Sunday, April 22, 2018

In which the pond is relieved to discover that it can continue to disagree with prattling Polonius ...

(Above: the pond seizes the chance to enhance its swear jar).

The pond was shocked to find itself in the company of prattling Polonius and the likes of Neil James when it came to the matter of the recent campaign regarding the ceremonial elevation of Sir John Monash to Field Marshall.

James ended his piece, here, thusly:

The two most authoritative biographies of Monash by Geoffrey Serle and Peter Pedersen detail his many strengths and achievements, and record his human flaws. They also refute both the themes and claims made by those pushing Monash mythology rather than facts, context or historically informed perspectives. Monash himself specified that his gravestone was to read only ‘John Monash’ with no title, rank or awards.

Indeed. As James notes, Monash didn't serve in what is usually conventionally defined as a field marshall role, though it should be added that the Australian version is a something of a caricature and apart from Blamey, with only a few mainly ceremonial players given the title ...

Monash was an astute general, and so a posthumous appointment to field marshall would also have been a ceremonial gesture, designed to appease the living, because it wouldn't have done much for the dead, and it would have put Monash in the company of the likes of King George VI and the Duke of Edinburgh, appointed in 1954.

Given the Duke's indifferent military record, putting Monash in this sort of company would have been a major demotion and verging on the defamatory - it's bad enough they both share knighthoods, thanks to the onion muncher, with Monash earning his, and the Duke doing sweet fuck all for his.

The pond hesitates to drag Godwin's Law into the conversation but this sort of pomp and pageantry was most loved by the most inept Nazis, as when Hitler promoted the foppish Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, to the newly created top dog position of Reichsmarschall in 1940 …yet when the title might have counted for something, in 1945 Hitler went with Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor, a classic hospital pass. Hitler had been pandering to Göring's love of fancy batons and dress-up games ...

Monash was of an engineering bent, and was more interested in getting the job done than in baubles and decorations …

Of course it was silly old Tim Fischer who was behind the push that was nobbled by Malware's government, but two wrongs don't provide the justification for putting Monash in such dud company:

Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, who led the campaign to promote Monash, urged the Prime Minister to reconsider. "There are no insurmountable reasons as to why you can not proceed with the promotion of John Monash," Mr Fischer said on Wednesday.

"It remains curious in the extreme that Prince Charles, who absolutely deserves to be head of the Commonwealth, will on accession become an Australian field marshal like his father and grandfather, but not John Monash our greatest military leader." The rare title will be bestowed on Prince Charles when he becomes King - a ceremonial honour that irritates Monash backers in Australia. The Queen's husband, Prince Philip, is one of just four Australian Army field marshals. Just one of those four - Sir Thomas Blamey - is an Australian. (here).

Well no Tim, Prince Chuck absolutely doesn't deserve to be head of the Commonwealth, and as with his dad, putting John Monash in Chuck's company verges on the defamatory…

The reptiles' contribution to the discussion was particularly stupid, presenting it as some kind of generational smack down …

Talk about defamatory.

It's bad enough lining Monash up against the Duke, but it's totally dire putting him up against, or wanting him in the same company, as Prince Chuck … what was it Groucho Marx said about clubs?

But enough of all this, the pond almost forgot that prattling Polonius had also offered two bob's worth, and the pond's mission, as it always is, must be to find some way to disagree with Polonius, even when there might appear to be some disagreement …

It's easy to see why the pond's heart sank. Nothing to see here, and the pond had to quickly move on to the next gobbet ...

Thank the long absent lord.

The pond should have known Polonius would have been a Haig supporter, and how about that immortal line, "a few mistakes along the way."

Now it's not just because the pond's grandfather fought in the battle of the Somme that the pond is alone in taking a view about not being vague, and never asking for a Haig …

Visiting the Somme battlefield in northern France is largely a matter of going from one Commonwealth Graves Commission cemetery to another. The graveyards are everywhere, some of them very small, comprising only a handful of white Portland marble stones, many bearing the inscription, A Soldier of the Great War / Known unto God. One sees so many of these cemeteries and so many stones—along with the vast memorial at Thievpal bearing the names of some 70,000 British soldiers whose bodies were never recovered—that after a few hours of it, you feel numb. Overwhelmed. 
The magnitude of the battle still stuns the imagination. The Somme was an epic of both slaughter and futility; a profligate waste of men and materiel such as the world had never seen. On the morning of July 1, 1916, 110,000 British infantrymen went “over the top.” In a few hours, 60,000 of them were casualties. Nearly 20,000 of these were either dead already or would die of their wounds, many of them lingering for days between the trenches, in no man’s land. The attacking forces did not gain a single one of their objectives. 
Even so, a staff colonel had the cheek to write: “The events of July 1st bore out the conclusions of the British higher command and amply justified the tactical methods employed.” 
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, chief of staff of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and architect of the battle, evidently agreed. On the day after the debacle, stating that the enemy “has undoubtedly been shaken and has few reserves in hand,” he discussed with subordinates methods for continuing the offensive. Which he did, with a kind of transcendent stubbornness, for another four months, until winter weather forced an end to the campaign, if not the fighting. By then, Haig’s army had suffered more than 400,000 casualties. For the British, in the grave judgment of noted military historian John Keegan, “the battle was the greatest tragedy…of their national military history” and “marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.” 

Indeed, indeed, and that piece contains much more here, as it wrapped up with this:

Early biographies were laudatory, and Haig did his best to ensure that by sending material to the authors. Then came the inevitable reappraisals. B.H. Liddell-Hart, a distinguished military historian who had been wounded on the Western Front, went from admirer to skeptic to unremitting critic. He wrote in his diary: 
He [Haig] was a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple—who, to his overweening ambition, sacrificed hundreds of thousands of men. A man who betrayed even his most devoted assistants as well as the Government which he served. A man who gained his ends by trickery of a kind that was not merely immoral but criminal. 
Haig’s military reputation might even have figured in the prevailing attitude of appeasement. Nothing, the thinking went, was worth another Somme. But of course the world—including the British—did go to war again. For all the slaughter, Haig’s war had been inconclusive and had to be fought again. And after this one, the sea changes set in motion by the first of the world wars became starkly apparent. Britain was no longer an imperial power, and the old Edwardian certainties had crumbled. Like the social class that had produced him, Haig was not so much a figure of controversy as one of contempt. A dull, unfeeling, unimaginative, smug “Colonel Blimp” of the worst sort. Haig was cruelly mocked, first in the satirical musical Oh! What a Lovely War and then in the 1989 television comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth. 
He still had his defenders, but they were in the last trench, barely holding on. Their books argued Haig was a curious, inventive soldier who had, in fact, appreciated the tactical value of machine guns and tanks. Before he died, however, Haig himself gave his critics ammunition by clinging publicly and stubbornly to his outdated certainties. As late as 1926, he was still capable of writing this about the future of warfare: 
I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past. 
Astonishing that any man who was there could still believe in cavalry 10 years after the Somme. But it is the bit about “the well-bred horse” that really gives the game away. Haig was undeniably a butcher, as his severest critics have claimed, but he was most of all a pompous fool.

Hmm, well it takes a pompous fool to celebrate the "some mistakes along the way" of a pompous fool …

And then Polonius doubled down for the pond by offering up Gallipoli, as an adventure embarked on with "the best of intentions".

How Monash would have danced with delight at the notion of a campaign embarked on with the "best of intentions", as opposed to a sensible plan well executed.

Even allowing for the all the assorted bungles and incompetent planning and inept tactical implementation, Gallipoli would have still been a hare-brained and delusional scheme, typical of Churchill's off-the-cuff strategies.

It was based on the splendid delusion that the Turks would be easy-beats and the mighty British empire could take them out and stroll up the peninsula, and the war would be over by Xmas.

There was just one problem with this imperial thinking - the Turks were on their home turf and they weren't going anywhere - and even if the incompetent Poms had managed to execute the mission more in the style of a Monash, there would have been no guarantee of an easy victory against a determined Turkish resistance ...

The pond is surprised that Polonius also didn't mention another of his refrains … how we shoulda, coulda, woulda beaten the Vietnamese in Vietnam …and thereby stopped the dominoes falling, though the last time the pond checked, the Vietnamese were still in Vietnam, and Vietnam was still being run by a Communist dictatorship …remarkably enough, with not much love of the domino-playing Chinese …

Never mind, the pond was pleased that at end of day, it could still find things to bicker about with Polonius, whether it be his love of the butcher of the Somme, or his delusional belief that the wretched Gallipoli campaign should be celebrated as a display of good intentions …

… which is why the pond is content that Monash stay a general, and the armchair field marshals can keep on typing their columns for the lizard Oz ...


  1. Blackadder probably nailed Haig - "we shall always win by reason of pluck: and, if it is not the only cause of victory, it is always the most essential factor and the one without which we cannot hope to succeed" or "The machine gun is a much overrated weapon and two per battalion is more than sufficient".

    Apparently "pluck" proved a poor defence against the machine gun.

  2. Telling, that 'unity in Australian politics' (ie. Abbott and Turnbull agreeing on something) is seen as noteworthy in Gerard's World.

  3. Polonius: "It is now increasingly recognised that Germany was a Pacific Power in 1914-18 and that a victory for the kaiser would have adversely affected Australia's democratic way of life."

    Really ? Apart from Polonius, who exactly "increasingly reconises" this ? Blainey, Windschuttle or Colebatch perchance ? Does he think, perhaps, that the Germans had a Pacitic Armada ready to invade Australia the minute the Poms surrendered and a German was appointed British King ?

    However, I do have to basically agree with your judgement, DP. Not because of Phill 'n'Chuck - they're just Pommy wastrels who can't tolerate anybody having a formal title higher than theirs - it was that Monash would have to be an Australian Field Marshal; supposedly amongst those who've earned their title. But that would put him alongside Blamey, and that would be an insult. And apart from that, what would we then do for William Glasgow and 'Pompey' Elliott ?

    Prattling: "Abbott recently noted that Monash was one of Australia's most successful men on the world stage (he also mentioned Howard Florey..."

    And he mentioned some other robber baron press magnate who is wholly unmemorable. But no mention of Laurence (the boy from Adelaide) Bragg or Frank Macfarlane Burnet ? Or Elizabeth Blackburn or John Eccles ?

    The next thing you know, Prattles will be asking why Patrick White couldn't be more like Henrik Pontoppidan who was at least born in the country he claimed the Lit Nobble for.

    1. Yes, the Howard pere grift was a delight all round. However, for a supposedly "increasingly recognised" mighty imperial force, the German occupancy of north-eastern New Guinea was ended very simply:

  4. The whole discussion shows the dismal parochialism of the Australian (and Anglophone) commentariat. Monash was just one of 75 corps-level commanders on the Western Front in 1918 (I note Polonius doesn't even acknowledge the presence of the French or Americans there). The Australian Corps, for many reasons, of which Monash's leadership was one, performed very well in 1918, disproportionately so, but were a small part of the overall victory.

    Haig was far worse than Polonius's sound chap who made some mistakes, but claims that he was the worst general in the First World War are also ridiculously narrow. In 1918, he was probably the least capable British Commander at Army level or above (well, once Hubert Gough had been fired), but he was still better than his predecessor, the hopeless John French. And the candidates for woeful generals are not lacking - Luigi Cardorna of Italy, Robert Nivelle of France, Enver Pasha of Turkey or Conrad von Hotzendorff of Austria-Hungary, all of whom broke their armies, Helmuth von Moltke of Germany, whose brief tenure ensured Germany's eventual defeat in the slowest and worst way possible, or Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich of Russia; all were in comparable positions to Haig, and none were better than him and many were worse (others, like Pétain, von Falkenhayn or Brusilov were definitely more capable). That's a long list without even delving into the list of dismal Army Group commanders at the next level down (probably, but debateably headed by Yakov Zhilinskiy).

    Monash retired from active service as a Colonel. His rank of Lieutenant-General during the war was temporary only (as with all officers in the AIF). Harry Chauvel was the senior Australian commander in WW1, becoming a LTGEN a year before Monash, and commanding the Desert Mounted Corps against the Ottoman Empire with at least as much skill as Monash showed in France. He rose, postwar, to command the Australian Army, and as such arranged for Monash, in retirement, to be promoted four ranks to become the second Australian-born General, after Chauvel himself. So maybe, for all his merit, Monash simply doesn't warrant any more honours? At least, in comparison to Chauvel I don't see it.

    1. "The Australian Corps, ... were a small part of the overall victory."

      Ah but that is a big bone of contention, isn't it: was it just a small part, or a (disproportionately) major part ? And which (whose ?) evaluation of this question is definitively correct ?

    2. GB, there is a lot of real estate between "disproportionate" (in the sense of more than 1/75th) and "major", so the question is problematic.

      There are too many variables involved to make a definitive evaluation - how does one compare the Australian Corps much-lauded attack at Amiens, advancing against weak and ill-fed in weak positions to the Canadian Corps attack on the Canal du Nord, one of the strongest positions on the Western Front? Let alone comparing that to, say, the French 1st Colonial Corps crucial defence of Reims in June and July of 1918?

      Even if one says the Australian Corps achieved more than any other corps on the Western Front in 1918 (ie disproportionate, and that may well be the case), that is still a long way from "major". It also needs to be remembered that they received disproportionate support from British artillery and other allied troops.

      So, precision is hard, but the "Monash won the war" school? That's easy - totally bogus.

    3. Yes, it was a 'war' after all, such as the likes of Churchill, Bonaparte and Wellesley had never had to fight, so "won the war" was never a viable claim.

      I was thinking more of a 'turnaround event' where a small, but very well led, group manage to achieve a result against the general flow and thus 'inspire' a resurgence. Or something like that.

  5. The Australian victories were in part random - Haig needed new troops to stop the Germans and First Army offered up the Australians who were in their reserve. If they'd been in the line, Horne would have given Haig other divisions. But all follows from that, because it put the Australians at the junction with the French. Foch wanted a joint counteroffensive (planning for which started even while the Germans were still advancing towards Amiens), so that's where it was going to happen, regardless of exactly who was there. There is a large element of right place, right time to the Australian victories of 1918.

    Don't get me wrong, the five Australian division were among the best 15 or 20 divisions that Haig had (as were the four Canadian and the New Zealand divisions, so the Empire was significantly overrepresented). And Monash was an outstanding commander. But when putzes like Peter FitzSimons put out books talking about "the 93 minutes that changed the world", as his latest does, he does nobody any favours. The Australians did well enough without needing chest-thumping bulletheads to gild their lilies.

    But if one wants a "turning point" moment, there was one, but it didn't involve the Australian Corps. It took place between the 15th and the 18th of July, between Soissons and Champagne, when the French, with American (and even a little Italian) help, stopped cold the last great German attack, and then counterattacked to win a decisive victory. Churchill's famous claim about El Alamein in the second great unpleasantness, might more aptly have been made about this moment: "Before the Second Marne we never had a victory. After Second Marne we never had a defeat."


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