Monash: our outstanding Old Boy

Renowned author Roland Perry (‘65) was another honoured guest at the Remembrance Day Assembly, addressing the boys about arguably our greatest Old Boy, General Sir John Monash (Scotch 1881). Here is what Roland said:

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Thank you: It’s good to be back after 46 years. It is an honour to speak to you about General Sir John Monash, who was Dux of the school in 1881. Today we commemorate the ending of the Great War of 1914-1918, 93 years ago.

Monash played a huge part in both the result of the battles and the ENTIRE war itself. He had brilliant careers as an engineer and lawyer/barrister before the war. But it was as a battle commander that he distinguished himself as an outstanding achiever.

In May 1918 Monash became Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Army. Until then, diggers had been tacked onto British armies along the Western Front in Europe. There were 20 armies on our side. The Australians formed the biggest single allied army corps: 208,000 soldiers.

Monash devised a masterplan for the Battle of Amiens, an industrial town in Northern France, 120 kilometres north of Paris. The Germans were pressing hard. They expected to take Amiens, move quickly down to Paris, and force the capitulation of the Allies.

Monash’s counter-attack plan had one aim – to devastate the enemy with such force that it would end the war. He would combine 500 tanks, 800 planes, countless artillery pieces and machine guns, AND three armies of three countries: English conscripts, and hardened warriors from Australia and Canada. Only Monash, the engineer, had the experience and intellect to combine all this in one precise operation.

On 8 August 1918, he sent out 102,000 diggers in two waves. Inside 48 hours they defeated two German armies. This was the most emphatic win of the war. The German commander in chief, General Ludendorff, said: ‘The 8th of August 1918 was the blackest day of the war for the German Army ...We cannot now win the war, we can only defend ...’

The King of the British Empire, George V came up from Paris to knight Monash on the battlefield; the first time this had been done in 503 years. Then, in 1415, Henry V defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt.

Monash did not want to stop at Amiens. He knew how crushed the Germans were. He wanted to go on marching east to finish the conflict in another few days. But he was stopped by the British High Command, who had not grasped the impact of 8 August. The High Command wanted Monash and the diggers to take it easy; let the other Allied armies take up the attack. But Monash ignored his superiors. In effect he became a rogue warlord, commanding what some historians have referred to as ‘a killing machine’.

There is good reason. In a 58-day onslaught from 8 August to 5 October 1918, the diggers took on one million enemy soldiers in 39 German divisions, and defeated every one of them. Our army liberated 116 French towns and villages: on average, two every day. That’s why if you go to Northern France today – and hundreds of you will – you will have a quietly uplifting experience. You will be treated with knowledgeable respect. The French will not say much, but you will realise there is gratitude in their manner. When you are there, remember that not ONE of those French citizens was alive when Monash’s army liberated their relatives.

One of Monash’s finest legacies was to change the way wars were fought. Before Monash, millions of soldiers on both sides were killed needlessly. He showed how you could win any battle without using men as cannon fodder. Monash protected his men like no other top general before him in history. His approach forms the basis for our current army’s tactical methods.

Just to put his attitude in perspective, Monash wrote to his wife mid-war with these sentiments:

‘I hate the business of war – the horror of it, the waste, the destruction, the inefficiency.

'My only consolation is the sense of doing my duty to my country, which has placed a grave responsibility on me. I owe something to men whose lives and honour are in my hands to do as I will. But once my duty is done and honourably discharged, I shall, with a sigh of relief, turn my back once and for all, on the possibility of ever again having to go through such an awful time.’

True to his word, the day after Armistice Day, 12 November 1918, he resigned his post; his job done. The man who did more than any other individual to end the conflict was the first general of either side to walk away. Renowned author Roland Perry (‘65) was another honoured guest at the Remembrance Day Assembly, addressing the boys about arguably our greatest Old Boy, General Sir John Monash (Scotch 1881). Here is what Roland said:

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Principal Tom Batty and Roland Perry (’65)