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Article  •  16 June 2016


Monash the man

Insights on Major-General John Monash from Adam Wakeling’s The Last Fifty Miles.

Adam Wakeling’s The Last Fifty Miles invites readers to march along with the troops led by Australian Major-General John Monash. It’s a riveting account of how, when it mattered most, Australia stood up to play a critical role in one of the most decisive victories of World War One.

‘Throughout the summer and autumn of 1918, an Australian army advanced from Villers-Bretonneux to Montbrehain,’ Wakeling writes in the book’s introduction. ‘It was the largest army ever to march under Australian command, at its height comprising over two hundred thousand men from several nations… It was an army of liberation, driving occupying forces of the German Empire from France. It played a role in that most pivotal year, 1918, which began with Europe consumed with total war and ended with revolution, the fall of three major empires and the foundation of a new, modern world order.’

Initially perceptions of Monash were mixed – he’d risen through the ranks as a part-time militia officer rather than as a professional soldier, and was of German-Jewish background at the height of xenophobia. But he became Australia’s most famous soldier and tactician, and, as Wakeling points out, he was a colourful figure: ‘a Renaissance man: engineer, lawyer, writer, musician and polyglot’. Observations from historians and soldiers, and quotes from Monash himself, throughout The Last Fifty Miles reveal glimpses of the character of this extraordinary leader. Here are a few examples.

‘To what country and people do I owe most? To that which I have never seen, with which I have no connection, but that it is the home of some of my relatives? Or to that in which and among whom I was born, have grown up, where I have learned all that I know, to which I owe all the happiness that I have experienced? […] Shall I in return for this look upon it as a foreign land, to be deserted at the first convenient opportunity? No, it is my native land; I have contracted from it a heavy debt, and it will ever be to me a prominent object, in some measure to repay that debt.’ – John Monash

Source: www.awm.gov.au/collection/records/awm4/23/9/awm4-23-9-17.pdf

‘I have vivid recollections of General Monash. He was a great bullock of a man, dark and florid, with a strain of Jewish blood, blazing black eyes and the kind of fierce vitality one associates with wild animals. He made a great impression on me, for though his manners were pleasant and his behaviour far from rough, I have seen few men who gave such a sensation of force. He was an able and, I should have judged, unscrupulous man, just bursting with the fighting spirit, a fit leader for the wild men he commanded.’ – Captain Phillip Ledward of the 8th Division

Source: www.awm.gov.au/collection/records/awm4/23/9/awm4-23-9-17.pdf

‘A perfect modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases.’ – John Monash

Source: Bean, C. E. W. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume V: The Australian Imperial Force during the Main German Offensive, 1918, 8th edition.

The Last Fifty Miles Adam Wakeling

The Last Fifty Miles is the riveting account of how, when it mattered most, Australia stood up to play a critical role in one of the most decisive victories of World War One. Told with immediacy, lyricism and a clear-eyed focus by a brilliant new talent in history writing, it relives an extraordinary, neglected chapter of Australia's past.

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