John Monash at 150: Maps, mistakes and much more – by The Hon. Tim Fischer AC GCPO

France's Premier, M. Georges Clemenceau (first on left) with Monash (third from left) three days after Australia had won the 4 July 1918 Battle of Hamel (Australian War Memorial Negative No. E02527)

“The only hope for Australia is the ballot box and good education”.

Mistakes are always part of a bold frenetic life but in the case of John Monash, who was born 150 years ago this week, he always learnt from his mistakes.

As a young engineer, then later in business and above all else in command of the Fourth Brigade at Gallipoli, John Monash readily admitted to mistakes but he scolded himself, adjusted his approach and hence greatly improved the success of his output.

After World War One, in 1928 Monash as head of the embryonic State Electricity Commission or SEC, realised the Yallourn project needed further expansion to succeed. He barged into a Victorian State Cabinet meeting at which then State Minister Robert Menzies was in attendance and within an hour, approvals to enhance with an extra million pounds were obtained. Menzies was greatly impressed.

This learning from mistakes resulted in many of the Monash designed bridges and Monash created military templates still being in use today and contributing much.

However many Australians remain ignorant of the extent of output of this innovative engineer and giant of a General, who after a few awesome years at Jerilderie Primary school went on to be Equal Dux of Scotch College in 1881 and later graduated from Melbourne University in Arts, Engineering and Law.

The first job of young John Monash was on the Princes Bridge project across the Yarra and later he designed and supervised the building of many bridges in and around Melbourne, Bendigo, Benalla and beyond. The huge beautiful dome of the Victorian State library is another John Monash effort, along with the Outer Circle railway through Kew and Deepdene.

Building wise, his biggest effort was post World War One and the creation of the huge Shrine of Remembrance in perfect alignment with Swanston Street, Melbourne. He succeeded despite strong opposition from Sir Keith Murdoch thundering away in the Melbourne Herald at the time. Later Sir Keith penned a letter of congratulations to Monash.

Monash even managed to argue a case for the downstream irrigators around Jerilderie right through to the NSW Supreme Court sitting in Sydney and of course he won the case, it was against the powerful McCaughey family.

Maps and War

Having entered the Army as a part-time Private he steadily rose through the ranks to become Lt Colonel and head of the Victorian section of the Intelligence Corps in 1908, he immediately drove forward a major mapping program.

The aim was to ensure that Australia could better know its terrain and be ready to defend, meanwhile the detailed maps helped on some famous exercises, one near Melbourne attended by Horatio Herbert Kitchener.

Monash carried forward his ability to read maps to anticipate and calculate advantages in battle conferred by hidden features of the terrain, revealed by good maps but not able to be seen looking out over the trenches. Modern day Hema Maps and TomTom may not realise that they owe Monash a great deal for laying the basis of core Australian mapping.

His exploits as an Army Officer right through to and including 1918 are today well documented , helping to deliver breakthroughs and victory on the Western Front with the exemplar 4 July Battle of Hamel and the huge punch through delivered by the 8 August Battle of Amiens (Greater Amiens would be a more accurate name).

Driving his success was the Monash holistic approach combined with capable communications of orders down the ranks, overarching all was his determination to provide as much protection of his men as possible, unlike some British Generals such as Hamilton and Rawlinson.

For the record, Monash had the correct rank of Lt General, as the AIF Corps Commander at 1100 on Armistice Day 1918 but due initially to the jealousy of then PM Billy Hughes and due to much general discrimination and antisemitism, he was frozen at the rank of Lt General for an incredible 11 years. As Les Carlyon emphasises, Monash never received one Australian Honour or Award post World War One, not one!

Eventually he was belatedly promoted on the 11th November 1929 to the rank of General, for symbolic reasons. Dare I submit it is within precedent and perfectly reasonable that he be posthumously promoted to Field Marshal soon, joining existing Australian Field Marshals Birdwood (1925), Blamey (1950) and Sir Prince Phillip (1954)!

However one of the greatest contributions he made was in the Great Depression when he declined the New Guard invitation to lead a coup d’etat, he was at the time the one person who could have successfully pulled it off with the help of the ex AIF members and become a kind of President Franco.

In saying no to the New Guard, Monash wrote and I quote: “The only hope for Australia is the ballot box and good education”.

Amen, Shalom and Salem to this and let us continue to salute John Monash and his dictum by boosting the General Sir John Monash Scholarship Foundation and its vital work in providing high level scholarships, so far to over 100 outstanding Australians.

Written by The Honourable Tim Fischer AC GCPO – Former Army Officer, Nationals Leader, Deputy Prime Minister and Ambassador and now Author.