John Monash was born in West Melbourne on 27 June 1865, the eldest of three children to Louis and Bertha (née Manasse) Monash, of Prussian Jewish origin. He was raised in Melbourne and attended St Stephen’s Church of England School in Richmond, until 1874 when the family moved to the small New South Wales town of Jerilderie. After three years they returned to Melbourne and Monash enrolled at Scotch College. A precocious youth, he showed early academic aptitude and graduated as equal dux in 1881.
The following year, he enrolled at Melbourne University. Despite a somewhat turbulent personal life, including the death of his mother and a hasty marriage to Hannah Victoria Moss in 1891, this was a formative period for Monash. He not only completed degrees in engineering, arts and law, but embarked on his dual career in engineering and the military. In 1884 he started work on the construction of Princes Bridge, and joined the University Company of the Victoria Rifles. Combining these two interests, he developed a growing fascination in the mechanics of war.
In 1887 Monash joined the Metropolitan Brigade of the Garrison Artillery and was commissioned to lieutenant. That year he wrote in his diary:
The undercurrent of my thoughts has been running strongly on military matters. Yesterday things came to a finality. I have been attached to Major Goldstein’s battery with the prospect of appointment before Easter; a combination of military and engineering professions is a possibility that is before me.
He was made captain in 1895 and major in 1897. Simultaneously he continued his engineering work with the Melbourne Harbour Trust, and later in a private practice with friend JT Noble Anderson.
Monash had been in command of the 13th Infantry Brigade for one year when war broke out. On 15 September 1914 he enlisted with the AIF, aged 49. After four weeks in the role of chief censor, he was appointed colonel-temporary brigadier general, commanding the Australia-wide 4th Infantry Brigade. He trained the troops at Broadmeadows, Victoria.
Monash and the 4th Brigade embarked on HMAT Ulysses in Melbourne on 22 December 1914. Six days later they reached Albany. The last ship to arrive, Ulysses set sail on 31 December as the flagship of the Second Convoy, comprising 17 ships and with Monash in command of the Anzac contingent.
During the convoy’s stopover in Colombo, several hundred troops aboard Ulysses crept off the ship and into the town. Monash reported:
Men to the number of about 200 succeeded in leaving some of the transports by ropes and through portholes and proceeding to shore without leave … an Officer’s Guard was sent ashore to assist the military police in collecting these men.
By nightfall, all but 20 men had been rounded up.
After passing through Port Said, Ulysses reached Alexandria, Egypt, on 31 January 1915. Troops disembarked the following day and proceeded to Heliopolis, near Cairo.
Monash’s efficient training of his 4th Brigade in Egypt attracted praise from senior officers. General Alexander Godley, in command of II ANZAC, commented to Monash in February 1915:
General [William] Birdwood and I have been closely watching the work of your Brigade for the past ten days, and we have quite made up our minds that yours is the best Australian Brigade in Egypt.
Monash developed a solid, though deeply hierarchical, relationship with Godley. He also maintained a civil relationship with Birdwood, although the two had divergent military attitudes. Birdwood, formerly a cavalry officer, did not share Monash’s enthusiasm for modern weaponry and strategy. Early encounters in Egypt with official war correspondent Charles Bean, whose writing often focused upon the rugged athleticism of men at war, also highlighted Monash’s divergence from traditional military thinking. Some have also suggested that Bean’s feelings towards Monash were shaped by anti-Semitism.
In April 1915, Monash and the 4th left Egypt for the Greek Island of Lemnos in preparation for the Gallipoli landing.
On 24 April 1915 Monash and the 4th Brigade left for Gallipoli. After remaining in reserve during the morning of 25 April, Monash sent two battalions to shore late that evening before he and the remainder landed the next day at Anzac Cove. They immediately came under heavy shell-fire. Attempting to gather his already scattered men, Monash progressed along Shrapnel Gully towards the left-centre sector, where he was responsible for reorganising the defence. After leading his men through what would later be named Monash Valley, he established his brigade headquarters. They suffered constant sniping and vicious Ottoman counter-attacks while holding the line over the next days. Despite mounting casualties, on 2 May the brigade attempted to recapture Baby 700. The attack was a disaster, with an estimated 1,000 casualties. Monash’s remaining men endured two more major Ottoman attacks at Quinn’s Post, on 19 and 29 May, before being relieved at the end of the month.
In early August, soon after his rank of brigadier general was confirmed, Monash and the 4th Brigade were involved in operations at Sari Bair. Their advance to Hill 971 was troubled from the beginning: the departure was delayed, the maps faulty, and after taking a wrong turn the troops became lost and exhausted. Monash led the brigade into position, but all they could do was dig in. They attacked on 8 August, but were met with sustained and fierce Ottoman resistance and were forced to withdraw. In a later action, with only 1,400 of its original strength of 3,350 remaining, the brigade advanced to Hill 60. Their attack on 21 August was ineffective and extremely costly. Last minute changes put the artillery barrage out of sync with troops, who were advancing across open terrain. Monash condemned it as an ‘altogether mis-timed, mis-calculated, and mis-directed operation’. Their second attempt on 27 August was similarly unsuccessful.
The 4th Brigade retreated to Lemnos in September. Monash wrote a letter to his wife reflecting on the failures of the campaign, pointing to ‘insufficient troops, inadequate munitions, attempting more than was possible with the means available’. He also criticised the British troops, explaining, ‘they have no grit, no stamina … no gumption … Much of the fault lies in the leadership’. Later that month, he took three weeks of leave in Egypt, where he learned that he had been appointed as a Companion Order of the Bath.
Monash returned to Gallipoli on 8 November, to the quieter Bauchop’s Hill. Weeks later, he learned of the plans to evacuate the peninsula. He was at first anxious, not only that the Ottomans would be alerted to the strategy, but also about ‘what Australia will think at the desertion of her 6,000 dead and 20,000 other casualties’. Though there was a mixed reaction from the troops, the evacuation was a complete success. Automatic firing rifles left by the Anzacs attracted Ottoman fire against a phantom enemy, and provided noise cover for those leaving. By 1 am on 19 December, the last of the 4th Brigade safely sailed towards Lemnos. Monash wrote:
with bullets whistling overhead, we drew off in the light of the full moon, mercifully screened by a thin mist – and so ended the story of the Anzacs on Gallipoli.
Upon returning to Egypt, Monash received news that his wife was seriously ill with cancer of the uterus. As he anxiously monitored her progress, the AIF was undergoing reorganisation. Half of the 4th Brigade was formed into the 12th Brigade, and both units joined the 4th Division in the Army Corps under Godley. Monash still had mixed feelings about Godley, though maintained support. Despite his loyalty, he was not considered highly for promotion by his superiors, particularly Birdwood. He was not from the regular forces, and his Prussian Jewish heritage also attracted prejudice.
The next months were spent training and defending the Suez Canal. Remarkably, Monash got word of a possible promotion after a recommendation to Birdwood from his former superior, Brigadier General Herbert Cox. However, nothing transpired, and in June 1916 he and the 4th Brigade left for the Western Front.
The 4th Brigade’s first action in France was an unsuccessful night raid on 2 July in the Armentières sector. Their mortar barrage failed to cut enemy wires, and following a strong and sustained German counter-attack they suffered 300 casualties.
However, later that month Monash was promoted to major general and given command of the 3rd Division. Energised, he began a strict exercise regime and diet to improve his fitness. Over the next three months he lost 18 kilograms. He began training the 3rd in late July at Larkhill Camp on Salisbury Plain. Within six weeks, the men were in good shape and Monash’s training was attracting inspections from senior British officers. On 27 September they were paid a visit by the King, sparking great press back in Australia.
Afforded another six weeks of training, the 3rd Division honed their skills before moving into France in November 1916. Again in the Armentières sector, this time Monash found better fortune: his headquarters was located in a château in Steenwerck, and he connected well with his new superior General Sir Herbert Plumer, commander of the Second British Army. He also received a warm reception from Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
Over the next months, Monash led the 3rd through a string of raids in Houplines, L’Epinette and Bois-Grenier. He also spent time on leave in Paris and the French Riviera, and letters to Victoria suggested he was in a good state of mind. He told her that the allies were united ‘such as there never has been in all history, and it something to have lived for’.
The 3rd Division’s first major battle was in June 1917 at Messines. Monash had been conducting extensive reconnaissance since April, and alongside Plumer was developing the meticulous battle plan that he would become known for. Bean commented that ‘never had a big British operation been prepared in such detail’. Accompanied by a formidable artillery bombardment, the 3rd joined British and New Zealand infantry in a successful advance on 7 June. They captured all objectives within a few hours. Monash described the battle as ‘a great victory’ when writing to Victoria, although he could not overlook the terrible casualties – 4,000 men, 600 of whom were killed.
Monash and the 3rd Division faced their next major actions around the Ypres salient. While the troops were recuperating in Boulogne, Monash plotted their part in the push towards Passchendaele Ridge. On 4 October, the 3rd were amongst 12 divisions in the large operation at Broodseinde, their objective just over 1,500 metres deep. Some battalions were able to push through, however others ran into wire. They were also confronted by advancing German troops, who had planned an attack on the same day, and heavy shelling and fire from pillboxes. They suffered 1,810 casualties, but behind an effective creeping barrage they captured their objective. Haig congratulated Monash on the ‘greatest battle of the war’.
The 3rd’s next battle at Passchendaele was, in contrast, a disaster. The troops were still weak after Broodseinde, and following torrential rains the salient was a quagmire. Despite Monash’s protests, the attack commenced on 12 October. The Anzacs, barely able to penetrate the mud and lagging behind an ineffective British artillery barrage, were cut down by heavy German machine-gun fire and shelling. The terrible conditions also severely impeded communication lines; Monash was unaware of the extent of damage to his brigades and did not call off their advance until the afternoon. By 3 pm the 3rd had suffered 3,200 casualties, nearly two thirds of their attacking force. In his battle report, Monash was critical of the lack of time and detail afforded to preparation and communications.
In November 1917, the Australian Corps was formed and Monash’s 3rd Division was transferred to it from Godley’s II ANZAC Corps. Monash was relieved to be separated from Godley, who he felt he had served ‘loyally and faithfully for three years’, but whom ‘has done nothing for me that he could not help doing’.
Over the 1917–1918 winter, the 3rd remained in the quiet Ploegsteert sector. In January 1918, Monash was thrilled to learn that he had been made a Knight Commander of the Bath (though his knighthood was not invested until August). He took several weeks’ leave around Paris and the Riviera, before hastily returning to the front in late March – the Germans had launched their Spring Offensive.
The 3rd Division took over from the exhausted VII Corps in Montigny on 26 March. They were tasked with preventing the German advance to Amiens, and time was critical. Monash’s men stoutly marched out the following morning across the Ancre River, and he felt optimistic:
The spectacle of that infantry will be memorable to me as one of the most inspiring sights of the whole war … [the 3rd Division] had come into its own at last, and was called upon to provide its mettle.
By that evening, allied defences stretched from Hébuterne to the Somme; the German advance was halted for the first time. The 3rd successfully defended the Ancre, between Albert and Bray-sur-Somme, in increasingly aggressive operations through April.
On 21 April, Monash was nearby when two of his Lewis gunners near the Somme shot down the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen’s Fokker triplane. Monash souvenired some red fabric and a piece of the wooden propeller from the plane.
In May 1918, after being appointed to command the British Fifth Army, Birdwood recommended Monash for command of the Australian Corps. This was met with criticism from Bean, who favoured General Sir Cyril Brudenell White. Similar prejudice came from Keith Murdoch, whose views held sway with Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Though they discouraged Monash and urged him to pursue a senior administrative role in London, he did not waver. He was appointed commander of the Australian Corps on 1 June and promoted to lieutenant general.
Monash’s style as a corps commander was markedly different from Birdwood’s: he was deeply serious and ambitious, rarely engaged in small talk with his men and believed in a strictly disciplined headquarters. He also removed the two British divisional commanders of the corps (Lieutenant-General Harold Bridgwood Walker and Major General Nevill Smyth), leaving only Australians.
Monash proved himself a most capable leader at Le Hamel on 4 July. The battle was meticulously planned in strict secrecy. Monash staged elaborate decoys, sophisticated communication lines, and coordinated the use of vast and diverse weaponry. In addition to heavy artillery and aircraft, 60 Mark V tanks and four supply tanks were used. It was his first major chance to orchestrate an ideal set-piece battle:
A perfect battle plan is like nothing so much as the score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases, every individual unit must make its entry precisely at the proper moment and play its phrases in general harmony.
The attack began early, in low visibility. Within two hours, the corps reached all its objectives and captured 1,400 German prisoners. Monash described it as ‘the perfection of teamwork’. His plans were later published by British General Headquarters, setting a blueprint for success in modern battles. Haig passed a message on to Hughes that read:
Will you please convey to Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash and all the ranks under his command … my warm congratulations on the success which attended the operation carried out this morning, and the skill and gallantry with which it was conducted.
The praise came at a significant time; Hughes, Bean and Murdoch were all still looking to relieve Monash of his command.
Victory continued at the battle of Amiens in August 1918, with another set-piece coordination of infantry, artillery tanks, and aircraft. After finely tuning plans for weeks with divisional commanders, Monash sent a message to all troops in the Australian Corps the day before the attack:
For the first time in the history of this Corps, all five Australian Divisions will tomorrow engage in the largest and most important battle operation ever undertaken by the Corps.
After an exceptionally heavy artillery bombardment on the morning of 8 August, the Australians and Canadians advanced behind a creeping barrage. 500 tanks were used as well as 800 planes. This demonstrated Monash’s belief that:
the true role of infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources.
By the early afternoon victory was confirmed, and by evening the allies had captured over 27,000 prisoners.
A fatal blow to Germany, the victory at Amiens won Monash enormous praise from significant figures including Winston Churchill, Marshal Ferdinand Foch and Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. On 12 August, Monash was knighted by His Majesty King George V. His proficiencies now could not be denied by Hughes, Murdoch and Bean.
The battle of Amiens marked the first in a string of allied victories. After success at Chuignes on 23 August, a week later Monash staged one of his greatest achievements at Mont St Quentin and Péronne. His plans to take the area were met with incredulity from General Henry Rawlinson: ‘So you think you are going to take Mont St Quentin with three battalions. What presumption’. Nevertheless, on 31 August Monash sent out the 2nd Australian Division. They attacked at 5 am. Aided by rifle grenades and trench mortars, they captured the crucial heights of Mont St Quentin by 7 am. Allied forces broke through to Péronne by 8.20 am the following day, however, the Germans counter-attacked. Following two days of fierce and often hand-to-hand fighting, the Australians held Péronne, though suffered 3,000 casualties. Rawlinson told Monash that he had ‘altered the course of the war’.
Though the relentlessness of the attack forced the Germans to retreat to the Hindenburg Line, Monash displayed a deep obsession with victory that at times compromised his compassion. His insistence on pushing the increasingly weakened troops beyond their limit at Péronne prompted disapproval from 5th Division commander Lieutenant General Sir Joseph Talbot Hobbs. Monash wrote that ‘I was compelled to harden my heart’ as ‘it was imperative to recognise a great opportunity and to seize it unflinchingly’.
Prime Minister Hughes anticipated a lull in fighting after Mont St Quentin and Péronne, and advised Monash that the Australians had to be withdrawn from the front by early October. However, Monash was resolute in pushing on until the war was over. He began his plans for the Hindenburg Line.
To Monash’s delight, enemy maps detailing the whole Hindenburg system had been captured just days before the first attack. On 18 September, after a heavy artillery bombardment, the 1st and 4th Divisions attacked German defences and machine-gun posts. They were accompanied by a seemingly formidable display of tanks (only eight were operational – Monash ordered the manufacture of dummy tanks to intimidate the enemy). The Australians broke through and took 4,300 prisoners.
The next attack on 29 September was the largest Monash would ever command. At 6 am 200,000 men advanced, supported by 1,000 guns. Spearheading the attack, the Australians and Americans targeted Bellicourt. However, the Americans could not reach their objectives. As Monash scrambled to revise plans with his officers, over the next four days his men endured intense fighting and suffered heavy casualties. Nevertheless, by early October the line was broken.
On 5 October, Monash sent the Australians into their last battle on the Western Front, Montbrehain. The 2nd Division attacked at 6 am and successfully took the final Beaurevoir trench line system. Though they suffered 430 casualties, they captured 400 German prisoners.
With the war over, Monash transferred to the role of director general of the AIF’s Repatriation and Demobilisation Department. He pushed the Australian Government to revise its slow repatriation scheme, which had been implemented for fear of unemployment back home, and sourced additional ships despite a shortage at the time. Within a year he completed what he termed ‘a stupendous task’ of repatriating 160,000 Australian soldiers.
After enjoying post-war celebrations and his considerable celebrity in London, Monash returned home to Melbourne on 15 November 1919. Sadly, soon after his wife died on 27 February 1920.
Monash’s first role following the AIF was as director of the Hume Pipe Company. After moving around a series of similar roles, he finally settled in June 1920 as the general manager of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. He was appointed chairman in 1921. Over the next decade, despite obstructions from his minister Frederic Eggleston, Monash and fellow commissioners pioneered the commercial use of brown coal.
Monash continued to assume significant roles in Victoria and became an eminent figure throughout Australia. In 1923, he was appointed chairman of the Royal Commission into the 1923 Victoria Police Strike. In the same year he became vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, where he was unprecedentedly awarded a Doctor of Engineering for his book, The Australian Victories in France in 1918. During this period he also served as president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. Towards the end of his life, in 1931, he represented Australia at the inauguration of New Delhi.
Monash also maintained strong military ties. He was a key figure in developing Anzac Day ceremonies in Melbourne, leading and organising the Anzac Day march, and chairing the Shrine of Remembrance construction body. In 1929, he was promoted to general.
Following several years struggling with high blood pressure, Monash died of heart disease on 8 October 1931. The Sir John Monash Memorial Committee was shortly formed, and in 1950, a statue of him was erected in Melbourne. He is commemorated on the Australian $100 note, and Monash University was named in his honour, as was a Canberra suburb and street names across the country.
Australian War Memorial, 1918: Australians in France - General Sir John Monash
Monash, J 1923, The Australian Victories in France in 1918, 2nd edn, Hutchinson & Co., London.
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Alfred Graham Foster’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; MONASH SIR JOHN, 1914-1920
Perry, R 2007, Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War, Random House Australia, North Sydney
Serle, G, 'Monash, Sir John (1865–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/monash-sir-john-7618/text13313, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed 5 June 2014.