The for­got­ten WWI gen­eral

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Nadav She­mer

WHEN SCHOOLS around Bri­tain mark the 100th an­niver­sary of the out­break of World War I later this month, I won­der if Sir John Monash, the Jewish gen­eral who planned the of­fen­sive that broke Ger­man re­sis­tance, will rate a men­tion.

In Aus­tralia Monash is the clos­est one gets to be­ing a war hero: a top univer­sity is named af­ter him, so is a ma­jor free­way, and his face ap­pears on the $100 note. Kfar Monash, a moshav just out­side Ne­tanya, was built with funds raised by the Aus­tralian Jewish com­mu­nity.

The Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial last month re­leased a digi­tised ver­sion of more than 10,000 war­time pa­pers writ­ten by or re­lat­ing to Monash. The documents re­veal an in­tense pa­triot, con­scious of his coun­try’s place in the Bri­tish Em­pire but crit­i­cal of the Bri­tish war­time lead­er­ship.

It also casts light on his Prus­sian and Jewish her­itage, the lat­ter of which he would later pub­licly em­brace as hon­orary pres­i­dent of the Aus­tralian Zion­ist Fed­er­a­tion.

On April 14, 1915, 11 days be­fore the Aus­tralian and New Zealand Army Corps landed at Gal­lipoli, the then bri­gade com­man­der wrote to his wife: “It seems strange…to know that so near to us is the cen­tre of an epoch-mak­ing clash of arms. One feels al­most like say­ing, with [Goethe’s] Faust: Werd ich zum Au­gen­blicke sa­gen: Ver­weile doch! du bist so schön! [If ever I to the mo­ment shall say: Beau­ti­ful mo­ment, do not pass away!]

“Af­ter all is it not strange that it should be the Turks and not the Ger­mans whom we should be fight­ing[?]…One prob­a­ble re­sult of the war will be the free­ing of Jerusalem and Pales­tine from the Turk­ish yoke – so events seem to shape them­selves to the fit­ness of things”.

One month later, he boasted that the Aus­tralians were, “in this war, the first [em­pha­sis] troops of the Bri­tish Em­pire to set foot upon any part of the en­emy’s ter­ri­tory.”

But he was mind­ful of the fol­lies of war, writ­ing, on the oc­ca­sion of the cen­te­nary of the Bat­tle of Water­loo, on June 18, 1915: “A hun­dred years ago, the Bri­tish, the Bel­gians, and the Ger­mans were fight­ing the French, while now the Bri­tish, the Bel­gians and the French are fight­ing the Ger­mans. The whirligig of time brings many changes.” As the Gal­lipoli cam­paign dragged on and Aus­tralian losses mounted, Monash grew in­creas­ingly crit­i­cal of the Bri­tish: “Why is it that Great Bri­tain al­ways em­barks on her mil­i­tary en­ter­prises with in­ad­e­quate means at first, and only makes up the needed de­fi­cien­cies af­ter losses due to such in­ad­e­quacy?”

He prob­a­bly kept these thoughts to per­sonal cor­re­spon­dence, as in May 1918 he was hand­picked by Field Mar­shal Dou­glas Haig — leader of all Bri­tish troops on the Western Front — to com­mand the Aus­tralian Army Corps.

Monash is a war hero in Aus­tralia, as he should be

The Aus­tralians con­sti­tuted one quar­ter of the Bri­tish Em­pire’s mil­i­tary con­tin­gent in France.

“To be the first na­tive-born Aus­tralian Corps Com­man­der [all his pre­de­ces­sors were Bri­tish] is some­thing to have lived for, and will not be for­got­ten in Aus­tralian his­tory,” Monash wrote.

He was al­most de­prived of this hon­our, thanks to a cam­paign against him by Keith Mur­doch, fa­ther of me­dia mag­nate Ru­pert, and C E W Bean, of­fi­cial Aus­tralian war his­to­rian and a recorded an­tisemite (“We do not want Aus­tralia rep­re­sented by men mainly be­cause of their abil­ity, nat­u­ral and in­born in Jews, to push them­selves,” Bean wrote in his diary).

Monash called it “a great nui­sance to have to fight an in­trigue of this na­ture, in the midst of all one’s other anx­i­eties, but it is part of the price one has to pay for high re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

The cam­paign against Monash was so fierce that Prime Min­is­ter Billy Hughes de­ferred cab­i­net ap­proval of the ap­point­ment un­til his visit to the Western Front in July 1918. Hughes re­alised he had been mis­led and gave the green light. Monash duly re­paid him by de­vis­ing the plan for the Bat­tle of Amiens, and was re­warded with a knight­hood from King Ge­orge V near the scene of the bat­tle on Au­gust 12.

Monash died in 1931. The army’s Jewish chap­lain, Ja­cob Dan­glow, presided over a spe­cial fu­neral ser­vice just be­fore the state fu­neral in Mel­bourne, which 250,000 people — onequar­ter of the city’s pop­u­la­tion at the time — at­tended.

Monash and 21 other se­nior al­lied of­fi­cers are por­trayed in a paint­ing by John Singer Sar­gent, which hangs in the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery in Lon­don. Nadav She­mer is an Aus­tralian-Is­raeli jour­nal­ist liv­ing in Lon­don

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