On October 8, 1931, John Monash, the most honored and admired of Australian war heroes – if not of Australians in general – in the 20th century, died at age 66.
It was the leadership of Monash the fighter in several key battles on the Western front in World War I that helped turned the tide for the Allies in 1918. And it was Monash the Jew whose “presence and prestige,” wrote Colin MacInnes, “made anti-Semitism ... impossible in Australia.”
Monash was born in West Melbourne, Australia on June 27, 1865 to German-speaking parents from Eastern Europe. His father Louis Monash, who came from was what is today Krotoszyn, Poland, arrived in Australia in 1854. He returned to Europe a decade later and married Bertha Manasse, from Stettin (also in contemporary Poland), before bringing her back to Australia.
After the father’s business failed, the family moved to Jerilderie, New South Wales, where Louis tried running a store, but Bertha returned to Melbourne with John and his two younger sisters in 1877 so that the boy could attend Scotch College, a secondary school. Although the family was not religiously observant, John sang in the East Melbourne synagogue and had his bar mitzvah there.
The young Monash’s protean talents and creative energy made themselves evident early. He began studying at Melbourne University in 1881, and over the next 30 years, with many stops and starts, he earned degrees in arts, engineering and law. He was a debater, a performing pianist, journal editor, and during breaks required by his family’s economic situation, a construction worker. In 1884 he joined the Victorian Rifles militia at the university, and in 1889 he proposed running off to his married, non-Jewish lover, Annie Gable. (Instead, she and her family left for Sydney, although Gable and Monash remained friends.) A month later, Monash became engaged to Hannah Victoria Moss, whom he married in 1891.
During the next two decades, he built up and lost, and then built up again, a thriving practice as a civil engineer, and pursued a parallel career, also with numerous zigs and zags, in the Australian military. He was also at the pinnacle of Melbourne society. When war broke out in August 1914, he volunteered for duty, serving briefly as the country’s chief military censor. But he wanted a field command, and soon found himself in Egypt, before being sent to Gallipoli, Turkey, where he headed an infantry brigade.
Despite the terrible Allied losses at Gallipoli, Monash acquitted himself respectably, and in the face of widespread rumors in the Australian army that he, a German-speaking Jew, had been caught and executed for spying for the Germans, he was promoted to major general and sent to a command position in France.
Monash’s leadership in the battles of Hamel and Amiens in summer 1918 contributed to the Allied victories there, which marked the beginning of the end for Germany. But he is no less remembered for his then-revolutionary military philosophy, which was to place the preservation of soldiers’ lives above the preservation of hardware, and to employ that hardware “in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes” to make it possible for the infantry “to march, resolutely, regardless of the din and tumult of battle, to the appointed goal; and there to hold and defend the territory gained; and to gather in the form of prisoners, guns and stores, the fruits of victory.” His motto: “Feed your troops on victory.”
With war’s end, Monash oversaw the quick demobilization of Australian forces, and then served as head of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria at a time of essential industrial development. Later, he was vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne. He also accepted an appointment as president of the newly created Zionist Foundation of Australia and New Zealand.
In 1930, Monash was made a full general, the first Jew to attain that rank in any army, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica. When he died, some 300,000 mourners attended his state funeral, a Jewish service.