ALBERT JACKA

10th January 1893 - 17th January 1932

 

Albert Jacka was born on January 10th 1893 in Layard Victoria, Australia. At the age of five his family moved to Wedderburn where he grew up.  He was one of seven children to Nathaniel and Elizabeth. He had three sisters, Fanny, Elsie and Bettie, and three brothers, Samual, Sidney and William. Sidney and William would also serve in the Great War.

Albert had a fair complexion with brown hair and blue eyes.  He was not a tall man, only 169cm, however he was very well built. Before the war Albert excelled at sports, in particular cycling where he toured around the state of Victoria competing. He was also very good at boxing and Australian rules football.

His schooling was completed at Wedderburn to grade six after which he worked with his father who was a farmer, road contractor and carter. At the age of 18 Albert began work in the Victorian State Forests Department as a labourer. When Albert was 21 war broke out.

After his original enlistment papers were lost, Albert travelled to Melbourne to sign up again on 8th September 1914. He trained at Broadmeadows camp outside Melbourne and was assigned to the 14th Battalion, part of the 4th Brigade and 2nd Division of the First Australian Imperial Force. His Brigade commander was a Colonel by the name of John Monash.

On the 22nd December 1914 Albert, along with 2000 other officers and men, boarded the HMAT Ulysses bound for Alexandria, Egypt.  They reached their destination on the 31st of January 1915 and marched to their desert camp just outside Heliopolis. Here they trained for the next ten weeks beneath the Sphinx and pyramids.

On 13th April they left their camp and reached Mudros Harbour on Lemnos Island near Turkey. From here the Australian troops learnt that they would be attacking a place known as the Gallipoli peninsula on the 25th April. To their disappointment the 4th Brigade would be attacking in the second wave which did not commence until the following day.

Gallipoli

On the morning of the 25th Albert left Lemnos Island on board the Seanchoon, a troop carrier with around 1200 men, which anchored off the Gallipoli peninsula. From there they watched anxiously as their mates commenced the attack. At the end of the day they witnessed part of the beach being evacuated. Volunteers were called for and at 6:30pm Albert and 30 others raised their hands to help carry the wounded from the beach.

The following day Albert landed with the rest of his Battalion on the peninsula. Their first assignment was to occupy a position known as Courtney’s Post. He was immediately subject to intense fire.

Albert was not perturbed by the scene of dead, dying and wounded men. He had numerous close calls, one of which he noted in his diary. While sleeping in reserve, a shell burst near him, killing a lieutenant lying next to him. He noted “I was unscathed.” Albert also began to show a side of his fearlessness when he crept into no man’s land to retrieve the body of dead German Soldier. This would have been done simply out of curiosity.

While positioned at Courtney’s Post, Abert’s D company was called to the front line and in the early hours of 19th May, following a brutal night of shelling, the Turks attacked.  After lobbing grenades into a section of trench, the Turks jumped in and held a seven yard section. Albert was also positioned in the trench and advanced to an indentation in the trench wall which provided cover. Jacka fired across into the trench wall therefore halting the Turkish advance. Jacka also managed to reach his Lieutenant down a communication trench where he asked for ten men to lobby a counter attack. He received four.

Unfortunately the counter attack failed so Albert retreated back to the communication trench where he devised another plan. He moved back down the reserve trench running parallel with the front line trench. He then manoeuvred behind the Turks and up into no man’s land.

The Australians then proceeded to throw grenades at the Turks. Simultaneously Jacka, under the cover of the dust raised by the grenades, jumped into the trench behind the Turks. He bayoneted the first two Turks, shot five and took three prisoners.

As the sun rose, Lieutenant Crabbe entered the section of trench to find Albert and the Turkish prisoners. With a flushed face and an unlit cigarette in his mouth,  Albert said, “I managed to get the buggers sir.”

Albert’s diary entry:

“Great battle at 3.00am. Turks captured large portion of trench. D. Coy called into front line. Lieut. Hamilton shot dead. I lead 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 heavy attack. Liut. Crabbe informed I would be recommended.”

Albert was awarded the Victoria Cross for his brave actions. He is the first Australian to receive the decoration in the Great War. He is 22 years old at the time.

Upon becoming the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Albert became the face for recruitment campaigns to encourage Australians to go to war. He also received a gold medal and 500 pounds from businessman John Wren.

Pozieres

After Gallipoli the AIF was sent to fight in the Somme. On the 6th August 1916 the 4th Australian Division, consisting of the 14th Battalion, was sent to the front line outside a town called Pozieres. It had been the place of intense fighting for some weeks.

The night of the 6th saw the Germans bombard the front line with all their might, and for many who survived it remained a night they shall never forget for its intensity and relentlessness. Albert, now in charge of a Platoon, found shelter in an old German dugout. At 4:45 in the morning the bombardment lifted and was followed by a German attack. Concussed and exhausted from the shelling, Albert and his platoon were unaware that two German lines had passed over their position, that was until a German rolled a grenade into their dugout. The explosion maimed two Australians and concusses most the other men.

Albert then raced up the stairs and peered out to see a party of Australian prisoners (the 48th Battalion) being led back to German lines. He looked either side of him to see that only seven of his platoon had made it out of the dugout with him. Surveying the situation, Albert waited until the Germans were within 30 yards before uttering the words “This is no good boys, charge!”.

Some of the Germans assumed that Albert’s men were part of a larger party and threw down their weapons, however the remaining 30 or so fired and threw bombs. Both Albert’s men and the 48th Battalion fought against the German captors.  All of Albert’s men were hit.

During the fight, Albert saw a group of four Germans in a shell hole firing and taking a toll on the Australians. He immediately charged them. The German’s fired and hit Albert a total of three times, throwing him back to the ground on all occasions. Each time, in Albert’s own words, he sprang up “like a prize fighter”.

When Albert finally reached the shell hole, the Germans threw down their weapons. Albert, weak from his wounds, had no choice but to kill all four of them, shooting three through the head and bayoneting the other. A bullet then passed close to Albert and he turned to find a 18 stone German running towards him. Albert quickly fired, killing the German who nearly fell on him. While this took place other Australians from both the 48th and 14th battalions recaptured the ridge and took 42 German prisoners.

Albert, severely wounded, was eventually evacuated to England. One of his wounds which was caused by a bullet that passed through his body required a plug to stem the bleeding.

Alberts actions were described by C.W Bean, AIF official war historian who was present behind the lines, “as the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the AIF.” Despite this Albert was only awarded a Military Cross. There was much conjecture to this and Albert himself said what he did at Pozieres was six times more demanding than what he did at Courtney’s Post in Gallipoli.

Bullecourt

Albert was discharged from hospital on the 22nd November 1916 and by the 9th December he had rejoined the 14th Battalion in the French village of Ribemont. In March 1917 Albert was promoted to Captain just in time for the upcoming assault on the Hindenburg line at Bullecourt.

Albert was assigned the task of intelligence officer and immediately went to work in his new role. On the 8th April he ventured into no man’s land and identified a sunken road 300 metres in front of the Army’s position which they could take unopposed. By the end of the evening all battalions in the vicinity were moved forward. This achievement alone saved many lives as the German bombardment fell on their old positions.

On the morning of 10th April 1917 the 4th division were informed that they were to attack the Hindenburg line.  For the first time the AIF would have the assistance of 12 tanks and it was Albert who was given the responsibility of placing them.

On the night of the 9th Albert ventured far out into no man’s land, enough to see the German fortifications of the Hindenburg line, the thought of anyone attacking it horrified him.

Whilst laying the tapes for the troops Albert was approached by two Germans, one obviously an officer. At the last minute Albert jumped out from hiding with his revolver drawn and shouted “Halt.”  However the two Germans didn’t stop. Albert went to fire but only heard the sound of a misfire. He then lunged forward and hit the German officer with the butt of the revolver.  Albert managed to seize them both.   

The plan for Bullecourt was for the tanks to attack first and the troops would follow under their protection, however the plan started to go wrong when the tanks arrived late. Albert quizzed the driver and ascertained there was no way the tanks could reach their destination before the men - it would leave them fully exposed to the Germans. Albert then reported this to his superior officers however no action to delay the assault was taken. Albert also reported thick wire that hadn’t been cut.

Despite Albert’s recommendations, the operation went ahead and as a result the 4th Brigade, Australia’s greatest fighting unit at the time, was destroyed. Bullecourt was indeed one of Australia’s most costly battles of the First World War.

Regardless of the catastrophe Albert’s excellent work was noted and he received a bar to his Military Cross for his actions leading up to the Bullecourt attack.

Messines Ridge

On 9th June 1917 the 14th Battalion moved into the front line at Messines Ridge. Albert was head of D Company and upon searching the area out in front he located several German outposts. Under the cover of  darkness Albert and Reg Jones (head of B Company) went out and under small arms fire took out several German outposts.

The following morning Albert advanced his men over half a kilometre, passed their assigned front line and coordinated with his British counterparts on his left flank to do the same. He and Jones then took out a machine gun post in Deconinck Farm which posed a threat and established a forward outpost. Despite being recommended for his work during this period he received no decoration. Jones received a Military Cross. Shortly after this Albert was sniped in the leg and sent back to England to recuperate.

Polygon wood

On the morning of 26th September 1917 the 14th Battalion, commonly known as Jacka’s mob, were to participate with the rest of the 4th Brigade in the assault on Polygon Wood. Polygon Wood had been a strong hold for the Germans for some time. The battlefield was a mass of waterlogged shell holes.

Albert led his men, along with the 15th and 16th battalions, out of the trenches and behind one of the greatest creeping barrages the men had ever seen. Despite the area being littered with German pillboxes steady progress was made until the 16th Battalion ran into their own creeping barrage and began to retreat. Albert, realising the situation ran forward and rallied the men of the 16th battalion to continue the assault.

The men reached their objective, the blue line which was a small road in front of the German lines. Albert thought there was a good chance that the German artillery would be trained on this position and after calling a meeting of company officers he moved the line 50 metres forward. This proved to be the correct decision as later on that evening the old position was heavily bombarded.

The Germans commenced several counter attacks.  Each time Albert sent up SOS rockets and an accurate bombardment was trained on the Germans. The rockets were entrusted to Albert’s batman (assistant), however in the advance the batman was killed. This left Albert to retrieve them from no man’s land. Being sniped regularly he received a graze to his hand and a bullet hole in his tunic.

During the counter attacks Albert was not only in control of the 14th battalion but the whole 4th brigade. He also knew the 15th Battalion were stretched to breaking point. To encourage them to fight on Albert sent a message, “If the Hun attacks the 15th, we shall hop out and meet the blighters.”

Over 48 hours had past during which time the 4th brigade had pushed through a previously impregnable German line. They held their position through several counter attacks and artillery bombardments. They were then relieved by the 45th Battalion, at which time Albert received a note from his commanding officer saying that he would be recommended for a Distinguished Service Order. He would never receive it.

End of the War

On the 15th May 1918 the 14th Battalion occupied the front lines just north of Villers Bretonneux where they were heavily shelled with gas. The gas got into Albert’s lungs and it also seeped through the cracks of his old wounds. He was once again transferred to England for two major operations to reseal his old wounds. He wasn’t released until the 19th August 1918.

On his recovery Albert applied to go back to his beloved 14th Battalion however it was declined because he was seen unfit for duty. His fighting days were over.

When the Germans signed the Armistice in November 1918, Albert could have been one of the first to be transported back to Australia however he decided to stay in England.  He opted to tour the country and in June 1919 he accepted the role of Sports Officer at the Army’s depot where he was staying. It was not until September 1919 when he decided to head home aboard the ship Euripedes.

Melbourne Australia

Even though it had been a year since the war ended, Albert returned to Melbourne to a greeting larger than any other Australian Soldier had received.  The fuss would have probably made Albert’s skin crawl. He had a cavalcade of 85 cars and the city of Melbourne came to a complete stand still as people stopped whatever they were doing to catch a glimpse of “ Australia’s most popular hero”.

Albert soon settled down and went into business starting Roxburgh, Jacka and Co. which sold electrical goods. The business later became Jacka, Edmonds and Co. He met his wife to be Frances Veronica Carey, who became a typist in the business. They adopted a daughter, Elizabeth.

In September 1929 Albert was elected Mayor of St Kilda. He guided the towns people through the beginning of the great depression which resulted in him losing his own business and also his marriage. Despite this difficult time he always helped the people of St Kilda before himself.

During his term as Mayor he was offered a position in Federal Parliament but he declined. The pressure of Mayor took a toll and despite stepping down in September 1931 he was still heavily involved in the Council. He was aware of the hardship during the depression and he refused to take a wage for his council work. Instead he secured a job as a travelling salesmen for Anglo Dominion Soap Company however it turned out to be a short tenure.  After a council meeting on 14th December 1931 he collapsed. The strain of the last couple of years and his old war wounds had taken their toll.  Albert sadly passed away on the 17th January 1932 at the age of 39.  The diagnosis was nephritis.

General account

There are strong cases for Albert to have received up to three Victoria Crosses. It is possible that as an abiding officer Albert should have received a Victoria Cross for Gallipoli, Pozieres Ridge and Bullecourt. He would have also received a Military Cross for Messines Ridge and a DSO for Polygon Wood. It is easy to speculate, however considering the stature of the people who support these claims, such as fellow troops and official historians, questions can be asked. Albert should have also risen to a rank well above Captain.  Indeed he was one of the highest graduates of officer training.

The amount of documented conflicts between Albert and his superior officers underlines the reason why further decorations and promotions were avoided. He was constantly questioning the tactics of superior officers and instead of taking the decisions lying down he told them his opinions. He already had full control over his men and the last thing higher command wanted was a higher ranking soldier questioning their decisions and authority.

Albert’s strong will and desire to help others made this great man even greater. Throughout his career as a soldier his first and foremost thoughts were not of himself but for others around him. He sacrificed any official recognition of his wartime actions through promotion for the safety of his men.

If you ever have the chance to visit the RSL Club at St Kilda, you’ll find true dedication to Albert Jacka. The people don’t talk of his bravery in the war, but his kindness and giving during his time as Mayor and the great depression. While many men seemed to struggle with the after war years Albert was determined to make a success of his.  

Albert will be remembered as Australia’s great soldier of the First World War and a hero among all who knew him both during the war and after.

 

References

Rule, EJ , Jacka’s Mob

Grant, Ian Jacka VC Australias finest fighting soldier

Lawriwsky, Michael, Hard Jacka: The Story of a Gallipoli Legend

Macklin, Robert, Jacka VC: Australian Hero

 

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