Remembrance Day And The Importance Of Australia’s General Sir John Monash

Posted on Wed 11/11/2009 by

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Lieutenant General Sir John Monash. Commons Image in the Public Domain.

On the 5th October 1918, the German High Command asked for an immediate Armistice and an end to hostilities. The date and time for the ceasefire to commence was at 11AM on November 11th 1918, effectively the finish of The Great War, which we now refer to as World War One. This is why we celebrate Remembrance Day.

One man cannot win a War.

However Lieutenant General Sir John Monash was instrumental in doing just that, and even though an Australian, he shares a bond with the U.S.

In 1914, the Germans swept down into France from the North in an almost unstoppable manner, and there was the thought that they were just going to keep right on going. More through good fortune than anything, they stalled and became bogged down in the area along the length of the River Somme, where huge numbers of troops built up to try and hold the huge number of German troops.

Prior to hostilities starting, John Monash was a Civil Engineer in Melbourne Australia. At the start of that War, he was 48 years old. He had a successful career with his own Engineering Company. He was also a LtCol in the Militia, not a member of the Regular Army. He joined that Militia in 1888 as a Lieutenant, and rose through the ranks, and at the outbreak of that War, he already had 26 years Service. Because he was only from the Militia, he was not really considered to have the experience of Regular Army Officers, and when the War did start, there was some opposition to him being given a position of high rank and Command. He overcame that resistance and was promoted to full Colonel and given command of a Brigade. He was known as a meticulous organiser of the men under him. He trained the men he had been given and on April 25th 1915, he led those men ashore at Gallipoli, now forever a place in Australia’s history. I wrote a post on that earlier at this link, and the Australian ABC has a wonderful interactive website about that Campaign at this link.

During that Campaign, Monash was promoted to Brigadier General and he enhanced his stature as a Commander who would meticulously plan and then execute his actions.

He was promoted again to Major General, and in June of 1917, he was now in France, in that area where fighting had been going on unabated for three years now, still stalemated along the River Somme.

One of Monash’s biggest bugbears was that the by now very large Australian Force was still under the disposition of British Officers. Monash, although not the ranking Australian Senior Officer desperately wanted all those Australians to fight as a united group under Australian command only. This was also a politically sensitive thing as well, and the Australian political leadership also wanted the same thing. Monash was not favoured to command the hoped for Australian Corps. He won a few victories that brought him to the attention of senior Officers of the British forces, and he had the respect of them, even if not from his own political masters, influenced in part by a media outlet who actively campaigned against his taking that command. Those victories, the way he handled his planning, and the men under him brought him to notice. He was promoted to LtGen in May of 1918. His thinking was radically different from the English whose main thrust was to inject huge numbers and try and just keep driving, and those huge numbers meant that there were also huge losses, which did not seem to bother the English High Command all that much. Monash looked on his men as the most important asset, and only meticulous planning would protect them. He had some setbacks, but in the main, always had less losses than in other similar situations.

Monash was tasked with planning a minor battle, taking command of all the forces for that battle, and then proceeding with the action, and here’s where the U.S. comes in. Always the meticulous planner right down to the tiniest detail, he again planned the set piece to the finest detail. The Americans had just come into the War under General Pershing, but had still been basically untried in the heat of a major battle. This operation Monash planned was the Battle of Hamel.

Monash was given as part of his force 2000 U.S. soldiers, 2 Battalions. This had never happened before, and the U.S. has never had their troops under the Command of anyone other than the U.S. This was the first time this had happened. Those 2000 troops had trained hard for this and were looking forward to actually taking part. Pershing did not want to be seen as the first U.S. person to submit his men to non U.S. command, and asked the senior English Command to remove his men from outside Command. 1000 of those men were reluctantly withdrawn, under the protest of those men, who wanted to join in the fight at last. Monash recast his battle plan, and on the eve of the battle, he was summoned to English High Command and asked to withdraw the other 1000 Americans, as Pershing did not want any of his men associated with the Battle. Monash vigorously opposed their withdrawal, saying that Battle could not proceed without them. There was back and forth and no relenting from the High Command. Monash virtually asked the Senior Command to disobey the order and allow the Americans to stay in. This swayed the High Command, that what amounted to a lesser ranking senior officer willing to stake his future on this. They swayed and allowed the Americans to stay in, although delaying that decision to Pershing. Monash walked away from that meeting full in the knowledge that if this went badly, it would all be over for him, both with the English High Command, and also going with that, any support from his fellows, and the Australian political front, as well as any chance to lead an Australian only force under Australian Command.

The date of the Battle. 4th July 1918. Monash had intentionally and specifically planned it that way in honour of the Americans to show that they were accepted as part of the fight against the Germans. Those 1000 Americans would join with 8000 men from Australian forces.

The Battle was set to begin just before Dawn on the morning of July 4th.

It was all over in ….. 93 minutes.

This was actually 3 minutes longer than Monash had planned for, much to the disbelief of Senior Command.

It was a comprehensive rout. 1500 Germans were killed or wounded, and there were also 1500 prisoners taken, a huge amount, even for a very large Battle, let alone a small one like this. There were also numerous Enemy field pieces, artillery, weapons and ammunition taken. Monash’s losses were so small as to be almost non existent, and that is not meant to lessen the importance of those who died in that engagement. In fact, the vast majority of his own 800 casualties were walking wounded only. More importantly, the land won in this sharp engagement was four times larger than any land ever won back by a force of a Division size or smaller in the previous 4 years of operations. The Australians, in their first action as a unified  Australian Corps had won an almost perfect victory. Previous actions of this size had taken weeks or even months, using those earlier tactics, and had losses significantly and comprehensively higher than what there was for this Battle.

He was noticed now in a big way, from every quarter. Even Pershing now basked in some of the glow of the spotlight now shining brightly on Monash, as this was the first major fight that the Americans had actually been in. Monash’s position was now assured, and he was given complete command of the Australian Corps, and the opportunity to further plan more important and much larger battles. Political support now moved firmly behind him also.

His plans for the Battle of Amiens were accepted by the High Command, and that major Battle was scheduled for August 8th. The Australian Corps now numbered 170,000, and they were the focal point of the Battle supported in North by the English, and in the South by the Canadians.

This Major Battle started at 4.20AM, and was over by early afternoon. More than 8000 prisoners were taken just by the Australians, more than 170 large enemy artillery pieces, and much more further equipment. The Canadians took nearly 4500 prisoners and the British many more as well. Monash’s own (Australian) casualties amounted to just under 1000, less than 1%. They took nearly 5 miles back. This one single engagement caused the German senior officer General Ludendorff to realise that the War was lost and he actually stated that this was Germany’s blackest day of the whole War. It was the single most decisive victory of the War, and the biggest breakthrough for the Allied Forces.

In recognition of this famous victory, four days later on August 12th, England’s King George V traveled to the Battlefield and invested John Monash with a Knighthood, the first time a ruling Monarch had been on a battlefield to do so in more than 200 years.

Monash was then virtually given all further planning as the combined Forces now pushed the Germans back to the Hindenburg line. There were a series of major victories along the way, every one of them decisive, with very few losses, as the Australians fought as a wholly Australian Army. They numbered more than 210,000 now, the largest non European force in Europe at that time, and under the sole control of a senior Australian Commander, each engagement meticulously planned by him, coordinating all aspects of Infantry, Armour, air power, and other forces. Rather than the earlier English plan of just throwing men at the enemy, his plan was more of coordinating as many things as possible into his planning. At the end Monash also had under his Command nearly 50,000 Americans.

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Monash reviewing his last ANZAC Day Parade, 25th April 1931. Image From Australian Government National Archives.

Monash’s last Battle was at the Hindenburg Line. It finished on 5th October when the Germans asked for an end to hostilities. This was barely three months after that first Battle of Hamel, a series of driving Allied Victories one after the other, all brilliantly planned and executed by Monash, whose star was now firmly in the ascendency.

After the War, Monash stayed on in England to coordinate the repatriation of those Australians back to Australia. He arrived back in Australia on 26th December 1919, more than a year after the War’s end.

He was what today is termed a ‘superstar’. He was instrumental in seeing that those who fought in the War were not forgotten or neglected. He was the instigator for what is recognised to this day as one of the most solemn days on the Australian calendar, that of ANZAC Day, April 25th, in recognition of that first landing by Australian Forces at Ari Burnu on Turkey’s Gallipoli Pensinsula, now forever in the Australian psyche known as ANZAC Cove.

John Monash died on October 8th 1931. He was given a State funeral attended by the largest crowd at such a funeral in Australia’s history, nearly 250,000 actually turning up for that, most of them being the men who served under him, as he was loved by all the men under him.

Lieutenant General Sir John Monash was not a pretentious man by any manner, and specifically requested that his headstone should just say ‘plain’ John Monash.

He is remembered here is Australia to this day with numerous things being named in his honour including one of Australia’s largest Universities, Monash. His face is on the highest denomination banknote the $100 Bill.

As I mentioned above, one man does not win a War. Lieutenant General Sir John Monash shortened The Great War considerably.

On this day, we remember all those who have fallen, but we also give thanks for men who saw to it that many more were not numbered in that count.

John Monash is an Australian, but he has a strong link with the United States.

This post by its nature can only say so much, and this is just a tiny part of his accomplishments. As a reference, I used that wonderful book, the biography of Monash, titled Monash The Outsider Who Won A War written by Roland Perry. Both images can be viewed in new and larger windows.

Posted in: History, Military