Honour Monash - A great Australian
Promote him Posthumously to Field Marshal by 11 November 2018
534 Days to go

 

 
 
Chauvel for Field Marshal

 

In World War 1, Australia produced two Corps Commanders:

• Lieutenant General (later General) Sir Harry Chauvel, promoted and given command of the Desert Mounted Corps (three Divisions [1]) in Palestine (now Israel) on 2 August 1917.

• Lieutenant General (later General) Sir John Monash, promoted and given command of the Australian Corps (five Divisions) in France on 1 June 1918.

In late 2016 The Hon Tim Fischer AC, and a group of committed Australians commenced a campaign to have General Monash posthumously promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, the highest rank in the Australian Army.

The rank of Field Marshal has only been given as an honour in the Australian Army. The rank nominally commands two or more corps as a separate formation; the Australian Army has only consisted of two or more corps in World Wars 1 and 2, and then never welded together as a single formation. Tim Fischer’s group noted that the only person so honoured by Australia after World War 1 was Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood (promoted on the recommendation of Prime Minister Bruce). He was a British Army officer who nominally commanded the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in World War 1 with the rank of General. As such, he was responsible for nationally relevant matters of administration relating to the AIF in Western Europe and South West Asia. He was well regarded by the Australian troops and did a competent job in this post, one of diplomacy and military logistics, not field command (Birdwood had been GOC the ANZAC Corps at Gallipoli, and in parallel with his command of the AIF, he held a British Army command in France). At the end of the war Monash and Chauvel were the field commanders of the Australian forces.

The 1925 honorific promotion of Birdwood in the Australian Army was a sycophantic reaction by a conservative Prime Minister Stanley Bruce (himself with a Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre from Gallipoli, though not whilst serving with the AIF) to British Government so promoting him.

After World War 1, Billy (William Morris) Hughes was Prime Minister until 1923. During the latter part of the war he had waged an arduous political campaign in Australia and overseas to have Australia’s voice heard at the peace table when the spoils of war were distributed in 1919. This was to some extent successful; German New Guinea became an external Australian Territory. World War 1 cost 60,000 Australian lives. Mr Hughes did not want to see combat commanders overshadow his effort, gaining honours outside his reach.

It was not until 11 November 1929 under Prime Minister Scullin that promotion of senior Australian field commanders were made to honour their contributions in World War 1. Both Monash and Chauvel were promoted to the rank of general, others of general officer rank in the war were also so honoured. Scullin had neither the jealousy of Hughes, nor the sycophancy of Bruce and was prepared to listen to the people of Australia who wished to see Australians honoured.

Tim Fischer’s band of committed Australians, just like those who influenced Scullin, seek to influence the now Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull to 'right the wrong' and have Sir John Monash elevated posthumously to the rank of Field Marshal. But why not Sir Harry Chauvel too?

Chauvel was a brilliant and effective commander, he deployed and utilised all forces placed under his command in the best way possible. BUT he was not quite the game changer Monash was.

Coming from modest immigrant beginnings, Monash had succeeded academically and in business prior to World War 1, his military experience was that of a reservist. Chauvel by contrast was the son of a well to do farming family. He had started his military career as an officer in his father’s sub-unit when it was formed in 1885. He had then risen in the New South Wales then Queensland Armies, serving full time.

Chauvel had combat experience in the Second Boer War, he did not have to go through the painful learning experience Monash did at Gallipoli. His work in collaboration with Monash in the defence of Monash Gully in May 1915 showed an in-depth and practical understanding of the effective deployment and conduct of static defence. His brilliance was recognised, he rose to command the 1st Australian Division at the time of the withdrawal.

Offered the command of an infantry Division, he chose to stay with the Light Horse. He was given command of the ANZAC Mounted Division on 16 March 1916 commanding it during the exceptionally well-coordinated mobile defensive operation at Rumani, then the advance to Gaza. There were three battles of Gaza. The first and second in March and April 1917 failed primarily due to ineffective command of Eastern Force by British General Murray. By the third battle of Gaza in October 1917, things had changed, Allenby had replaced Murray, and Chauvel was a corps commander. The story of the corps commander being at the point of battle, able to make the key decisions that ensured the Beersheba flank was taken, and Gaza lost by the Turks is well known.

After his success in Monash Valley, Monash had a difficult time at Gallipoli. During the August Offensive, his 4th Brigade suffered badly and did not achieve its objectives. He was encumbered, removed from the direct line of command to Division his brigade was placed under the direction of Major General Cox, commander of the Indian Brigade added to the ANZAC Division. Cox was not one to stand back and see directives executed, he liked to interfere. Monash also saw the control and review measures that had worked so well in defence did not stand the test of mobile combat. The hill 60 operation where his resources were removed from his command and squandered was also a sad time. Gallipoli was his first time in combat; a learning experience.

There was no offer of a division for Monash after Gallipoli he took his 4th Brigade to France. Reorganisation and expansion gave him the opportunity. He had a reputation for raising and training extending back to his time in the militia. When it was decided to form a Third Australian Division, he was made the commander. Honing this weapon was his task in 1916, returning it to France in 1917 taking part in the battle of Messines under British General Plumer. As 1917 passed, the reputation of 3 Div and its commander rose.

With troops released from their Eastern Front following the Russian Revolution, commencing 21 March 1918 German Operation Michael saw the enemy thrust toward Paris. It was stopped at a line just south of Amiens. The stop operations like that engineered by Brigadiers General Elliot and Glasgow at Villers Brettoneux on 24/25 April 1918 were brilliant. In May all of the five Australian Divisions were gathered into a single corps Lieutenant General Monash was given command.

Monash wrote: "the true role of infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, nor to tear itself to pieces in hostile entanglements - (I am thinking of Pozières and Stormy Trench and Bullecourt, and other bloody fields) - but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward; to march, resolutely, regardless of the din and tumult of battle, to the appointed goal; and there to hold and defend the territory gained; and to gather in the form of prisoners, guns and stores, the fruits of victory. [2]

On the front near the village of Le Hamel, Monash had his defining moment in history. He was given the opportunity to change the game, and did. He used his brilliant engineering skills to use every resource he had in an effective and coordinated way. He had chosen and fostered the Australian Army’s (the World’s at this time) best staff officer Brigadier General Blamey to record and detail his plans, then orchestrated a battle the like of which had not been seen before. With this victory as an example. The forces under his command were then instrumental in driving the overextended German Army back toward the border and armistice.

What he did was then used as a model for future mechanised all arms operations till today.

Chauvel after his defining moment at Beersheba continued to be effective. His Light Horse continued to work like the mounted infantry that had proved so effective on the veldt of South Africa. With every fourth man a horseholder, they could readily dismount and using the close fire and manoeuvre foreshadowed at Majuba, then perfected at locations like Rhenosterkop, were able to close with and destroy an enemy armed with rapid firing rifles and machine guns. When attacked as at Rumani, the horses in lines behind were ready to be used when relocation or reinforcement was required; even withdraw when met with stiff resistance at Aman and Es Salt.

By contrast with his contemporary, Chauvel’s innovation was to issue the Light Horse with swords and cross train them as cavalry. A throw-back, not an advance in military thinking. The Light Horse at Beersheba had attacked without a shock weapon (lance or sword). Many remarked that things would have been better had they had one. I don’t think so. Without swords, the Light Horse were expected by the Turks and their German advisers to dismount, then attack on foot. The defender’s weapons were focussed on the most likely dismount point. With the resultant confusion, and speed of the horses affording the attackers protection (almost akin to that provided by the fast-moving Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicles of today), the Light Horsemen dismounting on the objective was far more effective than any shock weapon charge. Those who advised the use of shock weapons should have remembered that lances were best at breaking infantry squares (not used effectively since Waterloo) or chasing and skewering infantry that were not dug-in; sabres when cavalry clashed with cavalry; swords a kind of dual purpose weapon, not best at either, just easier to stow and carry than a lance. It should be noted Turkish uhlans were found difficult to draw into battle in Saini and Palestine. Possibly their commanders recognised the limited role lancers could play in modern warfare.

The swords were used to some good effect against the Turkish Army when demoralised and retreating. For example at Tzemach railway station (just south of the Sea of Gallilee) the 11th Light Horse armed with swords routed a larger force of retreating Turks. However, the subsequent cross training of Australia’s Light Horse as mounted infantry/cavalry did not contribute at all to their deployment as machine gunners, tankmen or the Kelly Gang in World War Two.

So, should Chauvel be posthumously promoted Field Marshal as well as Monash? Yes, I think there is justification, he performed with skill far in advance of those British officers so honoured. Does he deserve it as much as Monash? No Monash’s demonstration of what could be done with technologically advanced forces changed the way battles are fought. Chauvel’s contribution to military science cannot be regarded as highly.

Bibliography:

A. J. Hill, 'Birdwood, William Riddell (Baron Birdwood) (1865–1951)'. Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press, 1979.

A. J. Hill, 'Chauvel, Sir Henry George (Harry) (1865–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1979.

Geoffrey Serle, 'Monash, Sir John (1865–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1986.

End Notes

[1] The Desert Mounted Corps from April 1918 had 4 Mounted Divs (ANZAC, Australian [includes French Regt], 4th Indian Cav, 5th Indian Cav), 20th Indian Infantry Bde (Imperial Service), 38th and 39th Bns Royal Fusiliers, 1st and 2nd Bns British West Indian Regiment, No 1 Australian Light Car Patrol, 1 Sqn Australian Flying Corps (equivalent to 5 Divs).

[2] John Monash, 'The Australian Victories in France in 1918' Hutchison and Co, London, 1920

Author’s Note

October 2017 sees the centenary of the Battle for Beersheba commemorated in Israel in a ceremony that will be attended by the Governor General or the Prime Minister. July 2018 sees the centenary of Le Hamel commemorated in France attended by the Governor General or the Prime Minister. It would be a touch that honours the Australians of the First AIF if both were to be promoted posthumously to Field Marshal with the promotions to be announced at Beersheba on 31 October 2017.

But when it comes to a question of which General is the most deserving; there is no question; Monash is the most deserving.

John Howells
March 2017


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