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Sir John Monash (1865–1931)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

John Monash, by John Longstaff, c.1919

John Monash, by John Longstaff, c.1919

State Library of Victoria, 50629909

Sir John Monash (1865-1931), soldier, engineer and administrator, was born on 27 June 1865 in West Melbourne, eldest of three children and only son of Louis Monash (1831-1894) and his wife Bertha, née Manasse. Several generations of John's paternal ancestors had lived at Krotoschin (Krotoszyn), Posen province (Poznan, Poland), Prussia, near Breslau (Wroclaw). Almost one-third of the town's population was Jewish. John's grandfather Baer-Loebel Monasch was a learned publisher and printer. His uncle by marriage Heinrich Graetz was the eminent historian of the Jewish people. His father Louis migrated to Melbourne in 1854, prospered as a merchant, was naturalized in 1856 and was secretary of the Deutscher Verein. He returned to Europe in 1863, married Bertha (of Dramburg, near Stettin (Szczecin)), and next year took her back to Melbourne.

John was brought up bilingually (but never acquired any Yiddish); his parents spoke good English. For three years he attended St Stephen's Church of England School, Richmond. His father had suffered 'terrible losses' and was never again to be well off. He opened a store at Jerilderie, New South Wales, where John attended the public school in 1875-77 under William Elliott who delighted in the boy's intelligence and taught him all the mathematics he knew. In some anguish Bertha returned with the children to Melbourne late in 1877, to further their education; Louis followed five years later with enough savings to build a modest villa at Hawthorn. John enrolled at Scotch College under Alexander Morrison. His parents had largely abandoned religious practice, but John sang in the choir at the East Melbourne synagogue and celebrated his bar mitzvah there. His mother attracted a wide circle of friends to her Richmond home; they were musical, German or Jewish but included the Deakin and Hodgson families. Bertha was a proficient pianist; John had begun to play by 5.

Classically Jewish in their expectations for their first-born son, John's parents drove him hard. In her husband's absence, Bertha talked much with the boy who developed a precocious articulateness and ease in adult company. At school he was studious and quiet, without games skills; later he was a good runner, a mediocre horseman and a fair shot. He retained a lifelong affection for Scotch College. He matriculated at 14 and in 1880, in the sixth form under Moses Moses, was second in mathematics and logic to (Sir) James McCay, his lifelong friend and rival. Morrison persuaded him to return for another year; after a highly ingenious prize essay on Macbeth, he was equal dux in 1881 and at the public examinations won the mathematics exhibition and came fourth in the class list in French and German.

John had firmly decided to take arts and engineering at the University of Melbourne. (Nearly fifty years later, distributing the prizes at Scotch, he instructed the dux in mathematics, (Sir) Archibald Glenn: 'You'll do engineering, of course'.) His first-year lecturers did not excite him and he began his own course of concentrated reading at the Public Library of Victoria, mainly in English literature and history; he was also stage-struck, attending the theatre twice a week (deceiving his mother), spoke and debated at the Wesley Church Mutual Improvement Society of which he became secretary, began to keep diaries and experimented with journalism and writing stories. He attended the lectures by Thomas Walker the secularist, but his reading had already led him to a freethinking or pantheist attitude to religion. He failed his first-year examinations.

He knuckled down, however, and in 1883 passed with third- and in 1884 with second-class honours, becoming passionately interested in mathematics. He tutored a few students and managed almost to keep himself. He played much chess and kept up the piano, sometimes performing in public; a Chopin 'Polonaise' was his star piece. Monash furthermore became deeply involved in student politics, being a co-founder of the Melbourne University Union, active in arranging debates, socials and concerts, and editor of the first twelve issues of Melbourne University Review in 1884-85. He was also in 1884 one of the first to join the university company of the 4th Battalion, Victorian Rifles: 5 ft 8¾ ins (175 cm) tall, well-built but slim and agile, the raw recruit rose to colour sergeant within fourteen months.

His ambition to contest for the glittering prizes had been naked. His awareness of his talents—of being predestined or chosen—the high expectations of his parents, his relative poverty and the consciousness of being an outsider—doubly so as a Jew of Prussian parentage—all made for an unusually determined assertiveness. Yet as a student he had a rare ideal of what a university and what a university student ought to be. His ingratiating and yet combative manner, his craving to be the centre of attention, his sensitivity to slights, his vanity were all obvious, but his intellect and achievements won respect and friendships.

During his mother's long fatal illness in 1885, Monash abandoned his course. Highly distressed, he trod an erratic path for the next few years. His father was stricken and his business as a financial agent was yielding little. John had to contribute to the family finances. His sister Mathilde, dux of Presbyterian Ladies' College in 1886 and later a language-teacher, was running the household and looking after her sister Louise. Through his friend J. B. Lewis, Monash found a post on construction of Princes Bridge over the Yarra which gave him valuable experience for more than two years. After a bungled attempt in 1886, he passed his university third-year in 1887 as a part-time student, but abandoned his intention of sitting for honours in mathematics. Early in 1888 he was fortunate to be given charge of construction of the Outer Circle eastern suburban railway-line which he capably concluded after three years 'enormous and extensive experience', having in August 1890 lucidly and unpretentiously addressed the university's Engineering Students' Society on 'The Superintendence of Contracts'. In November 1891, after the collapse of the boom, he was grateful to find a post with the Melbourne Harbor Trust.

During the peak years of the boom, when Monash pursued a giddy social career, his chief centre was the German Club; but by 1889 he largely abandoned it because his sympathies were 'too English'. In 1886-87 his performance as a pianist reached its highest point. Balls and dances, the opera and theatre, annual walking trips (especially to Mount Buffalo and the Alps) and—particularly—girls filled his leisure time. Habitual flirtation led to several embarrassing close associations and eventually, in 1888-89 to a tempestuous affaire with Annie Gabriel, a non-Jewish married woman. In September 1889, in a markedly unstable condition, Monash reached the point of attempting to abscond with her to another colony and thus, in disgrace, to abandon his cultural heritage—but just in time her husband carried her off to Sydney. A month later, impulsively, he became engaged to 20-year-old Hannah Victoria Moss whom he married on 8 April 1891. Their only child Bertha was born on 22 January 1893. Before and after marriage, seemingly incompatible but bonded by deep attraction, they fought and made up constantly. Indeed they separated for ten months in 1894-95.

In 1890 Monash resolved to complete his degrees. On 4 April 1891 he took out his B.C.E., having won the Argus scholarship with a high second-class honour. In 1891-92 he crammed himself through the exams for municipal surveyors' and water-supply engineers' qualifications. Identifying a possible lucrative monopoly in legal engineering, again in 1891-92 he forced himself through a law degree, by last-minute cramming, probably without having attended a single lecture. In December 1892 he completed arts by conquering his bugbear Latin. He formally graduated (M.Eng., 1893; B.A., LL.B., 1895) when he could afford the fees. It had been an astonishing spare-time programme. Given opportunity and concentration, he might have won first-class honours in any of engineering, mathematics, modern languages, philosophy or English literature.

The university company had been disbanded in July 1886. Monash had applied unsuccessfully for a commission in the Engineers; but joined the North Melbourne Battery of the Metropolitan Brigade of the Garrison Artillery, whose fixed guns defended the Victorian ports, being appointed probationary lieutenant on 5 April 1887. By then he had almost settled on a combination of engineering and soldiering as his life's work. Military theory had begun to excite him and he enjoyed the control of men in a hierarchical disciplined structure. Moreover a military commission carried much more status than the professions of engineering and teaching.

Monash made many blunders in his early relations with fellow officers, especially at the annual Easter camps at Queenscliff; he got on better with other ranks. He joined the Naval and Military Club. He was chiefly responsible for construction of a dummy practice-gun which served for several years as a useful training device. He lectured frequently on artillery, weapons, explosives, practical mechanics and many other subjects, within the militia and in public, and his expository ability won recognition. By 1893 he was senior subaltern in the Garrison Artillery. He was active in and became secretary of the United Service Institution of Victoria. Under the patronage now of Lieutenant-Colonel W. H. Hall, he was promoted captain at last on 18 October 1895. Next year he sat the examinations for major (which, he calculated, made 94 written exams in 17 years) and was promoted on 2 April 1897 with command of the North Melbourne Battery, which he was to retain for another eleven years. Although work in coastal artillery was highly specialized and something of a backwater, it was there that Monash developed his gift for administration and learned to command men with fatherly authority. He did not volunteer for and was not invited to take part in the South African War. Coastal artillerymen were irrelevant, men of his age with family and business responsibilities were hardly expected to go; moreover his support for the war was less than whole-hearted.

Retrenched by the Harbor Trust in the depth of the depression in April 1894, Monash boldly launched into private practice with his friend J. T. Noble Anderson as civil, mining and mechanical engineers and patent agents. For three years they struggled on, carrying out a wide variety of minor tasks; a contract to design and install an 'aerial tramway' for transporting quartz at Walhalla gave hard-won experience but little profit. Their situation, however, improved from mid-1897 when Monash came suddenly into demand as an advocate and expert witness in legal-engineering work. Over the next two years he spent three-quarters of his time in other colonies, visiting Queensland four times and New South Wales six, and passing twelve months in Western Australia successfully conducting claims against the government arising from a railway-construction project.

Meanwhile Anderson had gained from the Sydney contractor-engineer F. M. Gummow the patent rights in Victoria for Monier reinforced concrete construction. Monash & Anderson now concentrated on contracting for bridge-building and planned to manufacture concrete pipes with David Mitchell and his employee John Gibson. Their bridge-building was highly successful until one of their Bendigo bridges collapsed under testing and they had to rebuild at their own cost. Then the shires of Corio and Bannockburn refused to make the large final payment for their Fyansford bridge and, in an eccentric judgment, were upheld by the Supreme Court of Victoria early in 1902. All their capital was gone and they were deeply in debt. Anderson, with a large family to support, left for a job in New Zealand.

Humiliated, and justifiably complaining of his 'cursed bad luck', Monash endured three more years of poverty. Toughened by hard experience and backed by business associates who recognized his capacity, he began to switch to constructing buildings and in 1905, with Gibson as managing director, formed the Reinforced Concrete & Monier Pipe Construction Co. Ltd. He had paid off his debts at the rate of £1000 a year. Protected still by the Monier patents and largely monopolizing concrete construction, the company undertook a dozen jobs at a time and formed a South Australian subsidiary. By 1913 Monash was worth over £30,000. In 1910 he had made his first overseas trip: to Britain, the Continent and, briefly, the United States of America whose technological achievements deeply impressed him. In England he formed an intimate friendship with the scientist Walter Rosenhain who had married his sister Lou.

Meanwhile his military career had taken a marked turn for the better. In 1907 he had seemed to be in a dead end. But Colonel McCay, commanding the Australian Intelligence Corps (militia), offered him charge of the Victorian section and Monash was promoted lieutenant-colonel on 7 March 1908. Military mapping—disgracefully backward—was the prime task, general intelligence gathering was also important but, in alliance with his new friend Major (Sir) Julius Bruche, Monash involved himself in general staff work. He attended Colonel Hubert Foster's schools in military science at the University of Sydney; helped to prepare for Lord Kitchener's inspections; suggested, umpired and reported on tactical exercises. Above all he studied military history and in 1911 won the first army gold-medal essay competition on 'The Lessons of the Wilderness Campaign, 1864' (Commonwealth Military Journal, April 1912). From 1 June 1913 he was appointed to command the 13th Infantry Brigade, as colonel. His conduct of manoeuvres in February 1914 won the warm approval of the visiting General Sir Ian Hamilton. Monash's pamphlet, 100 Hints for Company Commanders, became a basic training document.

Monash was now a pillar of Melbourne society, in the inner swim of business affairs. He had bought a Toorak mansion and a luxurious motor car, with a chauffeur and other servants to match, and was the calm centre of his extended family. He lectured and examined in engineering at the university, became chairman of the graduates' association and president of the University Club, then from 1912 was elected to the university council and its more important committees. As president of the Victorian Institute of Engineers, in 1913 he gave a constructive radical critique of his profession and worked towards foundation of a national body. He was prominent in the Boy Scout movement. He was at peace with himself, recognized enough now with a fair measure of fame and a wide circle of friends; he could relax and be more altruistic. But his career showed signs of a dying fall. Yet he had superb qualities for any large job which might crop up: absolute self-confidence, skill in the manipulation of men to his forceful will, a magnificently developed administrative competence and an intellect never yet subjected to adequate challenge.

On the outbreak of war Monash acted as chief censor for four weeks before he was appointed to command the 4th Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force. It was an Australia-wide brigade which had to be organized and gathered at Broadmeadows, Victoria, and given elementary training before sailing with the second contingent on 22 December 1914. Monash chose as his brigade major Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. McGlinn; they were soon intimate friends. Monash commanded the convoy of seventeen ships which reached Egypt at the end of January 1915. The 4th Brigade went into camp near Heliopolis as part of Major General Sir Alexander Godley's New Zealand and Australian Division. Godley and the corps commander Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood were well satisfied with Monash's training of the brigade. At the Gallipoli landing it was in reserve: Monash did not land until the morning of 26 April, and was given the left-centre sector including Pope's Hill and Quinn's Post to organize while the Turks counter-attacked. His brigade was still not fully gathered by the 30th but Monash had an orderly conference of his battalion commanders that day. The night offensive on Baby 700 of 2 May, which Monash had opposed, was disastrous; according to Charles Bean it left him 'unstrung, as well it might'. The brigade played its part in withstanding the Turkish offensive of 19 May and the break-in to Quinn's on the 29th, and was relieved from the line at the end of the month.

In July Monash learned of his tardy promotion to brigadier general at a time when wild rumours were circulating in Cairo, London and Melbourne that he had been shot as a German spy and traitor; there had been a similar vicious whispering campaign in Melbourne the previous October. The brigade now prepared for the battle of Sari Bair and its part in the left hook on Hill 971. Their night-march of 6 August was delayed and a vital wrong turning made. Monash forced himself to the front, punched his battalions into position and made good progress against moderate resistance. But the maps were faulty, the men were lost and exhausted, and next morning could only dig in. On the 8th, after attacking, they had to withdraw. Most of the men were sick, many had paratyphoid. The remnants then took part in the unsuccessful attacks on Hill 60, before being withdrawn to Lemnos. Monash had three weeks leave in Egypt where he learned of his appointment as C.B. The brigade returned to a quiet sector on Gallipoli. On the final night of the evacuation Monash was not one of the last to leave, but rashly sent home an illegal diary-letter implying that he had been. Gallipoli had given him a devastating education. Bean, Birdwood and others left an impression that his performance had been mediocre; but his brigade had performed at least as well as any of the other three and he had little or no part in the battle-plans he had to attempt to carry out. His performance on 7-8 August is open to criticism, but it came to be recognized that the attack on Hill 971 was totally impossible of achievement. Bean reported the saying that Monash 'would command a division better than a brigade and a corps better than a division'.

In Egypt in January 1916 he wearily began retraining his reconstituted brigade, distressed by the news of his wife's operation for cancer. The brigade, after dismemberment to form daughter units, joined 4th Division and spent two months in the local defences east of Suez Canal. In June they moved to France, to the Armentières sector, and were immediately tagged for a substantial diversionary and unsuccessful night-raid on 2 July. That month Monash was promoted major general in command of the new 3rd Division arriving on Salisbury Plain, England. He was given two first-rate British professionals to watch over him, Lieutenant-Colonels G. H. N. Jackson and H. M. Farmar, who soon became his admiring devotees. Training proceeded vigorously. Monash had a flattering triumph when King George V himself inspected the division. In November they moved into the Armentières sector as part of Godley's II Anzac Corps and General Sir Herbert Plumer's Second British Army. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig inspected on 22 December. Monash had established and retained a remarkably low crime-rate in the division. By an extraordinary feat of will-power he had reduced his weight drastically to 12½ stone (79 kg), which considerably added to his authority. His good fortune was, unlike the other Australian divisions, to serve under Plumer and Major General Harington, and that his first major battle, Messines in June 1917, was Plumer's masterpiece. According to Bean, Monash 'concentrated upon the plans an amount of thought and care far beyond that ever devoted to any other [A.I.F. operation]'. 'Wonderful detail but not his job', Harington commented. In the autumn, during 3rd Ypres, at Broodseinde Monash brought off the greatest A.I.F. victory yet. But the weather had broken and in the following week Monash and his 3rd Division suffered the misery of Passchendaele.

3rd Division, which Monash was sure was 'one of the Crack Divisions of the British Army', spent most of the winter quietly in the Ploegsteert sector. In November it had at last joined the other divisions in I Anzac Corps. Monash dined privately with Haig who let it be known that he wanted him as a corps commander; at the New Year he was appointed K.C.B., not a mere knighthood. In March 1918, in the face of the great German offensive, he brilliantly deployed his division to plug the gap in front of Amiens. They were, however, in the eye of the storm, and saw little serious action. But in late April and May they were heavily involved in aggressive 'peaceful penetration'. Then, to the general satisfaction of the A.I.F., Monash was appointed corps commander from 1 June and promoted lieutenant-general; Birdwood remained general officer commanding the A.I.F. Bean and the journalist (Sir) Keith Murdoch, however, carried on a relentless campaign for more than two months to replace Monash with Major General (Sir) Brudenell White and Birdwood with Monash. He stood to win both ways, but was determined to test himself in the field at corps level.

The battle of Hamel of 4 July—'all over in ninety-three minutes…the perfection of teamwork', Monash wrote—proved his point. The Americans participated, and Monash had to withstand, by extraordinary force of personality, a last-minute attempt by General Pershing to withdraw them. Military historians have acclaimed it as 'the first modern battle', 'the perfect battle'. 'A war-winning combination had been found: a corps commander of genius, the Australian infantry, the Tank Corps, the Royal Artillery and the RAF'.

Returned soldiers including many senior officers, and Australian patriots in general, broadly assumed that Monash inspired the great offensive of 8 August and thus 'won the war'. He himself was never quite sure. He and his army commander, General Rawlinson, were thinking along similar lines, but it is almost certain that Rawlinson anticipated Monash and allowed him to believe he was the instigator. At all events, in conjunction with the Canadians, the break-out on 8 August, 'the black day of the German army', was a classic set-piece. On 11 August an extraordinary chance gathering at Villers-Bretonneux of senior allied generals and politicians made Monash and Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadian, the centre of congratulations. Next day the king invested Monash with his knighthood.

The sixty days from 8 August, with the A.I.F. as virtual spearhead of the British army, were glorious. There was a minor botch on 10 August near Proyart, but thereafter, until about the end of September, a series of conclusive victories followed—at Chuignes, Mont St Quentin and Péronne especially (where Monash's ability in a fluid battle was finally proved), and Hargicourt. The breaking of the Hindenburg line, during which Monash commanded some 200,000 including Americans, was a much more uncertain matter; and the very last A.I.F. infantry action at Montbrehain, with heavy casualties, was probably unnecessary. But it was a series of victories unsurpassed in the annals of the British army and, according to military historians, the 5000 A.I.F. dead were a remarkably light cost. During the battles Monash had had to deal with Prime Minister Hughes's decision to send 6000 veterans home on leave, the British army's enforcement of disbandment of some battalions, and the tragic 'fatigue mutiny' of some of the 1st Battalion. Exhausted, Monash sought seclusion in England. Blessedly, the A.I.F. was moving back into action only on the day of the Armistice.

Monash perhaps won more than his fair share of fame, as against other Australian generals, for he had the great luck to take command of a magnificent fighting body just when the tide was about to turn conclusively in the allies' favour. But the task could hardly have been better done. None of the A.I.F. generals compare with him in intellect, articulateness or personal magnetism, though White does in administrative capacity. He won the undying respect of nearly all his peers, including the greatest fighting generals. Remarkably, no serious charge was ever held against Monash of 'butchery'. His reputation remains undiminished. Bean, as historian, remained rather ambivalent, combining effusive praise with trivial criticism and some personal distaste. Monash's international reputation, largely British, derives from Sir Basil Liddell Hart's admiration, which has uncritically been accepted by a succession of historians. Monash was sometimes admired as 'the best man in France' but, although he might have been offered an army if the war had continued into 1919, the conjecture that a Jewish colonial militiaman of German origin could ever have become British commander-in-chief is absurd. He never had the opportunity to succeed, or fail, at the level of high strategy.

As a general, Monash had the first essential qualities, the capacity to bear great strain and to make quick and clear decisions. His sheer intellect, breadth of grasp, his articulateness especially, together with his forceful personality, induced respect and confidence among his juniors. He worked closely with his staff, extracting the best from them: the partnership with his devoted admirer at corps, Brigadier General (Field Marshal Sir Thomas) Blamey was famous. He developed the practice of conferences of senior officers, not merely to cover a mass of detail, but to facilitate knowledge of what was expected right down the line. He held the view that warfare was essentially a problem in engineering, of mobilizing resources, like the conduct of a large industrial undertaking; in 1918 the men in the line knew that all was right behind them. He eagerly made use of the most recent innovations. He took the view that an energetic offensive policy, 'feeding the troops on victory', was the short way to end the slaughter and misery. He was of the new scientific breed of generals, did not attempt to hob-nob with the troops and seek their popularity, and so was often criticized by the traditional 'inspirational' school of thought. His chief weaknesses were his status-hunger, craving for publicity and honours, and his habit of exaggerating his men's and his own achievements.

The efficient and harmonious repatriation of 160,000 Australian soldiers, almost entirely within eight months, is among the most remarkable of Monash's achievements. He compelled the government to alter its initial policy of slow repatriation for fear of employment difficulties, and aggressively fought for and found ships, despite the shortage. He delighted in presiding over the superb A.I.F. Education Scheme. Commonwealth governments, in 1919 and later, entirely neglected to honour him or treat him with any generosity or ordinary courtesy, until the Scullin government eventually promoted him general. Meanwhile in London Monash enjoyed his considerable fame. From early August in about a month—another amazing feat—he wrote The Australian Victories in France in 1918; it was propaganda, but not far off the truth. Monash left for home on 15 November and had a tumultuous welcome in Melbourne on Boxing Day. But his happy homecoming was ruined by his wife Vic's illness; she died on 27 February 1920.

Monash had been uncertain about his future. He seriously considered standing for the Senate in 1919, but the Nationalist politicians blocked his path. He was looking for a national job, but negotiations for him to head the Institute of Science and Industry fell through. The salaries attached to the most senior military posts were meagre. He picked up the threads of his enterprises which Gibson had carried on, but could not resist a takeover offer for the Concrete Constructions Co. by W. R. Hume; Monash became a director of the Hume Pipe Co. (Aust) Ltd and picked up other directorships. Then in late June 1920 came the offer of the general managership of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, which he was happy to accept, withdrawing from the Reinforced Concrete Co.

His new task was of great public importance, difficulty and attractiveness to an engineer. Making abundant cheap power available by harnessing the huge deposits of Gippsland brown coal would remove a crippling handicap to development of industry. He had strong fellow commissioners—Sir Robert Gibson, (Sir) Thomas Lyle and George Swinburne—and Hyman Herman as chief technical expert; Monash himself was soon appointed chairman. Unexpected high moisture content of the coal produced a grave early crisis, but power from Yallourn, the model garden-town, was turned on in 1924. German technology was used to solve many problems. Monash faced great political difficulties and distrust of the project which required all his forceful pugnacity to overcome; he could not tolerate (Sir) Frederic Eggleston, his minister in 1924-27, who distrusted Monash's 'ruthless egotism'. He survived a major inquiry in 1926, and next year the commission showed a profit. By 1930 the initial task was completed, the S.E.C. grid covered the State and the commission was established as a highly successful state enterprise. Monash himself had inspired a degree of creativity, loyalty and affection, probably unparalleled in any other large Australian corporation then or since. As in the A.I.F. he displayed his gift both of exciting their best from his colleagues and making them his personal friends. 'He was a great leader', Herman wrote, 'and a genius in getting to the heart of any problem and finding its solution … the ablest, biggest-minded and biggest-hearted man I have ever known'.

Innumerable demands were made on him. His advice on military matters was occasionally sought and he sometimes publicly condemned starvation of the forces. He was the natural spokesman for returned soldiers. He took command of the Special Constabulary Force during the police strike of November 1923 and chaired the subsequent royal commission. From 1925 he led Melbourne's Anzac Day march and from 1927 was its chief organizer. The cause closest to his heart in his last years was the Shrine of Remembrance of which he was in practice chairman of the constructing body. Premiers constantly pestered him for advice. From 1923 he was vice-chancellor of the university (acting chancellor for a year in 1925-26), which involved heavy burdens. He was president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1924-26. He advised and lobbied governments on engineering appointments and other matters relating to the profession. The clubs he most enjoyed, other than the Naval and Military, were the Wallaby and Beefsteak, and he was president of Melbourne Rotary in 1922. His haven was the family home, Iona, where he lived with his daughter and delighted in his grandchildren; he had a great gift with children. His constant companion was Lizette Bentwitch, a miniature-painter; he also remained in touch with Annie Gabriel.

The great Anglo-Jewish families had rushed Monash in London in 1919. His quiescent communal feeling revived. He had habitually ignored anti-Semitism and denied that he had ever been subject to discrimination. But he was well aware of his own unusual position as a Jew leading the army of one of the world's most democratic peoples. On return home, he could not have escaped, even if he wished to, the degree of leadership of the Jewish people thrust upon him. He accepted some formal duties, including inactive membership of the board of management of the St Kilda congregation, sympathized with the liberal Jewish position, sometimes acted as communal spokesman, and eventually occasionally attended services. He also adopted moderate Zionism—an unusual stance among prominent contemporary Jews—and in 1927 became national president of the Australian Zionist Federation on the understanding that he could be little more than a figure-head. In the 1920s he never had to speak in protest about any major local incident of anti-Semitism. His own presence and prestige, Colin McInnes claimed, 'made anti-Semitism, as a “respectable” attitude, impossible in Australia'.

In the 1920s Monash was broadly accepted, not just in Victoria, as the greatest living Australian. The soldiers had to have a representative hero who was a volunteer; he was acceptable to the community as a seemingly unpretentious outsider, not really part of the Establishment. His commanding intellect was sensed as well as his basic honesty and decency. He was one tall poppy who was never cut down. His knowledge ranged extraordinarily widely, but was neither very profound nor original. He achieved greatness essentially as an administrator, by cultivating to a super-pitch of excellence the ordinary qualities such as memory, concentration, stability and common sense, allied with temperamental capacity to work harmoniously with colleagues. He had the gift of being able instantaneously to turn from one task to the next. He was a great teacher, supremely articulate, 'the greatest advocate I ever listened to' said Sir Robert Menzies. No one in Australia's history, perhaps, crammed more effective work into a life; but, he said, work was the best thing in life. In later years at least, his charm, courtesy and impression of simplicity were striking, though traces of deviousness, sensitivity to slights and constant need for approval remained.

From 1927 Monash was troubled with high blood-pressure. With his eyes open he continued to work. Early in 1930 the Scullin government briefly considered him as a possible governor-general. In 1930-31 he rebuffed sporadic attempts to persuade him to lead a right-wing political movement. Early in 1931 he enjoyed representing the Australian government at the durbar for the opening of New Delhi. By August his health had markedly deteriorated and he died of coronary vascular disease at Iona on 8 October. His state funeral, with crowds of at least 250,000, was probably the largest in Australia to that time; he was buried in Brighton cemetery with Jewish rites. Numerous memorials were raised, including an equestrian statue near the Shrine of Remembrance. The Australian War Memorial holds portraits by John Longstaff and James Quinn and shares with the National Library of Australia his huge collection of private papers and memorabilia.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, John Monash: A Biography (Melb, 1982) and for bibliography
  • P. Pedersen, Monash as Military Commander (Melb, 1985).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Monash, Sir John (1865–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Monash, by John Longstaff, c.1919

John Monash, by John Longstaff, c.1919

State Library of Victoria, 50629909

Life Summary [details]


27 June, 1865
West Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


8 October, 1931 (aged 66)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Events
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