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Prime Minister Rt Hon. WM Hughes visits Western Front (1918)


On 2 July 1918, in the final stages of the First World War, the Australian Prime Minister, Mr WM (Billy) Hughes and his deputy, Sir Joseph Cook, visited various Australian headquarters in France. They are seen arriving on the steps of the 5th Divisional HQ at St Gratien, near Amiens, and leaving the 2nd Division HQ at Camon on 3 July. Sir Joseph Cook addresses men of the 2nd Division as the new Australian commander, Sir John Monash, looks on, with his predecessor, General Sir William Birdwood at right. Mr Hughes lies on the ground behind Sir Joseph as he speaks.

Curator’s notes

This looks like a run-of-the-mill film record of an official visit, but it’s rather more than that. Billy Hughes visited the front partly to settle a major controversy over who was to command the Australian forces for the rest of the war. Most of the major players are seen in these brief scenes: Monash, Hughes, Birdwood and a cast of staff officers whose opinions were to play a part. Two men we don’t see are the key orchestrators of the controversy – CEW Bean and Keith Murdoch, the most important newsmen of the war for Australians. On these two days, they were attempting to undo the appointment of Sir John Monash as commander of the Australian Corps.

Monash’s promotion had been approved by the Australian Cabinet in May, as Hughes was en route to Europe via the US. At Murdoch’s urging, Hughes decided to suspend Cabinet’s decision until he arrived in London. A furious round of lobbying then ensued. Part of the reason for Hughes’s visit to the Australian headquarters in France was to gauge the opinions of Monash’s fellow officers. As the camera recorded the handshakes and speeches, Monash’s position hung in the balance, just as he was trying to complete planning for the Battle of the Hamel. Monash had no doubt that the move against him was because he was a Jew. In a letter home to his wife, nine days before this battle, he wrote: ‘It is a great nuisance to have to fight a pogrom of this nature in the midst of all one’s other anxieties.’

Was this the simple essence of the matter, a virulent anti-Semitism? There is some evidence to support that view in Charles Bean’s diaries, in which there are a couple of uncomplimentary references to Monash’s personality. In December 1917, Bean wrote a stinging appraisal of Monash, who was then commanding the 3rd Division:

Monash has his capacities, great lucidity in grasping what has to be done and explaining it; but such a desire to make out the best case for himself after the event, that he accepts any pretty story which is put up to him. A truthful candid battalion commander therefore gets less favour in his eyes than one whose battalion has not done so well but who is ready to tell a pretty story about it. Monash for this reason has not the slightest grasp of what has happened in action – he never has had. His ambition makes him an underground engineer: he has the Jewish capacity of worming silently into favour without seeming to take any steps towards it, although many are beginning to suspect that he does take steps.

Bean felt that Monash almost never visited the actual front to see for himself. Bean preferred commanders who made sure they were seen by troops at the front, such as his friend John Gellibrand, who took over the 3rd Division from Monash, or General Charles Rosenthal, an architect now commanding the 2nd Division. There was only one Australian soldier whom Bean felt had all the right qualities to command the Anzac Corps and he had just left the Australian headquarters with General Birdwood. Cyril Brudenell Bingham White was Birdwood’s chief of staff from late 1916, an Australian-born officer of Irish parentage who had proved himself one of the best staff officers of the war. More importantly, in this context, he was Charles Bean’s friend, confidant and mentor, and one of his most important sources. Bean was under the impression that nearly everyone in the Australian hierarchy believed, as he did, that White was by far the most brilliant soldier Australia had produced. When Bean learned in mid-May 1918 that Monash was to succeed Birdwood as commander of the Australian Corps, he was deeply troubled.

In his book The Great War (2006), Les Carlyon devotes a chapter to this controversy, setting out with clarity the attitudes of the players in this intrigue. He describes Bean’s affection for White as ‘something approaching idolatry’. ‘Bean saw White as a genius – his word – and perhaps as the man he, Bean, would have liked to have been.’ By contrast, and like many men who were schooled in the English boarding schools, Bean had a thinly-veiled distrust of Jews in general. His observations at close quarters of John Monash, since Gallipoli, had not changed those views.

‘Monash is a man of very ordinary ideals,’ Bean wrote in his diary, ‘lower than ordinary I should say. He cannot inspire this force with a high chivalrous patriotic spirit – with his people in charge it would be full of the desire to look and show well – that is the highest. There is no question where the interest of the Australian nation lies. It lies in making White one of its great men and makers.’ The reference to ‘his people’ is interesting, because Bean felt that Monash tended to pack his own staff with Jewish officers. These are presumably ‘his people’.

By the time that Billy Hughes and his deputy Joe Cook arrived in France, the bad blood was at full boil. General Birdwood had wanted to retain contact with ‘his Australians’, by retaining administrative command of the AIF, while taking on his new job as commander of the (British) Fifth Army. He wanted Brudenell White with him as, in effect, his administrative link to Monash, who would be operational commander of the AIF. Bean and Murdoch opposed this at every turn. If Birdwood was to command the Fifth Army, he should relinquish his command of the AIF; White should be commander of the Australian Corps and Monash, as senior officer, should be promoted to General Officer Commanding, AIF. The GOC AIF was the senior position, but largely administrative. The real soldiering decisions, the planning of battle orders and strategy, were handled by the Corps commander. That was the position Monash now occupied, if only tenuously.

In these two days with the Australian troops, Hughes realised that Murdoch and Bean had misled him. There was no groundswell of opposition to Monash’s appointment. The divisional commanders supported his appointment, and many were enraged by the interference of two pressmen. Hughes decided to let Monash choose which position he wanted, knowing already that he would choose the Corps commander job. Brudenell White, who had neither sought nor encouraged Bean’s intervention, went with Birdwood as planned. Murdoch, a seasoned campaigner and peddler of influence, moved on to new fights. Bean and Monash continued to cooperate uneasily with each other in the last months of the war, because each needed the other. Bean was writing the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, and Monash was making it with a series of brilliant tactical battles that made his reputation as a soldier. As Bean rightly said, Monash was keenly interested in influencing his own legacy and legend, but this controversy soured relations between them for most of the rest of their lives. Bean admitted in public later that he had been wrong. He would describe it as a ‘high-intentioned but ill-judged intervention’. Monash’s biographer, Geoffrey Serle, saw it in harsher terms. Serle concluded: ‘It is perhaps the outstanding case of sheer irresponsibility by pressmen in Australian history.’