Australians on the Western Front: Monash built to lead

HONOUR: King George V knights Lieutenant General John Monash at the Australian Corps headquarters in France on August 12, 1918. Photo: AWM E02964.
HONOUR: King George V knights Lieutenant General John Monash at the Australian Corps headquarters in France on August 12, 1918. Photo: AWM E02964.

Like the volunteer Australian Corps that he later commanded, Sir John Monash was not a professional soldier when he entered the First World War aged 49.   

But the Melbourne-born son of German Jewish immigrants ended the war with a record as admirable as any other Allied general based on his battle-winning leadership in France in 1918.

The boy who met bushranger Ned Kelly in Jerilderie became a successful civil engineer and pioneer in constructing bridges with reinforced concrete.

He also served 30 years in the part-time citizen militia, developing an interest in the possibilities of mechanical warfare, before his appointment to lead the Australian Imperial Force’s 4th Brigade at Gallipoli.

Promoted to command the 3rd Division in 1916, Monash trained the new recruits on England’s Salisbury Plain.

Joining the British-led II ANZAC Corps, the 3rd Division distinguished itself in Flanders in 1917. They fought beside New Zealanders in capturing Messines Ridge in June, the successful attack at Broodseinde early in October and the carnage at Passchendaele.

Monash was chosen to succeed General Sir William Birdwood as Australian Corps Commander in May 1918 and promoted to Lieutenant-General.

From August to October all five Australian Divisions fought together in a series of offensive operations – and victories – leading up to November’s Armistice.

Historians highlight Monash’s intellect, force of will, self-confidence, administrative competence and creative originality.  

Biographer Geoffrey Serle said Monash talked of “keeping one’s mind elastic and one’s thinking machinery cool.“

Above all, Monash was a meticulous planner, using an engineer’s precision to map out his battle plans.

His interest in the technology of war and the Western Front’s dreadful casualty lists firmed his views about the infantry’s ’true role.’

Monash said it was “not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort (or) wither away under merciless machine-gun fire … but to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources."

Monash enhanced his reputation by a set piece battle plan for capturing the town of Le Hamel from the Germans on July 4.

Combining infantry, artillery, new Mark V tanks, aircraft and tactical surprise – with American infantry joining Australian troops -  it was all over in 93 minutes.  

Australia’s official war correspondent Charles Bean called it “a textbook victory, a little masterpiece casting a long shadow before it”.

Monash the accomplished pianist waxed lyrical: “A perfected modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition … every individual unit must make its entry precisely at the proper moment.”

Le Hamel snuffed out a campaign by Bean, aided by journalist Keith Murdoch, opposing Monash’s elevation to head the Australian Corps.

The Allies then moved to protect the strategically important town of Amiens.

On August 8, Monash’s Australians spearheaded an advance with Canadian and British troops to overrun the German front line in what General Erich Ludendorff labelled “the black day of the German army.”

King George V travelled to Monash’s battlefield headquarters at Chateau Bertangles and knighted him on August 12.

Further decisive victories followed, pushing the Germans off Mont St Quentin and out of Péronne.

Monash led the Australians and 50,000 Americans in breaking the Hindenburg Line and early in October the weary Australian troops – and their leader – were rested.

Australian historian Dr Peter Pederson said Monash knew he was fortunate to command the Australian Corps at its peak “but he also made his own luck.”

He wrote in The Anzacs that Monash’s open mind, robustness, intellect and creative imagination were sharpened by his wartime experience.

“By (mid 1918) Monash’s ideas on fighting were highly developed and fully proven. Monash’s technical mastery of all arms and tactics, particularly surprise and deception, was unsurpassed among his contemporaries, and he attached equal weight to logistics. Monash’s strengths far outweighed the flaws in his command style or the few mistakes he made.”

Monash believed in “feeding the troops on victory” and was annoyed if Australian achievements failed to get due recognition.

He quickly wrote his version for history, The Australian Victories in France in 1918, arguing that the Australian Corps punched above its weight between March and October in terms of prisoners and guns captured and area reoccupied.

At the end of the war, Monash managed the efficient repatriation of 160,000 Australian soldiers. Back home he led Anzac Day marches and pushed for the creation of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance.

Monash contributed greatly to Victoria’s industrial development by running the State Electricity Commission in the 1920s.

In 1929, new Prime Minister Joseph Scullin promoted Monash to General.

An estimated 250,000 people attended Monash’s state funeral in 1931.

  • The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.