b. 10/01/1893 Layard, Australia. d. 17/01/1932 St Kilda, Australia.
Albert Jacka (1893-1932), later described as Australia’s greatest frontline soldier, was born in Layard, Victoria, on 10th January 1893, the fourth of seven children born to timber worker Nathaniel Jacka and his English-born wife Elizabeth nee Kettle. The family moved to Wedderburn when Albert was five. Educated at the local school, he obtained the standard and merit certificates before taking a job as a labourer, working with his father. At the age of 18 he joined the Victoriam State Forests Department, working at Wedderburn, Cohuna, Koondrook, Lake Charm and Heathcote. Jacka was a keen sportsman and excelled in cycling.
He enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force at Heathcote on 8th September 1914, but had to re-enlist after his papers were lost. By the end of November, Jacka, having been posted to the 14th Battalion, was made acting lance-corporal. After training at Broadmeadows camp, the unit embarked for Egypt on 22nd December 1914. More training followed in the Middle East, before the 14th took part in the Gallipoli landings on 25th April 1915.
During the early days on the peninsula, Albert had a narrow escape when a shell burst above his dugout, mortally wounding the man beside him, but leaving him unharmed. Shortly after this incident, Albert would be involved in the action which would lead to the award of the Victoria Cross.
On the night of 19th-20th May 1915, at “Courtney’s Post”, Gallipoli Peninsula. Lance-Corporal Jacka, while holding a portion of our trench with four other 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 most gallantly attacked them single-handed, and killed the whole party, five by rifle fire and two with the bayonet.
His VC was gazetted on 23rd July 1915, and this was followed by rapid promotion – he was made Corporal on 28th August, Sergeant on 12th September and Company Sergeant Major on 14th November – made him established as one of the battalion’s leading personalities. To new recruits, he became a bit of a modern day hero. Jacka’s style of leadership was unorthodox and individual and as an example, when asked about whether he would “crime” his men (take them to the officers for disciplinary issues), he replied “I won’t crime you, I’ll give you a punch on the bloody nose.”
It was this outspokenness and his ambition which saw him get into trouble with the authorities. Some of his superior officers believed he was insubordinate, and some believe this attitude stopped his advancement further.
Several historians believe that despite Jacka being awarded the VC and the MC and Bar, he deserved even greater recognition. Charles Bean, Australia’s Official War Historian stated “Jacka should have come out of the war the most decorated man in the AIF. One does not usually comment on the giving of decorations, but this was an instance in which something obviously went wrong. Everyone knows the facts, known that Jacka earned the Victoria Cross three times. In many cases there may be doubt as to what decorations should be awarded, but there could be no real doubt in these.” Bean believed that Jacka’s actions at Pozieres on the Somme in August 1916 and at Bullecourt the following April should have been enough to have two Bars to his VC. Instead these were given the MC and Bar.
In the early hours of 7th August 1916, his platoon was cut off by a German attack which tore through the Australian lines. A grenade rolled into his dugout and killed two men before Jacka led a remarkable counter attack. The German infantry had thought the battle was over. About forty prisoners from a neighbouring unit were being rounded up when Jacka, followed by seven men, burst through them, shooting and stabbing with bayonets. He was knocked down by a bullet which passed through under his right shoulder and was twice stunned by head wounds. This led to the award of his Military Cross.
He was evacuated to England following his wounds in August 1916, and was promoted to Lieutenant on 18th August, and he was actually erroneously reported dead on 8th September. In fact, he was very much alive and well enough despite the serious wounds, to attended his VC investiture at Windsor Castle on 29th September 1916. Eventually, following operations on both his eyes, he was discharged from hospital on 22nd November and rejoined his unit on 9th December.
Jacka was promoted to Captain on 15th March 1917 and, the following month, while serving as battalion intelligence officer, he carried out a number of hazardous patrols in no-man’s land which culminated in a daring reconnaissance of the German lines on the eve of the ill-starred Battle of Bullecourt. His mission on the night of 10th-11th April 1917 was to “ascertain the condition of the enemy’s wire”. Having successfully completing this, he and another officer were busy laying tape to mark the battalion’s “jumping off” position when they heard an enemy patrol approaching. They attacked the patrol and captured an Officer and one other rank. On the night of the attack Jacka guided the tanks to the rendezvous and placed them in position on the jumping off tape. The work was carried out under the constant bombardment of the enemy’s 5.9 battery. He then guided the 14th Battalion into position which resulted in several trips through enemy machine gun and shell fire.
In June, during the Battle of Messines, he was cited for his “coolness and judgement” displayed while in command of D Company. During their advance, they overran machine gun posts and captured a German field gun, but this time the actions went unrecognised. A month later, on 9th July 1917, Jacka sustained a bullet wound to his right thigh. He was evacuated to England, where he made a speedy recovery and was back in command by 1st September, and was fit to take charge of his company during an attack on Zonnebeke on 26th September. According to his CO, Jacka became the “soul” of the defence, “personally co-ordinating the work of Stokes guns, Vickers and Lewis guns in such a way that heavy losses were inflicted on the enemy in three counter attacks.” Jacka was recommended for the DSO for this action, but despite going to brigade level, it was not granted.
Posted to the 2nd Army School of Instructions two days after the Germans launched their Spring Offensive in March 1918, Jacka missed most of the worst fighting. Rejoining the 14th at Villers-Bretonneux on the Somme on 10th May, he was only with them five days before a mustard gas bombardment resulted in three officers and 30 men of D Company being evacuated to hospital. Among them was Jacka, whose war was effectively ended. By 23rd May, he was being treated in 3rd London General Hospital for a combination of bronchitis, conjunctivitis and dermantitis and added to this was a hernia problem which led to an operation. He was in poor health and on 5th August, he was considered only fit enough for “sedentary” employment and for once Jacka found it difficult to argue.
The summer of 1918, however, found Jacka with another battle to fight. This time it was not with the Germans, but the Australian military authorities who issued instructions for long serving holders of the VC on the Western Front to be sent home on extended furlough to support the conscription lobby. Jacka was shocked and immediately appealed the order which came direct from the GOC, General Sir William Birdwood. Instead of a “well-earned rest”, he argued he could be more use at a depot in England which would also allow him to keep in touch with events. His request was turned down. Jacka didn’t give up though and a letter on his behalf argued his case further, claiming he was now engaged to a lady in England and was getting married soon, that he was estranged from his father who was against conscription, and finally that if he went back to Australia, he would immediately apply for discharge to return to England.
On the 18th September 1918, the authorities relented, and the GOC approved Jacka “being employed at AIF depots in the UK for a period of six months before returning to Australia.” He was seconded for duty at the AIF base depot near Sutton Veny on the Salisbury Plain, and was in England when the war ended and decided to remain in the country, serving as a sports officer, until September 1919 when he boarded the Euripedes for the long journey home a single man. His mysterious engagement cited as a reason for staying had come to nothing. He returned to Australia to a hero’s welcome in October 1919.
Demobilised in January 1920, he established an electrical goods importing and exporting business together with two comrades from the 14th. The venture was heavily backed by John Wren, the businessman who had given Jacka £500 as the first Australian VC recipient of the war. The following year Jacka married Frances Veronica Carey, a typist from his office. They settled in St Kilda, near Melbourne and later adopted a daughter. In September 1929 Jacka was elected onto St Kilda Council and the following year he became the mayor. Much of his work as mayor was to help the unemployed, though sadly his own business was also failing in the economic slump.
Sadly, his last years witnessed a painful decline; both physically and financially. By August 1931, when his term as mayor ended, he was worn-out by his civic duties and the vain attempts to keep his sinking business afloat. He soldiered on, taking a job as a salesman for the Anglo-Dominion Soap Company, until in December 1931 he collapsed at a council meeting. He entered Caulfield Military Hospital, where he died of chronic nephritis on 17th January 1932. He was only 39 years old, although visitors to his bedside said he looked more like 60. Unknown to many, he had separated from his wife shortly before his final illness. Jacka’s coffin laid in state in Anzac House prior to his funeral, and 6,000 people paid their respects. After the funeral, a public appeal raised funds for a memorial plaque and sculpture to be placed above his grave in the Presbyterian section of St Kilda Cemetery. A further 1,195 was raised to buy a widow a house. Each year a memorial service is held there by the local council. Jacka’s medals are now held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL, CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA.
BURIAL PLACE: ST KILDA CEMETERY, MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA. (PRESBYTERIAN SECTION)
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Image of the Jacka VC Medal Group at Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
Richard Yielding – Image of the Jacka VC Plaque at Springvale Crematorium, Melbourne.