Factional crusade of a frustrated enthusiast
WORLD War I hero Albert Jacka is in some ways the archetypal Digger: strong, fearless, insubordinate to those above him and fiercely loyal to his mates. But Jacka has been displaced as the embodiment of Australian mateship by the sentimentalised representation of John Simpson and his donkey.
Jacka, the bush boy from Wedderburn near Bendigo in Victoria, won Australia’s first Victoria Cross at Gallipoli. According to Australia’s official war historian, C. E . W. Bean, Jacka should have won not one VC but three through the course of the war. Jacka, however, crossed his superiors — chiefly brigadier general Charles Brand — and finished the war with a Victoria Cross, Military Cross and Bar.
The problem with historical accounts of Jacka is that what appears a denial of his bravery by officialdom may have influenced how he is represented historically. However, there is danger in a putting the record to rights’’ history. Authors may run the risk of eulogising their subject and losing perspective. Hagiography, the lesser expression of historical analysis, is the risk.
Even so, Jacka, like Simpson, lends himself to evocative writing. Les Carlyon, in his study of the Anzac legend in his book Gallipoli , referred to Jacka as cocky. A new book, Hard Jacka: The Story of a Gallipoli Legend by Michael Lawriwsky, goes further. Where Carlyon was restrained and circumspect even as he acknowledged Jacka’s courage, Lawriwsky has on occasion an almost evangelical tone in the restoration of Jacka’s reputation. He has solicited the big guns as well in his campaign, with the foreword being written by general Peter Cosgrove.
This is not to say that Lawriwsky’s book is not a useful contribution to the growing corpus of literature on Jacka. Just last year, Robert Macklin’s Jacka VC: Australian Hero provided a well- researched narrative account of Jacka’s life. Lawriwsky has chosen another tack, faction. His use of invented dialogue where there is no way of knowing if this is what was said, is at times a distraction. We are not getting By Michael Lawriwsky Mira, 412pp, $ 29.95 Jacka so much as a fictionalised impression. Lawriwsky’s take on Jacka is not that of a historian but of an enthusiast frustrated that the Digger has been allowed to disappear into the recesses of historical sources. This is not to deny the significant background and historical ballast that Lawriwsky has incorporated. But do we get to know Jacka any better? Not really.
Jacka emerges from the official sources and his diaries as an efficient, ruthless killer. Against the life- saving Simpson and his doleful donkey, he hasn’t a hope in the popular imagination. At Gallipoli he shot five Turks and bayoneted two others in one action at Courtney’s Post.
Later, at Pozieres on the Western Front in France, an outnumbered Jacka attacked a body of German troops, killed a number — conservatively 20 — and was wounded.
Ninety years ago this year, Jacka took command of the 4th Division’s 14 Battalion. He was adored by Jacka’s mob’’, the men who served with him in the trenches, and it is arguable that in the actions at Pozieres and Polygon Wood he could have been awarded further VCs.
Australia’s failure to celebrate the 22- yearold former forester as a hero of World War I is not just the province of officialdom exercising power, as Lawriwsky ( in his acknowledgments) and others have argued.
The fact that Jacka was overlooked as a symbolic soldier tells us more about how Australia selects its heroes and promotes them.
Ideally, a book such as Lawriwsky’s would bring Jacka to a new generation. What the Jacka story says about Australia’s attitude to war heroes who don’t fit officialdom’s template requires further exploration. But it does not need fiction.