reigned over a proud and expanding British Empire. As a young subaltern in the scarlet-trimmed uniform and rooster-feathered hat of the New South Wales Lancers, he had begun his service in the final years when a torrent of horsemen might still turn the tide of battle.

Charles Cox kept some precious relics of his long years in uniform - scrapbooks, photographs, his commissions, some other documents, and a homburg-hatted, florid-faced portrait of himself by John Longstaff. It might have been in the 1920's, on retirement from military life, that he gave his early commissions to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library.

When borrowing them back briefly in 1936, he mentioned in a note to the librarian ‘that he had other commissions & papers which he would bring to the Library next session’. They were not a window on to Cox’s command during the First World War but on to his early years in uniform. A few were from the Boer War, which presumably explains the title the documents received as 'material relating to the South African war’. Most, in fact, were older still. There was a diary from 1897, when Cox and some other New South Wales Lancers had gone to England to join the official celebration of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee. The bulk of the collection, though, was made up of letters and telegrams dating from the spring of 1898 to the Boer War's outbreak 12 months later.

They documented a curious episode in Australian history, and in British history as well. Early in 1899 Cox had led a squadron of New South Wales Lancers from Sydney to Aldershot in England to train with the British Army. ln an age when Australians were beginning to celebrate the rough drill, dress and discipline of their soldiers, Cox and his men had tried to learn from smart British regulars. They acquired most of the smartness but few of the skills, for reasons ranging from disease to distractions to a convenient notion that what seemed deficiency might really be national difference. Yet the episode ended neither in false triumph nor secret disappointment, but rather in a bungled immersion in battle.

The Boer War began as the Lancers' training ended, and most of the squadron left for war not, like other Australian volunteers, as members of specially raised contingents leaving one of their capital cities, but as individual auxiliaries to a British Army cavalry brigade. That was not where the oddity ended. The British Government was as keen as any Australian to see the Lancers incorporated into an official colonial contingent. And when it came to light that not all the men wished to go to war, the British Army - so often said to have been eager for colonial cannon fodder - identified all who wished to return home, censured their Captain for trying to nudge them into combat, and sped them on their way to New South Wales.

The men whose wishes were punctiliously respected by the British Army were soon being mocked by their fellow Australians as cowards and slackers. Meanwhile, back in South Africa, Charles Cox began his war by ordering the execution of an unarmed civilian, prompting an outcry that dogged the army for a year.

The strange apprenticeship of Charles Cox and his New South Wales Lancers, and its unexpected and controversial climax, posed two questions to the men concerned, to their families and communities, to politicians and military officers in Australia and England. Should Australian soldiers strive for the style and manner and culture and competence of British regulars? Should they join the empire's wars as auxiliaries to the British Army, or only as members of Australian contingents? Tentative answers, both negative, emerged by the Aldershot venture's end. Confirmation came during the First World War so firmly, and amid such relentless combat and punishing casualties, that by the 1930s the venture seemed eccentric, even irrelevant. What did it have to do with the new, less romantic, more mechanised world they lived in? How did it fit in with a national military story being crafted out of Australia's part in the First World War? The story’s heroes were infantrymen in plain khaki, not fancy, feather-tipped cavalrymen.


A Kind of Victory: Captain Charles Cox and His Australian Cavalrymen by Craig Wilcox

National Library Publishing, $44.99rrp. Published July 14, 2014 - available for purchase online

 Elgar Serenade for Strings by Sydney Camerata

Performed live by Sydney Camerata in October 2010.  Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20; I - Allegro piacevole, II - Larghetto, III - Allegretto