This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983
Albert Jacka (1893-1932), soldier and merchant, was born on 10 January 1893 at Layard near Winchelsea, Victoria, fourth child of Nathaniel Jacka, a Victorian-born labourer, later a farmer and contractor, and his English wife Elizabeth, née Kettle. The family moved to Wedderburn when Albert was 5. After elementary schooling, Bert worked as a labourer with his father, then for the Victorian State Forests Department. He was a shy youth, but excelled at sports, especially cycling.
Jacka enlisted on 18 September 1914 as a private in the 14th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, and trained at Broadmeadows camp. His unit embarked on 22 December and spent two months training in Egypt before landing at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli Peninsula, on 26 April 1915. Early on 19 May the Turks launched a massive counter-attack along practically the entire Anzac line. At about 4 a.m. they rushed Courtney's Post. Amid frenzied fighting some Turks captured a twelve-yard (11 m) section of trench, one end of which was guarded by Jacka. For several minutes he fired warning shots into the trench wall until reinforcements arrived and, after shouting his instructions, he and three others sprang out into the trench. All but Jacka were immediately hit so he leapt back into the communication trench. A new plan was devised. Two bombs were lobbed at the Turks while Jacka skirted around to attack from the flank. Amid the smoke and the noise he clambered over the parapet, shot five Turks and bayoneted two as the rest hastily retreated. 'I managed to get the beggars, Sir', he reputedly told the first officer to appear. For this action he received the Victoria Cross, the first to be awarded to the A.I.F. in World War I.
Instantly Jacka became a national hero. He received the £500 and gold watch that the prominent Melbourne business and sporting identity John Wren had promised to the first V.C. winner. 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.
The 14th Battalion was shipped to France early in June. Jacka's platoon moved into the line near Pozières on the night of 6-7 August and as dawn broke German troops overran a part of the line. Jacka had just completed a reconnaissance and had gone to his dug-out when two Germans appeared at its entrance and rolled a bomb down the doorway, killing two men. Jacka charged up the dug-out steps, firing as he moved, and came upon a large number of the enemy rounding up some forty Australians as prisoners. He rallied his platoon and charged at the enemy, some of whom immediately threw down their rifles. Furious hand-to-hand fighting erupted as the prisoners turned on their captors. Fifty Germans were captured and the line was retaken. Jacka was awarded a Military Cross for his gallantry. Charles Bean described the counter-attack 'as the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the A.I.F.' The entire platoon was wounded, Jacka seriously in the neck and shoulder; he was sent to a London hospital. On 8 September London newspapers carried reports of his death but Bert Jacka was far from done for. He had been promoted lieutenant on 18 August, rejoined his unit in November and was promoted captain on 15 March 1917 and appointed the 14th Battalion's intelligence officer.
Early in 1917 the Germans had retired to the Hindenburg line and on 8 April Jacka 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.
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'. In May 1918 he was badly gassed at Villers-Bretonneux and saw no more action. In September 1919 he embarked for Australia aboard the Euripides. A large crowd, including the governor-general, greeted the ship when it berthed at Melbourne and a convoy of eighty-five cars with Jacka at its head drove to the town hall where men from the 14th Battalion welcomed their famous comrade. He was demobilized in January 1920. Shortly after his return Jacka, R. O. Roxburgh and E. J. L. Edmonds (both former members of the 14th Battalion) established the electrical goods importing and exporting business, Roxburgh, Jacka & Co. Pty Ltd. Jacka contributed £700 of the firm's paid up capital. The company's other directors were John Wren and his associate 'Dick' Lean, while Wren's brother Arthur held over three-quarters of the company's shares. In 1923 the business name was altered to Jacka Edmonds & Co. when Roxburgh withdrew.
On 17 January 1921 at St Mary's Catholic Church, St Kilda, Jacka had married Frances Veronica Carey, a typist from his office. They settled at St Kilda and later adopted a daughter. In September 1929 Jacka was elected to the St Kilda Council and became mayor a year later. He devoted most of his energies on council to assisting the unemployed. His own business flourished until 1929 when the Scullin government increased import tariffs and the company went into voluntary liquidation in September 1930. It was rumoured that the company's difficulties stemmed in part from Wren removing his support after Jacka refused to follow his wishes. Jacka then became a commercial traveller with the Anglo-Dominion Soap Co.
He fell ill, entered Caulfield Military Hospital on 18 December 1931 and died on 17 January 1932 of chronic nephritis. Nearly 6000 people filed past his coffin when it lay in state in Anzac House. The funeral procession, led by over 1000 returned soldiers flanked by thousands of onlookers, made its way to St Kilda cemetery where he was buried with full military honours in the Presbyterian section. Eight Victoria Cross winners were his pallbearers.
At his funeral Bert Jacka was described as 'Australia's greatest front-line soldier'. Few would challenge this assessment. 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. 'He said what he meant, and meant what he said', recalls one friend. As an officer he invariably won respect by his example. It was claimed that he preferred to punch an offender than to place him on a charge. 'His methods could not have been adopted generally in the A.I.F. without disaster', Bean noted. Nevertheless Jacka seemed to epitomize the Anzac creed of mateship, bravery, fairness and an absence of pretentiousness. Many sought to exploit his fame. In 1916 and 1918 he spurned offers from Prime Minister Hughes to return to Australia and assist with recruiting campaigns. His name was also used by (Sir) Keith Murdoch in the 1916 conscription referendum. His father promptly stated publicly that Bert had never declared himself in favour of conscription. The anti-conscriptionists made much of this denial but on balance it seems probable that Jacka did support conscription. His standing remained so high that a memorial plaque and sculpture for his grave was paid for by public subscription while £1195 was raised towards buying his widow a house. His portrait, by G. J. Coates, is in the Australian War Memorial. Two of his brothers had A.I.F. service.
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 in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 2 August 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983