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Following the tragedy at Gallipoli, the ANZAC withdrawal to Lemnos was quickly followed by a consolidation of the Allied forces in Egypt. Monash contended that the Gallipoli campaign “failed only in that it did not achieve its objective”.

He added that if the Turkish Army had not been engaged on Gallipoli it would have been a serious menace to the Allies. He further contended that it was, in fact, a strategic victory and as the builder of an AIF tradition that, alone, made it worthwhile. 20,000 Australians were engaged on Gallipoli but their deeds were an inspiration to the 300,000 who followed. Turkish casualties were 251,309 including 86,692 killed. Australia lost 8,709 killed, NZ 2,701, Britain 21,255 and France 10,000.

 

It did not take long for recriminations to emerge. Birdwood claimed that “he could have done more” but conceded that he has “certainly done well”, “looks after his brigade” and “is an excellent organiser but I cannot look upon him as a leader in war”. Charles Bean was quick to attack stating that at 50, Monash was “too old, too indecisive and too protective of his reputation”. Monash was poised to undertake significant battles in the coming years but those that he had to endure behind the lines from Bean and Keith Murdoch were far more confronting than any at the front lines facing the Germans.

People did not know what was going on and blame was being laid wherever it would lie.

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part of the letter that Murdoch sent to  Australian Prime Minster Andrew Fisher

 

A surge in recruitment after Gallipoli results in the establishment of two ANZAC Corps. New Zealand withdrew from the ANZAC coalition and forms its own division independently of Australia. There is widespread distrust of British leadership. The ANZACS refuse to be used as “fillers” of British divisions. Instead, the battalions are split so that they are rebuilt with a mixture of veterans and new recruits. Birdwood is given command of the 1st Corps comprised of 1st& 2nd Australian divisions and the NZ division. Monash’s 4th Brigade forms part of the 4th Division under Godley, an unpopular permanent officer. Monash is passed over in favour of Herbert Cox, a British officer, as commander of the 4th Division and is furious. Birdwood wields the greatest influence and always favours British officers over Australians.

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After a brief stint guarding the Suez Canal, Monash’s 4th Brigade proceed to Marseilles, France. He is unaware that he has been approved for promotion and command of the 3rd Division being raised from new recruits. At the time he was preparing for a raid on the German front as a start to Haig’s fateful Somme offensive launched on 1st July, 1916. Over one million casualties will be lost in this campaign.

On 15th July Monash leaves for London to take charge of his 3rd Division located at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. He now has under his command 20,000 troops, 3,000 horses, 4,000 mules and the arms and equipment to go with it. The men are all novices and there are equipment shortages as well but physically the men are first class. The huge losses at Fromelles and Pozieres require 2,800 men to be transferred to France to fill the gaps. It is only Haig’s intervention that prevents further transfers.

 Monash is a hard taskmaster and demand the highest degree of efficiency from all those under his command. On 27th September, King George V comes to inspect the 3rd Division. Monash assembles 27,000 men for a march past that takes 2 hours to pass a given point. 16 massed bands of 400 musicians strike out “God Save the King”. Monash and the King ride together inspecting the ranks. They develop a very cordial rapport which ends with the King congratulating Monash on the splendid turnout and asking if there is anything he can do to help him. Monash quickly responds with a long list of equipment needs at the end of which the King turns to his quartermaster general and tells him to make sure that “the general’s needs are satisfied”. The British military establishment, knowing that Monash’s requests have come from the King himself are then always at pains to ensure that Monash’s requests are promptly attended to. On 24th November the 3rd Division moves to France in charge of the Armentieres sector of Flanders, 6 kms from the front line and covering 8kms of the British line.

 

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The winter of 1916/17 is one of the coldest and wettest on record. Troops suffer from cold wet feet and develop a condition known as “trench feet” which will end with amputation if not treated. Monash installs a series of communal baths from disused brewing vats and orders 2,000 men per day to take a hot bath. He buys 6,000 pairs of thigh high rubber gum boots and replaces used boots, socks and underwear on a daily basis. Local women are organised to do the washing and drying. Daily changes are compulsory. Troops in the front line cannot cook because the smoke will attract the enemy’s attention and provide a target. Monash organises hot food to be carried in insulated boxes to the front.

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Later when hostilities are fierce he uses tanks to take the hot meals forward. Front line battalions are rotated every 6 days. The 3rd Division has performed very impressively although not engaged in any of the major offensives so far. Its front has been extended to 12kms. After 5 months in the Armentieres sector the 3rd Division moves north for the Battle of Messines.

Monash receives high praise for the detail of his planning, even from Bean who stated that it was far superior to anything that the staff of the AIF had previously produced. The battle field is prepared in minute detail including a series of tunnels containing 41 tons of ammonal. The tunnels are 27 metres deep, took 6 months to dig and are featured in the movie Beneath Hill 50. On the night of 6th June, a date that will become famous 27 years later, all was in readiness. At 3.10am on the 7th June the detonators are activated. Over the next 20 seconds 10,000 German troops are killed, a crater 76 metres in diameter is created. The Germans are overwhelmed. I have seen this crater. It is huge.

 

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A dramatic aerial picture of the Crater, produced, at the time, by the largest man-made explosion in human history. The Mine was laid by 179th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers, beginning in Becourt Wood, some 500 yards back into the British Lines in the early months of 1916. The charge was 60,000lbs of ammonal explosive. The shadow of the wooden cross on the upper-left of the picture gives an indication of the crater’s size—this cross is four metres high. The original of this picture is on the wall of Le Tommy Bar in Pozieres. By the 1970s, when Richard Dunning first visited, he found discarded bedsteads, tyres, and all manner of detritus thrown into it by the French locals. He bought the land it stood on in 1978 and over a series of years, together with many willing helpers, eventually cleared it. It is now a Garden of Remembrance. Very moving ceremonies are held annually on the First of July, beginning at 7:28am, the exact time of the blowing of the Mine. Richard, and the Friends of Lochnagar can be found at lochnagarcrater.org

Monash is given a fortnight’s leave and on his return rumours abound that Birdwood is to take over a British Army command and as the senior AIF officer in France Monash is tipped to take over 2nd Corps. He temporarily takes command when Godley and Russel take 3 weeks leave. Little eventuates and the 3rd Division are engaged in the second Battle of Ypres. However things are moving behind the scenes. Murdoch and Bean are working to persuade Billy Hughes and Alfred Deakin to replace British officers with Australians following the heavy losses under British command at Cambrai and Bullecourt. On 4th October the 3rd Division, after a brief period of rest, prepares for the third battle of Ypres. Their efforts bring another outstanding success and over 5,000 prisoners are taken. Monash retires the division to prepare for a follow up strike.

 

Haig’s eagerness to follow up immediately while the Germans are on the run is taken in the face of all advice due to appalling weather. He proceeds with what is known as the First Battle of Passchendaele.

Losses are extremely heavy and the attack fails in the mud of Flanders. British command suffers 275,000 casualties. The Germans, 220,000. The Australian Infantry divisions lose half their strength.

Monash contends that Australia’s interests are suffering because we do not have a seat on the War Cabinet. Billy Hughes proposes to the Imperial War Cabinet that all of the Australian divisions be brought together under a single leadership. Monash is the obvious and leading contender but his position is opposed by Bean and Murdoch on the basis that he is of German parentage and a Jew.

Bean is overtly anti-Semitic and favours Brudenell White. He and Murdoch report to Hughes that there is widespread opposition to Monash throughout the ranks and the officer contingent. Unbeknown to Bean, Hughes makes his own inquiries and discovers that the opposite is, in fact, the case. He rejects the accusations made against Monash. Murdoch comes around to support Monash due to his strong support from the ranks.

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On 1st November Haig decides that the Australians will be brought together under one Corps with Birdwood temporarily in command. All Australian divisions will be commanded by Australians and the word ANZAC disappears from official formation designations.

At this time Ludendorff is planning his spring offensive. Russia has withdrawn from the war, the French Army is beset with mutiny and the Americans are not up to full strength. He concedes that Germany is outgunned and outnumbered but has enough resources to punch a knockout blow as soon as weather permits. Both sides hunker down to wait out the winter. Monash embarks on two weeks leave. On New Year’s Day, 1918, Monash is informed that he will receive a knighthood; Knight Commander of the Bath. Haig announces that he regards the 3rd Division as his Corps d’elite which he employs in battle only for the most crucial enterprises.

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The British naval blockade of Germany has played havoc with the German home front. Starvation and disease are widespread, crime becomes rampant, frontline soldiers rations are reduced and strategic war materials are in short supply. Ludendorff continues with his planned spring offensive to overrun the British 3rd and 5th armies with a bombardment of over 1,100,000 shells from 6,000 cannons and 3,500mortars to support a force of Stormtroopers, heavily armed and men of 35 years of age or younger.

On the allied side, 100,000 American troops have arrived in France with another 318,000 by the end of May and another 1,000,000 before the end of August. On 27th January the 3rd Division is moved back to the Messines area and engage in harassing operations, prisoners are taken and Monash personally interrogated many of them as he speaks German.

He is told of the planned spring offensive but also that it will not be launched against the Australians because they are too fierce. He gives a three hour lecture to divisional officers telling them that the German offensive will provide the opportunity for a counter offensive that will end the war.

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On 9th March the 3rd Division are taken out of the line and Monash takes three weeks leave to the French Riviera. The German offensive opens on 21st March in the St.Quentin area opposite the two British armies. 72 German divisions drive a deep hole in the British lines inflicting heavy casualties. Monash returns from leave to a state of panic and confusion.

The 3rd Division are recalled from reserve and head to the front meeting British formations in full retreat. Monash steps into the breach and deploys the 3rd and 4th Divisions across the path of the German advance. His officers round up any retreating British soldiers and co-opts them to join his defences. His immediate objective is to protect the bridges across the Somme River.

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A soldier smokes  a cigarette as he appears to tend a dead or injured fighter on a roughly hewn makeshift bridge across a muddy river. Fought between July 1 and November 1, 1916, near the Somme River in France, the Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest military battles in history. On the first day alone, the British suffered more than 57,000 casualties, and by the end of the campaign the Allies and Central Powers would lose more than 1.5 million men

The 44th Battalion holds the bridges and after four days the onslaught has slowed and Monash starts to counter attack. A week after it started the German offensive comes to an end. On 4th April the Germans mount a new limited offensive with 15 divisions which is halted by the Australians at Villers-Bretonneux (VB) on 25th April. This action has already been described in an earlier post so I will not go over old ground.

Looting by retreating British soldiers is a major problem which Monash brings under control with orders to shoot offenders on sight. No Australian formations have given up any ground and the Germans, in two weeks, have suffered 239,000 casualties. Monash reports that the cause of the British collapse lies at the feet of the 5th Army. The Australian 9th Brigade had previously taken VB. When they were withdrawn to rest the British took over and the Germans took it back. Monash described the re-taking of Villers-Bretonneux on 25th April “as the finest thing done during the war by Australians or any other troops”. Hindenburg agreed that it was the turning point of the war.

 

 

On 12th May, Birdwood tells Monash that he has been recommended to take command of the Australian Corps. Bean seeks to intervene and communicates with the Australian government seeking a reversal of the decision.

On 18th May the Australian government approves the appointment of Monash as GOC but Bean and Murdoch persist. Hughes is in transit to London and advises the government to postpone the announcement until he reaches London. The protestations are rejected and Monash assumes the role of GOC of the Australian Corps.

Next time, Monash will take us even further into his life as a soldier and great Australian. He keeps fighting. 

Further reading:

https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/1246-sir-john-monash-the-early-years

https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/1254-john-monash-episode-2-the-making-of-the-man

https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/1258-john-monash-episode-3-in-the-wars

 

 

 

 

 

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