COX, Charles Frederick (1863–1944)
Senator for New South Wales, 1920–38 (Nationalist Party; United Australia Party)

Charles Frederick Cox (‘Fighting Charlie’), who held the men of the Australian Light Horse to be above all other soldiers, was born on 2 May 1863 at Pennant Hills, Sydney, the son of Frederick Charles Cox, butcher and later orchardist, and Eliza, née Anderson. Educated at Parramatta, Cox joined the New South Wales Government Railways in 1881 as a clerk in the traffic audit branch and became an inspector in that branch in 1912. A tall man with an imposing moustache, Cox married Minnie Elizabeth Gibbons, the daughter of William and Wilhelmina Gibbons, at All Saints Anglican Church, Parramatta, on 7 March 1894. There was one daughter of the marriage, Lenore.

Cox’s military career began in 1891 when he joined the part-time volunteers of the New South Wales Lancers. He was commissioned in 1894, attended the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897, was made captain in 1898, and led a detachment of Lancers to train with the British Army in England in 1899. While there he volunteered himself and the detachment for service in South Africa and, with the outbreak of war later that year, the Lancers became the first colonial troops to land at the Cape. After a strenuous year of service Cox returned to Australia. Promoted major in early 1901, he sailed for South Africa in command of the newly formed 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles, leading them until their return to Australia in mid-1902. During his service in South Africa, ‘Fighting Charlie’ was twice mentioned in despatches, promoted lieutenant colonel, and appointed CB (1902). He was also involved in a notorious and unsavoury incident in which he instructed a police trooper to summarily execute Jan Dolley, the trusted black servant of a farming family, for the ‘crime’ of not immediately obtaining a horse’s bridle. At the subsequent court case Cox was cleared on a contrived technicality.

Back in Australia Cox returned to the New South Wales Lancers, which, upon the reorganisation of the military after Federation, was renamed the 1st Australian Light Horse. He commanded the regiment from 1906 to 1911.[1] At the beginning of World War I he joined the AIF, commanding the 6th Light Horse Regiment. Wounded at Gallipoli, he was promoted to command the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade in November 1915. But for a brief period of illness, he led the brigade through Sinai and Palestine until the end of the war in 1918.

Quick-tempered, impetuous and decisive, Cox was neither a professional soldier nor ‘a deep student of war’. Promoted above his ability when he was given command of the 1st Light Horse Brigade, Cox largely left the day-to-day running of the Brigade to capable subordinates, and relied on instinct rather than training in battle. According to H. S. Gullett, ‘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’. At Magdhaba, in December 1916, Cox ignored orders to retire, pressing home the attack and winning the day. At Abu Tellul, in July 1918, he ‘disclosed a fine sense of the situation’, defeating a serious incursion by German troops, and taking hundreds of prisoners in the process. He was also responsible for one of the lighter aspects of service in the 1st Brigade—the sight and sound of chickens clucking and pecking at brigade headquarters. Cox had rescued the hens from the prospect of being eaten after one had laid an egg, and insisted they be kept as egg-layers. The hens were carefully carried by the brigade on their long advance through Palestine to Damascus, and Cox would sit with the hens when they were uncrated at the end of a long day’s ride for a rare diversion from the horrors of war. Cox was made CMG and awarded the DSO in 1918. Upon his return to Australia, he remained active in the militia, commanding the 4th Light Horse Brigade, then the 1st Cavalry Division. He retired in 1923 as an honorary major general. In 1929 he became honorary colonel of the 1st/21st Light Horse Regiment (the New South Wales Lancers) which position he held until his death.[2]

There is no evidence that Cox held any interest in politics before he was recruited by the Nationalist Party to head their New South Wales Senate ticket for the 1919 election, and his appeal as a candidate was based mainly on his status as a well-known returned soldier. Though personable and humorous, Cox was not a natural public speaker; his election speeches were brief rather than eloquent. However, to the electorate his wartime service spoke louder than words. Cox topped the poll in New South Wales and was elected to the Senate at the age of fifty-six. He was re-elected in 1925 and 1931. ‘A Digger reputation’ still counted for much long after the war.[3]

In politics as in war, Cox depended more on intuition than education, on impulse rather than planning. He was often silent in important debates, and the speeches he did make tended to be informed by personal experience.[4] Cox felt he had been elected to the Senate primarily to look after ex-servicemen and made their welfare his priority. He served on two select committees which found in favour of former officers who had been refused benefits through administrative anomalies. His statements on other issues betray his preoccupation with the interests of ex-servicemen. For example, he argued that banana farmers should be protected with tariffs because some ex-servicemen had become banana farmers.[5]

Outside Parliament he maintained his high profile in New South Wales through extensive travel and constant meetings, especially with returned soldiers. His busy schedule of activities included opening the annual conference of the Australian Legion of Ex-Service Clubs in Sydney in 1932 and presenting slide lectures on the Palestine campaign, which, with a wry touch, included among the scenes of famous battlefields and soldiers a photograph of himself with his chickens.[6]

Cox was a great advocate for Canberra, predicting that the new inland capital would become ‘one of the most beautiful cities of the world’. Indeed, he rejected any criticism of the new capital and would accept no delay in its development. More than once, Cox crossed swords with fellow veteran, Victoria’s Senator H. E. Elliott, leading Elliott to exclaim: ‘One has only to mention Canberra and Senator Cox boils over and delivers a foaming torrent of incoherent speech’. It must be added that Cox also supported the move of the federal Parliament from Melbourne to Canberra because Victorian senators had on several occasions extended debate on Friday evenings, forcing him to miss his train out of Melbourne to Sydney. He wanted the chance to retaliate when Parliament met at Canberra.[7]

Cox’s railway background may have led to his passion for the development of a national network of railways, linking regional centres with main lines of standard gauge. He also advocated the construction of a north-south rail link, but rejected the ‘ridiculous’ idea of ‘building a railway through the dead heart of Australia’. He proposed instead a line running ‘from Bourke to Camooweal and then on through the Northern Territory’, passing ‘through some of the best sheep and cattle country in Australia’. It would also confer considerable advantages for defence, by linking the northern line with the railways of the eastern states. Defence was one of the critical factors in Cox’s thinking on this subject: ‘I hope that honorable senators will take to heart the lesson that we learned in the Palestine Campaign. It is of no use to run away with the idea that we can have different railway gauges in Australia’.[8]

One of the features of Cox’s contribution to debate was his regular, impassioned and sometimes irrational, defence of the honour and reputation of Australia’s soldiers. In debate on the Defence Bill in 1921, he vigorously upheld the standard of military justice applied in the AIF, denying allegations of incompetence. Likewise, he described a statement about inadequacies in training during the war as a ‘deliberate lie’. (The source of the claims turned out to be none other than Sir Brudenell White, Chief of the General Staff.) He also treated criticism of soldier settlement schemes as a direct attack on the men themselves. He saved his most passionate defence, however, for the New South Wales Lancers who volunteered for South Africa in 1899. In 1933 a letter was published in The Times claiming that the detachment had made a poor impression upon the military authorities. Cox replied, setting forth the Lancers’ record of service. He felt it his ‘duty to defend the honour of the men who were associated with me in South Africa’. In 1923 Cox extended his support to wartime Prime Minister W. M. Hughes, whom he regarded as ‘the greatest statesman that Australia has ever seen’. He also regarded criticism of the administration of New Guinea as a slur on the national character.[9]

In full flight, Cox was not overly discriminating in his choice of target. In 1927 he attacked fellow Nationalist senators, Duncan, Barwell and Massy-Greene, for ‘ratting’ on the Government over the States Grants Bill, earning a rebuke from Senator Ogden. Later that year, he put Tasmanian Nationalist Herbert Hays firmly in his place on the railway issue. When Hays had the temerity to suggest Queensland had too many railways, Cox replied: ‘It has not a line too many’. Queensland, he said, was not ‘like the honorable senator’s little grass paddock’, which one could run through in four days. On the other hand, when Cox took the bait the results could be quite amusing. In 1923 Senator O’Loghlin got Cox to admit that Hughes fizzed and popped like a champagne cork. In 1929 Senator Findley taunted Cox over a recent Nationalist Party meeting. Cox replied: ‘That little interlude was staged merely for our own amusement, and to give honorable senators opposite something to talk about. If they had not something of the kind to discuss I am afraid that they would go melancholy mad’.[10]

During the 1930s bad health began to limit Cox’s work, travel and appearances, and he did not stand for the 1937 federal election. He was living in Sydney at the outbreak of World War II. He thought the men of the 2nd AIF were ‘splendid fellows’, but was once heard to remark, ‘I miss the horses. It can’t be real war without horses’. Cox died in Sydney on 20 November 1944, and was buried with military honours. His wife and daughter survived him. His work for returned soldiers and an affable manner ensured that Cox had remained as popular with the electors of New South Wales as he had with his Light Horsemen in wartime.[11]

John Connor 

[1] A. J. Hill, ‘Cox, Charles Frederick’, ADB, vol. 8; P. L. Murray (comp.), Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1911, pp. 4-10, 123-5; P. V. Vernon (ed.), The Royal New South Wales Lancers, 1885-1960, Halstead Press, Sydney, 1961; J. Watkins Yardley, With the Inniskilling Dragoons: The Record of a Cavalry Regiment during the Boer War, 1899-1902, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1904; Despatch (Syd.), July 1977, pp. 12-15; British Australasian and New Zealand Mail (Lond.), 1 Nov. 1900, p. 1548; C. F. Cox Papers, MS 37, NLA.

[2] Peter Dennis, Jeffrey Grey, Ewan Morris and Robin Prior, The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, OUP, Melbourne, 1995, p. 185; Craig Wilcox, Australia’s Boer War: The War in South Africa 18991902, OUP in association with the AWM, 2002, pp. 59, 159–60, 377;  H. S. Gullett, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914-1918, A & R, Sydney, 1944, pp. 64-6, 219-21, 667-71; Letters, A. Chisholm, W. J. Urquhart, J. F. White and G. H. Bourne to J. Black, editor, Reveille (Syd.), 1937, Cox file, ADB, ANU; Reveille (Syd.), 1 July 1937, pp. 12-13, 32; SMH, 2 Jan. 1918, p. 9, 5 Aug. 1918, p. 6, 29 Nov. 1917, p. 6, 9 Mar. 1923, p. 8.

[3] SMH, 27 Oct. 1919, p. 7, 7 Nov. 1919, p. 7, 12 Dec. 1919, p. 9, 2 Jan. 1920, p. 7, 20 Jan. 1920, p. 7, 3 Dec. 1925, p. 11, 8 Jan. 1932, p. 10, 14 Jan. 1932, p. 9; Bulletin (Syd.), 13 Jan. 1932, p. 13.

[4] CPD, 25 Nov. 1920, p. 7024, 4 Aug. 1921, pp. 10733-4, 10748, 13 July 1922, pp. 374-7, 27 June 1930, p. 3430, 22 May 1936, p. 2144.

[5] Reveille (Syd.), 1 Dec. 1944, p. 18; CPP, Select Committee on the Claims of Captain J. Strasburg for a War Gratuity, report, 1922, Select Committee on the Case of First Lieutenant W. W. Paine, report, 1924; CPD, 3 Aug. 1921, p. 10687, 13 Aug. 1920, p. 3513, 22 July 1921, pp. 10472-3; SMH, 7 Dec. 1931, p. 10.

[6] SMH, 29 Jan. 1920, p. 6, 24 Oct. 1921, p. 9, 29 Nov. 1921, p. 9; World (Syd.), 13 Feb. 1932, p. 4; Brig. Gen. C. F. Cox, Lantern Slides for Lectures, AWM93, NAA; Negative, no. H02839, AWM.

[7] CPD, 20 Sept. 1928, pp. 6972-3, 24 Aug. 1923, pp. 3441-2, 22 Mar. 1927, p. 833, 11 Mar. 1926, p. 1523.

[8] CPD, 3 Feb. 1926, pp. 568-9, 24 Sept. 1924, p. 4673, 9 Oct. 1924, p. 5351, 17 Nov. 1927, pp. 1545-6, 17 Aug. 1922, pp. 1432-3.

[9] CPD, 21 Apr. 1921, pp. 7576-8, 7563-4, 22 Apr. 1921, pp. 7663-4, 7 Sept. 1922, pp. 1974-5, 20 Oct. 1933, pp. 3752-4, 9 Aug. 1923, p. 2386, 28 June 1923, pp. 450-1.

[10] CPD, 17 Mar. 1927, pp. 590-1, 17 Nov. 1927, p. 1546, 9 Aug. 1923, p. 2386, 7 Feb. 1929, p. 37.

[11] Bulletin (Syd.), 30 June 1937, p. 18; SMH, 24 June 1937, p. 8; Reveille (Syd.), 1 Aug. 1950, pp. 10, 31; SMH, 21 Nov. 1944, p. 4; Reveille (Syd.), 1 Dec. 1944, p. 18; CPD, 22 Nov. 1944, pp. 1931–2, 1941–2.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 390-393.

COX, Charles Frederick (1863-1944)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1920–38

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1920–22, 1932–38

Select Committee on the Claims of Captain J. Strasburg for a War Gratuity, 1921–22

House Committee, 1923–29

Select Committee on the Case of First Lieutenant W. W. Paine, 1924

Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill, 1930