State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 63 Autumn 1999


Albert Jacka VC and the 1916
Conscription Debate

I, Nathaniel Jacka of Wedderburn in the State of Victoria labourer, solemnly and sincerely declare as follows:
That I am the father of Lieutenant Albert Jacka V.C. of Lieutenant William Jacka and Private Sidney Jacka.
That I have received several letters from my sons Lieutenant Albert Jacka V.C. and Lieutenant William Jacka who are in France. They have never complained of the want of reinforcements. On the other hand they have stated that the conditions in France are much better than in Gallipoli as they are more frequently relieved. Lieutenant Albert Jacka V.C. in one letter said that while out of the trenches they almost forget the rattle of the guns and ‘we have plenty of fun’. Never in any letter have any of my sons supported conscription and in my belief they are all still opposed to it. My wife and daughter are working against conscription believing as I do that we should keep free the land for which our sons went out freely to fight.
That I have read what appears to be a letter to the ‘Argus’ of today from Reg. W. Turnbull of Linda Cottage Wedderburn. I have lived in Wedderburn for about thirty years and know all the people in and around the town. There is no such person as Reg. W. Turnbull living in Wedderburn. I know each and every Turnbull in the whole district. The only Turnbull in Wedderburn is Walter Turnbull, a butcher who is childless. I believe the letter said to have been received by Reg. W. Turnbull to be a fabrication made for the purpose of improperly influencing votes in favour of Conscription.
And I make this solemn declaration conscientiously believing the same to be true and by virtue of the provisions of an Act of the Parliament of Victoria rendering persons making a false declaration punishable for wilful and corrupt perjury
Declared at Melbourne in the
State of Victoria this twenty seventh
day of October 1916
N Jacka
Before me
Chas Grey J.P.
Annotation: This document (MS 10389, Box C/4/6), hidden among the records of the Democratic Labor Party in the State Library of Victoria, throws light upon the battle for public opinion during Australia's first conscription referendum of the Great War. The

Troedel & Cooper Pty Ltd. Enlist in the Sportsmen's Thousand: Show the enemy what Australian sporting men can do. Lieut. Jacka V.C. 1915. Colour lithograph on white paper laid down on linen. Map Case 12/13. La Trobe Picture Collectionn.

popularity of Jacka — a man who had an impact upon the national consciousness that few Australians have achieved before or since — was manipulated in the propaganda campaigns waged by both pro- and anticonscription movements during the early stages of the war. From this document one gets some insight into the ways in which Australians perceived and debated the impact of the war from within the local communities that made up the home front.
As the first of nine Australian soldiers to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Gallipoli campaign, Albert Jacka (1893–1932) obtained a particular hold on the public imagination of Australians, both in the trenches and at home.1 A private in the 14th batallion Australian Imperial Forces (subsequently nicknamed ‘Jacka's mob’ by Australian servicemen), he displayed a cool resourcefulness and bravery at Courtney's Post during the Turkish attack of 19/20 May 1915. His subsequent actions at Pozieres, for which he received the Military Cross, were described by the official war historian C. E. W. Bean as ‘the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the A.I.F’.2 In his Heroes of the War (1916) G. A. Leash recounted that Jacka stood among other ‘six-footers … from the backblocks’ who showed a ‘contempt of danger’ customary to those familiar with the ‘dangers and hardships’ of outdoor life.3 With his athletic rural background Jacka seemed to many to embody the best qualities of the Australian citizen soldier, and as the drive to increase the numbers of Australian servicemen on the front lines gathered momentum, Jacka's value as a propagandistic tool was seized upon in local and national politics.
Following Jacka's decoration with the Victoria Cross, the Hughes Government sought to exploit his reputation for its recruitment drive, using his name and his image on posters for recruiting — volunteers were implored to join the ‘sportsmen's thousand’ —

‘Lieut. Jacka V.C. on Conscription’. The fictitious letter from ‘Reg. W. Turnball.’ Argus, 27 October 1916, p. 6.

and for Australian Peace Loans. From July 1916, as the government moved to raise replacements for the massive Australian casualties suffered on the Somme battlefields, supporters of Hughes within the Australian press took full liberty in using Jacka's name to support a pro-conscription campaign.4 According to E. J. Rule (Jacka's Mob), a line officer in Jacka's batallion during the war, ‘there was some idea of his being sent to Australia to assist in recruiting’, some time after Jacka was wounded at Bologne in August 1916, but government officials were unable to persuade him to leave his troops.5 Remaining in the trenches rather than returning to Australia, Jacka had no say about the uses to which his reputation might be put by pro-conscription journalists such as Keith Murdoch.6 It was the willingness of pro-conscription campaigners to fabricate Albert Jacka's unsolicited opinion on conscription — as in the subterfuge attempted in the Argus on 27 October 1916 — that led Nathaniel Jacka to make a legal declaration on his son's behalf.
Before the outbreak of the war Jacka had worked with his father as a farmer, road contractor and carter.7 As his biographer Ian Grant (Jacka VC) has noted, knowledge that he had a working-class background, and thus would appeal to traditional Labor Party voters who might be expected to oppose conscription, undoubtedly made him a prime target for the pro-conscription campaign. Nathaniel Jacka, an early member of the Australian Workers’ Union, had life-long affiliations with the Australian labour movement. Never deviating from the principle of voluntary military service, he became a natural spokesman for the anti-conscriptionists. The Argus on 27 October 1916 commented that he had been ‘taken from meeting to meeting’, and ‘his opposition to the Government scheme was quoted at a hundred meetings which he himself could not attend’.
Nathaniel Jacka's written declaration against conscription was prompted by the appearance in the Argus of the letter supposedly written by ‘Reg. W. Turnbull’ of Linda Cottage, Wedderburn, who claimed that his ‘old pal’ Lieutenant Jacka had written to him, saying:
By the time you get this letter Australia will be on trial. Do whatever you can, Reg., to urge all your friends to vote ‘Yes’. All the boys over here will send their ‘Yes’ votes. I don't think any decent man will vote ‘No’.
In support of his own letter, ‘Reg. Turnbull’ mentions a cabled message from Jacka to the Prime Minister, W. M. Hughes, which ‘confirms what I say in my letter’. The cable (almost certainly fictitious), stating that ‘Anzacs demand to be reinforced. Trust Australia will not leave us in the lurch’, was quoted immediately below the Turnbull letter. This absurdly obvious reference to Jacka underlines the editorial intention to promote the pro-conscription cause. The 1916 Wedderburn directory confirms Nathaniel Jacka's claim that the only Turnbull living in the town was the local butcher, Walter Turnbull, and his conclusion that the letter was a fabrication seems justified.
While making the honest point that Australian soldiers found service in France less stressful than during Gallipoli, Nathaniel Jacka's account of his sons’ opinions on the
Western Front testifies to the naiveté of most Australians towards the realities of life in the trenches — and the reluctance of Australian soldiers to tell of the horrors of the frontline. Jacka's biographer makes the point that he was always reticent in writing and talking about his wartime experience; this silence may have played a part, as for many soldiers, in his own method of coping with the horrific conditions of modern warfare. Nathaniel Jacka's declaration suggests that both his sons, Albert and William, had expressed concern about conscription, but it also shows an awareness that soldiers were open to change their minds as the pressure upon front line troops increased for want of reinforcement.
The little other evidence that testifies to Albert Jacka's opinions on conscription is opaque. His descendants have related that Jacka telegraphed his parents in 1916 to tell them that he was not in favour of conscription. Given the duplicity of the Argus, Nathaniel Jacka's estimation would seem, at first glance, conclusive — yet in 1919 the Melbourne Herald quoted Jacka in favour of the ‘yes’ vote. According to the Herald:
There was only one question which touched a responsive chord [in Jacka], and that related to conscription. During the second conscription campaign in Australia it was alleged that Jacka was opposed to conscription. Captain Jacka was this morning asked what his views really were, and he replied warmly, ‘I was in favour of conscription’.8
As Jacka was back in Australia, it is unlikely that the press was guilty of any misrepresentation in this instance. This seeming change of heart may have resulted from a reluctance to be drawn into controversy on the matter (as Jacka's biographer suggests), but there is the possibility that he changed his mind some time after the first conscription referendum, a possibility raised by Nathaniel Jacka in his own declaration.
It is also possible that Jacka, who had a strong concern for individual judgment in the ranks, supported conscription but felt no desire to impose his opinion upon others in the public debate of 1916. There is an enigmatic quality about Jacka's attitude towards the war; he was reluctant to leave his troops and become involved in the national political process in 1916, and after his triumphant return to Australia in 1919 he remained a ‘modest hero’, reticent about his war experience.
While the provenance of Nathaniel Jacka's declaration is certain, its subsequent life and impact is less clear. It seems likely that his signed declaration was held by anti-conscription campaigners in the Victorian ALP not only for its propagandists value but in the event of future litigation with pro-conscription activists. Following the split in the ALP in 1955 it was retained in the records of the Victorian branch of the Democratic Labor Party. It reminds us, in miniature, of the personal passions and political tactics that were employed during the most divisive public debate in Australian history.
Damian Powell


Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne, 1983, pp. 452–53. For Jacka's importance cf. Duckboard, editorial, February 1932; E. J. Rule, Jacka's Mob, Sydney, 1933, p. 278; Kit Denton, Gallipoli: One Long Grave, London, 1986, p. 160; John Robertson, ANZAC and Empire: The Tragedy & Glory of Gallipoli, Melbourne, 1990, p. 94; Ian Grant, Jacka, VC: Australia's Finest Fighting Soldier, Canberra, 1989, passim. Unless otherwise indicated, biographical details are from Grant.


C. E. W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War 1914–1918, 12 vols, vol. 3, p. 720. Bean's account of Jacka's actions at Courtney's Post are in vol. 2, pp.148–50.


G. A. Leash, Heroes of the War, London, 1916, p. 4.


Glenn Withers, Conscription: Necessity and Justice, Sydney, 1972, p. 5.


E. J. Rule, Jacka's Mob, p. 113


There is no adequate study of the Argus during the conscription referendums, but see Desmond Ziwan, In Search of Keith Murdoch, South Melbourne, 1980, pp. 50, 68; Henry Mayer, The Press in Australia, Melbourne, 1964, pp. 121,129; and the Australian Dictionary of Biography entries for Edward Wilson and Lachlan McKinnon.


Albert Jacka to C. E. W. Bean, 17 November 1923, Biographical Index of Bean for War 1914–1918, Australian War Memorial 43.


Herald (Melbourne evening edition), 20 October 1919, p.l.