General Sir John Monash GCMG KCB VD

Monash's Early Years

John Monash was born in West Melbourne in 1865 – the son of Prussian Jewish immigrants. His early schooling was at St Stephen's, Dockers Hill, Richmond and at Jerilderie, NSW, after which he attended Scotch College in Melbourne. Aged 16 years he was co-Dux of the School in 1881 winning an Exhibition which financed his first year at the University of Melbourne.

Monash at University and Working as an Engineer

John Monash had an exceptional mind and outstanding leadership qualities. He helped establish the University Union and founded and edited the University Review, followed many other social and educational pursuits but failed his first year University exams. He enlisted in the Melbourne University Rifles becoming Colour Sergeant within a year.

To support his studies he was engineer on the building of Princes Bridge and responsible for the planning and construction of the Outer Circle Railway in Melbourne in his early 20s. An affair with the wife of his foreman threatened both his military and engineering careers. Other avid pursuits were the piano (he played at concert level), diverse reading and writing, painting, debating, hiking, chess, attending theatre frequently and following cricket.

In 1891 he graduated with degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Engineering and Law at Melbourne University, and married Victoria Moss in Melbourne after which they travelled by train to Sydney for their honeymoon. Their only child, Bertha, was born in 1893.

Monash was innovative – he pioneered the use of reinforced concrete in bridge and other construction but the Marvelous Melbourne boom was followed by the 1890s bust. Monash used his other skills becoming famous for his technical legal appearances in courts around Australia.

Monash and the Great War

Monash was a very successful engineer and lawyer by 1914, the outbreak of the Great War.

As a citizen soldier he volunteered to serve his country. He detested war as a waste of human lives and potential, always commanding in ways that protected his soldiers. He had a magnetic and commanding personality skilled at planning and organising men.

After the disaster of the British Anzac campaign Monash distinguished himself as a great leader on the Western Front. His 3rd Division successfully stemmed the April 1918 surge by the Germans halting them and re-taking Villers-Bretonneux, protecting the critical railhead at Amiens and so Paris.

He was promoted by PM Billy Hughes as the first Australian to lead the Australian Corps despite intense lobbying by Keith Murdoch and Charles Bean. Even his great victories in the latter part of 1918 which ended WW1, his repatriation of Australian Diggers in 1919 against great odds, and his prominent community involvement and nation building after the War did not reduce that intensity.

He planned and won the innovative Battle of Hamel and then in the highly successful Battle of Amiens on 8 Aug 1918 (0808), the Australians turned the tide of WW1 impacting the outcome of the War bringing it to an end in 3 months, far earlier than anyone expected.  On 12 Aug 1918 King George V knighted Monash in the field at his Bertangles HQ.

In 1968, Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery of Alamein wrote:

I would name Monash as the best General on the Western Front in Europe; he possessed real creative originality and the war might well have been over sooner, and certainly with fewer casualties, had Haig been relieved of his command and Monash appointed to command the British armies in his place.

Repatriation and Looking After His Men

Monash was a compassionate leader who cared in war and peace for his men who came from every state and territory of Australia. He organised and supervised the repatriation of over 200,000 Australian troops, including 15,000 dependent wives and children during 1919.

Whilst carrying out that year-long task, Monash established education classes to retrain his men for civilian life, giving those without a trade or profession an opportunity to learn one. He encouraged other pursuits – the AIF rowing VIII won the King’s Cup at the 1919 Henley International Peace Regatta (equivalent to the World Cup or Olympics today).  The King’s Cup is still the premier annual rowing trophy in Australia for Interstate competition.

He returned to Australia in Dec 1919 when repatriation was completed.

Monash’ meticulous planning, drawn from his engineering, legal and musical backgrounds – his likening of work and war to conducting an orchestra – was a measure of his overall successes, not only as a military leader, but throughout his life.

Monash's Post-War Life

On returning to Australia, Monash received a hero’s welcome. In civilian life he was asked to electrify Victoria, establishing the State Electricity Commission of Victoria and becoming its Chairman for a decade. He developed Victoria’s Latrobe Valley brown coal deposits for the generation of electricity.

He was the significant Charter Member of the Rotary Club of Melbourne, the first in Australia, in 1921, President 1922-23.  He held many appointments at his alma mater, the University of Melbourne, being VC from 1923 until his death in 1931. He organised security during the Police Strike in 1923 and chaired the Royal Commission later.

For political reasons he was not honoured by the Australian Government. Many tried to persuade him to enter politics, which he resisted, and wanted him to lead a right wing move when Fascism became prominent in the late 1920s Depression. He made famous the saying that education is Australia’s best bet and democracy can only come through the ballot box.

In Egypt on 25 Apr 1916, Monash initiated a commemoration for veterans and new replacements in his Brigade of what is now known as Anzac Day. He was the driving force behind the decision and building of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

Throughout his life Monash held the view that no learning was wasted – he always sought extra knowledge. His recommendation is to:

Adopt as your fundamental creed that you will equip yourself for life, not solely for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the whole community.

His funeral, after 3 days lying in state in Queens Hall at the Parliament of Victoria, was the largest ever seen in Melbourne.

His legacy lives on today in education, law and community service – streets, suburbs, schools, and a University are named for him.