November 11

Ninety years ago: Australians astonish Europe

Sir John Monash was not only our greatest general, but arguably, the greatest among the First World War allies. The British Prime Minister Lloyd George said Monash was the one man who could have replaced Field Marshall Haig and have led the entire British Army, which included the armies of the dominions. But two leading journalists tried to overturn his appointment to command the Australian forces.

As we noted here ("The Great War " by Les Carlyon, 19 December 2006) Keith Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s father, and Charles Bean, the official war correspondent conspired to reverse a cabinet decision and to have another officer appointed in his place. To his great credit, he would have nothing to do with the manoeuvre.  The story is told by Les Carlyon in a chapter in “The Great War”. It is most appropriately entitled, “The press gang.”

Both Bean and Murdoch were considerable men, but they crossed the line in their attempt to play politics. The journalist playing the courtier is sadly nothing new, but I am still astounded by the unashamed bias that the media displayed in the 1999 referendum. I was more recently taken aback by the way the American and Western media campaigned for Senator Barack Obama in the recent US election.

…Knighted on the battlefied….

But to return to that great Australian general, what a relief it was to see The Australian’s Mark Day at last being allowed to refer to him as Sir John Monash in this way, and not merely to “John Monash” (“New memorial marks Diggers' 'perfect battle'” 8 November, 2008).

Does this mean that The Australian has finally put to bed the juvenile rule adopted a few years ago against the use of titles, especially knighthoods?   Tim Fischer is campaigning for Monash to be made, posthumously, a Field Marshal; Field Marshal Sir John Monash sounds more than appropriate.  Sir John, Lady Monash and the Jewish community were greatly inspired by the knighthood.

It was actually  conferred on the battlefield by King George V, the first occasion in 200 years.  And now you can see old film of The King dubbing Sir John on that battlefield. This is in “Monash the Forgotten Anzac”.  It will be broadcast   on ABC TV1 on Tuesday, 11 November, 2008 at 830pm, on the ninetieth anniversary of the end of the First World War.

This is in the genre of combining documentary with drama, which, provided standards of objectivity are maintained, can be very effective.

Recent ones broadcast on the ABC have been on the relationship at times stormy between Menzies and Churchill, and the Chifley government and the coal strike. (The last one demonstrated how the communists attempted to use the miner’s grievances to create a breakdown in civil order, and to promote their agenda to turn Australia into a peoples’ republic on the East European model.)

…journalists attempt to sideline Monash….

Max Prisc, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald on 8 November, 2008 (“The pen versus the sword”) tells how Murdoch and Bean attempt to force Haig’s hand in the TV version.

“Looking smug, a wheedling Charles Bean, official Australian war correspondent, turns to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, and says: ‘With respect, sir, Monash is … he's Jewish and as a race they do tend to be pushy.’…

“Haig… has just named Monash as the man he thinks has the right stuff. To Bean and Murdoch's dismay, he says of their candidate, Brudenell White: "He's never commanded a division in the field."(Brudenell White was later to earn Haig’s respect, and as Sir Cyril Brudenell Bingham White, KCB, KCMG, KCVO, DSO later became Chief of the Australian General Staff.)

“Sir John Monash,” says Max Prisc, “took his chance to hit back in 1917 after seeing Bean's report on the first of his significant victories on the Western Front, when his newly arrived Third Division took Messines Ridge.

“The TV Monash speaks directly to camera: ‘Bean's report on Messines is the apotheosis of banality. Not only is his language silly tosh, but the facts are for the most part quite wrong.’

But as Max Prisc says, Sir John Monash “stood tall as the man who engineered… the great allied breakthrough that the German commander Ludendorff declared the ‘black day of the German army’.

…The Battle of Le Hamel…

This began with the Battle of Le Hamel, where a victory by Australian and American troops under Monash was more significant because of the General’s planned and novel attack than the size of the victory.

Rather than just throwing the troops in a  full frontal attack, Monash used everything at his disposal  – artillery, aircraft and the element of surprise in a measured and highly planned assault , ensuring  above all that his infantry would not be slaughtered pointlessly as the infantry too often had been in that terrible war.

If only Monash had led the armies of the British Empire. The accompanying Australian War Memorial photograph shows American and Australian troops dug in together during the Battle of Hamel. It was at Hamel that American troops attacked, at battalion strength, for the first time in the British line and under Australian command.

…The Tiger praises the Australians….

  The battle was of such significance that the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, “The Tiger”, decided he would come to thank the Australians personally.He said, in English:

“When the Australians came to France, the French people expected a great deal of you. . . . We knew that you would fight a real fight, but we did not know that from the very beginning you would astonish the whole continent.”

“I shall go back to-morrow and say to my countrymen: “I have seen the Australians. I have looked in their faces. I know that these men . . . will fight alongside of us again until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe for us and for our children.”The Official War History  by Charles Bean continues:

“As the old man panted, partly from emotion, partly from asthma, General MacLagan, taking up a call from one of the Diggers behind him, led three tremendous cheers for France.

“De jolis enfants,” said Clemenceau, as he turned to go.”

Max Prisc reminds us that when Sir John Monash died on 8 October, 1931, 300,000 people lined the streets of Melbourne for the biggest funeral in Australia to that time.

“His casket was placed on a gun carriage after the church service and 10,000 returned soldiers, eight abreast and with hats over their hearts, filed past before leading him to his grave in the Jewish section of Brighton cemetery.”

A new memorial to the Battle of Le Hamel was dedicated on 9 November. The old one had an etching of Sir John; unfortunately the new one does not. But the words of George Clemenceau are there:

“I have seen the Australians, I have looked in their faces; I know these men will fight alongside us until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe for us and for our children" 



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