John Monash, soldier, engineer and scholar [by Professor Ernest Scott, 5 August 1939]

[Editor: This is part twelve of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott.]

Men who made Australia — No. 12

John Monash, soldier, engineer and scholar.

This article completes Professor Sir Ernest Scott’s series on “Men Who Made Australia.” It brings us up to the Great War and beyond, for Sir John Monash died only eight years ago. The Australian Commander-in-Chief was an outstanding figure on the Western Front. Had the war not ended in 1918 Sir John Monash might even have risen to be British Commander-in-Chief. This is the opinion of Captain Liddell Hart, quoted by Professor Scott.

By Professor Sir Ernest Scott

When General Sir John Monash died, his brilliant qualities as a soldier were still fresh in the public memory, so that, naturally, more attention was devoted to them in biographical estimates of him than to other aspects of a remarkably varied character. Spectacular achievements always command more notice than do others which may display as much, or even more, of that “mind on fire” which is genius. Even in his own country, estimates of his military career partially eclipsed other facets, though his important civilian record was well known all over Australia.

Monash was, however, an extraordinarily many-sided man. In his student days at the University of Melbourne he was not satisfied to take his degree in engineering, a subject which required close application to mathematics, mechanics, and a group of auxiliary sciences. His appetite for knowledge impelled him to take degrees also in arts and law; and between whiles he worked off his surplus energy in drill, as a private in the University Militia Company.

He passed into the Victorian Military Forces in 1887, so that when the Great War began in 1914 he had had a long course of training in his own branch of the service, the artillery. He was also an assiduous student of technical and historical military literature. One of his favorite books was G. P. R. Henderson’s “Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War.” He referred to it often in conversation, and it is interesting to find him in the volume of his “War Letters” alluding to the capture of Mont St. Quentin as “a swift turning movement in the night on the lines of some of Stonewall Jackson’s sudden onslaughts, but, of course, on a very much larger scale.”

Music was also one of Monash’s interests. He was an adept pianist, and had an extensive acquaintance with the masterpieces of classical music. I met him many years ago with a huge orchestral score under his arm, going to one of the Saturday afternoon concerts conducted by Professor Marshall Hall. To a jocular question as to whether he was to wield the baton on that occasion he replied that he had been studying the score of the Beethoven symphony which was on the programme, and wondered how the conductor would interpret certain passages, so he had brought the score to satisfy himself whether his own judgment concurred with that of Marshall Hall.

The engineer

He was brought up in a household all the members of which were proficient linguists. German he had spoken from his boyhood, and his French “was not too bad,” if not spoken too rapidly. Hence the amusing anecdote he slipped into one of his letters from France, about the Marquise d’Armaille. “The little Marquise could understand my English quite well, while she gave herself no end of trouble to talk French slowly enough for me to follow, chuckling as at a great joke when I told her I could not follow her if she talked comme mitrailleuse” — like a machine gun!

A story which Monash once told me — it is not in either of his war books — illustrates his facility for making himself and an unexpected guest feel quite at home in Germany. His headquarters in France were for a time at a house — Chateau Hervarre, I think it was — the neighborhood of which had been heavily bombed and shelled by the Germans. The roads were pitted with holes, all but about half a mile, where he was accustomed to take exercise. The fact that this bit of road was so used was perceived from the air by a German flying officer, who made it his business to smash up the road. Monash was, as he said, “quite annoyed” to have his walking track spoilt, so he gave orders to have the offender brought down.

Next time the venturesome German appeared in the sky, an Australian flier went up to teach him a lesson. His plane was hit and fell, but the airman, though shaken, was unhurt. He was brought into Monash’s presence and saluted, but at once snapped out that he did not intend to answer any questions. “He was such a nice boy,” Monash said, “fair-haired, blue eyed, and I liked him at once. I poured out a glass of wine for him. and we drank together, shook hands, and I told him that I was almost sorry for his mishap, but really I could not let him destroy the only bit of good road where I could get walking exercise. We both laughed and parted in good humor.”

Before the war, Monash had won a high reputation in the engineering world as the best-known exponent in Australia of ferro-conerete construction. A French engineer, Monier, made a reputation by reinforcing concrete with steel bars embedded within it. Monash adapted that principle to constructional work suitable to Australian conditions. The bridge across the river Yarra at the bottom of Anderson street was his first important undertaking of that kind (1899). Many bridges and other works in which ferro-concrete was the material used, were constructed by his firm in later years, the most important being the great dome of the Melbourne Public Library, which seemed to many doubters to be audacious beyond prudence when it was in course of erection.

One cannot read Monash’s two books, “Australian Victories in France in 1818” and “War Letters,” without feeling that the General was always the engineer applying his mind to military problems. Planning, and organising gave him pleasure. He planned rapidly, with intense concentration upon the nature of the terrain, the probable difficulties to be encountered, and perfect confidence in his instruments, that is, his officers and troops. Thus, the dramatic success of the attack upon Mont St. Quentin was, he wrote, “due to the wonderful gallantry of the men and the rapidity with which our plans were put into action.”

Those were the plans which drew from General (afterwards Lord) Rawlinson the satirical comment, “And so you think you are going to take Mont St. Quentin with three battalions? What presumption! However, I don’t think; I ought to stop you, so go ahead and try, and I wish you luck.”

Closed the gap

Those plans, the success of which led to what Rawlinson afterwards handsomely characterised as “the finest single feat of the war,” were very carefully elaborated. But we have a striking example of his quick brain working against time in the exciting incident of March, 1918, when part of the Fifth Army covering Amiens, broke, and General Monash was hastily summoned to fling his Australian Army into the breach. Most of the officers of the retreating Fifth were rattled. “The only men in the crowd who seemed to have their wits about them,” he wrote, “were Lieutenant-General Congreve and his chief staff officer, Hore-Ruthven,” now Lord Gowrie, Governor-General of Australia.

“They were seated at a little table with their maps spread in front of them, examining them by the light of a flickering candle. As I stepped into the room General Congreve said, ‘Thank heaven, the Australians at last.’ Our conversation was of the briefest. He said. ‘General, the position is very simple. My corps at 4 o’clock today was holding the line from Bray to Albert, when the line broke, and what is left of three divisions in the line after four days’ heavy fighting without food or sleep are falling back rapidly. German cavalry have been seen approaching Morlancourt and Buire. They are making straight for Amiens. What I want you to do is to get into the angle between the Ancre and the Somme as far east as possible and stop him’.”

Those were all the directions Monash received. He worked all night, planning, writing orders, getting into touch with his officers by telephone, setting troops on the move, and sending off members of his staff in various directions with precise instructions. By 2 o’clock on the following afternoon he had 5,000 troops in or moving towards position. It was a swift bit of work perfectly done. The gap was closed, the Germans were stopped, and Amiens was saved. For smart promptitude and competence in an emergency that performance probably had no parallel during the war.

Mr. Lloyd George has written in his “War Memoirs” that “Monash was, according to the testimony of those who knew well his genius for war, and what he accomplished by it, the most resourceful general in the whole of the British Army.” But as Mr. Lloyd George produced six thick volumes in which much space was occupied in demonstrating that in his opinion the other generals were not of much account and the admirals were no better, his verdict needs corroboration. Captain Liddell Hart, “The Times” military expert, has supplied that support in his judgment that “if the war had lasted another year Sir John Monash would certainly have risen to an army command, and might have risen to Commander-in-Chief; he probably had the greatest capacity for command in modern war among those who held command.” Putting speculation aside, it is safe to say that the history of the Great War reveals no commander whose brain worked so swiftly, so surely, and so successfully upon every military problem submitted to it for solution.

His essential genius

The engineering mind is an organising mind, and Monash’s essential genius lay essentially in great knowledge and experience. The mind that organised successful battles on the Somme was the same mind as brought to fruition the great electric power work at Yallourn. He delighted in solving problems. When he said of the very difficult task of bringing the Australian armies back from Europe that “to my thinking, the staff work on this job was superior to anything with which we were concerned during the war,” he was rejoicing in the overcoming of difficulties which were really formidable in 1919.

One day, after his return to Australia, Monash met a friend on a Melbourne tram, and told him be had in his pocket two offers of appointments about which he had to make up his mind at once. He had already done so. One of them was the offer from the Victorian Government to take the chairmanship of the State Electricity Commission. He said he intended to accept that offer, because it would give him scope for organising on a large scale. So far, a board consisting of Sir Thomas Lyle, Mr. George Swinburn, and Sir Robert Gibson had been in charge, and had rendered very valuable service. But it was not a board whose members gave their full time to the many problems which then had to be solved. The Government considered that a commission of experts were needed, who would devote themselves entirely to the business. At that time it had not been determined that electrical power should be developed from the enormous deposits of brown coal at Yallourn. There were rival projects, each of which had assiduous political supporters. One of them, commanding much influence, was that of developing water power from the Kiewa River. In order to obtain the best advice, the Government appointed a parliamentary committee to take evidence. Monash was called as a witness.

Mr. R. Liddelow, now the Commission’s manager, was then acting as Monash’s secretary, and assisted him in preparing the great mass of statistical, geological, and general information which might be required. Monash devoted himself for about a month to digesting this material, so as to be ready to answer any questions fully. There were huge piles of papers. But, Mr. Liddelow recalls, though the general was under examination for several days, he never once called for any document to assist his memory. It was all in his mind, and was poured out copiously as required, with that precision of statement and economy of words which were so characteristic of the man.

From 1920, when he became chairman of the State Electricity Commission, till he died in 1931, all other business and scientific interests were abandoned, in order that he might concentrate upon his onerous task. It was a “big job,” even for him, and he had been engaged upon big jobs all his mature life. The briquetting of brown coal for fuel was perhaps his pet enterprise at Yallourn, but there was no part of the enormous scheme which he did not thoroughly understand and in the creation of which he did not take a directing part.

John Monash, was, by universal acclaim, a great soldier: his peers in engineering knew him as a master-minded man: and he was also a scholar of broad scope. Withal he was an extremely easy man to work with, open to receive suggestions and grateful for them, kind and encouraging to subordinates, friendly to all who had relations with him. His name is ploughed into our history, and the work of his later years cannot be dimmed within any conceivable duration of time.

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 5 August 1939, page 22

[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott.]

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