ANZAC 2009 – remembering Monash

They shall grow not old,
As we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun,
And in the morning
We will remember them.
— Laurence Binyon

Australia and our ANZAC history has produced many amazing characters, but General Sir John Monash is one of my favourites.  Sadly he is little known to many in our day and I’m taking the opportunity to remember him this ANZAC Day 2009.

Australian’s tend to love the stories of underdogs who triumph over adversity. Monash is an archetypal Australian underdog success story and he overcame many barriers to achieve that success.

Of Jewish background, he was born in Melbourne 1865 and he died in October 1931. He was dux of his high school and became an engineer with a successful business in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania between from 1894 to 1914. His business went bust in 1902 and he built it back up from scratch. At the same time he served in the Citizen Military Forces (nowadays called the Army Reserve).

He rose through the ranks in the reserves and in 1913 Colonel Monash took command of the 13th Infantry Brigade. At the outbreak of World War I he was given command of the AIF 4th Infantry Brigade and landed at Gallipoli on 26 April 1915. Later that year he was promoted to brigadier. It is worth noting that reservists were not always highly regarded by the regular military, and he constantly battled that stigma.

After the failure at Gallipoli and during the carnage on the Western Front Monash came to believe that the Allied tactics were futile, saying:

“… the true role of infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward.”

In mid 1918 Monash was promoted to lieutenant general and took command of the Australian Corps on the Western Front. Under his command the battle of Hamel came to be considered a “perfect battle”. Monash was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath by King George V on 12 August 1918, and it was the first time in about 200 years that a British monarch had thus honoured a commander on the battlefield.

He remained in command through the last months of the war. He was an innovative leader who earned high praise from many leading political and military figures. But he also had a very modern appreciation for good publicity, and as a result he was criticised for allegedly exaggerating Australian achievements.

He stood up for the Australian troops – whose casual appearance did not sit well with the British – saying:

“not lip service, nor obsequious homage to superiors, nor servile observance of forms and customs…the Australian army is proof that individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build up collective discipline”

This is the kind of idea that we still talk about in Australia today, especially in the social web area.

After the disgusting losses on the Western Front, for example in the Somme in 1916, it must have been refreshing to have someone with a different perspective. Although, I suspect his approaches were not welcome in some quarters. His ideas about not wasting human life on futile attacks, and using good planning and strategy to define and execute attacks made a real difference. Some people consider Monash to have been the Father of Blitzkreig (which is kind of ironic given his German origins).

A lot of his ideas and approaches have a very modern feel. For example I have always liked his idea that:

“The main thing is always to have a plan; if it is not the best plan, it is at least better than no plan at all.”

After his return from the First World War Monash remained active in public life. He represented returned soldiers and provided advice on military and engineering matters. He was also active in Jewish affairs. Monash was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne from 1923. But the passion of his final years was the building of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, which was a challenge due to the impact of the Great Depression on fundraising.

Upon his death in 1931 Sir John Monash was given a State funeral and an estimated 250 000 mourners came to pay their respects. Monash University in Melbourne was named after him in 1958.

An example of how he was viewed by other military folks is Field Marshal Montgomery (commander of the British army during the Second World War had been a junior officer in the First World War) and he wrote of Monash:

“I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the western front in Europe.”