Lest We Forget: Is Anti-Semitism behind Monash snub?

James WF Roberts


With Anzac Day looming the usual questions abound about whether the Indigenous Wars should be recognized by ANZAC Day, is it appropriate for a Hollywood Superhero movie to open before the usual 1pm opening hours on ANZAC day, should Turkish and German descents of World War 1 combatants be allowed to march as well?

Another issue is rearing its head, as it has been for almost a decade, is not getting anywhere near as much publicity as it should be, namely should General Sir John Monash be recognised and  posthumously awarded the field marshal-ship of the Australian Army.

Fairfax Media on Wednesday revealed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would not grant Sir John Monash the rank of field marshal – the highest rank in the Australian Army – following a decade-long push by supporters who think the general’s role in helping end World War I has not been properly recognised.

Former deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, who led the campaign to promote Monash, urged the Prime Minister to reconsider.

“There are no insurmountable reasons as to why you can not proceed with the promotion of John Monash,” Mr Fischer said on Wednesday.

“It remains curious in the extreme that Prince Charles, who absolutely deserves to be head of the Commonwealth, will on accession become an Australian field marshal like his father and grandfather, but not John Monash our greatest military leader.” Fischer told Fairfax.

So, just who was Sir John—more than just than the name of the student bar of the University named after him, or the city in the South East of Melbourne, or a major Freeway; many war historians, and historians in general regard Sir John as one of the most pre-eminent Australians of the last hundred years. In fact, could his contributions to Australia before, during and after the First World War, make Sir John our own Benjamin Franklin?

(George V knighting Gen. Monash)

General Sir John Monash was born in Melbourne in 1865 and educated at Scotch College and then the University of Melbourne graduating with three Bachelor Degrees in engineering, law and arts.  He joined  the Metropolitan Brigade of the Garrison Artillery which was engaged in port defence. At this early stage he was already engaged in combining his academic knowledge with his military career, bringing his engineering and mathematical skills into the science of gunnery.

By 1914, he had in civilian life established himself as a pillar of Melbourne society. He lectured in engineering at university, was involved in a number of community activities including the boy scouts, and held a number of prominent appointments such as chairman of the graduates association and President of the University Club and Victorian Institute of Engineers.

When war came,  Monash was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and appointed as Commander of the Victorian-based 4th Infantry Brigade. The  Brigade trained in Egypt and landed at Gallipoli on the morning of the 26th April 1915 having been held in reserve on the 25th. For the landing his Brigade was given the centre left sector including responsibility for Pope’s Hill and Quinn’s Post.

Monash was promoted to Major General in July 1916, and placed in command of the 3rd Australian Division. The Division was involved in months of serious fighting and trench warfare in France from November 1916 until they progressed to full scale operations from June 1917 onward. After his brilliant blocking of the massive German offensive from 21 March 1918, Monash was promoted in May to Lieutenant General and appointed Commander of the Australian Army Corps.

It was during this period that he planned and directed a series of determined and effective actions commencing in July 1918, with the blueprint for modernized operations at Le Hamel.

The success of this engagement gave the British High Command great confidence in Monash and led to the  masterful and meticulously planned ‘Battle of Amiens’ in which two German armies were defeated (and a further two reserve armies were put out of commission temporarily) inside 48 hours from 8 August. A 100-day, Monash commanded blitzkrieg ensued, resulting in the defeat of 39 German Divisions and culminating in the penetration of the Hindenburg Line by 5th October 1918.

Despite delivering these crushing blows against the Germans at Hamel, Amien and the Hindenburg Line, he was not promoted above the rank of lieutenant general during the war.

Mr Fischer, continued in his comments to Fairfax, saying that “he was a giant of a man. I think the country did the wrong thing by him – not quite as bad as the French Dreyfus affair but not far off it, and the sooner he’s promoted to field marshal, the better,” Mr Fischer said.

The Dreyfus affair was a terrible incident where Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain in the French army was falsely convicted, and eventually exonerated, in the 1890s of passing military secrets to the Germans. The scandal was stoked by anti-Semitic newspapers.

So, why wasn’t Monash recognised by the Australian government, at the time, and promoted to Field Marshall?  Well, Australia’s official First World War historian Charles Bean and journalist Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert Murdoch, hatched a plan to deceive then Prime Minister Billy Hughes.

Much like the anger and mistrust, George V suspected of his subjects, because of the Monarch’s German heritage, Bean and Murdoch saw him of German parentage’ and the empire was at war with the Germans—he had the wrong religion, being Jewish, and he was seen not being a real professional soldier—he was from the Militia, essentially a Reservist.

And here is where it gets really, really, interesting. The Federal Cabinet, approved Monash as Commander of the Australian Corps, but then the rat himself, (look up Billy Hughes and the way the ALP still see him) PM Billy Hughes suspended the decision.

In an act of media over reach, Murdoch and Bean argued, Monash should not be appointed as commander and be assigned to London instead, to make room for their preferred candidate.

(PM Billy ‘the Little Digger’ Hughes and Keith Murdoch. France, 1915).

“Monash has his capacities, great lucidity in grasping what has to be done and explaining it; but such a desire to make out the best case for himself after the event, that he accepts any pretty story which is put up to him,” wrote Bean in December 1917.

And, in a further almost as subtle letter, Bean wrote, that “his ambition makes him an underground engineer: he has the Jewish capacity of worming silently into favour without seeming to take any steps towards it, although many are beginning to suspect that he does take steps.”

Bean noted in his diary at the time: “We do not want Australia represented by men mainly because of the ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves forward”.

And of course there were rumours circulating that Monash was a German spy…though who circulated those rumours, it’s not for me to say.

To add to the strain of his preparation for what is now considered one on the most pivotal battles against the Germans, Monash’s appointment as commander of Australia’s forces by Hughes was in doubt,  until Mr Hughes visited London and directly consulted with senior officers.

In June 1918, Monash wrote to the Hughes to argue his case.

“I have been made aware that there is a body of opinion in London, led by Mr Keith Murdoch,” he wrote.

“May I say that I’m on the best of terms personally with Mr Murdoch, I admire his patriotism and respect his motives, but on the question at issue, I entirely disagree with him.

“It is said that he has urged upon you that his proposal has received wide, not to say unanimous, support… I wish to say that this is wholly misleading and absolutely incorrect.”

Monash noted in his diary, “It is a great nuisance to have to fight a pogrom of this nature in the midst of all one’s other anxieties”.

Speaking to SBS online, Monash’s great-grandson Michael Bennett, said “expressions Bean used about Monash being a ‘pushy Jew’, are an expression of terrible intolerance,” said great-grandson Michael Bennett.

“How absurd to use such personal concerns in something as important as fighting a war and choosing men to lead troops in war.”


But Hughes backed Monash after a visit to London and France, where he saw the officer corps stood behind their commanding officer. It was a proud moment for Jews in Australia.

After the war, Monash helped found Australia’s first Rotary Club, was president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, helped initiate annual Anzac Day commemorations and in 1929, was finally promoted to rank of general.

“Obviously there was an unfortunate degree of anti-Semitism at the time but he rose above it and was proud of his Judaism,” said Mr Josh Frydenberg federal Minister for the Environment and Energy , who is Jewish.

“The fact that Australia has been so welcoming of the Jewish community for so many decades can be traced in part to the respect and admiration of Sir John Monash.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who whilst in opposition and up until recently fully endorsed the campaign to grant Monash his posthumous Field Marshall’s baton, who this week will be opening of the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux in France with the French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, was in favour of the promotion, of the elevation, however he has declined the chance to make the changes at this centennial year.

Supporters of the movement, including Supporters, including the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, and various Coalition MPs, had hoped the Turnbull would announce the change in time for this week’s ANZAC Day celebration, but are extremely disappointed with this recent, development, with Shorten stating that, “an elevation to the rank of field marshal was “not just about personal recognition for John Monash”.

“It is an acknowledgement of everyone who served our nation in the First World War – the young Australians whose brave deeds shaped our national identity”.

Former Australia Governor-General, and retired Major General Michael Jeffery, also speaking to Fairfax said, “I have the greatest respect for Sir John Monash, a very fine corps commander and contributor to Australia in other aspects of life,” a lot of this is being done out of emotion and not out of a considered, merit-based case.”

So, is this still a case of Anti-Semitism? Or is this just a case of Government and Army bureaucracy writ-large, as the Australian Army does not, as a matter of policy grant promotions to no longer active or long deceased war heroes.

SOURCES: FAIRFAX MEDIA. Australian War Memorial. SBS Online.