Jacka VC: Australian Hero

Jacka VC: Australian Hero

by Robert Macklin

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Albert Jacka was the people's hero of the Great War. In 1919 he returned to a triumphant welcome as thousands lined the streets to cheer the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, at Gallipoli. In Belgium and France he had won the Military Cross twice and many believed, with Charles Bean, that they should have been VC's. He was beloved by his troops but resented by his superiors. In peace time he ran a successful business but then returned to battle for his mates and their families as the Great Depression threatened everything they had fought for. It was the hardest fight of all. The man himself has been an enigma, until now. With forensic skill Robert Macklin reveals an extraordinary character—a very Australian hero.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781741159271
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 09/01/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Robert Macklin is a journalist for The Diplomat and has co-authored three books with Peter Thompson: The Man Who Died Twice, The Battle of Brisbane and Kill the Tiger. He has scripted a series of eight TV documentaries, and is the author of Fire in the Blood.

Read an Excerpt

Jacka VC

Australian Hero

By Robert Macklin

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2006 Robert Macklin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74115-927-1



In August 2005, I was on the five-hour drive between Istanbul and Gallipoli, the road Jacka and his mates would have taken to the Turkish capital if only they had been able to break through the defences on the Gallipoli peninsula. We travelled beside the Sea of Marmara and, as we approached the narrow strait that opened into the Aegean at the Dardanelles, the undulating farmland was an ocean of sunflowers. In sharp irony, their bright green and gold proclaimed the Australian colours triumphant.

Across the entrance at the tip of the peninsula was the ancient settlement of Troy, which had itself been the object of foreign conquest, destruction and rebuilding a dozen times in a long, bellicose history. When we visited it, one wit told the pedantic guide to the ruins that Australia had a proverb that covered the situation perfectly: 'If at first you don't succeed,' he said, 'troy, troy, troy again.' For a moment, the irreverent larrikinism that so characterised the Anzacs flashed a spark across the Dardanelles. The guide was not amused.

There was nothing amusing, however, about the glowering heights of scrubland that rose up from Anzac Cove as we reached the place where the Australians had landed on 25 April 1915. Landing here was the first of many blunders visited upon Jacka and his mates by their British masters. Later, the then Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood would admit, 'This landing farther north than was intended naturally caused some temporary difficulties; for these I must take the blame, for they were caused by my insistence on landing before daylight.' The 'temporary difficulties' would be measured in 8000 young Australian lives in eight months of hellfire from an impossible position. At the time, however, rather than admit to a blunder, he pretended it was all part of a clever plan since the Turk would never anticipate an invasion in an area so perfectly designed to favour the defending force.

A tiny strip of beach, a prospect of precipitous cliffs, low scrub, blind gulches, waterless gullies and stony ground, all in a bowl the lips of which were securely in enemy hands — little wonder the Turks left it only lightly defended. They could hardly improve on Nature.

This was the place of Jacka's baptism of fire and his first experience of incompetence from 'the heads'. He would take each to heart and together they would help to define the man who would come to be 'Australia's greatest frontline soldier'.

Late that afternoon, the door of the small bus that had taken me to Gallipoli opened, and I made my way through the scrub towards the area known as Courtney's Post. It was a fine, clear day and, to the west, down below the cliffs of Shrapnel Valley, lay Anzac Cove and beyond that Homer's wine-dark sea, with the islands of Imbros and Lemnos bulking formidably on the horizon. Above the scrub-line, the Aegean was innocent of watercraft, whereas during the Gallipoli campaign a huge British taskforce of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and other vessels down to small steam pinnaces and whaleboats crowded the area, and German Uboats made deadly forays into their midst.

Suddenly the scrub parted and I found myself standing in the same place where Jacka had stood 90 years before — the front line of the Anzacs. The trenches were mostly filled in now, but as the darkness gathered I could hear the Turks begin their wild charge that terrible night of 19 May 1915, screaming the name of their God — 'Allah, Allah, Allah' — as they hurled themselves at the Australians and New Zealanders to prise them from their trenches and drive them into the sea.

It was at Courtney's Post that the Anzac line wavered and threatened to break. Directly behind it was a steep fall about 20 metres to a dugout that served as front-line headquarters for the 4th Brigade's Australian commander, 49-year-old Colonel John Monash. A rope ran from the furthest trench down to the dugout. From time to time, Monash would send one of his junior officers to climb it to survey the scene and brief the field commanders.

On that night, Monash and Colonel Harry Chauvel, commander of the Australian Light Horse Brigade, had only revolvers to defend themselves. If Jacka's platoon in D Company of the 14th Battalion could not hold the enemy back, the Turks would skid down the cliff on top of the flimsy dugout. Two glittering military careers would be ended almost before they began. And once they poured through the gap, a rout would surely follow. The Australians would be split, their supply lifeline cut to pieces.

The officers could hear the wild cacophony of battle above: the Turkish band in the background raising the aggressors to patriotic frenzy, the machine guns and rifles, the screams of wounded men, the fierce appeals to the God of Islam. The Very lights and the exploding hand-bombs tossed from both sides lit the sky and made treacherous shadows among the flashes.

In the trenches at Courtney's Post, Acting Lance Corporal Jacka and his comrades bore the assault. It was not the first time he had confronted the enemy from this post, or from Quinn's, 100 metres to the left. On 1 May at Quinn's Post he confided to his diary, 'Turks making great attacks on our trenches. They are brave but are going to certain death. Mowing them down in the hundreds.'

This night was different. All along the line, the Turks were charging into a fusillade of machine-gun fire, but as they fell, their compatriots ran over the bodies and hurled themselves at the Australian trenches. Now it was hand-to-hand combat, both sides firing at point-blank range, and a dozen metres to Jacka's right, in the trenchline ahead of his, the Turks broke through, tossing bombs and killing two Australians, wounding two more and driving six others out. The Turks ran to Jacka's right and into the intersecting communication trench.

Jacka had been protected from the bomb blasts by his firestep dug into the front of the trench, and from there he fired into the milling Turks who took cover and held on. Then, as other enemy soldiers rushed to join the attackers, Jacka shouted, 'Turks in the trench!' and loaded another magazine into his Lee Enfield 303. In front of him lay the open mouth of the communication trench to the front and rear. An Australian officer, Lieutenant Bill Hamilton, a young Duntroon graduate, suddenly appeared there, firing his revolver at the Turks, but was cut down before he'd emptied the chambers.

Jacka needed to break the stalemate before his ammunition ran out. 'Officer wanted,' he called. Below in Monash's HQ, Major 'Bobby' Rankine ordered Lieutenant Keith Wallace Crabbe up into the communication trench. Jacka heard him coming and stopped him with a shout. 'Look out. Turks in there!'

Wallace Crabbe: 'What's the situation?'

Jacka told him.

Wallace Crabbe: 'If I get men to back you up, can you charge them?'

Jacka: 'Yes. I want two or three.'

Wallace Crabbe disappeared. Jacka moved about the trench firing at an angle, using other men's rifles and reloading in a single motion as he went. Whenever a Turkish rifle appeared around the corner he fired. Again and again he ducked bullets and retreated to his firestep.

Wallace Crabbe gathered three volunteers from A Company, all Bendigo boys — Privates Frank Poliness, Stephen De Arango and Bill Howard. It had been Poliness who responded to the officer's entreaty, 'Will you back Jacka up? It's a tough job.'

He nodded. 'It's sink or swim,' he said.

As the bullets flew overhead, and the screams of men in extremis rose above the roar of battle, they reached the communication trench near Jacka's line. Wallace Crabbe reported his return. Jacka slung his rifle over the top of the trench towards them and followed it, landing in the communication trench with them. The officer took charge. They would fight their way forward up the communication trench to the new front line and meet the Turks head-on.

Jacka turned to the privates. 'Fix bayonets,' he said. It was his first order. His second typified the man. 'I'll go first. Follow me.'

Jacka dashed across the exposed area of the communication trench, back to his firestep in the line. Howard followed but the Turks were too quick and he was hit by three bullets. Jacka dragged him out of the firing line and warned the others to stay where they were. Howard was badly hurt but he would survive.

Wallace Crabbe's tactic wouldn't work. Now Jacka took charge. He called to the lieutenant to open fire up the communication trench while he circled to the rear of the Turks. The officer instantly accepted the authority of the lance corporal.

Bending low and carrying his rifle with the bayonet fixed, Jacka hurried left up the slight rise through the darkened trenches, past dead comrades and the severely wounded Lieutenant Harold Boyle. He passed one communication trench, then took the other leading to the forward line where the Turks were gathering themselves for the final push through the Australian defenders to the battalion HQ.

The trench line was slightly angled, and this gave Jacka a little cover when he moved into it. Then, out of sight of the Turks, he climbed over the parapet into no-man's-land. Wallace Crabbe and his men kept firing up the communication trench to hold the enemy back. The Turks responded with rifle and revolver. Suddenly Jacka loomed above them.

There were ten bullets in his magazine as he leapt into the trench and began firing. Five men fell to gunshot before his ammunition ran out and he used the bayonet to dispatch two more. As the others attempted to flee, Poliness shot two of them dead. Three others surrendered. Turks from further down the line saw the panic and joined in a wild retreat. The action was over. The line was restored.

Lieutenant Wallace Crabbe cautiously rounded the corner of the trench where he had glimpsed Jacka jumping down, and heard the gunfire and the cries of men. Dawn was breaking. In the soft light, the trench was literally filled with the dead — the seven Turks were lying on top of the Australians who had been killed by the Turkish bombs. Only Jacka, his face flushed, his rifle loosely at hand, remained alive.

In his detailed account, the officer said, 'All right, Corporal?' Jacka nodded. 'Well, I managed to get the buggers, sir.'

Word of Jacka's extraordinary action sped through the ranks on Anzac. Wallace Crabbe reported the event to the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Courtney after whom the post was named. But Courtney was in no condition to process the recommendation and was evacuated. He would die in Melbourne of illness, attributed to Gallipoli, in 1919.

Jacka's own diary entry that day was laconic to a degree. 'Great battle at 3am,' he wrote. 'Turks captured large portion of our trench. D Coy called into the front line. Lieut. Hamilton shot dead. I lead 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. Lieut. Crabbe informed me that I would be recommended.'

In fact, the recommendation would have been lost in the confusion of war had not the men of the line spread the word that reached the ears of Monash, and then of the division commander, Major General Sir Alexander Godley. When Monash dined a week later with General Sir Ian Hamilton, the officer commanding the expedition to Gallipoli, on his seaborne HQ the Arcadian, Hamilton knew the story already from Godley. He and Monash agreed over dinner that Jacka had earned the Victoria Cross, the first to be awarded to an Australian in the Great War.

Monash, the ambitious Victorian engineer struggling to overcome his German-Jewish background in the rarefied milieu of the British High Command, shared Hamilton's admiration for the Australians' fighting qualities. He would base an extraordinarily successful military career on his command of the Anzac Corps. He wanted the story out immediately the award was approved.

However, Monash could not rely on normal channels for his propaganda offensive, at least in the Gallipoli engagement. Charles Bean, the official Australian war correspondent, had taken an immediate dislike to the 'pushy Jew' and concentrated his reporting on the 1st Division, commanded by British-born General William Throsby Bridges. Bridges, the creator of Duntroon Military College, was much more to the liking of the British-educated journalist.

The 1st Division were all Australians, whereas Godley's division, which included Monash's 4th Brigade, was a mix of Australian and New Zealand battalions, together with Chauvel's Light Horse, albeit without their mounts which were back in Egypt. Bean attached himself to Bridges' command and he was unaware of Jacka's award until it was gazetted. Monash complained, 'Charley Bean seldom comes our way.'

However, once final approval came through from London, Monash had a story to tell. Bean then approached Wallace Crabbe, who provided him with a full written report. Less than a month later Wallace Crabbe was killed in action.

Bean's failure to interview the VC himself was of not the slightest concern to Jacka, who went straight back into the line. He would actively resist personal publicity and the trappings of fame for the whole of his life. Nor did it prevent his remarkable feat, and the honour it secured, being disseminated to a wide Australian readership. Monash saw to that.

The newspapers trumpeted the story of the nation's first hero of the Gallipoli encounter. The politicians leapt upon it as proof of their wisdom in committing Australia to the glorious defence of the British Empire and all she stood for. Jacka and the Anzacs were covering the nation in glory. And when the recruiting posters went up in the capital cities showing Jacka in action, young men flocked to enlist.

That single action at Courtney's Post was enough to secure a place for 22-year-old Bert Jacka among his country's favourite sons. But what neither the papers, the generals, nor the politicians knew was that the shy lad from Wedderburn in country Victoria had only just begun his astonishing journey. In the months and years that followed, his deeds on the battlefields of France and Belgium would make his name a legend and inspire an entire battalion of 1000 men to designate themselves 'Jacka's Mob'. In peacetime, his reputation for decency and good fellowship would take him to the pinnacle of success and happiness before the life was crushed from him on an alien battlefield with no rules of engagement.

But, as with Gallipoli itself, there seemed to be something at the heart of Jacka that we could not know completely. He was a hero to the common man. He was beloved by his comrades at arms with an intensity unmatched in our military history. But so determined was he to ignore the code of unquestioning obedience to those who outranked him when they put his men in jeopardy, that some in the military establishment retaliated.

They had feted him. They had decorated him. They had promoted him. But in a system and a conflict that regarded human beings as expendable — not just in their hundreds, but in their hundreds of thousands — Jacka would not fit himself to their mould. So they put an end to his promotions, downgraded his recommendations for valour, and began to call him 'crude', and imply he was 'unsound', 'out of control', and somehow undeserving of his nation's wholehearted respect. By omission and commission they called his character into question.

For 90 years the truth of the matter has proven elusive. But it is there to be found.



Albert Jacka was not born to soldiery. On the contrary, his family were hard-working country folk from Wedderburn, 60 kilometres north of Bendigo, Victoria. His father was a Labor man who would fiercely oppose conscription in 1916 and again in 1917, even when success meant that fewer reinforcements might be sent to his sons in their struggle. When young Bert Jacka heard the call to arms at 21, he was working in solitude in the backblocks of Victoria, repairing the native forests that had been all but denuded by the goldminers in their frantic need for timber supports.

Solitude suited him. He was shy in company. Like most Australians he was mad for sport, but because his job took him from town to town on the fringe of the great Murray River he rarely played in local team competitions. Instead, he tested himself in events that celebrated the individual — cycling races and boxing. He excelled at both. The local newspapers of the region recorded his triumphs.

He was not a tall man — standing only 5 feet 61.2 inches (169 centimetres) in his stockinged feet when measured by the recruiting officer. But his chest expanded a full 2 inches when he breathed deeply; the cycling had given his legs a hard muscularity; the boxing had developed his upper body; and both had contributed to an athlete's perfect balance.


Excerpted from Jacka VC by Robert Macklin. Copyright © 2006 Robert Macklin. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Author's note,
1 Getting the buggers,
2 Jacka country,
3 Gathering for the fray,
4 The Old World beckons,
5 Parry and thrust,
6 Closing in,
7 Anzac Day,
8 The first VC,
9 The heights of folly,
10 Withdrawn,
11 Quarter-time break,
12 Hunting the Hun,
13 Bravest man in the Aussie army,
14 Action and reaction,
15 Fair and foul,
16 'Inspiration',
17 Butchering at Bullecourt,
18 Tank attack,
19 With Monash again,
20 Rebellion,
21 Command at last,
22 The sorrow of loss,
23 Danger man,
24 Jacka's luck runs out,
25 Recuperating,
26 Returning a hero,
27 The real homecoming,
28 Wedded Miss,
29 The other war,
30 Back in the front lines,
31 Going out,

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Jacka VC 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Chris can you tell ken to move camp im locked out
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Shoots with his new bow.
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Taught by Miss. Swansea.