|JACKA'S V.C.-WINNING ACTION
On May 20, 1915, a 22 year-old Acting Lance-Corporal 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 bayonetted 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."
This laconic account describes the action which led to the first award of a Victoria Cross to a Commonwealth soldier in the Great War. The soldier was Albert Jacka, probably the most exceptional fighting man in the Australian Imperial Forces during that terrible conflict.
Jacka's action took place in the ANZAC sector of the Gallipoli Peninsula less than a month after the April 25 landings. At no stage during the seven-month occupation of that toe-hold on Turkey was the beachhead secure. The ANZAC position was over-looked by the enemy and no place was safe from well-directed artillery fire. However, the position was at its most tenuous prior to the massive August offensives and Courtney's Post was one of three or four places on the short front-line where the opposing trenches ran so close along the ridge tops that hand grenades and home-made bombs could be lobbed from one to the other.
That such posts were held by the Australians and New Zealanders indicates the quality of their fighting skills certainly but also the enormity of the task facing them. If they could hold such precarious positions, how much more likely was it that the Turks would be able to hold their more secure defensive positions? -- which they did with considerable gallantry throughout the engagement.
Nevertheless, it is true that 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 Gallipoli Cove. The Turks would have been able to pour fire from all directions and enfilade other positions along the ridge tops.
On the night of May 19-20, it seemed that the Turks had achieved their objective of re-taking Courtney's when they bombed and attacked the position in the early morning. A number of the Australian occupants were killed and the remainder were chased out of the line. These men ran past Bert Jacka who stayed at his post in a niche on the fire-step. From there he fired shots into the trench wall, holding the Turks at bay. Hearing the commotion, Lt. Hamilton climbed out of his trench and ran to assist. He took up a position near a communication trench, firing his revolver at the Turks, but was quickly shot in the head. Another officer, Lt. Crabbe, was sent to the sector. He attempted to join Jacka by crossing the mouth of the same 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. The cool-thinking 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 and, indeed, survived the war.
The next plan was formulated by Jacka himself when he 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. The diversion was Jacka's cue to jump into the trench where he shot five Turks and bayoneted two more. Another two were shot as they scrambled out of the trench.
The trench was now clear of Turks and Jacka remained alone there until dawn when Lt. Crabbe deemed it safe to determine the outcome of the assault. One of the most famous details of the whole incident is that Crabbe found Jacka sitting amidst Turkish and Australian dead with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. "Well, I got the beggars, sir," he said.
THE COMMENDATION PROCESS
While Jacka was awarded the V.C., it was only through chance that he received any recognition because, at the time, his battalion commander was incapacitated with illness and soon afterwards evacuated. As a result, no official report of the incident was made until the commander of the New Zealand Australian Division, Major-General Godley, heard rumours of the exploit. It was he who then made the necessary investigations and later commendation.
A bizarre sidelight on this award was that a prominent Melbourne businessman had offered 500 pounds and a gold watch to the first Australian winner of a Victoria Cross. If the notion that someone could offer money as an inducement for the winning of the highest award for gallantry in the Commonwealth sounds extremely crass, then it was probably typical of the man behind it. His name was Jack Wren and he was the real-life model of the anti-hero, Jack West, in Frank Hardie's controversial novel, Power Without Glory. A windfall of 500 may outwardly appear to be a great stroke of good fortune but it was, in fact, to prove disastrous to Jacka at war's end.
In laying down the circumstances in which a V.C. may be awarded, the British High Command stipulated that it should be for individual acts of gallantry in successfully attacking the enemy. Clearly, Jacka's May 1915 action falls into this category but, in the opinion of Jacka himself, of the official Australian historian, C.E.W. Bean, and of most people who know the facts, it was not the most outstanding action in which Jacka was involved. In fact, there were at least two other incidents which, if they did not surpass the original action, were certainly its equal. 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. According to 14th Battalion's official historian, Newton Wanliss, "some of the best men in the trenches were those who had given most trouble during the period of training."
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.
There is an impression amongst many Australians these days that the Dardanelles campaign was chiefly an ANZAC effort which, of course, it wasn't. Nevertheless, the Australians of the day, the men of the 1st AIF, left Gallipoli with the feeling that they had done well under trying conditions. Their spirits were undaunted, they remained keen to "have a crack at" the Germans and were confident that they would give a good account of themselves. Unfortunately, the sacrifice they had made at Gallipoli and the hardships they had endured were to be dwarfed by the enormity of the tragedy which awaited them in the trenches of the Western Front.
After a short period of acclimatisation in quieter sectors, the first serious action the 14th Battalion saw was at Pozieres in the maelstrom created by the Somme offensive. Pozieres is a name burned into the annals of Australian military history. The fight for the small village 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 there and, from photographs, it appears that finding a whole brick would also have been no easy matter.
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 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, 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.
No doubt some of the explanation for the very prosaic and somewhat inaccurate description of Jacka's action contained in the commendation written up by the commander of the 14th Battalion was the poor information forwarded by the commander of B Company, Major Fuhrmann, who had been so far from the fighting. The 14th Battalion's war diary is notably silent in attributing credit to Jacka for the re-taking of the ridge. By contrast, the war diary compiled by the famous commander of the neighbouring 48th Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Leane, was very clear and precise in identifying Jacka as the instigator of the decisive attack.
None of this is to imply that every gallant action performed by men in the course of a long and bitter war is likely to be or possibly could be recognised by the allocation of the appropriate award. This is probably chief amongst the reasons why the recipients of high awards are often coy about them and generally unwilling to accept them as recognition of individual achievement. They are too well aware of the haphazard nature by which they are given and the countless acts of bravery which go unrecognised and unreported in every engagement. 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, could describe Jacka's Pozieres action 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".
CONVALESCENCE AND FIRST BULLECOURT
||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.|
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. Moroever, 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.
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".
POLYGON WOOD AND THE ARMISTICE
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, he was seriously gassed. Although he eventually recovered from the gassing, it marked the end of his active combat duty. In 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.
There are some V.C. winners whose postwar lives were rather broken and sad. Perhaps the relative quiet and calm of the postwar years did not suit their temperaments. Perhaps they found that they would never again be so much in their element as they were in the heat of battle. Perhaps there were unrealistic expectations to live up to or perhaps they had difficulty accepting that they would never again achieve the kind of greatness they had attained in one glorious burst of madness.
But none of these descriptions applied to Jacka. In fact, Jacka's postwar experiences are quite a tale in themselves and, in many ways, say a great deal more about the man than his exploits in battle. When he returned to Melbourne in 1919, he received a rapturous and spontaneous welcome the likes of which the city had never seen before. He was a national icon. Not only had he survived the same dreadful conditions which had claimed the lives of 60,000 of his compatriots, but he had excelled and his exploits, which had been well reported in the press, had continued to amaze.
Had there been foundation in some of the interpretations of Jacka's character, namely that he was an ignorant country yokel without imagination or vision, then it is likely that he would have been content to have rested on his laurels in the postwar years. He would have been happy to dine out on the tales of his former deeds. There were times when Jacka could have had a free ride on his name and reputation but he was never one who was attracted by easy options or flashness. In 1920, for instance, he was offered the job of Victorian Police Commissioner, an offer which he declined.
Jacka had the drive and initiative to go into business with one of his former fellow officers from the 14th Battalion, E. T. Edmonds, a man who said of their relationship, "never once did we have a disagreement." The start-up capital for the company came when Jacka refused the 500 pounds and gold watch offered by Jack Wren as a "prize" for the first Australian to win a V.C. Instead, Jacka agreed to accept Wren as an "adviser" in his business and Wren's brother purchased 75% of the company even before it was floated on the stock exchange.
This was to prove Jacka's undoing when the effects of the Great Depression started to bite in 1930. Jacka was by this time also a popular St Kilda City Councillor and Wren, a businessman who functioned on the fringe of legality and who was a backroom manipulator in the Labour Party, saw an opportunity for Jacka to take up a safe Labour seat. No doubt accepting such a sinecure would mean doing Wren's bidding and so Jacka again refused.
|This time, the refusal was not taken lightly and, by way of settling accounts, Wren had his brother sell, at a substantial loss, his three-quarter share in Jacka's business. The business collapsed shortly afterwards and, at about the same time as he was elected Mayor of St Kilda, Jacka found himself without a full-time job. In his capacity as Mayor, Bert Jacka strove valiantly to alleviate the situation of the unemployed, never seeming to spare a thought for his own predicament. He was again a leader of the ordinary man but he was unlike he had been in earlier times. An old 14th Battalion comrade noted the remarkable change in the formerly bluff military figure. "Here was a new man - of fine personal appearance and confident address, able to move the hearts and minds of the most cultivated.... [It was a] superhuman transformation ... possible only in those who are born to be great and who in some extraordinary way appear to remain unconscious of it."||
In 1931, Jacka was so exhausted that he did not seek re-election and, spurning offers of assistance from the old boy network of the battalion, he at last secured employment as a travelling salesman with a soap company. Jacka's wife left him during this difficult time and he was struggling to make ends meet when his health gave out, largely it seems from a combination of stress and complications associated with his many wounds and the 1918 gassing. He died on January 17th, 1932, a week after his 39th birthday. His last words, spoken to his father, were, "I'm still fighting, Dad."
The funeral service and the outpouring of public affection was staggering. Some said there were more people on hand than for the funeral of General Sir John Monash. Australia had lost one of its greatest heroes, its finest fighting man of the Great War, a man who was not without his faults but who was consistent and honest to all, who lived his own life according to high personal standards and who expected others to do the same. In this, unhappily, he was to be sadly disappointed for that is the nature of life in a world where those who succeed often do so for reasons other than virtue. In which case, Albert Jacka, V.C., M.C. and bar, was a rare exception and an exceptional man.
Copyright © Chris Murphy, August, 1998.
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