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Monash and Chauvel: Australia’s greatest generals changed history

9 December 2017 296 views No Comment

‘Monash and Chauvel: How Australia’s Two Greatest Generals Changed the Course of World History’
By Roland Perry
Allen & Unwin, 567pp, $34.99

The legend of Gallipoli may never be eclipsed but recent celebrations have accentuated the heroes of the Western Front and the Middle East. The gallantry and sacrifice of our Diggers is legendary but we should also honour two of World War I’s most outstanding field commanders, both Australians: John Monash and Harry Chauvel.

In this fine book about the two Aussie generals, Roland Perry cogently argues that the Anzacs’ experience at Gallipoli in 1915 has swamped the much more powerful impact of the Ist AIF, especially in late 1917 and 1918, on the two key battlefronts that decided the outcome of the war.

These were the Western Front against the Germans in Europe, led by Monash, a highly cultured man of Prussian-Jewish heritage, and the battles with the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, orchestrated by the 34,000-strong, 75 per cent Anzac, Desert Mounted Column led by Chauvel.

Chauvel’s achievements, culminating in the final 1918 drive to defeat the Turks, were in fact more important than those of British field marshal Sir Edmund Allenby and the much more famous TE Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia.

Credit was not given at the time, although Monash did his utmost to counter British propaganda that so undervalued Australian achievements — especially those of Chauvel, a soldier who thought of himself as British first and Australian second.

At a black-tie dinner the night before Chauvel returned to Australia in 1919, Monash maintained that, because of the massive odds against him in both decisive battles, Chauvel’s efforts at Romani in the Sinai and at Beersheba were greater than those of Napoleon.

Is it hard to argue with Monash’s claim that Beersheba was the greatest cavalry charge of all time. Indeed recent commemorations have only underlined that assertion. The persuasive Melburnian put it like this:
“Napoleon was an outstanding commander, but he often had ten times the number Chauvel had at Beersheba. Just ponder what the Australian troopers faced … banks of machine guns and artillery, thousands of entrenched armed Turks, snipers and planes dropping bombs and strafing the advancing horsemen. Yet they fought through and took the town, which led to the major breakthrough of the Middle East War … Compare that again to the relatively meagre arms arraigned against Napoleon”.

During the war Monash often disagreed with then prime minister Billy Hughes. His disagreements with the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, were less frequent, and he had none with George V who, on August 12, 1918, knighted Monash at Bertangles, near Amiens.

Monash was unique among generals on the Western Front. As Perry persuasively argues, this was because, unlike most of the Allied hierarchy, he had learned the lessons of military failures, especially at Gallipoli, and devised manoeuvres that allowed his troops “to break through the stalemate of trench warfare”.

In a similar manner, although he was not an ethnic outsider like Monash, Chauvel, who had an elite Anglo background, came to realise that, if he was to rout the Turks, he would have to ignore the directives of his British superiors and take the initiative himself.

Hence by the end of the war Monash and Chauvel had brought, as Perry concludes, “a distinctly Australian sensibility to their areas of operation, involving flexibility, innovation and a deep respect for the troops they led, which was in turn reciprocated by their men”.

A fascinating fact in Perry’s revealing narrative is that Australian horses, which could travel 80km a day, played a crucial role in this truly terrible war. In the heat and mud and difficult terrain, they were much more reliable than tanks. Indeed in Palestine and elsewhere, after bad weather struck and stayed, horses were the only effective form of transport.

Of the fine black-and-white photographs in this book, two stand out: Chauvel on horseback leading his troopers from the front at the Battle of Romani in August 1916, and a striking portrait of Monash approaching the peak of his military powers in May 1918, just after being made Australian Corps commander.

It’s stirring stuff and I find myself in utter agreement with Perry that Monash, who died in 1931 aged 66, and Chauvel, who died in 1945 aged 79, should both be posthumously promoted to the five-star rank of field marshal. Their elevation is long overdue and generations to come should salute their memory.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, 9-10 December, 2017.

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