Tuesday, January 10, 2023

I bayoneted two Turks

Albert Jacka, the famous Australian war hero, was born 130 years ago today. His eventful life, cut very short by the consequences of soldiering in the First World War, has been immortalised in various biographies and war histories. Many of these draw on a terse and laconic diary he kept during the Gallipoli Campaign. The most famous entry in the diary concerns the actions which led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross - the first Australian to be so honoured.

Jacka was born on 10 January 1883 at Winchelsea, Victoria, Australia, but his family moved to Wedderburn when he was five. On leaving school, Albert worked for his father in the timber industry before taking a job with the Victorian State Forests Department. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in September 1914, and was sent to Egypt in early 1915. By the end of April, though, his battalion had joined the newly-formed New Zealand and Australian Division, under Major General Alexander Godley, part of Anzac. The division landed at (what is now called) Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles on 16 April to take part in the Gallipoli Campaign. This would prove to be a disastrous failure for the Allies.

Jacka quickly established a reputation as a fearsome soldier; and, on 19 May, during a concerted Turkish assault against the Anzac forces, Jacka’s bravery proved decisive in combat with the Turks, and in holding a trench line. For this he was - famously - awarded the Victoria Cross. Almost immediately, he became a national Australian hero, though it was not until September 1916, that King George V presented the medal to him personally at Windsor Castle.

Jacka spent the rest of the war in France, and was repeatedly promoted, achieving the rank of captain in March 1917. Some felt, though, that he might have achieved a higher rank had he been, according to the Trooper Tours website, more of a diplomat and less of a pugilist (a reference to his boxing ability, and willingness to settle disputes in the ranks by administering a clout to the chin of the fractious). He went on to be awarded a military cross and bar; but, again, his supporters believed his acts of bravery deserved a higher honour, i.e. a bar to his Victoria Cross. His war ended in May 1918 when he was wounded during a German gas bombardment.

After the war, Jacka entered business with army colleagues and helped establish an electrical goods firm, but this business failed during the Great Depression. He married Veronica Carey in 1929, and they adopted a daughter, but the marriage would not survive. Jacka served as a councillor and later a mayor of his local community, but, by 1931, he had left local politics, and was struggling to make ends meet. His health soon gave out, largely it seems, from a combination of stress and complications associated with his many wounds and being gassed. More than 6,000 people filed past his coffin as it lay in state; and his funeral procession, flanked by thousands of onlookers, was led by over 1,000 returned soldiers - the coffin was carried by eight Victoria Cross medal holders.

Further information is available at Wikipedia, the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and the Albert Jacka website. Moreover, Jacka has been the subject of several biographies, and has featured in many books about the First World War. An early history, Jacka’s Mob, was published in 1933, and featured an introduction by the poet laureate, John Masefield. In 1989, Sun Books in association with the Australian War Memorial, published Ian Grant’s Jacka VC, Australia’s Finest Fighting Soldier. In 2006, Allen & Unwin published Jacka VC: Australian Hero by Robert Macklin; and in 2007 Mira Books brought out Michael Lawriwsky’s Hard Jacka: The Story of a Gallipoli Legend.

Some of these books quote from a diary Jacka kept during the Gallipoli campaign. In particular, one extract - concerning the day of his actions that would lead to the VC award - can be found on many war history websites, and in most ANZAC histories. Unfortunately, Jacka’s diary is neither detailed nor informative, as Macklin explains in Jacka VC: Australian Hero (much of which can be read on the Amazon website).

‘Bert Jacka, as he was now known by his mates in the 14th, opened his new diary just before Christmas 1914, but,’ Macklin says, he was no Samuel Pepys: ‘Terse and laconic, he seems to have used the diary reluctantly, as though responding to a plea from his mother, to keep track of his great adventure. His entries quickly became intermittent and would end with the withdrawal from Anzac. However, they do provide glimpses of character, not least by their simplicity and directness.’

Macklin also quotes from Jacka’s diary more than other sources, and the following few extracts come from his book.

22 December 1914
‘Embarked on H.M.A.T Ulysses at 4.40pm. Put out to sea at 8pm. Anchored for the night at 10pm.’

13 January 1915 [Docked at Colombo, Ceylon now Sri Lanka]
‘Beautifully fine morning. Palms making a pretty background to the white houses. During the day a lot of fun was caused by Major Steel chasing the troops who had broken ship. Sergeant Major Blainey was threatened with being thrown overboard for drawing and firing a revolver at a nigger plying a boat for hire.’

1 May 1915
‘Turks making great attacks on our trenches. They are brave but are going to certain death. Mowing them down in the hundreds.’

20 May 1915
‘Great battle at 3am. 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 bayoneted 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 article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 10 January 2013.

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