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Albert Jacka

Albert Jacka VC MC & Bar (10 January 1893 – 17 January 1932) was the first Australian to receive the Victoria Cross during the First World War.

Albert Jacka enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 8 September 1914, with the rank of private. Jacka was assigned to the 14th Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Division and finished his training in England. After Turkey became a German ally the 1st Division was sent to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal. Albert Jacka and his battalion arrived at Alexandria on 31 January 1915. During ten weeks of training south of Cairo the 4th Brigade was merged with two New Zealand brigades and merged with the 1st Light Horse Brigade to form the New Zealand and Australian Division (NZ&A) under Major-General Alexander Godley.

Albert Jacka fought in the Battle of Gallipoli that started on 25 April 1915 when his new division landed at Anzac Cove on the 26th in the Dardanelles, fighting against Turkish defenders on a narrow beach. The NZ&A-held position that was a series of trenches became known as Courtney’s Post where Jacka won the Victoria Cross.

On 19 May 1915 the Turks attacked Courtney’s Post and captured a portion of it. The NZ&A failed to recapture it in a counter attack. During the conflict Jacka and three men moved to outflank the Turkish position. Albert Jacka was the only man to make it (one was wounded and the others were pinned down by machine gun fire) and Jacka charged the Turkish position over open ground and jumped into a Turkish held trench behind the Turkish soldiers. In the resulting conflict Jacka shot five and bayoneted two Turkish soldiers and then retreated back to his own lines. Jacka took up a trench position and held the trench alone for the remainder of the night. Jacka’s platoon commander found him the next morning and for his actions awarded him the Victoria Cross.

His citation for the award reads:

On 19/20   May 1915, at "Courtney's Post", Gallipoli, Turkey, Lance Corporal Jacka, while holding a portion of our trench with four other men, was heavily attacked. When all except himself were killed or wounded, and the trench was rushed and occupied by seven Turks, Lance-Corporal Jacka most gallantly attacked them single handed, killing the whole party, five by rifle and two with the bayonet.

Albert Jacka survived the battlefield and was promoted to corporal on 28 August 1915, and was promoted to sergeant four weeks later. During the following November he became company sergeant-major of Company C. Jacka saw much fighting at Gallipoli where during August 1915 at a battle at Chunuk Bair, Hill 971, and Hill 60, his battalion was still trying to break the beachhead. Jacka recorded in his diary that his battalion had 600 of 800 casualties after only a few days fighting. After nine months of fighting in December 1915 and after 26,111 Australian casualties the Allied forces began to evacuate the peninsula where Jacka was reassigned with the 14th Battalion to Lemnos.

Jacka was reassigned to Egypt with newly formed brigades, and he stayed with 14th battalion in one of the two new brigades from the split of his original brigade. With the new reorganization completed during March 1916, Jacka was commissioned as second lieutenant on 19 April 1916. After these events, on 1 June 1916 the Australian contingent was reassigned to France to fight the Germans.

Albert Jacka and his unit was assigned to the Allied trenches near Armentières and saw heavy fighting. Jacka’s unit was originally a diversion to distract the Germans for the Somme offensive, but after the disaster that lost 57,470 British and Canadian soldiers the first day of fighting his unit was transferred to the Somme offensive and saw some of the conflict during that disaster.

Jacka’s Australian division, on 23 July 1916, was involved in the attack of Pozières planned by Major-General H.B. Walker. The Australian division suffered 5,286 casualties after three days of fighting. The Australian force captured Pozières, but the fight was so bloody that the Australians could identify their trenches by the bodies of their comrades showing their red-and-white shoulder patches. The Germans counter-attacked with five battalions with orders to recapture Pozieres.

On the morning of 7th August 1916, following a night of severe shelling, it became apparent to Jacka and his platoon that an enemy attack had swept overhead and that they were now 200 metres behind the enemy lines, when a passing German rolled a bomb down the stairs. Upon emerging from the dug-out, Jacka found they were in the middle of 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 after weighing the options, Jacka made a cold-blooded decision to launch his seven men in an attack on the 60 or so Germans in the vicinity. Two of Jacka's men were killed instantly and all others were hit, but they charged on and belayed the Germans with rifle and bayonet. Jacka himself was wounded seven times, however kept getting up and fighting on. After emptying his revolver, he picked up a rifle and bayonet and accounted personally for at least twelve 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 was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Pozières. Many present at the time, as well as many historians since, have voiced the opinion that Jacka deserved a second Victoria Cross for the Pozières action. One of only two bars (second award) to the Victoria Cross won during the Great War was awarded the following day to Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The other was won by Arthur Martin-Leake during the period 29 October to 8 November 1914 near Zonnebeke, Belgium, when, the award citation says, Martin-Leake showed most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in rescuing, while exposed to constant fire, a large number of the wounded who were lying close to the enemy's trenches. Martin-Leake was the first of only three man to be awarded a bar to his VC.

After four months of recovering from his wounds he was reassigned to the 14th Battalion on 9 December 1916. Jacka was also promoted to the rank of captain.

In April 1917 Jacka’s brigade was ordered to attack Bullecourt in support of the British 5th Army attack on Arras. Jacka was the battalion intelligence officer and would perform solo missions into no-man’s-land to reconnoiter enemy trenches. At Bullecourt 2,339 men were lost and another nearly 2,000 were taken prisoner.

Jacka was awarded his second Military Cross for his one-man patrols at Bullecourt and for personally guiding the British tanks into position.

Jacka was given command of D Company, 14th Battalion and survived deadly conflict in France and Belgium. In July 1917 Albert Jacka was wounded by a sniper with a leg wound and evacuated to England. After healing he was returned to the front lines.

Jacka was finally removed from the conflict by a mustard gas attack on 15 May 1918 outside the village of Villers Bretonneux. He was evacuated to England for a third time and underwent surgery twice to save his life. Jacka was still recovering from his wounds when the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 that ended the war.

Jacka’s wounds kept him in Europe and he did not return to Australia until mid-October 1919 where he was formally discharged from the Australian Imperial Force during January 1920.

After the war Jacka initially worked in a private business importing and selling electrical goods set up in partnership with John Wren. His business collapsed with the Depression of 1929. He was elected to the St. Kilda council in 1929 and then became mayor of the town.

On 14 December 1931 Jacka collapsed after a council meeting and was admitted to Caulfield Military Hospital. At age 39 one week after his birthday he died on 17 January 1932 due to his First World War wounds.

Albert Jacka was buried at St. Kilda Cemetery with eight other Victoria Cross recipients acting as pallbearers with an estimated 50,000 witnesses to the burial as Jacka’s body passed en route to the cemetery. There is a commemorative service held every 17 January in St. Kilda to honour Albert Jacka as Australia’s greatest warrior.