The war hero few know of
Peter Greste explores the story of General John Monash and discovers his own ancestors’ history, writes Seanna Cronin
PETER Greste brings a fresh, personal approach to wartime history in General Monash and Me.
In the ABC’s new documentary series, the award-winning journalist and war correspondent goes in search of the story of Australian General John Monash as well as his own family’s role on the Western Front.
“Most people to my mind – and I’m not talking scientific surveys here – know Monash first and foremost as the name of a highway and a university and are vaguely aware of some guy who was a military bloke in World War I,” Greste tells The Guide.
“The way Monash thought about and organised war, and the way he founded and organised Anzac Day, these are things that define who we are. The way we fight wars and think of our army, the way our army operates – all of these things have their roots in Monash’s thinking.
“We wanted to draw Monash into the present, and make people think about his influence and why his experience is still relevant to us.”
The two-part documentary explores how Monash – a colonial German Jew and a civilian soldier – came to lead the Australian Imperial Force at the Western Front and be the first commander in 200 years to be knighted on the battlefield.
“He didn’t fit any of those classic moulds of who the British considered a hero should be or who they would want to turn into a hero,” Greste says. “He suffered the same fate in Australia, where the prime minister saw him as a threat and sought to minimise his influence immediately after the war. He never got the recognition he deserved. He should have a much bigger place in our history.”
Thanks to extensive diaries and letters written by Monash, dating back to when he was just 16 years of age, Greste can paint a full picture of a man who has largely fallen through the cracks of history.
“One of the things I really enjoyed about the film was discovering that Monash was a flawed human being like the rest of us,” he says. “He was passionate when it came to women and the arts. He was flawed as a commander and he learned on the job, but he came through it. He wasn’t crushed by it to the point of being incapacitated. Those are the things I find admirable about the guy.”
But this is more than just a stuffy documentary full of historical footage and dry interviews. Cameras also follow Greste on a personal journey as he traces the wartime experiences of his great uncles Claude, Earnest, George and Henry Fankhauser, several of whom served under Monash.
“I thought I only had two uncles who fought in the war, not four. It was a real surprise to discover that,” he says.
“What this whole experience has done is give us all a sense of our own family’s contribution.
“You can’t understand where you are until you understand where you’ve come from.”
General Monash and Me – ABC – Tuesday at 8.30pm