Relations between Aborigines and colonists
Friends or foes?
Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?
Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence
The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white
Not a good fence builder
Mary Anne Bugg
Justice or resistance?
Contemporary racism against Indigenous People
Convicts and their legacy
How the past shapes the present
Regrets and floggings
Power and morality
Simpson and His Donkey
A Human Soldier
In what is best described as odd, Australia’s most publicly venerated soldier was also one of Australia's least decorated. Over time, John Simpson Kirkpatrick has come to be seen as the embodiment of the ANZAC spirit of selflessness, larrikinism, determination, mateship, humanism, courage, and improvisation; however, he was never promoted and never received any war medals in either life or death. In fact, there is even debate about whether he should be defined as an Australian and whether he was worthy of special commemoration at all.
Born in England in 1892, Simpson's humanist tendencies were first put on show at age of 13. When he saw two drowning children in the River Tyne, he dived in and saved them. He loved animals; he worked with horses and donkeys, kept rabbits and pigeons, and was often seen with a dog following him around.
He had a strong sense of responsibility to others. After his father died in 1909, he assumed the role of bread winner for his mother and sister. In 1910 he joined the crew of the SS Yeddo as a stoker and sailed for Newcastle, Australia. Without fail, he continually sent money home to his mother - irrespective of how much he needed it himself.
Although he was loyal to his family, in his work he never showed a temperament which would have suited him to army discipline. When the Yeddo arrived in Newcastle, he deserted. For the next few years he worked a series of jobs such as cane cutting, cattle droving, and coal mining. He then joined the crew of the SS Yankalilla. The job took him to Fremantle where Simpson again deserted. Just 3 weeks after the outbreak of World War 1, Simpson enlisted. He dropped Kirkpatrick from his name in order to evade detection for being a deserter.
There was nothing patriotic in his motivations. He had heard that the Australian forces were destined to do their basic training in England and by joining he believed that he could get a free passage home, where he perhaps could desert again. Unfortunately for Simpson's plans, the army was diverted to Egypt where Simpson was allotted to the Field Ambulance as a stretcher bearer.
8 months later, Simpson landed at ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli. Of the 1500 men who landed in the first wave, only 755 remained in active service at the end of the day. The sheer number of casualties necessitated that stretcher bearing parties be reduced in the size from 6 to 2. Simpson then decided that he could operate better by acting alone. He spied a deserted donkey in the wild overgrown gullies and decided to use it to help carry a wounded man to the beach.
It was believed he named this first donkey Duffer, but such was the diversity of accents on the battlefield, what was Duffer to an Englishman may have sounded like Murphy to an Irishman or Abdul to an Indian. Consequently, many names have been suggested. Whatever it was named, the donkey and Simpson made a great independent team. Instead of reporting to his unit, Simpson camped with the 21st Kohat Indian Mountain Artillery Battery - which had many mules and nicknamed Simpson "Bahadur" - the "bravest of the brave".
Just as the grapevine may have corrupted his donkey's name, it may have corrupted what he actually did. Folklore proposes that Simpson's refusal to report to his own field ambulance post was a direct affront to his Commanding Officer's ego, not to mention considerations of military tradition, etiquette and discipline. For the first 4 days he was technically a deserter until his CO, seeing the value of his work, agreed to turn a blind eye to rules and approved his actions.
Folklore also proposes that Simpson would start his day as early as 6.30 a.m. and often continue until as late as 3.00 a.m. He made the one and a half mile trip, through sniper fire and shrapnel, 12-15 times a day. He would leave his donkey under cover while he went forward to collect the injured. On the return journey he would bring water for the wounded. He never hesitated or stopped even under the most furious shrapnel fire and was frequently warned of the dangers ahead but invariably replied "my troubles".
For almost 24 days Simpson operated through the impossible conditions and was credited with saving the lives of almost 300 wounded soldiers. After seeming to gain an aura of someone with divine protection, Simpson was killed. He was subsequently recommended for the Victoria Cross, twice, and the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The commanding officer of 3rd Field Ambulance, Lt-Colonel Alfred Sutton, said of him:
"I think we will get a VC for poor Simpson...It is difficult to get evidence of any one act to justify the VC; the fact is that he did so many".
The commander of the 4th Brigade, Colonel Monash, said:
"Private Simpson and his little beast earned the admiration of everyone at the upper end of the valley. They worked all day and night throughout the whole period since the landing, and the help rendered to the wounded was invaluable. Simpson knew no fear and moved unconcernedly amid shrapnel and rifle fire, steadily carrying out his self-imposed task day by day, and he frequently earned the applause of the personnel for his many fearless rescues of wounded men from areas subject to rifle and shrapnel fire."
Padre George Green, who led Simpson's burial service, later said :
"If ever there was a man deserve the Victoria Cross it was Simpson. I often remember now the scene I saw frequently in shrapnel Gully, of that cheerful soul calmly walking down the gully with a Red Cross armlet tied round the donkey's head. That gully was under direct fire from the enemy almost all the time."
Sgt. Hookway, his Section Sergeant, said of him:
"a big man and very muscular, though aged only 22 and was selected at once as a stretcher bearer... he was too human to be a parade ground soldier, and strongly disliked discipline; though not lazy he shirked the drudgery of ‘forming fours’, and other irksome military tasks."
A. B. (Albert) Facey, a private in the Gallipoli campaign, said of him,
"Despite the fear the men mostly took everything that was thrown at them. I saw some brave things at Gallipoli. One thing that made a big impression on us was the actions of a man we called 'The Man with a Donkey'. He was a stretcher-bearer and he used to carry the wounded men down to the clearing station on the beach... This man, Simpson his name was, was exposed to enemy fire constantly all the days I was there, and when I left Shrapnel Gully he was still going strong. I considered, and so did my mates, that he should be given the Victoria Cross."
Although Simpson had the respect of all those who knew him, his larrikin ways did not endear him to the authorities thus all nominations for posthumous decoration were declined. The lack of posthumous decoration probably bothered Simpson's admirers far more than it would have ever bothered Simpson. He just didn't have the character that sought recognition, decoration or awards.
Despite the lack of military decoration, the wider community elevated him to iconic status and perhaps embellished his story in the process. Contemporary historian Graham Wilson has argued that it would have been physically impossible for him to save 300 hundred soldiers. Wilson has also argued that Simpson never did anything particularly risky, such as venturing in no-man's land. Finally, Wilson has unearthed evidence that suggests that many of the soldiers who said they knew him, and were even saved by him, were obviously lying because they didn't arrive in Gallipoli until after Simpson had been killed. Wilson concluded that there was little evidence that Simpson was extraordinary in any way and thus the decision not to give him posthumous decoration was the right one. Wilson subsequently attributed the veneration of Simpson to official war correspondent Charles Bean.
Ironically, evidence that Diggers were lying about an association with Simpson was itself evidence of how those who knew him thought of his deeds. The fact that these soldiers believed that they could improve their own status through an association with Simpson indicated that those who fought in the campaign had a respect for Simpson that warranted talking about. Admittedly, the Diggers' impressions of Simpson could have been influenced by hearing Bean's accounts; however, it is implausible to believe that the Diggers would have been more influenced by a correspondent removed from them than by those they were fighting and bleeding aside.
Overtime, the stories of Simpson seemed to change from what he actually did to what he symbolised. Specifically, he came to embody the ANZAC spirit and his memory became closely associated with values of selflessness, larrikinism, determination, mateship, humanism, courage, and improvisation. In 1965, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ANZAC landings, Australian stamps where issued depicting Simpson, his donkey and a wounded soldier. In 1967, the Australian Government released the ANZAC Commemorative Medallion. It depicted Simpson and his donkey. In 1995, the Australian five dollar commemorative coin was released. Again, it depicted Simpson, his donkey and a wounded soldier. In 1996, the Australian 100 dollar bill was released. It had Simpson and his donkey in the background.
While the stamps, the medals, and the currency have all helped immortalise his name, perhaps the commemoration that most befitted his character was a simple stone that replaced the cross over his grave in Gallipoli. It read:
KIRKPATRICK SERVED AS
AUST. ARMY MEDICAL CORPS,
19TH MAY 1915 AGE 22
HE GAVE HIS LIFE
THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE.
Questions to think about
Are oral histories valid?
Oral histories have been subject to a number of controversies in Australian historical study. The main problem is that some historians have relied on written accounts that seem to indicate that a primary source has lied, that the grapevine has corrupted the story and the historian has embellished the story as well. This definitely seems to have occurred in the story of Simpson and his donkey.
- Given the risk of oral traditions corrupting the "truth", do they have value in trying to identify the "truth"?
- Are written histories more truthful than oral histories?
- Palaeontologists don’t rely on either oral or written histories. Are there any methodologies used by palaeontologists that may be useful when trying to ascertain the validity of written and oral histories in human social history? (Eg, relying on principles of psychology the way that palaeontologists rely on principles of biology?)
Is there value in deconstructing a myth?
- Overtime, Simpson has become a symbol of something greater than what he might have been. What are the pros and cons of deconstructing the “myth” to reveal the “truth”?
- Historian Graham Wilson has written a book that deconstructs the Simpson myth. Given that the idea behind the book doesn’t seem particularly marketable, what do you think Wilson’s motivation could be?
Are myths facts in themselves?
In all of Australia’s wars, correspondents have written about individuals performing heroic deeds. Some of these deeds have received official commendation. Out of all the stories that were written, why do you think it was a story about a man and a donkey that particularly resonated? What does the popularity of the Simpson story reveal about Australians?
Was Simpson worthy of the VC?
- Padre George Green believed Simpson was worthy of the Victoria Cross. Why do you think the Victoria Cross was not awarded?
- Simpson was seen as good for morale but bad for discipline. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive?
- John Monash said,
"not lip service, nor obsequious homage to superiors, nor servile observance of forms and customs...the Australian army is proof that individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build up collective discipline"
Explain how Monash's opinion may have been influenced by the actions of John Simpson Kirkpatrick.
The above picture is an iconic war image of Australia.
1) Find an iconic war image of another country and contrast the two images. (Possible image could be Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.)
2) What values are being expressed in the respective images?
3) Find another iconic image from another war that Australia was involved in. (Possible image could be a wounded Australian soldier being helped by a Papua New Guinean or fellow soldier on the Kokoda trail.) What is similar or different about the images you found.
Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered
Dying for liberty
Why is it not celebrated?
White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese
Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears
Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero
A larrikin and a hero
Australia's Greek Moment
World War 2
The eastern chapters
The expression of transnational identities
Values and policies of Australian leaders