The Australian Heavy Artillery were in Bexhill for only a short time. The group arrived in Cooden Camp in December 1915 and were in France by the spring of 1916. The Australian government had decided in 1915 that the threat to its ports and coast had lessened as German shipping had been confronted and beaten. The Coastal Defence of the different Australian states was manned by trained, regular artillerymen and military engineers, serving with civilian militia.
It was from these men that the 36th Australian Heavy Artillery Group (HAG) was formed. The men sailed from Melbourne on 17th July 1915, landing in England on 25th August 1915. The Group consisted of two Siege Batteries, the 1st and 2nd, which became the 54th and 55th Siege Batteries of the British Royal Garrison Artillery. They were made up of 415 officers and other ranks. The heavy guns were to be supplied in Britain. The whereabouts of the Group from the end of August to December is not known. It is recorded that there was a delay in taking over the new, heavy guns, which were in short supply. Eventually the 54th Siege Battery took over four 8 inch Howitzers, while the 55th took over four 9.2 Howitzers.
The group was led by Lt. Colonel Walter Adams Coxen, (1870-1949). He was an impressive career artilleryman. Born in Surrey, England he had moved, aged ten with his family, to Queensland, Australia, where his father owned stretches of pastureland. He became a railway clerk but was made redundant during the depression of the 1890s. In 1893, he joined the Queensland Militia Garrison Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant. In 1897, he was sent to England to study Coastal Defence and Siege Artillery at the Royal School of Gunnery at Shoeburyness, proceeding in 1898 to train with the Royal Artillery at Aldershot. On his return to Australia, Walter Coxen became a Captain and was given command of a garrison. Later he became Chief Instructor at a School of Gunnery.
In 1907, he was back in England, at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich for ordnance training. He was promoted to a Major before returning to Australia in 1910, and by 1914, he was a Lt.Colonel and Inspector of Coastal Defences.
‘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 characterise a man of action. … Gifted with keen insight and an outsize memory, he never forgets a face. Efficiency is his watchword.’
Such leadership produced the success of the Australian Heavy Artillery Group. Coxen was promoted to command the First Australian Division Artillery from January to July 1918, serving during the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line.
The Australian Siege Artillery Brigade was a relatively small, professional group of men. They had the privilege of keeping their own cap badge. Their physical and mental hardship during the war, managing the heavy Howitzers to order, was no small part of the victory in November 1918.