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Published: October 5th 2015
Monash A True Australian Hero
From the worst to the best
Superhuman bravery on the part of Australians, extraordinary and needless loss of life, and incapable military leadership have been at the centre of what my father and others told me about WW1 ( in which Australia and other nations friendly to Britain and France came the defence of France and repel an anticipated invasion of Britain by German forces between 1914 to 1918)
While visiting Gallipoli and northern France I have been reminded of those childhood lessons and my observations here have amplified those simple messages Simple messages which must have resonated like a clanking bell between 1914 and 1918, in the hearts and minds of families of lost ones.
At The Australian Corps Memorial Park – a little distance away from the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery – I was reminded of those early history lessons and got to better understand a lesser known but vitally important part of the message. Its the story of how one brave Australian officer overcame personal attacks and criticism of his proposed unorthodox approach to fighting the war. Its a story of intelligent examination of a problem,
meticulous planning, and of Australian ingenuity to invent a new approach to war, and one man’s dogged determination to succeed, while protecting the lives of those under his command.
Englishman, Dougy Haig was commander in chief of the Allied forces.
He might be better known as Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig.
Now old Dougy was a cavalry man. Nothing wrong with that – in its day.
So Dougie liked cavalry charges, the sound of the bugle, smoke and sound of canon over the shouts and screams of men and horses. Think of the 1812 overture.
In the first 2 years of the war the allied army that Haig commanded suffered over 400,000 casualties.
An example of Dougie’s handiwork was his architecture of a battle in which 110,000 British infantrymen were ordered “over the top” on 1st
July 1916. 60,000 became casualties within a few hours and none of the military targets was achieved. In review a staff colonel had the cheek to write: “The events of July 1st bore out the conclusions of the British higher command and amply justified the tactical methods employed.”
Within a few
months Haig’s army had suffered more than 400,000 casualties.
In the Somme ( northern France ) Haig kept attacking by hurling more men at the German trenches. Dougie hoped to gain a few yards when by any measure of military objectiveness such a gain of a few yards or risk of loss of a few yards, was useless. His fantasies convinced him that eventually a full frontal infantry attack would punch a hole in the German line and then his cavalry would come charging in bugles blaring, drums beating, flags waving, cutlasses slashing and every one would live happily ever after.
When Haig sent a shopping list of mean and machines to the British and allied governments he got everything he asked for - although there was mounting disquiet in parliaments and amongst the public.
It appears from what I can research that Haig was so confident in his out dated ideas that he never allowed actual battlefield experience to challenge them. His fantasies of cavalry charges across open country were matched by his insistence on sending infantry “ over the top “ out of the protection of their trenches against the enemy in straight lines at
a slow walk, the better to maintain control.
At the 3rd
battle for Ypres British casualties exceeded 250,000. Historians consider the 3rd
battle at Ypres as Haig’s blunder that nearly lost the war for the Allies. Ypres is north of the Somme at Ypres and includes Passchendaele where the Australian contingent achieved their military objective , but losses were legendry.
After a bit the British Government was reluctant to send more men to Haig. Dougies approach to committing men to battle had been like a teenager with a new credit card running up debt. Haig foolishly and stubbornly hung onto the conviction he had about his out dated approach in the face of mounting casualty lists and lack of achievement of military objectives .
Author Paul Fussell commented in The Great War and Modern Memory, “In a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention…Haig had none.” The Slaughter had to stop. Enter John Monash.
In March 1918 a major German offensive pushed the Allied forces in the Somme area back regaining for Germany much of the precious few miles that had been gained by Allies in the previous 2 years. Australians held their section of the front at Villers-Bretonneux. In the following months General Monash planned and prepared Australian forces to attack the German line.
John Monash had been an engineer before the war. He joined and worked his way through the ranks to become a Major General after Gallipoli.
Now on 4th
July 1918 he put his skills to test.
In 93 minutes he won a decisive victory at Hamel.
Monash had horrified British and American commanders by proposing a radical new strategy.
Looking back and with 20/20 hindsight, it appears for the first time in the whole war a general applied some grey matter to the task.
John Monash’s first big hurdle was with press reporters like Charles Bean who pushed the idea that career soldiers should command – rather than a Johnny-come- lately who had a civilian career before the war.
As a newcomer to the army Monash was disturbed by the lack of thought and needless loss and of life as much as the failure to achieve military objectives. While he worked his way through the ranks several people came to disapprove of Monash being appointed to command the Australian Army. Prior to mid 1918 there had been 5 Australian Divisions fighting in France. In May 1918 the 5 Divisions were combined. A leader had tho be appointed. Writer Charles Bean in particular went in to bat for those opposing the appointment of Monash. He lobbied Prime minister Billy Hughes campaigning against Monash on the basis that he was not quintessentially Australian ( having Jewish heritage) and not a real army man, not a career soldier ( having had a civilian career). Despite the campaign against him Monash was articulate enough to convince Billy Hughes to approve his appointment.
The next hurdle was established military thinking. Not just the Douglas Haig approach to marching in straight lines into enemy fire sacrificing men, but attitudes to machinery, communications and technology of the day.
The USA had entered the war by this time and bought machinery as well as men. A small number of American soldiers ( about 300 ) had been assigned to Monash’s 7,500 strong outfit for the purpose of the attack on le Hamel. But when the American commander heard the scale of the attack at Le Hamel, the Americans withdrew their men. Monash’s quick thinking and articulate debating skills won the Americans back. But in the morning of the battle only 40%!o(MISSING)f the Americans were committed to the attack.
"The true role of infantry is not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward."
What Monash did was multi focussed, using
· surprise. Dispensing with the artillery barrages for a few hours foreshadowing an attack.
· machinery like tanks to support infantry. Monash’s risking of expensive hardware particularly got under the skin of old style commanders who watched their monetary budgets.
· Training and investment in his men by training men specifically for the task ahead.
· Aircraft and trained air pilots to drop munitions and supplies to advancing troops in addition to their previous reconnaissance role.
· Communication to keep the attack coordinated.
In the weeks prior to 4th
July 1918, Monash and his officers trained men on a new type of attack. Instead of jumping out of the protection of a trench when some clown blew a whistle, they would move under cover of darkness and smoke at pre arranged times.
In the weeks leading up to the Le Hamel attack Monash had his artillery blasting away at the enemy every morning. So on 4th
July the Germans thought it was just more of the same.
Monash committed tanks to the battle very early. Their first role was to precede the infantry and so keep the enemy under heavier fire than from infantry small arms fire alone. The tanks would also push through barbed wire so that infantrymen would not have the prolonged exposure to enemy fire while cutting through. Further the tanks were loaded with supplies. One battalion commander was pleased to find supplies delivered to their forward position . Their carrier tank, in a number of journeys, had delivered 134 coils of barbed–wire, 180 long and 270 short screw–pickets for placing the wire, 45 sheets of corrugated iron, 50 petrol tins of water, 150 trench–mortar bombs, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and 20 boxes of grenades. An Australian infantry platoon sergeant noted that a platoon on his flank had silenced an enemy artillery gun, but then they came under fire from another artillery piece. The Sergeant went over to a tank showing the crew the position of the enemy gun. The tank obligingly ‘went straight over and rubbed it out’.
This sort of coordination seems so simple its hardly worth mentioning. But it was revolutionary at the time to give low ranking officers any operational authority. Infantry and tank crews had trained together to support each other.
Aircraft of No 3 Squadron ( Australian Flying Corps) flew overhead and observed coloured smoke flares to plot progress and communicate that to Division Headquarters. They would ‘toot’ at troops below to light concealed flares to mark their positions. The Australian observers in the planes then marked these positions on maps and dropped them ten minutes later at Australian Division Headquarters.
Twelve planes of No 9 Squadron RAF appeared over the battlefield about 6.30 am on 4th
July carrying ammunition. To protect this action a host of other British planes engaged enemy ground positions well to the German rear. The ammunition carriers dropped their loads of two boxes of 1,200 rounds by parachute from about 800 metres. In all, 93 boxes were delivered to the infantry in this way and many units reported the experiment useful.
It appears that about 8,000 men were engaged in he battle for Le Hamel. Casualties (wounded as well as killed ) were 1,400. While that figure is high , it was very low compared to the over 50%!c(MISSING)asualty rate that had been recorded in previous Western Front battles. But in previous battles military objectives were not achieved. At Le Hamel all objectives were achieved in 93 minutes. In Monash’s plans it was supposed to be achieved in 90 minutes. So I guess something went wrong by 3 minutes.
At Le Hamel in the middle of a potato paddock there is a monument called Australian Corps Memorial Park. One of the displays comments that Monash’s planning and strategy was compiled into a “pamphlet” which was used by Allied commanders in the remainder of the war.
In the Battle of Hamel
, Monash demonstrated that the protection of human life was not only justified on humanist grounds, it also was a legitimate war strategy.
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