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Monash: The Outsider Who Became a Folk Hero

September 2, 2015

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He features on the $100 note and there’s a major university named after him but who is the man behind the military hero? Journalist and author Grantlee Kieza tells the story of this intriguing character in his latest biography Monash: The Soldier Who Shaped Australia. Kieza talks to Better Reading about what inspired him to write about Sir John Monash, the great soldier who hated war:

Better Reading: What made you choose the subject of the military hero John Monash for your next biography?

Grantlee Kieza: Monash is a towering, iconic Australian figure, yet a century on from his epic feats I felt little was really known of the man inside the uniform or behind the face on the $100 bill. I wanted to highlight Monash’s personality during his successes and failures and to shine a light on both his intellect and his vanity. The more I researched him the more I was intrigued by his complex personality and impressed by his doggedness and his humanity. He had many human failings but he genuinely tried to help his fellow man and personally he continued to improve and grow despite setbacks and prejudice. Monash had to work alongside people who were constantly stabbing him in the back but he concentrated on his task and got the job done. Despite Monash’s standing as a great soldier he hated everything about war. He dreamed of the day when mankind would live in peace without racial hatreds.

BR: There have been other histories/biographies of Monash. How is this different to other histories? Does it offer some new insights into his life?

GK: Yes. I wanted to write the most detailed account yet of his life. I found out a great deal about the life of Monash’s grandfather and the trials and tribulations he faced as a Jewish cantor in Poland (then part of Prussia) that probably instilled stubbornness into Monash’s DNA. Monash faced a degree of anti-Semitism in Australia but his family in Europe had suffered for generations and with the rise of the Nazis there was not a single Jew left in the hometown of Monash’s father by 1940. I also tried to highlight what I thought were important events in Monash’s life that other books had mentioned only in passing. One was the death of an assistant from a bullet ricochet at the Williamstown Rifle Range in Melbourne when Monash was a junior officer and accidents on construction sites during Monash’s engineering careet. I also discovered in old newspapers long forgotten accounts of Monash’s father racing around with a pistol preparing for a shootout with Ned Kelly and his bushrangers in Jerilderie.

Monash’s love life was extremely complex but his emotional farewell letters to his wife, daughter and sister on the eve of the Gallipoli invasion showed where his heart lay in the hour of his greatest stress.

I also wanted to contrast Monash and his resilience with that of his German rival Erich Ludendorff and the young lance corporal Adolf Hitler. Monash kept a cool head in whatever crisis he faced. Ludendorff and Hitler suffered psychotic episodes. In fact a psychiatrist who examined Hitler at the end of World War 1 diagnosed him as being an hysterical psychopath. Prophetic!

BR: Why does John Monash continue to remain such an important figure in Australian history?

GK: Monash was not only a brilliant general but he was an inspiring academic who lent his name to a prestigious university. He was a patron of the arts with a restless hunger for learning. He was also an important symbol of Australia’s rise to independence. The perception of him in his lifetime was of a man who exposed the long entrenched British military hierarchy as blunderers and showed the world that the Aussies could not only stand on their own two feet but do a better job on the battlefield than anyone else. Monash was an independent thinker, a self-made man from a new nation flexing its collective muscle not that many years after Federation. Important figures such as Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George described Monash as the most brilliant general of World War 1 and claimed the war would have been won sooner and with fewer casualties if Monash had been in charge of the whole Allied force. In civilian life Monash drove the electrification of Victoria and was a cornerstone of learning as vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne. He always wanted to improve the lives of his countrymen and until the day he died was the greatest advocate Australian education could have had. I found him inspirational.

BR: How did you research for the book?

GK: I relied heavily on Monash’s own words and those of his critics – the National Library of Australia in Canberra contains 285 boxes of correspondence and memorabilia collected by Monash during his lifetime, including his most intimate diaries. From childhood Monash seemed to know that he was destined for greatness and that people would be interested in everything he wrote. Probably no Australian has documented a life in the way he did, even to the extent of rushing home after being punched in the face by a jealous husband to write down every facet of the altercation for posterity. Monash’s grandson Colin Bennett and Colin’s son Michael Bennett also gave some valuable insights and I relied heavily on newspaper accounts, the writings of the German commanders Ludendorff and Hindenburg, Charles Bean’s official war histories and various recollections of World War 1 veterans.

BR: An outsider, and somewhat unconventional as he was, how much did Monash represent what Australia stood for and still stands for?

GK: Monash was an outsider in the sense of what he called the “twin handicaps” of race and religion – a Jew born to Germanic parents when both were highly unfashionable. But from an early age he courted friends in powerful positions and applied himself to bettering his situation. He was the ultimate go-getter. He was just the man to lead Australia in its greatest crisis because he dispensed with the old fashioned ways of running military campaigns and instead ran his war like a big business. Unlike the British generals, Monash believed in promoting men on merit rather than on their family ties or old school connections. That egalitarian spirit made Monash a hero to his men and also ensured that like a good boss of a big corporation he had the best staff working underneath him, carrying out his master plans. It was all part of Monash’s belief that with the right education and application anyone – even a poor Jewish boy with German parents – could reach the top in Australia. Monash also had an overwhelming love for Australia and its people. He would always say that while he had been the man in charge it was the soldiers on the ground who deserved all the accolades and they achieved their success because of the teamwork and the mateship that Australia breeds.

BR: Is the timing of the book to coincide with the Gallipoli centenary or coincidence?

GK: The commemoration of World War 1 was a factor but my publishers wanted to follow a biography I wrote on the great Australian aviator Bert Hinkler (2012) with a warts-and-all biography of Australia’s greatest military commander. They felt that even though the name “Monash” was well known, the man behind the legend wasn’t. Monash’s great-grandson Michael Bennett agreed, saying that when he attended Monash University as a student, most of his classmates thought the University had been named after the Monash Freeway! The Monash of my book is a great Australian hero, but he is certainly no saint. He had love affairs and a massive ego. But in a time when Australia needed a strong and innovative leader he was the one who stood tall and led his troops to one triumph after another.

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Grantlee Kieza is a prizewinning writer for The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail newspapers in Brisbane. He has previously written for  Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, The Australian and The Sun-Herald, covering assignments as diverse as adventure races in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, anti-apartheid activism in Soweto and boxing matches around the world. He was a finalist in the 2011 Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism.

To purchase a copy of the book click here.


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