The frustrating reality of public life is that there’s usually a lot less to show for it than the headlines would suggest. So much of what makes news, even the work of a national leader, is forgotten the instant it’s over or you’re gone. No less a feat than stopping the boats won’t be a lasting achievement if a future government ever relents on sending back every boat and every individual who arrives illegally on one.
From my time in the Howard cabinet, work for the dole has all but disappeared even under a Coalition government; the Medicare dental scheme was abolished by Labor; and the ABCC was abolished, recreated and faces abolition again should the government change. But from my time as PM, at least the new roads, airport, and the big 3 free trade deals will still be making a difference decades hence. And then there’s the Monash Centre.
Because the prime ministership is the most sought-after and the least secure job in the country, it’s rare for an incumbent to acknowledge, even momentarily, an achievement of his predecessor. All credit to Malcolm Turnbull, therefore, for inviting me to the opening of the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers Bretonneux last week and for noting my role in his speech.
On taking office in 2013, what struck me about the Centenary of Anzac plans was the absence of anything that would last. There was a successful travelling exhibition, top essay competitions and local monument refurbishments but there was nothing to refocus Australians on the qualities of character that had ennobled the Great War generation and that should lift and inspire all of us everywhere. A polite aversion to anything that might ‘glorify war’ risked amnesia about the best in us – as well as the worst – that the most testing of times can bring out.
So I resolved, pretty much then and there, to build an interpretive centre to tell the story of Monash and the First Australian Imperial Force that he ultimately led to triumph; and to site it behind the existing Australian War Memorial to the 46,000 diggers who died in France. It meant that the centenary commemorations at Gallipoli three years ago would be merely a grand moment rather than the climax of the centenary of Anzac; which would, instead, follow all the achievements of the Australian army a century ago: from the heroic failure of the Dardanelles campaign to the terrible success on the Western Front, the charge at Beersheba and the capture of Jerusalem and Damascus by the Australian Light Horse of Sir Harry Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps.
Great credit should go to the Australian’s Paul Kelly and Patrick Walters who first pointed out in 2012 the absence of an official Australian museum in France such as the British one near Pozieres and the Canadian one at Vimy Ridge; the then-Veterans’ Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson who enthusiastically drove it; and the French government who facilitated the express approvals needed for such a sensitive project to go from announcement to completion in just three years; also my much-maligned office which immersed itself in the detail to counter any official back-sliding.
Although the Great War generation were probably too numbed by the scale of their losses to dwell on their achievements, it’s surprising that Australians have so completely lost sight of our contribution to winning history’s most dreadful war. The small but highly professional and effective pre-war British army was largely wiped out in its opening months. Kitchener’s new army was shattered in the carnage of the Somme in 1916. By 1918, quite a few British units were largely conscript and ‘second eleven’ in morale and accomplishments. Somehow, despite the horrors of continuous infantry assaults against barbed wire and machine guns, the First AIF had kept their spirit; likewise the Canadians. And in Monash, the engineer, citizen soldier and Jewish son of Prussian immigrants, we had the architect of the ‘all arms’ battle: coordinating planes, tanks, artillery, and even smoke shells with infantry, to break the stalemate of trench warfare.
In March 1918, with a million seasoned troops freed from the Russian Front, the German high command launched the offensive that they thought would win the war. For several weeks, at the juncture with the French, the British front crumbled. The Australians were rushed back from reserve to plug the gaps and steady the line. Villers Bretonneux was the key to the Amiens rail junction that the Germans thought was the key to Paris. The British held it, then lost it; until on Anzac eve, the Australian 13th and 15th brigades’ furious night assault recaptured it in hand-to-hand combat. No big German attack ever again succeeded against the British lines. Then, on July 4, with 1,000 Americans too under his command, Monash retook Hamel in a dress rehearsal for the successes to come. On August 8 at the Battle of Amiens, flanked by the Canadians and the British, all five Australian divisions advanced some ten kilometres in a single day and broke the spirit of the German army. After further attacks at Mont St Quentin and Peronne, marked by dazzling individual heroism as well as superb planning and logistics, the Australians breached the Hindenburg line and helped to force the armistice. Never before or since, have Australians so shaped world history.
After so many failures, it’s not surprising that the British generals would immerse Monash and the Australians’ success in their own. But we can hardly expect others not to rewrite history when we don’t even remember it ourselves. Thanks to the Monash Centre and the pilgrimage that millions of Australians will henceforth make to it, we will remember.
It’s right that there will be a big official commemoration of Hamel in two months’ time: the battle that Monash planned and executed almost to the second. But thus far, we have nothing at all planned for August 8, the Amiens centenary. It was Australia, after all, that made this the ‘black day’ of the German Army. Over four years of remembering, it would be odd to forget the most significant battle we’ve ever fought.