Streetwise: The forgotten Anzac

John Monash: Australia's most famous Jew or Jews' most famous Australian.

street monash 88 248 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
street monash 88 248
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
Rehov Sir John Monash Other than totally confusing the people who make signs for Tel Aviv Municipality, Rehov Sir John Monash is an undistinguished street, situated in the still too-boring-to-be-chic area of Yad Eliahu, not far from the Nokia Arena. It's a place of grimy high-rises and old two-family homes with a small amount of greenery to relieve the gray uniformity of the place. Students and other impoverished citizens find relatively cheap housing here. It's all a far cry from the glittering life and career of the man who was probably Australia's most famous Jew or alternatively, the Jews' most famous Australian. John Monash was born in Melbourne in 1865. His father, Louis Monash, settled in Australia in 1854 from his home town of Krotoschin, near Breslau in Prussia, a town where almost one-third of the population was Jewish. He prospered as a merchant and nine years after arriving, he returned to Europe to marry Bertha Manasse and took her back to Melbourne. John was born two years later, the only son of three children. The man who was to become famous as a soldier in World War I, an engineer and an administrator had distinguished Jewish ancestry. His grandfather had been a publisher and printer of learned texts. His uncle by marriage was Heinrich Graetz, the historian of the Jewish people whose magnum opus was published between 1853 and 1870. After his father returned to Australia with a wife, his fortunes were sadly reversed and the family was never again to be wealthy. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography they also abandoned most Jewish practices, although in the Encyclopedia Judaica he is said to have remained a practicing Jew all his life. John used to sing in the East Melbourne Synagogue choir and celebrated his bar mitzva there. The parents spoke Yiddish but also English, so the three children grew up speaking only English. In many ways a typically Jewish family, the parents drove their first-born son hard, as immigrant Jewish parents often did. At school he was a good student and later became competent in running, shooting and riding, also excelling in mathematics and languages. He chose to study arts and engineering at the University of Melbourne, but found the first year lectures unexciting and spent more time doing his own course of concentrated reading at the public library of Victoria, mainly in English literature and history. He was also attracted to the theater and went to plays at least twice a week. Through his reading and attending lectures by the well-known secularist Thomas Walker, he developed a free-thinking attitude to religion. Not surprisingly, he failed his first-year examinations. He finally graduated in 1884, having supported himself teaching mathematics. He played the piano well enough to perform in public and delighted contemporary society gatherings with his virtuoso performances. (Later in his memoirs he compares the conduct of a battle to a symphony, with every instrument knowing its place, just as the different elements of a battalion in action do.) He became involved in student politics and joined the university company of the 4th Battalion, Victorian Rifles. Within 14 months the raw recruit had risen to color sergeant, the start of his brilliant military career. When his mother became fatally ill in 1885, Monash abandoned his studies, but with his father's business failures found he had to help the family finances. He began work as an engineer and gained valuable experience, completing his degree in 1887. After some embarrassing episodes brought on by his habitual flirtations, especially with non-Jewish married women, he married Hannah Victoria Moss, and their only child, Bertha, was born in 1893. By 1895 he had decided on a combination of soldiering and engineering as his life's work. "Military theory had begun to excite him and he enjoyed the control of men in a hierarchical disciplined structure," says the Australian Dictionary of Biography. By the turn of the century he was well established in both of his chosen fields and had become a pillar of Melbourne society, living in a mansion with a luxurious chauffeur-driven car and other servants. On the military side, he was appointed to command the 13th Infantry Brigade, as colonel, and wrote a pamphlet, "100 Hints for Company Commanders," that became a basic training document. He was elected president of the Victorian Institute of Engineers and was prominent in the Boy Scout movement. The true challenge to his leadership and intellectual qualities came with the start of World War I in 1914. His first job was as chief censor for a month until he was appointed to command the 4th Infantry Brigade of the Australian Imperial Force. He commanded a convoy of 17 ships which reached Egypt in January 1915 and took part in the Gallipoli landings which were unsuccessful, although his troops distinguished themselves. He also had to contend, at several points in his career, with rumors that he was a German spy and traitor. In May 1918, as lieutenant-general he was appointed to lead the entire Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) on the Western Front and his troops played a decisive part in breaking the German lines on the Amiens front. It was at the Battle of Hamel Hill, in July 1918, that his tactics won a much-needed victory for the Allies, and as a result he was knighted in the field by King George V. A grainy old film taken at the time shows Monash, half-kneeling as the king dubs him Sir John, jumping up prematurely and half-kneeling again, clearly uncomfortable with the stance. Throughout his distinguished career he did not deny there was anti-Semitism, but he habitually ignored it and denied he had ever been subject to discrimination. Once home, the Jews who claimed him, rightly, as one of their own, thrust a leadership role on him that he could not have escaped even if he'd wanted to - synagogue board membership, communal spokesman and a figurehead president of the Australian Zionist Federation. Given the job of repatriating the 200,000 surviving "diggers" who had suffered heavy losses but fought bravely and successfully during the four hellish years of war, Monash settled back into civilian life. According to the ABC documentary about him, he brought back to Australia his mistress Lisette Bentwich, who remained there after the death of his wife, known as Vic. I am grateful to my old friend and amateur military historian Frank Adam in Manchester for pointing me in the direction of a brilliant film about Monash, The Forgotten Anzac, which can be viewed at au/tv/documentaries/interactive/monash/ and sheds much light on the man who was called by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery "the best general on the Western Front in the First World War." He died in 1931 at 66 and had a state funeral attended by 250,000. The burial was conducted with Jewish rites. Today many memorials survive including Monash University in Australia - and of course a street in South Tel Aviv. And while the city fathers' spelling is risible, their sense of history is not. Just round the corner from Rehov Monash one finds Rehov Gallipoli.