Sir John Monash (1865-1931)



Soldier, engineer and administrator.


Sir John Monash, one of Australia's greatest military commanders, was born in West Melbourne on 27 June 1865. His father, Louis Monash, had emigrated to Melbourne from Prussia in 1853. On a return visit to his homeland in 1863, Louis met and married Bertha Manasse and the couple returned to Melbourne in 1864.


Monash was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, where he displayed intellectual talent, particularly in mathematics. He then studied arts, engineering and law at the University of Melbourne and involved himself in student politics, being a co-founder of the Melbourne University Union. In 1884, he was one of the first to join the University Company of the 4th Battalion, Victorian Rifles.


In 1885, during his mother's fatal illness, Monash interrupted his studies and sought full-time employment. He gained valuable experience in civil engineering by working on the construction of the Prince's Bridge over the Yarra River, while continuing his studies part-time. In 1888, he was given charge of construction of Melbourne's Outer Circle eastern suburban railway-line. In 1890 he resolved to complete his studies and over the next two years completed arts, engineering and law degrees. Monash married Hannah Victoria Moss in 1891 and their only child, Bertha, was born two years later.


In 1891, Monash was employed by the Melbourne Harbour Trust. Retrenched in the depth of the depression in 1894, he formed a private practice with JT Noble Anderson as civil, mining and mechanical engineers and patent agents, later specialising in contracting for bridge building. In 1905, with business associates Monash formed the successful Reinforced Concrete and Monier Pipe Construction Co Ltd.


Monash's military involvement continued concurrently with his studies and engineering employment. When the University Company disbanded, he joined the North Melbourne Battery of the Garrison Artillery, which defended Victorian ports. By 1897, Monash had been promoted to the rank of major of the North Melbourne Battery and he commanded it for the next 11 years. In 1908, he was placed in charge of the Victorian section of the Australian Intelligence Corps. He took command of the 13th Infantry Brigade as colonel in 1913.


Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Monash was appointed commander of the 4th Infantry Brigade of the Australian Imperial Force. He trained his brigade in Egypt and then commanded it throughout the Gallipoli campaign.


After evacuation from the Gallipoli Peninsula, Monash was given command of the 3rd Australian Division and promoted to major-general. He trained the new division in England before taking his men into action in France. The Division's first major battle was at Messines in June 1917. Other battles included those at Broodseinde, Passchendaele and the defence of Amiens.


In early 1918, Monash was made a Knight Commander of the Bath and in June that year was appointed commander of the Australian Corps and promoted to lieutenant-general. His military reputation reached new heights with the outstanding success of the Battle of Hamel in July which involved the collaboration of infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft. From 8 August onwards there was a succession of victories, culminating in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line. Monash was admired for his intellect, meticulous planning, articulate communication of what was expected, and his ability to extract the best from his staff.


As Director-General of Repatriation and Demobilisation, Monash streamlined procedures for the repatriation of Australian soldiers and presided over the AIF Education Scheme which assisted their transition to civilian life. Monash himself returned home at the end of 1919 to a tumultuous welcome in Melbourne. Sadly, his wife died early in 1920 after a lengthy illness.


Later that year Monash became general manager of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, which he guided during its first ten years, developing the use of brown coal from the La Trobe Valley to produce economical power for Victoria. In 1921 he was appointed chairman of the Commission.


Throughout the twenties, Monash maintained a strong public profile, represented returned soldiers and frequently advised on military and engineering matters. He retained an affiliation and concern for Jewish affairs. He was vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne from 1923, and in his final years the cause closest to his heart was the building of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.


Sir John Monash died on 8 October 1931 and was given a State funeral. An estimated 250 000 mourners, the nation's largest funeral crowd to that time, came to pay their respects. Monash University in Melbourne was named after him in 1958.