In the trenches with Monash

The article below appeared in the Melbourne Herald Sun on 15 February 2008.

General Sir John Monash occupied a place in the hearts of Australians unlike any contemporary. Author Roland Perry argues that he deserves to stay there.

When General Sir John Monash died in 1931, roughly one Melburnian in four turned out to mourn his passing. Revered by the old diggers he had led to victory through the hell of World War I’s Western Front, he was a national icon. But icons fade with time, and so it was with Monash. While achievements as soldier, engineer, lawyer and administrator saw a university and a freeway named in his honour, historians began to question the substance of his achievements.

Yes, the revisionists conceded, he was a competent general, even an inspired one at times. But to believe that he was World War I’s greatest battlefield commander, as Australians had commonly been taught, was to stretch the truth.

Enter Roland Perry, whose book, Monash: The Outsider who Won a War, aims to revise the revisionists. Citing sources ranging from German memoirs to Australian and British archives, Perry’s goal is to see Monash restored to the upper ranks of the last century’s greatest military leaders. He laid out his case for the Herald-Sun’s ‘Learn’ section.

You describe Monash as the outsider. How so?

British historian Basil Liddell-Hart summed up Monash’s outsider status by saying he had ‘four handicaps of birth – being a non-regular army person before the war (1914-1918), being a 'colonial' from Australia, having a German family background (he was born in Australia, but his parents were born in Germany), and being Jewish.

The strength of Monash’s character, his skills and drive helped him overcome these drawbacks to progress within the military during the war. The greatest problem was his German background.

Imagine today we were at war with Indonesia over say, oil in the Timor Sea. Imagine further that the head of the Australian Army is a young general named Jack Sukarno. He was born here, whereas his parents were born in Bandung, and were Muslims. Jack has risen through the ranks to the top of the Australian Defence Force. His heart and formal oath of allegiance are attached to just one country: Australia.

Think of him prosecuting war against Indonesia. Think further about the reaction from the Australian media as it probed into Jack’s links of family and friends, many of whom reside in Indonesia. This was almost exactly John Monash’s position during World War I. He was not a Muslim, but a Jew.

He was born here, but his parents were born in the country against which he was prosecuting war. You could not become more of an outsider than that.

He was reviled by official historian Charles E W Bean and influential journalist Keith Murdoch. What inspired their opposition and how did Monash overcome it?

Bean was simply, blatantly racist. He believed that the ideal head of an Australian force would be a blond, lean Anglo-Saxon. He and Monash also clashed on Bean’s diligent, yet insipid style of reporting. Keith Murdoch was not a racist, but he could not manipulate Monash. He also believed, wrongly through ignorance rather than anything else, that Monash would be a better administrator than a battle commander.

They both misjudged Monash’s popularity with the British High Command. They were unaware that once he took control of the army, his power, force of will, and superior comprehension of how to win modern battles would allow him to do as his wished, practically independent of his British superiors.

He commanded the biggest of the 20 army corps on the Allied side – which included, at one point, 208,000 men – of whom 166,000 were Australians. In effect, Monash was a warlord in the last four months of the war, where, on occasions, he openly defied his superiors in his drive with the diggers to smash the enemy and end the war before the winter of 1918-1919 set in.

This was something that Bean and Murdoch (or anyone else) did not anticipate. Murdoch at the end of the war gave up trying to unseat Monash, and reported his achievements fairly. Murdoch also supported Monash’s efforts after the war to repatriate Australian diggers. Bean, begrudgingly and far too late, wrote in 1948 that he may have been wrong about Monash and his achievements.

Greatscot _dec 2011_58a

How did the Germans rate their Australian adversary?

The Germans feared the Australian Army more than any other. There is ample evidence of this in the responses of German POWs in records of interrogation. Monash, a fluent German speaker, occasionally interrogated German officers himself. A common theme in responses was that the Germany Army would never attack on the Western Front where Australian and Canadian divisions (‘Dominion’ forces) were situated.

In late August and early September, 1918, Monash commanded a simultaneous attack on Mont St Quentin and the fortress city of Peronne, both vital, last bastions of German defence on the Somme River. Monash was inspired to attempt the dual victories with the aim of pushing the Germans off the river before the winter of 1918-19 set in, and afforded the enemy a chance to consolidate and regroup.

The Germans braced themselves for the attack. General Ludendorff, the commander of all German forces, instructed the commander at Peronne that only volunteers should be chosen to defend the fort. They were to be warned that they would be attacked by ‘Australians and tanks.’ The reputation of the Australians as fighters would mean that only the bravest enemy soldiers would wish to fight them. One in four Germans at Peronne volunteered. In fact, there were no tanks available for the Australian thrust. The purely Australian operation relied on brutal, hand-to-hand fighting to take these positions.

What were Monash’s greatest achievements?John Monash’s greatest single achievement was the masterminding of the Battle of Amiens, in Northern France, which began on 8 August 1918. The Australian force of 102,000 diggers, with the Canadians in support on day two, defeated two German armies inside 48 hours.

This was the first major breakthrough by the Allies in the four years of the war to that point.

The Germans themselves were quick to realise the impact of this smashing, very fast defeat of one-eighth of their operational force at the time. General Ludendorff said that after the Battle of Amiens: ‘We cannot now win the war; we can only defend.’ Three months later, the most brutal war in history to that time, was over.

Monash’s other achievement was to command the Australian Army (May to October 1918) in battles that took on 39 German divisions and defeated every one of them, including the crack Prussian Guard. There were one million soldiers in those 39 divisions, the equivalent of the entire German army on the Russian Front.

Before Monash took control, the diggers had been tacked onto British armies in losing battles or those that led to stalemate, or relatively small victories. They had been used as cannon fodder by the British High Command. Monash’s brilliant planning, and supreme knowledge of all aspects of war and technology, allowed him to ‘feed the diggers on victory’. The Australians had volunteered to come halfway round the world to fight and win. Monash’s leadership paved the way for the fulfilment of their aims.

What impact did Monash’s tactics have on the German commanders?Monash’s tactics had a huge impact on German commanders. According to the commander of Germany’s armoured (tank) divisions in World War II, General Heinz Guderian, the plans for the blitzkriegs of Poland and France were based on the success of Monash’s tactics for the Battle of Amiens.

This featured tanks with the infantry in support, backed up by all the other big technology of war, including communications, planes (for reconnaissance and bombing) and artillery. In short, Monash’s tactics in the massive counter-attack and defeat of Germany in World War I were used to give Germany a huge advantage in the first half of World War II. The outstanding General Erwin Rommel also paid homage to the tactics of 8 August 1918.

How did Monash’s tactics differ from those of his fellow generals?

First, Monash was a generation, even 50 years, ahead of his peers in the comprehension of warfare based on technology. The keys were his hungry, adaptable intellect and background as a building engineer. The principles behind winning a battle to him were the same as constructing a bridge or winning a court case. Planning and the deployment of resources were fundamental to successful outcomes. Proof of his methods was obvious. Every bridge built with him as the key engineer, stayed up. Every court battle he was in as a lawyer, he won. Every military battle he planned, he won.

Second, Monash was the first major battle commander in history to make the protection of his soldiers a matter of policy. He was the first-ever general to decree that the role of infantry was to hold a position and ‘mop up’. This was after the use of the tanks, artillery and communications – all the technology of war – to defeat an enemy. This principle still dominates the Australian attitude to modern warfare.

Third, Monash initiated the use of ‘raiding’, where a small contingent of soldiers would attack a position by stealth and surprise an enemy. This tactic was the precursor to SAS operations today.

Fourth, Monash was concerned with morale within his force. One aspect of this was promotion. He fought the British command and won the right to promote Australian NCOs into the officer ranks. He saw among the diggers the tendency for men to sort themselves out as leaders and followers, almost by natural selection. This was opposed to the British dictum that NCOs could never become officers. In addition, his conscious use of psychology to inspire his force was unprecedented.

Monash’s relationship with King George V was vitally important. Why?

This relationship was a two-way street. In September 1916 the king visited Salisbury Plain, England, to meet General Monash, who was training a new wave of 27,000 volunteer diggers in the Australian 3rd Division. At that time, the Allies looked likely to lose the war. The king could see his empire slipping from him. Defeat would mean his own position would be vulnerable. He was seeking battle commanders who could win.

The king was extremely impressed with Monash. The vital moment of their first meeting, which defined Monash in the king’s eyes, came when the king uttered the remark: ‘If we win the war ...’ Before His Majesty could finish the sentence, Monash had broken protocol and interrupted him, saying forcefully: ‘If we win?!’

Monash’s determination, based on his own supreme confidence as a battle commander, was a revelation to the monarch, whose own attitude was reflective of the mood of the British generals in the high command. From that moment, after the king’s subtle directive to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the Supreme Allied Commander, Monash was elevated quickly and destined to run the Australian Army.

The Monash gates at Scotch College

Following the amazing success at Amiens in 1918, the king rushed to the battlefield to knight Monash, the first time this had been done in 200 years. The monarch had picked a winner, who did not let him down.

Monash’s funeral and burial at Brighton cemetery saw one of the largest-ever turnouts in Melbourne. How do you explain the outpouring of affection, especially after the backlash against the Great War that emerged in the 1920s?

There were 376,000 men enlisted in the Australian Armed Forces (known then as the AIF – Australian Imperial Force). Every single soldier was aware of the stark change from the way they fought, struggled and lost before Monash took control of them, and the overwhelming success in battle once he took charge. They were aware too, either by knowledge or experience, that Monash did more than anyone before him to protect his charges and to plan for victory, which always came swiftly and completely.

This gave Monash a massive constituency of support among the soldiers and their families from letters home explaining their success at the end of the war. Added to this was the publicity generated at the end of the war, which depicted Monash, rightly, as a genuinely great leader, a military genius, yet a man of compassion.

In the days before TV, there was mystique about heroic figures, and Monash was the most famous figure in Australian until his death in 1931. The only time he had come into prominence post-war (apart from leading marches on Anzac Day) in the broader public mind, was when he raised an army of diggers in Melbourne to put down riots after the police strike of 1923.

These factors were enough to ensure a huge send-off after his death. Added to them were his enormous public service post-war in the State Electricity Commission; education, including his eight-year role as Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University; all areas of the arts; the creation of the Shrine of Remembrance; innumerable charities, and support for beleaguered diggers who suffered in the post-war years.

This explains at least in part why diggers came from all over Australia to pay their respects as his body lay in state in the Victorian Parliament, and at his funeral. More than 250,000 mourners lined the funeral route to his resting place in Brighton Cemetery.

Is it true that Monash held Ned Kelly’s horse?

Yes, he tethered it for him, and they had a chat. This was in February, 1878. Monash was 12 years old. Kelly, well known then as a bushranger, was already a romanticised figure wanted by the Victorian Police. Kelly was essentially a bold horse thief. He would steal horses in northern Victoria, and sell his ill-gotten equine gains in the region, often over the border in southern NSW.

His favourite buyers were Germans in the area. Kelly felt safe in the knowledge they would not dob him in to the police because he felt they had little or no affinity to the British colonial masters who ran the local government and police.

One of his German buyers was William Baumgarten. He was sentenced to four years in jail for his horse transactions with Kelly. Another buyer was Louis Monash, John’s father. Louis did several deals with Kelly, who came to the Monash homestead at Jerilderie in southern NSW.

In their brief discussion, young John said that Kelly gave him ‘some very good advice’. Monash spoke of this often, especially after World War I, but never elucidated on Kelly’s pearls of wisdom.

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