MONASH, General Sir John (1865-1931)


MONASH, General Sir John (1865-1931)
commander of the Australian army in France, 1918, engineer
was born at Dudley-street, West Melbourne, on 27 June 1865, the son of Louis Monash. He was Jewish both by race and religion. Educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, he passed the matriculation examination when only 14 years of age, and two years later was dux of the school. Going on to Melbourne university he qualified for the degree of B.A. in 1887, and in 1890 completed the course for bachelor of civil engineering. At the final honour examination he was awarded second-class honours and the Argus scholarship. He subsequently completed the law course. The degree of bachelor of civil engineering was conferred on him in 1891, that of master of civil engineering in 1893, of bachelor of arts and bachelor of laws in 1895, and of doctor of engineering in 1921. Engineering, however, was his chosen profession, his special department being reinforced concrete. His work in this direction contributed to a large extent to the early adoption of this material for bridges and buildings in Australia. He was engineer of the Anderson-street bridge over the Yarra, Melbourne, which was opened in 1899, and taking a leading part in his profession became president of the Victorian Institute of Engineers and a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, London. He had also early taken an interest in the citizen forces of his country, having joined the university company of the militia in 1884 and become a lieutenant in the North Melbourne battery in 1887. He was promoted captain in 1895, major in 1897 and in 1906 became a lieutenant-colonel in the intelligence corps. In 1912 he was colonel commanding the 13th infantry brigade, and on the outbreak of the war was appointed chief censor in Australia. During this period he had been more than a mere citizen soldier. He could never do anything by halves and when he was given the command of the 4th infantry brigade of the A.I.F. in October 1914, he was qualified by much study of the art of war to make the best use of his position. In December he sailed in command of the second convoy of the A.I.F. He was not in the actual landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, but went ashore soon after. His war letters are full of accounts of the gallantry of the men he commanded. When orders came in December 1915 for the evacuation, he methodically supervised the exact course to be followed by members of his own command, and was in one of the last parties to leave. Great as the disappointment had been over the failure at Gallipoli, there was some comfort in the fact that the evacuation had been so successful. Forty-five thousand men, with mules, guns, stores, provisions and transport valued at several million pounds, had been withdrawn with scarcely a casualty, and without exciting the slightest suspicion in the enemy. Hours afterwards the Turks opened a furious bombardment on the empty trenches.
After a rest period in Egypt Monash moved with his men to France in June 1916, and was stationed in the line in the north-west of France. In July he was promoted major-general in command of the 3rd Australian division, which meant that he would have to go to England to organize and train it. This was done with the minutest attention to detail, and led stage by stage to the nearest approach that could be improvised to the conditions of actual warfare. In September King George V reviewed the 20,000 men of his division and 7000 Australian and New Zealand depot troops, and on 21 October he received the order of Companion of the Bath from the king's hands. It had been suggested that his division should be broken up to provide reinforcements for the other Australian divisions. Steps were, however, taken to increase the flow of re-inforcements from Australia, and Monash, having provided nearly 3000 men from his division in September, went loyally on with his work and hoped for the best. Early in November, at the request of the war office, a portion of his division did an exercise in advanced training which included the blowing up of a mine and occupying and fortifying the crater. Over a hundred British generals and senior officers attended, and the whole thing was entirely worked out by Monash and his staff. By the end of the month the division was in France, and was placed in a comparatively quiet section of the line near Armentières. On pages 154 to 163 of his War Letters will be found an illuminating account of the activities of a divisional commander. His division took part in the successful battle of Messines in June 1917, and in the battle of Broodseinde, which General Plumer is said to have called the greatest victory since the Marne. But the gallantry and self-devotion of the troops could not turn the badly managed venture at Passchendaele into a victory. Monash began to feel that his men were receiving more than their full share of the hottest fighting, but in November they were given a rest and on 1 January 1918 he was created K.C.B.
Monash was on leave in the south of France when the great German offensive began on 21 March 1918. He immediately hastened back, and arriving at Amiens a few days later, found the town in a state of great confusion, it having been heavily bombed by the Germans. He pushed on to Doullens where the enemy was hourly expected, and found that some Australian infantry had just arrived by train. These temporarily took up a position to cover Doullens. He then motored to Mondecourt where he found Brigadier-general McNicoll and a battalion of Australians, together with details of the retreating English forces. Going on to Basseux he found Major-general Maclagan, whose division had already been on the move for three days without rest. They arranged jointly to send out outposts and await developments, and shortly afterwards they received orders from General Congreve to deploy their troops across the path of the Germans whose object would be to secure the heights overlooking Amiens. At dawn on 27 March the Australian troops had not arrived, but away beyond the Ancre valley there was evidence that the advance guard of the German army was not far away. Soon afterwards convoys of motor buses crowded with Australian infantry began to arrive. That was the end of the enemy advance towards Amiens. In fact, on the night of 29 March, Monash executed a movement which advanced his line more than a mile and improved his position. Next day he was attacked heavily but the Germans were beaten off with great losses. During the next month the Australians were successful in several miniature battles, the most important of which was the capturing of the town of Villers-Bretonneux. In May Monash was promoted lieutenant-general and appointed to the command of the Australian Army Corps. The number of men in his army was about 165,000. He felt strongly that the time had come for a counter-offensive, and during June worked out his preparations for the battle of Hamel. It was fought on 4 July and was over in less than two hours. The whole of the Hamel valley was re-taken and the slope opposite to the top of the ridge. It is always difficult to estimate enemy losses but as 1500 prisoners were taken, and the Australian casualties were only 800 including walking wounded, the operation was undoubtedly a completely successful one. But the most important effect of this action was, that it marked the end of the purely defensive attitude of the British front which had existed since the previous autumn. Monash felt that if he could get his fighting front reduced from about 11 miles to about four, and if the Canadians could be transferred to his right to fill the gap, an important blow might be struck. On 8 August the five Australian divisions fought together for the first time. The action was completely successful, a hole 12 miles long was driven 10 miles deep into the German line, and the Australians and Canadians each took over 8000 prisoners. The Allied losses were comparatively light. On 21 August the Australians fought a battle on a smaller scale at Chuignes, which again was completely successful, and yielded over 3000 prisoners. One trophy of this fight was the huge gun that had been bombarding Amiens. The Allies kept steadily advancing, and though the German retreat was orderly, they had to abandon large quantities of ammunition. They, however, succeeded in crossing the Somme without disaster. The greatest obstacle to crossing the river in pursuit was Mont St Quentin which, situated in a bend of the river, dominated the whole position. Monash carefully worked out plans to capture it, brought them before General Rawlinson on 30 August, and obtained permission to make the attempt. In one of the most heroic engagements of the war lasting four days, the position was captured. Looking back after the event Monash could only account for the success by the wonderful gallantry of the men, the rapidity with which the plan was carried out, and the sheer daring of the attempt. In his Australian Victories in France he pays a great tribute to the commander of the 2nd division, Major-general Rosenthal, who was in charge of the operation. But Monash and his staff were after all responsible for the conception of the project and the working out of the plans. The German army was now methodically retreating to the Hindenburg line, which was believed to be impregnable. Early in September Monash perfected his plans, and on 18 September had an important success when he captured the outpost lines. It now became necessary for a large number of Australian troops to be rested and Monash had the honour of having 50,000 U.S.A. troops placed under his command. Characteristically his first thought was that some way must be found of working together to the best advantage, and with the willing help of the American commander, Major-general Read, an Australian mission to his corps consisting of 217 officers and n.c.o's under Major-general Maclagan was attached to the American forces, whose only lack was experience. For his assault on the line Monash now had under his orders in one capacity or another nearly 200,000 men. The attack began on 27 September and at first everything went well. But the Americans though fighting with the greatest gallantry had not thoroughly realized the necessity of "mopping up" the trenches they had passed over, and this led to some confusion and disarrangement of plans. The battle lasted some days but by 5 October the Hindenburg line had been broken through on a wide front to a depth of over 10 miles. Early in October the Australians were taken out of the line. They had finished the work they had set out to do.
Soon after the conclusion of hostilities Monash was placed in charge of a special department to carry out the repatriation of the Australian troops. He returned to Australia on 26 December 1919. and in October 1920 was appointed general manager of the state electricity commission of Victoria. In the following year he became chairman of the commission. He threw himself with his usual energy into his task, which involved the development of the immense deposits of brown coal at Yallourn, the building of a great power house, and the cutting of a track more than 120 miles long for the transmission line to Melbourne. In 1924 the current was first received at the city. He also developed the briquette industry, and made it so popular that 15 years after the introduction of this fuel the demand was greater than the supply. His activities in connexion with the commission were so great that he seldom allowed himself a holiday. Among his many interests the university took a leading place. He was on the council for a long period and in 1923 became vice-chancellor, and he was at various times president of other organizations. He died at Melbourne on 8 October 1931. He married in 1891 Victoria Moss who died in 1920, and was survived by a daughter. He was given the honorary degrees of D.C.L. (Oxon), LL.D. (Cantab) and LL.D. (Melb.) Among his honours were G.C.M.G., K.C.B., Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour (France) and Grand Officer of the Order of the Crown (Belgium). In 1930 he was promoted from the rank of lieutenant-general to general.
Monash was a man of slightly over medium height, quiet spoken and courteous in manner. He was a student all his life, well read in literature, a good musician, a sound business man, and an excellent member of a committee. When he went to the war the same qualities that had made him a successful engineer were applied to his new work. The careful consideration of the particular problem was followed by a no less careful preparation of every detail that would help in its solution. When he became a brigadier-general he was fortunate in being associated with another soldier, Major-general Sir Brudenel White (q.v.), who was chief of staff to General Birdwood, and when he was given the command of the Australian army he was again fortunate in having so capable a soldier as Sir Thomas Blamey for his own chief of staff. But these facts do not detract from his own greatness. In spite of his early training in the citizen forces, he was at heart a civilian, hating war, when he joined the regular army. But he had all the essentials of a great soldier, he knew the importance of morale, of the soldiers taking care of their own lives, the value of individual initiative, the necessity of doing a job as well as possible. His pride in his own men of every rank and their great achievements as shown in his book, The Australian Victories in France in 1918, caused a little feeling in American and English circles. But his love of truth could not allow him to fail to show full appreciation of the work done by his men. His War Letters, not published until two years after his death, show the same pride in his men from the divisional generals to the privates, and his descriptions of the arrival of the troops from Australia at Suez, and the evacuation from Gallipoli are masterly pieces of writing. Proud as he was of his men he never showed any signs of being spoilt by success, yet he was one of the few great soldiers among the higher command. His reputation was steadily increasing and, as a well-known English writer, Captain Liddell Hart, has suggested, if the war had continued, even the post of commander in chief might not have been beyond his reach.
Records of the University of Melbourne; The Argus, Melbourne, 9 October 1931; War Letters of General Monash; Sir John Monash, The Australian Victories in France in 1918; C. E. W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War, 1914-18, vols. I to V.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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