Australian Victories in France in 1918 by Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash – Book Review

Australian Victories in France in 1918 is the original Monash book written by the great man in 1920. Whilst the language is dated and a bit difficult, the concepts are clear, fresh and easy to understand. He lays his ethos, issues he needed to solve and the means by which he solved them in clear and simple terms – exactly what one would expect from such an accomplished engineer.

This Monash memoir begins at the start of 1918 with him in command of the Australian Third Division; a command he had held since July 1916. Prior to 1918, he and his men fought in a number of the bloodiest battles including Messines, Broodseinde, and the First Battle of Passchendaele.  Monash was discrete and refrains from criticising high command by not including this sorry time in his memoir.

He had successes in early 1918 but his skill came to the fore after the Australian government finally consolidated the Australian divisions into the Australian Corps in May. Monash was promoted to lieutenant general.  At last with sufficient rank and command of a force of sufficient size, high command had to take notice of him. He could at last make a real difference because he had much more scope to set his own course. He immediately set about influencing General Henry Rawlinson, commander of the 4th Army by proposing battles for the Australians to execute.

The first real battle initiated by him was the relatively small Battle of Le Hamel fought on 4 July 1918. It may have been small but it had huge impacts on Allied command because it was a proof of concepts he had developed to meet his own command ethos: An ethos summed up in the following quote: “No one can rival me in my admiration for the transcendent military virtues of the Australian Infantryman, for his bravery, his battle discipline, his absolute reliability, his individual resource, his initiative and endurance. But I had formed the theory that the true role of the Infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, nor to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, nor to impale itself on hostile bayonets, nor to tear itself to pieces in hostile entanglements—( I am thinking of Pozières and Stormy Trench and Bullecourt, and other bloody fields)— 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] achieve…[ victory at a trifling cost.” In order to do this he went against conventional military thinking and methods.

For some time Monash had been troubled by the shape of the defensive line at Le Hamel. It bulged into the Australian positions providing the Germans with too many opportunities to lob artillery shells into the Australian forces. With a problem to fix he proposed and was given permission to run an operation that was entirely under his control. He described the preparations for the Battle of Le Hamel in detail in the book. Central to his concept was setting clear objectives followed by extremely detailed planning and precise execution. In fact, so clear were the objectives and so precise the planning that Le Hamel was fought and won in just 93 minutes by a small force of just 7,000 Australians and 1,000 Americans. Aside from running three minutes over its planned time, it was the first Allied battle that resulted in enduring cheap territorial gain; Allied losses were modest, whereas enemy losses were large.  This became his template for future set piece battles. Success in this small battle moved Monash towards the centre of Allied planning.

With his concept proved, he proposed the general plan that became the critical set piece Battle of Amiens, launched at 4:20 A.M. on August 8 1918 with a mixed force of Australians, Canadians, British, Americans and French. This battle was too big for Monash to have overall command but the Australians under Monash played a lead role. When the order to halt came, the combined force had punched right through the German lines and opened a gap of some 15 miles. The attack significantly contributed to German commander General Ludendorff’s breakdown, and, thus, the breakdown of cohesive German command. It was at about this time that the German High Command gave up hope of winning the War. “Hindenburg described 8 August as ‘our greatest disaster from which there can be no recovery”.

Strangely, despite delivering such dramatic and lasting success, Monash had vocal non-military critics that thought he could only command set piece battles, as if there is something wrong with set piece battles. Monash was a bit miffed by this criticism as he noted that while set piece battles may not offer much in the way of human interest stories, more men survive to fight another day. Very soon he proved that he could also command a running battle as the Australians fought to cross the River Somme and take Peronne and Mont St. Quentin starting in late August 1918. The topographical conditions, not his critics, had necessitated that decision. It was true, running battles are more interesting and it was definitely a heroic action. “Lord Rawlinson has more than once referred to the operation as the finest single feat of the war.”  Heroic action creates heroes in a way that set piece battles can’t and eight Victoria Crosses were awarded for bravery in that campaign. There were more stories for the story tellers to tell but as Monash expected, heroic action also created more casualties.

With the barrier of the Somme River breached, the Germans fell back to the relative safety of the Hindenburg Line. Always preferring efficiency to theatre, he planned that the Australian part of the last great Allied push of the war against the Hindenburg Line should be a set piece battle. It didn’t quite work out that way.  His command had doubled and now included 100,000 inexperienced Americans who failed to keep to the plan and had to be rescued by the Australians. There were an anxious couple of days and sleepless nights as he and his staff had to reshape complex planning on the fly. The Hindenburg Line fell as German resistance buckled. The Allies at last broke through to the virgin country to the east. Technically World War I was over even if the fighting didn’t stop until the Armistice was signed.

Monash was constantly attracted to efficiency in the true sense of the word; achieving the most with the least. Throughout the book and for every battle, he discusses innovative ways to use equipment to both gain advantage and reduce risk. Examples are given, such as using planes to drop machinegun belts to gunners to cut down casualties amongst the ammunition porters or the use of armoured cars to cause chaos behind the German lines. He devised tank tactics to support infantry as well as using special tanks as carriers during battle. Later, when tanks were in short supply, he doubled the number of machine guns and as the captured German Battalion commander said:  “The small-arms fire was absolutely too terrible for words. There was nothing to be done but to crouch down in our trenches and wait for you to come and take us.” Rommel used just such tactics in World War II.

But being a great commander isn’t only about the fighting. He also had to be a great municipal administrator, managing ceaseless activity needed to keep his men clothed, fed and in good health. By the end of the war he had the equivalent manpower of a medium sized city under him with all the municipal requirements that entails. Cities need rail lines, roads, stores, sewage, food , medical facilities, post, recreation, shelter and so on and the demands of sustaining a force were no different. The demands are great enough in static conditions but increased rapidly as his forces moved to their positions in the line or as they are rotated in and out of the line to ensure their health. The issues compound exponentially as battle is joined.

This is a “meat and potatoes” book by a practical man with little time for the intrigues that interest many military historians. It outlines the problems he had to solve and the ways he solved them. Only occasionally are there mild asides about high command decisions with which he did not agree.  He does not write about what made his contributions pivotal, so it worthwhile doing this as an aside.

Where Monash made the difference was that he introduced engineering systems thinking into military planning and operations. Before the war he was a highly skilled professional engineer and there are a lot of similarities between engineering and military operations. Certainly, some of the equipment is different and the men work while the opposition is trying to kill them. Even so, much of it is about projecting force and material using men and equipment. In war, just as on a construction site, poor planning and inefficiencies drive up costs and time blow outs. Behind the line in war, sloppy practices cause personal injury accidents: after all being run over by a tank is deadly no matter where it happens. But it is in the combat zone where sloppy practices matter the most and it is there that casualties can really mount up quickly. The solution is to plan in minute detail and coordinate everything down to the last second if you can, while allowing for contingencies for what can’t be precisely predicted. It is best if everyone knows what they are doing, so communication is critical. In addition, the hardest thing to replace is skilled manpower, so that has to be protected.

The military needed such a group of thinkers as the armed forces grew massively during World War I with rapid advances in technology. Unfortunately senior Allied military command was rooted in more traditional times and thinking with command of historically smaller forces and lower tech equipment. Commanders at the top were generally non-technical and couldn’t keep up with the demands of the time while technical people weren’t of sufficient rank or depth of experience to hold much sway.

Monash wasn’t alone in developing combined arms tactics. Canadian Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie had used a number of these techniques much earlier stunning Canadian victory Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 and in later operations. The Canadians were on the Australian’s right flank for at Amiens. Monash called the Canadians magnificent so it certain that Currie and he borrowed ideas from each other. There would have been others that Monash borrowed ideas from. Monash does not credit Currie or many others for these ideas but nor does he claim them as his own; he merely documents the methods he used.

It is not important who developed the ideas. What was most important is that he adopted them and used them to full effect. It was serendipitous that he used them at a time when high command was desperate for a way to break the deadlock on the Western Front. Monash was moved towards the centre of planning for Rawlinson’s army and thus had an increased role on the final outcome of the war. The extent to which his method was implemented up and down the line is unknown but it certainly had a large impact in Rawlinson’s segment.

Field-Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery served as a staff officer under Monash’s boss, British General Henry Rawlinson. Montgomery considered Monash the best general on the Western Front.  Montgomery’s methods from detailed staff planning and conferences through to artillery heavy arms coordination owes a great deal to Monash.  The Germans also are believed to owe a debt to Monash for laying down the template for their World War II Blitzkrieg. It would be unsurprising if (Fast ) Heinz Guderian, the father of Panzer tactics had not read Monash’s book. Even if he hadn’t, the evidence for what Monash achieved and how he achieved it was lying broken and vanquished all around eastern France in late 1918. Monash’s method was so logically simple and the results so compelling that they could not be ignored even by British high command.

First published in 1920, there are two available editions:

monash 2
Monash, Lieutenant-General Sir John. Australian Victories in France in 1918 [Illustrated Edition]. Pickle Partners Publishing. Kindle Edition. 2013. This is the reviewed copy.

The other edition is published by Black Inc 2015.


Contact Brent D Taylor about this article.

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