The forgotten WWI general

By Nadav Shemer, July 10, 2014

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!]

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

"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. 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 - one-quarter 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

Last updated: 2:45pm, July 10 2014