John Monash’s contribution to winning World War I is indeed great but, as is often the case with legends, there is a risk of overstatement to the point where other actors, in this case the Diggers, are diminished. Only last month Fairfax media published a series of erroneous claims about the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918, including Monash’s alleged command of the troops (he played no part), and had to run a 319-word correction and apology.
Malcolm Turnbull repeated some of these errors in a speech on Anzac Day at VillersBretonneux when he said Monash led “the Australian forces [and] won a momentous victory”.
Monash’s name has been appropriated by a cabal of right-wing MPs to promote coal-fired power generation. This possibly relates to his postwar role as head of Victoria’s electricity authority, even though Monash was one to embrace new technology and methods to solve intractable problems, as shown in his planning for the Battle of Le Hamel on July 4, 1918.
In this context, the arrival of this book is indeed timely and, notwithstanding Peter FitzSimons’s ocker style, the depth of research that underpins it is impressive. It is a welcome and readable addition to what’s known about Monash and Le Hamel.
In the scheme of things, Le Hamel was a relatively small battle. It involved 7000 Australians and 1000 newly arrived Americans who attacked on a 6km front. But at the time Allied forces were still reeling from the spring offensive launched by the Germans, who had pushed within 50km of Paris. They had not launched an attack for eight months, and the threat of Paris falling into German hands raised a serious risk of French capitulation.
FitzSimons highlights how the US commander John Pershing was slow to put his million Monash’s Masterpiece: The Battle of Le Hamel and the 93 Minutes that Changed the World By Peter FitzSimons Hachette, 414pp, $35