Le Hamel was the site of an extraordinary triumph of allied arms early on the morning of July 4, 1918. Appropriately it was America’s Independence Day. Under the command of Australia’s formidable General, John Monash, American troops fought with their Australian comrades to wrest the position from Imperial German forces.
The victory at Le Hamel opened the way for further allied advances. Tim Fischer writes of this significance in his new biography of John Monash – Maestro John Monash: Australia’s Greatest Citizen General. The Maestro obviously applies to Monash as the conductor of a lethal orchestra, for there is no doubt that Monash combined all arms in the pursuit of objectives: a creeping artillery barage; aircraft support and tanks. The assault at Le Hamel was carefully camouflaged before it was launched against the surprised German forces; confronted by attackers in pre-dawn darkness. Monash was a man of precision. He calculated that the battle would last 90 minutes. In fact, it lasted 93.
Le Hamel today, is marked by the flags of all the Allies involved: Australia; the US and UK; France and Canada. Yet the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, extolled the virtues of the Australians when he visited the battlefield itself and spoke to the troops. But it is the co-operation between Australia and the newly arrived American allies which really deserves greater acknowledgement.
This was the first occasion in the Great War that US troops of ‘Black Jack’ Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force had fought on the Western Front. They did so under Australian command and for allies who have fought together in every one of America’s major wars in the 20th and 21st centuries, this seems more than worthy of real commemoration.
Fischer interprets Monash as a man of Melbourne, Jerilderie, Gallipoli and Amiens and he acknowledges the early years spent by the Monash family, originally from Prussian-Jewish background, in the bush. Fascinatingly, he also writes of the young John Monash, as a boy, holding Ned Kelly’s horse while the Kelly Gang was in Jerilderie during their travels across northern Victoria and southern New South Wales. This is an astonishing set of bookends to Australian history: Australia’s most acknowledged hero holding the horse for Australia’s most celebrated outlaw.
The book is dedicated to the 414 Chaplains of the first Australian Imperial Force (AIF); an extraordinary band of dedicated Australians from all faiths who served courageously with our men and women during the Great War. It is due recognition of an appropriate order. However, Fischer makes clear that in his view Monash has not been properly acknowledged and campaigns for posthumous promotion for the General to Field Marshal.
Some years ago, Geoffrey Serle wrote John Monash: A Biography which has stood the test of time in its assessments and judgements. But Fischer, once the Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister to John Howard, has written a very sympathetic and engaging portrait of Australia’s most able military Commander. Post politics, Fischer went on to serve the Rudd Government as Ambassador to the Holy See. He has now emerged as a prolific and enjoyable writer on a variety of topics from diplomatic service through railways to East Timor. He writes well and with his customary and expected enthusiasm.
Indeed in the Australian vernacular, this biography of Monash could well have been written with a ‘thumbnail dipped in tar’. Sir John Monash’s life is recalled as if it were a tale being told every night around the campfire on a droving expedition down the Campaspe or Lachlan Rivers.
Fischer believes, with more than passing justification, that the vindictiveness of Prime Minister Hughes, jealous of Monash’s fame and popularity in high circles in London, denied Monash’s promotion to full General at the conclusion of the war. There was no doubt about Monash’s exceptional leadership, especially in the last weeks of the war, as General Erich Ludendorff testified from the other side of the lines.
Monash, originally an engineer and militia officer, grew through Brigade and Divisional commands to leadership of the Australian Army Corps itself, under Sir Douglas Haig. British PM Lloyd George maintained that had Monash been Commander of all the British armies in 1917 instead of Haig then the war would not have lasted into 1918. Monash learned from experience, especially mistakes at Gallipoli, and developed skills in the deployment and support of his troops, including the basic necessity of ensuring that front line soldiers had a hot meal.
But Hughes was too narrow and mean a man to show grace. Added to this reality, anti-Semitism was rife at the time and one can understand why Monash was denied deserved promotion, including the ultimate elevation to Field Marshall. Fischer writes– ‘Jealousy of the successful modus operandi of Jews and the notion that Jews were pushing forward at every opportunity were rampant at the time. Moreover, anti-Semitism was part of polite Anglo society in both Australia and Great Britain, especially during periods of economic downturn.’ Regrettably, this strand of anti-Semitism extended to the noted Australian historian, Charles Bean (see p. ix), who was often unreasonably critical of Monash throughout the war.
Fischer speculates from time to time, departing from recorded history, but it is always intriguing speculation. His best chapter is perhaps on the Buckingham Palace ‘Banquet of Banquets’, hosted by King George V to celebrate the victory of the allies in 1918. At this banquet, Hughes, as diminutive Australian PM, was apparently eclipsed by his most senior General, especially in conversations with his Majesty. Embittered, Hughes later largely ignored Monash’s contribution to victory.
On Australians in battle, Fischer, as a veteran himself, is in his element, detailing acts of heroism by the Diggers and their allies. He is on much weaker ground when he talks strategy, especially German strategic dilemmas in two World Wars; British exhaustion and the post-war global shift to American primacy. But this should not detract from the conclusion that Maestro John Monash is very enjoyable reading. It might be light and breezy but it is a fair and passionate judgement of the greatest Australian to wear our uniform. John Monash was our greatest Citizen General, and our greatest Citizen Soldier.Tim Fischer gets it right.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.