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Maestro John Monash: Australia's Greatest Citizen General, by Tim Fischer

Clayton, Victoria: Monash University/ Portland, Or.: ISBS, 2015. Pp. xxxiv, 268. Illus., appends., biblio., index. $29.95 paper. ISBN: 1922235598.

Australia’s Forgotten Genius General

The centennial of the First World War has brought forth renewed public interest and additional scholarly study of that still controversial conflict, variously the last 19thcentury imperial war and the first modern war. When its great generals are enumerated, one named by relatively few outside the Antipodes is Australian Army Corps commander John Monash (1865-1931), this despite Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery’s declaration half a century after the Armistice that Monash was “the best general on the Western Front in Europe,” and historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart’s even stronger accolade as “the greatest general of World War I by far.” Yet in the three-volume Cambridge History of the First World War, there is not one mention of him.

Monash, it must be said, has not been entirely overlooked. He was knighted in the field by George V (as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath) and subsequently given the title Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, and in his homeland his name graces a university (indeed, the publisher of the book under review), a scholarship, a town and even a freeway. Nevertheless, in Maestro John Monash, former Australian Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer argues that Sir John has been wronged by history and not given his due. In a breezy hagiography (Fischer vehemently denies that characterization, protesting that his biography is “warts and all,” however, he downplays or dismisses most of the “warts” cited, e.g., other generals also had mistresses, and while he made mistakes at Gallipoli, he learned from them) and advocacy piece, he makes a justifiable case for Monash’s posthumous promotion to field marshal (backdated to 1930). Had he been promptly promoted postwar, rather than in 1929, to general (that is, full or four-star general), Fischer points out logically, he likely would have been promoted by the king one step up in rank to field marshal.

In his account of Monash’s life and military career, Fischer details the many obstacles faced and surmounted by “the most innovative general” of the war. His sobriquet for Monash, “maestro,” comes from Sir John’s comparison of a “perfected modern battle plan” to a “score for an orchestral composition.” Indeed, while some British and French generals were still thinking in terms of cavalry charges, sabers and bayonets, drawing on his engineering background, Monash made concerted use of infantry, artillery, tanks, aircraft and radio in (to quote him) “comprehensive holistic battle plan[s].” His strategy’s success became evident in thwarting Germany’s final westward push and smashing through the Hindenburg Line, in the 93-minute Battle of Hamel and the second Battle of Amiens, which German General Ludendorff later called “the black day of the German Army in the war,” victories achieved while Monash was still a lieutenant general (three stars). “Never has a general who did so much to help win a world war … been so unacknowledged,” affirms Fischer, returning to his theme.

In his view, several factors account for Monash’s under-recognition. He was an outsider, a Jew, moreover one of Prussian descent (his father immigrated, changing his name from Monasch), which led to cheap shots during the war. He was a colonial (newspapers, even in Sydney, credited Aussie victories to the British Expeditionary Force), and a Reservist; he rose through the ranks of the militia rather than the officer corps to become a “citizen general,” and furthermore had declined to step up for the Boer War.  Finally, he had influential enemies. Opposing his appointment as corps commander were journalists C.E.W. Bean, official WWI historian, who didn’t want Australia represented by a Jew (“pushy”), and Keith Murdoch (Rupert’s father), who both wanted another general named instead. Fischer bestows most blame, though, on Australian Prime Minister W.M. “Billy” Hughes, portrayed as petty, jealous of royal attention paid to Monash, and, on the eve of federal elections, wary of him becoming popular and a potential political rival. (In view of Fischer’s digs at a more recent former Prime Minister, we must recall that Fischer is a politician, and one not of Hughes’s parties.)

Fully the second half of the book is devoted to Monash postwar and, of course, Fischer’s campaign for his posthumous promotion, even suggesting wording to write to federal MPs and Senators. It would, he hammers, correct the discrimination that he suffered and would serve as well to honor symbolically the Australian Imperial Force (recognizing its victories on the Western Front as well as its defeat at Gallipoli). As we are in the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign – in fact, this week marked the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day, the landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula – we might charitably concur with Fischer and say “No harm done.”



Reviewer: Mark Blackman   

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