January 22, 2016

Sir John Monash: Grantlee Kieza’s Biography




Few places of honour underline the recurring tragedy of war more graphically than the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux in France. This sacred ground commemorates the sacrifice of Australian and other Allied soldiers in the Great War of 1914-18. But as you climb to the top of the tower that overlooks the memorial and surrounding countryside, scene of a great Australian triumph in 1918, it becomes obvious the immeasurable sacrifice of the fallen did not conclude a ‘‘war to end war’’.

Chunks of masonry are missing. Bullet holes scar the walls. This is the result of German heavy infantry weapons being deployed in 1940 to dislodge the French defenders of the memorial during World War II, as the Wehrmacht advanced in the west. On the fall of Paris in June 1940, a Wehrmacht officer observed that the campaign to take the French capital had lasted 26 years.

But in 1918, Australian infantry had won brilliant battlefield engagements against the Germans, blunting Erich Ludendorff’s final offensive. Villers-Bretonneux was one such victory, still being commemorated in the township today with Australian place names and a schoolhouse sign that says: “Never Forget the Australians”. 

Le Hamel was another striking success. In both battles, the Australian commander was General John Monash.

Monash is now the fabric of Australian legend. He is acknowledged variously by having public institutions from a freeway to a university named after him. He appears on the $100 note, and he is widely regarded as the personification of Australian leadership and martial skills in battle and dedicated public service in peace.

In Monash: The Soldier who Shaped Australia, Grantlee Kieza pursues the man and in so doing projects the legend.

The Monash family was originally of Prussian Jewish stock. His father, Louis, and mother, Bertha, emigrated to Melbourne and settled in St Kilda in 1864. A son was born on June 27, 1865, and reported in the newspaper as John Monash, the family having decided to anglicise their name.

Life for the newly arrived Monash family was not without pressures, particularly financial. In hopes of bettering the family circumstances, they moved north to Jerilderie in the Riverina where Louis opened a general store. It is at Jerilderie where one of the strangest encounters in Australian history occurs. 

The young John Monash meets Ned Kelly.

According to Monash’s later accounts, his ­father is in need of a new horse and buys four white ponies from young Kelly; Ned takes them to the Monash home. Louis is said to have boasted that he even managed to trick Kelly out of his money. John Monash will later tell audiences that Kelly gave him a shilling to hold his horse. 

Kelly and his gang, he says, would have made good soldiers. Pondering this observation, one can only imagine the potential heroism of Ned and his brother Daniel Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne charging with the 4th Light Horse at Beersheba.



Monash’s mother was the great influence on the young man growing up. While his father struggled with various businesses, Bertha never lost sight of the importance of education and made certain young John attended the best schools, through Scotch College to the University of Melbourne. Monash was ambitious and never left anyone in doubt as to his talents, but his mother constantly reinforced the need to succeed in this new Australian society. Twice over, the Monash family could be considered outsiders, being German and Jewish. Thus the need was always there to work just that much harder to ensure success.
But more than success, Bertha was a civilising influence on her son, introducing him to the arts and seeing him develop as a fine pianist.

At university, Monash was gregarious and popular but he struggled with different subjects from time to time. The university militia, however, was no chore, and he excelled, rising steadily through the ranks.

But the great flaw in the young man who emerged in Melbourne society as both an engineer of note and a militia officer of promise was his relentless womanising. His most passionate and notorious affair was with the wife of one of his subordinates on a construction project, Fred Gabriel. Annie Gabriel may well have been the love of Monash’s life but their tempestuous relationship nearly ruined both of them. Kieza draws attention to one spectacular incident as the lovers meet:

As they canoodled, Fred comes hurtling over a hill above them like a charging cavalryman. Monash is sent tumbling as the two men grapple over Monash’s walking stick. Annie screams in terror but Fred drags her down to the Johnston Street Bridge …. However as Fred, “very violent in his language”, pushes Annie onto a tram, Monash jumps on as well, and the three combatants go at it hammer and tongs in a furious row, startling passengers, until all three jump off at Smith Street.
A fracas like that could be taken from a ­biography of Charlie Sheen.

Kieza is the author of 10 books, including a biography of Australian airman Bert Hinkler. He has written for newspapers including The Australian, Brisbane’s TheCourier Mail and Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph . His style reflects his profession: clear and accessible. It makes for easy reading, notwithstanding the occasional lapse into florid language.

Nonetheless, the great strength of Monash is that Kieza has made the life of Australia’s greatest general open to a broad new audience. It is a decade or more since a major biography of Monash was published, and this well-crafted and extensively documented volume appropriately coincides with the centenary of World War I.

Monash’s success as an innovative civil engineer, introducing new products and processes, brought prosperity, and marriage to Hannah Victoria Moss. A greater degree of stability, though, did not stop his eye from wandering. The outbreak of war, however, changed ­Monash’s life every bit as much as it served to change Australia. As a brigadier, he commanded Australian troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

It is sometimes claimed that Australia had no reason to take part in World War I. Even if one ignores the requirement for imperial defence, this is nonsense. Germany was present in the Pacific in the formidable capabilities of the East Asia Squadron in China, and there were German colonies in New Guinea and at Rabaul. Indeed it was the threat posed by the German cruiser Emden to the Anzac convoys that caused HMAS Sydney to pursue and sink the German raider off the Cocos Islands in November 1914.

Australia had its own national interests to consider in supporting Britain and the empire. But the Gallipoli campaign was, of course, an epic failure.

 Monash’s performance was not regarded highly by his superiors, but the Australian war correspondent and later historian Charles Bean recognised the essence of Monash’s leadership skills. Bean noted that he would make a better divisional than a brigade commander, and a better corps commander than a divisional one. Bean was one of Monash’s most acerbic critics, partly a reflection of his ­latent anti-Semitism, but there can be no doubt that his assessment of Monash was peculiarly insightful.

Precisely as Bean predicted, Monash shone in command on the Western Front over the years 1917-18. He handled Australian troops with great skill and care, and his reputation grew, including with superiors such as Field Marshal Douglas Haig. In 1918, at the insistence of the Australian government, especially prime minister Billy Hughes, the five Australian divisions were grouped together in a corps and Monash was named commander in May.

At Le Hamel, Monash brought all the skills of generalship to bear. He had predicted a battle lasting 90 minutes (it lasted 93), and the combined arms assault in the pre-dawn hours saw the Germans routed. Monash deployed a creeping artillery barrage, air support and tanks to deliver a knockout blow. More significantly, it was the first time American troops had fought on the Western Front and several companies of “Black Jack” Pershing’s infantry served successfully under Australian command. The battle was fought on Independence Day, July 4, 1918.

British prime minister Lloyd George maintained that if Monash had been in command of all British armies on the Western Front rather than Haig, the war would have ended a year earlier. 


This assertion has always been open to doubt, given the intensity of the German U-boat campaign in the Atlantic in early 1917; the fact that the French army had not recovered from the bloodletting of the previous three years and would see some units mutiny in 1917; the Americans had not yet mobilised; and Czarist Russia was knocked out of the war at the end of 1917. Nonetheless, Monash’s reputation for meticulous planning and for superb execution of battle plans caused him to be looked on favourably by many, including George V.

Kieza’s biography is nowhere near as adulatory as Roland Perry’s work of 2004, Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War, but it does accept many of Monash’s assessments of his own strengths, as detailed in both of his accounts: The Australian Victories in France in 1918 and War Letters of General Monash.

Kieza might have been more searching of his subject but it is difficult to disagree with his endorsement of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s more nuanced assessment: ‘‘I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the Western Front in Europe; he possessed real creative originality, and the war might well have been won sooner, and certainly with fewer casualties, had Haig been relieved of his command and Monash appointed to command the British armies in his place.’’

No other Australian general has ever achieved Monash’s standing. On his death in Melbourne in 1931, an estimated 300,000 citizens lined the streets for his funeral procession. ­Monash’s reputation for judgment and capacity has never been seriously challenged, certainly not in Geoffrey Serle’s benchmark 1982 biography, John Monash, which was based on the Monash family papers.

The subtitle of Kieza’s book, The Soldier Who Shaped Australia, is perceptive: Monash continues to reflect the best in the Australian character. In war he cared for his troops, even ensuring hot meals for frontline soldiers. In the peacetime he was visionary, particularly while running the State Electricity Commission of Victoria.

But perhaps Monash’s greatest achievement was to overcome the poisonous influence of anti-Semitism. Certainly, the photograph of George V knighting him on the battlefield ­dispelled any lingering doubts as to Monash’s talents and loyalties. He had often been the victim of whispering campaigns but the knighthood represented accomplishment and acknowledgment.

Monash himself demonstrated an extraordinary generosity of spirit, as Keiza records:
At a dinner given by the Maccabean Society in London’s Oxford Street on 4 March 1919, Monash tells his audience, including [Generals] Birdwood and White, that he finds himself “the object of considerable curiosity, because he belongs to the Jewish race” and because before the war he did not belong to the “profession of arms”. Yet he puts forward the best picture of Australia he can, saying to considerable applause that in his native country such a thing as religious discrimination is unknown. In his recollection there has never been an obstacle of any kind placed in the way of any Australian Jew in regard to career.

This is a remarkable statement and emphasised the significance of tolerance in the infant Australian Commonwealth. If we are largely free of the anti-Semitism which has disfigured so many other societies, then Monash must be said to have made a primary contribution.
Monash deserves to stand alone. Kieza has produced a sympathetic but honest portrait of Australia’s greatest and most influential ­general.

Stephen Loosley is chairman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra and author of Machine Rules: A Political Primer.
Monash: The Soldier Who Shaped Australia
By Grantlee Kieza
ABC Books, 714pp, $39.99 (HB)


By Stephen Loosely
With many thanks to The Australian

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