1907-1960 | VIC, TAS, England | War correspondent
After Monks died in London in June 1960, The Daily Mail stated that he was to be found “wherever there was a battle”. He was one of several Australians who became famous for their war reporting for Fleet Street newspapers. Monks began his Melbourne career on The Sun News-Pictorial, later joining the London Daily Express. He covered the Abyssinian war, then later the Spanish Civil War for The Daily Mail. His most famous piece of reportage was of the bombing of Guernica by German aircraft. He covered most European fronts during World War II, and later reported on the Korean War and the Malayan insurgency.
When The Age reported on June, 20, 1960 the death of Noel Monks under the headline “Journalist in Four Wars Dies’’ its treatment of the story hardly did justice to an exceptional career.
The Age’s notice appeared under a story about the death of “hitch-hiking soldier’’ James Little of Puckapunyal, who was killed in a road accident on the Hume Highway.
Monks deserved greater recognition for a pathfinding career that began on The Mercury in his native Tasmania, included a stint on The Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne, and spanned three of the most turbulent and war-torn decades in modern history – in the service first of The Daily Express and later The Daily Mail.
Along with Ronald Monson (another significant Australian war correspondent who has been under-recognised) Monks was a pioneering Australian journalist on Fleet Street in the 1930s, showing the way for others like Alan Moorehead and later Chester Wilmot.
It was Monks in his role as mentor for younger colleagues who helped Moorehead get his start on Beaverbrook’s Daily Express – as a stringer in Gibraltar during the Spanish Civil War.
In its death notice The Age reported that Monks had died in a Turkish bath (apparently of a heart attack) at Epsom, Surrey where he lived. He was 52.
The London Sunday Dispatch described Monks as “one of the greatest reporters of our day.’’
This was a description Monks himself would have appreciated. He prided himself as being a “reporter’’ of the old school.
Academic Richard Trembath paid tribute to both Monks and Monson (the two were great friends) in a paper titled “Wherever There Was A Battle: Australian War Correspondents and the British Press.’’
The phrase “wherever there was a battle’’ was taken from an obituary written at the time of Monks’ death and described his extensive combat experience.
“With Tasmanian-born Noel Monks…Monson marked the first generation of Australian journalists who spent much of their careers as ‘professional’ or dedicated war correspondents,’’ Trembath writes.
Monks demonstrated his resourcefulness in 1935 by working a passage to London, then heading for Abyssinia as a freelance to cover a war for an assignment that Monks himself admitted was not a great success (“still no war for this correspondent’’, he wrote in a self-deprecatory memoir), but it helped him gain employment on The Express.
The Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook was hospitable to Australians on his publications, employing many over the years and enabling these talented individuals to make their names, including Monks, Moorehead and others.
Monks’ “four wars’’ were, in fact, five if the Abyssinian war is included. Apart from that conflict he covered the Spanish Civil War, the War in Europe, the Pacific War and Korea before deciding he had had enough of conflict. He ended his career in more genteel pursuits, covering the royals for The Daily Mail.
But it was Monks’ exemplary reporting during the Spanish Civil War that made his name. He was the first correspondent into the Basque town of Guernica after its bombing by German Heinkels operating on the side of Franco’s Nationalists.
In his memoir, he recalls: “In the good ‘I’ tradition of the day I was the first correspondent to reach Guernica, and was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies…Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nauseating.’’ (Monks, N. 1955. Eyewitness. London: Frederick Muller).
Monks’ reporting of Guernica has become a staple of historical accounts of the Spanish Civil War. It helped to inform what Australian historian of war journalism Phillip Knightley has described as “the legend of Guernica.’’
This included the creation of one of the twentieth century’s most famous works of art – Picasso’s anti-war tribute to the citizens of the Basque town and those engaged in the Republican struggle against Franco.
Monks’ career might not have ascended the heights achieved in his reporting of the Spanish Civil War, but his coverage of World War II added to his reputation.
He was attached to the Royal Air Force for much of the war and captured its exploits in his book Squadron’s Up. His World War II service included coverage of Dunkirk, D-Day and the attack on Berlin.
By any standards he was a battle-hardened correspondent.
The burly, larger-than-life Monks was regarded as good company by colleagues. His marriages included a brief union with the American Mary Welsh who left him for fellow correspondent Ernest Hemingway.
The story may be apocryphal but Hemingway is reported to have used his service revolver to blast a picture of Monks that Welsh had kept in the lavatory of the apartment she shared (with Hemingway) in Paris.
Noel Monks, the reporter, may well have regretted he was not on hand to record this display of Hemingway’s volcanic temperament.
Tony Walker is international editor of the Australian Financial Review and a former correspondent for Fairfax and the Financial Times in the Middle East, China and the United States.
Noel Monks, at head of table, dining with Western war correspondents in the Goebbels dining hall in Germany in 1945. A "KAPUT" sign has been placed over a portrait of Hitler.
Monks' reporting in WWII for Daily Express.
Monks' reporting in WWII.
Cover of With the RAF, by Noel Monks.
Cover of Taking off!, by Noel Monks.
Australians in the Spanish Civil War, A. Inglis, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1987.
Squadrons Up!, Noel Monks, Victor Gollancz, London, 1940.
Eyewitness, Noel Monks, Frederick Muller, London, 1955.
“Wherever There Was A Battle’’: Australian War Correspondents and the British Press, Paper Presented to the British-Australian Studies Association (BASA) Conference, Richard Trembath, United Kingdom, Penryn, September 2006.
The First Casualty: The War correspondent as Hero and Mythmaker from the Crimea to Kosovo (revised edition), Phillip Knightley, London, London, 2000.