Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

Australia's First V.C.

Every one is familiar with the little bronze Maltese cross, to gain which the brave soldiers and sailors of the British Empire will readily risk life or limb.

The famous Victoria Cross was instituted by Queen Victoria on January 29, 1856, after the termination of the Crimean War. The medal is of little intrinsic value, but it stands for so much. In the centre is the Royal crown, surmounted by the figure of a lion, and below, on a scroll, are inscribed the simple words, "For Valour." For the Navy the ribbon is blue, for the Army red. On the clasp are two branches of laurel, and from the clasp the cross depends, supported by the initial 'V.'

It would be an interesting task to describe the wonderful deeds that have been done in bygone years by the brave men who have been awarded this cross, but the object of the author is to tell the fascinating stories of heroes who have won the V.C. in the greatest conflict of the nations in all history. Concerning each of the many brave soldiers and sailors whose deeds in the Great War have won them the coveted distinction a thrilling story might be told, but to do this would be to fill a volume larger than is desirable for popular reading. The author has therefore confined his attention to outstanding typical instances of valour, and from his narrative it will be seen that men of all ranks, of every service, and from all parts of our great dominions have won the right to be included in such a list.

When the Kaiser launched his legions against neutral Belgium, with the object of overwhelming France ere turning to smash Russia, he little expected that his act of infamy would bring him so little gain. The British people, always peace-loving, always ready to cultivate friendly relationships with all men and all races, could not remain pacific when they saw treaties torn up as mere "scraps of paper," and small nations trampled under foot. Britain reluctantly but unflinchingly drew the sword to uphold the right, and in so doing stood as a lion in the Kaiser's path. Not only did the people of Great Britain and Ireland spring to arms to uphold the nation's honour, but immediately war was declared our Colonies loyally and generously came to our aid. It was the War Lord's foolish dream that the scattered British Empire, of which he was so jealous, would never stand together in a great world-crisis. He imagined that the ties that bound the Colonies to the Motherland were frail and would be sundered by the blast of such a storm as was now to test them. Herein he was mistaken, as we all know. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and our Indian Empire rose, one and all, to the occasion.

Nowhere was patriotism more intense than in Australia. This Colony raised thousands upon thousands of soldiers, paid for them, and sent them to fight the Empire's battles wherever they were needed. Early in the war an Australian contingent captured German New Guinea, and the Australian Navy destroyed the Emden. Meantime a great host sailed in many transports to help to guard Egypt against an expected attack of the Turks. Among them was Lance-Corporal Jacka, whose great deed in winning the V.C.—the first ever awarded to an Australian—is now to be described.

Whole chapters could be written about the exploits in general of these famous Colonial troops. They are splendid fighters. They are men who have been used to a hard life. Many of these 'six-footers' come from the back-blocks, and you can see from their contempt of danger, their swinging walk, their healthy appearance, that they have been accustomed to an outdoor life, where dangers and hardships have been ever present. Lance-Corporal Jacka is of this type, of whom it has been said: "They are not the sort to stick at anything, and have not been accustomed to red-tape and orders. If an officer is not handy, they will act without one. And with all their strength and daring and dash, they are tender and gentle to women and children."

After a spell of useful work and training in Egypt the Australian and New Zealand contingents were shipped to the Dardanelles. The history of this campaign cannot be attempted here, but a few particulars may help readers to understand the thrilling story we are to relate.

When war broke out between the Allies and Turkey the passage of the Dardanelles became closed to our ships. Constantinople and the Black Sea can only be reached by sea through this narrow waterway, and Turkey found it an easy task to close this, for the straits are narrow and the land forts on both shores very powerfully armed. To have an open line of communication with our brave Ally Russia became of paramount importance. Accordingly an expedition was undertaken by sea, in which some of our best and most powerful warships were dispatched to batter the land forts. It did not prove possible for the war-ships to force the Dardanelles, and it became obvious that, in support of the naval operations, there would have to be a landing of troops. If we could land on Gallipoli, the peninsula on the European side of the Dardanelles, and attack the forts from the land, then our ships might be enabled to penetrate the narrow waterway and reach Constantinople. Unfortunately some time elapsed before the troops were landed, and in the interval the Turks, aided by their German masters, made the narrow Gallipoli peninsula well-nigh impregnable. Nature has been kind to the Turks, for the whole peninsula bristles with hills which make defence easy and attack difficult. It will therefore easily be seen that the Gallipoli campaign was an arduous and dangerous undertaking.

But nothing daunts the British. When once we have made up our minds to do a thing we push through with it. The greater the difficulties the greater our determination. And it was a very determined army that attempted the landing on the shores of the Gallipoli peninsula in the April of 1915. We have not attempted to tell the full story of this historic event—one of the most glorious in our military history. What we are concerned with here is the work of the Australians, and Lance-Corporal Jacka in particular.

It was arranged that the Australians should land at a point between Gaba Tepe and a place known as the Fisherman's Hut. While the Turks had made serious preparations to resist at the former place, they were not so prepared at the latter. But when they became aware of the landing—they were desperately engaged elsewhere in trying to repulse the magnificent British troops at Sedd ul Bahr—they dispatched a force to meet the dashing Australians at the Fisherman's Hut. It was all in vain: the hardy, determined men of the Southern Cross were not to be baulked. With a heroism and dare-devilry that has made them for ever famous, they scaled rocks almost perpendicular, clinging with might and main to what supports they could, which were very few. Foot by foot they gained a firm hold, reached the more level ground, and rushed the trenches of the Turks. Many heroic deeds were done on that day, and all ranks fought with superb courage. Fighting continued for days, as the Australians strove to consolidate the positions they had wrested from the Turks with such magnificent bravery.

Then the fighting settled down in places to trench warfare, such as our troops in Flanders had already experienced for so long. Each side dug itself in, and bombs were used as well as rifles and machine-guns, for in some places the trenches were very near. Sometimes we rushed the enemy's positions, at others the Turks attacked ours, only to be driven off with terrible slaughter.

Lance-Corporal Jacka's life-story is not much different from that of thousands of his brave comrades from Australia. He is a townsman of Wedderburn, in the county of Bendigo, and previous to the outbreak of war was employed in fencing work for the Victorian Forestry Department. He is the second son of Mr. and Mrs. Jacka of Wedderburn, and celebrated his twenty-second birthday a few days before reaching Egypt. He comes of a patriotic family, for both his brothers are with the Colours.

Lance-Corporal Jacka belongs to the 14th Battalion Australian Imperial Forces, and his V.C. was won during the night between may 19 and 20, 1915, by a deed which has been described as "the most valorous in the whole Gallipoli campaign," and which has resounded not only throughout Australia, but the entire Empire. He was stationed at this time with the Australian troops at a place known as Courtenay's Post, some distance inland from where the landing near Gaba Tepe took place. The spot was a strategic one; it had the advantage of commanding a good stretch of the enemy's positions. The brave Colonials fought hard to retain it, as the Turks came again and again in superior numbers to wrest it from our men. Then the enemy attempted to do with bombs what they were unable to effect with the bayonet, and in this partially succeeded. The men of the 14th Battalion were in the thick of the struggle, and were compelled to retire, all but a few, who continued nobly to hold a short section of a trench. Even these were soon afterward driven out by the bombs, and only a wounded officer remained; he was in sore straits and called for help.

"They have got me!" he cried above the noise and fumes of the bombs. "The Turks are in the trench!"

Leading into the fire trenches are what are known as communication trenches. Lance-Corporal Jacka happened to be in one of these, and, hearing the officer's cry, instead of rushing immediately to his help, he decided to render aid in a more daring and thorough fashion, which is just what all who know him would have expected. Long days of solitary toil in the Victorian forests, where everything has to be improvised and a man develops qualities of resource and courage, had made Jacka ready in brain and hand. He argued that if he could get behind the Turks, who had gained an entrance into the trench, he might not only save the officer, but achieve a little victory all by himself. The plan was as daring as it was full of risks. But the hardy Australians are made for 'forlorn adventures, and that he was doing anything out of the ordinary never occurred to Jacka, as with swift feet he rushed from the communication trench into a part of the fire trench as yet unreached by the Turks. Even this was a dare-devil exploit, for the gallant fellow was in great peril for a few minutes from the Turks' rifle fire at close range. He was not out of danger until he had landed safe behind the traverse which provided the necessary shelter. Here he was safe, provided the Turks remained where they were. Had they swarmed at that moment over the top of the parapet, as they would have done had they known that the trench was almost empty, it would have gone badly with the intrepid lance-corporal. The truth was, the Turks were afraid to come round the traverse, not knowing exactly how many of their foes might be waiting to give them a warm reception. They knew Jacka was there, but did not believe he was alone. One can picture the scene—the tall young Colonial, his face bronzed with the suns of three continents, his eye flashing, his strong arm ready with rifle either to shoot or to thrust, and the enemy waiting round the corner, as it were. For quite a time the situation underwent no change, and the young soldier held up the Turks.

It is now necessary to note what had happened to the rest of the men while all this was taking place. The word had gone back: "Officer wanted."

A gallant officer, Lieutenant Hamilton, started to run up the communication trench through which Jacka had also passed. He could see the Turks jumping into the main trench, and whipping out his revolver he fired rapidly at them, until, seeing the flash of his revolver from the parapet, they shot him in the head.

Another officer was sent from the rear to take charge. He too bravely advanced up the communication trench, and was about to enter the fire trench when Jacka shouted:

"Look out, sir, the Turks are in here!"

The officer looked, but could see none, although he knew it was one of his gallant men who had hailed him.

Something must be done if the trench was to be saved, so he called out to Jacka:

"Will you charge them if I get some men to back you up?"

Back came the ready and ringing reply: "Yes, sir."

Meanwhile the officer's platoon had been quickly following him up the communication trench, and almost as soon as Jacka's "Yes" was heard they were at the officer's heels. Turning to his men the officer called for volunteers, adding: "It's a tough job. Will you back Jacka up?

The men would all have volunteered, but the three leading Australians immediately signified their willingness, one of them answering the officer: "It's sink or swim: we will come, sir," and they at once went forward. It is interesting to note that these three and Jacka were all Bendigo men, and it must have been very gratifying to the hero that in the supreme moment of his life he was backed up by comrades from his native county.

The soldier who was leading had no sooner put his head round the corner of the trench than he was hit in three places, and fell back, blocking the trench.

Jacka, as we have seen, had aimed at high prey. He wanted nothing less than the capture of the unwelcome Turks. When he saw that his comrade had fallen, and his body filled up the exit to the narrow trench, he knew that if he could get round to the other side of the main trench opposite the spot where his comrade lay he would have the Turks caught in a trap.

This plan he put into instant operation. He leaped out of the fire trench into the communication trench, swiftly made his way round, and reached a portion of the trench just behind the Turks a moment after some bombs had been thrown. Jacka's plan had worked well. Caught like rats in a trap, the Turks were speedily placed out of harm's way by the stalwart hero, who was as ready with his rifle as with his brain. They put up a sort of half-hearted fight, but were no match for the man in front of them. It was one against seven, but in rapid succession Jacka shot five, and bayoneted two.

When his comrades found him Jacka was sitting in the trench surveying his handiwork, a cigarette in his mouth, his face flushed with the exertions he had just put forth. To the officer who was with the men he laughingly said: "Well, I managed to get the beggars, sir."

He was cordially greeted and congratulated by his comrades, who had no words sufficient to express their wonder at his deed. It is a big thing to take one Turk prisoner, or kill one at close quarters. But Jacka had accounted for seven stalwart foes, although one of the bayoneted Turks was only wounded, and was taken prisoner. This amazing feat showed as cool daring, as ready resource, and as skilful handling as any individual feat in the war. If one looks for a parallel case it would be the amazing deed of the famous Sergeant O'Leary, V.C., at Cuinchy, in France.

Lance-Corporal Jacka's single-handed deed in Gallipoli made him the hero of the day when it became known, and it is not too much to say that in winning the V.C. he has done more than anything to bring home to the Empire the solidarity of our cause. The granting of the coveted reward to a member of one of our Colonial contingents is another link in the already strong chain which binds the Colonies to the Motherland.

In Australia Lance-Corporal Jacka's deed was hailed with unbounded delight, and every one was proud of the Commonwealth's gallant son. In addition to the good wishes and well-deserved praise showered upon him, Jacka has received the 500 and a gold medal promised by Mr. John Wren to the first Australian to win the Victoria Cross. These gifts will naturally be welcome to the hero, but they will not mean so much to him as the little bronze cross inscribed with the magic words, "For Valour."