Monash and Me Episode 1
Walkley award-winning investigative journalist and war correspondent Peter Greste goes in search of the real man behind the Australian General, who changed the way the world fights wars; Sir John Monash. What he finds about Monash, his own family, and the way we Australians remember war is challenging and confronting.
Monash’s story is important to us because of the questions it raises about our own times.
As Peter sets off to find the real John Monash he also discovers to his surprise that he has four Great Uncles on his mother's side who fought in WW1. Like his Great Uncle Fankhausers, Monash had a German background, and his enemies in the Military and Australian establishment never let him forget that fact.
On meeting Peter Leahy, Chief of Australian Army 2002-2008 at the National Library of Australia, Peter learns that Monash kept an intimate diary and wrote prodigiously about the war. The habit of writing his own story would last a life time. From the pages of his diaries and letters, a very personal account of Monash’s war comes to life and Peter soon discovers the contradictions and complexity of the man along with his desire for fame.
Peter learns that Monash was a successful engineer in Melbourne. When WW1 broke out he was an unlikely future hero being a portly 49 years old. But his obsessive interest in technology marked him out as being different. And he was keen to learn from the mistakes made at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
On arriving in France in 1916, Monash is to ordered to carry out raids in The Somme, and attack the Germans near the village of La Houssoie. Battlefield historian Mat McLachlan and Greste compare the accounts that Monash wrote home to his wife, with the testimony of the surviving soldiers. It is clear that Monash’s detailing of the battle as having ‘the highest scientific preparation’ is at complete odds with the reality of the situation.
On his rare spells of leave, Monash heads to London. Many of his fellow officers seek fleeting comfort, but Monash embarks on something far more reckless - a deep, enduring relationship with a friend of his own wife. Peter Greste gleans the bare details of his time with Lizzie Bentwich from Monash’s diaries which reveal a dramatic contrast from the Monash of the battlefields.
The mass slaughter following the first days on the Somme continued. As an engineer Monash was appalled by the inefficiency and loss of human life in WW1. This loss was no greater than at Passchendaele. Veteran of the Afghanistan War, Sean Lanigan walks Peter through the fields of Passchendaele and unpacks the grim reality of the slaughter from soldier testimony. Monash himself can scarcely comprehend the horror and futility of the battle. He knows he has to re-think trench warfare.
To understand the breakthrough about to come in Monash’s thinking Peter Greste heads to German – to cross the line – and to understand the enemy. Military Historian and German Army veteran Matthias Strohn shares German soldier accounts. He also explains how Monash was extremely unusual and in a unique position. With German blood, and an understanding of German culture and language he understands the enemy- the Germans were fighting for the existence of their country and throwing more men at them would never stop them.
“the true role of infantry it not to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources”
Monash convinces the Allied Command to let him deploy his new combined arms warfare approach at the Battle of Hamel in July 1918. Paul Burns, Retired Commander Australian Special Forces, Afghanistan, takes Peter through the brilliant strategy. This begins with the key element of surprise - tanks moving under the cover of dark, their noise drowned out by noisy aircraft above. By bringing together, tanks, aeroplanes, artillery and infantry into a highly synchronized and coordinated attack, Monash calculates that the battle will take 90 minutes. The victory takes 93 minutes. And casualties are much lower.
With this one brilliant chess move Monash greatly accelerates the Allied Victory in WW1, and lays the foundations for how we still fight today.
But as the Germans retreat back, Monash knows the hardest battles still lie ahead. What will it cost Monash and his men to win them? Men like Peter Greste’s Fankhauser Great Uncles will pay a price they can scarcely imagine in so much more than blood. And Monash will find himself saying that ‘casualties no longer matter’ before the war is won.