Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Intern
On Saturday 24 July 1915, a supplement to the London Gazette was published, recording the military honours King George V had bestowed upon his British and imperial subjects during what was then known as the Great War. Four men were awarded the Victoria Cross, the British empire’s highest military honour, for ‘conspicuous bravery’ in the line of enemy fire.
One of these men was an Australian, Lance-Corporal Albert Jacka, today one of our country’s most celebrated war heroes.
‘Short in stature, but of sturdy physique’, Jacka, known as Bert to his friends, was born in Geelong, Victoria, in 1893. He worked as a labourer with the Victorian State Forests Department before enlisting in the First Australian Imperial Force on 18 September 1914, at the age of 21.
As a private in the 14th Battalion, Jacka trained first at Broadmeadows, just outside Melbourne, then Egypt in the early months of 1915, where he received his promotion to lance-corporal. With the 14th Battalion he landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 26 April 1915. Three weeks later, Jacka would make history as Australia’s first Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War.
On 19 May 1915, Ottoman forces captured a section of the Australian trenches on Gallipoli known as Courtney’s Post. When attempts to drive them out failed, Jacka leapt in while the enemy was distracted by bombing down the line. He single-handedly killed seven Turkish soldiers: ‘five by rifle fire, and two with the bayonet’. He spent the rest of the night holding the trench alone until reinforcements arrived.
Jacka’s actions not only earned him a medal, but saw him enjoy a meteoric rise through the ranks of the 14th Battalion, which eventually came to be known as ‘Jacka’s Mob’. At home, his face was used on recruitment posters and newspaper coverage of his exploits and awards ensured he was a household name by the close of 1915.
On the Western Front Jacka distinguished himself by further actions of bravery, earning the Military Cross and Bar for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ at Pozieres in 1916 and Bullecourt in 1917. His actions at Pozieres were to war correspondent and later official historian C.E.W. Bean ‘the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the AIF’.
In May 1918, having already been wounded twice, Jacka was gassed near Villers-Bretonneux and invalided off the front lines for good. He returned to Australia in September 1919, married, and became a successful politician and entrepeneur for several years until the Great Depression.
Albert Jacka died in January 1932 from kidney disease, aged 39. Many believe he never fully recovered from his wounds in the war. Eight other Victoria Cross recipients acted as pallbearers in a funeral procession witnessed by more than 6,000 Australians, who had come to see their hero rest at last.
View and download the full publication of Australian Winners of the Victoria Cross in the Great War 1914-1918 and read more about Jacka’s portrait companion, Vernon Sellars, in the Local Stories section of our NSW History project Researching Soldiers in Your Local Community.
‘14th Australian Infantry Battalion’, Australian War Memorial, accessed 13 July 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U51454.
Albert Edward Jacka, personnel dossier, B2455, National Archives of Australia, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=8334256.
‘AUSTRALIAN HERO. LANCE-CORPORAL JACKA. AWARDED VICTORIA CROSS For “Conspicuous Bravery”’, Argus (Melbourne: 1848-1957), 26 July 1915, p. 7, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/1541273.
Australian Winners of the Victoria Cross in the Great War 1914-1918, foreword by Sir Walter E. Davidson (Sydney: McCarron, Stewart & Co. Ltd., 1919).
‘Captain Albert Jacka’, Australian War Memorial, accessed 13 July 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P11033363.
Kevin J. Fewster, ‘Jacka, Albert (1893-1932)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed 13 July 2021, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jacka-albert-6808.
‘Fifty Australians – Bert Jacka’, Australian War Memorial, accessed 13 July 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/fiftyaustralians/26.
‘No. 29240’, London Gazette (supplement), 23 July 1915, p. 7279, https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/29240/supplement/7279.