Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says that there are “powerful precedents” which “break with normal protocol” for posthumously promoting General Sir John Monash to field marshal. (ABC News: Nicholas Haggarty)
The week before the 2018 ANZAC Day commemoration, newspapers reported that the Turnbull Government had decided against posthumously promoting the Australian World War I commander General Sir John Monash to the rank of field marshal.
Supporters of the campaign to promote Monash, including former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, argued that his contribution to the Allied victory in WWI had not been sufficiently recognised and that granting him the highest military rank would right a historic wrong.
They had hoped Monash’s elevation would coincide with the opening of the $100 million Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux in France.
In letters to the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, current and former military leaders argued against a posthumous promotion, saying it would run contrary to Australian military tradition and open the possibility of reviewing all previous decisions relating to rank.
In the midst of this debate Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wrote an opinion article in which he supported the campaign to promote Monash.
“It is true that posthumously promoting Monash to field marshal in this centenary year would be a break with normal protocol,” he wrote.
“But there are powerful precedents for such a decision.”
RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates whether there are indeed powerful precedents for posthumous promotion to field marshal that break with protocol.
Mr Shorten’s claim doesn’t check out.
In support of his argument, Mr Shorten cited three examples of men whose promotions, he claimed, had broken with protocol: Sir Thomas Blamey, Prince Philip, and General George Washington.
Fact Check consulted two Australian military historians and a British expert in the history of field marshals, all of whom said there was no precedent for posthumous promotion to field marshal in Australia or Britain.
The Australian experts also said the precedents cited by Mr Shorten did not represent a break with protocol.
Australia’s field marshals
Australia has had four field marshals: Sir William Birdwood, a British officer who commanded the Australian Imperial Force in WWI (he was made a field marshal in Britain and Australia simultaneously in 1925); King George VI; Sir Thomas Blamey (the first and only Australian field marshal) and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
All four were alive when appointed.
The field marshal rank is the highest military rank in the British and Australian systems and is awarded to an officer who has commanded several armies.
In the case of King George VI and Prince Philip, the rank is titular since neither actually commanded armies.
There have been 140 field marshals appointed by the sovereign since the field marshal rank was first introduced into the British Army in 1736, according to Dr Tony Heathcote, author of The British Field Marshals 1736-1997.
Dr Heathcote, a member of the British Commission for Military History, told Fact Check the rank is generally awarded to senior officers, but it has also been held by four British kings, two British royal consorts and 13 foreign monarchs.
Other professional soldiers to have held the rank are Marshal Ferdinand Foch (French Army), Jan Smuts (South African Defence Force) and as previously mentioned, Australia’s Sir Thomas Blamey.
Emeritus Professor David Horner of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University, and Professor Robin Prior of the University of Adelaide, told Fact Check the protocol for being promoted to field marshal requires an officer to be alive; in active service; to have exercised a level of command equal to that of a field marshal; and to have had the appointment conferred by the reigning monarch.
A quick guide to military ranks
To understand the debate over Monash’s proposed promotion, it helps to know how the upper echelons of the Australian Army are structured and where the rank of field marshal sits.
Army officers receive a commission from the Governor-General of Australia, who acts for the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Here are the top ranks:
|Field Marshal||The highest military rank. Commands armies. Five star rank.|
|General||Commands an army (an army is made up of several corps). General is the highest active rank of the Australian Army at the moment. It is only held when an army officer is appointed as the Chief of the Defence Force. Four star rank.|
|Lieutenant General||This officer commands a corps (a corps can be a number of divisions). This is the second-highest active rank in the Australian Army. Held by the Chief of the Army, currently Lieutenant General Angus Campbell. Three star rank. (The Government has announced that in July Lieutenant General Campbell will become Chief of the Defence Force.)|
|Major General||Commands a division or equivalent. Two star rank.|
|Brigadier||Commands a brigade. One star rank.|
Where does Sir John Monash fit in?
During WWI Monash commanded an Australian Corps which was five divisions strong, with the temporary rank of lieutenant general.
To reflect his level of command he was permanently promoted to lieutenant general in January 1920 — the three star rank he held at the end of the war and the highest for an Australian officer at that time.
Monash was knighted on the battlefield by King George V in 1918. Then, in recognition of his exceptional war-time service, prime minister Jim Scullin promoted him to full general in 1929. Monash died in 1931.
Supporters of the campaign to promote Monash, including Mr Shorten, argue Monash should now be elevated one further rank to the highest level of field marshal.
In his article Mr Shorten wrote: “Had it not been for the narrow attitudes of the time, it’s a promotion he would have won long ago”.
But military historians and others disagree.
Professor Horner told Fact Check that when Monash commanded the corps during WWI he held the correct rank of lieutenant general.
Although he was a talented and skilful officer he nonetheless did not shoulder the responsibilities of field marshal during his military service.
He achieved the rank appropriate to his level of command, Professor Horner said.
In an article in the Courier-Mail on April 18, Brendan Nelson, the director of the Australian War Memorial, praised Monash as one of the greatest Australians but argued against a promotion.
“The promotion of General Sir John Monash to field marshal is inconsistent with such promotions,” he said.
“Field marshals commanded entire armies, not a corps of five divisions. Monash did not meet the fundamental criteria for such promotion.”
So, are there any powerful precedents for promotions that break with protocol?
According to professors Horner and Prior, both established experts in the two world wars, there are no precedents in Australian military history for posthumous promotions to field marshal.
Nor were there any precedents that broke with protocol as Mr Shorten suggested, they said.
“I can’t think of any,” said Professor Horner, dismissing Mr Shorten’s claim as “nonsense”.
“There is not a single one,” said Professor Prior, describing the precedents claimed by Mr Shorten as “ridiculous”.
He said field marshals were “extraordinary and few and far between”, adding that to promote Monash to field marshal would break with tradition in a manner that would put him in an entirely different category of promotion.
“We’re not looking at just a skip and a jump here, we’re looking at something quite different,” he said.
“It would make Monash a politicised and somewhat ludicrous figure and that would be a pity considering his accomplishments.”
Others have taken a similar view. Fairfax Media reported that Chief of the Defence Force Mark Binskin, in a letter to Mr Turnbull, said a posthumous promotion of Monash would be legally unsound and open the defence force to more claims.
“Unlike some overseas nations which award promotions posthumously, Australia has no legal precedent for this action,” he wrote.
Dr Heathcote told Fact Check there were no precedents for promoting officers after death in British service.
“I can find no precedent for posthumous promotion to field marshal or indeed to any other rank in the British service,” he wrote in an email.
Why the precedents cited by Mr Shorten do not break with protocol
Mr Shorten referred to three precedents that he argued represented a break with protocol when promoting to field marshal. But none of them break with protocol. Fact Check will deal with each individually.
Sir Thomas Blamey is the first and only Australian Army officer promoted to field marshal rank.
During WWII Blamey commanded several armies comprising 500,000 men, a command where the correct rank would have been field marshal, Professor Horner said. But he was not promoted to that rank during the war.
“After the war, in recognition of the fact that he had held that position, the government promoted him to field marshal [in 1950]. He was alive and [because he had retired] he was brought back on to active service, to keep the protocol correct,” he said.
“The Blamey precedent isn’t a precedent. There isn’t a break in protocol,” he said.
Prince Philip has held the rank of field marshal in the Australian Army since 1954. King George VI also held this rank. But as Professor Horner pointed out, these ranks are titular for members of the royal family and therefore within ceremonial protocol.
General George Washington, the first president of the United States, was posthumously appointed to the rank of General of the Armies of the United States in 1976.
There is no equivalent rank in either the British or Australian army.
Also, the appointment was bestowed on Washington through an act of congress.
Professor Horner said unlike the US, British Commonwealth countries did not rely on parliament for posthumous promotions, making the Washington precedent not applicable.
The future of field marshals
In 1995 the British Ministry of Defence announced that the rank of field marshal would henceforth only be awarded in exceptional circumstances, Dr Heathcote told Fact Check.
Professor Horner said the US had also moved away from the five star rank, with none appointed since World War II.
- Giving John Monash the ultimate honour is long overdue, Bill Shorten, April 18, 2018, Fairfax newspapers.
- Sir John Monash timeline, Monash University
- John Monash: the case against a field marshal’s baton, Neil James, April 18, 2018, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
- Australian War Memorial
- Australian Dictionary of Biography
- Department of Defence, ranks
- John Monash Centre
- Monash4fieldmarshal campaign
- Turnbull Government decides against posthumous promotion for war hero John Monash, April 17, 2018, Fairfax newspapers.
- Australian Army ranks
- US Army Centre of Military History
Principal researcher Sushi Das