TOP ANZAC BRASS
This sweet-faced boy is John Monash and his story is in so many ways Australia’s, or should be. Born in Melbourne in 1865, he was the son of German immigrants. His parents, like many European Jews who came to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, including some of my own forebears, more or less let their religious practice go, but even so young John joined the synagogue choir and celebrated his bar mitzvah.
He attended the prestigious Scotch College and, an academic star, matriculated at the age of fourteen. At Melbourne University he studied engineering and threw himself into every social and intellectual activity going on campus – theatre, music, debating, and editing the Melbourne University Review.
When his mother died in 1885, he went off the rails for a couple of years, dropped out of uni, got a construction job, joined his local military unit, fell in love with his girl Hannah Moss, and married her before returning to uni to complete his degree.
An ordinary extraordinary Aussie guy, when the Great War unfolded across John’s middle-age, he led Australian troops into battle at Gallipoli and, most famously, on the Western Front, where he was to become his nation’s most successful general. He was a brilliant tactician, devoted to minimising casualties through rigorous training and meticulous planning.
Even still, our most famous war historian, the journalist Charles Bean, lobbied against John Monash being appointed full commander of Australia’s forces. He said: “We do not want Australia represented by men mainly because of their ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves.”
Well, Mr Bean, if Mr Monash hadn’t been that pushy, opinionated Jew there is some argument that Australia’s part in the final push against German forces in the Battle of Hamel in 1918 might not have been as effective as it was, and might not have led to the conclusion of the war. If bigotry had had its wicked way, John Monash would not have been made a general at all.
But this is Australia. Despite our tall poppy syndrome, our cultural cringe, and our bare-knuckled racism, our fair-go commonsense means that a boy like John – so clever and so dedicated to his country, our country – can rise to the very top. He was knighted by King George V at the end of the war, enormous crowds turned out to welcome him home, and 300,000 attended his state funeral in 1931.
What a man. What a mensch. Sir General John Monash – the man who should be our most celebrated Anzac, but who isn’t. This Anzac Day, I will remember you.