Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, May 19, 2016

General Sir John Monash

Sir John Monash (1865–1931) commanded Australian troops during some of World War One's most famous battles. He gained a reputation as a great military planner and strategist, which led to battlefield victories in France and Belgium and a knighthood. These successes, however, were preceded by the terrible defeat suffered by the Australian and New Zealand forces under British command at Gallipoli, Turkey. 

Monash: General to Be
Monash was a most unlikely Digger hero. Of Prussian-Jewish extraction, cultured, fussy, an organized and methodical disciplinarian to the point of obsessive, he was a middle-aged, overweight citizen soldier with no active war experience when hostilities broke out in 1914. Yet he was the leader Australian soldiers needed both during and after the war. At Gallipoli he commanded the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade. 

During the initial Gallipoli landing, the 4th Brigade was in reserve. Monash did not land until the morning of 26 April and was given the left-centre sector to organize, including Pope's Hill and Quinn's Post, while the Turks counterattacked. His brigade was still not fully gathered by the 30th, but Monash had an orderly conference of his battalion commanders that day. The night offensive on Baby 700 of 2 May, which Monash had opposed, was disastrous; according to Charles Bean it left him "unstrung, as well it might." The brigade played its part in withstanding the Turkish offensive of 19 May and the break-in to Quinn's on the 29th and was relieved from the line at the end of the month. 

In July Monash learned of his tardy promotion to brigadier general at a time when wild rumors were circulating in Cairo, London, and Melbourne that he had been shot as a German spy and traitor; there had been a similar vicious whispering campaign in Melbourne the previous October. The brigade now prepared for the battle of Sari Bair and its part in the left hook on Hill 971. Their night march of 6 August was delayed and a vital wrong turning made. Monash forced himself to the front, punched his battalions into position, and made good progress against moderate resistance. But the maps were faulty, the men were lost and exhausted, and next morning they could only dig in. On the 8th, after attacking, they had to withdraw. Most of the men were sick, many had paratyphoid. The remnants then took part in the unsuccessful attacks on Hill 60, before being withdrawn to Lemnos. Monash had three weeks leave in Egypt. 

Monash Gully: Anzac Sector, Gallipoli; Sandbag Barricades
Are Protection Against Turkish Snipers on the Ridge

The brigade returned to a quiet sector on Gallipoli. On the final night of the evacuation Monash was not one of the last to leave, but rashly sent home an illegal diary-letter implying that he had been. Gallipoli had given him a devastating education. Bean, Birdwood, and others left an impression that his performance had been mediocre; but his brigade had performed at least as well as any of the other three and he had little or no part in the battle plans he had to attempt to carry out. His performance on 7–8 August is open to criticism, but it came to be recognized that the attack on Hill 971 was totally impossible to accomplish. Bean reported the saying that Monash "would command a division better than a brigade and a corps better than a division." 

Monash found out many lessons the hard way—in battle. For one thing, he was very overweight, and this wasn't a war in which to be overweight. He found he could not fit through some of the trench tunnels. With the withdrawal from the Turkish peninsula, Monash and most of the Australian forces were sent to France. After arriving, he reflected on the differences of the Western Front from Gallipoli: 

The question of getting hurt [on the Western Front] is in no sense a question of taking any special precautions. At Anzac the principal danger was from sharpshooters, and one had to learn the dangerous spots and how to circumvent them. Shellfire was of little danger only because it was so little in quantity, not because it did not reach every part of the area of one's perambulations. Here, there is practically no danger at all from rifle or machine-gun fire. The danger from artillery fire is greater only because there is more of it, and one can say with definiteness that there is no spot within the area of one's daily movements which is really safe. It is merely a question of coincidence of a shell and oneself being simultaneously at one and the same spot. Experience has shown that it is quite futile to try and dodge shellfire; one is just as likely to run into a beaten zone as out of it. There is no spot in the whole sector which may not, conceivably, be shelled. 

Consummate Commander
They thought after Gallipoli the fields of France would be a picnic. They were wrong. The reality of industrialized warfare became apparent — mile upon mile of trenches, barbed wire, mud, and extraordinarily heavy artillery. Monash would be given command of the Australian 3rd Division, which performed superbly in the 1917 Battle of Messines, and in 1918 he would lead the entire Australian Corps. Through many trials and errors, the Australian divisions became the hardened, intelligent fighting force that played a crucial role in defeating Germany on the Western Front. 

After the war, when Monash and the AIF returned home to relative neglect, Monash strived to ensure soldiers received due honor, recognition, and assistance. As part of his campaign he played a pivotal role in creating Anzac Day commemorations. Without Monash, this annual commemoration would most likely have faded into obscurity.

Sources: Australian Biography, Australian War Memorial, Australian History Websites

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