Feature Articles - Private John William Alexander Jackson - Australia's Youngest V.C.
"You never know what virtues may come out of the most unsuspected places, nor what heroes may spring up out of the smallest village, Gunbar, a little place of about four houses.
Not even a blacksmith's shop or a pub. My nephew had never even seen a train until he enlisted."
George Gale, "Ealing", Kemiss Street, Randwick. at the Anzac Buffet, Sydney.
Ever since Dr Charles E W Bean, in volume III of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, The AIF in France referred to William Jackson VC as being a farmer from Merriwa, N.S.W., other historians including Lionel Wigmore in They Dared Mightily (1963) included this and other misleading information. One recently claimed Jackson had attended school at Merriwa and lived and worked with his parents on their Merriwa property.
These inaccuracies along with others regarding Jackson's service during both the First and Second World War continue to be perpetuated in various print media. Research has revealed that while Jackson did live in the town of Merriwa for seven years it was not until after his return from the First World War.
Controversy regarding the medals Jackson was entitled to wear and those he wore raged from almost fifty years. In January 1942 Jackson, when writing to the Officer in Charge of the Base Records, wrote that "if he was not entitled to the medals he wore somebody had slipped and slipped badly in issuing them to him".
Even five years after his death the Director of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra was still unsure of Jackson's entitlement to wear medals that various sources claimed he had been awarded. The 1981 Register of the Victoria Cross shows Jackson as holding the VC and DCM.
Despite claims by some Historians that Jackson was awarded the Military Medal, Jackson was never recommended for, awarded, or wore the Military Medal.
The story of the Seventeenth Battalion AIF by Lieutenant-Colonel K. W. Mackenzie MC records Jackson's one and only official award as the Victoria Cross.
Despite this on 11 November 2001 a plaque in honour of Jackson was unveiled on the Balmain War Memorial Sydney, reading L/Cpl John William Alexander Jackson VC., DMC., MM.
For most conspicuous bravery. On the return from a successful raid, several members of the raiding party were seriously wounded in No Man's Land by shell fire.
Private Jackson got back safely and, after handing over a prisoner whom he had brought in, immediately went out again under a very heavy shell fire and assisted in bringing in a wounded man. He then went out again, and with a sergeant was bringing in another wounded man, when his arm was blown off by a shell and the sergeant was rendered unconscious.
He then returned to our trenches, obtained assistance, and went out again to look for his two wounded comrades. He set a splendid example of pluck and determination. His work has always been marked by the greatest coolness and bravery.
(London Gazette: 9th September 1916.)
His Early Life
William 'Billy' Jackson VC, was born John William Alexander Jackson on 13 September 1897 at "Glengower" station at Gunbar, a small settlement 80km (50m) north of Hay, New South Wales. He was the fourth child and eldest son of a twenty nine year old Paddington (Sydney) born farm labourer John Gale Jackson and his wife Adelaide Ann (McFarlane).
Adelaide, the eldest daughter of John and Elizabeth McFarlane (Marks), married John Jackson the son of William and Mary Jackson (Gale) in 1890 at the home of her parents, "Seaton Farm" at Gunbar.
Billy Jackson was only eight years of age when his mother died on 15 November 1905. Two of his elder sisters predeceased their mother, Eliza born 1891, died on 20 January, 1894 and Alice born 1893 died on 29 June 1903, the result of an accidental shooting.
Billy and his three sisters Elizabeth, Catherine and May and two brothers Albert and Leslie were then cared for by their grand-parents the McFarlane's, while their father John continued to work on Gunbar Station.
John and Elizabeth McFarlane already had fourteen children of their own plus four children from John's first marriage and now following Adelaide's death took six more children into their home.
John McFarlane, who was born in 1836 in Aberdeen, Scotland had established a carrying business in the Yass area before moving to Gunbar where he carted wool to Sydney with a team of up to eighteen Clydesdale's. sometimes as many as eighteen. Following the death of his first wife he married Elizabeth who was the midwife for the women in the small settlement in 1872.
Billy Jackson, "Jacko" to his mates, who was well known for his strength and reckless daring during his teenage years. He surprised nobody when he left his employer, Mr William Gibson, of "Carlowrie" on 15 February 1915 aged just 17 years and five months to be amongst the first volunteers from Gunbar to enlist in the AIF.
The First World War
At Liverpool on 20 February 1915 Jackson swore his allegiance to the King and agreed to serve in the AIF for the duration plus four months. Records show he was 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed 12 stone, had fair hair and complexion, grey eyes, and was of the Presbyterian religion.
Appointed to B Company of the 17th Battalion, 5th Infantry Brigade, AIF, his regimental number was 588. He embarked for training at Heliopolis, Egypt in May 1915. On 12 August 1915 he was detailed for special duty in Alexandria and landed on Gallipoli on 20 August where he took part in the attack on Kaiajik Aghyl (Hill 60) the following day.
At Gallipoli on 3 October 1915 he was admitted to a casualty clearing station suffering from diarrhoea and a problem with his teeth which prevented him from eating the hard rations that were being provided at that time on Gallipoli.
He was placed onboard the Hospital Ship 'Assaye' for the 850 mile voyage to Malta and admitted to the St Elmo Hospital at Valetta. His campaign almost came to an end on the 7 January 1916 when he was put on board the 'Esquibo' to be returned to Australia. Three days out he was off-loaded and admitted to the 1st Auxiliary Hospital Cairo suffering from dysentery.
Declaring himself fit, he returned to duty on 15 February 1916 rejoining his battalion on 8 March nine days before they embarked from Alexandria for the six day voyage to Marselles, France as part of the 2nd Division. There they relieved the Northumberland Fusiliers.
On 10 April his division took over a forward position in the eastern Armentieres sector. Relieving the 3rd Brigade here as a prelude to the Battle of the Somme, orders were issued that as many raids as possible were to be carried out on the enemy positions between 20/30 June 1916.
Jackson volunteered for these operations and at midnight on the night of 25/26 of June he acted as a scout for a party that consisted of 40 Officers and men. This party was led by Captain Keith Heritage and they carried out a raid that had been planned by General W. Holmes on the forward trenches of the 231st Prussian reserve infantry regiment.
(Capt Heritage of the 19th Battalion was killed in action one month later, Major General Holmes C.M.G., D.S.O., the 5th brigade commander was killed by shellfire on 2 July 1917 in France.)
The preceding artillery barrage had forced many of the Germans to abandon their positions; however despite this, the Australians still encountered heavy machine-gun fire as they approached their objective.
The Engineers with the party were quick to blow up two bomb stores, while the remainder of the party attacked the enemy trenches and as ordered captured four prisoners for interrogation.
Jackson revealed the coolness and bravery, later mentioned in his citation, both during and after the raid. He captured one of the enemy and returned safely with him through the 400 yard No-Man's land to his own lines despite the intense barrage of enemy shell and machine gun fire.
On learning that some of the party had been hit, Jackson said "He didn't like the idea of leaving any wounded men out in No-Man's land", and immediately returned into the enemy barrage and rescued one of his wounded comrades.
On his second rescue mission, while still ignoring the intensifying bombardment he was assisting Sergeant Hugh Alison Camden of the 19th Battalion to bring in seriously wounded Private Alfred Edward Robinson. When the blast from a exploding shell rendered Camden unconscious, it also blew off Jackson's right arm above the elbow, and inflicted further wounds to Robinson.
Jackson, who said he "didn't feel much just a numbing sensation", returned to his lines where an officer applied a tourniquet to his arm using a piece of string and a stick. Then, believing that Camden and others were still out in No-Man's land, Jackson continued to search for another half an hour until he satisfied himself that all the wounded had been brought in he was sent to hospital.
Casualties sustained by the Germans during the raid were thirty killed and four captured, while the Australian casualties were fourteen wounded. (Pte. Robinson died of his wounds on 3 July 1916.)
The Hospital Ship 'St Patrick' took Jackson from Boulogne to England and on 30 June at the 3rd London General Hospital the remainder of his right arm was amputated.
On 20 July he was transferred to the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital, which was established in the grounds of an estate known as Harefield Park, Middlesex (now part of Greater London.) On 26 October he was transferred to the Auxiliary Hospital, Southall, before being admitted to Queen Mary's General Hospital
To date Jackson remains the youngest Australian to be awarded a Victoria Cross. His Victoria Cross was the first won by an Australian on the Western Front.
The recommendation that Jackson be awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions came from the General Officer Commanding the 5th Australian Infantry Brigade. The GOC also praised Jackson for his ability as a scout, both with the raiding party and his own battalion.
The approval of the Victoria Cross for Jackson, by King George V, was gazetted on 8 September 1916, just five days before his nineteenth birthday. The King's approval of a Distinguished Conduct Medal for Jackson was gazetted two weeks later on 22 September 1916.
Private William Jackson was invested with his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace 18 November 1916.
Both awards were promulgated in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazetter, No. 184, on 14 December 1916. The Department of Defence notified John Jackson of both of his son's decorations the VC., and the DCM., on 4 January 1917.
Sergeant Camden, who was with Jackson when he was wounded, managed to find his own way back to his lines and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the part he played in the rescue of the wounded that night.
Jackson remained in England until 4 May 1917, until he was invalided back to Australia along with 992 returning servicemen aboard A 32. H.M.A.T. "Themistocles", arriving in Sydney on 5 July 1917.
Between the Wars
Jackson, the first soldier from New South Wales to return from World War 1 with a VC, was hoisted shoulder high at the reception held at the Anzac Buffet in the Domain for the returning wounded soldiers.
On Thursday 26 July 1917 Private Jackson VC visited Hay accompanied by Sergeant Camden DCM. They were met at the railway station by a large crowd before being conveyed to the Post Office square where he was officially welcomed.
The Deputy Mayor of Hay, Mr Butterworth, said in welcoming Jackson "I have the greatest of pleasure in extending the welcome of the people of Hay…". He then added that, "…They did not want to deprive Gunbar of one iota of the glory but they were enjoying a degree of reflected glory from the fact that Jackson was always referred to as being from Gunbar near Hay".
Butterworth speaking of Jackson's deeds said "It was one of the incidents of this war, which so far as this district is concerned, will never be forgotten".
Sergeant Camden told the crowd "Bill [Jackson] had gone out looking for him without his arm. Not looking for a VC but for a cobber".
When he later visited Gunbar, the people of the district wished to show their appreciation and offered to buy Jackson a farming property. He declined their offer believing that the loss of his right arm would render him unable to work on the land.
On Tuesday 14 August 1917 a strike disrupted a railway recruiting tour of New South Wales by Private Jackson VC., Sergeant Camden D.C.M., Private George Reginald Salisbury M.M., and Private Stewart M.M. These men along with the volunteers they had recruited were brought from Quirindi to Scone by a convoy of cars to attend a Civic reception given by the Scone Mayor before they visited the local schools. A month later, 15 September, William Jackson VC was discharged from the AIF.
Although Jackson's DCM was subsequently cancelled due to the higher award of the Victoria Cross being conferred in the London Gazette on 21 October 1916, it was not until 14 April 1919 that the AIF base records office notified the pension authorities and John Jackson of the cancellation of the DCM that had been awarded to William Jackson VC.
John Jackson, still living and working on 'Gunbar Station' was then asked to return the official notification he had received concerning the awarding of the DCM to his son more than two years earlier. He replied that he had passed on the notification to Bill who was living at an address unknown to him in Sydney.
Lack of communications between sections of the Army is evident here as the Army was at that time sending William Jackson VC., his pension to "Yuletide", Duke Street, Kensington. He lived here in close proximity to members of his father's family.
It was shortly after this that Jackson VC., moved to Merriwa and in 1920 he and Leslie (later Sir Leslie) Morshead. D.S.O., became members of the newly formed Returned Servicemen's League, Sub Branch.
Living firstly in Bettington Street and later at the Fitzroy Hotel, Jackson became a dealer, buying and selling horses and skins. Despite his disability he was building himself a home in Flags Road. He left Merriwa in 1927 to become the licensee of the Figtree Hotel at Figtree, a suburb of Wollongong, where he stayed for eighteen months.
On 14 November 1930, while residing at the Peoples Palace, King Street, Melbourne, he notified the Army that his discharge certificate had been lost in a fire that destroyed his home at Merriwa in 1926. It was then that Jackson was belatedly sent his Victory Medal.
During the Depression, Bill had several jobs including managing a greengrocery business and a position as clerk with the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage & Drainage Board in Sydney. He married Ivy Muriel Alma Morris, a dressmaker, at St Paul's Anglican Church, Kogarah on 12 January 1932. Later that year their only child a daughter Dorathea was born.
In August 1935 while living at 91 St George Pde, Hurstville Bill applied as a relative for the Returned Soldiers Badges of L/Cpl. Edmund Yule, No. 567 of the 1st L.H.Regiment and Pte. Thomas Holman, No. 1710 of the 17th Battalion, AIF, as a keepsake.
The Second World War
While living at 54 Vine Street, Hurstville, Bill Jackson VC., enlisted at Paddington and served as Corporal/Acting Sergeant J.W.Jackson VC in Eastern Command Provost Company, No N107906, from 31 March 1941, till 30 March, 1942.
In December of 1941, he had been interrogated regarding his wearing of a D.C.M. ribbon. He produced the notification his father had received in January 1917 confirming his being awarded the DCM and denied any knowledge of the cancellation of this award. He further stated that as well as having in his possession the medal and the official gazette of the medal, the award had also been entered in his pay book and was on his discharge.
When it was suggested that he return his D.C.M.. Bill replied that he would continue to wear his six medals, (V.C., D.C.M., 1914/15 Star, the British War and Victory Medals and the 1937 King George VI Coronation Medal), and he would apply for a discharge and let the matter be decided in Court rather than surrender any of these.
Sergeant Jackson VC. was then discharged at his request. It would appear as if the Army relented, most likely on the advice of the War Office in London, who while agreeing that the D.C.M., had been cancelled, advised that it had no knowledge of any steps ever having been officially taken to recover the medal. It also thought it undesirable to order Jackson to return the decoration.
Less than three weeks after his discharge, Jackson again enlisted in the A.M.F. and served as Corporal J.W. Jackson VC, No. N391402 in the 2nd Australian Labour Company.
In June following the entry of four Japanese Submarine's into Sydney Harbour and the shelling of Sydney's eastern suburbs, Bill sent his wife and daughter to live in Merriwa where Dorothea attended the local school for three months before on 14 September 1942 Bill was once again discharged at his request. During this 152 day period Corporal Jackson VC., had continued to sign all correspondence W Jackson VC., DCM.
His service in World War II entitled him to wear a further two medals, the 1939/45 War Medal and the 1939/45 Australia Service Medal. In 1953 as the holder of the Victoria Cross he was a recipient of the 1953 Elizabeth II Coronation Medal.
After the War
Following his Discharge Jackson returned to working as a skin buyer. At 8.30pm on 5 October 1946 while returning from a buying trip to Woolongong, he was driving a motor lorry through fog and light rain at Waterfall, south of Sydney, when he was involved in a four vehicle accident
While Jackson himself only suffered minor injuries, two other people were killed in the accident. Jackson was charged with man-slaughter, driving in a dangerous manner and negligent driving.
He appeared before the Wollongong Court of Quarter Sessions charged with two counts of manslaughter on 13 May, 1947. Evidence was given that Jackson had been driving this truck for five months and that the truck was fitted in accordance with the restricted licence that he held.
It was revealed that this was the first accident Jackson had been involved in during the thirty years he had been driving and due to the poor weather conditions all four drivers had been driving at 25mph, (40kph).
Judge Neild, who had served in the same
battalion as Jackson during the First World War and knew him by reputation,
told the jury this had caused him some embarrassment during the trial. Judge
Neild directed the jury to return their verdict, not on anything that he had
said but on the facts of the case. The jury found Jackson not guilty.
Separated from his wife Bill moved to Melbourne in 1953 to take up a position as a Commissionaire and Inquiry attendant at the Melbourne Town Hall. In August a civic reception for the Governor-General Sir William Slim was disrupted when Slim noticed that his lift driver was wearing the ribbon of a VC.; the accompanying civic dignitaries were left waiting while Slim spoke at length to Jackson.
During the 1954 Royal Tour Jackson was chosen to unfurl the Royal Standard as the Queen stepped from her car on arrival at the Melbourne Town Hall. He was a guest at the State Dinner given to the Royal Couple in Sydney and again met them when they visited the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney.
Bill Jackson VC., was divorced in 1955, and in 1956 he sailed on the SS Orcades for London with 34 other Australian VC recipients for the Victoria Cross Centenary Celebrations. While on the voyage Jackson autographed a menu, W Jackson VC. He became very ill on the voyage and spent six weeks in Hospital in England but despite this he managed to attend a garden party at Marlborough House before being flown home.
On recovery Jackson resumed working at the Melbourne Town Hall. He died on 5 August 1959 in the Austin hospital, Heidleburg, Victoria, of an Arteriosclerotic Heart Disease. At the time he was a member of the Carlton Sub-branch of the RSL.
William Jackson VC was given full Military Honours by Southern Command when cremated at Springvale Cemetery and his ashes were placed in the Boronia Gardens.
The Members Bar in the refurbished Merriwa RSL Club is named in his honour. On Saturday 4 October 2003, a Rest Area/Park situated on the Golden Highway at Gungal 23 km south of Merriwa, was officially opened by the Mayor of Merriwa Ean Cottle and named 'Private Jackson Park.'
My thanks goes to Mr Ray Thorburn, the Director of the Australian Genealogical Education Centre. Kiama, NSW; Mrs Robyn Howard, Hay Historical Society; Mrs Carol Douch; Merriwa Historical Society; Ex-Corporal Reg Fletcher MM; Mr Bert Gedin, Birmingham, England; Mr Ian Beissel, Hay; Mr M. Kelly, Banora Point; The National Archives of Australia; and Bill Jackson VC's daughter for their assistance in researching this story.
Article contributed and copyright by Harry Willey
Battle Police were military policemen deployed behind an attack to intercept stragglers.
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