General Sir John Monash

27 June 1865 - 8 October 1931

Accession Number: ART02986 Artist: Longstaff, John Title: Lieutenant General Sir John Monash Date Made: 1919 Medium: oil on canvas Dimensions: Overall: 120 x 92 cm Classification: Painting Copyright: AWM copyright

The best known and most revered Australian general of the Great War, John Monash was born in Melbourne, the eldest child and only son of Louis and Bertha Monash, immigrants of Prussian-Jewish origin.

A formidable intellect, he was educated at Scotch College, where he was equal dux of the school in 1881, and at the University of Melbourne, from whence he graduated a Master of Engineering (MEng) in 1893 and Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Laws (LLB) in 1895.

Monash was a successful civil engineer, lending his talents to the construction of roads, bridges and railways. He became wealthy as chief engineer of a company holding patent rights for reinforced concrete construction and was elected President of the Victorian Institute of Engineers in 1912.

All the while Monash served as a part time soldier. He enlisted as a private in the University Company in 1884 and was commissioned an officer in the Garrison Artillery in 1885. Promotion was slow and he was promoted to captain in 1895 and was only a major in March 1908 when he was tapped by Colonel J. W. McCay to command the Victorian Section of the newly formed Australian Intelligence Corps, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Monash's interest in military history and theory came to the fore in 1912 when he won the Army's Gold Medal Essay Competition for an essay on the subject "The Lessons of the Wilderness Campaign - 1864" from which he drew tactical, administrative and organisational lessons applicable to the defence of Australia. On 21 June 1913, he was promoted to full colonel and given command of the 13th Infantry Brigade. It was with this brigade that Monash earned a reputation as a trainer of troops.

Monash's first wartime post was his appointment to succeed Colonel J. W. McCay as Deputy Chief Censor on 17 August 1914. Like McCay, his tenure was brief, as he was appointed to command the newly formed 4th Infantry Brigade of the AIF on 15 September 1914.

The brigade sailed for Egypt with the Second Convoy on 22 December 1914, with Monash as Senior Military Officer on board the convoy flagship Ulysses. Upon arrival it became part of Major General A. J. Godley's New Zealand and Australian Division and immediately began brigade training. Monash trained the 4th Brigade with the same rigour and attention to detail that had characterised his work with the 13th.

The 4th Brigade began landing at Anzac Cove on the evening of 25 April 1915. The brigade took over the critical left centre of the line, Quinn's, Courtney's and Steele's Posts and Pope's Hill, while the valley behind them became known as Monash Valley. Monash organised the defence so as to minimise the strain on his men, especially those holding the worst parts of the line, emphasising the defensive role of machine guns. After defeating the Turkish attack of 19 May, the 4th Brigade was withdrawn into reserve on 29 May.

In July, Monash, along with the other brigade commanders of the AIF, was promoted to Brigadier General, an appointment backdated to his assumption of command of the 4th Infantry Brigade on 15 September 1914.

In the August offensive, the 4th Brigade was given the difficult task of slipping around the Turkish flank and capturing Hill 971 from behind. Monash was greatly hampered by his superior, Brigadier General H. V. Cox, an Indian Army officer of controversial ability. Amongst other things, he prevented Monash from leading his brigade from the front. Movement in the dark in such rugged country proved more difficult than planned, the whole operation ran behind schedule, the troops became scattered, and Monash halted his brigade to regroup short of the objective. An attack on Hill 971 the next day was a completely fiasco in the face of strong Turkish reinforcements, and wounded men were abandoned to the Turks. Ultimately, the whole operation miscarried and left a black mark on Monash's reputation as a commander.

The 4th Brigade remained in the line for some weeks, participating in the attack on Hill 60 on 21 August before being sent to Lemnos for a rest on 13 September 1915. After three weeks it returned to Anzac, but there was no further heavy fighting. Monash left for duty with the base in Egypt on 12 October 1915. He resumed command of his brigade on 8 November 1915, and was evacuated with it on 19 December 1915.

Back in Egypt in February 1916, the 4th Brigade became a part of the newly formed 4th Division, the battalions being split in two to create the new 12th Brigade. Monash remained in command of his brigade. Although the Australian government wished to appoint Monash as division commander, Lieutenant General W. R. Birdwood preferred to have H. V. Cox. He saw Monash as a skilled administrator but Monash did not fit his image of a combat leader, an impression reinforced by the failure of the attack on Hill 971. Favourable reports from Major Generals H. V. Cox and A. J. Godley on his performance retraining the 4th Brigade in Egypt and as acting division commander for brief periods recommending Monash's promotion led Birdwood to designate him as commander of the 3rd Division, then training in Australia. Monash remained with the 4th Brigade, however, for several more months while the 3rd Division travelled from Australia to its new training areas in the UK. In the mean time, Monash went to France with the 4th Brigade, and profited from a month of first hand experience in the trenches of the Western Front before he finally relinquished command and was promoted to major general on 13 July 1916.

Monash threw himself into intensively training his division on the Salisbury Plain in England, attempting to incorporate the lessons of the recent fighting in France. His training of the division was an achievement as great as any battlefield success. On 21 November 1916, the 3rd Division moved to France, taking over part of the same "nursery" sector near Armentieres where he had previously been with the 4th Brigade. The division held this quiet sector for six months, taking some 2,500 casualties. Of these, three quarters were suffered in raids. Monash was a staunch supporter of raids, but their tactical value was low, and they were detested by the men.

The 3rd Division made its first major attack at Messines on 7 June 1917. The whole operation was the product of long preparation and detailed planning, but the Monash's orders were particularly comprehensive. The GOC-in-C of the BEF, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, was impressed with Monash and his preparations, describing him as "a clear headed and determined commander" and noting "Every detail has been thought of". At a cost of 4,122 casualties, the 3rd Division advanced two miles and captured all its objectives, taking 314 prisoners and 11 guns in the process. Monash's arrangements allowed the men in the forward trenches to eat hot meals that night, while the wounded were expeditiously evacuated all day. At one point, Monash acted decisively but unfortunately, inadvertently calling down a barrage on his own men. He was criticised for remaining at his headquarters but with one exception of the morning of 8 June, when his personal presence at the front was sorely needed, it was proven the correct thing to do. On balance, the performance of both Monash and his men was excellent.

A few weeks later, the BEF began its major operation for the year, the Third Battle of Ypres. The 3rd Division entered the battle on 4 October 1917, in the Battle of Broodeseinde. At short notice, Monash produced another comprehensive and well thought out battle plan. The division responded with another striking success. On 12 October, the division was called on to make another attack with even less preparation time, involving a longer advance against greater opposition. His attempt to have the operation postponed to gain more time was unsuccessful. Once again, Monash was criticised for not reconnoitring the front in person, and he allowed his superiors to speed up the pace of the attack in order to try and capture all the required objectives. In the event, the attack miscarried. the weather was bad and the artillery barrage poor. As at Messines and Broodeseinde, much also depended on the success of the units on the 3rd Division's flank, and this time the New Zealanders were unable to take their objective. Monash's control of the battle was able, and he made good use of his reserves and communications. But the battle was a debacle.

After this, the 3rd Division was withdrawn from the line. On 15 November 1917, it became part of Birdwood's Australian Corps, becoming united with the other four divisions for the first time. The division then took over part of the line around Messines for the winter. Monash was awarded a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) in the New Year's list in recognition of his achievements.

While Monash was resting on the Riviera and his men resting out of the line, the Germans began their great offensive to end the war on the Western Front on 21 March 1918, , throwing back the British Third and Fifth Armies. The 3rd Division was ordered south on 25 March, arriving in the Somme sector the next day. Monash had little time to deploy his units before they were in action against the advancing but tiring Germans. The division held its positions through a series of attacks that went on into April. The 3rd Division maintained an active front, advancing the line and capturing prisoners.

On 31 May 1918, Monash assumed command of the Australian Corps and was promoted to lieutenant general. His appointment was recommended by Haig, and supported by the Australian government, against the opposition of correspondents Bean and Murdoch in "perhaps the most outstanding case of sheer irresponsibility by pressmen in Australian history". With a strength of 166,000 men, the Australian Corps was the largest of the 20 corps in the BEF, and the largest field force in Australian history. As Monash noted, it was larger than the either Wellington's or Napoleon's armies at Waterloo.

Monash's first battle as corps commander, a minor one at Hamel, was a spectacular success. The battle plan combined an innovative approach to the use of aviation and armour with the most detailed artillery and administrative preparations yet. This was but the first of a series of great victories, on which Monash's reputation as a great commander now rests. His next battle was a larger one, incorporating all the innovations of Hamel, at Amiens on 8 August 1918. Few battles of the war were so successful, the Australians and Canadians driving all before them. Some 7,925 prisoners were taken and 173 guns were captured was the corps rolled over the German gun lines. In the wake of the victory, Monash was presented with his KCB on 12 August by King George V in a ceremony at his headquarters at Bertangles.

Monash pushed his troops forward in the wake of the attack, with diminishing results over the next few days. On 23 August Monash made another attack at Chuignes, which forced the Germans to retreat back to the Somme River. A few days later the corps won perhaps its greatest victories at Mont St Quentin and Peronne. Unlike most of of Monash's battles, which were set pieces, this was a battle of manoeuvre, in which Monash's flexibility, foresight, imagination and skill had full play, and the corps forced the Germans from positions that they could not afford to lose, compelling them to retreat to the Hindenburg Line. Monash drove both his men and himself to the limits of their endurance, pressing the Germans all the way. Perhaps as a result, Monash's attack on the Hindenburg Line went awry, but as with so many flawed attacks in the past, the diggers fought on to a successful conclusion.

Monash clashed with the British theorist, Lieutenant General Sir Ivor Maxse over the role of technology. Maxse still thought in terms of a battalion's strength being in its manpower, and that a battalion of 900 was essential. Monash believed that its strength was in its firepower and had calculated that a battalion of 700 with more Lewis guns would be more effective, as the majority of its firepower came from its automatic weapons. Events proved Monash correct.

The role of the Australian Corps in 1918 was indeed a remarkable one. Comprising only 9.5% of the BEF, it captured 18.5% of the German prisoners, 21.5% of the territory and 14% of the guns captured. This represented an effectiveness 1.95, 2.23 and 1.47 times that of the British Army average. These victories came at a cost, but still considerably less than that of the Somme fighting of 1916, the Passchendaele fighting of 1917 or even the fighting at Bullecourt and Messines in mid-1917 and the results were immensely greater. The casualties were more or less matched by the 25,000 German prisoners taken; that many more Germans were killed or wounded is certain but their numbers are not known. Some 623 square kilometres of France was recaptured from the enemy. For his services on the Western Front, Monash was created a Knight Grand Cross of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in the 1919 New Year's list.

On 21 November 1918, Monash left the corps to become Director General of Repatriation. Here his prodigious ability as an administrator served his men one more time, efficiently, fairly and humanely repatriating them to Australia. Monash himself returned to Australia on 26 December 1919. In January 1920, Monash, along with Lieutenant Generals J. G. Legge, J. W. McCay, J. J. T. Hobbs and C. B. B. White, was appointed to a committee chaired by H. G. Chauvel, to examine the future structure of the army.

Soon after this, Monash left the Army. He wrote an account of his battles, The Australian Victories in France 1918, which he submitted as his Doctor of Engineering (DEng) thesis at the University of Melbourne. He remained active in the veteran and Jewish communities.

In August 1920, Monash became chairman of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. Under his leadership, Open cut mining of brown coal began at Yallourn in the Latrobe Valley, transmission lines were laid to Melbourne and the foundations were laid for the electricity grid which delivers Victoria's power today. It was probably his greatest achievement as an engineer.

In 1929, Monash was promoted to full General in recognition of his wartime services. 

Monash died on 8 October 1931, aged 66. He was accorded one of the largest state funerals ever seen in Melbourne and was buried at Brighton General Cemetery in North Road, Caulfield South, Melbourne, Victoria.

In view of the size and significance of his battles, his great intellect, his drive and the depth of his understanding of the science of battle, Monash's reputation as Australia's greatest general is secure. His fame has only grown over recent years; Monash University was named after him in 1958 and the Monash Medical Centre, the City of Monash and the Monash Freeway have since followed, and his face now appears on the $100 note.

Sources: Monash, John, The Australian Victories in France in 1918; Pederson, P.A., Monash as Military Commander.

Page created by Ross Mallett
Last update 8 June 2010