Monash’s Masterpiece: The battle of Le Hamel and the 93 minutes that changed the world

November 4, 2018 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen reviews Peter FitzSimons’ book on Sir John Monash ahead of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day on Nov 11th marking the end of WWI in 1918.

Peter FitzSimons

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen writes: It is four years since Tim Fischer published Maestro John Monashpublished by Melbourne University Publishing. At that time Fischer began a campaign to raise Monash to the rank of Field Marshall, despite him having died in 1931. Turnbull, as Prime Minister, kyboshed the idea although it is now being resurrected in time for the centennial of the Armistice on November 11 this year. It is hoped that by the Armistice centennial the government will change its mind and add Monash to a small group of Australians who have attained this lofty rank.

This book came out in time for the anniversary of the battle of Le Hamel but also it also marked one hundred since Monash was knighted on the battlefield by King George V. The book is incredibly researched with both a bibliography and footnotes which are exhaustive. This is not FitzSimons’ first book about World War I, nor is it one of only a few books about Monash.

Within the book, there are a few themes. Obviously, the primary one relates to the campaign to take Le Hamel. In the weeks before the Le Hamel campaign, Fitzsimmons gives incredible detail to not only the preparations but also how Monash prepared not only those under his command but how he negotiated with the High Command to initially agree to his plan but also not to cancel it, primarily from pressure from the American allies.

A side story, but incredibly important to the success of the campaign was the entry of American soldiers to the realities of warfare. Their commander, General Pershing did not wish his soldiers to experience a “baptism of fire” until 1919. Some Americans were assigned to be part of the Le Hamal campaign- Pershing issued a command for his soldiers to be withdrawn and had this happened the battle might have had a different outcome. Those American soldiers assigned to ANZAC units were amazed by the quality and experiences of the ANZACS.

Monash, unlike the commanders above him, involved his subordinates. He would explain his plans and then listen to their thoughts and suggestions. FitzSimons shows how Monash adapted the battle plan and how the plan evolved following these consultations.

The battle for Le Hamel is ‘famous’ for Monash predicted that the whole campaign would take ninety minutes. We have all heard, and the book’s title reminds us that he was out by only three minutes. One of his innovations was getting infantry to work with tanks. FitzSimons highlights that it did not always go as planned. Tanks were late or went off track.

The second dimension of this book is about the machinations of both C.E.W. Bean (the official War Historian) and Keith Murdoch (a Melbourne newspaper publisher and father of Rupert) to stop Monash becoming commander of the Australian Army in Europe. Many have suggested that in both cases it was a mixture of anti-Semitism as well as anti-German sentiment (for Monash’s parents had migrated from Germany half a century before). I will leave it to the reader to decide if either or both were true. Bean and Murdoch tried to convince the Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, to rescind Monash’s appointment. Fortunately, they were not successful. Strangely, following the War, Hughes appointed Monash to organize the de-mobilization of the soldiers in Europe. Other historians have suggested that Hughes did not want Monash returning to Australia until after the 1919 election for Hughes feared that his opponent would be Monash.

FitzSimons’ style of writing makes this book an easy read and it is well worth it.

Author: Peter FitzSimons

Publisher: Hachette Australia 2018

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen FRSA is Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Medicine (Sydney Campus), University of Notre Dame, Australia. He served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum [the building was opened by Monash as the NSW Jewish War Memorial} for 5 years.


3 Responses to “Monash’s Masterpiece: The battle of Le Hamel and the 93 minutes that changed the world”
  1. Susan Murray says:

    FYI Maestro John Monash by Tim Fischer was published by Monash University Publishing, not Melbourne Uni Press.

  2. Adrian Jackson says:

    LT Gen Sir John Monash was a corps commander and then held the correct rank for a corps commander which is normally 3 divisions. OK Monash commander the Australian Corps for a few months near the end of WW1 which had 5 divisions, some under strength. However this was not sufficient to warrant being called an Army (3 Corps or 9 divisions) which is commanded by a general.

    However Monash was promoted general in the late 1920’s at the insistence of the Chief of the General Staff (now Chief of Army) Lt Gen Sir Harry Chauvel when PM Scullon proposed promoting Chauvel to General as Chief of the General Staff (the senior Army officer). Both were ptomoted to general then.

    As far as field marshal rank is concerned an officer of this rank commands a number of armies and Australia has never had a force that large in either WW1 or WW2. General Blamey was promoted FM by PM Menzies on his death bed but that promotion was not appropriate either. Menzies never served in the ADF so what would he know about rank?

  3. Adrian Jackson says:

    The armistice was on 11 Nov 1918 however the peace treaty was decided in early 1919.

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