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Sir Carl Herman Jess (1884–1948)

by Chris Clark

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Carl Jess, by John Longstaff

Carl Jess, by John Longstaff

Australian War Memorial, ART02982

Sir Carl Herman Jess (1884-1948), soldier, was born on 16 February 1884 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, one of nine children of George Jess, a master painter from Schleswig-Holstein, and his Irish-born wife Mary, née Talty, who was illiterate. He was educated at the Violet Street State School, Bendigo, and taught there in 1899-1906.

In parallel with his career as a teacher Jess displayed an interest in military life, joining in 1899 the 1st Battalion, Victorian Volunteer Cadets, in which he became a colour sergeant, and beginning a lifelong hobby of making coloured sketches of regimental uniforms. In February 1902 he enlisted in the militia 5th Battalion, Victorian Infantry, and over the next four years reached the rank of sergeant. Resigning his position with the Victorian Education Department in June 1906, he joined the permanent staff of the Australian Military Forces as an instructor with the rank of staff sergeant, becoming staff sergeant major next year.

After qualifying in 1908 as an officer on the Administrative and Instructional Staff, Jess was appointed lieutenant on 1 July 1909 and allotted for duty in New South Wales. Granted the temporary rank of captain in January 1911 (confirmed July 1912), he became brigade major to the 5th Infantry Brigade until transferred to Victoria in November 1911 to became staff captain responsible for administering the new national scheme of compulsory military training in that State. In 1912 he attended the diploma course conducted by the department of military science at the University of Sydney. He was appointed to the instructional staff in Victoria in July 1913 and a year later was transferred to South Australia as deputy assistant adjutant general. He married Marjory Mary McGibbon at St Luke's Anglican Church, North Fitzroy, Melbourne, on 15 July 1914.

When Colonel (Sir) John Monash was appointed in September 1914 to command the 4th Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force, he selected Jess as staff captain on his headquarters. Despite a whispering campaign concerning his German origins in October, Jess embarked on active service in December. He served throughout the Dardanelles campaign and, during fighting on 2-3 May 1915 and on 7 August, showed himself to be a tireless front-line organizer. From 23 May he was brigade major of the 2nd Brigade with the rank of major. He was mentioned in dispatches in June and in 1916 the Serbian Order of the White Eagle was conferred for his Gallipoli service.

With the return of the A.I.F. to Egypt Jess took command of the 7th Battalion on 28 February 1916 and was promoted lieutenant-colonel from 12 March. He retained command until March 1917 and temporarily led the 2nd Brigade for two months from late November 1916. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in December for his work during the battle of Pozières, when he was gassed but remained on duty; a second mention in dispatches followed next month.

In March 1917 Jess was seconded for duty in England as an instructor at the Senior Officers' School, Aldershot, the first Dominion officer to hold such an appointment. In September he was appointed general staff officer, grade 2, Headquarters, 1st Anzac Corps, after which he became general staff officer, grade 1, in Major General Monash's 3rd Division on 20 January 1918. Monash declared Jess to be 'easily the best man in sight for the job'.

Promoted colonel and temporary brigadier general in October, Jess assumed command of the 10th Brigade — at 34 one of the youngest brigadiers in the British service. He was mentioned in dispatches again on 31 December and next day was appointed C.M.G. for his service during the battle of Amiens. From March 1919 he commanded the A.I.F. Training Depot at Codford, England, and in July he became commandant at A.I.F. Headquarters, London. He additionally acted as director general of repatriation and demobilization, vice Monash, and officiated as general officer commanding, A.I.F., relieving General Sir William Birdwood, for several months until January 1920. For his work in winding up A.I.F. affairs overseas he was appointed C.B.E. in October.

Jess's A.I.F. appointment was terminated on 21 January and he reverted to peacetime rank of lieutenant-colonel, A.M.F., but instead of returning to Australia he joined the Staff College at Camberley, completing the course with an 'A' class certificate and a grading as an 'officer of Exceptional Merit'. Returning to Australia in February 1921 he resumed instructional duties in Victoria until May when he became a staff officer on the headquarters of the militia 4th Division. Early in 1925 he was transferred to Tasmania as commandant of the 6th Military District and in April 1926 was promoted colonel. He was also State marshal during the royal visit to Tasmania by the Duke and Duchess of York in May 1927.

Next August Jess was appointed district commandant in Western Australia, being promoted brigadier in January 1929 and made aide-de-camp to the governor-general for four years from June 1931. From January 1932 he commanded the 4th Division and also became base commandant in Victoria. After his organizational involvement in centenary celebrations in Western Australia he was invited in 1933 by the premier, Sir Stanley Argyle, to organize Victoria's centenary celebrations. The army released him from May 1933 to November 1934; he was knighted in the 1935 New Year honours.

In December 1934 Jess had been appointed adjutant general of the A.M.F. and second member of the Military Board. He was promoted major general in July 1935. Reputedly because of a personality clash on the board between Jess and the chief of the General Staff, Major General J. D. Lavarack, the government decide to re-establish the post of inspector general of the forces and to offer the appointment to Lieutenant-General E. K. Squires of the British Army in 1938. In May 1939 Jess, on advice of the judge advocate general, challenged the legality of Squires's appointment as acting chief of the General Staff but was overruled by the minister for defence on the advice of the solicitor-general. In August he was notified that by government decision he was to be retired, but this notification was cancelled next month when war began. At the request of the minister he became chairman of the manpower committee within the Department of Defence with local rank of lieutenant-general on 12 October.

Jess, as adjutant general, was initially appointed chairman of the manpower committee when it was established in September 1938 but, because of his preoccupation with increasing the militia to 70,000, it had been decided in November to appoint Major General Sir Thomas Blamey. He resumed chairmanship when Blamey was appointed to command the 6th Division of the 2nd A.I.F. His work in the expansion of the forces and completion of mobilization arrangements was recognized when he was appointed C.B. in June 1939.

The main duties of the services' manpower committee were absorbed by the manpower priorities board of the Commonwealth Department of Labour and National Service in August 1941, but Jess retained the chairmanship of the committee until March 1944 and additionally became deputy chairman of the new body. He was seconded from the army to become Services adviser to the director general of manpower and was promoted lieutenant-general on 1 September 1942. During the year he also organized the Australian Women's Land Army and in 1943 assumed additional duties as director of women's national services in the Department of Labour and National Service.

After relinquishing his position on the manpower committee in March 1944 Jess commenced special duty in connexion with the survey and classification of army records, during which he compiled a report on the activities of the A.M.F from 1929 to 1939. This work lasted until July 1945 and was unfinished when he went on sick leave. On 1 April 1946 he was placed on the retired list because of invalidity.

Jess died intestate, of pulmonary tuberculosis, at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, Melbourne, on 16 June 1948 and was cremated with full military honours. He was survived by his wife, a son John David Jess who was a member of Federal parliament in 1960-72, and a daughter. His elder son Carl McGibbon, a lieutenant in the 2nd A.I.F., was killed in action at Tobruk in 1941.

In 1945-46 the Australian War Memorial, acting on a suggestion by Charles Bean, purchased part of Jess's unique collection of original water-colours featuring British and Australian Army uniforms from 1853. Bas-relief models of military figures, carved and hand-painted by Jess, are displayed at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. His portrait, painted in 1919 by John Longstaff, is in the Australian War Memorial collection.

Described by Sir Sydney Rowell as a 'striking figure', Jess 'had a most inventive brain, was a master of expediency and had an ability to teach quite above the normal. He was steeped in the tradition of the army and had hardly an interest outside the service'. He had a deep admiration for Monash, with whom he associated the 'happiest and best' periods of his service in the A.I.F. Monash wrote in July 1921 that 'out of regard for our personal friendship of many years I rejoice that you, at least, belong to that meagre minority who achieved, by their sterling performances, what they were justly entitled to'.

Although Jess reputedly had some rough autocratic ways, it was said of him that he always manifested a remarkable aptitude for throwing himself wholeheartedly into whatever position demanded his attention. His rise from the bottom rank is one of the more remarkable personal stories of Australia's army.

Select Bibliography

  • E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1942)
  • A. Dean & E. W. Gutteridge, The Seventh Battalion, A.I.F. (Melb, 1933)
  • F. M. Cutlack (ed), War Letters of General Monash (Syd, 1934)
  • S. F. Rowell, Full Circle (Melb, 1974)
  • G. Serle, John Monash: A Biography (Melb, 1982)
  • London Gazette, 3 Aug 1915, 29 Dec 1916, 2 Jan, 13 Feb 1917, 27, 31 Dec 1918, 19 Oct 1920, 1 Jan 1935, 8 June 1939
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Feb 1919, 9 Mar 1934, 17 Aug 1939, 17 June 1948
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 10 Sept 1927
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 25 May 1933
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 May 1933, 12 Dec 1934, 1 Jan 1938, 18 June 1948
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 Nov 1934
  • Sun (Sydney), 29 July 1939
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11, 14 Nov 1941
  • Bulletin, 30 June 1948
  • Monash papers (National Library of Australia)
  • records (Australian War Memorial), also AWM file 895/3/9
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Jess, Sir Carl Herman (1884–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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