Winning the war

In this rollicking biography of General Sir John Monash, Roland Perry seeks to release his subject from the image of a dourly brilliant engineer and soldier. This, perhaps, has diminished Monash’s status in the as yet unbuilt Australian pantheon.

Due weight is paid to the earnestness with which Monash made the most of his scholarly chances at Scotch College in the 1870s, and to the distractions that led him to take so long to complete the degree in arts, law and engineering that eventually he secured from Melbourne University. Principally that was because Monash pursued several parallel careers to the academic. He was also dedicated to gaining experience and preferment in the militia, to socialising and to finding work as a junior engineer. His struggles as partner in his own firm during the 1890s Depression, where work took him deep into Gippsland and as far away as Western Australia, are vividly detailed. This is the story of redoubtable striving, not of some homiletic progress to riches.

Perry spends a lot of time with the sexually venturesome Monash, although little mention is made of his celebrated collection of erotica. Apparently women possessed of a ‘superb figure’ could prevail upon him. The first of these was Annie Gabriel, wife of Monash’s clerk while he worked on the white elephant of the Outer Circle Railway in Melbourne. Though he was beaten up for her husband’s pains, and contemplated elopement with Annie, Monash in the end demurred. Instead he took on an altogether tougher proposition in Victoria Moss, who became his wife and mother of Bertha, their only child. Vic left him after a few years and decamped to England. They reconciled, although Perry is short on information as to how they accommodated the worst of what they suspected of each other. In the Great War, Monash was parted from his family for four years. When Vic was diagnosed with uterine cancer, in anguish he sought leave to return to Australia. This was refused. Before long Monash began an affair in London with Lizette Bentwitch, who would become his companion in Australia after the end of the war and Vic’s death.

A racier Monash strides from Perry’s biography than that of Geoffrey Serle. When his German-Jewish father was reduced to running a store in Jerilderie in the late 1870s, Monash may have met the Kelly gang, in town to sell a horse (a year before they robbed the place). What soldiers they would have made, Monash reflected —but in the 1920s—when Kelly stories enjoyed an easy currency. Serle was not convinced. More significant matters in Perry’s interpretation of Monash need sharper attention. First is the subtitle to Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War. This ‘outsider’ was of German and Jewish extraction. He was a militia officer rather than regular army. In 1918, as an Australian who had eventually established his loyal credentials, impressed the King and General Haig, he commanded the largest corps in the war. Its exploits, more than any other, destroyed the German army that year, first checking its last great offensive and then driving it beyond the Maginot Line. That is not the same as seemingly single-handedly winning a war.

One of Parry’s main themes concerns a protracted and malign interference with Monash’s generalship. He contends that Monash’s ‘outsider’ status encouraged the campaign against him by the journalists Keith Murdoch (who had wanted to be Australia’s official war correspondent) and Charles Bean (who was). They preferred Brudenell White for command and tried to influence the new Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, accordingly. But Monash’s British friends in high places and—most emphatically—the successes of Australian arms thwarted them. Perry  regards Bean as anti-Semitic. Certainly Bean’s account of Monash’s role in the Official History is grudging in its praise.

Perry’s book concludes sweepingly, and misleadingly: ‘John Monash was Australia’s Napoleon, and much more’. He was nothing of the kind. Monash was neither a law-maker, nor did he have himself crowned as an emperor. Instead his post-war service was marked by distinguished if prosaic employment as manager of the Victorian State Electricity Commission. He chose not to enter politics, but was a fixture at Anzac Day, his presence cementing its importance. That this scholarly soldier and engineer was honoured posthumously by giving his name to a university seems right. Perry has written a popular account of Monash. The narrative drive and verve never flag, although the prose occasionally lapses towards slang or anachronistic joking (watch for alert but not alarmed). This is indeed, and successfully, the ‘biography of Australia’s greatest military commander’ that its publishers proclaim it to be. Of the private man little is discerned, as Monash would perhaps have wished.  

Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War, by Roland Perry. Random House, 2004.
isbn 1 740 51280 4, rrp $49.95

Peter Pierce is Professor of Literature at James Cook University, Cairns.



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