Taking Command of the Australian Army Corps – Letters Home

……. the Australian Corps is the backbone of the Allied Armies

Following two years in command of the 3rd Division AIF, then Major General John Monash assumed command of the Australian Army Corps that had been formed effective 1 January 1918, on 31 May 1918. His appointment was accompanied by promotion to Lieutenant General.

The following letters were written by Monash to his wife in the lead up and immediately following his taking command of the Corps.

 

France, 14 May 1918

I expect within a few days to be appointed to the command of the Australian Army Corps, in place of General Birdwood, who will be appointed to the command of a new army of which this corps will probably in the near future form part.  This appointment will carry with it my promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-General.

The Australian Corps is much the largest of any of the twenty army corps in France, for it contains all the five Australian divisions, and a very large number of corps troops, comprising of a regiment of cavalry, a cyclist battalion, many brigades of heavy and super-heavy artillery, several battalions of tanks, corps, signal troops, ammunition parks, supply columns, mobile workshops, labour battalions, two squadrons of flying corps, and many other units.  The total command, of course fluctuates in accordance with the locality and the military situation, but at present exceeds 166,000 officers and men.  Moreover owing to the great prestige won by the corps during the last three months, it is much the finest corps command in the British Army.

General Birdwood hopes to retain the appointment of G.O.C., A.I.F, as well as his new army command.  Apart from the Australian Corps in France there is the Desert Column of 30,000 men in Egypt (commanded by Chauvel), the bases and hospitals in France, and the depots and administrative H.Q. in England (commanded by McCay and Griffiths) – all of which go to make up the whole Australian Imperial Force.  If the Australian Government agrees Birdwood will still retain his general authority to represent the Governor-General-in-Council on all questions of finance, commissioned appointments, etc., but in all other respects I shall be quite independent, and with direct access on most matters to the Commander-in-Chief, for the Army H.Q. is chiefly an administrative body, and it is seldom that a whole army (of several corps) is engaged in operations at one and the same time.  Cables have gone to Australia today to get the approval of the Government to the arrangement, but I do not think that it will affect my own promotion to the corps, because that is a matter in which Sir Douglas Haig will insist on making his own appointment, and I am proud to say that he has selected me.

 

France, 31 May 1918

I send you a number of papers, letter of congratulation, a menu card of the farewell dinner tendered to me by the whole of my staff (among signatures you will notice that of General Gellibrand, who succeeds me in the command of the 3rd Australian Division, and Mr John Longstaff, the famous artist), and programme of a race meeting held by my artillery near Abbeville.  This was an event absolutely unique of its kind, having been organised by Grimwade and his staff exactly on the lines of an Australian country rave-meeting.  Every detail was complete, even to the thirty licensed bookmakers, all got up in plain clothes with their money-bags, their clerks, and their brass voices.  There were booths, marquees, a lawn, a grandstand, a judge’s box, and all the appurtenances of a bush race-meeting.  The function was attended by the army commander (Rawlinson) and myself, in beautiful weather and was in every way a success.

Also several extracts from French newspapers describing the work of the corps during the last two months, a cutting from The Times of 28 May giving an account of our capture of Ville-sur-Ancre, and a leading article from The Times headed “Australian Valour”.  From these cuttings and extracts you will see that at last the Australians are beginning to receive a small share of the recognition to which they are entitled.  The people both in England and in France are, as I said in a previous letter, beginning to sit up and take notice and are in short, beginning to realise that the Australian Corps is the backbone of the Allied Armies.  Also a small envelope containing some blossoms from the chestnut-trees which are now in full bloom in this part of the world; and a leaf from the beautiful copper-beech, of which there are many such trees in the ornamental parks and the various chateaux of the district.

As for the cutting from the Adelaide Observer about my old 4th Brigade flag, there is something very fishy about this photograph and footnote.  So far as I can remember, both the sild and the cotton flags with the figure “4” worked upon them, which you originally made for me and presented to the 4th Brigade and which always flew on my flagstaffs, are still in my possession.  The changes are that Private Jones is nothing but a first-class liar.  As regards your offering him 25 pounds for the flag, this looks also like a newspaper invention.

 

Aus. Corps H.Q., France, 31 May 1918

As foreshadowed in my letter of 14 May I have today taken over command of the Australian Army Corps.  My promotion has already been definitely approved by the Army Council and the Commonwealth Government, and it is only a matter of a few days when it will be formally announced in orders.  My new command comprises a total at present of 166,000 troops, and covers practically the whole Australian field army in France.  My jurisdiction does not extend to England and the depots, nor to certain stationary hospitals and small base units in France, which latter are nominally under my direct control.  But for all practical purposes I am now the supreme Australian Commander, and thus at long last the Australian nation has achieved its ambition of having its own Commander-in-Chief, a native born Australian – for the first time in history.

My command is more than two and a half times the size of the British Army under the Duke of Wellington, or of the French Army under Napoleon Bonaparte, at the battle of Waterloo.  Moreover I have in the Army Corps an artillery which is more than six times as numerous and more than a hundred times as powerful as that commanded by the Duke of Wellington.  I have besides arms services and departments not dreamt of in his day, all of the highest scientific complexity.

I shall in due course, in the hope that it will interest you, have compiled and send you a complete list of all the units and troops which compose the Army Corps.  The chief elements are, of course, the five divisions each commanded by a major-general, and in addition nearly 70,000 corps troops.

You mention Lieutenant-Colonel Murray.  Of course, he is one of the best-known men in the A.I.F.  He was originally a private in my 13th Battalion.  He now commands the 4th Machine-gun Battalion.  His faithful friend and colleague, Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Black, a miner from Western Australia, who also started as a private, unfortunately lost his life last year at Bullecourt.  There are few finer infantry leaders than they.

 

REF:  MONASH – WAR LETTERS OF GENERAL MONASH Published by Black Inc