Ten years ago today, I was at the Villers-Bretonneux memorial in northern France with my wife, for the 90th anniversary of the famous battle that changed the course of The Great War.
We flew into Paris two days earlier. We stayed for one night at a little place called Hotel Danemark on Rue Vavin, just off Boulevard du Montparnasse, in the sixth arrondissement.
That night, we walked up past the Jardin du Luxembourg to St Germain for dinner. On the way, I busted Kylie Minogue’s old flame, Oliver Martinez, having a very good perve on my wife! Who could blame him!
The next day we headed to Gare du Nord. We boarded a train for Amiens in northern France, the largest town near Villers-Bretonneux.
That was 24th April. Unfortunately, if a little typically, I’d neglected to organise anything; accommodation, transport to the dawn service…I just thought it would be easier to work it out when we got there.
Turns out the town was jammed with Australians, not unlike it was 90 years earlier, and no doubt like it will be today, for the 100-year anniversary. We ended up finding somewhere to stay near the city centre, but had to settle for a 4:30am taxi pick up for the short ride to the dawn service, for an outrageous €50.
Clearly, the taxi driver wasn’t sentimental about the occasion.
Ten years ago, I was familiar with the battle of Villers-Bretonneux and the exploits of the AIF on the Western Front. But I was less aware of the exploits of the bloke at the top — John Monash.
In this 100-year anniversary of the victories of 1918, I thought it would be fitting to cast markets aside for the day, and remind you just how remarkable this man was. This is clearly not a historical text though. It’s a very short and horrendously incomplete summation of his war effort. So I apologise for any errors or obvious omissions.
Monash’s war started on the 26 April 1915 when he landed on Gallipoli, in charge of the fourth brigade. He made it through that debacle and went on to command the 3rd Division. He was the architect behind the Battle of Messines, a major victory for the allies, in June 1917.
He was one of the few commanders to have reservations over the disastrous Battle of Passchendaele, and was then instrumental in turning the tide of the major German offensive, launched on 21 March, 1918.
This performance (which included the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux) saw him take over as Australian army corps commander in May 1918. Monash knew what type of battle needed to be fought to win the war. He just had trouble convincing his British seniors, who had a defensive mindset and were way behind Monash in their thinking.
He wanted to prove his methods in a small scale battle. The village of Hamel was his target. Here, he would use tanks, aircraft, infantry and artillery together for the first time. The plan was initially rejected on a number of occasions. But Monash eventually prevailed, not by force, but by persuasion and logic.
The Battle of Hamel went like clockwork. Planned for 90 minutes, it was over in 93. But it was just an entree to the Battle of Amiens. This was Monash’s brainchild, and what he had in mind the whole time. He just needed to win over those above him.
Launched on 8 August, it was an outstanding success. Monash’s Australian divisions spearheaded the attack. Germany’s General Ludendorff wrote in his memoirs: ‘August 8th was the black day of the German Army in the history of the war. This was the worst experience I had to go through.’
For his efforts in the Battle of Amiens, he was awarded a knighthood by George V of England, who travelled to France and knighted him in the field. The King was an advocate of Monash after meeting him in 1916, and told Field Marshall Haig he was one to watch.
Despite the accolades, Monash wanted to end the war and keep up the pressure on the Germans. They had fallen back to the heavily defended towns of Mont St Quentin and Peronne.
John pushed on…
Despite fatigued Aussie diggers, Monash again used them to spearhead the attacks. He thought of them as the finest fighting army in the world, and didn’t want anyone else in the lead. He didn’t think anyone else could get the job done.
They defeated the last remaining crack German regiments in these battles, but at great cost. The AIF was at breaking point.
Billy Hughes, Australia’s Prime Minister, wanted the diggers home. By now, in late September 1918, the Germans had retreated to the Hindenburg Line. Monash knew they had to be defeated now or they would regroup over the winter and prolong the war into 1919.
He prevailed over Hughes, and helped plan one last massive push along the whole front. The British, Canadians, French, and Americans were all involved, and the Australians again spearheaded the attacks.
The final assault was at Montbrehain in early October. Following that success by the 2nd Division, the diggers were out of the front line…for good.
For the past six months they had led the allied assault and pushed the Germans back, leading to their eventual surrender. Their successes were due to a combination of disciplined fighting and many acts of individual bravery. But most of all, it was down to Monash’s intricate planning and use of methods that were hitherto unused.
The Germans imitated these methods in World War Two when they launched their Blitzkrieg strikes on Western Europe.
And all through it, Monash had to endure a conniving journalist, Keith Murdoch, and anti-Semitic war correspondent, Charles Bean, who wanted to oust him and put in one of their own. They were also in PM Billy Hughes’ ear about him, and Hughes viewed Monash with suspicion.
But Monash was never seriously headed. He was simply too good and the military men knew it. Despite being a citizen solider, of German-Jewish heritage, John Monash rose to the top in every possible way.
But he never got carried away with his success. He was a proud Australian, and did more than any other to have ANZAC Day honoured and Australia’s exploits in the war remembered. He presided over the first ANZAC Day celebrations in Egypt in 1916.
While waiting to go ashore on Gallipoli at the start of the war, he wrote the following to his wife:
‘It seems a pity that I cannot write more freely, because long before this letter can possible reach you great events which will stir the whole world and go down in history will have happened, to the eternal glory of Australia and all who have participated.’
He wasn’t wrong…
Lest we forget.
Editor, Crisis & Opportunity