In the lead up to ANZAC Day next Tuesday, 25 April, the Yass Valley Times wanted to feature a prominent Australian Soldier who hailed from the Yass Valley.

Cheryl Mongan, President of the Yass and District Historical Society delved into the archives and provided the below words about Captain Frank Coen, who fought in the First World War.

It was on 6 September 1916, that the Yass community gathered to pay their final respects to a local soldier Captain Frank Coen. The mood was sombre, the sanctuary and altar of St Augustine’s Church (now Lovat Chapel) were draped in black. The church was packed – clergy, sisters of religious orders, the town aldermen, politicians, all manner of local professional and businesspeople, sportsmen, members of the public, school children, friends and a large grieving family. The deceased’s stepbrother John was in religion Fr Alpohonsus, a Passionist priest, the main celebrant for the requiem mass, assisted by the parish priest Fr Leonard. Bishop Gallagher of Goulburn preached and gave the final absolution. The Convent High School choir and teachers were said to have ‘rendered the mournful music most beautifully’.

The week before the mass here in Yass, an even larger group of mourners attended a requiem mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, celebrated by the Archbishop of Sydney and over thirty priests. 

The Yass congregation might have been somewhat surprised as they entered the chapel, for at the step of the sanctuary was a coffin draped with a flag and placed on top were Frank’s militia officer’s cap and sword. One of the servers was his eleven-year-old nephew Jack Coen who eighty-three years later gave me his account of the requiem mass. Understandably, Jack was confused for he had been told that his uncle had died in France and now he thought the body had been brought back for burial because there was a coffin. He was even more confused to meet another uncle who he said was the ‘spitting image of his dead soldier uncle’. 

Captain Frank Coen. Image courtesy of Yass & District Historical Society

The congregation were gathered here for a funeral but there was no body, for the deceased soldier as he was buried six weeks before in a trench where he fell on a battlefield near the tiny French village of Poziéres. Margaret, his extremely devout Catholic mother would have taken comfort from the knowledge that Fr Francis Clune, a close family friend, had read a burial service over Frank’s grave. The coffin that stood before St Augustine’s altar was a representation of what might have occurred had Frank Coen died anywhere but on a foreign battlefield. The Coens needed closure for themselves in their own parish church where Frank was baptised on 4 February 1884, sponsored by Michael McGrath and Maria Punch and where he was confirmed and made his first communion, and in the church in which the family attended almost daily. 

Australian 18th Infantry Battalion at Walcourt during World War I (AWM C04465) Created: c. 1916-18

Captain Frank Coen was the son of Michael and Margaret Coen, owners of the Australia Stores. Some will remember the Coen’s store in Comur Street which in its day was the centre of commercial and sometimes social life in the town. Frank was the youngest son of a family of four boys and six girls. He also had two older stepbrothers. Frank was a barrister, author, aspiring politician, all-round sportsman and a respected community leader. He was the youngest candidate ever to stand for the Australian senate in 1914 and narrowly missed being elected, a result that the Catholic newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal, placed the blame on the members of the Orange Lodge.

In 1915 he wound up his practice and enlisted as a private with the 19th Battalion, quickly rising to the rank of Lieutenant before seeing action at Gallipoli. He was later transferred to the 18th Battalion on the Western Front with the rank of Captain. His letters from France reveal not only his sense of duty to King and country but also to the French people who he admired greatly.

Frank was intelligent, level-headed, organised, ambitious, compassionate and a born leader and was soon seconded to General Legge’s staff at Divisional Headquarters where he was assured of rapid promotion, but he was keen to get back to his men in the 18th Battalion. In his final letter to his mother on 5 July 1916 he wrote….

‘I shall be going back to the trenches shortly. I shall not be sorry as I really feel more contented in the front line then when out of it. There is, of course, less risk here of meeting an unfriendly mass of lead, so one should view the position philosophically… Thank you for all your efficacious prayers. Certainly, they are being answered every day and many times during the day.’

Captain Coen was shot in the head by a sniper and died instantly, on the morning of 28 July whilst directing digging operations in the front trench at Pozières. A few days later, a cross made by his men was erected over his grave. Frank was described by one of his men as ‘tall, well built, fair, clean shaven. He was a capable officer and well-liked by all his men. He was a soldier’. The death of this young professional man, who had such a promising future, shocked the citizens of Yass and the wider community and news of his death appeared in newspapers throughout Australia. 

At the war’s end no trace of Captain Frank Coen’s grave was found, his mortal remains were amongst thousands that disappeared into the mud of France that was bombarded and fought over as the war progressed. Today his name is listed beneath the 18th Battalion on the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux, France, one of 10,825 Australians who gave their lives in France and have no known grave. On 1 May 2001, I visited the memorial and placed beneath Frank’s name a small posy of lily of the valley, the traditional French offering on May Day.

Information on Captain Frank Coen and many other local soldiers who served Australia in times of war can be found in the archives of Yass & District Historical Society.

Cheryl Mongan