Book Review – Monash and Chauvel by Roland Perry

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Monash and Chauvel (by Roland Perry) follows the journey of two of Australia’s most prominent generals through the latter half of the first world war. It documents closely their triumphs and failures as well as the political machinations which loomed over and occasionally interfered with their efforts to win the war.

The book opens with a brief synopsis of each man’s life and career up until the outbreak of war before jumping forward to 1916. Monash’s story is taken up in September when Monash’s newly created 3rd Division was parading on Salibsury Plains (in England) for the review of King George V. Chauvel’s story is taken up earlier in 1916 in the Middle East at the Battle of Romani. Notably, the events of the Gallipoli campaign are largely omitted from the narrative other than when used as a supporting reference to contextualise later events. This is despite both Monash and Chauvel having served there.

In both cases the narrative starts at a low point for the Allies. Monash’s 3rd Division would be deploying to the Western Front in the immediate aftermath of the Battle the Somme. While in the Middle East, Romani came at the end of a prolonged Turkish advance that was driving West to capture Cairo.

What follows is a vivid journey through some of the most consequential battles of Australia’s First World War experience. On the Western Front this includes le Hamel, Amiens, Mont St Quentin, Péronne and the Hindenburg line. In the Middle East this included Romani, Gaza, Beersheeba and Damascus.

This book highlights the challenges that each man faced in adapting to the rapidly changing character of war during this period. A pace of change that was brought about by the convergence of multiple new and emerging technologies that combined to significantly accelerate the pace of war. Not only were things occurring faster, but they were also occurring over larger distances with greater lethality. This change met the existing doctrinal concepts of the time with horrific results. What set Monash and Chauvel apart from their peers was that they were able to gradually adapt to the changes. This was particularly true for Monash.

Monash’s challenge was how to break the deadlock of trench warfare while avoiding the mistakes made at the Somme. Chauvel’s challenge was how to effectively employ horse and camel cavalry to close with the enemy across large well-prepared engagement zones covered by machine guns, massed artillery and aircraft.

The success of their methods isn’t so much written in their victories but rather in how they were achieved. The author boasts that over the final six months of the war the five divisions of the 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF) engaged 39 German divisions taking 29,144 prisoners and liberating 116 towns and villages over 660 square kilometres while inflicting an estimated 60,000 casualties on the German forces. This compares to 24,000 total casualties for the Australians (of which 5,500 of those were killed in action) over the same period. The author also claims that the period from August to October was the least costly (in terms of lives) for the AIF of the entire war despite being used to spearhead major engagements. The author attributes this to Monash’s development and implementation of combined arms tactics to break the deadlock of the trenches.

The record of Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Column in the final 42 days of the Middle East campaign is given as a successful advance over 800 kilometres taking 80,000 prisoners while suffering only 649 casualties (out of 5,666 for the entire British Eastern Expeditionary Force).

Roland Perry’s Monash and Chauvel is a long book at 532 pages but its pages contain many lessons of relevance for current military leaders. Potentially the most valuable lesson it provides is a counter to today’s belief that we are living in an era of uniquely rapid change. Yet by following the campaigns of both men it’s clear that we aren’t the only generation to face such rapid technological upheaval. There is much to learn from how both men adapted new tactics in the face of rapidly changing technology and entrenched institutional dogma concerning how things ought to be done.

Neither Monash nor Chauvel succeeded where their peers had failed because they had access to better technology. They succeeded because they were best able to integrate and combine those technologies in new, effective and creative ways. This meant they were able to achieve their objectives with fewer losses, retaining more of their experienced combat power for subsequent engagements.

Monash and Chauvel’s personal journeys contrast and complement each other, inviting the reader to reflect on what makes a successful military leader. Chauvel was the product of a full-time military career and had seen service in the Boer War. Monash by contrast was a relative outsider. A successful barrister and engineer who had also been an active part time officer for several decades prior to the outbreak of war, yet one who lacked operational experience.

The tone of the book is very pro-Australian and takes a relatively dim view of the leadership of the other allied nations. This is likely due to the author’s push to have Monash posthumously promoted to Field Marshall and likely leads to some favourable interpretations of results. Despite this bias, it is still a refreshing change to see such compelling Australian stories emerge from the shadow of the more well-known British and American histories of the First World War.

Looking past the flag waving, this is a great book for anyone looking to learn more about Australia’s land campaigns of WWI beyond Gallipoli. It is also a great book for anyone looking for historical analogies to better understand what can happen when the convergence of multiple new technologies drives a rapid change in the character of war.

This is well worth the read.

About the author: Chris is an Associate Editor at Grounded Curiosity and a currently serving Australian Army officer. Building on a multi-discipline engineering background, his passion is technological development and PME. Chris’ work has previously appeared on Grounded Curiosity, Strategy Bridge and The Cove. Find him on Twitter.