Push to promote Australia's greatest 'citizen soldier' to highest army rank

Current and former federal MPs are campaigning to right a 100-year-old anti-Semitic “wrong” and have Australia's greatest "citizen soldier" promoted to field marshal, the highest army rank.

Monash led the Australian Corps and Allied forces in the First World War, inflicting pivotal defeats on the Germans.

The Australian-born son of migrant German-Jews also battled anti-Semitism that damaged his military career.

In 1918 in France, Monash was knighted by King George V, the first soldier in 200 years to receive the honour on the battlefield from a British monarch.

“Sir John Monash is Australia's greatest citizen soldier, with amazing feats of bravery on the battlefield and leadership,” said federal cabinet minister Josh Frydenberg.

“A very brave soldier at Gallipoli and during the Western Front campaign, he commanded five Australian divisions and was the general who first led Australians and Americans together into battle at Hamel.”

A reservist soldier, Monash held the rank of militia colonel at the start of the war.

Despite delivering crushing blows against the Germans at Hamel, Amien and the Hindenburg Line, he was not promoted above the rank of lieutenant general during the war.

Tim Fischer, former deputy prime minister in the Howard government, has been leading the campaign, known as the Jerilderie Proposition, to right the wrong that almost sidelined Monash in the final fight against the Germans.

“He was a giant of a man. I think the country did the wrong thing by him - not quite as bad as the French Dreyfus affair but not far off it, and the sooner he's promoted to field marshal, the better,” Mr Fischer said.

“The actual procedure is not that difficult, it’s a matter for the prime minister, and I’ve raised it with him.”

Sir John Monash
Sir John Monash is knighted by King George V.
Australian War Memorial

In the Alfred Dreyfus affair, a Jewish artillery captain in the French army was falsely convicted, and eventually exonerated, in the 1890s of passing military secrets to the Germans. The scandal was stoked by anti-Semitic newspapers.

Australia's official First World War historian Charles Bean and journalist Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert Murdoch, hatched a plan to deceive then prime minister Billy Hughes.

“It’s hard to imagine the power the media could have,” said Mr Bennett.

“Charles Bean and Keith Murdoch were really conspiring to make sure he didn’t succeed as commander of the Australian army.

“The conspirators felt that Monash wasn’t capable of leading troops.

"They saw him of German parentage, and we were fighting Germans, they saw him as having the wrong religion, being Jewish, and they saw him as coming up through the militia and not a professional soldier.”

Despite Cabinet approving Monash as commander of the Australian Corps, prime minister Hughes suspended the decision.

Bean and Murdoch argued Monash should not be appointed as commander and be assigned to London instead, to make room for their preferred candidate.

“Monash has his capacities, great lucidity in grasping what has to be done and explaining it; but such a desire to make out the best case for himself after the event, that he accepts any pretty story which is put up to him,” wrote Bean in December 1917.

“His ambition makes him an underground engineer: he has the Jewish capacity of worming silently into favour without seeming to take any steps towards it, although many are beginning to suspect that he does take steps.”

Bean noted in his diary at the time: "We do not want Australia represented by men mainly because of the ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves forward”.

Rumours also circulated that Monash was a German spy.

While he was preparing for what are now considered pivotal battles against the Germans, Monash’s appointment as commander of Australia’s forces by the prime minister was in doubt, until Mr Hughes visited London and directly consulted with senior officers.

In June 1918, Monash wrote to the prime minister to argue his case.

“I have been made aware that there is a body of opinion in London, led by Mr Keith Murdoch,” he wrote.

Charles Bean
Charles Bean and Billy Hughes.
Australian War Memorial

“May I say that I’m on the best of terms personally with Mr Murdoch, I admire his patriotism and respect his motives, but on the question at issue, I entirely disagree with him.

“It is said that he has urged upon you that his proposal has received wide, not to say unanimous, support… I wish to say that this is wholly misleading and absolutely incorrect.”

Monash noted in his diary, “It is a great nuisance to have to fight a pogrom of this nature in the midst of all one’s other anxieties”.

“Expressions Bean used about Monash being a ‘pushy Jew’, are an expression of terrible intolerance,” said great-grandson Michael Bennett.

“How absurd to use such personal concerns in something as important as fighting a war and choosing men to lead troops in war.”

But Hughes backed Monash after a visit to London and France, where he saw the officer corps stood behind their commanding officer. It was a proud moment for Jews in Australia.

“Obviously there was an unfortunate degree of anti-Semitism at the time but he rose above it and was proud of his Judaism,” said Mr Frydenberg, who is Jewish.

“The fact that Australia has been so welcoming of the Jewish community for so many decades can be traced in part to the respect and admiration of Sir John Monash.”

The Jerilderie Proposition put forward by the Saluting Monash Council argues Australia’s three field marshals - Monash’s contemporary General Birdwood, Monash’s staff officer who in the Second World War led Allied forces at Kokoda, General Blamey, and Prince Philip - were all promoted in peace time for symbolic reasons.

In correspondence with the Council, Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC Dan Tehan, has said there is an “implicit” requirement to be “living” but it is not “outright”.

Before and after the war, Monash had a distinguished career including as vice-chancellor of Melbourne University and head of the Victorian electricity commission.

Monash is the man on the $100 note, a university and a city council in Melbourne both bear his name, and he oversaw the construction of the Shrine of Remembrance, in a lasting legacy to those who served their country.

Sir John Monash
Sir John Monash's great grandson Michael Bennett.
SBS News

“We'd like Monash to be remembered multifaceted contribution, as an engineer, then as a great soldier and then a nation builder later in life,” said Monash’s great grandson Michael Bennett.

Monash died in 1931 and about 300,000 mourners attended his funeral in Melbourne.

Now his posthumous promotion is in another prime minister's hands.

“I know the prime minster respects him greatly and so does the opposition leader Bill Shorten and I'm very confident there's strong bi-partisan, and cross party, support for this initiative,” Mr Frydenberg said.

After the war, Monash helped found Australia's first Rotary Club, was president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, helped initiate annual Anzac Day commemorations and in 1929, was finally promoted to rank of general.

Supporters hope Monash will be promoted to field marshal for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War next year.

He would only the second Australian-born person, after General Blamey, to receive the rank.

Bean later in life admitted his objections to Monash commanding Australia’s forces had been a “high-intentioned but ill-judged intervention”.

The New South Wales launch of the Saluting Monash campaign will take place at state parliament on Wednesday 8 March.