The citation accompanying the first Victoria Cross awarded to an Australian in World War I records how “graciously pleased” was H M The King to confer the Empire’s greatest gallantry award on one the “undermentioned soldier”.
With regal impersonality, it goes on to explain how Private Albert Jacka of D Company, 14th Battalion, AIF, displayed “most conspicuous bravery” in single-handedly killing seven enemy soldiers who had dared to capture an Australian trench at Gallipoli.
In his official history of the First World War, Charles Bean went a bit further, decreeing Private Jacka’s effort “the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the AIF”.
A third version of the events of May 19, 1915 is contained in 15 cramped lines in Jacka’s diary.
“Great battle on at 3am. Turks captured a large portion of our trenches. D Coy (Company) called into trench. Lieut Hamilton shot dead. I led a section of men and we took the lost trenches. I killed seven Turks and also held a trench against the enemy for 15 minutes. Lieut Crabb informed me that I would be recommended either a VC or DS (Distinguished Service) medal.”
The son of a farm labourer from Wedderburn in Victoria, Jacka rose from the rank of private to captain, earning along the way a reputation as Australia’s finest front-line soldier.
He later became mayor of the Melbourne municipality of St Kilda, had one of the town’s finest boulevards named after him, went broke and was reduced to selling soap on the city streets.
But in the trenches of Gallipoli, and later on the Western Front, Jacka was revered.
Along with the VC he won at Gallipoli, Jacka was twice awarded the next highest decoration for gallantry, the Military Cross.
Bean had no doubt, it should have been three Victoria Crosses.
“Everyone who knows the facts, knows that Jacka earned the Victoria Cross three times,” Bean wrote.
Jacka earned his first Military Cross at Pozieres, France, on August 7, 1916, when his position was overrun by Germans. Jacka charged a large number of enemy who were rounding up prisoners and was wounded three times, once through the neck.
Inspired by Jacka, his men turned on their German captors, taking many of them prisoner.
The second Military Cross in April, 1917, when Jacka, then an intelligence officer, was spotted alone and unarmed behind enemy lines by two German soldiers. He returned to his own lines with the Germans as his prisoner.
Jacka chronicled almost every day of his war, his Gallipoli diary reflecting the changes of mood and temperament wrought by eight months of atrocity.
On the first Anzac Day, April 25, 1915, as Jacka, then 22, waited for his turn to be put ashore at Gallipoli, he wrote with optimism and admiration of the sort of courage he would soon display.
“4pm. … Troops can be seen landing on the beach. Our boys in heavy engagement this afternoon. Eight boat loads of wounded came to our boat. They are brave men the way they are taking their wounds.”
Eight months later, in a scratchy hand on a page dated December 15, Jacka describes with dramatic simplicity his evacuation from Gallipoli: “We hope with luck to reach the beach safely.”
And three days later: “Evacuated Gallipoli at 11pm.”
The wounds he suffered at Gallipoli and in France, where he was also badly gassed, took their toll on Jacka.
He died in 1932, aged 39, carried to his rest by eight other Victoria Cross winners.