A Brave Australian

Captain Albert Jacka, V.C., M.C.

AUS ARMY 001I could not disagree more with the “journalist” Tom Brokaw when he labeled our fathers and grandfathers from World War II the “greatest generation.”  Sociologists and other eggheads want us to know that the greatest generation followed the lost generation of World War I and preceded the silent generation of the 1960s.  Balderdash.  There may have been good reasons for disillusionment among the World War I generation, it was, after all, a horrible war.  Bad memories plague all combat veterans for the balance of their lives.  The silent generation (1928-1945) was hardly silent in mounting massive numbers of anti-war protest in the 1960s[1].

My problem with Brokaw is that in singling out one generation over another he renders a tremendous disservice to those who fought in all our wars, beginning with the American Revolution.  A terrible price was paid in each of these.  Were the soldiers of World War I less brave than those of World War II?  Were the men of World War II any more courageous than those who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq?  Personally, I have room in my heart for all these men; the horror of war significantly changed, and sometimes shortened, their lives.  They experienced diminished lifespans, painful war disability, and tormented sleepless nights for the balance of their time on earth.

Service men and women of all generations are worthy of our interest and respect.  Many of these stand out because they participated in momentous events, others because of their personal bravery.  Every combat soldier runs the risk of death or serious injury, and yet when it is time to muster for battle, they overcome their basest fears, they “fall in,” they perform their duty, and they stand as one.

Nearly all nations have decorations to bestow upon men (and now, women) who outperform all others during the crucible of war.  Countries assign seniority over their medals, a precedence from highest to lowest honors.  In the United States, we award Purple Heart Medals to those wounded or killed in action.  The highest decoration in the United States, awarded for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty is the Medal of Honor, first authorized by the Department of the Navy in 1861.

Victoria CrossThe highest military decoration of the British Empire[2] (now, United Kingdom-British Commonwealth) is the Victoria Cross, authorized in 1854 (during the Crimean War).  The Victoria Cross distinguishes those demonstrating conspicuous bravery, valor, self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.  It differs from earlier forms of recognition for gallantry in the sense that the Victoria Cross did not discriminate according to birth or class.  Queen Victoria presented the first medals at Hyde Park in 1857.  Today, the highest military decoration of Australia (a British Commonwealth nation) is the Victoria Cross of Australia, generally awarded by the Governor-General of Australia[3].

In 1915, Australia was part of the British Empire.  One hundred five years ago, the London Gazette published a brief announcement stating that King George V[4] had awarded Lance Corporal Albert Jacka the Victoria Cross.  No one in London knew who Albert Jacka was because he was a somewhat obscure young man from Australia.

Albert was born on a dairy farm just outside Winchelsea, Victoria, Australia on 10 January 1893.  He was the fourth of seven children born to Nathaniel Jacka and his English-born wife Elizabeth.  He attended primary school, as most children of that period did, and then began working with his father as a freight hauler.  When the Great War began, Albert was a 21-year old employee of the Forestry Department at Heathcote.  His work involved the installation of fencing, clearing fire breaks, and planting saplings.  At the time, he was one of twenty such employees.

JACKA A LCPL 001Albert enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) on 8 September 1914; after initial training, he joined the 14th Battalion, 4th Brigade.  Turkey’s affiliation with the Axis powers prompted the dispatch of the 4th Brigade to the Middle East as part of the 1st Australian Division.  Their mission was to guard the Suez Canal and undergo additional pre-combat training.  Jacka’s first combat action exposed him to violent brutality.  He was but one of thousands of young men who participated in the ill-conceived Australian landing at Gallipoli[5] on 25 April 1915, a battle that began the disastrous nine-month campaign that claimed the lives of more than 8,000 young Australians.

At 0330 on 19 May 1915, the Turks launched a small-unit assault against the ANZAC[6] line at Courtney’s Post.  After tossing hand-grenades into the Australian position, the Turks leapt into the trench.  Jacka’s squad received the brunt of the explosions; three of Jacka’s men died instantly from the effects of the grenades with the rest of them receiving wounds from grenade fragments and gun fire.  Lance Corporal Jacka alone remained unaffected.  Jacka ordered the evacuation of his men while he alone remained behind to provide covering fire.  He held off the Turks until the platoon commander sent up a few reinforcements.

Jacka Assault 1915Jacka was not a big man.  He stood just over 5’ 6” tall, but his pre-military service employment had developed him into a muscular man of considerable strength.  He was also a man devoted to his unit, his mates, and a man possessed of rugged determination.  With only three men initially sent to reinforce him, Lance Corporal Jacka ordered them to fix bayonets.  He would lead the charge back to Courtney’s Post, they would follow him.  With this small force of four men, Jacka launched a counterattack against the Turks.  In the ensuing fight, one additional Australian fell, mortally wounded; concentrated Turkish rifle fire forced Jacka to withdraw his fire team and call for additional reinforcements.

When those reinforcements arrived, Jacka organized them.  He instructed them to lay down a base of fire against the Turks.  After his men took up their firing positions, Jacka crawled out of the trench, crossed an area of “no man’s land,” and re-entered the trench behind the Turks.  He then assaulted the Turks, shooting five of them, bayoneting two others, and taking three prisoners of war.  Jacka then held Courtney’s Post alone until daybreak when additional soldiers re-manned the trench.

As the war continued, casualties mounted.  The Battle of Chunuk Blair, an Australian attempt to break out of the beachhead, added thousands more to the list of dead and wounded.  In their hemmed in positions, the Australians had no tactical advantage.  In recognition of his sustained courage under fire, Lance Corporal Jacka’s commanding officer promoted him to corporal in late August, again to sergeant two weeks later, and by mid-November, he served as company sergeant major.

In July 1915, the British government announced that King George had awarded Jacka he Victoria Cross.  He was then 22-years of age, making him the first Australian to receive the VC during World War I.  The award also entitled him to £500 per month, which at the time was an enormous sum of money.

In early December 1915, after nine months of fighting with no strategic or tactical gains, and with an excess of 26,000 casualties, the Australians began their withdrawal from Gallipoli.  Jacka’s battalion withdrew to Egypt where, after a few weeks, Jacka’s command assigned him to officer training school.  Passing with high marks, Jacka received his commission to second lieutenant.  During this time, the Australian Imperial Force received replacements and underwent a period of reorganization.  Some of the combat experienced men from the 14th Battalion transferred to the 46th Battalion; the 4th Brigade combined with the 12th and 13th to form the 4th Australian Division.

Over the next three years Jacka’s battlefield bravery in France and Belgium became an inspiration to those back home.  One Australian battalion began calling itself “Jacka’s Mob.”  Yet, despite becoming a hero to the folks back home, Jacka fell out of favor with the officers in his chain of command.  Apparently, Jacka began to criticize and question the orders passed down through the ranks, which in Jacka’s opinion, foolishly placed his men in harm’s way.

In late July, Jacka found himself embroiled in the Battle of Pozières near the French village of the same name during the Somme Campaign.  The costly fighting ended with the British in possession of a plateau north and east of the village and positioned to menace the German position at Thiepval.  According to one Australian historian, “the Pozières  ridge is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.”  Jacka again demonstrated exceptional bravery on 7 August.

In the early dawn hours, German troops swept through the ANZAC ranks and at one point, infiltrated Jacka’s position.  At the end of the assault, only seven Australians remained uninjured.  Jacka was one of the wounded.  As the Germans began rounding up Anzac prisoners Jacka formed the surviving men and led them in an attack.  Jacka’s small force made a vigorous assault upon the Germans and engaged them in hand-to-hand fighting.  Jacka received multiple wounds during the engagement and just as the Germans began to encircle the eight men, Aussie reinforcements arrived.  Many Germans were killed, more than fifty taken prisoner, and the Australian captives freed.

Jacka finally fell with his seventh combat wound when a bullet passing through his body just under his shoulder.  Four of the seven men who fought with him died in the assault.  As Jacka was lifted from the ground and placed on a stretcher, one orderly remarked that he must be the bravest man in the Australian Army.  Such a statement, obviously communicated with respect and admiration, is probably not true; there were many brave men serving in the Australian Army during World War I.  Not everyone’s courage was recognized or reported upon.  Nevertheless, Jacka’s superior officers remembered his border-line insubordination and, therefore, were hesitant to recommend him for a second combat award.

Medically evacuated to Britain, Jacka received the Victoria Cross at Windsor Castle in September 1916.  It was a great honor, of course, but he was at the same time resentful that his actions at Pozières were not similarly recognized.  Jacka received a promotion to lieutenant in December 1916 and resumed his regular duties.

In March 1917, Jacka was promoted to captain and appointed to serve as the 14th Battalion’s intelligence officer.  In early April 1917, the 4th Australian Division operated on the western front under the 1st ANZAC Corps of the British Fifth Army, which was then engaged in support of the Third Army in the Battle of Arras.  The operation called for a flanking movement and time was of the essence.  The lack of artillery dictated the use of a company of (12) tanks to crush the barbed wire and lead the attacking force into the Hindenburg Line.  The tanks were late in arriving, however, and the 4th Australian Division’s attack was therefore delayed.  The 4th Australian Divisions adjacent command, the 62nd Division did not receive the message to postpone the attack and its forward element advanced into the Bullecourt defenses resulting in 162 casualties before they withdrew back into the British line.  The mistake was costly too because by advancing before the Fifth Army was ready for a coordinated effort, the Germans were made aware of the Allied intention.

The German troops feared Allied tanks, the result of which prompted the Germans to concentrate their crew-served weapons on these terrifying weapons and the Germans learned that the tanks were vulnerable to armor piercing projectiles.  On the night of 8 April, Jacka conducted a reconnaissance patrol into “no man’s land” to investigate German defenses before a scheduled Allied attack.  While laying markers to guide assault troops, he captured a two-man German patrol.  For this action, Jacka would eventually receive a bar (indicating second award) of the Military Cross.  The Battle of Bullecourt, however, was a disaster for the Australians of the 4th Brigade … much of this attributed to the incompetence of the Fifth Army commander, some of it because the British were only beginning to come to terms with the concept of tank-infantry coordination.  Of approximately 3,000 Australians attached to the 4th Brigade, 2,339 men were either killed or wounded.

In June, Captain Jacka was appointed to command Company D, 14th Battalion and led his company through the Battle of Messines Ridge.  During this engagement, Company D overran several machine gun positions and captured a German field gun.  On 8 July, Jacka was again wounded by sniper fire near Ploeqsteert Wood.  After two months of hospitalization, he returned to the front in late September and took command of the 14th Battalion during the Battle of Polygon Wood.

In May 1918, Jacka suffered injury from a mustard gas attack outside the village of Villers-Bretonneux, his condition made worse by also being shot in the trachea.  His wound and condition were so severe that he was not expected to survive.  He was eventually returned to the United Kingdom for a long recuperative period.

Jacka returned to Australia on 6 September 1919 and he was discharged from military service on 10 January 1920.  Albert Jacka never fully recovered from his wounds, which were several and severe.  He passed away in 1932, aged 39 years.  Captain Jacka was one hell of a soldier, fierce and dangerous to an opposing enemy.  There are those in Australia who believe that Captain Jacka deserved three awards of the Victoria Cross; some argue that it was only British snobbery that kept him from being so recognized, but historians refute this claim.  Jacka’s superiors, the men he too-frequently criticized, were Australians and it was they who refused to recommend him for subsequent awards of the Victoria Cross.

Jacka A PortraitWar is horribly brutal.  War time events create memories that never go away.  People who experience war relive it in their minds for the balance of their lives.  They experience flashbacks and nightmares for the rest of their days.  People who never experienced combat may empathize with our combat veterans, but they will never fully understand combat.  If the folks back home fully understood war, they would never again allow their governments to send their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers or sisters into the jaws of death.  Lessons from the past are always useful in the present, but only if we are wise enough to learn from them.  So far in human history, we either have not learned anything, or we conveniently ignore the facts.

All the men and women of our armed forces are brave, no matter what war they fought in, irrespective of war time era and Tom Brokaw is wrong to suggest one greater than another.  If this were not true, then our young men and women would never don a military uniform.  That said, some of our men and women are more than brave; they are incredibly so.  One of these incredibly brave men was an Australian named Albert Jacka.

Sources:

  • Grant, I.  Jacka, VC: Australia’s Finest Fighting Soldier(South Melbourne, Victoria: Macmillan Australia, 1989.
  • Lawriwsky, M.  Hard Jacka: The Story of a Gallipoli Legend(Chatswood, N.S.W.: Mira Books, 2007.
  • Macklin, R.  Jacka VC: Australian Hero(Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2006.

Endnotes

[1] I often wonder if these people protested the wars in Korean and Vietnam as much as they protested having to serve their country.

[2] 1497-1997

[3] The Governor-General of Australia is the British monarch’s representative in Australia and serves as head of state.

[4] Grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II.

[5] The landing at Gallipoli was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty.

[6] Australian-New Zealand Army Corps