Over the top?

A hundred years ago, Europe was deeply divided and, as today, many countries from around the world were drawn in. The resonances between then and now are striking, not least in how they are heard by ears attuned to different messages.

When I visited Melbourne last November, Sir John Monash was hard to escape and so I have duly read Roland Perry’s biography. Although the man was new to me – and perhaps to you – Australians have him down as an energetic polymath whose contribution to victory in the Great War has been wilfully neglected. There is little doubt that, as a soldier, he was a genius or at least, in Napoleon’s terms, lucky, since not much went right for the British before he arrived in France and not much went wrong for them after he was given his head.

Before Monash, war was a place where you tried hard and where loss of life at scale was inevitable. The key thing was heroism, whether the occasional charge on horseback or hundreds of men going over the top and dashing, briefly, towards well-fortified positions. Heroism won out over all else, and detailed planning was not what the officer class did at all. A bit of a plan and then you had your throw of the dice, a chance to do or die.

After Monash, there were certainly heroics, but not in the face of all the odds. Monash innovated in three ways. Firstly, he recognised that victory was about coordination of resources: forces converging from several directions, artillery that targeted and moved on as the battled flowed. Monash’s war was about logistics, building bridges, moving men and equipment in a coordinated fashion. Secondly, he recognised the role that technology played – better guns and especially tanks. Finally, he saw the importance of information. He used aircraft in near real-time to find out how the battle was going, ensured that telecommunications were laid out ahead of time and although he dodged his fair share of bullets, he tended to run the battle from a command centre, rather than from the front.

He differed from his peers and superiors most profoundly in his belief that if you could master coordination, technology and communication, you could work out how the battle line would evolve over the course of a day and prepare for it. This idea that human agency could plan and then achieve, set him apart in a way that was only evident in retrospect. It was a truly radical outlook.

As healthcare finds itself heroically struggling against the odds, with historically biased beliefs around acceptable and unacceptable losses, I wonder what the old General would prescribe for modern service provision?