Remembering and Revering Monash

monash portraitIn a paper written in the wake of the 2009 Victorian bushfire disaster, I drew a pointed analogy. The failed and failing bushfire policies and management strategies in Australia these days have a parallel with the disastrous military strategies adopted by the generals in the early years of the First World War. Both were designed in such a way that they must invariably fail, both ignored the lessons of history, and both resulted in terrible and unnecessary losses of lives.

In my paper I also drew attention to the role played by the Australian General Sir John Monash, who engineered the breakthrough on the Western Front in the final year of the war. Monash conceived and implemented a winning strategy. I called for a new Monash to lead a renaissance in modern Australian bushfire management. Since then I have been asked several times to explain World War One strategies and Monash’s role. I had taken it for granted that most people understood all this. The questions have come especially from Americans, who generally lack the intense interest in WW1 history felt by Australians — especially Australians of about my generation, most of whom had a grandfather or uncle who fought and died at the Dardanelles, or in Flanders.

So, a potted history for those who came in late. The war on the Western Front (that is, western Europe) fell roughly into three phases. The first was brief, taking only a few weeks in August and September of 1914, as the German army swept through Belgium and into France, taking all before it. The third phase was also brief, lasting only from about August to November of 1918, when the allied armies broke through and began the rout which led to the war’s end. In the long years of the in-between phase, the British, French and Germans dug in and confronted each other across a narrow no-man’s land over a ‘front’, stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland.  This phase was characterised by a series of largely static and horrible battles, with the British and French flinging themselves repeatedly at the German defences. The position of the frontline scarcely changed for three years. Millions died. The Generals on the Allied side knew only one strategy: headlong attack by infantry, following an intense artillery bombardment of the German frontline trenches.

I have always been proud that it was an Australian who engineered a new strategy, and Australian troops who largely provided the strike force to carry it through.

Australians had started arriving at the Western Front[1] in late 1915, following the withdrawal from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Although the Australians had their own field commanders, they reported to British Generals and to the British Commander in Chief Field Marshal Douglas Haig. This highly unpopular arrangement was the result of some political argy-bargy between the British and Australian governments.[2] It meant that in 1916 and 1917, Australian troops were forced to follow a disastrous strategy, i.e., attack at all costs against well-defended positions and hardened German troops with expertise in the use of enfilading machine gun fire. Consequently, Australian infantry suffered shocking losses on the killing fields at Passchendael, Fromelle, Pozieres, Villers-Bretonneux and Messine Ridge[3].

By the time of the battle of Hamel in the spring of 1918, some changes had been made. Both the Canadian and Australian governments were fed up with the appalling generalship of the British and had insisted on leadership changes. Amongst other things this led to the appointment of the first Australian to lead the Australian Army: General Sir John Monash.

Monash was born in 1865 in Victoria, the son of Jewish-Prussian immigrants. He was a ‘Renaissance Man’, with degrees in arts, engineering and law from Melbourne University. A brilliant mathematician, he became a civil engineer but also, in his spare time, a major and artillery commander in the Victorian Militia[4]. By the time of the Gallipoli landing in April, 1915, he had been appointed a full colonel in the regular army and was commander of the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade. He was promoted to lead the 3d Australian Division on the Western Front throughout 1917,  then put in full charge of the entire Australian Army Corps in early 1918.  He was at that time in his early 50s, and a very experienced and battle-hardened front-line soldier.[5]

Monash deplored the strategy of the British and French generals. He observed that it had one over-riding characteristic: it always failed. Moreover, he could see no chance of it ever succeeding. Firstly, the battles had no surprise element. British artillery would pound the German frontline trenches for days before an attack, but the Germans simply retreated into deep, bomb-proof bunkers, from which they emerged to set up their defensive wall the moment the bombardment stopped. Second, even if by superhuman effort and sheer weight of numbers the attackers got into the enemy’s front line, the Germans always maintained reserve troops behind the line who then counter-attacked, catching the exhausted attackers in trenches whose defences faced the wrong way.

The Monash strategy had three essential elements: (a) meticulous planning; (b) secrecy and deception to mislead the enemy of his intentions; and (c) collaborative arrangements between the various service arms. He did away with the massive pre-attack bombardments, instead using a suberbly-managed “rolling barage” which crept towards the enemy in front of the advancing attackers, and he used specially-fused artillery shells that cut barbed wire. He had organised for his intelligence officers to determine the exact location of the enemy artillery, and focussed on knocking this out by precision counter-battery gunnery the moment the battle commenced. He championed the new offensive weapons, in particular the tank, and insisted on joint planning and coordination between tank and infantry commanders (something that seems elementary today, but he was the first to do it;  indeed many British senior officers distrusted or were contemptuous of the tank, prefering horse-mounted cavalry). He also developed close coordination with the Air Force, and used aircraft to bomb and strafe the German troops in the reserve trenches to prevent the inevitable counter-attacks. Most innovatively, he used aircraft to re-supply his advancing troops. In the past, the attackers had often found themselves short of ammunition and grenades after they had achieved their objective and were then subjected to counter-attack. Monash arranged for special supply drops from low flying aircraft. Again this seems elementary, but until Monash organised it, the Air Force and the Army had operated quite independently.

Finally, Monash had his sights set well beyond the enemy’s front line trenches. He identified important objectives kilometres further on, and he organised tanks and armoured cars with supporting infantry to move straight through the first line of defensive and support trenches making no initial attempt at consolidation (other than the mopping up of subterranean strong points, from which in the past Germans would emerge to attack the rear of the offensive troops who by-passed them. The fast moving attackers would leap-frog each other in successive waves, to take key offensive positions beyond, and to disrupt German communications and re-supply. It was a concept of mobile, not static warfare, and was the product of a colossal planning effort and intricate control systems.

Monash had been a musician in his former life and loved classical music. Not surprisingly he chose a musical analogy to describe his battle strategy. He saw the cooperative arrangements between infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft, planned down to the last tiny detail, as “an orchestral composition”, in which each instrument made its entry at the right moment and played its phrases to a score, all contributing to the final harmonious result.

Monash first played his symphony at the small-scale battle of Hamel (it was all over in 90 minutes of exquisite execution of a brilliant plan), and the result so amazed the British generals back at GHQ, they allowed him to elaborate upon it. This resulted in a series of stunning victories, culminating (in August, 1918) with the smashing of the Hindenburg Line, up until then the great stumbling block of the Western Front. It was a dramatic victory; the stalemate collapsed, the front was riven. It foreshadowed the end of the war – the German Army never recovered, and was virtually on the run when the Armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918.[6]

Throughout all of this, Monash was also fighting personal battles.

In the first place, he suffered serious prejudice through being a Jewish colonial militiaman of German parentage. In the second, he was looked down upon by the top military brass because he was an educated and scholarly man, who was not a professional soldier but had come up through the ranks. Finally, he led Australian soldiers who, although acknowledged as tough and savage fighters, were regarded as ‘unsoldierly’ by the pommy generals. Australian soldiers, for example, refused to salute English officers, and would salute their own officers only on a voluntary basis; they were great drinkers and looters, and going into battle would dress to fight, not for the parade ground. It is characteristic that there was only ever one mutiny of Australian troops during World War 1 – this was over a proposed restructure of the battalions, with which the troops did not agree. The restructuring had been forced on Monash from above, and he had resisted it, but in the end was over-ruled. Although they refused to be restructured, the men did not refuse to fight, electing their own officers from within the ranks to lead them until the mess was sorted out.[7]

Right into 1918, there were political machinations going on in London to undermine Monash. They were led by a cabal of journalists and war correspondents who regarded Monash as “too pushy, too ambitious and too clever”.  At least one of these journalists (Charles Bean, who also wrote the Official War History, and was always luke-warm towards Monash) had the 1918-equivalent of a hotline back to the Prime Minister in Australia. It is a great tribute to Monash that he could put all of this out of his mind and concentrate on the job at hand.

It was left to the incomparable war historian Basil Lidell-Hart to truly sum up the situation:

A war-winning combination had [at last] been found: a corps commander of genius, the Australian infantry, the Tank Corps, the Royal Artillery and the RAF”.

Despite this, and the fact that his troops revered him, Monash was never lionised in the press. He was not a man to court favour with journalists, and this cost him their support, both during the war and afterwards.

Following the war, Monash was involved in a number of engineering and civic projects in Victoria and in looking after ex-servicemen. He aspired to national politics or national leadership of some sort, but the same media and political forces that had sought to undermine him during the war lined up against him again. But when he died in 1931 he was not forgotten by his former troops or their families. An estimated 250,000 came to his funeral to pay their respects. Such numbers had never been seen before, or since at any funeral in this country.

Postscript: It is, of course, fantasy on my part to imagine a Monash-like figure arising in Australia to tackle and resolve our bushfire crisis. The vested interests in the political parties, the public service, the fire services, academia, the media and the environmental organisations would never allow him the opportunity, let alone the power to take charge, set up a winning strategy and see it through. He would first be undermined, and then destroyed. The crisis of war, or of armed insurrection, both of which represent the ultimate breakdown of good government, seem to provide the only forum these days in which true leaders can truly lead.  It is perhaps the greatest indictment of modern democratic society.

[1]               Germany also had an ‘eastern front’ where, up until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, they were fighting the Russians.

[2]               When the Americans finally came into the war they would take none of this nonsense from the Brits: one of the conditions of their entry was that American troops were led independently by an American, General Pershing.

[3]               My wife’s great-uncle, George, was killed at Messine Ridge.

[4]               Prior to Federation in 1901, each of the independent Australian states had their own small volunteer part-time armies, called militia. The first contingent of Australian troops, as opposed to militia, fought on the British side in the South African war in 1902.

[5]               There is a brief biography of Monash posted on the internet by the Reserve Bank of Australia. Monash’s portrait is depicted on the Australian $100 note.

[6]               The best book I have read on the Australians in WW1 is Les Carlyon’s The Great War, on which I have drawn for this account.  Monash’s own book The Australian Victories in France in 1918 deals less with the work of the soldiers than with the broader strategies – but is nevertheless fascinating and beautifully written.

[7]               Both the French and German armies had two quite serious mutinies, in which the troops refused to fight, and many mutineers were executed.

  • Lawrie Ayres

    Growing up in the fifties I saw my father go off to fight bushfires when asked. He and most of the others were dairy farmers and not available during the day so most fire fighting was done at night. Equipment was non existent; a few wet wheat bags, some hoes and an occasional knapsack sprayer. Fires in the more rugged areas were allowed to burn but fire breaks were put in at night around infrastructure, houses and sheds belonging to friends after all. Assisting the effort was the fact that very little country was not used for grazing, usually as crown leases attached to adjoining freehold properties. There were no national parks or state forests and thus no outside interests. Every fire was personal.

    It seems that the big fire in the Snowy mountains came after cattle grazing was banned. The National Parks seem great sources of wild fires when they hardly ever burned to the same extent when they were managed as crown land grazing leases or forestry tenements. don’t have degrees and I’m not a highly paid public servant but simple history and observation would say the current system is a failure and the old system worked.

    I studied Monash when I was an Army officer teaching tactics and his methods are still in use. Heinz Guderian used them in his march on Russia. They work. Why then can’t our politicians see the error of their ways regarding bush fire fighting? Of course. They are politicians after all; hardly the brightest lights on the Christmas tree more like those energy efficient long lasting dull bulbs that cost the earth and provide no light.

  • gardner.peter.d

    It is a shame that like so many Australian writings on WW1 Roger Underhill cannot resist cheap generalised and unjustified insults of the British. It plays to the gallery of populist myth-making and exposes a vey unattractive mean streak of resentment in the Australian character. I do not deny the achievements of Monash, although they are greatly exaggerated in this simplistic piece by Roger Underwood. His case would be made more strongly without the cheapness and denigration of his partners in what was essentially a coalition war. For example, one of Monash’s great characteristics, entirely missing from this portrait due to Underwood’s gross distortions, is that Monash was a team player. Of course, Underwood could not illustrate that because doing so would mean showing that non-Australians, especially the British, contributed a great deal and were not all bovinely stupid. A very different picture emerges from the history of the Australian First Division.

    • pgang

      Your vehemence seems out of proportion. I think it is well understood (if not always popularly conceived) that the British and French soldiers were courageous, that modern warfare was poorly understood due to its innovative nature, and that even Haig was repulsed by the horrors of the front and wasn’t just a callous butcher. But it is clear that the Allied leadership lacked the ability to grasp the moment, and was very often spectacularly inept. This had a lot to do with its traditions.

      In Monash they finally found the man they were looking for, Haig included. His achievements are not exaggerated here, and among them were his commitment to team work and the military hierarchy, as you have stated, without which nothing would have been possible. Monash was also largely responsible for the formation of the Australian Corps as its own army under his command. The benefit of this also cannot be exaggerated, as it provided Monash with the fighting force he needed to execute his audacious and complex tactics.

      No-one would seriously suggest that the war was won with anything but the blood of British and French soldiers. But a leader like Monash could not have been produced by the British army, and he could not have achieved what he did with British troops. He knew the mind set of his troops, which was very different to the British soldier. Australian infantry under Monash provided enormous impetus for the final victory. They were already highly respected divisions, and under Monash they became the rallying point for the halt of the German advances, and for the last great offensives. They were the point troops for victory, and in such a war this feature cannot be underestimated.

  • gardner.peter.d

    Further to my comment above, I have just noted Underhill’s final jibe in note 7: “Both the French and German armies had two quite serious mutinies, in which the troops refused to fight, and many mutineers were executed.”

    Australian troops had disproportionately high rates of disciplinary offences including desertion, the highest rates of venereal disease, were paid very much more than British troops (seven times if memory serves correctly but I’m sure Roger underwood has the facts to hand and will correct me), and mutinied more than once.

  • Keith Kennelly


    I to a degree agree. For one History does indeed show the British were the first to use the rolling barage. Secondly Monarsh is still the only military leader to have been knighted ,by the British Monarch, on the battlefield.

    However we do need to acknowledge his development of one of the British tactics lead to the ending of the first war.
    If he was any other nationality he’d be a legendary hero.

  • pgang

    I’m only too happy to remember Monash for his great achievements which can’t be understated, and I’m proud that he was Australian. However I won’t revere him, as that would be juvenile. He was, after all, a serial philanderer and atheist, and very much bent on personal success.

  • pgang

    I also highly recommend ‘Monash – The Outsider Who Won a War’ by Roland Perry.

  • ian.macdougall

    A very well-written and informative piece. My congratulations to the author.

  • Renato Alessio

    Thanks for the write up of Sir John Monash’s military career. I read somewhere that his tactics were required reading after the war by German staff officers, which in turn inspired Blitzkreig in WW11.

    But he is remarkable for another achievement. I recollect that while doing a Public Administration course at Monash University, the lecturer stated that it was fairly common to deride government enterprises as hopeless, while private sector enterprises were always superior. Not so he said – and gave the example of brown coal power generation in Victoria. The private sector had tried three times to get power from brown coal in Victoria, and three times they had given up or gone bust.

    Then Sir John Monash was given the task when he was put in charge of the State Electricity Commission Victoria in 1920. Under his leadership, the government enterprise succeeded spectacularly, where the private sector had failed so miserably.

    So, thanks to Sir John Monash we are powering all of Victoria, half of South Australia and a fair chunk of Tasmania (when the undersea cable is working).

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