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Monash on the Western Front

In a paper written earlier this year in the wake of the 2009 Victorian bushfire disaster, I drew a pointed analogy. The failed and failing bushfire policies and management strategies in Australia these days have a parallel with the disastrous military strategies adopted by the Generals in the early years of World War 1. Both were designed in such a way that they must invariably fail, both ignored the lessons of history, and both resulted in terrible and un-necessary losses of lives.

In my paper I also drew attention to the role played by the Australian General Sir John Monash (left) who engineered the breakthrough on the western front in the final year of the war. Monash conceived and implemented a winning strategy. I called for a new Monash to lead a renaissance in modern Australian bushfire management.

Since then I have been asked several times to explain World War 1 strategies and Monash’s role. I had taken it for granted that most people understood all this. The questions have come especially from Americans who generally lack the intense interest in WW1 history felt by Australians - especially Australians of about my generation, most of whom had a grandfather or uncle who fought and died at the Dardanelles, or in Flanders.

So, a potted history for those who came in late. The war on the Western Front (that is, western Europe) fell roughly into three phases. The first was brief, taking only a few weeks as the German army swept through Belgium and into France, taking all before it. The third phase was also brief, lasting only from about August to November of 1918, when the allied armies broke through and began the rout which led to the war’s end. In the long years of the in-between phase, the British, French and Germans dug in and confronted each other across a narrow no-man’s land over a ‘front’, stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland. This phase was characterised by a series of largely static and horrible battles, with the British and French flinging themselves repeatedly at the German defences. The position of the frontline scarcely changed for three years. Millions died. The Generals on the Allied side knew only one strategy: headlong attack by infantry, following an intense artillery bombardment of the German frontline trenches.

I have always been proud that it was an Australian who engineered a new strategy, and Australian troops who largely provided the strike force to carry it through.

Australians had started arriving at the western front (so-called because the Germans also had an eastern front where, until the Bolshevik revolution they were fighting the Russians) in late 1915 following the withdrawal from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Although the Australians had their own field commanders, these reported to British Generals and to the British Commander in Chief, Field Marshal Douglas Haig. This highly unpopular arrangement was the result of some political argy-bargy between the British and Australian governments. (When the Americans finally came into the war, by the way, they would take none of this nonsense from the Brits: one of the conditions of their entry was that American troops were led independently by an American, General Pershing).

These command arrangements meant that in 1916 and 1917, Australian troops were forced to follow a disastrous strategy, i.e., attack at all costs against well-defended positions and hardened German troops with expertise in the use of enfilading machine gun fire. Consequently, Australian infantry suffered shocking losses on the killing fields at Passchendael, Fromelle, Pozieres, Villers-Bretonneux and Messine Ridge. By the time of the battle of Hamel in the spring of 1918 however, some changes had been made. Both the Canadian and Australian governments were fed up with the appalling generalship of the British Army and had insisted on leadership changes. Amongst other things this led to the appointment of the first Australian to lead the Australian Army: General Sir John Monash.

Monash was born in 1865 in Victoria, the son of Jewish Prussian immigrants. He was a ‘Renaissance Man’, with degrees in arts, engineering and law from Melbourne University and he was a brilliant mathematician. He became a civil engineer but also, in his spare time, a Major and artillery commander in the Victorian militia. By the time of the Gallipoli landing in April 1915 he had been appointed a full Colonel in the regular army and was commander of the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade. He was promoted to lead the 3d Australian Division on the western front throughout 1917 and then put in full charge of the entire Australian Army Corps, in early 1918. He was at that time in his early 50s, and by then an experienced and battle-hardened front-line soldier.

Monash deplored the strategy of the British and French generals. He observed its one over-riding characteristic: it always failed. Moreover, he could see no chance of it ever succeeding. Firstly, the battles had no surprise element. The British artillery would pound the German frontline trenches for days before an attack, but the Germans simply retreated into deep, bomb-proof bunkers, from which they emerged to set up their defensive wall the moment the bombardment stopped. Second, even if by superhuman effort and sheer weight of numbers the attackers got into the enemy’s front line, the Germans always maintained reserve troops behind the line who then counter-attacked, catching the exhausted attackers in trenches whose defenses faced the wrong way.

The Monash strategy had two essential elements: (a) meticulous planning and (b) collaborative arrangements between the various service arms. He did away with the massive pre-attack bombardments, instead using a superbly-managed “rolling barrage” which crept towards the enemy in front of the advancing attackers, and he used specially-fused artillery shells that cut barbed wire. He had organised for his intelligence officers to determine the exact location of the enemy artillery, and focussed on knocking this out by precision counter-battery gunnery the moment the battle commenced. He championed the new offensive weapons, in particular the tank, and insisted on joint planning and coordination between tank and infantry commanders (something that seems elementary today, but he was the first to do it; indeed, many British senior officers distrusted or were contemptuous of the tank, preferring horse-mounted cavalry). He also developed close coordination with the Air Force, and used aircraft to bomb and strafe the German troops in the reserve trenches to prevent the inevitable counter-attacks. Most innovatively, he used aircraft to re-supply his advancing troops. In the past, the attackers had often found themselves short of ammunition and grenades after they had achieved their objective and were then subjected to counter-attack. Monash arranged for special supply drops from low flying aircraft. Again this seems elementary, but until Monash organised it, the Air Force and the Army had operated quite independently.

Finally, Monash had his sights set well beyond the enemy’s front line trenches. He identified important objectives kilometres further on, and he organised tanks and armoured cars with supporting infantry to move rapidly through the first line of defenses and support trenches making no initial attempt at consolidation. The fast moving attackers would leap-frog each other in successive waves, to take key offensive positions beyond. It was a concept of mobile, not static warfare, and was the product of a colossal planning effort and intricate control systems.

Monash had been a musician in his former life, and loved classical music. Not surprisingly he chose a musical analogy to describe his battle strategy. He saw the cooperative arrangements between infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft, planned down to the last tiny detail, as “an orchestral composition”, in which each instrument made its entry at the right moment and played its phrases to a score, all contributing to the final harmonious result.

Monash first played his symphony at the small-scale battle of Hamel (it was all over in 90 minutes of exquisite execution of a brilliant plan), and the result so amazed the British Generals back at GHQ, they allowed him to elaborate upon it. This resulted in a series of stunning victories, culminating (in August, 1918) in the smashing of the Hindenburg Line, up until then the great stumbling block of the Western Front. It was a dramatic victory; the stalemate collapsed, the front was riven. It foreshadowed the end of the war – the German Army never recovered, and was virtually on the run when the Armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918.

Throughout all of this, Monash was also fighting personal battles.

In the first place, he suffered serious prejudice through being a Jewish colonial militiaman of German parentage. In the second, he was looked down upon by the top brass because he was an educated and scholarly man, who was not a professional soldier, but an "amateur" and had come up through the ranks.

Finally, Monash led Australian soldiers who, although acknowledged as tough and savage fighters, were regarded as ‘unsoldierly’ by the English Generals. Australian soldiers, for example, refused to salute English officers, and would salute their own officers only on a voluntary basis; they were great drinkers and looters, and going into battle would dress to fight, not for the parade ground. The attitude of the British officers to Australian soldiers was summed up in a classic cartoon in Punch at about this time, shown below:

It is characteristic that there was only ever one mutiny of Australian troops during World War 1 – this was over a proposed restructure of the battalions, with which the troops did not agree. The restructuring had been forced on Monash from above, and he had resisted it, but in the end was over-ruled. Although they refused to be restructured, the men did not refuse to fight, electing their own officers from within the ranks to lead them until the mess was sorted out. Both the French and German armies, on the other hand, had serious mutinies, in which the troops refused to fight, and many mutineers were executed.

Right into 1918, there were political machinations going on in London to undermine Monash. They were led by a cabal of journalists and war correspondents who regarded Monash as “too pushy, too ambitious and too clever”. At least one of these journalists (Charles Bean, who also wrote the Official War History, and was always luke-warm towards Monash) had the 1918-equivalent of a hotline back to the Prime Minister in Australia. It is a great tribute to Monash that he could put all of this out of his mind and concentrate on the job at hand.

It was left to the incomparable war historian Basil Lidell-Hart to truly sum up the situation: “A war-winning combination had [at last] been found: a corps commander of genius, the Australian infantry, the Tank Corps, the Royal Artillery and the RAF”.

Despite this, and the fact that his troops revered him, Monash was never lionised in the press. He was not a man to court favour with journalists, and this cost him their support, both during the war and afterwards.

Following the war, Monash was involved in a number of engineering and civic projects in Victoria and in looking after ex-servicemen. He aspired to national politics or national leadership of some sort, but the same media and political forces that had sought to undermine him during the war lined up against him again. But when he died in 1931 he was not forgotten by his former troops or their families. An estimated 250,000 came to his funeral to pay their respects. Such numbers had never been seen before, or since at any funeral in this country.

It is fitting that the Australian $100 note features Monash's portrait, to this day:


It is, of course fantasy on my part to imagine a Monash-like figure arising in Australia to tackle and resolve our bushfire crisis. The vested interests in the political parties, the public service, the fire services, academia and the environmental organisations would never allow "an amateur" the opportunity, let alone the power, to take charge, set up a winning strategy and see it through. He would first be undermined, and then destroyed.

The crisis of war, or of armed insurrection, both of which represent the ultimate breakdown of good government, seem to provide the only forum these days in which true leaders can truly lead. It is perhaps the greatest indictment of modern democratic society.



Carlyon, Les (2006): The Great War. Picador, Pan McMillan, Australia

Monash John (1920); The Australian Victories in France. Good Press, Australia

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