By Robbin Laird
Peter FitzSimmons has written a trilogy of books focused on Australia and the First World War.
His latest book focuses specifically on an aspect of the First World War that is little known outside of experts or World War I buffs.
But it is a story which deserves to be widely told and FitzSimmons book provides an outstanding opportunity for our readers to become either familiar with or gain more detailed knowledge of the role of the Australian general who pioneered a combined arms approach to offensive operations and broke the mold on how World War I operations were conducted up to that time.
The book is entitled: “Monash’s Masterpiece: The Battle of Le Hamel and the 93 Minutes that Changed the World.”
The book is written in the present tense and draws heavily on diaries and histories of the period and allows the reader to go back in time to gain an understanding of the context and in the preparation for what would turn out to be a breakthrough battle, the battle of Le Hamel.
The battle was fought and won in less time than it takes to read the book.
It was fought on July 4 1918 and was the first engagement which involved Americans who fought under Australian command and also was a founding moment for what would become the very solid American-Aussie relationship.
The Americans were involved in the battle against the wishes of General Pershing who had insisted that Americans be held out of the war until 1919 when he felt they would be ready.
Nonetheless, the Americans were integrated into the Aussie forces and were key participants in the battle despite General Pershing.
And it was clear from the conduct of the Americans that the troops were more than eager to go into battle and in fact attacked the Germans with the cry: “Remember the Lusitania!”
In a classic moment after the victory, the French Prime Minister hosted Generals Haig and Pershing to thank them for the victory. Pershing did not say anything during the ceremony but afterwards was keen for this to not happen again and he made it clear that the Americans participated against his direct orders.
But the Aussies and Americans simply had too much in common for even Pershing to block the way.
“For their part, most of the American soldiers are impressed (with the Aussies), with private Charles D. Ebersole, of Chicago, recording his impression that the Australians are ‘very good,’ and ‘very democratic,’ although ‘somewhat undisciplined.”
“In short, exactly their kind of blokes.” 1
Monash was an engineer rather than a professional soldier; and he was resented by some fellow officers because of this fact.
But as an engineer, he focused on ways to leverage the engines of war to reshape how an offense could be conducted, rather than simply using human combat mass to win the day.
His original plan was to take the German positions at the village of Le Hamel by a combined air, tank and infantry operation. But his style was to plan an offensively carefully, brief the plan and get the key experts involved in the plan.
As a result, he changed the plan to make key use of various artillery capabilities integrated with a phased air and tank-infantry operation.
He insisted on getting high grade intelligence with regard to the disposition of the German forces and to work carefully on crafting an offensive in which each element of the combined force would then be used with particular effect in a coordinated offensive assault.
The Aussies had been used first in World War I in the disaster of Gallipoli; but they would end the war becoming the tip of the spear of the allied forces in shaping offensive operations.
Following, Le Hamel, similar tactics would be used at Amiens with similar results.
“In no small part due to the exertions of Sir John Monash and his men, and the example they set at Hamel – which was then replicated many times over – the war was won within weeks.” 2
“In short, courtesy of Monash (Allied) GHQ made it official: the days of just sending waves of men at enemy trenches and hoping to overwhelm them by sheer force of numbers are mercifully gone. From now on, the key is to is to use ‘fighting machinery,’ the tanks, the planes and guns to do much of the heavy lifting as, through rapid, coordinated attack against a surprised enemy, you overwhelm their resistance and use your soldiers to mop up and consolidate the ground won.” 3
The ability to leverage technology and to combine technology with well-planned combat operations for an integrated force was important then; it is even more important now.
And the example of Monash as engineer rather than a traditional General might also be important was we work the skill levels for a 21stcentury combat force to succeed.
The Monash story also reminds us that to invent an innovative approach is important; but when your enemy learns how to do it better than you and you tend to forget what you did, it may not turn out so well.
As we would learn when the Germans migrated this approach into the Blitzkrieg of 1939. It is not enough to innovate and forget; it is important to build from your innovations and keep on innovating.
In his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Geoffrey Serle provided an overview on Sir John Monash’s life and in that overview provided the following comments with regard to Monash and his role in World War I:
On the outbreak of war Monash acted as chief censor for four weeks before he was appointed to command the 4th Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force.
It was an Australia-wide brigade which had to be organized and gathered at Broadmeadows, Victoria, and given elementary training before sailing with the second contingent on 22 December 1914.
Monash chose as his brigade major Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. McGlinn; they were soon intimate friends. Monash commanded the convoy of seventeen ships which reached Egypt at the end of January 1915.
The 4th Brigade went into camp near Heliopolis as part of Major General Sir Alexander Godley’s New Zealand and Australian Division. Godley and the corps commander Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood were well satisfied with Monash’s training of the brigade.
At the Gallipoli landing it was in reserve: Monash did not land until the morning of 26 April, and was given the left-centre sector including Pope’s Hill and Quinn’s Post to organize while the Turks counter-attacked. His brigade was still not fully gathered by the 30th but Monash had an orderly conference of his battalion commanders that day.
The night offensive on Baby 700 of 2 May, which Monash had opposed, was disastrous; according to Charles Bean it left him ‘unstrung, as well it might’.
The brigade played its part in withstanding the Turkish offensive of 19 May and the break-in to Quinn’s on the 29th, and was relieved from the line at the end of the month.
In July Monash learned of his tardy promotion to brigadier general at a time when wild rumours were circulating in Cairo, London and Melbourne that he had been shot as a German spy and traitor; there had been a similar vicious whispering campaign in Melbourne the previous October.
The brigade now prepared for the battle of Sari Bair and its part in the left hook on Hill 971. Their night-march of 6 August was delayed and a vital wrong turning made. Monash forced himself to the front, punched his battalions into position and made good progress against moderate resistance.
But the maps were faulty, the men were lost and exhausted, and next morning could only dig in. On the 8th, after attacking, they had to withdraw. Most of the men were sick, many had paratyphoid. The remnants then took part in the unsuccessful attacks on Hill 60, before being withdrawn to Lemnos.
Monash had three weeks leave in Egypt where he learned of his appointment as C.B. The brigade returned to a quiet sector on Gallipoli. On the final night of the evacuation Monash was not one of the last to leave, but rashly sent home an illegal diary-letter implying that he had been. Gallipoli had given him a devastating education.
Bean, Birdwood and others left an impression that his performance had been mediocre; but his brigade had performed at least as well as any of the other three and he had little or no part in the battle-plans he had to attempt to carry out. His performance on 7-8 August is open to criticism, but it came to be recognized that the attack on Hill 971 was totally impossible of achievement. Bean reported the saying that Monash ‘would command a division better than a brigade and a corps better than a division’.
In Egypt in January 1916 he wearily began retraining his reconstituted brigade, distressed by the news of his wife’s operation for cancer. The brigade, after dismemberment to form daughter units, joined 4th Division and spent two months in the local defences east of Suez Canal.
In June they moved to France, to the Armentières sector, and were immediately tagged for a substantial diversionary and unsuccessful night-raid on 2 July.
That month Monash was promoted major general in command of the new 3rd Division arriving on Salisbury Plain, England. He was given two first-rate British professionals to watch over him, Lieutenant-Colonels G. H. N. Jackson and H. M. Farmar, who soon became his admiring devotees.
Training proceeded vigorously. Monash had a flattering triumph when King George V himself inspected the division. In November they moved into the Armentières sector as part of Godley’s II Anzac Corps and General Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second British Army. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig inspected on 22 December. Monash had established and retained a remarkably low crime-rate in the division.
By an extraordinary feat of will-power he had reduced his weight drastically to 12½ stone (79 kg), which considerably added to his authority. His good fortune was, unlike the other Australian divisions, to serve under Plumer and Major General Harington, and that his first major battle, Messines in June 1917, was Plumer’s masterpiece.
According to Bean, Monash ‘concentrated upon the plans an amount of thought and care far beyond that ever devoted to any other [A.I.F. operation]’.
‘Wonderful detail but not his job’, Harington commented. In the autumn, during 3rd Ypres, at Broodseinde Monash brought off the greatest A.I.F. victory yet. But the weather had broken and in the following week Monash and his 3rd Division suffered the misery of Passchendaele.
3rd Division, which Monash was sure was ‘one of the Crack Divisions of the British Army’, spent most of the winter quietly in the Ploegsteert sector.
In November it had at last joined the other divisions in I Anzac Corps. Monash dined privately with Haig who let it be known that he wanted him as a corps commander; at the New Year he was appointed K.C.B., not a mere knighthood.
In March 1918, in the face of the great German offensive, he brilliantly deployed his division to plug the gap in front of Amiens.
They were, however, in the eye of the storm, and saw little serious action. But in late April and May they were heavily involved in aggressive ‘peaceful penetration’.
Then, to the general satisfaction of the A.I.F., Monash was appointed corps commander from 1 June and promoted lieutenant-general; Birdwood remained general officer commanding the A.I.F. Bean and the journalist (Sir) Keith Murdoch, however, carried on a relentless campaign for more than two months to replace Monash with Major General (Sir) Brudenell White and Birdwood with Monash. He stood to win both ways, but was determined to test himself in the field at corps level.
The battle of Hamel of 4 July—’all over in ninety-three minutes…the perfection of teamwork’, Monash wrote—proved his point.
The Americans participated, and Monash had to withstand, by extraordinary force of personality, a last-minute attempt by General Pershing to withdraw them.
Military historians have acclaimed it as ‘the first modern battle’, ‘the perfect battle’. ‘A war-winning combination had been found: a corps commander of genius, the Australian infantry, the Tank Corps, the Royal Artillery and the RAF’.