Albert Jacka was possibly the outstanding footsoldier and front-line leader of men in the Great War. It is possible to imagine equally impressive achievements but hard to imagine better. That is a big claim, but check out the record. It is worth reading to the end because Jacka was equally impressive as a leader and a pillar of the community after the war, although he died prematurely due to the effects of his war wounds and exposure to gas.
He won a VC for his action at Courtneys Post at Gallipolli. This was partly a matter of good fortune because it was not a report from his own superior officer that produced the result. The officer who should have put in the report was ill and put in no report at all.
The action which won a Military Cross was a far more impressive effort but his superior officer was too far from the action to provide an adequate report.
The third major episode reveals that he was not only a superb “on the ground” warrior but he had a strategic sense that enabled him to see how tanks could be used for best effect. It is claimed that Monash sighted his report and used it to refine his tactics but the report was supressed because it revealed the incompetence of some of Jacka’s superior officers. Jacka was recommended for a VC but the recommendation was turned down on the ground that the action did not succeed (as Jacka himself had warned when he reported that the preliminary bombardment had not destroyed the barbed wire defending the enemy line).
First action: Courtney’s Post. VC awarded.
“On the night of May 19-20, it seemed that the Turks had achieved their objective of re-taking Courtney’s when they bombed and attacked the position in the early morning. A number of the Australian occupants were killed and the remainder were chased out of the line. These men ran past Bert Jacka who stayed at his post in a niche on the fire-step. From there he fired shots into the trench wall, holding the Turks at bay. Hearing the commotion, Lt. Hamilton climbed out of his trench and ran to assist. He took up a position near a communication trench, firing his revolver at the Turks, but was quickly shot in the head. Another officer, Lt. Crabbe, was sent to the sector. He attempted to join Jacka by crossing the mouth of the same communication trench where Hamilton had been but Jacka stopped him. Crabbe then called for volunteers to assist Jacka and three came forward. Jacka then leapt safely into the captured trench but the man following him was shot three times as soon as he came into view. The cool-thinking Jacka realised the plan was not going to work and stopped the others from following. He dashed back, dragging to safety his comrade who, despite his wounds, had not been killed and, indeed, survived the war.”
“The next plan was formulated by Jacka himself when he asked Crabbe to be allowed to make an attempt at re-taking the trench alone. He approached the Turks as close as he could along the trench then mounted the parapet and crept into No Man’s Land, where he waited until his comrades created a diversion with rifle fire and bombs. The diversion was Jacka’s cue to jump into the trench where he shot five Turks and bayoneted two more. Another two were shot as they scrambled out of the trench.”
“The trench was now clear of Turks and Jacka remained alone there until dawn when Lt. Crabbe deemed it safe to determine the outcome of the assault. One of the most famous details of the whole incident is that Crabbe found Jacka sitting amidst Turkish and Australian dead with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. “Well, I got the beggars, sir,” he said.”
“While Jacka was awarded the V.C., it was only through chance that he received any recognition because, at the time, his battalion commander was incapacitated with illness and soon afterwards evacuated. As a result, no official report of the incident was made until the commander of the New Zealand Australian Division, Major-General Godley, heard rumours of the exploit. It was he who then made the necessary investigations and later commendation.”
Second major action: Pozierres. Military Cross awarded.
“As dawn broke after a night of nerve-shattering shelling, the men underground only became aware that an enemy attack had swept overhead when a passing German rolled a bomb down the stairs. The concussion in the narrow confines of their shelter was tremendous but Jacka was first to recover and he immediately dashed to the surface, revolver in hand. The milling Germans he saw from the mouth of the dugout were the second line of a successful assault. A nearby group of them were escorting to the rear 42 prisoners from the Australian 48th Battalion. Only seven men from Jacka’s platoon had recovered from the blast and while many may have considered surrender a reasonable option in these circumstances, Jacka began thinking how he and his party could fight their way back to Australian lines. After weighing the options, he made a cold-blooded decision to launch his seven men in an attack on the 60 or so Germans who were there. No sooner had they jumped up than two of Jacka’s men were killed and every other man was hit but they charged on and belayed the Germans with rifle and bayonet. Jacka himself was hit seven times. Each time he fell to the ground he jumped up again “like a prize fighter”, he later said, and ran on. After emptying his revolver, he picked up a rifle and bayonet and accounted personally for some twelve or more of the enemy.”
“Two more of Jacka’s men were killed before the engagement concluded but the captured men of the 48th Battalion took heart from the assault and turned on their captors. Men from neighbouring platoons were also drawn to the melee with the result that the Germans surrendered and the ridge which had been lost was retaken.”
“Jacka’s efforts brought him the Military Cross, a high honour but one which many felt under-stated the magnitude of his achievement on that day in that terrible place. Amongst those of that opinion were Rule, Bean and Jacka himself. Jacka, while recovering from the dreadful wounds he sustained, stated that what he did at Pozieres was “six times more demanding than his exploit at Gallipoli”. Any reasonable comparison of the two events would have to reach the same conclusion and, even when compared with the five V.C.’s which were won by Australians in and around Pozieres, Jacka’s action remains exceptional. Certainly it is unusual for a bar to be given to a V.C. but Jacka’s biographer, Dr. Ian Grant, notes the irony of the fact that the only bar awarded to a V.C. in the Great War was won in another part of the battlefield the very next day by Capt. N.G. Chavasse of the Royal Army Medical Corps.”
“No doubt some of the explanation for the very prosaic and somewhat inaccurate description of Jacka’s action contained in the commendation written up by the commander of the 14th Battalion was the poor information forwarded by the commander of B Company, Major Fuhrmann, who had been so far from the fighting. The 14th Battalion’s war diary is notably silent in attributing credit to Jacka for the re-taking of the ridge. By contrast, the war diary compiled by the famous commander of the neighbouring 48th Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Leane, was very clear and precise in identifying Jacka as the instigator of the decisive attack. … it does seem clear that, in Jacka’s case, an anomaly occurred, especially when someone as cautious and meticulous as C.E.W. Bean, the greatest single expert on the history of the 1st AIF, past or present, could describe Jacka’s Pozieres action as the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the AIF.”
Third major action: First Bullecourt. VC recommended, bar to MC awarded.
“The 14th Battalion was involved in “First Bullecourt” one of the most awesome and tragic battles involving Australians on the Western Front. This was a frontal assault on the Hindenburg Line which was part of a general British effort to divert attention from the French offensive at Soissons and at Rheims…New twists were added to the disaster with the absence of the usual intensive wire-cutting bombardment, the use of 12 untried tanks and an abortive attack the previous night which served only to provide clear warning to the Germans of what they could expect the next night.”
“About two hours prior to the attack, when the men were already lying out in snow in their jumping off positions, the Battalion Intelligence Officer, Bert Jacka, was crawling about in No Man’s Land. He spied a German officer and an enlisted man who had a clear view of the assembled troops. Jacka raised his revolver to shoot but it misfired. He then leapt at the two and captured both of them, leading them back to the Australian lines single-handed.”
“After a similar sortie the night before, Jacka had seen that the German wire had not been cut by the artillery and expressed his opinion to Brigadier-General Brand that “it was pure murder to attempt the operation.” His advice was not heeded and his prediction proved sadly accurate. Despite great heroism and superhuman efforts, the attack was a bitter failure and all but annihilated some of the finest fighting units of the AIF.”
“In the aftermath of the battle, Jacka prepared a report on the use of tanks which Maj.-Gen. Elliot some years later described as brilliant and which General John Monash appears to have illicitly consulted in preparation for the successful Battle of Hamel. Unfortunately, Elliot also noted that in the report Jacka had committed the “unforgivable offence” of criticising his superior officers, hence breaching the “code of freemasonry” which protected senior officers of the regular army. As a result, Elliot said:
‘General Birdwood ordered that Jacka’s report should be expunged from the records of the AIF and Jacka himself was thence onward systematically ignored both in regard to decorations and promotions.’
“Lt. Col. Peck submitted a detailed account of Jacka’s action in No Man’s Land in the hours before the attack. It was passed on unchanged from Brigade with the recommendation that a V.C. was in order but, in the end, Jacka received a bar to his M.C. Brigadier-General Brand later explained that V.C.s are rarely awarded where enterprises failed.”