Was this the First World War’s bravest soldier?

  • 24 July, 2015
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Daily Express on 24 July 2015.

Captain Albert Jacka

He was awarded the Victoria Cross – yet according to those who knew him Albert Jacka’s incredible battlefield exploits should have won him the medal three times over.

One hundred years ago today a brief announcement was made in the London Gazette, the government’s official journal of record. It stated that George V had awarded Lance Corporal Albert Jacka the Victoria Cross, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

“For most conspicuous bravery on the night of the 19th–20th May, 1915 at ‘Courtney’s Post’, Gallipoli Peninsula,” said the citation. Three short sentences followed detailing Jacka’s actions in the heat of a battle against the Turks.

Yet neither this citation nor two more that followed for his subsequent Military Crosses remotely did justice to a man who deserves to be heralded as the most courageous frontline soldier of the entire First World War.

I have little doubt Jacka ought to have been awarded one, if not two, further VCs, but he was apparently refused them because of his lack of respect for some senior officers, some of whom he publicly criticised.

Jacka was born in Layard, Geelong, Victoria, Australia, on January 10, 1893. He was the fourth of seven children born to a timber worker and his English-born wife.

After school, Jacka, a talented sportsman usually called Bert by his family, worked as a labourer with his father and, later, an engine cleaner and forest worker.

On September 8, 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). On November 10, Jacka was posted to 14th Battalion, AIF, as an acting lance corporal, and two months of training followed in the Middle East.

His first taste of action could hardly have been more brutal. On April 25, 1915, he took part in the ill-conceived landings at Gallipoli, arriving at Anzac Cove. The horrific battle that followed was the prelude to an eight-month campaign that claimed the lives of more than 8,000 young Australians. His VC was awarded for his actions at Courtney’s Post where some of the severely depleted 14th Battalion had been sent to support Anzacs, under relentless Turkish attack.

At 3.30am on May 19, 1915, a party of Turks threw eight bombs into the trench occupied by Jacka and his comrades. Three men were killed, the rest, except Jacka, were injured. The Turks then jumped into the trench and most of the remaining Australians fled. Jacka though, kept up a relentless fire on the enemy and thereby prevented their advance.

Jacka, just 5ft 6dins but muscular, agreed to launch a counterattack and told the three young privates to fix bayonets and then added: “I’ll go first. Follow me.”

After a failed initiative in which one of his men was shot, Jacka asked another volunteer to keep up a steady fire while he went along several trenches, crossed no-man’s land and then ambushed the Turks from the rear. Jacka shot five Turks and bayoneted two others, and took three more prisoner.

HIS VC was announced in July 1915, making him, at 22, the first Australian of the conflict to receive the award. It also entitled him to £500 (a formidable sum at the time) and a gold watch offered by a Melbourne businessman to the first compatriot to be awarded the VC.

Over the next three years his bravery on the battlefields of France and Belgium would inspire others to enlist and led to a 1,000-strong battalion calling themselves “Jacka’s Mob”.

Yet, despite being adored by his men, he upset military leaders because he refused to follow unquestioningly orders if he felt the lives of his comrades were being put foolishly as risk, notably in the August of the Gallipoli campaign.

It was at Pozières, during the Somme offensive on August 7, 1916, that Jacka again displayed quite exceptional bravery. While it was still semi-dark, the Germans swept through the Anzac ranks.

At one point, only seven Australians were uninjured and Jacka himself had been slightly wounded. As the Germans began to round up Anzac prisoners Jacka told the seven fi t men to fi x bayonets, saying: “Let’s go for them.”

With these words ringing in their ears the men advanced at scores of Germans, shooting their rifles from the hip. “Charge the b******s,” was Jacka’s cry.

In hand-to-hand fighting, Jacka received multiple wounds as the Germans started to encircle the Australians. However, support arrived in the nick of time: many Germans were shot, 50 were taken prisoner and several Australian prisoners were freed.

Jacka did not fall until he was wounded for the seventh time, one bullet passing right through his body beneath his shoulder. Four of the seven men who had charged with him were killed.

When Jacka was lifted from the bloodied earth one stretcher-bearer described him as “the bravest man in the Aussie army”. But incompetence or malice – or both – from senior officers resulted in a lukewarm recommendation for a second gallantry award.

EVACUATED to Britain, Jacka received his belated VC (for Gallipoli) at Windsor Castle in September 1916. However, he was resentful he had not also been given a Bar to his VC for his actions at Pozières, which he felt were six times more demanding. In fact, he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) on June 18, 1917.

Promoted to captain in December 1916 he resumed his military duties and was awarded a Bar to his MC for one-man patrols at Bullecourt where he personally guided the British tanks into position in April 1917. Yet again though, many thought his bravery worthy of a Bar to his VC.

Jacka was finally removed from the war by a mustard-gas attack in May 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux, but was saved by surgery.

Jacka could be terrifyingly aggressive when his blood was up. Charles Bean, Australia’s Official War Historian, said: “Jacka should have come out of the war as the most decorated man in the AIF… Everyone who knows the facts knows that Jacka earned the Victoria Cross three times.”

Jacka, a teetotaller, returned to Australia a hero in 1919 but never fully recovered. He married Frances Carey, a typist, in 1921. The couple later adopted a daughter.

After the war he was elected mayor of St Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne. However, he collapsed at a council meeting and died, just over a month later, on January 17, 1932, aged 39.

Dead but not forgotten. In his biography Australian Hero, author Robert Macklin rightly hails Captain (his last rank) Albert Jacka, VC, MC and Bar as “the people’s hero of the Great War”.

Read this article on the Express.com website

Related Stories