War Letters of General Monash

Having taken command of the Australian Army Corps on 31 May 1918, the following letters were written by then Lieutenant General Monash, to his wife Victoria in the days leading up to the Battle of Amiens.

France, 19 July 1918

I am sending you, attached hereto, a complete list of the members of a political, economic and military Mission, which is being sent by the French Government to Australia at the invitation of the Commonwealth Government.  This Mission has been spending two days as my guests at corps headquarters, and proceeds at once to Australia, via America, expecting to arrive there in about two months from now.  They will spend two or three months in Australia, negotiating with the Government questions of mutual interest between the French and ourselves.

Group Portrait of Lieutenant General Sir John Monash KCB, with General Pau and members of the French Mission who visited Australia

Monsieur Albert Metin is the head of the Mission.  He is a “Deputy” – a member of the French Chamber of Deputies.  He was until quite recently Minister for the Blockade.  He has served in the ranks of the French Army as a private since the beginning of the war, except for short periods when he was a member of the Government.  He holds the grade of Minister Plenipotentiary.  I have been very favourably impressed with him as a very fine man.  He speaks English fluently and has already visited Australian on a previous occasion.  General Pau is a famous veteran French general.  He had brilliant success in Alsace at the beginning of the war.  More recently he has been Military Attaché in Russia and Salonika.  He goes out as head of the military portion of the Mission.  He has lost his right arm, but this does not hamper him in the least.  He is a dear old man, who unfortunately can speak no English, but has a most charming personality, is a brilliant speaker, and will, I am sure, appeal most strongly to the Australian public.  Mr J.T. Meadows Smith is the special delegate of the Commonwealth Government and holds rank as His Majesty’s Consul in Paris.  He has lived for over twenty years in Paris and speaks French fluently.

The Mission is the bearer of the following message from me to the Australian People:-

“Upon the occasion of the visit to the Australian Corps at the battle front of the French Government Commission to Australian – on the eve of its departure on the long voyage to our homeland – I am entrusting to M. Albert Metin, the Chief of the Commission, to General Paul, and to the other members, a message of greeting and remembrance on behalf of the soldiers of the corps to all our folds at home.

It has been the most stimulating of all our experiences to contemplate the wonderful fortitude, endurance, and resolution of the French people throughout all the stress of this war.  It has evoked from our men an active sympathy which has instigated in all ranks an emulation to assist, in every way in their power, the frugal French peasantry and villagers in the districts which our troops have occupied.  For such efforts we have received at the hands of the French authorities abundant and generous recognition.

During the past four months it has also been our privilege to fight in close contact with the French Army in the defence of the district of Amiens and of the Valley of the Somme.  Our own men and French zouaves and tirailleurs have stood shoulder to shoulder in the trenches, have worked and fought side by side.  We have learned to feel an unbounded admiration for these French troops, and our contact with them has sealed an international friendship which can never be dissolved.

We wish our country and our people no better destiny that that they may be able to boast a national achievement as great and a spirit as enduring as that displaying in these momentous times by the great democracy of France.”

France, 2 August 1918

Towards the end of the third week in July, I propounded certain proposals to Sir Douglas Haig in the nature of a counter-offensive on a very large scale.  He was quite favourable, but could not give authority for the plan without first of all consulting Generalissimo Foch.  As I was long overdue for leave, as it was likely to take several days to get a decision and as in any case the proposals might have been turned down in favour of some other plans, I arranged with Sir Henry Rawlinson, army commander, to go to London on leave on the chance, and upon the understanding that I should be prepared to return at very short notice.  We arranged that they would send a special telephone message from G.H.Q. to Tim Harington’s room at the War Office, who would at once let me know, and that a destroyer would stand by at Dover to rush me across if necessary, as I was not quite prepared for the alternative proposition of flying across.

Paul and I left for London on 23 July, following the ordinary route via Boulogne and Folkestone and arriving in London late on the same night.  I had only five clear days in London, as I got my telephone message late on Sunday night and returned post-haste to France on Monday the 29th.  I am now in the middle of preparations for a very large battle.  It will employ the whole resources of my corps command, including the 1st Australian Division which commences to arrive in my corps area in two days’ time.  Mine will not be the only corps employed and if successful it will be a very big show indeed.  I shall send you the latest particulars as time permits later, but I am sure you can quire realise how extremely busy I am and what an enormous undertaking I have in hand, to plan a battle on such a large scale and to co-ordinate the actions of so many people.   These brief references to these events must suffice for the present.

 

The ‘very big show indeed’ Monash mentions was the forthcoming offensive by the Australian and Canadian Corps from Villers-Bretonneux east of Amiens on 8 August 1918, a battle of which he was principal architect.  The sudden offensive broke the German line to a depth of 16 kilometres and was the greatest victory yet gained by British armies on the Western Front.  Described by General Ludendorff in his memoirs as ‘the black day of the German Army’ in the war, it was a battle that reinforced Monash’s renown as a tactician and added to the high reputation of the Australians he commanded.

Success has many fathers and Monash never claimed the entire credit for its planning, but no one had more to do than he with its origination and successful execution.  His steady hand can be seen in its every aspect. 

As early as 23 May, Haig had suggested to Rawlinson, who was commanding the Fourth Army, that he considered an offensive using the Australians and Canadians, but planning lapsed when the great German offensive against the French front began on 27 May.  The stunning capture of Hamel on 4 July and Mangin’s successful French counter-offensive against the Siossons salient on 18 July indicated that the enemy was seriously over extended and the quality of his troops deteriorating.  The German salient east of Amiens could perhaps also be eliminated.  Since 4 July, Monash has seen Rawlinson and his Chief of Staff, Archibald Montgomery, practically every day, and had proposed mounting an offensive, while asking for the return of 1st Division and the involvement of the Canadian Corps.  On 21 July, Rawlinson asked Monash and his Canadian counterpart, Currie, to work on a plan of attack employing both Corps, ‘and gave them a free hand on tactics’ (in Geoffrey Serles’s words).  Monash planned a deep penetration, one deep enough to capture the enemy gun line and prevent retaliatory bombardment.  Forwarding his plans to Haig, he snatched a few days leave in London, receiving an urgent summons to return on 29 July.  Marshal Fock had given his assent to the operation on 24 July.  On 31 July, Monash assembled his divisional commanders, telling Haig, who attended the meeting that he was delighted to be recalled from leave and that he had ‘all the threads of the operation in his hands’.  He asked for tanks, nearly 500 of them, and aircraft for reconnaissance and air supply, nearly 800 of them.  His artillery would number 2000 guns.  The enemy suspected nothing, and were unaware even of the arrival of the Canadian Corps on the Amiens front under conditions of great secrecy, a logistical triumph by General Rawlinson and his staff.

The 28 cm calibre German railway gun which became known as the Amiens Gun after its capture on 8 August 1918

Rawlinson would use three corps, the Canadians and Australian south of the Somme, and the British III Corps north of the river, and ordered a three-stage advance on the day – ‘the first under a creeping barrage, the second supported by mobile artillery and tanks, and the third a period of exploitation’ (in Geoffrey Serle’s words).  It was hoped to penetrate five to ten miles (i.e. eight to sixteen kilometres).  Australian Corps would attach on a seven kilometre front with brigades from the 2nd and 3rd Divisions, brigades from the 4th and 5th Divisions taking over from them for Phases 2 and 3 – ‘leap frogging’ – with a tank allocated to each infantry company.  (The 1st Division would form corps reserve.)  The first objective was nearly nine kilometres away.

On the day before the battle, Monash issued a message to his Corps:  ‘For the first time in the history of this Corps, all five Australian divisions will tomorrow engage in the largest and most important battle operation ever undertaken by this Corps.  They will be supported by an exceptionally powerful artillery and by tanks and aeroplanes on a scale never previously attempted.  The full resources of our sister Dominion, the Canadian Corps, will also operate on our right, while two British divisions will guard our left flank… I earnestly wish every soldier of the Corps the best of good fortune, and a glorious and decisive victory, the story of which will re-echo throughout the world, and will live for ever in the history of our homeland.’

The battle of Amiens began with the artillery bombardment at 4.20 a.m., 8 August 1918.  The first phase went entirely to plan; the second phase began at 8.20 a.m.; and by 1.30 p.p. the third phase was completed.  Everything had moved like clockwork, except in the north where British III Corps was held up on Chipilly Spur.  On one hot summer day the Australians had taken the enemy gun line – 173 guns – and 8000 prisoners and penetrated nearly ten kilometres, suffering only 2000 casualties.  German defences had been swept aside along a 20 kilometre front, with no enemy capacity to launch a counter offensive.  Ahead of the advancing armies lay open country before they would reach the Hindenburg Line, Germany’s last defensive system.  ‘The Canadians have done splendidly and the Aussies even better – I am full of admiration for these corps’, Rawlinson wrote.  Amiens was, and remained, a model of how a battle should be fought.

As Ludendorff related in his memoirs: ‘August 8th was the black day of the German Army in the history of the war.  This was the worst experience I had to go through … The 8th of August opened the eyes of the Staff on both sides; mine were certainly opened … The Emperor told me later on, after the failure of the July offensive and after August 8th, he knew the war could no longer be won.’