John Monash & King George V
On 4 July 1918, in just 93 minutes, at a cost of a mere 1060 casualties, Australian soldiers drove German troops from their positions overlooking the British line and took the town of Le Hamel, fighting in combination with aircraft and artillery. This tactic, known as “peaceful penetration”, demonstrated how the stalemate of trench warfare could be broken. The architect of their victory was John Monash, a 53-year-old engineer from Melbourne.
The son of Prussian immigrants, Monash had done well in concrete, become a prominent citizen and joined the colonial militia. When the war broke out, he was a part-time colonel. By 1918, he was the general in charge of the Australian Corps. At Hamel, his meticulous planning and use of technology provided a template for the grand offensive launched against the Germans the following month.
As the German army collapsed, Monash was considered a potential commander-in-chief of British forces. On 12 August, at a meeting near Amiens, the king himself dubbed Monash a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. It was the first time since 1743 that a British sovereign had conferred a knighthood on the field of battle.
George, too, had German antecedents. A Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, he was compelled by wartime public opinion to change the family name to the English-sounding Windsor. A pathological reactionary, he despised the working classes, hated the idea of female suffrage, collected stamps and shot pheasants – up to 1000 in a single afternoon. His children were terrified of him. One of them developed a bad stammer.
Monash finished the war with an outstanding reputation for energy, intellect and personal magnetism. On top of his KCB, he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
On his return to Australia, he electrified Victoria, making the State Electricity Commission a highly successful public enterprise. His stature, it was said, rendered “respectable” anti-Semitism impossible in Australia. When he died of a heart attack in 1931, more than 250,000 people turned out for his funeral.
A heavy smoker, George V died four years later. His demise was hastened by a lethal injection of morphine and cocaine, administered just before midnight so his death could be announced in the morning edition of the Times rather than one of the vulgar afternoon papers. His last words, addressed to his nurse, were “God damn you!”
In the 1990s, Monash’s legacy, the SEC, was laid waste by a former school cadet corps NCO.