War Letters of General Monash

War letters of General Monash

France, 3 November 1918

On 18 October I cabled:-

“Created by King Albert Grand Officer de L’Order de la Couronne Belgium.  Monash.”

You will also be very pleased to hear that I have, in addition to the above, also been awarded during the last week, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm Leaf.

Monash makes little mention in letters of his last battle, for it came close to being a disaster, and was saved only by the fortitude of the Australian troops.  The American attack which began a t dawn, 29 September, fell apart in the first hours, failing to seize even the First Line, and the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Divisions had to fight the battle from scratch, storming the last fortified village, Montbrehain, on 5 October.  It was a great victory and was the last action fought by Australian troops on the Western Front.  On that day, the Australians were withdrawn for rest and regrouping and Monash took a fortnight’s leave.

On the same day, Germany’s new Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, notified the American President, Wilson, that Germany would accept an armistice on the basis of Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Point’; Wilson replied that Germany must discuss armistice terms with Marshal Foch, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied armies.  For the next month, while negotiations continued, the Allied armies continued their advance.

Paul and I crossed to London on 6 October, visiting General Birdwood at his headquarters, about a hundred miles away from my own, on the way to Boulogne.  The crossing and journey to London were quite uneventful.

I was principally occupied during the first week in giving sittings to Longstaff, which is a very tiring and boring business.  However, he has now practically finished the three-quarter-length sitting portrait of me, which is intended for you, and I regard is as a very great success, and those who have seen it admire it greatly.  He also commenced a large painting for the Sydney National Gallery, which is taken full length, the figure standing in the open with a background of the desolation of war all around.  Longstaff has gone to a very great deal of trouble and had a photographer along to take me in about thirty different poses.  He would not pose me himself but insisted that I should adopt quite a number of different natural, habitual poses; he merely corrected quite minor details as to the position of the hands and feet, etc.

Pursuant on a promise made when I was last in London, I also gave a sitting to Pilichowski, the famous Polish artist, and in two hours he had made a portrait of me in pastel which I regard as a great success also.  He was assisted by his wife, who is also an artist of some eminence.

The greatest event of my visit was a invitation to lunch by the Dominions Luncheon Club at the Savoy Hotel, where my name was bracketed with the Right Honourable the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, as the principal guest.  It was a memorable occasion because it was here that Balfour announced the poicy of the Government not to return the Pacific colonies to Germany.  It was rather a task for me to have to speak after so great an orator as Mr Balfour.

I was also entertained by Lord and Lady Swathing.  He is the brother of Montagu, the Secretary for India, and one of the great firm of bankers.  I found the Swathlings quite homely people and when I arrived they were in the throes of arguments with the City Authorities about the refitting of their electric installation, because owing to coal shortage all lights over twenty candle-power have to be removed from the London houses.

As illustrating how stringent are the War Precautions Regulations, Lady Swathling told me that her sister-in-law, Mrs Montagu, was not allowed to accompany her husband to India, although he is a Cabinet Minister and her presence with him in India would have been of great social importance.

Another very interesting trip, which took a whole day, was when I called for Lady Forrest at her hotel and motored her about fifty miles out of London, to Cobham Hall in Kent, where the Countess of Darnley has allowed part of her beautiful Elizabethan home to be used as a convalescent home for some forty Australian officers.  Lady Forrest and I spend several hours chatting with the patients and the nursing staff, and then lunched with the Darnleys.  I remember the Countess quite well as Florence Morphy of Benalla (or was it Beechworth?)  The Earl is a very fine man still and reminiscent of his athletic days.  You will doubles remember him as the Honourable Ivo Bligh, who brought out to Australia the cricket team which was the first to lose the rubber against Australia, giving rise to the expression in vogue at the time that he and his team would only be able to carry back to England the ashes of English cricket which has been cremated in the fire of Australian prowess.  The Earl showed me, on his writing table, a tiny little urn under a glass cover, which the Australian ladies had given him at the time, and which is supposed to contain the “ashes”.

I met yesterday a man who interested me in quite a special degree.  His name is Levey, and he is an active Zionist and very interested in the present question of a Jewish State for Palestine.  He is a military officer on service in France.  Quite recently the Command-in-Chief established an Inspectorate of Training and place at the head of it Lieutenant-General Sir Ivor Maxse, who’s corps has recently been disbanded.  Maxse has gathered to his aid a staff of the most able training officers available in France, including several brigadiers and battalion commanders, among whom are some from my own corps.  Among this very able and specially selected band of training officers is my friend Lieutenant-Colonel Levey, and his real purpose in coming to the corps was to give an exhibition of modern training methods.  This he did yesterday in my presence and that of my divisional commanders and brigadiers, and it was one of the most extraordinarily interesting demonstrations I have even seen.  He himself took fifty men at random, and in less than two hours he had done marvels with them, by dint of an extraordinarily attractive personality and much brilliant patter.  I have never seen troops so able handled and such rapid results achieved.  In half an hour he had them marching along on the road like a company of Guards, vigorously singing a marching song which he taught them, and he did many other extraordinary “stunts” with them which it would be difficult to have believed was possible with men who would necessarily be self-conscious when under the gaze of so many general officers.  All this was done in order to illustrate his particular methods of handling men as a platoon commander, and although there was nothing particularly new to us in these methods, it was on the whole a most interesting display.  Lieutenant-Colonel Levey is himself a most handsome man, and he had a smart soldierly style and demeanor.

The most extraordinary thing about this very extraordinary personality is his actual military position in France.  I do not think you could possibly guess who and what he is; he is, in fact, the officer command the Gordon Highlanders!

France, 8 November 1918

I will try and tell you, in very brief outline, the main features of the story of the corps during the last seven months.  Nothing more is possible that a “bird’s-eye” view.

I have, of course, preserved boxes and boxes full of documents, maps, orders, messages, telegrams, photographs, and statistics, from which in future years a minute account of all our doings can be compiled; but the sifting of these, their arrangement in chronological sequence, and their preparation for publication will be a work of very many months.  No doubt many people will attempt to write this story besides official writers, such as Bean and others.  I look forward to some leisure to prepare my own story of it for publication.

In course of time it will dawn upon the Australian nation that the activities of the Australian Corps were by far the biggest factor in the reversal of the fortunes of the Allies in this war, from 27 March, when the 3rd and 4th Divisions first entered the fight east of Amiens, until 6 October, when the breaching of the Hindenburg Line had been completed.

You have already had an outline of the movements of the 3rd Division from the north to the Amiens battlefront.  The stories of the 4th and 5th Divisions are very similar, and they were shortly followed by the 2nd Division.  The 1st Division, having been hurried down south, was hurried back again north to stop the enemy’s rush on Hazebrouck on the way to Calais, and the 1st Division remained in that locality until the great offensive opened early in August.

During the two months that I was still in command of the 3rd Divisions, in the sector between the Ancre and the Somme, I determined not to suffer my front to adopt a passive defensive attitude, and therefore undertook a series of offensive operations which made this part of the front a very sore spot in the whole enemy’s line on the Western Front.  On taking over command of the corps at the end of May, my first business was to weld the whole of the corps into one great fighting machine, with a common policy, unity of purpose, and unity tactical thought and conception, and to infuse in the whole a spirit of unrelenting offensive.  It was also necessary, if our defensive attitude of those days was ever to be converted into a real offensive, to seize and secure certain tactical features of the ground over a considerable width of front, in order to give us a good “jumping off” line for future operations.  These subordinate operations were undertaken throughout the month of June and led up to the battle of Hamel on 4 July.

This battle was the first definite offensive on a substantial scale which had been undertaken by any of the armies of the Allies on any front since the close of the autumn campaign of 1917 and the opening of the German offensive in the early spring of 1918.  Its success converted the whole thoughts of the Allies from an attitude of pure defensive to at attitude of offensive, and it begun to dawn upon the High Command that it was, after all, possible to do something else but sit down and take the cuffs and kicks of the enemy.  The psychological effect of the battle of Hamel was electric and startling.

People came from far and near to hear all about it and find out “how it was done”, and G.H.Q. published a special pamphlet describing the battle plan and the new tactical methods which I employed.  There is no doubt at all that it was the success of this battle which induced Marshal Foch to undertake a counter-blow on 18 July, which had the effect of arresting the German rush on Paris, for as you know, on 15 July the enemy had pushed top within forty miles of the French capital, and that was his very last success of the war.

The whole story of the Australian Corp’s offensive may be conveniently divided up into four arbitrary phases, and they can be summarised as follows:-

The period from 27 March to 4 July was occupied in definitely and finally arresting the German offensive.

The period from 4 July to 10 August was occupied in definitely converting the enemy’s attitude and policy from an offensive to a defensive one.

The period from 10 August to 29 August was occupied in constraining him to withdraw to some line on which he could make a temporary stand, so as to reorganise himself for a further offensive campaign.  He shoes, as I expected him to do, the line of the Somme and the Canal du Nord.

The period from 29 August to 17 September was occupied in driving him helter-skelter from the line of the Somme (by the capture of Mont St Quentin and Peronne) and compelling him to realise that he had no further hope of an offensive and that the only strategy left to him was to sit down for the coming winter on the Hindenburg Line and tire the Allies out; because the whole of Germany was thoroughly convinced that the Hindenburg Line was impregnable.

The period from 17 September to 6 October was occupied in breaking through and completely overwhelming the Hindenburg Line of a wide front and to a depth of over ten miles.  The immediate effect of this was to prove to the Germans that there was no line on which it was possible for them to make even a defensive stand, with the result that they made a definite offer of peace on 7 October, from which the present negotiations have sprung.

It was on 6 October, after the capture of Beaurevoir and Montbrehain (east of the Hindenburg Line), that I succeeded in inducting the High Command to give the Australian Corps its long-earned rest, and I myself went for a fortnight’s leave (later extended to three weeks) to London.

During the above phases the chief battles which my corps fought were those of 8 August, which was the beginning of the whole Allied counter-offensive; the capture of Mont St Quentin on 29 August; the capture of Peronne on 31 August; the capture of the front system of the Hindenburg defences on 18 September; and the capture of the main Hindenburg defences on 29 September – 6 October.  During this period, I had fluctuating command, carrying from my own five Australian divisions up to a total of eight divisions, including at times two Canadian divisions, two American divisions, and the British 32nd Division (General Lambert).  During one phase I had under my command 200,000 troops.

I am sending you by registered post a copy of a voluminous report, which has been prepared for official purposes, giving a technical account of the whole of the above operations with illustrative maps.

I am enclosing herewith a tabulation, which gives in pithy form the statistics of our total captures during the period in prisoners, in guns, in towns and villages, and enemy divisions defeated, the latter representing a total of seventy-three, or more than one-third of the whole German Army.  When you come to remember that the Australian Corps represents much less than 5 per cent of the total strength of the Allied Forces on the Western Front, you will see how the successes of the Australian Corps have been out of all proportion to their numbers as compared with the successes on the remainder of the front.  And moreover, it has to be remembered that our advances really led the march eastward, and carried the neighbouring armies forward with them on that march.

The negotiations for peace, opened by the Germans on 7 October, have dragged their weary way along for over a month, during which time the Australian Corps has been resting in a beautiful area in the valley of the Somme lying between Amiens and Abbeville, and my own headquarters has been established in the village of Eu, near the coast, at the mouth of the Somme, close to the famous watering-place, Le Treport.  I am, myself, with my headquarters officers inhabiting an annex to the chateau of the Comte d’Eu, the younger brother of the Prince of Orleans, who also lives here when not in England.  I have just received work that the German armistice delegates have passed through our lines at Guise and were entertained last night at dinner by General Debeney of the First French Army, and that they are this morning being sent on by special train to receive from Marshal Foch the agreed-upon conditions of armistice.

In case they do not at once accept, it is the intention to go on hammering the enemy, who is now very badly disorganised and very nearly driven out of occupied France.  To meet this contingency, my corps is again moving up into the line.  The 1st Division commenced to move last night, the 4th Division commences to entrain tonight, the corps headquarters gets under way the day after tomorrow.  The remaining divisions stay in this area until I require them.  If, on the other hand, the armistice conditions are accepted, about which I myself feel fairly sanguine, I have no doubt that my corps will be employed as part of the Army of Occupation, and it is quite on the cards that, within a very few days or weeks from now, I shall be on German soil in military charge of a considerable slice of Germany.

On 27 October, Turkey sued for an armistice; its armies collapsed in Syria under Allenby’s mid-September offensive, and its Balkan front fell apart simultaneously with the defeat of Bulgaria.  One week later Austria-Hungary sued for pace terms.  Stripped of allies, and wracked by revolution, Germany signed an armistice at Foch’s headquarters on 11 November 1918

The only other interesting and important item of news regarding the corps is that next week I am to have an interesting addition to my staff.  The Prince of Wales is coming to me as G.S.O.2 for a month or six weeks.  He will be accompanied by one equerry, Lord Claude Hamilton.

In answer to your questions: –

The terms “1 scoop”, “3 scoops”, etc. refer to quantities of chlorination mixture which have to be used in order to render drinking water, taken from wells and streams, innocuous and palatable.  Medical officers analyse all water before it is allowed to be used, and decide how many scoops of chloride of lime are required per water cart load to precipitate the organic matter which may be injurious to the health.

The whole question of my future and my possible appointment as G.O.C., A.I.F, is still open.  The events of the recent few weeks have rather delayed any further action by Hughes, but it is still quite on the cards that he may ask me to take up the supreme command of the A.I.F. so as to supervise demobilisation and repatriation.  On the other hand, now that matters are drawing to a close, it is quite likely that General B. will be prepared to relinquish his army command and devote himself to the command of the higher administration of the A.I.F., that is, if Hughes can be got to agree to that of course.