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Victoria cross

Jackson and the Paper VC

In Sydney in 1918 a shy, one-armed man from the tiny town of Gunbar was selling kisses for 5 shillings each.

Because of his shyness some women paid the money but did not claim their prize. After all, the money was being collected for charity to raise £1,000 for Red Cross Day in the last year of World War I.

The man was also selling small cardboard medals with crimson ribbon attached. On the back of each, he had carefully signed with his left hand ‘W. Jackson V.C  DCM’. Several of these paper copies of Private William Jackson’s Victoria Cross are now held in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales.

The real Victoria Cross was awarded to the then 18-year-old Jackson for incredible bravery. About 40 Australians, including Private Jackson, raided a German trench at midnight on 26 June 1916. The objective was to capture prisoners for interrogation.

Facsimile of the Victoria Cross awarded to John William Alexander Jackson, March 1916
Facsimile of the Victoria Cross awarded to John William Alexander Jackson


After capturing four Germans the Australians were returning with them across No Man’s Land[2] when the enemy began shelling the area in retaliation, wounding nine of the forty soldiers.

Private Jackson, with a prisoner in tow, made it back to his lines unscathed and then immediately set off to search for wounded, finding and assisting one back to the trenches. Braving enemy fire once again he found another wounded man but while returning with him this time a shell exploded nearby and cleanly blew off Jackson’s right arm and knocked the wounded man unconscious.

After regaining his own trench an officer bound Jackson’s wound with a tourniquet and then Jackson climbed out again into the barrage to search for his mate, finally escorting him to safety. 

Because it is our highest award for military gallantry there is an aura attached to the Victoria Cross and its winners. During World War I the recipients were lionised as celebrities by the public and used by the military to drum up support for enlistment or to raise money for causes associated with the war effort. And so some VC winners like William Jackson undertook fundraising whilst others, like the famous Albert Jacka, featured in recruitment posters.

It was natural for people to look to the exploits of these soldiers for inspiration during the horrors of this terrible war. E.M Ward watched Jackson growing up in Gunbar and expressed his feelings by penning a brief poem for him which closed with;

He lost his arm in battle,

Fighting for you and me,

He did a brave and glorious deed,

And won the coveted V.C.[3]

Another way these men were celebrated was by ceremonies and dinners held in their honour. On 11 November 1919, around fourteen recipients of the Victoria Cross attended a dinner in the company of the prominent surgeon Sir Charles Kinnaird Mackellar (father of the poet Dorothea Mackellar). All the men signed an autograph book for the occasion which was later presented to Sir Charles Mackellar, and which is also held by the State Library.

Facsimile of the Victoria Cross awarded to John William Alexander Jackson-Letter

Among those who were present and signed the book was Corporal Arthur Hall, V.C. In many ways Corporal Hall matches Private Jackson’s modesty; even his diary is remarkable for its understatement.

Corporal Hall received his award for action on the 1 and 2 September 1918. His commendation states that on the 1 September he singlehandedly rushed a machine gun post killing four occupants, capturing nine others and a further two machine guns. Hall was continually in the advance and personally led others to the assault. Then on 2 September, during a heavy barrage, he carried a critically wounded comrade to safety and afterwards returned to his post.

He recorded his version of events in the diary held by the State Library:

1st September [1918]
Moved off at 4.30 am up through Halle to front line and “hopped the bags" at 6.15 am. We went about two kilos [kilometres] into Peronne taking numbers of prisoners. Held the bigger part of the village at night.

2nd September [1918]
The remainder of the village was taken today by B coy [company] and the 58th [Battalion]. We were relieved at night coming out to the trenches we hopped off from.

His reaction to being awarded the V.C is also startlingly nonchalant:

8th [December 1918]
Church parade in the morning and just at tea time I was sent for to report to H.Q when they told me that the King had been pleased to award me the V.C.

Not only does the Library have paper VCs in its collection, but it is fortunate enough to have, as part of Sir William Dixson’s medal collection, the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) and the Military Cross of Lieutenant Joseph Maxwell V.C. He won these and the Victoria Cross for heroics performed within a one year period from 1917 to 1918, which included rescuing the occupants of a burning tank.

Fittingly for an article written for a Library, Lieutenant Maxwell was also the author of a book about his experiences in World War I called ‘Hells, Bells and Mademoiselles’. In common with both Hall and Jackson, Maxwell’s own incredible exploits barely rate a mention and instead he writes mostly of the camaraderie and antics of his fellow soldiers.

If we were lucky enough to be present at a dinner attended by these three men – Hall, Jackson and Maxwell –they would simply raise a toast for friends absent and present, swap stories of the times, play down their own part and emphasise the sacrifice of others. What we sometimes think of as embellishments of legend were often very genuine traits of the soldiers of the AIF.


[1] Approximately worth $20 today.

[2] The dangerous stretch of ground between the Allied and German trench lines.

[3] "PRIVATE JACKSON, V.C." Gilgandra Weekly (NSW : 1915 - 1929) 16 Nov 1917: 14. Web. 2 Jul 2014


Facsimile of the Victoria Cross awarded to John William Alexander Jackson, March 1916, MLMSS 8667

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