In October 1918 the Australian Army Corps in France broke the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg Line, carrying the neighbouring armies eastward with it in the last great counteroffensive of the war. In the preceding seven months it had taken 29,144 German prisoners and 338 guns, and had recaptured 116 towns and villages. For the first time the Australians were fighting as a unified force. The Corps included the five A.I.F. infantry divisions with their auxiliary troops, plus powerful formations of artillery, heavy mortars, aircraft and tanks. And it fought under the command of a native-born Australian, Lieutenant-general Sir John Monash.
Monash, born of the Jewish religion, was raised in Melbourne and was a graduate of Melbourne University with a Doctorate in Engineering. He had considerable knowledge of medicine, knew German and French, was well-versed in music and history, and enjoyed sketching in pencil.
In peacetime, Monash was a civil engineer. He was responsible for introducing reinforced concrete construction into Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. During his university days he had been an officer of the Citizen Military Forces, and after the outbreak of war he went to Gallipoli as colonel commanding the 4th Infantry Brigade. There he saw much hard fighting and was one of the last parties to be evacuated. In France he was promoted to major-general commanding the 3rd Australian Division, taking part in the Messines battle, the third Battle of Ypres, the checking of the German advance on Amiens, and the capture of Villers-Brettoneaux.
Monash consistently showed a readiness to take responsibility, a keen tactical insight, and exceptional powers of organisation. The quietly-spoken commander was sensitive about the welfare of the other citizen soldiers whom he felt it his honour to command. He made sound battle plans and stuck to them, and even in the carnage of trench warfare his casualties were as light as it was humanly possible to make them.
In May 1918, as Corps commander, Monash found himself in charge of 166,000 men, more than two and a quarter times the number that either Wellington or Napoleon had commanded at waterloo. The Australian Army Corps, he wrote, was formed from a motive “founded upon a sense of nationhood, which prompted the wish, vaguely formed early in the war, and steadily crystallising in the minds both of the Australian people and of the troops themselves, that all the Australian divisions should be brought together under a single leadership.
During the counter-offensive, in which he also commanded 50,000 American troops, Monash wrote to his wife and daughter, “No one could have foreseen the extraordinary success that was going to result, and in one short month the whole prospects of the war have been changed and the end has come appreciably nearer.” In his personal letters and official dispatches Monash repeatedly stressed the bravery, intelligence and individualism of the Australian soldier, and the way in which the men responded to his leadership undoubtedly helped to secure the final victory of November 1918.
For his services during the war, and in addition to his creation as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, Monash was appointed as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George on 1 January 1919. He also received numerous foreign honours – the French appointed him a Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur and awarded him the Croix de Guerre, the Belgians appointed him a Grand Officer of the Order of the Crown (Grand-Officier Ordre de la Couronne) and awarded him the Croix de Guerre, and the United States awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal.
The Australian Government honoured Monash with promotion to the full rank of general explicitly “in recognition of his long and distinguished service with the Australian military forces” on 11 November 1929.
After the Armistice, Monash was put in charge of repatriation. In 1921 he be Chairman of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria and developed the brown coal deposits of Yallourn. Among his many post-war appointments was the presidency of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science. He died at the age of sixty-six in 1931.
Monash’s war is long past. So is the second world conflict. Only people living in similar times could fully understand their urgency. A reaction against these wars and the undeclared wars that came after them has given us a changed attitude towards warfare and those who wage it. Whether the future will let us keep this attitude intact is uncertain.
What remains certain is that the sense of being Australians became very real among those men who knew the scarred slopes of Gallipoli, the bloody mire of Flanders, and the leave spots of Egypt and the British Isles. In this experience of realising their nationhood they were led by an Australian, born and trained. Unless some think we are going to let technology dehumanise and then destroy us, Australia will need men of equal worth in times of test and trial such as Sir John Monash.
NOTE: Join us at the City of Canada Bay Museum on Saturday, 6th May at 2:00 pm when our guest speaker will be our own member, Patricia Skehan, who will be talking about John Monash, the town of Steenwerk in France and the part they played in the Great War. She will also have tales of a young 18-year-old lad taken from his unpublished diaries of the time.