John Monash: a centennial appraisal of his military management

by GNA Bailey, British Commission for Military History

A presentation of the military and managerial life of General Monash to celebrate the official Opening of the Sir John Monash Centre at the Australian Memorial, Villers-Bretonneaux, the Somme region, France.

The evolution of modern thinking

A century has passed since General Sir John Monash took command of the Australian Corps in France. He has been considered by military historians to have had a unique ability, that of being able to apply the skills of business management to the fighting of battles in the Great War. He became thought of as the first military manager, being one of the few ‘Big Business’ type of brains among the Allied commanders.

Underpinning this assessment has been the development of what is today understood as ‘management’. This concept has evolved beyond the term ‘administration’ which was about developing and maintaining procedures. Management has become an ‘umbrella’ term covering the activities of forecasting, planning, organizing, commanding, coordinating, and controlling. They were beginning to be articulated in the years before the Great War by American theorists such as F.W. Taylor, whose ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’ was published in 1911. From sound management in the modern world comes good leadership.

Historically, leadership has been instinctive, based on an ability to understand how to use personal power to influence the behaviour of followers. Driven by this psychological power they have been able to deliver great performances. The Twentieth Century evolved a fusion of leadership with management; applying sound management principles in the modern world develops better leadership.

Monash: a life portrait

What features of the life lead by Monash lead to his being credited as being the first ‘military manager’? He was born in Melbourne, New South Wales, on the 27th of June 1865, of recent Jewish migrants from the Prussian-Polish region of Europe. When they settled in Australia, his father dropped the ‘c’ in the Monasch name to give the surname by which his son is now known. After a chequered undergraduate life, during which he read widely, played chess and the piano, Monash graduated from the University of Melbourne and qualified as an engineer. He practised in construction projects, pioneering the use of ferro-concrete in Australia. He became an advocate and expert witness in legal cases relating to engineering. In his personal life his relationship with women was complicated: as they did not affect his military performance, they are left with his distinguished biographers.

Amongst his many interests was military training and he became a part-time militia officer, gradually gaining promotion whilst in charge of coastal artillery batteries. He attended Colonel Hubert Foster’s school in military science at the University of Sydney where he wrote the pamphlet ‘100 Hints for Company Commanders’. Foster, an expert in military administration and the scalar chain of command, became his mentor He had studied, as an officer cadet under Colonel Thomas Hall who was the Professor of Military Art and History at the Staff College, Sandhurst, England, from 1882 to 1885.

Once war was declared in August 1914, Monash became the Chief Censor for a month. He was then charged in command of the 4th Infantry Brigade. On the 22nd of December he took ship with the Australian forces being transported to Egypt. The day after the 25th of April he landed on the Gallipoli peninsula, as part of the British and French forces. Their overall objective was to move up the Dardenelles towards Constantinople and force the Ottoman Empire out of the war. Unfortunately the Turkish soldiers proved to be tough fighters prepared to take enormous casualties. The landings bogged down within a short distance from all the beaches. The main hill, dominating the peninsula, Achi Baba, was never taken.

As a Brigadier-General, Monash lead a unit penned round under Pope’s Hill and Quinns Post, these hilltop sites being above Anzac Cove. His performance in its attack on Sari Bar on the 6th of August left questions as to his personal response to physically being in an attack. He was reported as saying over and over again “I thought I knew how to command men”. Fortunately he was not removed to ‘safer’ duties. Questions also remain about his contribution to the eventual embarkation of the Australian troops leaving the peninsula – he was considered to have misled others about the time when he did embark.

He returned to Egypt. Then in July 1916 he joined the Australians, taking command of their new 3rd Division in Salisbury, England. After four months of training his Division was moved to northern France, manning the trenches in the Armentieres sector of the Western Front. However they were not involved in the disastrous Bullecourt action, so Monash did not become prejudiced against the tank. In June 1917, the Division participated in the highly successful battle of the Messines ridge. Later in 1917 he commanded the Broodseinde attack on the Passchendaele ridge which brought further renown to the Australian Corps.

During the Kaiser’s Offensive in the Spring of 1918, the Division plugged the gap at Villers-Bretonneaux in front of Amiens, a gap left in the line by other retreating British units. Then, following Birdwood’s transfer, he came into his own as the commander of the entire Australian Corps. He oversaw the exquisite Hamel operation, a very successful but limited attack on the 4th of July 1918, the whole battle being concluded within some 93 minutes. This was said to be a “perfect battle” and “the first modern battle” as it put to use infantry, tanks and aircraft. On the 8th of August the Australian with the Canadians were the spearhead of the British advance in the Battle of Amiens. This operation drove the German forces back from the territories gained from the British retreat of the Spring. There followed two important successes, at Mont St Quentin on the 1st of September and on the 29th in breaking the Hindernburg Line at Bellicourt. Shortly afterwards, the Corps showed it was in need of rest and recuperation taking substantial casualties in the action at Montbrehain. It left the active front-line for the last time, only to return on the 7th of November but did not have to go ‘over the top’ before the Armistice was signed.

In cementing the global reputation of the Australians as being superb fighters, their commander benefited by acquiring his long-lasting reputation even though by now the stress of command created his agitated state and indecision before the storming of the Hindenburg Line. However two days later, two of his divisional commanders seized the opportunity to switch from a west-east line of advance to a north-south line – this allowed the Seigfreid Position to be rolled up.

After the end of hostilities, Monash remained a further year in Europe to ensure the smooth return of his troops to Australia. After his own return his personal life was blighted by the death of his wife from uterine cancer. He then returned to his professional life, becoming the general manager of the Victoria State Electricity Commission which built one of the world’s greatest engineering schemes. Showing his good sense, he employed German engineers who were the only ones with the expertise to exploit the reserves of brown coal needed to fuel the power stations.

With his reputation, Monash was asked to serve in many activities involving his engineering skills, ethnic heritage and academic knowledge. Gradually his health deteriorated because of a heart condition and he died on the 8th of October 1931. After his death, some 250,000 people attended his funeral. Monash University, the second university established in the State of Victoria, was named in his memory.

Assessing Monash’s command skills

In assessing the contribution made to the success of the Australian Corps, there is ample evidence that Monash was a superb military organiser, using a daily checklist (with each task meticulously crossed off once completed) to ensure no task was overlooked. His engineering expertise came into play in rebuilding Australian confidence in the tank which brought success on the 4th of July. He used four carrier tanks to supplement the carrying capacity of the sixty fighting tanks Mark V tanks at Le Hamel and Vaire Wood. This saved over 1,250 soldiers having to carry 50,000lbs of supplies (wire, pickets, sheet iron, bombs, ammunition and water) up to the advancing troops. In addition, aircraft were used to parachute in 100,000 rounds of ammunition to feed the machine-guns. Hamel rightly deserves its title, ‘the first modern battle’.

However his experiment with the Mark V Star tanks of transporting machine-gun sections into battle at Amiens was less successful – because of the inadequacies of the tanks. Being so slow, many supporting the Canadian 4th Division fell victims to the, by now, well-practised German anti-tank gunfire. Also, the petrol fumes and heat within the tanks left the sections exhausted and unable to fight. In compensation, tanks helped pull 16 Austin armoured cars through the badly mauled ground until they gained good tracks and were able to break through. In the German rear areas, the cars surprised the enemy, causing large casualties with their machine-gun fire at Proyart and Framerville. Included in the spoils was a detailed plan of the Hindenburg Line covering the canal section from Bellicourt to St. Quentin – this proved of great advantage to Monash and his staff some six weeks later.

Monash demonstrated the ability to achieve brilliant success with economy of lives and labour. Coupled with his organizing skills was the ability to understand and get the best use from the technology then available, being innovative regardless of where the ideas came from. He was fortunate in having as his army commander, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, a man disliked by many British Regular officers for being clever but who was adaptable and willing to learn from experience. Whereas other army commanders, including Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, might have stifled Monash’s experimentation, under Rawlinson’s command of the BEF Fourth Army, he was given the tanks to try new methods. They brought the break through at Le Hamel and Amiens. It was his repeated attempts to gain maximum success with the maximum economy in Australian lives which established his renown. By comparison, the notorious British Lieut.-General Aylmer Hunter-Weston achieved profligate numbers of casualties during the Gallipoli campaign but considered ‘blooding the pups’ the price to be paid. The caricature of the ‘Oh, what a lovely war’ general can be easily applied to him.

Monash’s unconventional ‘citizen’ route to supreme command of his national army meant that he had not absorbed the traditional military culture and training common to most European commanders. His professional engineering expertise inevitably meant that he was able to bring a commercial perspective to analysing military situations and problems. The likelihood is that he instinctively thought in a business rather than in a military way. Thus he was more receptive to innovative ideas simply because competitive advantage in the business world comes from exploiting new technologies and new methods of management.

The question can be asked about Monash bringing to command business ideas not known or understood by others. The answer is ‘yes’ if comparing his performance with that of most regular officers. He did bring such ideas; and they were partly based on practical experience gained in his pre-War professional life and partly on reading books about strategy and organisation. Based on his understanding of both theory and practice, he appears to have arrived at common sense conclusions on how best to run a business, and then later applied such thinking to managing an army corps. This was aided by his soldiers being willing to follow him into battle, having confident in his organisational prowess. However there is no evidence from his war letters to suggest that he consciously took commercial examples from his own personal experience and thought how they could be applied to solving current military problems.

The private letters of Monash do reveal aspects of his way of thinking. Giving examples as below:
‘we have got our battle procedure now thoroughly well organised – really a triumph of organization’ – Monash as Colonel on Gallipoli, 21 May 1915;;
‘our strategic or tactical objectives are still unreached’ – Gallipoli, 5 September 1915;
one can see the cult of inefficiency and muddle and red-tape practised to a nicety’ – Sarpi camp, Lemnos, 25 September 1915;
‘all this betokens lack of business management and power of co-ordinated action’ – Sarpi camp, 4 October 1915;
‘but here my engineering experience will help’- preparing the Australian camp for the Turkish winter weather, Anzac Cove, 10 November 1915;
‘all this means organization and makes all the difference between success and failure’- planning the evacuation, Anzac Cove, 18 December 1915;
‘organization is a much easier job than reorganization’ – Ismailia, Egypt, 15 January 1916;
‘a perfected modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments , and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases’ – quoted from the Monash book, ‘The Australian Victories in France in 1918’;
‘was a good example of modern war organization’ – Lark Hill, 6 November 1916;
‘I hate the business of war, the horror of it, the waste, the destruction and the inefficiency’ – Menton, southern France, 16 March 1917;
‘throughout each department of the work, both fighting and feeding up supplies, stores and ammunition, I strive to introduce similar systematic methods and order, so that there shall be no muddling, no overlapping, no cross purposes, and everybody has to know exactly what his job is and when and where he has to do it’ – France, 18 October 1917;
‘it was a miracle of good management’ – France, transporting in the Australian Divisions to contain the Kaiser’s Offensive, 2 April 1918;
‘it wa because we do not consider psychology enough that we are taking so long to win the war’ – France, 3 April 1918;
‘on taking over command of the Corps at the end of May, my first business was to weld the whole of the Corps into one great fighting machine, with a common purpose, unity of purpose, and unity of tactical thought and conception, and to infuse in the whole a spirit of unrelenting offensive’ – France , 8 November 1918, a mission statement which could have been written 100 years later.

One hundred years on, this clarity of thinking can bring success to enterprises whether military, political, business, commercial, the sciences and the arts. Though Monash was operating at a giant scale, this way of thinking has universal application, large or small.

Leadership and management; a century on

In the century which has passed since Monash took leadership of the AIF, the psychological understanding of ‘leadership’ has evolved. As with most other spheres of human knowledge, this has come from scientific research. Thus leadership has evolved far beyond simple ‘command and control’. However, by using modern techniques such as situational analysis, it is possible to appreciate the instinctive awareness of what ‘leadership’ meant to Monash and his mentor Foster.

The critical elements of leadership generally recognized in today’s world are courageous authenticity, transparency, interpersonal skills, being flexible and adaptive, engaging with others and bringing them on the journey: these are key aims to be achieved. A hundred years ago the modern concepts of social responsibility and role modelling would seldom have been understood.

Some terms are useful in identifying what might contribute to understanding the leadership style: personality/charisma, personal beliefs and values, source of power, position or status, previous experience, the type of followers, their cultural background, models of behaviour, organisational structures, the environment, tasks to be done, and time pressures.

INSEAD’s Global Executive Leadership Inventory (GELI) identifies dimensions of global leadership by promoting words such as envisioning, empowering, energising, tenacity and emotional intelligence. The latter dimension has gained critical importance as a term meaning being able to read and respond to people and situations appropriately, leading to the contingency theory of leadership.

Emotional intelligence differs from intellectual intelligence. As studied by psychologists such as Goleman (2000), it has five components; self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. This requires managing one’s own emotions by being calm, confident, resilient to stress, and grounded in reality. But also having the gravitas to influence the emotions of others so that they are willing to follow the lead being given. The empathy with staff is important as encouraging talented individuals to stay. Emotional intelligence is seen to increase with age.

As Rock and Schwartz (2006) have shown, a more accurate view of human nature and behaviour has emerged through the integration of psychology and neuroscience. It is interesting to note that the size of primitive tribal groups has evolved through evolutionary ecology into the modern numbers seen as delivering effective performance in military units (such as platoons) and business units (such as in the Toyota car company). Solution-focused questioning, rather than advice-giving, gets people to focus on solutions, not problems, and find them to gain self-insights. The influential Peter F. Drucker promotes learning as a life-long process – so teaches people how to learn.

Heifetz and Laurie (1997) wrote that that leaders should ask hard questions of followers to knock them out of their comfort zones. Emotional fortitude maximised their well-being instead of their comfort. The leaders needed to adopt a ‘helicopter’ view whilst acting on the ground, to keep pressure on a knife-edge without causing collapse, to support not control, with the followers taking responsibility for their own actions, but not squashing their ideas and suggestions, recognising that ‘intellectual’ conflicts can lead to creative solutions. Often it is found that the surface problems are hiding underlying weaknesses.

These findings have lead on to the modern concept of Intelligent Disobedience. Recognising that blind disobedience could be disastrous if it was unrealistic, a willingness to disobey was already becoming understood in 1906 America. It is understood nowadays that within the organisation, the orders being issued have to carry legitimate authority. If not, then the recipients of them should disobey (the Nuremberg judgement). But this depends upon the recipients having the training experiences to develop confidence and courage in justifying their disobedience – which carries the risk of punishment.

Modern training aims to give leaders and followers the shared values, as articulated by Chaleff (2017). Followers thus become partners in the mission. By sacrificing individualism they gain the right to exercise intelligent disobedience when the circumstances warrant it. On the battlefield, this enables the mission to be accomplished should the leaders become casualties. Followers can step up to replace them.

Summarizing modern thinking: the effective-performance skill identified in modern leadership is having trust in delegating, by good communication, accountability and responsibility, so that the leader allows followers to complete some of the identified tasks, resulting in all, besides the leader, having ownership of the implementation.

It is reasonable to suggest that, by his style of leadership and management, General Sir John Monash would have been able to relate to these concepts, even though they were unable to be articulated in 1918.


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I am indebted to:

John Pearce, Librarian, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, England.
Joy Pitts, Chief Executive Officer and Organisational Psychologist, Peoplemax, Sydney.

and especially Dr. Alex Kalloniatis, Senior Operations Analyst/CDS Fellow, Decision Sciences Branch, Joint & Operations Analysis Division, Department of Defence, Canberra, for encouraging this fresh appraisal of Monash and his unique military skills from within the thinking of the Twenty-first Century.


Dr. George Bailey OBE MBA MA(War Studies).

25 April 2018