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Of all the legends and stories about ANZAC the most enduring one is that of Simpson and his donkey.

I clearly remember being told this story as a very young child when I was in grade 2 in 1941. In those days we were repeatedly told stories about the “last” war; last meaning previous, not end or final.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick was an Englishman of Scottish parentage who wanted to get away from his wife so he joined the Merchant Navy in 1909. In 1910 he deserted from his ship when it was docked at Newcastle in Australia. He led an itinerant lifestyle as a cane cutter, coal miner and various jobs on coastal merchant ships. He also became a left wing activist with The Industrial Workers of the World.

Eventually he yearned to return to England but had no money to buy a ticket. When war broke out in 1914 he saw the chance to enlist, return to England for free and then desert again when he arrived. He enlisted in the 3rd Field Ambulance as a stretcher bearer under the name of John Simpson, dropping his surname so as not to be identified as a ship’s deserter. He was an early enlister at Swan Barracks in Perth. His regimental number was 202. He embarked with the first fleet to be sent from Australia.


Stretcher Bearers at Gallipoli

The fleet was intended to proceed to England but en route plans were changed and it docked, instead, in Egypt. On 25th April, 1915 he landed at Gallipoli as part of the 1st. Australian Division. The next day he spotted some donkeys that had been abandoned by their Greek handlers. The donkeys had been hired to carry water to the front lines but when the attack failed the Greeks fled leaving their donkeys behind. In his youth, Simpson had worked with donkeys during his summer holidays so he was no stranger to their ways.

Simpson was the first man to use donkeys to carry wounded soldiers who could not walk. He used five of them altogether and named them Duffy #1, Duffy #2, Murphy, Queen Elizabeth and Abdul. Some of these were killed or wounded in action but with those that survived Simpson and his donkeys became a familiar sight carrying wounded soldiers from the front down to the dressing stations.


He was well known to the troops who nicknamed him “Scotty” in deference to his Scottish ancestry and no doubt a Scottish brogue in his accent. Other bearers soon took up his method and employed donkeys themselves. John Monash, then a colonel and CO of the 4th Infantry Brigade wrote of Simpson on 20th May, 2015; “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 among 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 area subject to rifle and shrapnel fire.”


On 19th May, 2015 he was killed. There are three different accounts of his death. The official recorded cause was that he was shot through the heart by machine gun fire. Another was that he was shot through the heart by a sniper. Colonel Monash, in his official report dated 20th May stated that he was killed by shrapnel. Which account is correct is irrelevant. The common denominator in all of them is that he was killed at the upper end of Monash Valley. He was buried at the Hell Spit Beach Cemetery on Gallipoli.


The fate of his donkey is also a matter of conjecture. One report says that it was killed with him which gives some credibility to the Monash version of his death. One is that a member of the New Zealand Medical Corps, Dick Henderson, claims that he took over Simpson’s donkey named Murphy. Another is that his last donkey was evacuated by Indian mule drivers. A report commissioned in 1947 includes both solutions but the officer-in-charge of Base Records claims that the Indian mule driver report is more likely to be correct.

Dick Henderson has often been confused with Simpson. Henderson continued Simpson’s work of rescuing the wounded and was later awarded the Military Medal. The confusion arises from a series of paintings by a New Zealand artist who had been, himself, part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Some of these paintings wrongly described the subject as “Private Simpson”.

Simpson’s only recognition of his service was a posthumous award of Mentioned in Despatches (MID). There had been recommendations, undocumented, for higher awards including twice for the Victoria Cross (VC) and once for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). These were all rejected by the British War Office. Since the end of the war there have been efforts to award him a posthumous VC and an Australian Victoria Cross, the last one being in 2011, but all these have been rejected too.


The problem seems to be that, firstly, stretcher bearers were classified as non-combatants. Secondly, the standard to be met for awarding the VC is that it must be an “act of valour performed in the face of the enemy “. There is no doubt that Simpson service was a series of constant acts of valour but they were not undertaken “in the face of the enemy”. It is further claimed that his acts were less valiant than many of his comrades who collected fallen troops from the battlefield and carried them on their backs to safety.

Notwithstanding the rejection of any requests for awarding formal decorations Simpson’s death created a legend that continues through to the present day. His death was used for propaganda purposes to encourage recruitment in 1916 and 1917. Some of the claims made on his behalf were simply preposterous.

After the war he has been honoured by being depicted on postage stamps, badges, books, songs, TV shows and movies. In 1997, the Australian RSPCA posthumously awarded its Purple Cross to his donkey, Murphy, for “outstanding acts of bravery towards humans”. In 1977 a donkey was recruited to the Australian Army Medical Corps with the rank of private and became the official mascot of the corps. It was named Jeremy Jeremiah Simpson.


When Harold Holt became prime minister he inaugurated the striking of a commemorative medal and a badge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. These decorations were to be issued to all army and navy veterans of the Gallipoli campaign. They depicted a replica of Simpson and his donkey.



Alongside the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne is a beautiful small bronze statue of Simpson and his donkey in typical pose carrying a wounded soldier with Simpson walking alongside. It is simplicity personified sited unobtrusively alongside the Shrine and seems to depict an aurora of humility that one associates with the man himself.


Lest we forget.




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