When General Sir John Monash was appointed corps commander of Australian forces on 31 May 1918, he was determined to change the way the First World War was conducted on the Western Front. Within weeks he would execute a winning strategy in the Battle of Hamel showing how the war could be won and changing the way future wars would be conducted. This is the story of how he did it.
World War I — the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth. Any writer who said otherwise lied. So the writers either wrote propaganda, shut up, or fought.
– Ernest Hemingway
The main thing is always to have a plan; if it is not the best plan, it is at least better than no plan at all.
– General Sir John Monash, 1918.
Since his arrival in France almost two years earlier he had witnessed firsthand some of the mistakes made by the British generals in the Battle of the Somme. For example, the British attack on the German defense lines commenced in full daylight at 7.30 am on 1 July 1916. The enemy soldiers had a clear view of what was coming and by mid-day 20,000 Allied soldiers were dead and 40,000 were wounded.
With winter approaching the situation became dire. By the time the costly advance was over nearly five months later, the British and dominion casualties were about 420,000 and the French around 200,000. German casualties were stated as being 500,000.
From late July through November three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties in the fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm. Of these, 6,800 men were killed or died of wounds.
And for what gain? The Allied forces had advanced along a thirty-mile strip that was seven miles deep at its maximum. However, the British had learned a number of things. One was the use of the “creeping barrage” whereby a line of intense artillery shells landed just in front of its advancing infantry to ease their progress. But mostly it was still a war of attrition by trying to attack the enemy’s strongest elements and failing over and over again.
Why were the actions of WWI British commanders, such as Sir John French, seen at various times as ‘blundering stupidity’?
Psychologist and WWII army officer, Dr Norman Dixon, has a theory that the worst military commanders exhibiting military incompetence have defects in personality “associated with authoritarian and disordered achievement-motivation.“ Dixon’s research indicates that the permanent army senior officer ranks are more likely to have a debilitating authoritarian personality. He didn’t include Monash in this category; in fact he identified him as one displaying a “general absence of authoritarian traits.”
Earlier, Monash had experienced unfathomable decisions by senior officers in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Writing to his wife, Vic, in March 1917 he explained his feelings:
I hate the business of war and soldiering with a loathing that I cannot describe—the awful horror of it, the waste, the destruction and the inefficiency. . . . My only consolation has been the sense of faithfully doing my duty to my country, who have placed a grave responsibility on me, and to my Division who trust and follow me, and I owe something to the 20,000 men whose lives and honor are placed in my hands to do with as I will.
Monash wrote that letter after he became Major-General in charge of the 3rd Division of the Australian Army Corps. The following year he would be promoted to Lieutenant-General responsible for all five Australian divisions making up the Corps. This was an enormous responsibility to be now in charge of an organization of 166,000 men, far broader and more complex than leading a division.
Understanding John Monash
How was it that a weekend soldier, a non-professional soldier, had risen through the ranks to lead the Australian Army Corps?
In writing the biography of WWII General Frank Berryman, Peter Dean makes the point that we need to look at the early formative years of a person if we are to better understand the personality and character of a subject.
Fortunately, Monash was meticulous in keeping extensive records of his personal and working life. It was only in 1976 that the family of the late scholar-engineer-soldier gave full access to historian Dr. Geoffrey Serle, the result being the first comprehensive biography of Monash.
More recently Grantlee Kieza has written an extensive biography on Monash. In this work he devotes 13 of 32 chapters to Monash’s formative years to give us a better understanding of Monash as an army commander.
John Monash’s early years
John Monash was born in Melbourne on 27 June 1865, the first child of Jewish parents Louis and Bertha Monash. Louis was a 34-year-old successful business man who had come to Australia from Poland-Prussia in 1854 because of the booming gold-rush economy. He returned to his native homeland in 1863 to find a ‘nice Jewish bride’ and married his 21-year-old sister-in-law, Bertha Manasse, against her family’s wishes.
The arrival of two more girls completed the family – Mathilde in 1869 and Louise in 1873. In the meantime business had not gone well for Louis and in 1874 the family moved to the small town of Jerilderie in New South Wales where Louis ran a small trading store.
John had started school in Melbourne and was a keen student. Now in Jerilderie he found himself in a one-teacher school run by William Elliott. Elliott, a dedicated teacher had a star pupil in young ‘Johnny’ with his unquenchable desire for knowledge across a wide range of subjects. Elliot even gave extra lessons outside the curriculum on Saturday afternoons. Elliot advised his parents that John was a genius and needed to move on from his school. He perceptively said John’s mathematical abilities would suit an engineering profession and that he could study law as well.
In late 1877 Bertha moved back to Melbourne with her children for their continued education with John attending Scotch College. At the time it was Australia’s largest private school with 340 boys enrolled. He did brilliantly and was awarded joint Dux of the college at the end of 1881. Not yet seventeen years old, he was off to study Arts at Melbourne University.
Monash’s university life
The newfound freedom of university life from 1882 onwards appealed to Monash. He often skipped lectures and enjoyed being part of the social scene. Although he had a scholarship to cover his tuition fees he was continually looking for work to cover his living expenses. It’s no surprise then that he failed first year.
He knuckled down to his studies the following year while involving himself in other activities such as forming a student union. In July 1884, he was one of the first to join the newly-formed University Company of Victorian Rifles. He and many others were enthusiastic to be engaged in this part-time activity. His first promotion from private to corporal came four months later. He was determined to be the best soldier in the company. A year later he was promoted to colour sergeant, the highest rank of non-commissioned officer.
At the end of 1885 family events meant Monash had to get a job and continue his studies as a part-time student. His mother was gravely ill and his father was back in Melbourne with no work. He was devastated when his mother died of cancer at the age of forty-four in October that year.
Monash finds work and play
His first job was assisting and overseeing the construction of the beautifully sculptured arches of Princes Bridge being built across the Yarra River in down-town Melbourne. This experience would lead to his specialty in bridge construction in the years to follow.
It was a busy life of work, study, socialising and the military. He loved the admiration of the ladies when he was in uniform. His involvement with a series of women would a distinctive feature of his private life, with only one being his wife.
He was determined to become an officer because of the status it would give him. However once he became a commissioned officer in the artillery with rank of lieutenant, his egotistical attitude did not endear him to many of his fellow officers. They did have to admit, however, that he was smart, knowledgeable, organised and articulate.
On 13 March 1888 The Age newspaper announced the awarding of a contract for construction firm Graham and Wadick to build the Melbourne’s Outer Circle railway line. Although he has no engineering qualifications at this stage Monash applied for the job of overseeing this massive project and he was not surprised when he was given the job – such was the confidence he had in his own abilities.
The railway project was completed by January 1891 and Monash, now a Bachelor of Civil Engineering, found himself out of work. By this time Australia was in a deep economic depression due to the unravelling of the 1880s property boom. Bryan Fitz-Gibbon and Marianne Gizycki explain the cause—a similar story to what has happened in Australia 130 years later:
The collapse in property prices in 1889 led to a spate of building society failures in 1890. As it became clearer that the fall in property prices was not just a temporary fluctuation, the financial collapse spread to the land banks. As the number of failures and frauds grew, public confidence in financial institutions faltered, spreading the crisis to the institutions at the core of the financial system – banks that issued their own bank notes.
In April 1891 Monash married Hannah Victoria Moss. Even before their marriage there were problems because both had domineering personalities and Vic, as she was known, was not going to be subservient to her husband. It was destined to be a difficult marriage. They would only have the one daughter, Bertha, who was born in 1893.
In 1892 Monash found work at the Melbourne Harbour Trust. In 1894 he left to establish an engineering consulting practice, Monash and Anderson. The legal work took him all over Australia for little profit until his partner, J.T. Noble Anderson, acquired rights to the Monier reinforced concrete system.
Monash was eventually awarded a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws in 1895, the same year he was promoted to captain in the militia forces.
The engineering business has mixed success and the partnership was dissolved in 1904. He then formed a company specializing in reinforced concrete and concrete pipes. The business boomed as the economy expanded and, for the first time in his life, he was becoming wealthy. By 1909 he has a property portfolio of 20 suburban houses.
A world-wide war looms
Things are also moving on the military front. There was a need for map making of Australia and the nearby areas in Asia and Monash was chosen to head up the Victorian section of the Australian Intelligence Corps. Now a major, he insisted this deserved another promotion and was duly appointed in March 1908 as a lieutenant colonel.
In 1910 Monash and his wife Vic toured Europe and America and see firsthand the arms race taking place in Germany and Britain. He believed the Continent was a powder keg. Back home, he made sure he was up with the latest developments in technology that could be used in warfare, especially aircraft. In his 1912 book, the pioneer aviator Claude Grahame-White gave a preview of changes the aeroplane would bring to reconnaissance work:
The use of well-trained corps of military airmen will revolutionise the tactics of war. No longer will two Commanders-in-Chief grope in the dark. They will sit, so to speak, on either side of a chess-board, which will represent the battlefield. Each will watch the other’s moves; nothing will be concealed. From a blundering, scrambling moving about of masses of men, modern warfare will become—through the advent of the aeroplane—an intellectual process.
In July 1913 Monash was appointed colonel and commander of the 13th Infantry Brigade in Victoria. For Monash the militia has been a source of social prestige up till now. From now on the distinct possibility of war lingered. The uncertainty was over on 28 July 1914 when Britain declared war with Germany.
In the following September 49-year-old Brigadier-General John Monash was given the job of leading the 4th Infantry Brigade of the Australian Infantry Forces (AIF). After few weeks of frantic preparation the contingent set sail on 22 December on MHAT Ulysses bound for Egypt.
Monash in the Gallipoli campaign
Monash went ashore at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli on 26 April 1915. It was chaos from the start. After organising his brigade he was given the order to attack the Turks on the 700 foot high and well-defended ‘Baby 700’ on 2 May. Major General Godley’s plan was to use Monash’s 4th Brigade and the New Zealand Infantry Brigade.
The advance on Baby 700 had already failed with the first landing of troops. Monash and his commanding officer, Major General Bridges, believed the plan was flawed but they were unable to convince Godley, who in turn was under orders from General Birdwood, commander of the Australian and New Zealand forces.
Monash was devastated at the result of the action; his brigade was reduced down to 1,770 troops from the 4,000 when he started out, for no gain whatsoever.
He was also conscious of his own failings. He is more than double the age of most of his men, was overweight and exhausted to the point it was affecting his leadership. In a letter to home on 20 May he told of their fatigue:
We have been fighting now continuously for twenty-two days, all day and all night, and most of us think that absolutely the longest period during which there was absolutely no sound of gun, or rifle, fire, throughout the whole time was ten seconds.
The assault was an impossible task with the available resources and the enemy’s stranglehold on the higher territory. The war correspondent and historian Charles Bean, who was there at the time, summed up the result:
The end of the great assault left the Australians and New Zealanders hanging on to the slopes above the sea, with scarcely a square half-mile to live on, in an impossible position almost everywhere overlooked at point-blank range by the Turks. The only value of their effort for the time being was that it diverted about an equal portion of the Turkish Army.
Although Monash’s success in the Gallipoli campaign was limited, he was recognised for his abilities, as Bean noted:
[S]o far as Colonel Monash’s arrangements were concerned, had been planned with all that scrupulous care which was to mark his operations throughout the war.
Monash and the 4th Brigade were one of the last to withdraw from Gallipoli in December 1915.
Monash in France
After spending time in Egypt defending the Suez Canal, Monash arrived in Marseilles on 7 June 1916. He had a limited role in the disastrous Battle of the Somme before being promoted to Major-General in command of the new 3rd Division and was sent to England at the end of July.
From his experience in Gallipoli and France, Monash had realised that the British senior ranks were out of touch with the way technology was going to impact the battlefield. John Fuller, Chief General Staff Officer of the British Tank Corps, identified the problem. In describing his experience in the WWI conflict, he wrote:
The doctrine of the contending armies was 1870, its leaders were saturated with 1870 ideas, its weapons were improved 1870, it was 1870 in complexion, in tone, in manner, in thought, in tactics, and in movement.
Monash did not agree with some of the orders he was given in the past but there was little he could do about it then. Now that he was in charge of the Australians, things are going to be different.
Monash wasn’t the first to think this way. Monash’s superior, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the commander of the Fourth Army and some other top brass were recognising the need to employ mechanical means to make up for manpower shortages.
At various times these arms had been tried already but the results so far were not satisfactory for a number of reasons. Some of it was due to mismanagement or else due to unreliability of the technology, especially the early tanks. It was Monash’s experience, his planning ability and the way he and his subordinates executed the strategy — combined with improved technology — that was going to make the difference. We can analyse his planning process using the Can-Do Wisdom Framework for decision making and change management.
Can-Do Wisdom Framework
The Can-Do Wisdom Framework consists of two domains: the rational domain and relational domain. The two are intimately connected. They are two different views of the what’s involved in our struggle for survival in a highly competitive and fluid environment, like two sides of the same coin.
The rational domain covers the period in time before, during and after decisions are made. It is where the military commander undertakes the process of producing a plan for action and for control of that action.
The relational domain shows the relationships and linkages between an individual and the collective. It includes the accumulated history of the individual and the institutional memory of the organisation. In the case of the military, it includes “doctrine, practices, values, and shared experiences, that guide action”.
Both domains exist in two worlds — the external world of the environment and the largely hidden world of the individual and the collective.
[T]he ideal senior commander may be viewed as a device for receiving, processing and transmitting information in a way which will yield the maximum gain for the minimum cost.
– Norman F. Dixon
The rational domain in Figure 2 shows a simplified information processing model.
The sequence starts with the defined purpose or mission to be undertaken. This internal driver can be based on a directive from government, orders from a higher military authority, response to enemy action, or broad strategy. Monash made sure that all his subordinates understood the mission and their place in it.
Information inputs are mostly prepared by the commander’s staff. The locate and collect phases provide information about the enemy and the commander’s own troops including strength, disposition, morale, intentions, capabilities, etc. The weather is another critical information input.
It is then up to the commander to analyse all this information, make the decisions on what to do and organise the plan. Bassett makes the point that Monash’s decisions were made “without emotion, based upon facts, requirements, and capacities.”
The commander’s plans—his commands—are then shared with his subordinates for them to enact. In doing so, the commander brings his past experience and specialist knowledge.
It is the application of the command by subordinates brings about a result. If the mission was well planned and well executed, then the result is more likely to be favourable. Finally, there is a review of the result to see what can be learned from the process, not just the result.
Bottlenecks to the information process
Bottlenecks are the gateways of information flows between the internal world of the commander—his mindset and experience—and his external world, the real world. These bottlenecks are either due to system failures or, most often, human failings. Figure 3 shows four points where bottlenecks can occur:
B1 – Initiation bottlenecks occur when the purpose or mission is unclear or unknown to us. Initiation bottlenecks impact the validity and usefulness of the data coming from environmental scanning. Monash was always clear and articulate about what he wanted to achieve. He also made sure his plans were secret until the time they would be shared with the divisional commanders; he didn’t want the enemy to have foreknowledge of a pending attack.
B2 – Depiction bottlenecks occur when there is a breakdown, gap or distortion in the translation of external events, announcements, stories, threats, opinions, and intentions of others into our depictions of what is really happening external to us. Depiction bottlenecks impact strategy formulation. In the case of a battlefield there is always incomplete information. Diversion tactics would be employed to dupe and confuse the enemy when the attack was launched, creating depiction bottlenecks.
B3 – Enactment bottlenecks occur when there is a breakdown or distortion in the transition from our internal world of intentions into actions in the external world. Enactment bottlenecks impact strategy implementation and the changes that are required. Stress, alcoholism, sleep deprivation and fear are common enactment roadblocks. For Monash it was critical for his divisional commanders and their staff officers to be fully briefed on the plans and use their knowledge of the situation to improve on the plans and be confident of success. For the enemy, he would take steps to deprive them of sleep and to be wearing gas masks to make them less-effective fighters.
B4 – Review bottlenecks prevent us learning from the results that have been achieved—success or failure. In the First World War what today we know as an ‘After Action Review’ was called a ‘Report on Operations’. Due to the chaos of the battlefield and some generals not wanting to expose their failings, their reports were of limited value. Monash’s reports were to the point and very thorough, so much so that after the Battle of Hamel his report was published as a handbook and issued to the whole British Army as a General Staff brochure.
Importance of managing bottlenecks
Human factors engineer Dr. Randall Whitaker points out that the “depiction bottleneck is the critical failure point for strategy formulation, while the enactment bottleneck is the critical failure point for strategy implementation.”
These bottlenecks to information flow are also known by other names. In Shannon’s communications theory he uses the term ‘noise’. It is this interference or noise which adds to the uncertainty for the receiver. Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz refers to the ‘fog of war’ that comes from the uncertainty of information and ‘friction’ holding back overall performance.
The role of the commander is to minimize the bottlenecks in his own information processing, while at the same time planning to disrupt the information flow of his opposite commander in the enemy and adding to his fog of uncertainty.
The relationship domain is where the commander’s mindset, experience and skills in persuasion are used to influence and lead others. He may wish, for example, to influence his superiors to obtain the resources he needs. Whereas the commander has lawful authority to issue orders, he uses leadership to influence his subordinates in order, for example, to keep up their morale.
The relationship domain is made up of four quadrants dividing up the individual versus the collective and the internal world versus the external world as shown in Figure 4.
I Can Quadrant
Monash’s success was largely due to his particular mindset and his broad experience. Psychologists Dean and Linda Anderson describe the term mindset in this way:
While your fundamental assumptions and core beliefs form the foundation of your mindset, mindset actually includes your thoughts and attitudes, as well as your values, choices, and desires. Your needs, wants, hopes, and concerns are all a part of your mindset, as are your fears, worries, fantasies, and illusions.
It’s impossible to describe here Monash’s mindset in full detail. Biographies, his autobiography, and published collections of his letters and diaries indicate a mindset of a driven person—a polymath with wide interests. These characteristics would suit his role as a transformational leader.
Monash’s work and a civil engineer on bridge building projects and on overseeing the construction of a railway line gave him valuable experience in problem solving. The latter, in particular, gave him experience in map reading to allow him to visualize in three-dimensions the layout out of the battle field. It also gave him experience in managing a work force. His legal work meant he was used to being organised, to have his facts about him and be a skilled negotiator.
I DO Quadrant
The I Do quadrant is where the actions of an individual—one’s behaviour—can be observed in the real world. The I Do quadrant includes leadership, which is defined by the Australian Defence Force as “the process of influencing others in order to gain their willing consent in the ethical pursuit of missions.”
The I Do quadrant is where Monash’s contributions can be judged. In terms of his physiology, he was into his 50s but had a great deal of energy to put into his mostly mental activity.
According to Major A.C. Fidge (Australian Army) writing in 2003, Monash’s approach to achieving success focused on four things: “training, technology, the human element of warfare and, above all, comprehensive planning.”
It was critical to Monash that before any action could take place, soldiers had to be trained. Even before his wartime service he was recognised for his excellent approach to training. Generals who observed the tactical training exercises for the 13th Infantry Brigade in February 1914 were impressed his approach. No less than the Inspector-General of Overseas Forces, General Sir Ian Hamilton, during his visit to Australia said Monash has the “makings of a commander.”
Once Monash had been appointed to head the Australia 3rd Division, training was his priority. It took place in Salisbury, England. Basset sees this level of training and concentration in preparing his organisation as “one of his greatest achievements.”
For years Monash had been keeping a watch on the application of technology for military purposes. These interests ranged from the chemistry of armaments, to aircraft for reconnaissance, to wireless communications. As an engineer he had an appreciation for technology.
It was all these arms, plus the new tanks becoming available that would be part of his plans for the Hamel advance.
Monash made use of reconnaissance aircraft, observation balloons and spies to obtain information about the enemy’s strength and the location of guns. Raiding parties were also sent out to capture enemy soldiers to find out their conditions and morale.
All these elements had been used before but not always successfully.
3. The human element
Dixon suggests the primary concern of a commander should be the “conservation of his force and a concern for the psychological and physical welfare of his troops.” This was not the case with some of the British commanders in WWI, especially Field Marshal John French. Monash stood out as an exception.
Monash understood the importance of the morale of his troops before and during conflicts. He had experienced the impact of exhaustion on his own performance in Gallipoli and was determined to see that enthusiasm and persistence in goal-seeking were maintained by his troops. Writing to a friend in April 1918, Monash explained his interest in psychology:
I have always found it pays well to closely consider the psychology not only of the enemy but also of my own troops, to study the factors which effect his actions and reactions, and how to employ these factors to our advantage, and also to study the methods of keeping up the morale and the fighting spirit of our own soldiers.
(I’ll discuss more about the human element in the section on the We Can Quadrant below.)
4. Comprehensive Planning
Monash’s job was to analyse the situation, make decisions and issue commands for his subordinates to carry out his orders in the form of a plan.
These plans of Monash were not developed in isolation and then dumped on subordinates as in the case of some other commanders.
Monash’s staff were vital to him but he was still across all the details and made the major decisions. At the Corps level, there were thirty officers involved in staff functions. Monash’s Chief-of-Staff was Brigadier-General Thomas Blamey who, after service in WWII, would find himself elevated to Field Marshall.
The staff were divided into various functions, such as GS (General Staff responsible for operational planning and intelligence); A (Administrative staff responsible for personnel); Q (Quartermaster staff responsible for supplies); and a number of specialist roles, such as engineers.
Monash’s plan called for an advance of about three kilometers at the centre of a six-kilometer front to capture Vaire Wood, Hamel Wood, Pear Trench and Hamel village, all key strong points on higher ground. This would straighten the line that had bulged as part of a successful and major German offensive in March-April of 1918 called Operation Michael.
According to military historian Brian Holden-Reid, in preparing a plan a military commander must answer three questions, “How can I strike at the enemy? How can I prevent the enemy striking at my forces? What is the distribution of my own forces?”
Monash’s plan rested on the use of an integrated force of infantry and mechanisation:
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 . . . 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; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward . . . to the appointed goal; and there to hold and defend the territory gained.
All these arms had been used before previous battles but with limited success. Monash was determined to learn from past mistakes and consider every contingency to make the combination work. It would require precise coordination and timing. He used the analogy of an orchestral performance:
A perfected modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for a musical composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases. Each individual unit must make its entry precisely at the proper moment, and play its phrase in the general harmony.
We Can quadrant
The We Can quadrant is made up of culture and worldviews of the body of people. The culture of a military organisation is made up of doctrine, practices, values, and shared experiences.
In simple terms, a worldview is a set of assumptions which we hold about the basic makeup of our world.
Australian troops on the Western Front were civilian volunteers. Coming from a largely egalitarian society, their views of the life centred around mateship, a disrespect for authority, having an easy-going outlook on life and a growing respect for the professionalism and courage of their enemy. By 1918 they were growing tired of war. Who could blame them when living in the cold, rat infested trenches, not knowing if they would come home alive.
The commanding officers of Australian troops had challenges with discipline at times but, on the whole, the Australian troops were renowned for being courageous on the battlefield.
Monash’s network in the We Can quadrant included the Australian government, his military superiors, his HQ staff, his divisional commanders and their staff.
Not only did Monash need his leadership skills to inspire his own subordinates and troops to face the Germans, he also had to deal with politics – Australian and U.S. One was the uncertainty of his own position which was at the whim of Australian Prime Minister, William Hughes. The other was the objection of U.S. General Pershing to American troops being under the command of Monash. In the end Monash got what he wanted.
Monash’s detailed plans were shared with his subordinates through a series of battle conferences which he chaired. This gave everyone the opportunity to understand their part and that of others in the battle ahead. Everyone present was encouraged to give their opinions. It was an opportunity for further inputs and modifications to be made such that everyone was happy with the plans. Monash was consistently praised for both his thoroughness in his planning and the concise way he explained these plans.
The final Corps Conference for the battle of Hamel was held on June 30, and the date of the battle itself was fixed for July 4.
Whenever he had the chance, he would meet with the troops in the field to lift their morale and explain the importance of their contribution.
One of the major issues Monash had to deal with in planning the Battle of Hamel was the troops reluctance to be involved with tanks. The Australian 4th brigade had been let down badly in the battle at Bullecourt in April 1917 by the lack of promised tanks support. Their shared memory was the 3,000 casualties, many of whom were caused by the tanks either not arriving when they were supposed to, from mechanical break-downs, or from being disabled by enemy fire.
Sixty of the new, improved Mark V tanks were assigned for the Hamel operation. Monash organized for his troops to work with the Tank Corps to establish close working relations and become familiar with the tanks before the battle commenced. It made all the difference whereas there could have been a mutiny otherwise. As Bassett explains, “Monash by altering his plan was not being a weak leader, but an intelligent one, a new breed.”
We Do Quadrant
The We Do quadrant is where the community’s combined activities bring about new systems and bring changes to the environment. Systems range from new laws to technological systems.
In Monash’s case the resulting system was a well-tuned fighting machine comprising multiple arms—artillery, tanks, aircraft, machine guns and infantry.
The change to the environment was the capture of the village of Le Hamel and beyond.
Infantry from the Australian 4th Division provided the bulk of the Australian forces for the attack. The British 5th Tank Brigade were assigned to support the advance and 1,000 American soldiers were used to increase troop numbers in the depleted 4th Division.
The actual battle on 4 July 1918 commenced at 0310 hours. Before that, sixty Mark V tanks had moved to the front line. Aeroplanes were used to drop bombs over the German lines and to drown out the noise of the tanks.
As the synchronized advance took place, an artillery barrage moved towards the German lines ahead of the tanks with the infantry following. Reconnaissance aircraft were used to track progress and their reports were dropped to motorcycle riders to take back to the Corps headquarters and field commanders for maps to be updated on the state of play.
Aeroplanes were used to carry and deliver small-arm ammunition. By dropping ammunition cases by parachute, 100,000 rounds were delivered by the aircraft for the machine-gun crews. Previously it took two soldiers to carry one ammunition box of 1,000 rounds and in the process be exposed to enemy fire. Casualties among ammunition carriers were always high.
Being in the right place at the right time was critical for the placement of the artillery barrage and for the path and progress of the tanks and infantry. This required information to be made available to the units involved and for Corps HQ to monitor and, if necessary, control the offensive if unexpected events intervened.
Monash had made sure bottlenecks were minimized to allow the flow of information during the attack. Flares were lit by frontline troops for an observer in one of the low-flying aeroplanes to update the map showing the new position of the frontline. The map would then be dropped to the Brigade headquarters. The enemy positions would also be continuously monitored. Other communications methods in use were carrier pigeons, telephones and wireless telegraphy.
For the enemy, Monash made sure to add bottlenecks to their information flow. Surprise, a diversionary attack and smoke barrages were used to create confusion and shield the forthcoming advance. The Germans were expecting gas and their troops were hampered by wearing gas masks.
The results of the Battle of Hamel
The Battle of Hamel was a brilliant success. It achieved all objectives in just over ninety minutes, the time Monash had allowed.
It showed that the combination of careful planning, well-trained infantry, the Tank Corps, the Royal Artillery and the RAF would provide a winning force.
John Fuller wrote that the “co-operation between the infantry and tanks was as near perfect as it could be.”
On hearing about the result of the battle, Field Marshall Haig wrote in his diary:
The most striking characteristic of the attack was the close and effective cooperation between the tanks and the infantry. Moving up and down behind the barrage, the tanks either killed the enemy or forced him to take shelter in the dugouts, where he became an easy prey for the infantry.
The ground gained overall was less than 2 km which doesn’t seem much. But by World War I standards this was a breakthrough when compared to attempts in the previous years of stalemate.
Nigel Steel, Historian at the Imperial War Museum in London, says the “significance of Hamel rests not really in the size of the victory or the territory that it gained but in the fact that it showed how to fight a battle.”
There was still a substantial human cost. Of the around 7,500 Australians taking part, there were 1,504 Australian casualties, 176 American and 13 from the British tank crews. Around 2,000 Germans were killed and 1,600 taken prisoner.
Was the Battle of Hamel the turning point in the war?
In the lead up to the hundred-year anniversary of the Battle of Hamel many commentators have claimed it to be to be the ‘turning point’ in the war.
But Hamel wasn’t the real turning point. Most military historians would nominate the Battle of Amiens beginning on August 8. This tank attack broke through the German lines destroying six divisions, capturing over 12,000 prisoners. The German commander, General Ludendorff, described that day as the “the black day of the war for the German Army.”
The Battle of Hamel was really a small-scale experiment with limited impact. However, it was a turning point—a revolution even—in the art and science of warfare. Fuller could foresee the change the use of tanks would bring:
All war on land, in the past, has been based on muscular energy; henceforth it will be based on mechanical. The change is radical.
Fuller wasn’t talking just about tanks. He envisaged drones and robots on the battlefield; he was way ahead of his time.
Tim Fischer, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and a Vietnam veteran, says Monash should be posthumously promoted to Field Marshall. The Australian government has consistently opposed that step. Why is this so, given that Monash is clearly the greatest general Australia has ever produced? Is it because the military establishment still class Monash as a part-time soldier—an amateur—as senior British officers called him? Or is it still the case he is an outsider because of his German-Jewish heritage?
Bruce Haigh, a former Australian diplomat who wrote the foreword to the 2015 edition of John Monash’s book, also believes he should have been made a Field Marshal for the brilliance of his leadership. “Monash understood, as few other generals did, the changed nature of warfare,” Haigh wrote.
Others disagree, saying that as a Corps commander—and a brilliant one at that—he was two levels down from the rank of Field Marshall. Retired Australian Army officer, Neil James, suggests WWII General Sir Vernon Sturdee has a greater claim as he was one level below Field Marshall.
It really doesn’t matter because we can still learn a great deal from this man who made the most of his talents and opportunities during his lifetime, not just in the War. Even without his war service he would likely to have been acknowledged as one of the greatest Australians. And besides, he himself only wanted “John Monash” written on his gravestone, with no title, rank or awards added.
- Tim Fischer, Maestro John Monash: Australia’s Greatest Citizen General (Clayton VIC: Monash University Press, 2014), 64.
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- Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (Vintage Digital, 2011). eBook.
- Geoffrey Serle, John Monash: A Biography (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2002]
- Peter Dean, “The Making of a General: Lost Years, Forgotten Battles” (PhD diss., University of NSW, 2007), 9, http://handle.unsw.edu.au/1959.4/40644.
- Serle, John Monash.
- Grantlee Kieza, Monash: The soldier who shaped Australia (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2015).
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- Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper, The Aeroplane in War (Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1912), vi.
- P.J. Murphy, Fatigue Management During Operations: A Commander’s Guide (Puckapunyal, VIC: Land Warfare Development Centre, Tobruk Barracks, 2002), 88.
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- Bean, The Story of Anzac, 597.
- J.F.C. Fuller, Tanks in the Great War 1914-1918 (New York: E. P. Button and Company, 1920), 207.
- Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Milton Park, Oxon: Routledge, 2007), 237.
- Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.
- Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, 80.
- Colin Darryl Bassett, Does the Leadership Style and Command Method of General Sir John Monash Remain Relevant to the Contemporary Commander? (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015). Kindle eBook.
- John Hughes-Wilson, Hamel 4th July 1918: The Australian & American Victory (London: Unicorn Publishing, 2018).
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- A.G. Houston, ADDP 00.6 Leadership (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2007), 1-4.
- A.C. Fidge, “Sir John Monash – An effective and competent commander?” Geddes Papers 2003, Australian Defence College, http://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/documents/Geddes/2003/PublcnsGeddes2003_300310_SirJohnMonash.pdf.
- Bassett, Does the Leadership Style.
- Bassett, Does the Leadership Style.
- Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.
- Murphy, Fatigue Management, vii.
- Roger Lee, “The Australian Staff: The Forgotten Men of the First AIF” in P. Dennis and J. Grey (eds), 1918: Defining Victory Proceedings of the Chief of Army’s History Conference Held at the National Convention Centre (Canberra. 29 September 1998), 1-9. https://www.army.gov.au/sites/g/files/net1846/f/1998_1918_defining_victory_0.pdf.
- Peter Nunan, “World War I: Battle of Hamel,” HistoryNet, https://www.historynet.com/world-war-i-battle-of-hamel.htm.
- Brian Holden Reid, The Science of War: Back to First Principles (London: Routledge, 1993), 4.
- John Monash, The Australian Victories in France in 1918 (Melbourne: Black Ink, 2015), 94.
- Monash, Australian Victories, 56.
- Peter Stanley, “Between Acceptance and Refusal – Soldiers’ Attitudes Towards War (Australia)” International Encyclopedia of the First World War, https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/pdf/1914-1918-Online-between_acceptance_and_refusal_-_soldiers_attitudes_towards_war_australia-2017-08-25.pdf.
- R.A. Beaumont, “Hamel, 1918 – A Study in Military-Political Interaction,” Military Affairs, 31, no. 1 (1967), 15.
- Fidge, “Sir John Monash”.
- Bassett, Does the Leadership Style.
- Monash, Australian Victories, 60.
- Neil Leybourne Smith, “History of 3 Squadron, AFC, RAAF, Part 1: WW I,” http://www.3squadron.org.au/indexpages/history1.htm#WW I.
- Hughes-Wilson, Hamel 4th July 1918.
- Fuller, Tanks in the Great War, 207.
- Beaumont, “Hamel, 1918.”
- Hughes-Wilson, Hamel 4th July 1918.
- Hughes-Wilson, Hamel 4th July 1918.
- Charles Messenger, The Day We Won The War: Turning Point At Amiens, 8 August 1918 (London: Orion, 2008). eBook.
- Fuller, Tanks in the Great War, 302.
- Fischer, Maestro John Monash, 222.
- Bruce Haigh, foreword to The Australian Victories in France in 1918 by John Monash (Melbourne: Black Ink, 2015).
- Neil James, “Respecting John Monash by respecting his actual record,” Australia Defence Association, https://www.ada.asn.au/commentary/formal-comment/2018-19/respecting-john-monash-by-respecting-his-actual-record.html.