Book Review: The Great Promise by Rick Coxen

Book: The Great Promise
Author: Frederick L. Coxen and Frederick G. Coxen
Pages: 154
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Create Space
Release Date: August, 2012 (approximately)
Book Source: Provided by author in manuscript form
Category: History, Memoirs
Style: Powerful commentary, disturbing violence

Royal Field Artillery testing new phones 1909
Source:  Rick Coxen

Synopsis from GoodReads:

Frederick L. Coxen’s debut is a fascinating, visceral journey into the hell of war, the hearts of the men engaging in battle, and the search for closure for those left in its wake. Nearly one hundred years after the BEF’s initial engagement, Captain Coxen’s grandson was given his grandfather’s journal—and a letter he wrote in 1945 detailing the promise that was made but never kept. With these two items in hand, his grandson begins a quest: to find the families of the fallen men and make good on the promise left so long unfinished. Interspersing sections of the grandfather’s journal with key historical background the author transcends the reader beyond the historical depiction of the War, transporting them into the trenches through the experiences of one man who survived while millions of men perished. The Author goes on to describe the grandson's journey as he attempts to track down the families of the deceased in order to close the circle so long left open. The book delivers a surprise conclusion fitting for such a remarkable journey. . . . more


Have I mentioned I'm a history buff?  When Rick Coxen posted the comment "Isn't anyone interested in World War I history?" on a Book Blog forum, I had to respond.  How could I ignore such a plea?  I cannot say how glad I did.

Rick asked me to read his soon-to-be-published book about his grandfather's experience nearly one hundred years ago as an artilleryman and an officer in the Royal Artillery of the United Kingdom.

Rick based his book on a journal Frederick G. Coxen kept and which eventually made its way into Rick's hands.  When he discovered his grandfather had made a pact with three other soldiers to contact their families if they should never return, and when he read his grandfather express his anguish that he had never done so (all three died in the war), Rick knew that he not only had a mission to accomplish, but a story to tell.  Thus, "The Great Promise" was conceived.

In the course of Rick's research and the writing of this book, he was featured on "The Story", a radio feature often aired on National Public Radio and American Public Media.  This podcast is available here and deeply moving.

The Book:

I opened this manuscript expecting a novel constructed around the framework of Captain (then artilleryman) Coxen.  However, I found the actual journal entries, and they are more powerful than any novelist could fictionalize.

In addition to the transcription of his grandfather's journals, Rick Coxen provides us with commentary about the battles, the war, some of the weapons Captain Coxen refers to, and his own experiences researching both the war and his grandfather's mates.  Because of this, and the fact that he had to clarify or guess at some of the entries, he originally thought to present it as historical fiction.  However, this is truly a memoir and a powerful one, not only of his grandfather's experiences but his own in uncovering a lost and forgotten past.

     I gently lifted the journal from the box and held it in my hands.  For a brief time I just started at it, reveling in the moment.  I'll never forget the emotional sequence that followed.  At first I was overcome by an exhilaration comparable to one might expect when uncovering a treasure chest or embarking upon an  adventurous journey.  This elation became intermingled with awe for the piece of history I was holding.  However, these sentiments were soon overshadowed by the riveting realization that I was holding my GRANDFATHER'S journal; a journal written astutely in his own fluent, cursive hand, almost one-hundred years ago. . . . By unraveling the poignantly historical thread of my grandfather's war years through the examination of his personal relics, I was able to sculpt together a more complete replica of the remarkabley complex man he was.     I could not have anticipated that further excavation into the box contents would have such a dramatic effect on the next few years of my life.
Coxen is 24 years old, senior to most of the soldiers, and educated.  An electrician by trade, a previous member of the British equivalent of the National Guard since graduating from high school, Coxen served as a telephone-man, making sure the lines of communication were open between his regiment and Command.  This of necessity forced him out of the trenches and into the line of fire, in some very harrowing circumstances.  His commanders quickly learn to rely on his courage, tenacity and strong leadership skills.  He receives a field commission and ultimately ends the war in the UK, training others the skills in which he excels.

The Great Promise opens a window onto the battlefield with a realism which conventional history books struggle to attain.  Through Coxen, one glimpses the lives of the regular soldiers caught up in the fields of Flanders:  their cocksure expectations and the shattering of them, the deprivations they suffered, the futility of their actions, their superhuman accomplishments and their gut-wrenching failures.

This is a soldier's journal, blunt, with no punches pulled. . . rather, I suspect he censored a great deal.  However, the truths he allowed to escape his pen are graphic and disturbing.  At times only the knowledge that this memoir is published by his grandson gives the reader hope.  One marvels, as he did often, that Frederick Coxen managed to survive to tell these tales.

Source:  Wikipedia Commons
Despite his classic British stoicism, Coxen inwardly weeps for his mates, the obscene loss of life, the horrific, grizzly effects of modern technology pitted against antiquated battle strategies.  His loneliness away from his wife and baby daughter makes it but once or twice onto the page.  He peppers his observations with his dry British whit, but his yearning to end the madness and go home bleeds through as subtext.  When the journal entries stop abruptly just when the Germans begin chemical warfare, it comes as a relief.

Rick Coxen provides excellent back story on the war, as well as commentary on his own search for his grandfather's trench mates.  Unfortunately, like the war, few definitive answers are reached, but Rick's greater understanding of and connection to his grandfather makes the journey one worth taking.

I found the writings of this gentleman compelling, thought-provoking and heartbreaking.  The greatest pay-off comes in the words of Frederick G. Coxen himself, penned some thirty years after the period in this journal, when Europe and the world were again caught up in a war to end all wars.
Throughout the years I have had a great many dreams or mild nightmares fighting that war all over again, and have so often thought, "Was it worth it?"
I cannot complete the quote with any justice.  You'll have to read his letter in its entirety yourself when the book comes out.

Bottom line:  This is not a historian's book or a novelist's book.  One cannot call it brilliantly executed.  However, it is a good book and one people should read, discuss, and share.  They need to keep it on their shelves to be reminded of the horrors of war, the futility of sending millions of men to their deaths, and the up-close-and-personal we too often forget when analyzing battle strategies and politics and who assassinated whom.

Editor's Note:  I will divide into two installments my interview with Rick about this multifaceted book.  I hope  you will return for the first next Wednesday.  You won't regret it.  I promise.

For in-depth interviews with Mr. Coxen, visit:
Author Interview Part One
Author Interview Part Two
Author Interview Part Three
Author Interview Part Four

Editor's Note:  This book review was updated on August 16, 2012, after the retail release of book.

FTC disclaimer:  An electronic copy of this book was provided to me by the author or their agent with the understanding I would provide a fair and honest review.  I receive no other compensation for this content.


Margot A. Cooke said...

I found the book so intriguing that I read it in one sitting. I thuroughly enjoyed the view from the frontline perspective with a surprising bit of Brit humor at times.
I hope that this books helps to fulfill the "Promise", or at least inspire a movie so we can see the Hollywood ending.

Unknown said...

Definitely agree. It's got all sorts of cinematic drama.