The war hero few know of

Peter Greste ex­plores the story of Gen­eral John Monash and dis­cov­ers his own an­ces­tors’ his­tory, writes Seanna Cronin

The Daily Examiner - - THE GUIDE -

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

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