Monash and Me Episode 2
As the war on the Western Front accelerates to a climax across the summer of 1918, Monash plays an increasingly important role in the Allied offensive against the German forces.
After the success at Hamel, Monash craves a battle on a scale to match his ambition. But first he sends his men into a very different kind of fight. These raids have a deep impact on the psychology of the enemy - something Monash understood well “It is because we do not consider psychology enough that we are taking so long to win the war”.
But there is a huge cost to the extremes he is pushing both himself and his men to.
The Germans respond with their own unspeakable violence, drenching the Australian line with gas. One of the hundreds of thousands gassed is Peter’s Great Uncle Ernest.
In late July 1918 the Allied Command finally adopts Monash’s hugely ambitious plan for an attack on the Germans East of the key town of Amiens. It is the largest trust ever placed in an Australian Commander. The engineer, who left Melbourne in command of a brigade of 4000, now has an army of over 100,000 men under him in the spearhead of the attack.
The combat Monash demands is the exact opposite of the random death of raids or gas. There is a precise role planned for every single man, and it is designed for minimum casualties. The men and the technology will be pieced together into a minutely detailed plan. Over 2,000 aircraft and 580 tanks will fight in concert with 32 divisions – British, French, American, and Australian.
The strategy is a stunning success. The German front line is overrun with 75,000 German casualties and another 29,000 taken prisoner. And Monash has pulled off this equally important part of his plan – his own casualties are radically low, amongst the spearhead Australian troops.
Allied forces liberate 116 towns and villages. It is the most sweeping advance in a day achieved by the allies in four years on the western front. Monash is feted by all the Allied Commanders.
Four days later, King George V of England arrives to knight John Monash. As a boy, Monash wrote in his private diary about a burning hunger for fame. Now this son of a Melbourne Jewish shopkeeper is honoured by the King. It also marks the moment of triumph over all of his critics including war journalist Charles Bean who have tried to cut him down.
To keep the Germans on the back foot Monash pushes ahead with taking on the extremely fortified positions at Mt Saint Quentin and Peronne – amongst the German’s most prized possessions. Here the German forces outnumber the Australians 3 to 1, but Monash puts a proposal to his British Commander to attack. They scoff at such recklessness and then dare him to do it. Monash has had a big victory in Hamel, and at Amiens, but the one thing that he desperately wants is a wholly Australian victory with just Australian troops. He speaks to a fellow commander, “casualties no longer matter”.
Peter discovers that his 25 year old Great Uncle George, an orchardist from east of Melbourne is one of the men fighting under Monash at Peronne. Monash’s officers tell him he is pushing the exhausted men past their limit but he won’t hear it. Peter uncovers the horror of the battle and of the fate of his Great Uncle George.
Monash continues to push his troops onwards to take the Hindenburg line. He gathers himself and brings his entire engineer’s skill to construct a minutely detailed plan to smash open the Hindenburg line. For this, his most ambitious challenge, he devotes obsessive energy to one humble component: the roads. The orchestrated campaign of attacks will succeed or fail on movement and re-supply. Fleets of London buses deliver thousands of men and supplies to and from the fighting. But the real heroes of the battle will be that unheralded bunch who go out first - the pioneers, the engineers, who under enemy fire, build or repair the roads.
One of them is a young bricklayer from Jeparit in country Victoria – Peter’s Great Uncle Ernest Fankhauser who was gassed earlier in the year.
Monash calls up a signature concert of tanks, artillery, aircraft and men synchronised to devastating effect. They break the German line, and German hopes, beyond recovery. The war is effectively over. Germany begins the long torment of seeking an armistice.
Monash retreats to London and to his lover Lizzie, before returning home to Australia to resume his life with wife Victoria.
Peter Greste visits a cousin in country Victoria to find out the poignant homecoming story of his Great Uncles. He also explores how Monash confronts the legacy of war in a young country with no traditions or rituals, struggling with where to put its grief.
From newspaper accounts Peter discovers that thousands of veterans are killing themselves. They cannot talk about what they did, can’t get work, and feel the country does not understand their sacrifice. Many write to John Monash for help and not only does he assist them practically, but he commits himself to construct a Shrine of Remembrance to memorialise their great sacrifice. It is the project closest to his heart.
In 1928, on the tenth anniversary of his men’s great victories on the Western Front, a crowd of 600,000 – half the population of Melbourne – attends Anzac Day. The essential forms of the remembrance of war we’ve practiced for a century are in place.
Three years later Sir John Monash dies in Melbourne aged 66. 300,000 come to mourn at his funeral – the largest Australia has seen.
Peter Greste concludes with a challenge for all of us; as we enter the 2nd century of our defining traditions of war remembrance, it is time for those traditions to evolve and for us to take into our memory something more. Something those of us who haven’t fought a war may never fully understand and those who have may never fully tell. That dark quiet space between the legend of war and it’s lived reality.