John Monash: the case against a field marshal’s baton
18 Apr 2018|

Given calls to promote General Sir John Monash posthumously to field marshal, and with the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux to be opened on Anzac Day, we need to ensure that his substantial achievements are best considered, recognised and honoured in the context of their time.

A century of sustained analysis of wartime and post-war records more clearly establishes that context than many popular beliefs during World War I and the immediate post-war era allowed at the time.

This isn’t just an historical issue, not least because public consideration of Australia’s current and future strategic security situation is often side-tracked by two pernicious and inter-related tendencies.

First is the cultural habit of exaggerating or otherwise misunderstanding Australia’s collective and individual contributions to victory in both world wars. Many Australians wrongly believe that Australia was sucked into these ‘foreign wars’, at disproportionate cost, and that further contributions to preserving the stability of the rules-based international system are therefore unnecessary or discretionary.

With this comes the ‘myth of the digger’, whereby Australians are seemingly such natural super-soldiers that defending Australia is somehow easy and doesn’t require sustained contemplation, attention and national investment.

Second is the related cultural habit of most Australians only thinking about national defence on Anzac Day and then mainly in historical terms. This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that mythology, rather than detailed knowledge of facts and their implications, drives such nostalgia.

John Monash became a military reservist in 1884, aged 19. From 1887 he served as a garrison artillery officer (including as battery commander for 11 years), followed by six years as a lieutenant colonel heading the Victorian section of the new Australian Intelligence Corps. From June 1913 he commanded 13th Infantry Brigade.

On the outbreak of World War I, he served as chief censor for a month and then commanded the AIF’s 4th Brigade in Egypt, Gallipoli and France, first as a colonel, and from July 1915, as a brigadier-general. In July 1916 on promotion to major general he took command of the AIF’s newly raised 3rd Division in England. The division was deployed to France in November.

At the beginning of June 1918, Monash left his successful two-year command of the 3rd Division to take over the (five division–strong) Australian Corps on promotion to lieutenant general.

Like all militia officers in the AIF, Monash’s wartime ranks were temporary promotions. He retained his pre-war substantive rank of colonel until being permanently promoted to lieutenant general when transferred to the unattached list on 1 January 1920.

There’s no doubt that Monash was a brilliant and innovative thinker based on his intellect; his arts, engineering and law degrees; and his considerable business experience. His diverse and lengthy militia experiences gave him an unusually good grounding in the command of troops and of tactical, logistical, and terrain-analysis principles.

He arrived on the Western Front as the British Empire and French armies progressively absorbed the lessons of 1914–1916. They implemented technologies not previously available or still maturing (such as predicted artillery fire, aircraft, and tanks) and more sophisticated methods of operational and logistical planning, command and control.

Monash took over the Australian corps at the top of its game after the last German offensive capable of winning the war had failed. Monash also worked under capable field army and theatre commanders—Rawlinson and Haig, each of whom respected the other’s professionalism and methods.

Claims that Monash ‘won the war’ or was the lone or prime innovator on the Western Front don’t stand up to critical scrutiny. The reality is that he worked within a professional milieu that enabled him to maximise his undoubted capabilities for corps-level command. If the war had continued into 1919, he may have won command of a field army and promotion to full general, but not theatre command and promotion to field marshal.

The proposal to further promote Monash posthumously to field marshal surely demeans him by exaggerating, misplacing or misrepresenting his brilliant record. It also risks demeaning others.

The first Australian-born officer to command a division wasn’t Monash, it was Sir Harry Chauvel. He won his corps command and promotion to lieutenant general in the Middle East a year before Monash did. Chauvel also headed our army from 1923 to 1930 and was Inspector-General of the Volunteer Defence Corps during the period 1940–1945 (dying in the job).  As chief of the general staff he chaired the defence committee that advised the government—accurately and in detail—why primarily basing Australia’s defence on an imperial fleet base in Singapore was doomed to fail.

Chauvel thrived at the national and strategic levels of command in which Monash, by no fault of his own or of anyone else, was never tested nor desired to exercise command.

Moreover, Monash—then retired for seven years—was only promoted to full general in November 1929 at Chauvel’s insistence. As the defence force’s senior officer, Chauvel advised the government that he couldn’t be promoted without Monash being included as a courtesy to his World War I record.

And what about the case of General Sir Vernon Sturdee, the army chief who held the defence of Australia together in late 1941 and early 1942 amid widespread national alarm from the cabinet down to the street? Sturdee’s record then and later in Washington and New Guinea is continually ignored, with John Curtin alone given credit for key strategic decisions that he took that were principally based on Sturdee’s firm professional advice as the government’s senior military adviser.

Over 20 years working with expert military historians from the Australian War Memorial, the Army History Unit, the Australian Defence Force Academy and various universities, I haven’t heard of one who believes that Monash is somehow underappreciated, inappropriately honoured or that he’s been otherwise unfairly treated in our national historical record. Or that he was the victim of sustained anti-semitism, professional jealousy or other biases in life or death. Monash himself denied this in his retirement.

The two most authoritative biographies of Monash by Geoffrey Serle and Peter Pedersen detail his many strengths and achievements, and record his human flaws. They also refute both the themes and claims made by those pushing Monash mythology rather than facts, context or historically informed perspectives. Monash himself specified that his gravestone was to read only ‘John Monash’ with no title, rank or awards.

We should respect Monash’s wishes, his judgement and the considered views of his respectful peers across the world at the time.