Sir John Monash used his creative imagination and training as an engineer to achieve victories while leading the Australian Corps on the Western Front.
If only the Generals had not been content to fight machine gun bullets with the breasts of gallant men, and think that that was waging war.” Winston Churchill’s despairing lament on World War I generalship still endures. Missing from the headstones in that graveyard of military reputations is the name of an Australian, General Sir John Monash. Under his leadership, the Australian Corps, which formed 9 percent of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1918, was responsible for capturing 22 percent of the prisoners and materiel seized by the BEF in the final months of the war. Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery and renowned military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart were among those who considered Monash the best general on the Western Front.
Monash consistently demonstrated a formidable intellectual capacity. The future commander was born in Melbourne, Victoria, on June 27, 1865, to Jewish parents from Prussian Poland. Fluent in German, he graduated from Melbourne University with degrees in engineering, arts, and law and became an engineer. Monash’s intellect was matched by his vision. After seeing the latest technological advances during a long world tour in 1910, Monash be moaned the inability of many of his countrymen to think on the grand scale and their reluctance to grasp the potential of a new idea. He went on to become one of the pioneers of reinforced concrete construction in Australia. In 1911 he supervised the building of Janvale Bridge, which boasted the largest spans in the country for a structure of its class. Bridge building and other major engineering works gave Monash experience with large-scale engineering enterprises. Like the planning and execution of the big Western Front offensives, they required organization, direction, labor, and assembly and maintenance of resources. Moreover, the principles guid ing the engineer-foresight, flexibility, co-operation, economy, delegation of authority, and an awareness of time were equally applicable to high command. Drawing these comparisons after the war, Monash reflected that a background such as his was “far more useful for general applications to new problems than the comparatively narrow training of the professional soldier.” Indeed, he never advocated the army as a career.
By 1914 Monash was a wealthy man, but his success did not come easily. He had often worked for expenses only and in remote parts of Australia, in the hope of winning lucrative future contracts. They rarely materialized, leaving Monash humiliated by indebtedness and hounded by creditors while he battled to support his wife and daughter. His health suffered, and he occasionally surrendered to fits of depression. Such personal adversities were akin to what Clausewitz called “the frictions” that were experienced at every level of wartime command. Over coming them developed robustness in Monash, “the ability to withstand the shocks of war” that the great soldier scholar Field Marshal Archibald Wavell put at the top of his list of qualities a successful general must have.
Monash’s 30 years of militia service was more serene. Much of it was with a technical arm, the Garrison Artillery. The intimate relationship between technology, the development of modern weapons, and the changes they wrought on warfare fascinated him. “Fighting Machinery,” he concluded, had replaced physical force and brute courage. On a more mundane level, Monash responded to the outlook, aspirations, and needs of the soldiers in his battery with a leadership style based on concern for their welfare, quiet optimism, and a thorough knowledge of his responsibilities.
In March 1908, Monash took command of the Victorian section of the fledgling Australian Intelligence Corps. Really a surrogate Australian general staff, the corps prepared mobilization and interstate troop-movement plans, which Monash regarded primarily as logistical problems. He thought of logistics as an operation of war in an age when that term applied exclusively to combat, stating, “The task of bringing the force to the fighting point, properly equipped and well-formed in all that it needs is at least as important as the capable leading of the force in the fight itself.”
As each plan took shape, Monash’s ability to conceive it unfolding was often evident. Similarly, he could visualize the shape of terrain from the map depicting it. This power of creative imagination would be a priceless asset on the Western Front, where the scale of operations precluded commanders directing them from a single vantage point.
Monash’s last prewar militia appointment was as commander of the Thirteenth Infantry Brigade. A trinity that he constantly espoused underpinned the brigade’s training: unity of thought, of policy, and of tactical method. Monash would make the same appeal in every formation he subsequently led, and it formed the basis for discipline in them. Watching the Thirteenth Brigade on maneuvers in Australia in February 1914, General Sir Ian Hamilton, the inspector general of British Overseas Forces, was struck by its enthusiasm and by Monash’s technical proficiency and personal drive.
The pair next met in May 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula, where Hamilton commanded the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and Monash’s Fourth Australian Brigade clung desperately to the head of Monash Valley, which formed the most vulnerable part of the Anzac sector. The opposing trenches there were separated at one point only by a bombstop, and the Turks would have had an unimpeded passage to the nearby beach at Anzac Cove if they broke through his lines. Monash knew that holding the forward line in strength would be costly. His solution, praised as “an object lesson in covering fire,” was to use well-sited ma chine guns to reduce the number of men needed along the front line, and to frequently relieve those soldiers in order to keep them fresh. The Australian official historian, C.E.W. Bean, later called the Fourth Brigade’s five-week defense of Monash Valley one of the finest Australian feats of the war.
At Anzac Cove, Monash experienced the soldiers’ war firsthand because the cramped conditions at the beachhead meant that headquarters were virtually in the front line. And as his exhausted brigade, wracked by dysentery and fever, responded to call after call during the breakout from Anzac in August 1915, he learned the limits to which men could be pushed. Perhaps he learned his own limitations, as well. Though robust enough for the sedentary battle in Monash Valley, at 50 he was too old for brigade command in the mobile operations that followed.
The August offensive was a failure, ending any chance of an Allied victory on Gallipoli. Its final operations, to link up with the British at Suvla, remain a delight for connoisseurs of military incompetence. Monash was powerless to intervene when his divisional commander changed the plan just before an attack, with predictable results for the Fourth Brigade, now less than 900 strong. From then on, Monash adopted Napoleon’s aphorism: “Order, counter order, disorder,” and insisted that once issued, orders should not be modified unless “absolutely necessary for the safe conduct of the operation and the men.”
On Western Front, Monash commanded the Third Australian Division during the British Second Army’s attacks on Messines Ridge in June 1917, and Broodseinde and Passchendaele in October during the Third Ypres offensive. Before Messines, he remarked that “Everything is being done with the perfection of a civil engineering construction so far as regards planning and execution.” Every aspect of the Third Division’s attack was covered in 36 separate instructions, while its preliminary bombardment program listed 446 targets. Monash then ran through the operation at a conference attended by commanders and staffs down to bat talion level.
Messines and Broodseinde were smashing successes, largely because the objectives were shallow, so the assaulting infantry could reach them in sufficient strength to defeat the inevitable German counterattacks. The lesson was not lost on Monash, who had hitherto thought a modern, well-prepared defense virtually impregnable and had proved the point himself in Monash Valley. But by setting limited objectives, he now maintained: “So long as we hold and retain the initiative, we can in this way inflict the maximum of losses when and where we like. It restores to the offensive the advantages which are natural to the defensive in an unlimited objective.”
Unfortunately, the objectives for Passchendaele were the deepest since the offensive began, the defending forces were infinitely stronger than those at Broodseinde, and torrential rain had turned the battlefield into a quagmire. Monash had little time to prepare for the November 6 attack, and his request for a postponement was refused. The Third Division lost heavily. “Our men are being put into the hottest fighting and sacrificed in hare brained schemes…and there is no-one in the War Cabinet to lift a finger in protest,” Monash wrote to his wife on October 18.
Yet Monash got on well with the architect of the Ypres offensive, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. He considered the Australian “a clear-headed, determined commander” who thought of every detail and, in his diary, gave him perhaps the greatest volume of unmitigated approval of any one man. Monash’s respect for the commander in chief was based on the way he bore his weighty responsibilities, rather than his intellect. Indeed, he considered Haig to be “quite out of his depth” technically. The Western Front confirmed what Monash had realized before the war and what Haig and his colleagues had trouble grasping after it began–that the human qualities of morale, discipline, and an offensive spirit, which governed the British approach to warfare pre- 1914, could not by themselves defeat sophisticated military technology. It had to be countered by technology, as well. The hard-pressed infantry, wrote Monash, would benefit most if its “true role was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort…but to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources…guns, machine guns, tanks, mortars and airplanes…to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight [its] way forward.”
Monash’s final battle as a divisional commander began shortly after the Germans’ last great offensive opened on March 21, 1918. Having been directed to move his division to two different locations on March 26, he was finally ordered at 1 a.m. on March 27 to plug the 10-mile-wide gap that yawned between the Somme and Ancre Rivers to expose Amiens. With no time for reconnaissance, the former engineer relied on his ability to visualize the topography and the unfolding battle plan as he dictated his orders from the instructions he had scribbled on three scraps of paper. Bean recalled the episode as showing Monash’s “great powers of grasp and lucid expression at their best–the officers to whom they were read…recognized, with a flash of pride, ‘the old man’s’ masterly touch.” Four months earlier, the five Australian divisions on the Western Front were brought together in the Australian Corps under a British commander, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, who had led Australian and New Zealand troops since the start of the war. With pressure grow ing for an Australian corps commander, Monash replaced him on May 31, 1918. Not all agreed with the appointment. Bean and war correspondent Keith Murdoch were among those who thought that it should have gone to another capable Australian, Major General Sir Brudenell White, Birdwood’s chief of staff. Whereas they considered Monash an intriguer, Bean writing of “the ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves,” White was thought to be morally upright and militarily Monash’s equal.
Claiming that their views were widely held, Murdoch approached Australian Prime Minister William Hughes, then en route to England. But Hughes found the opposite to be true. The division commanders, by now Australians or men who had lived in Australia for many years, told him that Monash enjoyed their full support. And White, whose conduct was impeccable throughout, rebuked Murdoch for his actions. Years later, Bean admitted that he had been wrong about Monash.
At the time, Monash was fully aware of the attempt to replace him. The conspiracy was an unnecessary distraction that could have shaken his confidence and undermined his authority as corps commander before he had the chance to establish it. Fortunately, he was robust enough not to let either be affected. For Monash, command of the Australian Corps was “something to have lived for.” With some 166,000 men, it was easily the largest in the BEF and by May 1918 held a tactical ascendancy over the Germans that it never lost, thanks in part to Monash’s shrewd use of psychology. He erected optimism into a creed, determining to feed his men on victory by “as far as it is humanly possible, never undertaking a battle operation without an absolute guarantee of success.” The result, Monash noted, was that Australian troops came to believe they were invincible.
The key to wider action on the Australian front was Hamel Ridge, whose defenses blocked any eastward movement of the line between Villers-Bretonneux and the Somme. Like his predecessor, Monash worried that attacking it would incur heavy casualties, but his fears vanished after he watched a demonstration of the new British Mark V tank. Guided by the recommendations of his tank adviser, Monash proposed an attack in which the infantry would be protected by 60 tanks, rather than the usual creeping artillery barrage. Crushing the enemy’s barbed-wire entanglements and machine gun nests, the Mark Vs would lead the infantry on to their objectives. Moreover, using the tanks would allow each of the eight assault battalions to attack on the same frontage the Germans had allotted to each of their divisions in March. The saving in infantry–and therefore of casualties–would be dramatic.
Yet innovation was partly to be sacrificed to convention. Attacking without a barrage, but with the earlier Mark IV tanks at Bullecourt in 1917, the Fourth Australian Division, which would have the major role at Hamel Ridge, had suffered grievously owing to the British tanks’ poor performance. Its commander urged the retention of a creeping barrage behind which the infantry and tanks would advance. To allay his fears Monash agreed, but wrote Fourth Army headquarters that the revision meant that the concept “ceases to be primarily a tank operation,” becoming instead “an infantry operation, in which the slight infantry power receives a considerable accretion by the addition of a large body of tanks.” Thereafter, each battalion rehearsed with the Mark Vs that would attack alongside it, the tank crewmen even taking the infantry for joy rides to overcome their skepticism.
The use of the tanks was only one aspect of Monash’s thinking on support for the infantry. Prior to the attack, desultory bombardments were fired, and the result ing shell holes plotted on maps so the infantry knew where to find cover on the exposed objective. When they reached Hamel Ridge, planes would airdrop am munition to them. Diversionary operations on both flanks would deceive the Germans as to the real attack. A combination of gas and smoke was fired daily to accustom the Germans to wearing gas masks whenever they saw smoke. As the operation would be launched under the cover of smoke only, the Australians could assault without gas masks, while catch ing the Germans in theirs and at a disadvantage. Troops, guns, ammunition, and tanks moved forward at night, aircraft flying overhead masking the noise and checking the camouflage the next day. Monash went over every aspect of the plan at a final conference on June 30 attended by more than 250 officers and lasting nearly five hours. He then explained to his superior, Fourth Army commander General Sir Henry Rawlinson, “No fiddling with the plan was permitted.”
Nonetheless, there was the threat of a major change as the attack was about to be launched on July 4, a date chosen partly because the commander of the U.S. Thirty-third Division had agreed to allow 10 of his companies to participate in the assault. American Expeditionary Force commander General John Pershing, however, was not informed until July 2. He believed that the use of his partly trained troops contravened the agreement with Haig, whereby they were attached to the BEF to gain experience, not for operational use, and Pershing ordered their withdrawal. Six U.S. companies left reluctantly on the morning of July 3, but the other four remained, possibly due to a misunderstanding. On learning at 4 p.m. that the remaining companies were to be withdrawn as well, Monash told Rawlinson that he had until 7 p.m., when the infantry commenced its final move to the start line, to get the order rescinded or the attack would be canceled. With a few minutes to spare, Rawlinson contacted Haig, who directed it to continue with the four American companies attacking alongside the Australians.
Zero hour was at 3:10 a.m. Hamel Ridge was in Australian hands 93 minutes later. No battle in his previous experience, wrote Monash, “passed off so smoothly, so exactly to timetable or was so free from any kind of hitch.” He likened himself to a musical conductor, coining an analogy that became famous: “A perfected modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments and the tasks they perform are the respective musical phrases.”
A resounding example of cooperation between the various arms, Hamel be came the model for the much bigger battles to come, starting with the British Fourth Army’s offensive east of Amiens, which would begin on August 8. Four of Monash’s divisions had the major role to attack along the southern bank of the Somme, at the center of the offensive. Although again enjoying lavish tank support, they had to advance six miles, three times as far as at Hamel Ridge. Monash therefore planned an attack in three phases-the divisions leapfrogging between each phase. This solution would confront the Fourth and Fifth Australian Divisions with a tiring approach march of 12 miles from their concentration areas well to the rear and through positions already captured, before they could form up for the second and third phases. So Monash assembled these two divisions closest to the starting line. After the Second and Third Australian Divisions moved through them to take the first objectives, the Fourth and Fifth would leapfrog to assault the subsequent objectives. Leapfrogging within divisions was commonplace; leapfrogging between divisions, less so. To make all the approach marches roughly equal, Monash was now proposing what had not been attempted before, two leapfrogs by two divisions side by side. Bean called the plan Monash’s masterpiece: “…the elaborate placing of the brigades and the timing of their starts so that each punctually took up its post in the intricate task, affords what will probably be regarded as the classical example for the launching of such operations. ”
Although the defined objectives were ambitious, the Australian commander was adamant that they were not to be exceeded, however tempting the circumstances. According to Monash, overzealous exploitation in the past “had often led to complete disorganization and an in ability to resist the shock of the enemy’s inevitable reaction.” For him, the attack would remain “Strictly Limited.”
It began at 4:20 a.m., and was over by 1:15 p.m., the Australians taking 7,925 prisoners and 173 guns, for the loss of halting of the Fourth Army after Haig switched the main offensive to the First and Third Armies farther north. Fearing the loss of the advantages already won on his front if the Germans were allowed even a brief respite, Monash circumvented Rawlinson by falling back on a superseded order to maintain contact with the northern armies. By August 28, the Australian advance had reached Mont St. Quentin, which dominated the Somme near Peronne.
Although the ensuing battle was the only one of his operations in which quick, free maneuver played a decisive part, its scope was large enough to refute the assessment that Monash was merely a composer of set-piece battles, with limited objectives such as at Hamel or Amiens. It also brought out in him the capacity for prompt and clear decision that he looked for above all else in a commander. When his attempt to rush the second Australian Division directly across the river failed because all the bridges were either destroyed or under heavy fire, Monash sought to turn the line of the Somme from the north. Attacking from this direction, the Second Division took Mont St. Quentin on September 1, stunning Rawlinson, who thought it impregnable. Peronne fell to the Fifth Australian Division the next day.
Worried about his exposed northern flank during the fight, Monash decreed that in securing it “casualties no longer matter.” At Messines and Passchendaele, he did not hesitate to bring down artillery barrages to retain ground won, despite the possibility that the shells might fall on his own men. On August 8, he was prepared to sacrifice an entire pioneer battalion in order to get roads repaired that were needed so that armored cars could advance. The Australian general’s ruthlessness was not inconsistent with his professed concern for his men. He knew that a point was sometimes reached when a drastic measure would bring victory with lower casualties.
Monash’s refusal to halt before Mont St. Quentin was another example. A lesser commander might have. By this time, the Australian Corps had been fighting continuously for five months, and losses had thinned its ranks. The Fifth Brigade, which attacked Mont St. Quentin with an average of 330 men per battalion in stead of the usual 900, was typical of the rest. No doubt recalling his Gallipoli experience, Monash ignored his divisional commanders’ pleas that their formations were incapable of further action, insisting instead “that it was imperative to recognize a great opportunity and seize it unflinchingly.” As the only troops in the British army consistently able to beat the Germans, themselves near exhaustion, the Australians (and the Canadians) had to go on to the limits of their endurance to secure victory.
Clever tactics and massive materiel support could partly offset the manpower shortfalls and fatigue. “So long as battalions have thirty Lewis guns,” Monash said, “it doesn’t very much matter what else they have.” Supporting the Fifth Brigade’s attack were five field and four heavy artillery brigades–an overwhelming concentration. And Monash was as tired as any of his men. His chief of staff observed that he “became very thin, the skin hung loosely on his face. His characteristic attitude was one of deep thought. With his head carried slightly forward, he would ride in his car for long periods in silence.”
After taking the Hindenburg Outpost Line on September 18, the First and Fourth Australian Divisions were relieved by the Twenty-Seventh and Thirtieth U.S. Divisions, which joined the remaining Australian divisions for their last major operation, the breaching of the Hindenburg Line itself, on September 29. The less-experienced Americans would attack first, taking the main German line in a standard set-piece attack before the Australians passed through them with tanks and mobile artillery for the more complicated open-warfare assault on the reserve line. But when the Twenty-Seventh Division was checked on the northern flank, Monash vacillated before switching the weight of the attack to the south, where the Thirtieth Division had enjoyed more success.
Although the Australian commander eventually won the day, he lacked a feel for the fight. Even after Major General John Gellibrand, one of his divisional commanders, had gone forward to confirm that the Twenty-Seventh Division had been stalled for several hours, Monash claimed that its attack was progressing steadily. By contrast, he never left his own headquarters. The reason for staying put was not a lack of courage. “Everybody knows where to get me, at a moment’s notice, for immediate discus sion or reference, and rapid decision,” he explained. “I can have before me, all the time, a complete and not a partial picture of what is going on, and I can, at all times, reach every possible subordinate…with the minimum of delay.”
Monash thus again relied on his creative imagination, applying it to maps, aerial photographs, and incoming reports to follow the battle. This approach normally worked well for him. A senior British officer recalled that “Monash would tell you which duck-board needed repairing, but never in his life went near a front-line trench.” But the Hindenburg Line showed that a commander had to be prepared to grip his battle on the field itself once his plan unraveled. The other Australian commanders shared that view, and some died because of it.
They held Monash in high esteem, nonetheless. The prickly Gellibrand spoke for his colleagues when he said, “I could admire and follow him with comfort and pleasure.” So could his men. As Bean wrote, they “went into action feeling that whatever might lie ahead, at least every thing was right behind them.” Twenty Seventh Division commander Major General John F. O’Ryan expressed it another way: “The rough and ready fighting spirit of the Australians had become refined by an experienced battle technique supported by staff work of the highest order.” O’Ryan had identified the twin strengths of the Australian Corps. Its quality was superb French Marshal Ferdinand Foch called the Australian infantry “shock troops of the first order.” In this sense, Monash was lucky. But the corps’ success owed just as much to his skill as its commander.
Though not infallible, Monash under stood the ingredients of battle right down to the part played by the individual infantry soldier. The open mind, robustness, intellect, and creative imagination evident in his prewar civil and military careers were sharpened by three years’ fighting on Gallipoli and at the Western Front before he became corps commander. By then, his ideas on fighting were 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. Under Monash, the co operation and coordination between the Australian formations and the arms sup porting them were probably not equaled anywhere in the BEF. His open-minded and adventurous use of all available arms to assist the infantry was particularly striking. All these things, together with Monash’s intuitive grasp of his men’s psychology, preserved the Australian troops’ morale even when exhaustion loomed. It was as appropriate as it was fortunate that the Australian Corps should throw up such a man to command it in its last and greatest battles.
For all the fame that it brought him, Monash found nothing glorious in war. “From the start,” he wrote, “its horrors, its ghastly inefficiency, its unspeakable cruelty and misery, have always appalled me.” He returned to civilian life when the fighting was over. But in the saddest of ironies, peace brought immediate tragedy. His wife had hidden from him that she had cancer, and she died two months after his return home. Nor did peace bring rest. As chairman of the infant State Electricity Commission of Victoria, Monash spent many of his remaining years planning and supervising the development of the state’s power scheme, his greatest engineering project. At age 66, Australia’s most distinguished soldier died on October 8, 1931.
PETER A. PEDERSEN served as a strategic adviser to the Australian prime minister before commanding an infantry battalion. He is the author of Monash as Military Commander (Melbourne, 1985).
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2002 issue (Vol. 14, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Monash’s Masterly Touch
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