Friends or foes?
Regrets and floggings
Very odd laws
Myall Creek Massacre
How to use history?
Dying for liberty
Rasputin meets Ned Kelly
Mary Anne Bugg
Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered
Not a good fence builder
General John Monash
The Father of the Blitzkrieg
"not lip service, nor obsequious homage to superiors, nor servile observance of forms and customs...the Australian army is proof that individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build up collective discipline" General John Monash
The shape of the world today would have been very different had John Monash, a child of German migrants, not volunteered to fight against his parents' homeland. If he hadn't volunteered, Germany might not have lost World War 1. Even if Germany had lost, it probably wouldn’t have developed its Blitzkrieg War strategy that almost won it World War 2.
Monash ranked alongside Napoleon, Erwin Rommel and Tomoyuki Yamashita as one of the finest military brains in history. Despite being a military genius, he was a very unlikely soldier. He showed a humanist concern for his troops, an ability to think outside the square, a dislike of military traditions, the courage to gamble, and a remarkable understanding of the modern battlefield that was lacking in the European high command. He was so successful at using an integrated strategy to break the stalemate of World War I that he revolutionised warfare and created the blitzkrieg template that was so ruthlessly used by Hitler in World War II.
Monash first experienced military action in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1915. At Gallipoli, Monash saw men needlessly wasted due to poor planning, or as a result of officers lacking concern for front-line troops. Despite being hamstrung by his superiors, he made a name for himself with independent decision making and an attention to sound organisational planning. These characteristics probably flowed from his background as a civilian engineer prior to the war.
After Gallipoli, Monash was promoted to Major-General. He was unique in that he was prepared to risk the loss of war machinery in order to minimise the loss of infantry, whereas other officers were willing to risk the loss of infantry in order to minimise the loss of machinery. With a focus on protecting life, Monash argued in favour of the coordinated use of infantry, aircraft, artillery and tanks. He wrote:
"The true role of infantry is 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, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward." (1)
In the Battle of Hamel, Monash demonstrated that the protection of human life was not only justified on humanist grounds, it also was a legitimate war strategy. Hamel was a strongly fortified German defence position, which protected the area between the Villers Bretonneux Heights and the Somme River. Monash horrified both the American and British high command by proposing a strategy that involved throwing heavy war machinery into enemy territory where it could potentially be lost. Monash proposed that armoured tanks would support infantry in the advance, and in turn, both troops and tanks would be supported by advancing artillery from behind. As the troops took ground, aerial drops ensured they would be resupplied with medical equipment and ammunition. From the perspective of the traditional war orthodoxy, it was sheer madness. If the attack failed, the aircraft would simply be supplying German positions and a German counter attack would take possession of allied machinery. General Pershing, the American Commander in Chief, argued against American participation in the offensive, but Monash simply ignored his objections.
On the 4th July 1918, Australian and American troops under Monash's command took less than 92 minutes to kill 2,000 Germans, and capture 1,600 others. Australian casualties were fewer than 1,300 and the Americans were fewer than 176.
Not only had a stalemate been broken, the allied forces had been given a massive moral boost. Americans had been initiated into the war with a victory and it had been shown that the days of trench warfare were coming to an end.
The French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, cancelled his planned visit to French front line troops and instead visited the Australians to say:
"When the Australians came to France, the French people expected a great deal of you... We knew you would fight a real fight, but we did not know that from the beginning you would astonish the whole continent..." (2)
After the success at Hamel, Monash submitted plans to use a similar approach to break the stalemate at Amiens. On August 8, an allied force put Monash's plans into actions. In the previous four years, the only major breakthrough on the Western Front had been by the Germans on March 21, 1918, when they attacked and defeated the British Third and Fifth armies. With Monash's plan, it took less than 150 minutes for the allies to do what hadn't been done in the previous four years.
To maintain an element of surprise, there was no pre-battle bombardment. Instead, the Germans only learnt of an attack once a line of tanks and infantry was upon them. It was then that the creeping artillery kept up a continuous bombardment by advancing behind. In the thick of the action, the tanks offered cover for the infantry, and in turn the infantry was able to protect the tanks against fire. Re-supply from the air allowed the allies to keep moving forward. The German army lost strategic territory, suffered 27,000 casualties, and lost 450 guns. Not only was its defensive positions smashed, but the awe of the attack broke German morale. German General Ludendorff later said:
"Our fighting machine was no longer of real value. Our capacity for year had suffered harm even if the far greater majority of our divisions fought bravely. August 8 marked the decline of our military power and took from me the hope that...we could restore the situation in our favour... The war had to be ended."
With the Germans in retreat, Monash chased them with more victories at Mont St Quentin and Peronne. From 8th August to 11th November 1918 the Australian Army Corps destroyed no less than 39 German divisions.
In total, Monash's troops comprised just 9.5 per cent of British forces in France, yet they captured 18.5 per cent of the German prisoners, 21.5 per cent of the territory and 14 per cent of the guns. On average, one Australian soldier was worth around twice that of other British soldiers. On the battlefield, Monash was knighted by King George V. It was the first time in 200 years that a British monarch had honoured a commander in such a way. More praise came from British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery who said of Monash:
"I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the western front in Europe".
Ironically, after experiencing first hand the fear that a coordinated attack can have on an enemy, the likes of Major General Heinz Guderian, a German soldier who fought against the Australians at Amien, studied the approach and incorporated it into German battle strategies. In World War II, Guderian became a crucial leader in the Monash-style blitzkrieg strategy that led to German dominance in the first half of the war.
Activity - Questions
- Monash was of German ancestry. Why do you think he volunteered to fight?
- What do you think it reveals about Australia at the turn of the century that someone like Monash chose to volunteer to fight his ancestral country?
- How did Monash’s experiences at Gallipoli affect his attitude to soldiers?
- Gallipoli was a failure but it occupies a far more significant place in Australia history than Hamel. Would the anniversary of Hamel have been a better choice for Anzac Day?
- Explain why Monash favoured individualism and find some examples where he applied it?
1)http://www.awm.gov.au/1918/people/genmonash.asp2)Georges Clemenceau, quoted by Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Vol VI, 1942, Sydney,
3)General Ludendorff, quoted by John Toland, No Man 's Land - The Story of 1918, London, 1980
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The father of the blitzkrieg
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A history of "no"
Skeletons in the closet
Australia's engagement with Asia