Respecting John Monash by respecting his actual record

Calls to promote General Sir John Monash posthumously to field marshal are invalid because they ignore the real context of his undoubted achievements. They are also yet another symptom of so many Australians being wedded to emotive and mythological beliefs about our military history that this hampers objective discussion and sustainment of Australia's current and future strategic security requirements.



Renewed calls to promote General Sir John Monash posthumously to field marshal — even after the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux opened on Anzac Day 2018 — again renew the need to ensure that his substantial achievements are surely always 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 in general, and facts in particular, than many popular beliefs during World War I and the immediate post-war era allowed at the time.


Not just an historical issue

Even more importantly this is not just an historical issue. Or indeed one where enthusiasms driven by modern political fads should over-ride the considered judgement of a century.

Not least because public consideration of Australia’s current and future strategic security situation is so often detrimentally sidetracked by four inter-related tendencies.

First, many modern Australians wrongly believe that World Wars I and II were just “foreign wars”, or that Australia's involvement anyway came at disproportionate cost to the national interests underlying them.

This in turn leads to the erroneous belief that such contributions to preserving the survival or stability of a rules-based international system are therefore somehow unnecessary, discretionary or always disproportionate, rather than still needed to protect Australia's enduring national interests.

Second, is the folk-memory or patriotism-induced cultural tradition of exaggerating or otherwise misunderstanding Australia’s collective and individual contributions to allied victory in both world wars.

Third, is the “myth of the digger” whereby all Australians are seemingly such natural super-soldiers — better than all or most — that defending Australia is somehow easy and doesn’t require sustained contemplation, attention and national investment.

Fourth, is the related cultural habit of most Australians only thinking about national defence on Anzac Day and then mainly or exclusively in historical terms.

All these tendencies are exacerbated when mythology, rather than detailed knowledge of facts and their implications, drives the nostalgia.


Monash's career

John Monash first became a military reservist in 1884 aged 19.

From 1887 he served as a reservist officer in the garrison artillery protecting Port Phillip (including as a battery commander for 11 years). This was followed by six years as a lieutenant colonel in a reservist staff posting as head of the Victorian section of the newly-formed Australian Intelligence Corps. From June 1913 he was commander of the militia's 13th Infantry Brigade.

On the outbreak of World War I, now in full-time service, he served as Commonwealth Chief Censor for a month.

Monash then commanded the AIF’s 4th Brigade, training in Egypt, and then fighting at Gallipoli, on the Suez Canal and, from June 1916, on the Western Front in France. First as a colonel, and from July 1915 as a brigadier-general.

He took over the AIF's newly raised 3rd Division (in the UK) in July 1916 on promotion to major general. 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 newly constituted (five-division strong) Australian Corps on promotion to lieutenant general.

Like all militia and full-time officers serving in the AIF, Monash’s successive ranks in command of a brigade (brigadier general), division (major general) and corps (lieutenant general) were wartime temporary promotions.

He retained his pre-war substantive rank of colonel until being permanently promoted to lieutenant general when transferred to the Army unattached-list on 01 January 1920.

This permanent promotion was in honour of his distinguished service.

Most officers continuing to serve in the army retained their wartime temporary rank but were only paid at their substantive rank until accruing the seniority or level matching their worn (temporary) rank. This took much of the 1920s and 1930s in many cases.  


Monash's record in perspective and context

There is 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 also gave him an unusually good grounding in command of troops and of tactical, logistic and terrain-analysis principles.

He arrived on the Western Front, as first a divisional and then a corps commander, as the British Empire and French armies progressively absorbed the lessons of 1914-16.

Consequently, they implemented new technologies not previously available or still maturing (such as predicted artillery fire, aircraft and tanks), and more sophisticated methods of operational and logistic planning, command and control.

Monash took over the re-organised and much bigger Australian Corps when it was at the top of its game, from company level upwards. Moreover, the last German offensive capable of winning the war had failed.

For national sovereignty reasons, by concentrating all the Australian divisions under Australian command, it was also the largest allied corps on the Western Front (in both numbers of divisions and numbers of troops within a division).

Most of the corps' air  and heavy artillery support, all its tank support, and the great bulk of its logistic and other rear-area support continued to be provided by the British Army.

Monash also worked under capable field army and theatre commanders (General Sir Henry Rawlinson and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig respectively). They all greatly respected each other’s professionalism and methods.

The notion that, as a former militia officer, he was not respected professionally or personally holds little or no water. Many proficient officers across the British and, especially the Empire, armies had similar paths to higher command.

Claims that Monash “won the war” or was the lone or prime innovator on the Western Front do not bear objective scrutiny. No matter how much such claims are  blindly repeated, emotively couched or re-polished for contemporary political advantage.

Its far more a case of Monash excelling within a professional milieu that enabled him to maximise his undoubted capabilities for corps-level command — and in a crack corps.

If the war had continued into 1919 or even 1920 he may have won command of a field army and promotion (one step up) to full general.

But Monash would not have achieved command of an army group (because there were none).

Nor would he have won a theatre command because there was only one on the Western Front.

Furthermore, it was occupied by another successful commander who Monash respected, Haig, then busy maximising the sustained pressure necessary to draw the war to a close in 1918. A policy Monash fully supported to its successful conclusion.

In the military structure and operational context of the time a second step up from a lieutenant general commanding a corps to field marshal could not have occurred. 

Any proposal to now further promote Monash posthumously to field marshal surely demeans him by misunderstanding, exaggerating or misrepresenting his brilliant record beyond this wider context and the facts in which it occurred.


Some comparisons

Posthumously promoting Monash to field marshal also risks demeaning the records of others in both World Wars.

The first Australian-born officer to command a division, for example, was not Monash.

It was Sir Harry Chauvel in the Middle East. Chauvel also won his subsequent corps command and promotion to lieutenant general a year before Monash did.

Remaining in full-time service, Chauvel then headed our Army 1919-30 before finally retiring.

In World War II he came back into harness as Inspector-General of our homeguard (the Volunteer Defence Corps) 1940-45 (dying in the job).

In 1920, as Chief of the General Staff, Chauvel chaired the senior officer committee (including Monash as a member) which advised the government — accurately and in detail — why primarily basing Australia’s defence on an imperial fleet base in Singapore was doomed to fail. He continued to advise governments of this throughout the 1920s.

Chauvel served for over a decade as Inspector-General and Chief-of-the-General-Staff, at the national-strategic level of command where Monash, by no fault of his own or of anyone else, was never tested or indeed desired to exercise command.

Moreover, Monash — by then a reservist and effectively retired from command or staff positions on the unattached list for nine years — was only promoted to full general in November 1929 at Chauvel's insistence.

As the Army's and defence force’s senior officer, Chauvel advised the government he could not be so promoted without Monash being included out of respect for his World War I record.

Moreover, in the early and mid 1930s, it was suggested Chauvel be promoted to field marshal in recognition of his long and distinguished high-level service.

In 1936 the Minister for Defence argued this was not justified because Chauvel and Monash, who had died in 1931, had only been corps commanders (two levels of command down) and to do so they would have to promote Monash posthumously too (with no historical or legal precedents for doing so).

Or, in World War II, what about the case of General Sir Vernon Sturdee who, unlike Monash, had commanded a field army (one-level down from a field marshal's command).

Sturdee was the Army Chief who held the defence of Australia together in late 1941 and early 1942 amidst widespread national panic from the Cabinet down to people in the street.

Sturdee’s record then, later in Washington as head of Australia's military mission to the combined US-British Joint Chiefs of Staff, and subsequently commander of the Australian 1st Army in New Guinea from March 1944 (a level of command Monash never reached), is continually ignored. 

John Curtin alone is continually credited for key strategic decisions he took as prime-minister, especially in early 1942, that were principally based on Sturdee’s firm professional advice as the government’s senior military adviser.


Monash himself

Over the last 20 years, working with expert military historians from the Australian War Memorial, the Australian Army History Unit, the Australian Defence Force Academy and various universities, the ADA has yet to meet, or even hear of, one such historian who believes Monash is somehow under-appreciated, inappropriately honoured or has been otherwise unfairly treated in our national historical record.

Or that he was badly victimised, as some variously claim, by sustained anti-Semitism, professional jealousy or other biases in life or death.

Monash himself denied this in his retirement.

The only two authoritatively-objective Monash biographies, by Geoffrey Searle 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 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 judgement of his respectful peers across the world at the time.


[A condensed version of this article, John Monash: the case against a field marshal's baton, was published by ASPI's The Strategist on Wednesday, 18 April 2018.]


Recommended reading

Geoffrey Searle, John Monash: A Biography,
Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1982

Geoffrey Searle, "Sir John Monash (1865-1931)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10,
Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986

P.A. Pedersen, Monash As Military Commander,
First edition, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1985
Second edition, Big Sky Publishing, Newport NSW, 2018

P.A. Pedersen, "General Sir John Monash: Corps Commander on the Western Front",
in D.M. Horner (Editor), The Commanders: Australian military leadership in the twentieth century,
George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984

A.J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse: A Biography of General Sir Harry Chauvel GCMG KCB,
Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1978

A.J. Hill, "General Sir Harry Chauvel: Australia's First Corps Commander"
in D.M. Horner (Editor), The Commanders: Australian military leadership in the twentieth century,
George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984

D.M. Horner, "Lieutenant-General Sir Vernon Sturdee: The Chief of the General Staff as Commander",
in D.M. Horner (Editor), The Commanders: Australian military leadership in the twentieth century,
George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984




Back to 2018-19