War Letters of General Monash

WAR LETTERS OF GENERAL MONASH

France, 11 August 1918

I snatch a few minutes late in the evening to give you brief particulars of an exceptionally interesting day.

Villers-Bretonneux is a rather large village standing high on a hill and commanding a view in every direction.  That is why it was so important for us to recapture it a way back in April and it was from it that we launched the great attack of 8 August, which has been so brilliantly successful and which has carried our front line some ten miles eastward, thus entirely disengaging Amiens from any danger of capture.  Villers-Bretonneux is now the headquarters of the 1st Australian Division, while the 2nd Australian Division has its headquarters on the western outskirts of it.

During this forenoon I was busy at Bertangles (my headquarters) all the morning preparing plans for a further advance.  I was much interrupted by visitors.  Quite early I had a call from Mr Winston Churchill, Minister of Munitions, and at eleven o’clock, according to arrangements, I received a call from Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, who came formally to thank me for the work done.  He brought with him the chief of the general staff, Sir Herbert Lawrence, and while they were still with me I received a further call from General Sir Julian Byng, the Commander of the British Third Army.  The Chief thereupon seized the opportunity to have a conference with General Byng on certain contemplated operations and would not hear of my withdrawing, so that I was present during the whole conference, and was frequently asked for my opinion.

I had earlier in the morning arranged to meet my own five divisional commanders at Villers-Bretonneux, so that I might have a conference dealing with the contemplated programme of operations for tomorrow.  This conference was to have been at      2.30 p.m. and I mentioned the fact to the Commander-in-Chief.  He said at once that he would very much like to come up, so as to be able to meet the five divisional commanders personally.

About noon Sir Henry Rawlinson, the Commander of the Fourth Army, rang me up to say that there had been important developments and that Marshal Foch was coming up this afternoon to give fresh orders about the tactical policy of the next few days.  He said the Commander-in-Chief “could not be found” and that, therefore, it was necessary for him to take matters in hand without delay, and that he had arranged for an Army Conference at Bertangles at three o’clock.  I told him at once about the arrangements for the Chief to meet me and my five divisional commanders at Villers-Bretonneux at 2.30 p.m. and he at once said that in those circumstances he would arrange for his own Army Conference to be at Villers-Bretonneux also at three o’clock.  He said, however, that as he did not want to interfere with my own Corps Conference he would have his in the open fields just west of the village.

Shortly after this had been fixed up, I received word by telephone that Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was in France and wished to call on me to congratulate me.  I had to send a message to say that I was unable to receive him here, but would be at Villers-Bretonneux between 2.30 p.m. and 3.30 p.m.

In due course I proceeded with my B.G.G.S., General Blamey, (Brigadier-General Thomas Blamey, a Gallipoli veteran and Australia’s future field-marshal, was chosen by Monash as his Chief of Staff when he took command of the Corps from Birdwood and the two men worked in closest harmony) to Villers-Bretonneux and selected a place on the western outskirts of the town, suitable for the Conference, under a bunch of trees.  All around was a scene of the greatest activity.  On one side of the main road was a large wired-in prisoners’ cage in which were over 3000 prisoners captured during the last twenty-four hours, and many small parties of prisoners, captured this morning, were being marched down the road.  An immense stream of traffic was pouring up the road towards the front, guns, troops, strings of horses and mules, hundreds of motor lorries, ambulance wagons, and the usual motely traffic of war.  On the other side of the road ran the main railway, and a swarm of Canadian Railway Battalion men, together with two of my Pioneer Battalions, were busy relaying the rails and reopening the line, and the first railway train which had succeeded in getting through Amiens since the battle was actually streaming through the cutting at 2.30 p.m.

At the appointed hour my five divisional commanders, each in his own car, arrived.  They were Major-Generals Hobbs, Maclagan, Rosenthal, Gellibrand and Glasgow.  We had scarcely assembled and sat down with our general staff, when another car drove up, bringing General Sir Henry Wilson.  Shortly after came the Commander-in-Chief in his two cars, and with him Sir Herbert Lawrence, the Chief of the General Staff.  The Field-Marshal made a little speech to us and was very complimentary to me, saying that, as always, my plan was perfectly worked out and deserving of the greatest credit, etc.  In the middle of it all arrived Sir Henry Rawlinson for his Conference, bringing with him Major-General Montgomery (his M.G.G.S.) and Major-General Budworth (his M.G.R.A.).  There followed in quick succession Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, commanding the Canadian Corps, Lieutenant-General Kavanagh, commanding the Cavalry Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir A.J. Godley, temporarily commanding the 3rd Corps, Major-General Elles, commanding the Tank Corps, and Major-General Charlton, commanding the 5th Brigade Royal Air Force.  All were accompanied by staff officers.  The Commander-in-Chief particularly insisted that our Conference was not to be delayed in any way, and so we all squatted down on the grass while great maps were spread out and Rawlinson commenced to expound the situation and ask for our opinions.

We had scarcely started when still three more motor cars arrived, out of which hopped Monsieur Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, Marshal Foch, and the French Minister for Finance.

This completed the gathering, met literally by chance on the actual battlefield and on a site which will live for ever in Australian history.  I suppose that it rarely happens that such a distinguished gathering should so meet under such stirring surroundings, with the guns thundering all around.

 

France, 14 August 1918

His Majesty the King visited the Australian Corps on the afternoon of 12 August.  The whole function from first to last has been liberally photographed by the Australian official photographer, and, in due course, I hope to be able to send you copies of these photographs:  but it usually takes several weeks before we can get them passed by the censor and prepared for distribution.

Bertangles Chateau has a very imposing long façade about 300 feet long.  The centre third of this façade has a broad piazza with a flight of steps leading up to it, and from the piazza three great folding French windows led into the Marquis’s reception-room.  The chateau itself stands in a huge quadrangle of lawns and shrubbery, flanked on all three sides with great chestnuts and copper beeches.  A central drive about 400 feet long leads direct from the centre of the façade, and at right-angles to the length of the building out to the main front gate a medieval structure of wrought-ironwork, surmounted by heraldic figures and coats-of-arms.  This central drive is prolonged for at least half a mile by an imposing avenue of tall chestnut-trees, running dead straight, so that from every point on this long avenue the chateau is seen in the distance in the centre of the picture.

For the reception of the King I had formed up a representative gathering of the Australian Corps, comprising a guard of honour of 100 men from the 1st Australian Division, and representative bodies from each of the other four Australian divisions – 100 of each – also 100 from the corps troops comprising chiefly Royal Garrison Artillery.  These troops lined both sides of the central drive, leading from the main gate to the steps of the piazza, and the guard of honour was formed up just outside the main gate.

By dint of great exertions on the part of my administrative staff we had managed to drag in from the battlefield an imposing and varied collection of war trophies, comprising several hundred guns, howitzers, heavy machine-guns, light machine-guns, anti-tank guns, field searchlights, transport vehicles, range-finders, and hundreds other minor trophies.  These were arranged most artistically to line the whole great quadrangle of the chateau, and were specially thickly grouped on and flanking the main piazza.  Muzzles of great field-guns, heavy howitzers, and machine-guns in hundreds, pointed brisling from every corner and in between all the ornamental shrubbery, and all were covered with the dust and scars of battle.  In addition, I had drawn up a representative selection of a dozen enemy vehicles, both horse-drawn and motor drawn, with teams of horses and harness complete just as captured.

The King arrived not much after the appointed time in a single car, and I met him at the main gate with my chief of staff and chief administrative officer (Brigadier-Generals Blamey and Carruthers).  The King had with him only Sir Derek Keppel and one staff officer from the Fourth Army headquarters.  He descended from his car and took the Royal Salute from the guard, which he inspected in my company, after I had presented the members of my staff, including Paul and the commander of the guard.

The King, taking me with him, then walked from the main gates to the foot of the piazza steps, while he inspected the troops drawn up, and made a few remarks to an odd man here and there.  We then mounted the steps and entered the reception-room of the Marquis de Clermont-Tonnerre, a very old man with a long white beard, whom I then presented.

On one side of the main steps were arranged my divisional commanders and the other generals of my staff, while on the other side were ranged about sixty of the junior officer members of my staff.  The clerical staff of corps headquarters were all accommodated in the upper windows of the chateau, looking out over the scene.  I then presented my divisional commanders and the King chatted for a few minutes with each.

A square of carpet had been arranged in the centre of the piazza and on it stood a small table, a footstool, and a drawn sword.  The King then had my name called and I stepped up before him and, at his behest, knelt and received the accolade of knighthood, and, when he had bidden me rise, he presented me with the insignia of a Knight Commander of the Bath.  He shook hands most warmly and made me a little speech, commending my work and that of the Australian troops.

Subsequently the King walked around with me and inspected the battle trophies, and, shortly after, his motor car drew up in front of the steps and, with a cordial farewell, he drove away between the cheering ranks of the troops.

The whole ceremony lasted only half an hour, and took place amid brilliant sunshine, and with our Australian Squadron aeroplanes circling overhead.

 

France, 15 August 1918

During the operations which commenced on 8 August, the Australian Corps captured a number of enemy headquarters, both divisional and corps.  The whole of the headquarters of the 51st German Army Corps was captured intact, with all their papers, paraphernalia, motor cars and gear complete.

Among the spoil gathered up in this headquarters was a box containing one hundred Iron Crosses all ready for issue.  They were in due course “issued” to our own “Biljims”, who came back from the battle wearing Iron Crosses all over their anatomy.

I send you by post herewith under separate cover one of these Iron Crosses, together with a piece of the ribbon belonging to it.  The amount of spoil captured, both in quantity and variety, is simply beyond description, and the troops have stuffed their pockets with all sorts of interesting souvenirs.

 

France, 21 August 1918

During the present series of operation, the captures made by the Australian Corps exceed everything in the previous records of the war.  Our total prisoners closely approaches 10,000, and among them more are represented than seventy-five different units of the German Army.

My intelligence staff have collected for me a very large number of shoulder straps, which I am having carefully labelled and will shortly send to you by post.  These you can exhibit if you like, for purposes of war charities, but as it is a very valuable collection I hope it will be carefully safeguarded.  Naturally it is difficult to secure representative shoulder straps from every single unit, and therefore this collection of seventy-five is representative only of portion of our captures.  Out of the seventy-five I have selected two to send you with the present letter.  These are the shoulder straps of the regimental commander of the 13th Prussian Infantry Regiment of the 13th Division, and that of the battalion commander of one of the three battalions of the 152nd Prussian Infantry Regiment of the 41st Division.  It is very rare to capture battalion commanders and rarer still, regimental commanders.  In this battle we captured no fewer than five regimental commanders.  This was due to the great depth of our penetrations (thirteen miles) and to the rapidity with which my plan was carried out.

My letter of 7 August gave a very brief account of my short and interrupted visit to London.  I was not then free to say that the reason of my speedy return was that the Field-Marshal had suddenly decided to put into force a strategic plan which I had myself propounded, and he had further decided, in consultation with the Generalissimo, Marshal Foch, to ensure the co-operation of the 1st, 3rd, and 10th French armies.  Thus my proposal for an offensive by two corps just south of the Somme gradually grew to considerable proportions and, as the event has shown, this has become the principal offensive of the war and has resulted in what is probably the most pronounced and decisive victory that the Allied arms have gained.

Subsequent to 2 August I have had an extremely strenuous time – I had only six days in which to make all my preparations for the employment of the five divisions, and since that date we have been fighting every day, gaining ground every day, and capturing prisoners and booty every day.

You may wonder that I did not sent you any cable, or that I do not now send you a graphic description of the battles – but the whole thing has been too stupendous, and I have been far too busy to attempt any such thing.  The greater part of each day is occupied in the planning of fresh offensives and holding conferences with my divisional commanders.  Today the 1st Division and the 32nd British Division carried out an operation for the capture of Herleville and Chuignolles – quite a respectable operation, about twice the size of the battle of Hamel.

At present in addition to the five Australian divisions I have also in my command the 32ns British Division and, for about eight days, the 1st and 4th Canadian Divisions, owing to the fact that the Canadian Corps headquarters has been shifted to another sphere of action, and these two Canadian divisions have been left in my corps until such time as General Debeney of the First French Army can take over that portion of my front.  I have, therefore, at the present moment, six divisions in the line, and two in reserve, resting, which is a severe tax on the energies of myself and my staff.

You will have heard, no doubt, with great regret of the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Knox Knight.  He was killed during a night operation by a direct hit from a shell.  I have also heard of the death at sea of Monsieur Metin, the head of the French Mission which was on its way to Australia, who had promised to call on you on arrival in Melbourne.  I have already written all about him and General Pau.

Quinn, the artist, has been over again in France, and has been working here at the replica picture which is destined for you.  It is not really a replica as he is practically painting a fresh picture, and it is very much better, in my opinion, than the one which he painted for the Commonwealth Parliament House.  Longstaff is also going to pursue a similar course and paint an entirely fresh picture, and not a replica of the one he has painted for the Australian War Museum.  He will also paint a third in a different pose for the Sydney National Gallery.  It is a very trying work indeed sitting for these artists.  I can only give them from ten minutes to half an hour at a time, and it is an extremely tiring process.

 

France, 4 September 1918

Certain senior officers of the A.I.F. are getting leave to return to Australia for a period of six months.  In some of these cases it is not exactly leave, but is mixed up with duty, both on the voyage outwards and back and while in Australia.  Among the officers who will be leaving on 10 September are Surgeon-General Sir Neville Howse, the Director of Medical Services of the A.I.F., who controls the whole of our hospitals, field ambulances, and medical arrangements; Brigadier-General Griffiths, the Commandant of the A.I.F. Headquarters, London, who is a very old friend; and Lieutenant-Colonel Smith, the Provost Marshal of the Australian Army Corps, and a member of my own staff.  All three officers expect to reach Australia towards the end of October and will all make an effort to call on you and give you the lasts news of me.  This present letter is chiefly to tell you that I have entrusted to Lieutenant-Colonel Smith a small box containing some war souvenirs.

The principal object in the box is a model of a Mark V Tank, which I was the first to use in battle, namely, at the battle of Hamel on 4 July.  The tactics of the employment of this new type of tank was my own invention and has now been adopted throughout the armies.  I have had under my command since the middle of June, until a week ago, the whole of the 5th Tank Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General Courage, consisting of three battalions, each of sixty tanks – a total personnel of 2500 officers and men.  My relations with this tank brigade have been of the very happiest and they have served me splendidly.

Just prior to bidding farewell their brigade made me a present of a souvenir in the form of a complete model of a tank, made out of gunmetal of German shell-cases and the copper of German driving bands.  The wooden base upon which this model is set is made out of a piece of the unditching beam of one of the tanks, i.e. the beam which lies across the top of the tank and comes automatically into use in case the tank gets stuck in a deep shell-crater or a wide ditch, and by means of which the tank can haul itself out.  The metal model itself is made with the minutest fidelity to the real tank, which full size is about thirty-five feet long and stands over ten feet high, and can travel about six miles per hour on the level on a good surface.

You can plainly see the 6-pounder guns projecting from the turrets at the side of the tank, also all the doors, louvres, shutters, peep-holes, etc.  are faithfully reproduced.

I should like you to take this little model to a jeweller and have the whole of the metal work polished to a bright polish, and then carefully lacquered so as to preserve it from corrosion.

 

France, 8 September 1918

I am enclosing the following:-

Copies of Tageglatt of 17 August and of another German paper whose title has been torn off.  Both of these taken from prisoners.  In both you will see reference to me, in the one case of my Battle Order of 8 August and in the other case to my recruiting cable.  The enemy has carefully mistranslated my message to the troops, to serve his own propaganda ends; but it has an astonishing sequel because he succeeded in persuading his own troops that the Australian Corps had been shattered, and, as a result, we captured 3500 prisoners on 23 August owing to his ignoring ordinary defensive precautions.

The original letter of Lieutenant-General Sir A.W. Currie of 28 August, on the occasion of the departure of the Canadian Corps from co-operation with me in front of Amiens, to do their big job in breaking through the Hindenburg Line.  My relations with Currie and the whole Canadian Corps have always been most cordial.

Cutting from the Morning Post of 2 September, containing an account of our capture of Mont St Quentin.  This feat is described throughout the English Press as the greatest single feat of arms in the war, and I am sure that it will live to become a classic in military literature.  It followed a swift turning movement at night, on the lines of some of “Stonewall” Jackson’s sudden onslaughts, but of course, on a very much larger scale.  This capture of Peronne has had a decisive influence upon the course of the campaign.

I am sorry that I am quite unable to find time to give you any account of the fighting of the last four weeks.  It seems to me extraordinary that it is only a month today since we commenced the great Allied counter-offensive.  No one could have foreseen the extraordinary success which was going to result, and in one short month the whole prospects of the war have been changed and the end has come appreciably nearer.

 

France, 11 September 1918

I am again shifting my headquarters today, and this generally means the temporary disorganisation of the whole of my offices, and several hours during which I am unable to carry on my ordinary routine work.  I seize the present opportunity, therefore, to write you in reply to recent letters and about current affairs.

This is the third move of my headquarters since our counter-offensive opened on 8 August.  The factor that controls our moves is the length of our telephone communications.  As the battle moves forward brigades and also divisions have to move forward with it, and finally also corps and army.  If my headquarters thereby falls back more than five or six miles behind the division, the maintenance of communication by telegraph and telephones becomes very difficult and inconvenient, besides being a great burden to the signals staff to maintain all the lines in good working order.  Our advance has been so rapid and our series of victories so decisive that every few days the whole question has to be reconsidered.  I moved first from Bertangles to Glisy and then from Glisy to Mericourt.  In the latter place I have inhabited, for the past ten days, the ruins of a chateau which, only a week before I got into it, had been inhabited by the enemy.   I have scarcely got settled down in it when I have to move forward another ten miles, this time into a butted camp which I have had built in the wreckage of a little wood in the middle of the devastated area overlooking Peronne.  My front line is already another ten miles east of this latter point and we are close up to the Hindenburg Line.

The office of Courts Marital Officer, which Athol Lewis is filling, is an indispensable necessity.  In a formation so large as a division there is a great deal of courts martial business.  He has to see that all the charge sheets are made out in proper form, that the summaries of evidence are properly taken, that the findings and sentences are in accordance with law, that the procedure is correct, and that no injustice is done.  He attends to the promulgation of the sentences and occasionally also acts as Prosecutor and Deputy Judge Advocate.  The job requires a lawyer who understands the rules of evidence.

The question of the adequate recognition of the work done in the war by Australian troops, and indeed by all Dominion troops of the Empire, is a very burning one.  Far from it being the case that Dominion troops have in the past received more than their fair share of recognition, the exact contrary is the case.  For some time past the German propaganda has been trying to represent Lloyd George as putting them in wherever the fighting has been hottest.  The Imperial Government and also G.H.Q. have been rather afraid of the effect of such propaganda, and they have rather erred on the side of unduly suppressing the references to the deeds of the Australians.  In connection with the present counter-offensive the London Press started very badly, and, in fact, in several striking instances attributed successes achieved by the Australians to other troops who had previously failed in the same tasks.  I made a very serious remonstration about this to Perry Robinson of The Times, to Rawlinson, to Lawrence, and to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, telling them plainly that my own appeal to my troops was the prestige of Australian arms, and that, unless the performances of the Australians were justly placarded, I would not hold myself responsible for the maintenance of their fighting spirit.  I put it plainly that they are by nature and instinct sportsmen, and that they would refuse to go on playing any game in which their scores were not put up on the scoring-board.  These remonstrations have had an astonishingly successful result, because a complete change has come over the scene, and, as you will see by the very large number of cuttings I have recently sent you, the London Press has latterly given us quite generous recognition.

The best troops of the United Kingdom have long ago been used up and we now have a class of man who is without initiative or individuality.  They are brave enough, but are simply unskilful.  They would be all right if properly led, but their officers, particularly the junior officers, are poor young men from the professions and from office stools in the English cities, who have had no experience whatever of independent responsibility or leadership.  Very few English divisions can today be classed as first-class fighting troops, relied upon to carry out the tasks set.  On the other hand, the Canadians and Australians have never failed to achieve all their objectives strictly according to plan.

In the letters of congratulations which I am receiving from Australia everybody seems to regard my recent appointment in the light of an honour or a reward, or a recognition for past services.  That is a very curious view.  A soldier is never given an appointment as a reward; he may get a promotion as a reward in the form of a brevet rank, but that form of reward is very rare.  Normally a promotion comes only as the result of an appointment, in order to give the officer concerned a status adequate and necessary for the discharge of his appointment.  The only basis on which a man is chosen for an appointment is that his qualification to discharge the functions of that appointment.  The compliment, therefore, if there is one, lies in the recognition of his ability to fill the appointment, and does not arise from any desire to reward him for his previous good service.

 

Marshal Foch had ordered a massive offensive along the entire Western Front that would hopefully carry the Allied armies to the Rhine and into Germany’s heartland in the early months of 1919.  The offensive would begin on 26 September from the Flanders front in the north to Alsace-Lorraine in the south, where Pershing’s American army was now concentrated in strength.  The last and vital blow – to break the Hindenburg Line which ran more than ten kilometres deep from Cambrai in the north to Loan, just past St Quentin, in the south – would be launched on 27 September 1918 by Byng’s Third Army and on 29 September on Byng’s southern flank by Rawlinson’s Fourth Army of which Australian Corps was the spearhead.

Attacking the Hindenburg Line was a formidable undertaking.  All the troops were weary, none more so than the Australians, understrength and in almost constant action since late March.  Monash was exhausted.  Blamey was concerned about his Chief’s health.  Monash was drawn, almost haggard – his weight was down to 75 kilograms; he would be seen driving past in his staff car, visiting his divisions, ‘for long periods in silence’, deep in thought.  On the eve of the battle, Prime Minister Hughes ordered Monash to organise the repatriation of the original Anzacs, followed by orders to disband eight battalions – seven of them ‘went on strike’ rather than disband.  On 18 September, the 1st and 4th Divisions entered their last battle – and victory – of the war, storming the Hindenburg Line’s outer defences, the Outpost Line, and were withdrawn for rest.  Monash’s Corps was now down to three divisions, a meagre resource with which to crack open the three defence lines that formed the Hindenburg system.  Rawlinson informed Monash that he would have under his command two fresh American divisions to mount the initial attack to capture the first two lines, leaving the Australians to follow them and secure the third.  There would be no creeping barrage, for the fighting would be close, but tanks would be used and both smoke shells and mustard gas would be fired to assist the Americans in the initial attack.