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The Return of Sir John Monash to Melbourne

John Monash was born in West Melbourne, moved to Jerilderie for part of his childhood where it is possible he met Ned Kelly before returning to Melbourne to continue his studies in engineering. He soon became an expert in the construction methods of the new building material known as reinforced concrete or, more colloquially to Australians who loved to abbreviate everything, as ‘reo’. He was involved with the building of the Princes Bridge and the design of the Sandridge Bridge.

Come WWI he went off to Gallipoli. He was not a career soldier but had already achieved the rank of an officer in ‘the volunteers’. After Gallipoli he was sent to the Western Front. By this time his organising skill had been well recognised even though the influential journalist Keith Murdoch and war historian Bean lobbied against his promotion. He was not a populist-shake-everyone’s-hands-and- call-them-mate-and-look-out-for-the photo-opportunity sort of leader. The British generals were prepared to experiment with various strategies using the troops as cannon fodder. Monash had grown up designing bridges. You get only one chance to get it right. He planned his battles accordingly. Artillery, planes, infantry and tanks were planned as part of a co-ordinated project each playing their part at their pre-ordained time. This included American tanks, and to my knowledge Americans, who rightly pride themselves at never fighting under a foreign flag, have only ever once been led into battle by a foreign officer – John Monash.

As for the Australians, who at this stage had been sent over the parapets time and again into the teeth of deadly machine gun fire, officers didn’t occupy a place of high regard in their thinking. Except for Monash. Somehow in the middle of all this mayhem he was able to arrange for a hot meal to be sent to men in the front trenches. If he thought that was important and knew how to organise it maybe he was different. And he was.

His organising and tactical abilities led to him being knighted on the field of battle by the reigning King of England – the first time that had happened in hundreds of years. He had come a long way since his early childhood in Melbourne playing in the Flagstaff Gardens.

At the end of the war, various British and Australian officers were pushed (or pushed themselves) into the limelight, but not Monash. However ‘the men’ knew what was what and who they were prepared to march behind. During the long slow business of ‘demobbing’ Many Australian troops remained in Europe. They had a reputation as larrikins lacking in formal discipline and aplomb. Several marches of ‘the colonials’ were arranged through London. Sir John issued a message to his men:

“It is only four miles and will last an hour and a quarter. It is not too much to ask every man to grip himself. Remember you represent the great and immortal Australian Army Corps. Every man should try and look as he ought and feel proud of his division and the Australian Army.”

Londoners agreed that the ‘amateur’ volunteers of the Australian army could, when led by their own officer who shunned pomp, put professional career soldiers in the shade. When it suited them and when led by a man they utterly respected. Which wasn’t all that often.

Monash was feted in London and offers came from around the world for potentially prestigious positions but practically nothing from Australia and the government seemed intent on snubbing him. However, Monash declared that he was returning to Melbourne.

Boats travel slowly but word travels fast. Repatriated diggers from around Australia payed their way to Melbourne to welcome him home. They had left their lives as farmhands and bookkeepers and wharfies and teachers and seen things that no person should ever be forced to see and come in contact with what can happen in back lanes in Paris and done things that only a person who knows they will probably die a horrible death tomorrow can do and returned to a sheltered family life which knew nothing of these things and of which they probably divulge nothing for the rest of their lives except in part when they were back in that other dreadful, cheerful, sad heroic bunch of mates who understood. And Sir John was coming back. He might move in different circles now but he understood.

The ship docked in Port Melbourne on Boxing Day and Sir John was taken by lighter to St Kilda Pier. There he was mobbed by ‘the men’ who carried him shoulder high to the boulevard that now carries the name of a VC winner. In fact it was this VC winner, Albert Jacka, who said of Monash “As a soldier he’s like one of ourselves and doesn’t like swank.” The parade continued along Fitzroy Street, through South Melbourne and along Swanston Street where the crowds cheered him every block of the way. He had been greeted by various mayors, but the Federal Parliament, which at that time sat in Melbourne was conspicuously absent and there was no sign of Prime Minister Hughes.

There were two elephants in the room. The first was that John Monash was Jewish and that did not sit well with certain parts of the establishment. As to ‘the men’ they had left an Australia where they had been taught that Catholics and Protestant could perhaps be on speaking terms but those of the opposite persuasion had to be treated with suspicion. In the trenches they soon learned that it was of no concern whether the man next to you was Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Kalathumpian. What mattered was could he be depended on, and the men knew John Monash could be depended on. The second elephant was more threatening. Monash was now clearly the most popular and respected man in Australia. Any job in Australia was his for the taking – including, possibly, prime minister. Politicians were anxious to recommend him for a job in the public service. Public servants were keen to recommend him for a job in the private sector. The magnates of the private sector were keen to recommend him for a permanent job in the military. The career military were keen to recommend him for a position of high honours overseas.

The day after his return, Sir John took off his military uniform, donned his civvies and returned to his job in his engineering company. It was a strong message to ‘the men’ that it was time for them to do the same. Offers continued to pour in but before long he surprised (and relieved) many by accepting a job heading up the newly formed State Electricity Commission which was then a small floundering organisation. He argued that the prosperity of Victoria (and therefore the employment prospects of ‘his men’) depended on a statewide electricity supply. He sat down and started to plan out a system that would see Victoria though the next 50 years. One expects if he was offered the job today he would look at all he could find out about climate change and renewable energies, investigate what changes various plans might have on individuals and organisations and start planning for the next 50 years.

Nowadays it is difficult to walk through central Melbourne without being reminded of the legacy of Sir John Monash. The dome in the grand reading room of the State Library was designed by him even though it was another company that eventually built it. The mural of Prometheus in John Monash House (now renamed). Princes Bridge and Sandridge Bridge where he cut his teeth as an engineer. The Shrine which wouldn’t have existed without his drive. The Anzac Day Parade of which he was the initiator as we have described in a previous newsletter.

But, you might say, that was all a long time ago. Even the house where he was born in West Melbourne has no plaque and has long functioned as a house of ill repute. Surely people have largely forgotten him.

Not so.

When decision makers meet at the peak body for engineers in Melbourne they sit at a board table. It would be difficult for them to make a decision without being influenced by the simple statement by Monash in large lettering which takes up most of one wall of that room.

“Adopt as your fundamental creed that you will equip yourself for life, not solely for your own benefit but for the benefit of the whole community.”

I think it is fair to say that Sir John Monash’s return to Melbourne has had an effect that was bigger than The Beatles.

Sir John Monash Memorial

Seven Melbourne Events that were Bigger Than The Beatles - overview


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