The Achievements of General John Monash

Duncan Grey, Dickson College, 2010 print


The following essay was written as part of the World War One unit at Dickson College in Semester 1, 2010. It responded to the following question: 'Sir John Monash has been praised as one of the most visionary generals of the War. What were Monash’s achievements? Do they deserve to be more widely celebrated?'

Sir John Monash (1865-1931), the Commander of the Australian Corps on the Western Front in 1918, is one of the most visible Generals in Australian military history. He started the War in the militia before being given command of a Brigade, then a Division in 1916 and later command of the Australian Corps in July 1918 (Australian War Memorial, n.d.). While certainly an able commander, his reputation as a leader has been inflated in the years after the War. While he was considered ineffective as a Brigade Commander at Gallipoli, he achieved success during his time as Corps Commander on the Western Front, a period that forms the main basis of his reputation. His achievements as Corps Commander were based around his skills as an organiser and his ability to implement newly developed tactics with meticulous planning and detail, rather than as a visionary leader.

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Lieutenenant General, Sir John Monash, circa 1918.
Monash’s reputation as a General has increased substantially in the years since his death. While always well regarded as a General, particularly for his actions as Commander of the Australian Corps his standing and his role in the Australian successes on the Western Front has increased over time. He was certainly a well regarded figure in Australia at the close of the War, where “his reputation stood far above any other Australian general, in the eyes both of the A.I.F and the Australian public” (Serle 1982, p. 375). When the Australian Official War Historian Charles Bean was writing, the prevailing attitude in Australia was to write an account of Australia’s involvement in the War emphasising the role of the soldiers involved (Gammage 1974, p. 112). However there has been a more recent movement to give greater recognition to the Commanders to the point where “it has become acceptable for some Australians to create great helmsmen where before there were none” (ibid). Monash’s reputation as a General has magnified to such an extent that there has been a movement to provide him a “posthumous one step in rank promotion” (Fisher 2009, p.141).

While being highly commended for his role as a Corps Commander, Monash received criticism for his role as a Commander at both Brigade and Division level early in the War. Charles Bean wrote of him; “He would command a division better than a brigade and a corps better than a division” (Gammage, p. 114). Monash has been criticised particularly for his role as a Brigade Commander at Gallipoli. While not incompetent, he appeared to achieve little there. Sir William Birdwood, who led the ANZAC Corps, commented on his skill as an organiser but said of him “I cannot look upon him as a leader in War” (Serle, p. 253). While Gallipoli does not present an entirely negative image of Monash, it shows that there was a divergence in views about Monash’s abilities among his superiors. Monash’s reputation is based largely on his Command of the Australian Corps in the second half of 1918 where “Monash and the Australian Corps were at their zenith” (Pederson 1985, p. 295).

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Members of the 6th Battalion, 10th of August 1918.
While Monash enjoyed many successes during his command of the Australian Corps, including the Battle of Mont St Quentin and Amiens (Pederson 2010, p. 142), the action which can arguably be deemed as Monash’s greatest success in the War was the Battle of Hamel, fought on 4th July 1918. This Battle is a perfect example of Monash’s organisational skills and his flair for implementing tactics. While not a large operation it was successful in the use of new tactics in offensive warfare particularly the “excellent co-operation between the machine gunners, artillery, tanks and RAF” (Sheffield 2002, p. 236). The objective of the Battle was to capture the strategically significant village of Hamel and the surrounding area (Pederson 2010, p. 135). The area was heavily defended and so required “Monash’s habit of meticulous planning, with no detail being too insignificant to escape his attention” (Andrews 1991, p. 6). In preparation for the Battle Monash ensured that his infantry were adequately supported by the artillery and tanks, and that the operation was devised and prepared in secrecy, two elements credited with the Australian success at Hamel (ibid. pp. 10-11).

The Battle was a resounding success for the Australians. It lasted only ninety three minutes but during this time the position was captured and the Germans lost “1400 casualties, over 1600 prisoners and 177 machine guns” (Pederson 1985, p. 232). Monash was largely responsible for devising and organising the plan that would make Hamel such a success. The Battle showcased Monash’s strengths, notably his skill for organisation. It can rightly be seen as his greatest success as “Hamel reveals his complete mastery of the set-piece battle” (Andrews, p. 12) an attribute which would define his other successes as Corps Commander.

In looking at the praise heaped upon Monash, it is useful to compare his achievements to other members of the British and Commonwealth command who held the same rank and position. Two of the best examples to compare Monash against are the highly commended Commander of the Canadian Corps on the Western Front Sir Arthur Currie and Monash’s Australian contemporary Sir Harry Chauvel, who commanded an Australian Corps in the Middle East.

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General Currie, Commander of the Canadian troops in France.
Arthur Currie is often considered to be one of the best Dominion Generals of the War, especially for his use of bite and hold tactics in which the attacking force would attempt to make limited strategic gains before defending their newly acquired positions against counterattack (Sheffield, pp. 213-214). Currie was also responsible for the reorganisation of the Canadian Corps and the implementation of new tactics which would enhance their reputation and lead them to many successes in 1918 (Cook 2010, pp. 164 - 166). Harry Chauvel was Commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, fighting the Ottomans in Palestine, a position he attained in 1917.His Corps, which included both British and Dominion soldiers, was involved in a string of victories in 1917-1918 including the Battle of Beersheba where they played a crucial role in capturing the Turkish positions as well as the capture of Damascus (Australian War Memorial, n.d.). By 1918 Chauvel had an experienced and effective force under his command which allowed for his accomplishments late in the War (Kiester 2007, 147-148). Like Monash, Currie and Chauvel are examples of the effective British and Dominion Officers, who would prove their abilities late in the War due to the development of new tactics and the increasing experience of the soldiers under their command. Compared to the successes of Chauvel and Currie, Monash can be seen as an effective commander, but no more so than other Dominion generals, who also made use of the newly developed tactics and the experience of their soldiers at the end of the War.

It could be argued that the victories attributed to the Australian Corps in the last months of the War would have occurred regardless of their leadership. By 1918 the Australian Corps had developed into an experienced and effective force, capable of winning “by the initiative of junior officers and other men” (Gammage, p. 116). While “the contribution of Monash and the subordinate commanders was just as important” (Pederson 1988, p. 186) the quality of the Australian soldiers on the Western Front was a significant factor. Monash’s leadership was certainly important in the Australian Corps’ victories in 1918; however one of the key reasons behind these successes was the experience and skill of the Australian soldiers (Serle, pp. 375-376).

Monash is probably the most popularly celebrated General in Australian military history. He has been honoured in Australia, featuring on the Australian one hundred dollar banknote as well as being the namesake of Monash University in Melbourne. He has also been subject of a number of biographies since 1982[1] which reflect the recent historical focus on Generals and command structure in the War. While Monash was certainly a successful General, his reputation is based firmly on his conduct as Corps Commander on the Western Front, a position for which he was well suited. He was a capable leader who enjoyed considerable success in the field and his significant accomplishments by the end of the War were well established. Monash is therefore celebrated appropriately for the position that he held, and the victories that he won. To raise his reputation and commemoration any further would lessen the role that the soldiers under his command played and show “that a good conductor has been inflated into an essential helmsman” (Gammage, p. 117).

John Monash’s profile as a leader during the War is mixed. While generally successful as a Corps Commander, he failed to gain note early in the War for his Command at Gallipoli. His victories in 1918, while well planned and executed, were hardly visionary accomplishments, with Monash principally implementing newly developed tactics (Pederson 1985, p. 295). Nor were Monash’s skills unique among the British and Dominion Commanders at the end of the War, with many other able Generals showcasing similar abilities during this time. His stature as a military leader should be based on the achievements and the skills he displayed during the War. As such he is already widely and appropriately recognised in Australia today.

Bibliography


Books

Cook, Tim, “Bloody Victory: The Canadian Corps in the Hundred Days Campaign” in Ekins, Ashley (Ed), 2010, 1918 Year of Victory: The End of the Great War and the Shaping of History, Exisle Publishing, Australia
This chapter was used to provide information on the Canadian Corps and Arthur Currie’s role as Commander. It provided useful analysis and was written using both primary and secondary sources.

Kiester, Edwin, 2007, An Incomplete History of World War I, Murdoch Books, Australia
This book presented useful information about Harry Chauvel and his role as Corps Commander in the Middle East. It was compiled mainly from secondary sources.

Pedersen, Peter, 1985, Monash As Military Commander, Melbourne University Press, Australia
This book focuses exclusively on Monash’s life during the War and is extremely detailed. It provides strong analysis especially about Monash’s role and his skills as a strategist and organiser as well as providing some statistics. It was well researched using mainly primary sources.

Pedersen, Peter, “The AIF on the Western Front: The Role of Training and Command”, in McKernan, M, Browne, M (Eds), 1988, Australia Two Centuries of War & Peace, Australian War Memorial Press, Australia.
This chapter was useful in providing information about Monash’s role in the command structure of the Australian Corps. It was extensively researched, with many references to Charles Beans Official History of the First World War.

Pedersen, Peter, “Maintaining the Advance: Monash, battle procedure and the Australian Corps in 1918” in Ekins, Ashley (Ed), 2010, 1918 Year of Victory: The End of the Great War and the Shaping of History, Exisle Publishing, Australia
This chapter was about the Australian Corps in 1918 and provided useful analysis on Monash’s role in Australian victories. It was compiled from both first and secondary sources.

Serle, Geoffrey, 1982, John Monash A Biography, Melbourne University Press, Australia
This book covers all of Monash’s life. It was useful for providing information on Monash and the way that other people saw him. Its research is extensive, and it was the first book to use Monash’s private papers as a source.

Sheffield, Gary, 2002, Forgotten Victory The First World War: Myths and Realities, Review, Great Britain
This book was extensively researched making use of both primary and secondary sources. It focused mainly on the tactical and strategic elements of different battles in the First World War and provided analysis of these elements.

Journal Articles

Andrews, Eric, “Hamel: Winning a Battle”, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, April 1991, Issue No. 18
This source was exclusively about the Battle of Hamel. It provided strong analysis of the battles significance and Monash’s role in the victory.

Fischer, Tim, “John Monash: Two Views”, Henderson, Anne (Ed), 2009, The Sydney Papers, Spring 2008 Volume 20, The Sydney Institute, Australia
This source was a useful example of some of the current views about Monash and his reputation.

Gammage, William, “Sir John Monash: A Military Review”, Historical Studies, April 1974, Volume 16 No. 62
This article provided useful information on Monash, as well as considerable analysis of his abilities as a General and the way in which the public perception of Monash has changed.

Websites

Australian War Memorial n.d., 'Who's who in Australian Military History: General John Monash, GCMG, KCB'.
Retrieved from http://www.awm.gov.au/people/8442.asp, 21st of May, 2010.
This source was useful for providing brief information on Monash’s life and his promotions during the War. It was not a highly detailed source, but is from the Australian War Memorial’s official website.

Australian War Memorial n.d., 'Fifty Australians: Harry Chauvel'. Retrieved from http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/fiftyaustralians/7.asp, 23rd of May, 2010.
This source was from the official Australian War Memorial website. While it was not highly detailed it provided useful background information on Harry Chauvel and his role as a General.
  1. ^ See, for example, Serle (1982) and Pederson (1985).