Albert Jacka

Name: Jacka, Albert
Rank: Lance Corporal
Unit: 14th Battalion, 4th Brigade, New Zealand and Australian Division
Date: 19-20 May 1915
Place: Courtney's Post, Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey

ALBERT JACKA was born on 10 January 1893 at Winchelsea, Victoria, one of seven children of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Jacka. His family moved to Wedderburn when he was five and he went to school there and obtained his standard and merit certificates. His father worked in the timber industry, first supplying sleepers to the Victorian Railways, and later timber to the mines in Bendigo. On leaving school Albert went to work for his father and for a short time was an engine-cleaner at Bendigo. At the age of eighteen he obtained employment with the Victorian State Forests Department and was subsequently stationed at Wedderburn, Cohuna, Koondrook, Lake Charm and Heathcote.

Jacka enlisted in the AIF at Heathcote on 8 September 1914 but as his papers were lost he had to do so again in Melbourne ten days later. His unit embarked on 22 December and spent two months training before landing at ANZAC Cove, Gallipoli, on 26 April 1915.

On 19 May, the Turks launched a general attack to push the Australians into the sea. They seized ten metres of trench at Courtney’s Post, but Australians at either end stopped them from continuing to advance. At the northern end Jacka, with several others, tried to evict the Turks, but was beaten back. It was then decided that while a feint was made from the same end, Jacka would attack from the rear. The party waited long enough for Jacka to circle to the rear and then threw two bombs and gave covering fire. Jacka leapt over the parapet, shot five Turks with his rifle, bayoneted two others and forced the rest to flee the captured trench. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action and received it from King George V at Windsor Castle on 29 September 1916. It was the first Victoria Cross to be awarded to the AIF in the 1914-18 war.

Jacka was appointed lance corporal on 27 August 1915, the following day was promoted to corporal, and on 12 September to sergeant. On 14 November he became a company sergeant major and second lieutenant on 29 April 1916. He was promoted to lieutenant on 18 August and his final promotion, to captain, came on 15 March 1917.

At Pozieres, on 7 August 1916, the Germans overran a portion of the line which included Jacka’s dug-out. He charged a large number of enemy who were rounding up prisoners and a furious close quarter fight ensued in which he was wounded three times, once through the neck. Inspired by Jacka, the captured men turned on their captors: many Germans were taken prisoner and the line was retaken. For his actions Jacka received the Military Cross. C.E.W. Bean wrote of this day that Jacka’s counter-attack ‘stands as the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the AIF’. At Bullecourt, on 8 April 1917, when the 4th Division was preparing to attack the Hindenburg line, Jacka, then intelligence officer of the 14th, made a dangerous night reconnaissance of the wire in front of the objective. He got through the wire in two places, brought back a report, and then went out to lay tapes on the assault line. As he was doing so, two Germans approached. He attempted to fire his revolver as they came at him, but nothing happened. Jacka rushed them, seizing the officer first, and eventually brought both in as prisoners. The attacking Australian troops then assembled unseen on the tapes and Jacka’s action undoubtedly saved them from bombardment and heavy fire. For this he received a bar to the Military Cross. There has been speculation as to whether Jacka merited two bars to his Victoria Cross. C.E.W. Bean wrote: ‘Everyone who knows the facts, knows that Jacka earned the Victoria Cross three times’.

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’.

At the end of 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. When he did he was sent to Britain for two operations and a long recuperative period. He returned to Australia on 6 September 1919 and his AIF appointment ended on 10 January 1920 when he returned to Melbourne to a hero’s welcome.

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 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 this is being continued by the St Kilda Council and the St Kilda Historical Society. A portrait by George Coates is displayed in the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial.

© AWM publication They Dared Mightily