Fac­tional cru­sade of a frus­trated en­thu­si­ast

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Christo­pher Bantick

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.


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