BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
MONASH: The outsider who won a war, by Roland Perry
, December 4, 2004
The greatest ever Australian?MONASH: The outsider who won a war
By Roland Perry
Random House Australia
Hardback RRP: $49.95General Sir John Monash was arguably the greatest Australian commander in our military history. Roland Perry explores the thesis that it was Monash who won the First World War for the Allies, as it was his battle strategy, based upon meticulous planning, that enabled the British to break the deadlock on the Western Front.
What makes Monash's career all the more extraordinary is that Monash was an "outsider": a colonial who, ironically, was the son of German immigrants, albeit Jewish, one of them a militia (non-career) officer.
Born in 1865, Monash was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne, where he studied arts and engineering.
As a student, he joined the university company of the 4th Battalion, Victoria Rifles. His abilities soon earned him rapid promotion.
As a young engineer, he was involved in the building of the Princes Street Bridge and the Outer Circle Railway. He was appointed temporary lieutenant in 1887, after which he pursued both military and engineering careers, and was promoted to major in 1897.
In the early 1890s, Monash studied law. It was his work as an expert witness in cases involving engineering matters that enabled him to weather the financial difficulties of the decade.
Involvement in bridge-building, and holding of the Monier patent for reinforced concrete, saw a further improvement in his financial fortunes.
By the outbreak of the First World War, Monash was a colonel, had lectured extensively on military matters, and had been commended by General Sir Ian Hamilton - later commander of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign - for his conduct of manoeuvres in February 1914.
Soon after the outbreak of war, Monash was appointed commander of the 4th Infantry Brigade of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
Although many historians have been critical of Monash's command at Gallipoli, Perry defends him, underscoring the insurmountable difficulties he faced, such as poor maps, lack of troops and insufficient time for detailed planning, that precluded successful outcomes.
In July 1916, Monash was promoted to major-general. He proved his abilities as a strategist, and ensured victory through meticulous planning at Messines, northern France, in June 1917.
During the German offensive of 1918, Monash deployed his division to stop the gap in the front line at Amiens. Although the German Army had gained significant territory, it was exhausted and the Allies went on the offensive.
Monash was appointed lieutenant-general in June 1918. The battle of Le Hamel on July 4, which he planned meticulously and commanded, is generally considered the first modern battle.
Monash used artillery, infantry and tanks in a carefully co-ordinated assault that not only achieved its objectives, but did so without the huge loss of life associated with earlier World War I battles.
This was followed by his seminal role in the successful actions on August 8, often called the "black day of the German Army". Four days later, he was knighted at his headquarters by King George V.
Monash went on to achieve outstanding victories at Mont St Quentin and Peronne.
Field-Marshal Montgomery, the famous British army commander in the Second World War (a junior officer in the First World War), would later write: "I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the western front in Europe."
Monash's significant achievements did not end with the war. He was responsible for a comparatively quick and extremely well-managed repatriation of soldiers.
In 1920 he was appointed director of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. Applying his engineering, planning and management skills, the SEC produced cheap and reliable electricity within a few years.
Monash died on October 8, 1931 and was given a state funeral. An estimated 250,000 mourners - the nation's largest funeral crowd to that time - turned out to pay their respects.
Perry also details Monash's private life, including his affair with Annie Gabriel, a married woman, whilst still a bachelor; his difficult relationship with his wife, Victoria Moss; and his long-term relationship with Lizette Bentwitch, that began during World War I and continued until his death.
Monash did not marry her after his wife's death, largely owing to family opposition.
Perry's book also explores the opposition Monash encountered from journalists and writers, such as Keith Murdoch and Charles E.W. Bean, as well as from politicians like Prime Minister Billy Hughes.
Monash's spirituality, however, is not explored at length. Although he was a leading figure in Melbourne's Jewish community, and in the 1920s had supported Zionist causes, it seems that Monash had become an agnostic by the time he reached adulthood.