Between 1914 and 1918, St John’s College had over 50 students and alumni serve in the First World War. ‘Beyond 1914 – The University of Sydney and the Great War’ is an extensive, searchable database of biographies and archival information about members of the University community who were involved in the First World War. The College, along with several other University of Sydney Colleges, will provide some financial assistance as well as important archival information to assist the University in building up its database.
One particular individual’s story that students and staff of St John’s College encounter every day is that of alumnus Captain Francis (Frank) Coen AIF whose portrait hangs on the O’Reilly Stairs (pictured below).
Frank Coen’s story highlights the ultimate sacrifice that many service men and women make for their country.
Born in Yass, NSW, Frank Coen was a barrister in civilian life practising from Selborne Chambers, Sydney. Having studied a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney while residing at St John’s College, he gave back to the John’s community after his studies by serving as a Fellow on the College Council. On 1 March 1915, at the age of 31, he enlisted in the 19th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. Two months later he was commissioned as a lieutenant and transferred to the 18th Battalion and shortly afterwards was sent to Gallipoli, with the rank of temporary captain. In March 1916 he was posted to France, landing at Marseilles with his unit. He was promoted captain on 27 May and was killed in action on 28 July 1916 at Pozieres.
For much of his service in France, Frank Coen was attached to Headquarters Staff of the Australian 2nd Division. This gave him the unique opportunity to observe the effects of war on the French people away from the front line. In mid-April 1916 he attended Mass in the Church of Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris and wrote the following lines to his mother:
The congregation numbered some 600. I noticed only three men: the remainder consisted of women, girls and children – all in mourning. It is not on the Boulevards or in the Cafes that one sees the grief of La Belle France, if you wish to look into the heart of the unfortunate country you must visit the churches. There you can arrive at some estimate of the grief and suffering of this hateful struggle.
– Extract from a letter from Captain Francis Coen to Margaret Coen, 18 April 1916, 1DRL 203, 12/11/137, AWM
Today Captain Frank Coen is commemorated at the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, France.
Requiescat in pace
Lest We Forget