Book Review: Craig Wilcox, A Kind of Victory: Captain Charles Cox and His Australian Cavalrymen (2014)

As one would expect from a National Library of Australia publication, Craig Wilcox's A Kind of Victory: Captain Charles Cox and His Australian Cavalrymen (2014) is well researched and magnificent illustrations create a rich context for the text.  Wilcox explains '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 renowned portraitist John Longstaff'.  Wilcox achieves exactly what he sets out to do in bringing ‘Charles Cox's papers alive and to evoke a long lost moment in our history.'  The title 'A Kind of Victory' inspires the reader to find out why the response to the Lancers' actions in South Africa was ambivalent. Any analysis of conflict is seldom black and white and ‘A Kind of Victory’ inspires the reader to consider to what extent the word victory can be used to describe success in conflict.

Wilcox demonstrates that the New South Wales Lancers owe much of their early evolution to the encouragement and financial support of Colonel James Burns of Burns, Philip & Company shipping.  Much of the New South Wales Lancers' early training was indeed self-financed by the participants and on occasions with the assistance of Burns and other officers.  It was at Colonel Burns’ instigation that the New South Wales contingent contributed to Empire military exchanges and it was Captain Charles Cox who took the Squadron to train at Sandhurst with the British Army.  It was an experience which came to be viewed with ambivalence as the participants struggled to see the relevance of what they referred to as the 'bum and poker' style of riding and experienced the humiliation of being pressured to undertake a riding course.  Charles Cox proved to be an effective negotiator when it came to providing for his men, but perhaps he might have participated in more of the training rather than invitations in London. For all that, Charles Cox's efforts proved successful in diplomatically assisting to put Australia on the map.


If not the unpopular riding lessons, perhaps parade ground training and discipline set them in good stead for their service in the Boer War. Again rather than the Lancers' participation coming at the behest of the Government of New South Wales, it was the impetus of Colonel James Burns and those like Captain Charles Cox who volunteered to serve.  Not all volunteered.  There was disaffection among the Lancers - they'd suffered from influenza and measles during their training. Charles Cox had also suffered personal tragedy. From home there was news of the death of a brother.  Another brother fell ill.  Scandal erupted in Sydney when it was found that 31 Lancers of the 100 who were in Britain at the time returning home, having refused to support the war effort.  The New South Wales government was slow to offer support.


On 3rd October 1999 the War Office announced that it would accept a small colonial contingent.


Captain Charles Cox's career was not without blemish and by today’s standards, some of his harsh disciplinary measures would have provoked enquiry and condemnation.

In the First World War, he served on Gallipoli and then as a Brigade Commander in Palestine.  Unsurprisingly he was not universally liked.  But Cox was an effective leader of the type required by circumstances at the time.


In his writing of A Kind of Victory: Captain Charles Cox and His Australian Cavalrymen, Craig Wilcox shows how much of the development of the units that were to form a part of the Light Horse was dependent on the contribution of individuals such as Charles Cox and of course his backer James Burns.


I found A Kind of Victory: Captain Charles Cox and His Australian Cavalrymen on the sale table in Readings’ bookshop in Hawthorn.  It surprised me that such a worthwhile book published in 2014 was being sold off cheaply.  Perhaps it reveals some aspects of history that readers find difficult to contemplate in the contemporary environment. Yet we should come to terms with all that has contributed to our past and take from it our own lessons about diplomacy and humanitarian conduct. 


Honor Auchinleck