Albert Jacka was born on January 10th 1893 in Modewarre (Lanyard), Victoria. The family moved to Wedderburn five years later. Of relatively short stature, Albert was very well built. Albert excelled at sports – boxing, Australian Rules football and especially cycling where he competed in Victorian tour events. After completing grade 6 Albert worked with his father on the farm and at other times as a road contractor or carter. He joined the Victorian State Forests Department as a labourer when he was 18, three years later war broke out.
Albert enlisted straight away but his original enlistment papers were lost so he had to reenlist and this time on September 5, 1914 he travelled to Melbourne to do so. He trained at Broadmeadows camp and was assigned to the 14th Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Division as Private. On December 22, Albert boarded the HMAT Ulysses bound for Alexandria, Egypt. The Battalion trained at a desert camp just outside of Heliopolis before landing at Anzac Cove ready for the second assault wave.
Jacka quickly established a reputation as a fearsome front-line soldier. On May 19 1915, during a concerted Turkish effort to push the Australians into the sea, ten metres of Courtney’s Post trench was captured. Australian forces were situated at either end of the trench with Albert positioned at one end. He advanced to an indentation in the trench wall which provided cover, and fired across into the trench wall halting the Turkish advance. He was assigned 4 men to help him reclaim the trench who threw grenades at the Turks as a decoy, Jacka shot five Turks with his rifle and bayoneted two more. The Australians never thought he would survive such an attack. After sunrise his Lieutenant entered the trench to find Albert sitting with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Jacka said, “I managed to get the buggers sir.”
For this remarkable act of courage Jacka was awarded the VC – the first to be awarded to any member of the AIF. It was personally presented to Jacka by King George V at Windsor Castle on September 29, 1916. Jacka instantly became a national hero; his image was used on recruiting posters and magazine covers.
On 28 August 1915 he was promoted corporal, then rose quickly, becoming a company sergeant major in mid-November, a few weeks before Anzac was evacuated. Back in Egypt he passed through officer training school with high marks and on 29 April 1916 was commissioned second lieutenant.
After the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula in December 1915, Jacka was reassigned with the 14th Battalion to Egypt. After Gallipoli the AIF was sent to fight in the Somme.
Matching his earlier bravery in Gallipoli Jacka received the Military Cross for his actions at Pozieres on the Somme on 7 August 1916. With the Germans over-running a portion of the Allied line which included Jacka’s own dugout he reacted by single-handedly charging a significant number of the enemy who were engaged in rounding up Australian prisoners.
In the following struggle Jacka was wounded three times, through the head, neck and shoulders. Inspired by Jacka’s actions the prisoners rebelled and forced the capture of many German prisoners in their own turn. Charles Bean, the official Australian war historian, wrote of the encounter as “the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the AIF. Albert, severely wounded, was eventually evacuated to England.
Again, during the disastrous Australian attack upon the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt in April 1917, Jacka – then an intelligence officer – led a night reconnaissance party into no man’s land near Bullecourt to inspect enemy defences before an allied attack against the new German line. He penetrated the wire at two places, reported back, then went out again to supervise the laying of tapes to guide the infantry. The work was virtually finished when two Germans loomed up. Realizing that they would see the tapes, Jacka knew that they must be captured. He pulled his pistol; it misfired, so he rushed on and captured them by hand. Jacka’s quick thinking had saved the Anzac units from discovery and probable disastrous bombardment; for this action he was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross.
It has been speculated that Jacka would have earned several more decorations but for the belligerency of his dealings with his superior officers. Yet the men of his 14th Battalion hero-worshipped him and fashioned themselves “Jacka’s Mob”.
Jacka was given command of D Company, 14th Battalion, and in June led his men through the Battle for Messines Ridge. During their advance, the company overran several machine-gun posts and captured a German field gun; Jacka’s actions went unrecognised even though his partner Reg Jones was awarded the Military Cross for the same actions on the night. Captain Jacka was wounded by a sniper’s bullet near Ploegsteert Wood on 8 July and spent nearly two months away from the front. On 26 September he led the 14th Battalion against German pill-boxes at Polygon Wood and displayed ‘a grasp of tactics, and a military intuition that many had not given him credit for’. Jacka was recommended for the Distinguished Service Order a second time for this feat, but again it was not granted.
Badly gassed at the end of May 1918, when the gas got into his lungs and old wounds, Albert saw no more fighting. Finally returning to Australia from a lengthy recuperation in England on 6 September 1919, he was discharged from the AIF on 10 January 1920, at which point he returned home to a hero’s welcome in Melbourne.
A subsequent business enterprise – formed with two former members of 14th Battalion – collapsed during the depression. He married in 1929, to Veronica Carey, a typist in the business. They adopted a daughter Elizabeth. Albert was elected to the St Kilda council before becoming its mayor, where he concerned himself with the welfare of former soldiers and the unemployed.
In the wake of so many war injuries his health finally broke down in 1930. On 18 December 1931 he was admitted to Caulfield Military Hospital where he died a month later, on 17 January 1932, of nephritis. He was 39. All eight pallbearers at his funeral (held with full military honours) were fellow holders of the VC.
At his funeral Bert Jacka was described as ‘Australia’s greatest front-line soldier’. Bean and the men of the 14th Battalion (‘Jacka’s Mob’) shared the belief that he had earned three V.C.s. He might have risen higher in the A.I.F. but his blunt, straightforward manner frequently annoyed his superiors. As an officer he invariably won respect by his example. Jacka seemed to epitomize the Anzac creed of mateship, bravery, fairness and an absence of pretentiousness
Kevin J. Fewster, ‘Jacka, Albert (1893–1932)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jacka-albert-6808/text11779, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 8 January 2015.