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Albert Jacka

10 January 1893 - 17 January 1932

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Albert Jacka, described by the official Australian Historian, C.E.W. Bean, as 'Australia's greatest front-line soldier', was born in on 10 January 1893 at Winchelsea, Victoria, one of seven children.

His family moved to Wedderburn when he was five. On leaving school Albert worked for his father in the timber industry. At the age of eighteen he gained employment with the Victorian State Forests Department and at age twenty-one, at the outbreak of the First World War, he was working for them at Heathcote.

He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on the 18th of September 1915 for the second time as his original papers were lost. He was posted to the 14th Battalion, which embarked for overseas service, on 22 December 1914 and arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, on the 31st of January 1915.

While training in Egypt, Jacka was put on two charges by Sgt. Cowrie for which he was awarded one days default of pay. The actual offence isn't recorded in the 14th Battalion's Unit Roll Book. On the 11th April the Battalion packed up their tents and left for Mudros Harbour on Lemnos Island, a Greek island just off the Turkish coast, arriving there on 15 April. They left Mudros Harbour at 10am on Sunday 25th April and at 4pm the transport anchored near the ships that had landed the first wave of troops at ANZAC Cove at 4.30 a.m. that day. Jacka and a small group of 30 men landed at 7pm on the 25th, and the rest of the Battalion went ashore at Gallipoli at 10.30am on the 26th April.

Not long after landing they were ordered to the front line to an area, which would soon be named “Courtney's Post” after the battalion's commander, Lieutenant-Colonel R.E Courtney. These posts were at no stage safe and at any stage it seemed likely that they would be overrun. Had that occurred, it would have been disastrous for the troops at ANZAC Cove. The Turks would have been able to pour fire from all directions and enfilade other positions along the ridge tops.

Jacka's V.C. action at Gallipoli, 19th May 1915.

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On the 19th of May, 45,000 Turks were amassed behind the Turkish frontline and ordered to drive the allies into the sea. Wave after wave of Turkish soldiers launched themselves at their country's invaders. At approximately 3 a.m. on 19 May, a group of Turkish soldiers crept up on the exposed Courtney's Post and after bombing and attacking the position and killing a number of the Australians, captured ten metres of this vital position. Acting Lance Corporal Albert Jacka from a protected position in the fire step fired shots into trench's rear wall, stopping the Turks from reaching the main communications trench, and Australians at either end stopped them from advancing further along the trench.

Lt. Hamilton climbed out of his trench and ran to assist but was shot in the head. Another officer, Lt. Crabbe attempted to join Jacka by crossing the mouth of the communication trench where Hamilton had been but Jacka stopped him. Crabbe then called for volunteers to assist Jacka and three came forward. Jacka then leapt safely into the captured trench but the man following him was shot three times as soon as he came into view. Jacka realised the plan was not going to work and stopped the others from following. He dashed back, dragging to safety his comrade who, despite his wounds, had not been killed.

Jacka asked Crabbe to be allowed to make an attempt at re-taking the trench alone. He approached the Turks as close as he could along the trench then mounted the parapet and crept into No Man's Land, where he waited until his comrades created a diversion with rifle fire and bombs. Jacka's jumped into the trench, shot five Turks, bayoneted two and took three prisoner. Another two were shot as they scrambled out of the trench. 19 Turkish rifles were counted on the trench floor. Jacka remained alone there until dawn when Lt. Crabbe deemed it safe to determine the outcome of the assault. Crabbe found Jacka sitting amidst Turkish and Australian dead, rifle pointing to the prisoners and with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. "Well, I got the beggars, sir." he said.

On May 20 1915, the following day, the Jacka wrote these words in his diary:
"Great battle at 3 a.m. Turks captured large portion of our trench. D. Coy called into the front line. Lieut. Hamilton shot dead. I led a section of men and recaptured the trench. I bayoneted two Turks, shot five, took three prisoners and cleared the whole trench. I held the trench alone for 15 minutes against a heavy attack. Lieut. Crabbe informed me that I would be recommended."

For this remarkable act of courage Jacka was awarded the V.C. (Victoria Cross) - the first to be awarded to any member of the AIF. King George V at Windsor Castle personally presented it to Jacka on 29 September 1916.

The actual citation for the award reads as such:-
"For most conspicuous bravery on the night of the 19-20th May, 1915 at Courtney's Post, Gallipoli. Lance Corporal Jacka, while holding a portion of the trench with four men was heavily attacked. When all except himself were killed or wounded, the trench was rushed and occupied by seven Turks. Lance Corporal Jacka at once attacked them single handedly and killed the whole party, five by rifle fire and two with the bayonet."

Trooper Tours, Turkey, daily tours of the Gallipoli battlefields.
Trooper Tours, Turkey, daily tours of the Gallipoli battlefields.
Jacka's V.C. brought him instant recognition. Posters depicting Jacka V.C. appeared in Australia, urging men to enlist and later urging Australians to purchase peace bonds.

He was also awarded £ 500 and a gold medal by a wealthy Melbourne businessman, Jack Wren, for being the first to win the V.C.

The Battalion was granted four days leave on Imbros Island between the 11th and 15th July. The change of food was too much for the men's systems and many were reported ill, including Jacka, who became sick with diarrhoea and was admitted to Hospital. Returning to Gallipoli, the battalion was heavily involved in the breakout attempted by the allied troops in August 1915 *.

Rapid promotion followed. He was appointed to:-

  • Lance Corporal on 27 August 1915
  • Corporal the following day
  • Sergeant on 12 September
  • Company Sergeant Major on 14 November
  • Second Lieutenant on 29 April 1916
  • Lieutenant on 18 August
  • Captain on 15 March 1917

As Company Sergeant Major, Jacka was given the job of deciding which men were to be transferred to the new Battalion being made when the AIF split it's brigades to make the new Divisions in 1916. During this time he was selected for Officer's Training School when he threatened to be transferred to another Battalion if not admitted. He emerged third in his class having scored 94%.

At 11pm on the 18th December 1915, Albert Jacka, and the remainder of the 14th battalion left the Gallipoli peninsula, 10 days before the final evacuation.

Jacka's MC action at Pozieres, the Somme, France, 7th August 1916.

After a short period of acclimatisation in quieter sectors, the first serious action the 14th Battalion saw was at Pozieres during the Somme offensive. The fight for the small village of Pozieres and its nearby windmill was to cost 23,000 Australian casualties in a forty-five day period. C.E.W. Bean, spoke of this area as being 'more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth'. By the time Jacka's battalion arrived, the village was no longer recognisable as a place, which had ever been inhabited by humans. It was said that two bricks could not be found together.

Trooper Tours, Turkey, daily tours of the Gallipoli battlefields. Jacka (left) with Private O'Meara, one of five Australian V.C. winners at Pozieres. This photograph was taken in England while Jacka was recovering from wounds. The subjects are posed in such a way as to conceal the extent of Jacka's injuries. Jacka's biographer comments on O'Meara's apparent reluctance to look Jacka in the face as an indication of just how bad Jacka's wounds were.

The Australian 1st Brigade managed to capture the ridge where the windmill had once stood and the German commander issued an order that it was to be retaken "at any price". The salient caused by the 1st Brigade's advance meant that the men holding Pozieres could be shelled from three sides simultaneously. Conditions were so grim that Rule, in his book, "Jacka's Mob", records how he dumped his blankets on the march in when a member of the vacating 28th Battalion had said, "You'll be lucky if you ever use a blanket again."

On 6th August, 1916, the night of the 14th Battalion's arrival, the German bombardment was described by the historian Bean, who was on hand to witness it, as the "crowning bombardment of the whole series" and Rule observed that "for continual shelling this night stands alone in all I've endured". While Jacka's company commander preferred the safety of a deep dugout three hundred yards behind the lines, Jacka, now a Second Lieutenant in command of a platoon, ordered his men to take shelter in an old German dugout at the front line.

As dawn broke after a night of nerve-shattering shelling, the men underground only became aware that an enemy attack had swept overhead and that they were now 200 metres behind the enemy lines when a passing German rolled a bomb down the stairs. The concussion in the narrow confines of their shelter was tremendous but Jacka was first to recover and he immediately dashed to the surface, revolver in hand. The milling Germans he saw from the mouth of the dugout were the second line of a successful assault. A nearby group of them were escorting to the rear 42 prisoners from the Australian 48th Battalion. Only seven men from Jacka's platoon had recovered from the blast and while many may have considered surrender a reasonable option in these circumstances, Jacka began thinking how he and his party could fight their way back to Australian lines. After weighing the options, he made a cold-blooded decision to launch his seven men in an attack on the 60 or so Germans who were there. No sooner had they jumped up than two of Jacka's men were killed and every other man was hit but they charged on and belayed the Germans with rifle and bayonet. Jacka himself was hit seven times. Each time he fell to the ground he jumped up again "like a prize fighter", he later said, and ran on. After emptying his revolver, he picked up a rifle and bayonet and accounted personally for some twelve or more of the enemy.

Two more of Jacka's men were killed before the engagement concluded but the captured men of the 48th Battalion took heart from the assault and turned on their captors. Men from neighbouring platoons were also drawn to the melee with the result that the Germans surrendered and the ridge, which had been lost, was retaken. Rule, then a sergeant, who had watched the fighting through his field glasses asked a passing stretcher bearer, "Who've you got there?" The stretcher bearer replied,
"I don't know who I've got, but the bravest man in the Aussie Army is on that stretcher just ahead. It's Bert Jacka, and I wouldn't give a Gyppo piastre for him: he is knocked about dreadfully."

Jacka's efforts brought him the Military Cross (M.C.), a high honour but one, which many felt under-stated the magnitude of his achievement on that day in that terrible place. Amongst those of that opinion were Rule, Bean and Jacka himself. Jacka, while recovering from the dreadful wounds he sustained, stated that what he did at Pozieres was "six times more demanding than his exploit at Gallipoli". Any reasonable comparison of the two events would have to reach the same conclusion and, even when compared with the five V.C.'s, which were won by Australians in and around Pozieres, Jacka's action remains exceptional. Certainly it is unusual for a bar to be given to a V.C. but Jacka's biographer, Dr. Ian Grant, notes the irony of the fact that the only bar awarded to a V.C. in the Great War was won in another part of the battlefield the very next day by Capt. N.G. Chavasse of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Nevertheless, it does seem clear that, in Jacka's case, an anomaly occurred, especially when someone as cautious and meticulous as C.E.W. Bean, the greatest single expert on the history of the 1st AIF, past or present, wrote that Jacka's Pozieres action "stands as the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the AIF."

As the 14th Battalion's historian, Newton Wanliss wrote, Jacka "did not get fair play".
Because of his leadership and courage, the captured Australians were freed, many Germans captured and the lost ground was retaken along with even more territory.

Albert Jacka's military career did not, however, end there. He spent a long period of convalescence in England where he faced a personal and secret struggle with shattered nerves. Despite the strain he was under, he refused an offer to go back to Australia to campaign in favour of conscription at the forthcoming referendum. He did not want a free ride, he said, "just because he had a V.C.". He felt his place was with the battalion and rejoined it in December to find a new and outstanding commander in charge.

Jacka's bar to his M.C. at Bullecourt, 8 April 1917.

The tenure of Lt.-Col. John Peck heralded in a golden era for Jacka and the 14th Battalion. During that time, Jacka was promoted to Captain and filled the role of Sports Officer and then Intelligence Officer. In Peck, Jacka had found at last a superior whom he truly admired. Moreover, Peck was shrewd enough and forceful enough to manage someone as headstrong as Jacka. The two began a harmonious and profitable relationship, which only ended with Peck's promotion to a staff position in Monash's 3rd Division in May 1917.

During this time, the 14th Battalion was involved in "First Bullecourt" one of the most awesome and tragic battles involving Australians on the Western Front. This was a frontal assault on the Hindenburg Line, which was part of a general British effort to divert attention from the French offensive at Soissons and at Rheims. It coincided with the British onslaught at Arras and the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge. Like most similar plans, it did not achieve its objective but, on this occasion new twists were added to the disaster with the absence of the usual intensive wire-cutting bombardment, the use of 12 untried tanks and an abortive attack the previous night which served only to provide clear warning to the Germans of what they could expect the next night.

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About two hours prior to the attack, when the men were already lying out in snow in their jumping off positions, the Battalion Intelligence Officer, Bert Jacka, was crawling about in No Man's Land. He spied a German officer and an enlisted man who had a clear view of the assembled troops. Jacka raised his revolver to shoot but it misfired. He then leapt at the two and captured both of them, leading them back to the Australian lines single-handed.

After a similar sortie the night before, Jacka had seen that the German wire had not been cut by the artillery and expressed his opinion to Brigadier-General Brand that "it was pure murder to attempt the operation." His advice was not heeded and his prediction proved sadly accurate. Despite great heroism and superhuman efforts, the attack was a bitter failure and all but annihilated some of the finest fighting units of the AIF.

In the aftermath of the battle, Jacka prepared a report on the use of tanks, which Maj.-Gen. Elliot some years later described as brilliant and which General John Monash appears to have illicitly consulted in preparation for the successful Battle of Hamel. Unfortunately, Elliot also noted that in the report Jacka had committed the "unforgivable offence" of criticising his superior officers, hence breaching the "code of freemasonry" which protected senior officers of the regular army. As a result, Elliot said:
"General Birdwood ordered that Jacka's report should be expunged from the records of the AIF and Jacka himself was thence onward systematically ignored both in regard to decorations and promotions."

Lt. Col. Peck submitted a detailed account of Jacka's action in No Man's Land in the hours before the attack. It was passed on unchanged from Brigade with the recommendation that a V.C. was in order but, in the end, Jacka received a bar to his M.C. Brigadier-General Brand later explained that "V.C.s are rarely awarded where enterprises failed".

C.E.W. Bean wrote: "Everyone who knows the facts, knows that Jacka earned the Victoria Cross three times'. And after the war "It is not for an historian to say but in the case of Albert Jacka something clearly went wrong. Albert Jacka should have been the most decorated soldier in the AIF." According to Jacka's biographer, Dr. Ian Grant: "Ironically, although Jacka clearly went on to perform greater deeds of valour, his superiors were determined ... [to] deny... him further recognition."

No doubt an earlier charge of insubordination which had been made against him said something of Jacka's outspoken nature.

Despite serving with distinction through the whole of the war in a front-line unit, withdrawing only during periods of recuperation from wounds and gassing, Jacka rose no higher than to the rank of Captain. He was clearly a man confident of his own abilities and was not one to respect badges of rank for their own sake. This was no doubt intimidating to many of his superiors whose own standards of personal conduct would be unlikely to match Jacka's. Jacka also was one of the lost breed of egalitarians who inhabited the ranks of the First AIF in large numbers. He was intensely popular with his men. Even as an officer, he continued to settle disputes in the ranks by administering clouts to the chins of the fractious. As a boxer of some note before the war, this was for Jacka a fairly safe way of settling matters but would not, as he seemed to think it should, have worked as a general principle.

Certainly there was some suspicion at the closeness between Jacka and his men but it appears that Jacka's greatest failing in the eyes of the military hierarchy and in his later life, was an inability or unwillingness to compromise his high personal standards of honesty and integrity and play the political game. His friend and later brother officer, E.J. Rule, wrote that Jacka "was not one who painted the lily". Had he been more of a diplomat and less of a pugilist, it is likely that Albert Jacka would have finished the war in some position higher than Captain and with at least a V.C. and bar, not the single V.C. with M.C. and bar that he was awarded.

The details of how this came about and of the sad fate which awaited Jacka at the end of the war, to my mind, imbues the story of Jacka's life with poignancy and a sense of the kind of ironclad destiny found usually in Greek tragedy.

Such was his fame in his unit, and in the AIF in general, that the 14th Battalion became linked with his name. A man of the 14th subsequently wrote:-
"He deserved the Victoria Cross as thoroughly at Pozieres, Bullecourt and at Ypres as at Gallipoli. ... the whole AIF came to look on him as a rock of strength that never failed. We of the 14th Battalion never ceased to be thrilled when we heard of ourselves referred to ... by passing units on the march as 'some of Jacka's mob'".

On other occasions Jacka exhibited considerable military skill. At Messines he made a valuable reconnaissance and led his company in taking 800 metres of territory and capturing a field gun. At Polygon Wood, just after Jacka had returned from Britain where he was sent to recover from a wound he had received in July 1917, he was virtually responsible for controlling the 14th, which had for some time been known as 'Jacka's Mob'.

As time went on, it became more and more clear to Jacka that he was not to receive any further promotion. Some have speculated that the authorities feared that the headstrong Jacka would be even more difficult to control if given higher rank. Knowledge of this seems to have made Jacka even more outspoken and, even though he was only a Captain, he clashed spectacularly several times with his Brigadier, Brand. A number of these clashes are reported in Rule's book and, on one occasion, when a promised leave was cancelled Jacka interrupted Brand's address to the full parade of 14th Battalion officers to protest loudly. "Hullo, Jacka," said Brand, "What's wrong with you? Have you the wind up?" Jacka replied, "I reckon it's a damned disgrace" and gave forth fearlessly with his reasons for so thinking. On another occasion, every officer in 14th Battalion wrote a letter requesting a transfer out of the Brand's command and, in the "discussions" which followed, Jacka was threatened with arrest.

Despite their stormy relationship, Brand recognised the fighting qualities of his subordinate, in principle at least. In the battle at Polygon Wood in the Ypres sector where the new battalion commander was "conspicuously absent", Jacka became the defacto leader, co-ordinating and adjusting the attack which was so successful that it prompted Brand to send sent a note: "Congratulations, Jacka, I have recommended you for the DSO." The DSO was, however, not forthcoming and nor was any recommendation as it seems Brand realised that recognising Jacka's role would have meant acknowledging the absence of the battalion commander he had appointed, Lt. Col. Smith.

In the period after this battle, Jacka engaged the Germans in a personal war which found him out patrolling No Man's Land alone or with small parties on many nights. Lt. Col Smith was later gassed and, although his wounds were not serious, they gave Brand the excuse he needed to rid himself of a liability. The new C.O., Lt. Col. Crowther, recognised Jacka's capacities and recommended him for training which seemed to suggest the possibility of further promotion. Accordingly, Jacka spent most of the month of April 1918 in an army school of instruction and had been back with his men in D Company only for a few days when, on 15 May, 1918, Jacka was badly gassed and a missile passed through his trachea. He was evacuated to No. 20 Casualty Clearing Station at Vignacourt and it was thought for a time that he would not recover. Although he eventually recovered from the gassing, it marked the end of his active combat duty. When he did he was sent to Britain for two operations and a long recuperative period. He returned to Australia on 6 September 1919, when he was repatriated home, he had been serving as Sports Officer at No.1 Depot in London and was one of the last Australian officers to leave Europe. His AIF appointment ended on 10 January 1920.

After the war

When he returned to Melbourne and was greeted by heros's welcome and a civic reception. Such was the shyness of Jacka that he escaped before the reception finished via a back door. He was most renowned in Victoria where he had always lived.

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Jacka entered business with two former members of the 14th Battalion and helped establish a merchant and importing firm, but the business collapsed during the depression. He married Veronica Carey in 1929, and was elected to the St Kilda Council. He later became mayor, and displayed great concern for the welfare of the unemployed in his municipality.

His war wounds, business pressures and the worries of office all contributed to his breakdown in health. On 18 December 1931 he entered Caulfield Repatriation Hospital and a month later, on 17 January 1932, died of chronic nephritis. He was buried with full military honours in St Kilda cemetery on the 19th. He had eight Victoria Cross winners as pallbearers. A memorial stone, with a bas-relief portrait of Jacka by sculptor Wallace Anderson, was erected over his grave on 15 May and a house was purchased for his widow from public subscription.

He went into business and did well until the Depression. He became mayor of St Kilda. Even his early death in 1932 did not diminish his status among former diggers for whom his gravesite became a place of annual pilgrimage: Eight VC winners were his pallbearers.

He was survived by his wife and his adopted daughter, Betty, and predeceased his parents.
His name is commemorated on a plaque at the Victorian Garden of Remembrance, Springvale war cemetery, and by a number of streets in Melbourne and Canberra. In 1982 the St Kilda City Council renamed parts of the busy Lower Esplanade and Marine Parade as Jacka Boulevard. For many years the 14th Battalion commemorated the anniversary of his death with a memorial service at his grave and the St Kilda Council and the St Kilda Historical Society are continuing this. A portrait by George Coates is displayed in the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial.

* By the 29th August 1915 the 14th Battalion had been reduced to only 192 men fit for duty. At full strength the 14th Battalion held about 800 men, yet over 2,000 passed through it's ranks on Gallipoli alone. During the war 42 officers and 1008 other ranks were killed in action. Albert Jacka noted in 1917 that there were only about 50 of the original members of the 14th Battalion left.

Communication Trench - A trench that runs perpendicular to the front trench and leads back towards the rear and support trenches and forms as a link between them.

Enfilade - Fire from the side as apposed to defilade fire, which is fire from directly in front. Enfilade fire is the most effective.

Fire Step - A step cut into the front of the front or firing trench and is used by the troops to step up on to to be able to fire at the enemy.

Sources and References:-
VCs of the First World War: Gallipoli, Snelling
Jacka VC, Australia's finest fighting soldier, Ian Grant
Jacka's mob, Edgar John Rule
http://www.hellfire-corner.demon.co.uk/jacka.htm - Chris Murphy's article on Jacka
Wikipedia - Albert_Jacka

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