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Book Review: Maestro John Monash, by Tim Fischer

The subtitle of this 2014 book is ‘Australia’s Greatest Citizen General’, which gave me hope that it might look at Sir John Monash as a citizen as well as a general. Alas, this was not to be. The book is a plea for a re-evaluation of Monash’s contribution as a soldier in World War I, and is central to Fischer’s campaign to have him posthumously promoted to Field Marshall. Tim Fischer is a former leader of the National Party and deputy Prime Minister of Australia, so I should have known better.

The book does give a brief outline of Monash’s career before the war as an engineer, and mentions his role as head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission after it. But most of the book concerns the various campaigns Monash was involved in, from Gallipoli to the Western Front, where he became commander of the Australian Army Corps. Fischer argues that Monash learnt from his own and other people’s mistakes and developed an ‘holistic’ approach to military tactics and strategy that was notably lacking in generals like Haig and Rawlinson. He was also much more concerned than many regular army commanders about keeping his men as safe as possible. A successful demonstration of his approach occurred at the battle for the village of Hamel in July 1918, and was repeated in later battles in August, which saw the last desperate German thrust towards Amiens repelled, and the war ended sooner than might otherwise have been the case. Some other senior military commanders were probably thinking along similar lines, but Monash was meticulous in his planning and implementation of a coherent plan of attack, and Fischer is likely correct that others followed his example.

Fischer notes that despite his undoubted successes, The Cambridge History of the First World War, published in 2014, didn’t even mention him. And he argues that having a university and a freeway named after him are scant recognition for him in Australia. So why didn’t he get – and hasn’t he got – the recognition Fischer thinks he deserves? He identifies four main reasons. Monash was a Jew of German heritage, at a time when anti-Semitism, to say nothing of anti-German sentiment, was common; he had come through the ranks of the part-time citizen militia, starting out in a university regiment, rather than from the regular army; he was a portly fifty years old in 1914, and it was openly known that he had a mistress. Perhaps as a result of such considerations, the influential war correspondent C.E.W. Bean took against him: in 1914 he wrote that Australians did not want to be represented by Jews ‘because of their ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves’ – a characteristic he freely attributed to Monash. He and the journalist Keith Murdoch, who also disliked Monash, were close to the war-time Prime Minister Billy Hughes and did their best – unsuccessfully on this occasion – to persuade him against giving commend of the Australian Army Corps to Monash. And Hughes himself didn’t like Monash; Fischer speculates that Hughes may have been jealous of his popularity with the troops. He made sure that Monash stayed in Europe until 1920 as the officer responsible for repatriation of Australian soldiers, and didn’t promote him from a three to a four star general when he could have after the war. In fact his promotion came at the hands of the Scullin Labor government in 1929, which also considered him for Governor General, though Scullin actually chose the Chief Justice, Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first Australian – and the first Jew – to hold the post.

So all in all, Fischer, though he is certainly no historian, makes quite a good case that Monash has been unjustly neglected. The book is more of a polemic than a history; there are various non-sequiturs, and an attack on former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s view that the First World War was ‘devoid of any virtue’. Fischer is firmly in the camp that sees the ‘baptism of fire’ for the new nation as formative of the national spirit.

And this is where I was disappointed – though in retrospect not surprised – to find that there was almost no treatment of Monash as a citizen. As head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission, he belongs in a different formative tradition. Public utilities may now be out of fashion with governments, and privatisation all the rage. But the very establishment of a state owned electricity generator and provider, which Monash oversaw, stands in the same tradition of using the state to create a better life for people as initiatives such as the old age pension, the baby bonus, the basic wage and industrial conciliation and arbitration, all of which were introduced in the first twenty-five years of the new century. This is not to deny that Australia remained a deeply unequal society, or that organisations like the SEC were created piecemeal, without thought for an overarching political purpose. But it has always seemed to me that the national spirit is as much derived  from – and is reflected in – this cooperative thrust to use state power to ameliorate social conditions as it did from the more hierarchical and militaristic celebration of war, whether in defeat or victory. These strands are not mutually exclusive; mateship and courage existed at home as well as at the front. Monash himself summed up the potential divergence of these strands of ‘national character’ when he refused invitations to take part in the quasi fascist New Guard movement, saying that ‘the only hope for Australia is the ballot box, and an educated electorate.’ I’d be happy to see him celebrated as both a soldier and a citizen.

If you want to read a proper biography of Monash, try Geoff Serle’s John Monash: A Biography. (1982), or the more recent Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War (2004) by Roland Perry. You can read more about Tim Fischer here, and his crusade for justice for Monash here.


2 comments

  1. Andreas Bimba

    A nicely written review Kay and your comments regarding Tim Fischers biases and perspective are apt. Monash was a smart self promoter but he earned and deserved all the accolades that are applicable unlike the lesser men that sought to tear him down.

    He was an over achiever in 3 areas:
    1. as an engineer who designed and built reinforced concrete bridges
    2. as a military officer
    3. as an engineer that introduced the German technology to use Victoria’s brown coal for electricity generation and for founding the SECV

  2. lawrencewinder

    Every time I see Jeff (Foot-in-Mouth) Kennett (the Dorian Grey of Tardis State Politics) I think of Monash rolling in his grave in anger at the destruction of the SEC.

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