Honour Monash - A great Australian
|John Monash: Live Saver Extraordinaire||
By Roland Perry
General Sir John Monash had a perpetual aim in all the battles in the Great War he planned and commanded: the attrition rate, that is, those killed and injured, should be zero. He never reached that goal but got closer to it than any other battle commander in history. Only a handful of other senior commanders, including Britain's Field Marshal Plumer, and Australia's General Harry Chauvel, in World War 1 were like-minded. For the rest of both sides it was a matter of gaining the ascendency over the opposition, no matter what the cost. Soldiers at the Front were expendable, as they always had been for thousands of years. The Commander of all Allied Forces, General Douglas Haig, was nicknamed, cumbersomely, Kill more Germans Haig. The inference was that if the Allies had more soldiers on the battlefield and they killed more Germans than German killed Allies, then the Allies would win.
Monash had a different mindset, which he articulated often from the beginning of the 20th Century. He first signaled his attitude in 1901 in a lecture, when he said the next major war would be mechanized with flying machines (planes), big, reinforced armoured vehicles (tanks) and advanced artillery dominant. Infantry would be used sparingly and for 'mopping up' operations, that is after the machines had done their thing. He spoke about the importance of intelligence and how it would be disseminated quickly and effectively.
He was laughed at. Monash ignored the nay-sayers. If he had any say, the machines would do the hard work. Soldiers would be 'preserved. The trouble was, he did not have a major influence until mid-1917, three years into the war, when he took the Australian 3rd Division into action on the Western Front at the battles of Broodseinde and Messines in Belgium. In both he had the prevailing view on tactics.
The British had not been able to budge the Germans from Messines Ridge for three years. Monash told Field Marshal Plumer, he would do it on a weekend with a minimum of casualties. He achieved his aim with 600 Anzacs killed from 12,000 who fought. Most casualties were caused by gas. The death-rate of 5 per cent in such a tough mission was unheard of. Losing a third or half your force, fifty per cent, was a depressing expectation. Not for Monash. One of his main tenants was simple in theory: do everything possible to wipe out the enemy's artillery before sending men over the top. If that were not possible, the foot-soldiers would be sent deep enough into enemy territory to take control of the artillery. It offended Monash's military sensibilities to have his force win a position only to be rained on by opposition artillery. He had not allowed for the intransigent, moribund ways of the British High Command, steeped in the Empire traditions and ways of war. Commanders such as Haig, and Generals Gough and Allenby had a mindset stuck in cavalry charges of the late 19th century in the Sudan, or more lately the Boer War. Allenby had an excuse in the Middle East desert war where his Lighthorse troopers, run by Australian Harry Chauvel, were the most effective weapon of that war. Tanks were next to useless on sand. Artillery was always difficult to drag into position. The Air force was effective but nothing like as hard-hitting as ground attacks by Anzac troopers.
Other than in the Middle East, the Great War was as Monash had envisaged, with both sides scrambling to develop new and better machines. He gained some ground in his advanced methods that had success, but at Passchendaele in October and November 1917, Haig reverted to the old, insidious ways under a perceived threat of one million Germans coming from the Russian Front. He wanted quick action to take Passchendaele Ridge, no matter what the cost. Of all the Allied Generals, only Monash confronted Haig and asked him to call off the attack in treacherous conditions brought on by torrential rain. But an obsessed Haig would not even meet the demands of his favourite General. The battle was a disaster. Of 10,000 Anzacs, there were 6,700 casualties in a day. The battle for this modest Belgium ridge was only salvaged by the Canadians in dry conditions a month later. Taking Passchendaele gave the Allies no advantage.
The downright brutality and stupidity of Haig's directives almost caused Monash to quit. He wrote a disgruntled letter to his wife. It began: 'I hate the business of war, the inefficiency, the waste ... ' and ended with his declaration to stay the course to honour his men who destinies lay in his hands.
The Germans delivered the biggest attack of the war in March 1918 when General Ludendorff sent 50 Divisions across the Allied lines on the Somme on an 80 kilometre front. They destroyed the British 5th Army, and disabled the 2nd Army. The Allies were in disarray until Monash's 3rd Division and Major General Sinclair-MacLagan's 4th Division were laid across the German advance and stopped it. This further demonstrated Monash's outstanding skills and saw him rewarded with Command of the entire Australian Army, the first AIF. From time to time, other divisions were parked with it from the American, British, French and Canadian forces and lifted his army to more than 200,000. This way Monash controlled the largest single Army Corps, among 20 such Allied Corps, from June to October 1918, the decisive months of the conflict.
By mid-1918, the most outstanding general of the war had the biggest army at his disposal to carry out his plans. He began with Hamel, easily the nearest to perfect execution of a battle design executed in the entire Great War. The little hamlet of Hamel on the Somme was held by the German Army, which could fire from there into Monash's HQ and Australian camps. That was excuse enough to attack it. But Monash had a broader motivation. He wanted the entire battlefield directly in front of his forces to be cleared of enemy soldiers. Once this was attained he could lobby the British High Command for the launch a master-plan to end the War. Hamel was to be the precursor encounter, the trial run, before the main event. The 7000 Australians and 1000 Americans in the attack on Hamel on 4 July took 1500 prisoners. That was an astounding result in itself. But what made the suddenly attrition-rate conscious British High Command sit up and take notice was the fact that all but about 200 casualties would fight again within weeks. This was effectively an attrition rate of as near to zero as possible. Monash's battle plans were sent to every senior Allied commander to study and implement if possible. But it was too late for others to use them or even attempt to by training.
Hamel's impact became more apparent a fortnight later when compared to the Battle of Soissons won by the French from 18 to 22 July. The French, with the Americans in support, took the same number of prisoners, 1500. Yet they used 400,000 soldiers and had 107,000 casualties 95,000 French and 12,000 Americans. Roughly 25 per cent of the Allied force went down.
Monash's abilities were now in stark relief when compared to other battle commanders. Unusual deference had always been shown by Haig towards him. Now every General on the Allied side was in deep respect, even awe of him. Aware of this attitude, Monash moved to capitalize on it. Even while the German prisoners were being marched past his Chateau HQ on 4 July, he was hard at work designing the Big One: The Battle of Amiens, set for 8 August 1918. Haig accepted his plan. It was literally ten times bigger than Hamel, the teaser. Monash asked for and received more than 500 tanks compared with 46 at Hamel. He ordered 800 planes, each one carrying a pilot and observer from the No. 3 Australian Squadron, which was about 700 more than in the previous encounter. Monash was supplied with 2000 artillery pieces, ten times more than at Hamel.
At Amiens the Australians, with Canadians giving support on their right flank, defeated two German Armies inside 48 hours. The spearhead AIF force of more than 100,000 diggers had 1200 casualties. This was an attrition rate of about 1 per cent, but even amongst the injured, most would fight again. The sobering figures of the Battle were the 28,000 Germans killed, with an estimated 70,000 casualties. The victory was so comprehensive that all key German Commanders from General Ludendorff down believed the war would have been over by 12 or 13 August, had Monash's force been allowed to push on east and cause a complete capitulation. Instead, the stunned British High Command, which had not grasped the enormity of the breakthrough, directed Monash to park his victorious army south east. It was ordered to 'rest.'
Monash objected but complied. He used his fertile legal mind to secure from his immediate superior, General Henry Rawlinson, the right for his force 'to keep in touch with the enemy.' This meant Monash would continue with his relentless pursuit of the German Army after smashing it at Amiens. It was on the retreat to the Somme, where it would sit in strongholds at Mont St Quentin and Peronne that had proved impenetrable. The Germans knew that if they could hang on and defend on the Somme into November, it would be able to dig in on the River for the winter of 1918-19. In turn, this would drag the war well into 1919, as the enemy scrambled to reinforce its struggling army.
Monash became at times a rogue warlord with his mighty army, defying his superiors in his drive to defeat the Germans once and for all. This led to the solitary occasion that he could not protect his soldiers the way wished.
'I was compelled to harden my heart,' Monash wrote about Mont St Quentin and Peronne. 'It was imperative to recognize a great opportunity and to seize it unflinchingly.'
His diggers would not have tanks. There would be limited artillery support. The men would have to fight at close quarters, often hand- to-hand. Some military historians have salivated over his brilliant tactics in these two encounters, suggesting this was more of a test of his command skills than other battles. Monash saw the fights from different perspectives. First, he was deeply saddened by the number killed---600 out of a casualty list of 3000. These losses would rankle with him for the rest of his life. But his reasoning was more than compelling. Knocking the enemy from these two solid positions on the Somme meant it was now not just on the retreat. It was on the run. Monash felt certain that with his push and that of the rest of the Allies, including the Americans, would soon win and end the war. He was in the strongest position of all commanders to make this judgement. In a one hundred day blitzkrieg, Monash's 1st AIF took 29,144 prisoners and liberated 116 towns and villages over an area of 600 square kilometres. An estimated 60,000 enemy soldiers were killed, but that is a conservative figure from German war archives. In the same period, Australia lost 5,500 dead and had 24,000 casualties from a fighting force of 166,000 diggers. No other army could boast such a low rate of loss while causing such devastation to the enemy army. The 1st AIF had taken on 39 German divisions and defeated every one of them, including the crack Prussian Guards.
Early in October 1918, Monash took his exhausted army out of the war, its job done. Back in the UK, he explained the Allied dominance to the High Command when the consensus of it and press was that the war could drag on until 1920 or 1921. Monash said it was sure to be over before the end of 1918. As almost always, he was right.
Assuming that Monash did not drive his force with such inexorable intent, another year of battle to the end of 1919 would have led to the deaths of another four million soldiers on both sides. This was the thinking behind Monash's ruthless push. He might deviate just once (at Mont St Quentin and Peronne) from his low attrition rate and lose more lives than he found acceptable in this first mechanized war. This was the price paid for ending a conflict that was accounting for about 4 million a year. As it was, Monash was annoyed by not being able to finish it in mid-August, three months before the armistice of 11 November 1918.
That mismanagement by the British High Command cost another million lives.