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Monash, Sir John (1865–1931)

from Argus (Melbourne)

John Monash, 1924?

John Monash, 1924?

Museum Victoria, 201

It is with the deepest regret that we announce the death of General Sir John Monash, a great soldier and a great citizen, who was the leader of Australia's citizen soldiers in some of the most remarkable achievements of the war, and who served his country hardly less splendidly in times of peace. The whole Empire will mourn. 

The Federal Ministry has decided upon a State funeral, which will take place at the Brighton Cemetery on Sunday. The funeral will be held with military honours appropriate to the rank of a general, the escort consisting of four battalions of infantry and six squadrons of Light Horse. 

The body will lie in state in the Queen's Hall, State Parliament House, to-day, tomorrow, and on Sunday morning.

Tributes to Sir John Monash' s genius and personality have been paid by all sections of the community.

Sir John Monash died at his home in St George's road, Toorak, at 11 o'clock yesterday morning after an illness which extended over 10 days. At midnight on Wednesday there was a disturbing change in his condition. He had been in failing health for nearly two years. The failure became more noticeable after his return to Australia early in the year from India where he officially represented the Commonwealth at the opening of the capitol at New Delhi. An affection of the heart which was aggravated by other internal troubles led to the last phase of his illness.

Thoroughness and versatility were qualities which were exemplified on many occasions in Sir John Monash's career. His brilliance and success as a leader in war resulted from abilities which he had demonstrated in years of peace. He was a born organiser, and many years before 1914 he was one of the small band of men who strove, when there was public indifference, to prepare for a possible time of war. His skill as a civil engineer was one of the qualifications which contributed greatly to his impressive war record. That same skill, coupled with his store of experience in organising and in the handling of men and in the selection of leaders, he brought to bear in building from nothing one of the largest and most successful public utilities in the Commonwealth when he was appointed chairman of the State Electricity Commission after the war. Sir John Monash will be best remembered by those who were his contemporaries for his brilliant leadership as a soldier, but in his post-war services to his State he has left an enduring memorial.

Sir John Monash, who was born in Melbourne in 1865, was the son of the late Mr Louis Monash. He was educated at Scotch College, and he was dux of the school when aged only 14 years. Entering upon a brilliant career at the Melbourne University immediately afterward, he graduated as bachelor of arts in 1887. He then commenced the law course and three years later he graduated LL.B. This would have been sufficient for most men but Sir John Monash then entered the engineering school and in 1893 he qualified as master of civil engineering in the same year winning The Argus scholarship.

Sir John Monash's public career, which falls mainly into three periods, dates from the time when he completed his engineering course. Shortly after graduation he began practice as a civil engineer in Melbourne, devoting special study to concrete structural work, a branch of engineering which was then undergoing development. He himself contributed in no small part to this development, and he often declared that reinforced concrete construction was an accepted method of building in Australia long before it was generally employed in Great Britain or in the United States. Many important works with which he was associated at this period are still to be found about Melbourne. One was the Anderson street bridge, one of his first works, which was so successful that there quickly followed to his specifications many other bridge and building designs. He soon won recognition as one of the leading members of his profession in Australia. He was president of the Institution of Engineers many times before the war.

Despite the claims made upon him by his professional duties, Sir John Monash did not allow these to interfere with the association which he had made with the militia forces when still at the University. In 1887 he had joined these forces with the rank of lieutenant in the Victorian Garrison Artillery. He was promoted captain in 1892, and he became major in 1900, lieutenant-colonel in 1905 and colonel in 1912. In this time, with Federation, had come the Citizen Force army, to which Sir John Monash transferred upon its establishment. He commanded the Australian Intelligence corps from 1908 until March, 1914.

The second, and most spectacular part of Sir John Monash's career began in August, 1914. The declaration of war found him with the rank of colonel in a citizen force unit—the militia colonel as he was once described by an admirer, who was destined to teach the generals of the world how to wage war. When the occasion arose he showed that he was pre-eminently a soldier, and that he had brain power and organising ability scarcely surpassed by that of any of the great soldiers who took part in the war. His work as commander of the Australian Army Corps caused him to be acclaimed not only in his own country, but also in many others, and he held a high place in the esteem of the British Commander in Chief, Earl Haig.

To Sir John Monash war presented a gigantic problem to be unravelled from his headquarters. He planned every movement of his forces with the genius and detail of a great organiser. His mind was eminently one for methodical and cool deliberation, and he had abounding, restless energy. He believed in vigorous tactics, and he chafed under the long periods which the Allied armies in France spent on the defensive. One of his chief maxims was, "Feed your troops on victory"; he applied this maxim whenever the opportunity presented itself. He was a firm believer in the education of his troops to understand their tasks, and, wherever possible, it was his policy to explain what his intentions were before an engagement. His own orders were written by himself with meticulous care, and they were carefully explained to his brigade commanders. He insisted upon each brigade commander conveying the explanation to each of his battalion commanders, and on the battalion commanders in turn making an explanation to the company commanders. Thus, before moving into action, each small unit knew clearly what was expected of it, and how its success or failure would influence the fortunes of others. This policy resulted in a degree of intelligent co-operation between individual small units which was unequalled on the Western front.

Before the battle of Messines Sir John Monash had a large relief map of the ground to be won constructed behind the lines, and as the action extended he was able to trace its progress with minute accuracy. When preparations for the battle of Hamel were being made he allowed it to become known that he was leaving France for London, for the purpose of throwing the enemy off the scent; he returned secretly to his headquarters, however, and his strategy was completely successful. After the battle of Hamel his orders and battle plans for that action were republished by General Headquarters as a model for the guidance of the whole British Army. In a desperate period of the war Sir John Monash revealed his mastery of tactics. On August 8, 1918— the day of the largest and most important operation ever undertaken by the Australian Corps, which Ludendorff has described as "the blackest day of the Gemini army"—Sir John Monash based his plans upon an entirely original conception of how a battle should be fought. He decided to undertake for the first time during the war on so comprehensive a scale the tactical expedient of "leapfrog" by division—a procedure by which one body of troops, having gained its objective, was there halted as at a completed task while a second body of troops, of similar order of importance, but under an entirely separate commander, advanced over the ground won, reached the foremost battle line, took over the tactical responsibility for the fighting front, and after a prescribed interval of time continued the advance to a further and more distant objective. This complex and unprecedented expedient proved eventually to be the keynote of the success of the entire project, which resulted in a victory of immense tactical value. A hole had been driven on a width of nearly 12 miles right through the German defence, and had blotted out at one blow the whole of the military resources which it contained.

At Bertangles, near Amiens on August 12, 1918, His Majesty the King, who was then visiting the Western front, conferred upon him by accolade the honour of knighthood. The ceremony took place in the presence of selected detachments of 500 of the men who had fought in the battle of Villers-Bretonneux, a hundred from each of the five divisions. Great as was his tactical ability, Sir John Monash owed his success as a leader equally to the admiration which he held for his troops, and to the confidence which he reposed in them; these feelings were reciprocated by the entire Australian forces. Between him and the men of the Australian Imperial Forces there were established during critical days ties of mutual affection and trust which the years after the war left as strong as ever.

Although Sir John Monash became one of the greatest leaders in the war, this distinction was not attained without unending hard work. Upon his enlistment for service in 1914 he was appointed chief censor in Australia. In December 1914, he left Australia in command of the 4th Infantry Brigade. He landed on Gallipoli with this unit and for some time he had to hold tenaciously to the left flank at Anzac. At Hill 60, and in front of Sari Bair, the first opportunity was presented to him to apply his genius for tactics. His leadership there was stamped by the method and cool deliberation which were later to win him fame in France. He supervised the evacuation of the 4th Brigade from the peninsula. For some time after the evacuation the 4th Brigade was engaged on the dreary work of guarding the Suez Canal. Then it was ordered to France. Sir John Monash accompanied it to Marseilles, but on arrival there he was ordered to England to assume command of the third Australian Division, which was then in course of formation at Salisbury.

He was specially selected for this work in consequence of the organising ability and leadership which he had displayed on Gallipoli. He completed the formation of the 3rd Division, supervised its training, and went with it to France. The division took a leading part in the battle of Messines in 1917, and from that time on to the signing of the armistice it continued to occupy vital parts on the allied front line. When the Germans launched their final desperate attack in 1918 the 3rd and 4th Divisions were flung into the action to hold the hard-pressed Allied line between Amiens and Albert. How well they performed their duty is a matter of history. Speaking later of this period from his close personal observations, Sir John Monash said:—"Villers-Brettoneux marked the crisis of the war. It gave the Allies breathing space, enabled the Americans to arrive, and paved the way for the August offensive."

With the turning of the tide came the crowning honour in Sir John Monash's war career. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and given command of all five divisions of the Australian Army Corps, the largest of all army corps ever organised, to which were added at various times the 17th Imperial Division, the 32nd Imperial Division, and the 27th and 30th American Divisions. In the closing days of September the corps numbered nearly 200,000 men, exceeding more than fourfold the whole of the British troops under Wellington at Waterloo. Led by an Australian, the Australian army swept on to victory. Upon the capitulation of the Central Powers and the signing of the armistice Sir John Monash undertook the task of demobilising his troops, a work which because of the huge number of men concerned and the great distance which they had to be transported called for the highest degree of organising skill.

For his work on Gallipoli Sir John Monash was thrice mentioned in despatches, and he was made a Companion of the Bath. In France he was mentioned in despatches no fewer than five times. For his services there he was created Knight Commander of the Bath: he was the second Australian to gain that distinction on active service. In 1918 he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. Among other orders which he received were those of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour (France), Grand Officer of the Order of the Crown (Belgium), Croix de Guerre, with two palms (France), Croix de Guerre (Belgium), and the American Distinguished Service Medal.

When Sir John Monash returned to Victoria after the war he found another great public task awaiting him. In 1918 the State Parliament had adopted a proposal to develop the natural power resources of Victoria, and in 1919 the State Electricity Commission was is in process of formation to carry out that policy. Because of his marked ability as an engineer, his qualities as a leader, and his capacity for organisation, Sir John Monash was asked to take charge of the undertaking, and at the end of 1919 he accepted the appointment of chairman of the commission. When he joined the commission be found that it possessed a handful of men as its staff on a floor of a city building and neither money nor personnel to carry out the important duties with which it was charged. He had, therefore, not merely to build up the second largest public undertaking in Victoria in the shortest time in which such a service had ever been established, but he had also to select nearly all the staff required for this purpose. He threw himself into the work with characteristic energy. In 1920 the first of the tenders for the erection of the Yallourn power-house had been received and accepted. Thereafter the development of Yallourn became one of the romances of engineering in Australia. In 1921 the first sod was turned preparatory to removing the overburden and clearing the coal face lit Yallourn. The building of the power-house proceeded steadily, a track more than 120 miles long was cut through the forests of Gippsland to Melbourne, and a transmission line was suspended along it, and in 1924 the first of the current from Yallourn was received in the city.

In the, meantime, however, Sir John Monash had discovered that an industrial crisis would occur if the metropolis had to wait until 1924 for power from Yallourn. Accordingly, by agreement with the Railways department and the Government, he arranged for an extension of the Newport railways power-house expressly for industrial and domestic supply, and in consequence of the rapidity with which this equipment was provided, a severe check to the industrial development of the city was avoided. Since then Sir John Monash had seen the opening of the first power-house, its extension, and the the partial erection of another power-house at Yallourn, which will be half as large again as the first which the commission erected there. He had also arranged for the erection of a group of hydro-electric stations in the Rubicon district, which are supplying to the metropolitan area some of the cheapest power in the world.

As an engineer Sir John Monash was quick to recognise that in its brown coal deposits Victoria possessed an asset the value of which would be by no means confined to the development of electrical power, and he addressed himself to the task of finding other purposes for its use. An experimental briquette factory was built at Yallourn, and the new fuel proved so popular that only this year a new and much larger factory was opened there to supply briquettes on a commercial basis.

Sir John Monash brought about the establishment of a research department of the Electrical Commission for the express purpose of finding uses for the Yallourn brown coal. Thanks to his foresight every town in Victoria will ultimately be served with power from a chain of State generating stations.

Sir John Monash worked so tirelessly as the chairman of the electricity Commission that for many years after accepting the appointment he did not take a holiday. Nevertheless he had other important public associations. He showed an unwavering interest in former soldiers in civil life. Important movements among returned soldiers won his ready sympathy, and when this was enlisted he was usually the driving force behind them. By common consent he was chosen by the soldiers of Victoria to lead the great memorial marches on Anzac Day. He was one of the keenest advocates of the erection of a non-utilitarian national war memorial, and he was chairman of the committee which decided upon the site on the Domain. He was a member of the selection committee which chose the design for the Shrine of Remembrance, and thenceforward he devoted an immense amount of time and assistance in the collection of the necessary funds and to the advancement of the Shrine.

Both before and after the war Sir John Monash wrote many papers on engineering subjects. Soon after the war he decided to summarise in one book the work of the Australians in France. He entered upon his task with characteristic zeal. He began the first chapter on September 1, 1919, and he finished the book on September 30 of the same year. This work was submitted by him to the University of Melbourne in 1920 as a thesis upon the subject of engineering applied to warfare, and upon it he was awarded the degree of doctor of engineering—the first occasion upon which a candidate had qualified for that degree at any Australian university. Sir John Monash took a keen interest in the welfare of the University. He served on the University Council for many years, and in 1923 he was appointed vice-chancellor. He was a member of the Rotary Club, and was its president in 1922. Early this year he was selected by the Commonwealth Government to represent the Commonwealth at the opening of New Delhi, India. There be unveiled a column named after the Commonwealth. In 1930 he was promoted from the rank of lieutenant-general, which he held on the reserve list, to that of general. Sir Harry Chauvel is the only other holder of the rank in Australia.

Sir John Monash was D.C.L. (Oxford), LL.D. (Cambridge and Melbourne), a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers (London), and a member of the Commonwealth Council of Defence. He was president of the Naval and Military Club from 1922 to 1930, and from 1924 to 1926 he was president of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science. He was director and chairman of several industrial and commercial companies. Among his clubs, in addition to the Naval and Military, were the Yorrick, University, Beefsteak, Wallaby, and Old Scotch Collegians. He was a patron of the Melbourne Legacy Club.

In private life Sir John Monash had a diversity of interests. His only outdoor recreation was an occasional walk with the Wallaby Club. He was always a student, though a practical student, and man of affairs, and the well-stocked bookshelves at his home in Toorak showed the catholicity of his tastes. He possessed a remarkable collection of war and other documents including the complete set of the letters which he wrote to Lady Monash from the time of his departure from Australia until she joined him in England after the armistice. He was keenly interested in music; in his youth he was an accomplished pianist, and he had appeared upon Melbourne concert platforms. He was, too, an enthusiastic gardener.

Sir John Monash was a great soldier, but his views of the army as a profession were definite. To the father of a boy who desired to enter a military college he said:— If a boy has any aptitudes with which he can enliven and enrich his mind, do not let him live the life of a soldier in times of peace. There is nothing more narrow or more deadening than the walls of administrative routine, textbook, and regulation by which he will be surrounded. Let him find his great life interest in whatever he is fitted to practise. If the day of fighting should come he will be then the more useful because he will be at his very best in whatever he is best suited to accomplish.

Sir John Monash was a widower. Lady Monash (who was Miss Victoria Moss) died soon after the war. His daughter, Mrs. Gershon Bennett, survives him.

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'Monash, Sir John (1865–1931)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 September 2017.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2017

John Monash, 1924?

John Monash, 1924?

Museum Victoria, 201

Life Summary [details]


27 June 1865
West Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


8 October 1931
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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