Sir John Monash

General Sir John Monash (27 June 1865 – 8 October 1931), Australian military commander of the First World War, was born in Melbourne, Victoria, to parents of Prussian-Jewish origin (the family name was originally spelled Monasch). He was educated at a (Christian) private school in Melbourne and graduated from the University of Melbourne: in engineering in 1893 and in law in 1895. He worked as a civil engineer, and joined the Army Reserve, becoming a colonel in 1913.

When war broke out in 1914 Monash became a full-time Army officer. Despite the anti-German hysteria of the time, there seems to have been no adverse comment on his German origins. He was sent with the 4th Brigade to Egypt, where, like most Australian troops, he experienced the effects of bad British organisation, planning, and command. In 1915 he was sent to the disastrous Gallipoli campaign against the Turks. There he made a name for himself with his independent decision-making. His brigade took heavy casualties in the futile September offensives against the Ottoman Army, commanded by Kemal Atatürk.

By June 1916 Monash was in France, with the rank of major-general and in charge of the new Australian 3rd Division. He was involved in many actions, including Messines, the third battle of Ypres, and Polygon Wood, with some successes but the usual heavy casualties. The British High Command was impressed by Monash’s abilities and enthusiasm in a war that was going very badly. In 1917 he was made a corps commander.

Monash, not being a professionally trained officer, was free of the antiquated doctrines of many First World War officers. He believed in the co-ordinated use of infantry, aircraft, artillery and tanks. He wrote:

The true role of infantry is not to expand itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward.

At the Battle of Hamel Hill on 4 July 1918 Monash applied this doctrine, and led his troops to won a much-needed victory for the Allies. On 12 August he was knighted on the field by King George V. The Australians then advanced through France, being used as shock troops in an series of victories against the Germans at Chignes, Mont St Quentin, Peronne and Hargicourt.

By the end of the war Monash had acquired an outstanding reputation for intellect, personal magnetism, management and ingenuity. He also won the respect and loyalty of his troops: his motto was “Feed your troops on victory.” British officers, however, never forgot that he was a Jewish colonial officer with no formal army background. This prevented him rising to the heights of command his talents would have merited. Field-Marshall Bernard Montgomery later wrote: “I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the western front in Europe.”

After the war, Monash worked in prominent civilian positions, the most notable being head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission. He was one of the princiapl organisers of the annual observance of ANZAC Day, and oversaw the planning for Melbourne’s monumental war memorial, the Shrine of Remembrance. Monash was honoured with numerous awards and decorations from universities and foreign governments. He died in 1931 in Melbourne, where the municpality of Monash and Monash University are named after him.