Heroic portrait of an officer and a cad

Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War. by Roland Perry, Random House

The Great War killed 60,000 young Australian men, along with millions more from other nations. One of the generals who directed them to their death was John Monash, a Melbourne engineer of German-Jewish background who managed to surmount the discrimination of early 20th-century Australia to become one of the new nation's most famous sons.

Like thousands of others, Monash's father had come to Victoria during the gold rushes, hoping to make his fortune, only to end up as a storekeeper at Jerilderie and later as an unsuccessful money-lender in Melbourne. Monash would later regale dinner parties with stories of how he held the horses for Ned Kelly when the bushranger came to sell stolen mounts in Jerilderie. According to a previous biographer, Geoffrey Serle, such stories were almost certainly untrue.

Rather than taking over the small town store, Monash managed to fulfil the hopes his father had not quite managed to achieve. He had resolved to be both rich and famous and was successful on both counts, taking out three degrees from Melbourne University, then putting his learning to good account. After some years of relative struggle as an engineer during the 1890s depression, Monash began to make his fortune when he teamed up with Dame Nellie Melba's father to make pipes, bridges and other constructions, applying the new method of using reinforced concrete.

At the same time, he was pursuing his other great interest as an officer in the militia, proving to be a strict taskmaster who prided himself on bringing order and discipline to the rather ragtag force of weekend volunteers. His work as an engineer and an officer gave him valuable experience in detailed planning, something that later would bring him to the notice of his superiors at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. The militia also allowed him to enjoy the regularity and discipline that was lacking from his personal life.

A turbulent affair with the wife of his assistant ended in an attempted elopement that saw Monash knocked unconscious in a Melbourne street by the outraged husband. Thwarted in love, Monash found his match in a young Jewish woman who allowed herself to be wooed and married, while making clear that she would not be the subservient wife that Monash desired. She walked out on him several times, once sailing off to England.

It is all laid out in the frank entries of Monash's diary, along with the voluminous letters that he kept for posterity. They provide a goldmine for biographers. As a result, Monash has been well served by biographers, with this work by Roland Perry being the third biography to appear. To ensure his place in history, Monash also wrote his own account of his time as commander of the Australian corps in France.

Monash would have been well pleased with Perry's book, which repeats the Kelly story as fact and tells a heroic story at a ripping pace, unimpeded by too many footnotes.

This sympathetic account also does not dwell too much on the morality of a general who had an affair with his wife's friend in London, while his wife was recovering from cancer in Melbourne, and who resisted pressure from prime minister Billy Hughes to take his corps out of the front line in late 1918. Instead, he pressed on with a flurry of pushes at the German line that added to the already heavy Australian toll, while ensuring his own place - and theirs - in history.

Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August 2004