John Simpson Kirkpatrick, affectionately known as “the man and his donkey”, was born on the 6th of July 1892 in South Shields, England.
He landed at ANZAC Cove at 5 a.m. on the 25th of April 1915 and was mortally wounded in Shrapnel Gully, near the mouth of Monash Valley, on the 19th of May 1915 at the age of 22.
During the 24 days he spent at ANZAC he operated as a sole unit with his beloved donkey/s and is credited with saving the lives of probably hundreds of men.
He has become a part of the ANZAC folklore and though recommended for the Victoria Cross, twice, and the Distinguished Conduct Medal, he was never decorated for his actions.
Early lifeHis parents, Robert and Sarah, were Scottish. Robert was a merchant seaman for 20 years before finally settling at South Shields, Tyneside.
Each summer young John worked at Murphy’s Fair, providing donkey
A serious accident in 1904 left his father, Robert, incapacitated and he died in 1909. After his father’s accident, young Jack took on a series of jobs to help support the family.
At age 17 years and 3 months, 2 days after the death of his father, he, like his father, answered the call of the sea and sailed from Tyne on the “SS Heighington”. He spent the next 3 months on the Mediterranean run before returning home for Christmas in 1909.
On February 12, 1910, he joined the crew of the “Yedda” as a stoker and sailed for Newcastle, Australia. On arrival in Australia he and a dozen of the crew “cleared out”. For the next few years Jack worked a series of jobs in different parts of the country, cane cutting, cattle droving, coal mining, “humping the bluey” (better know nowadays as back-packing!), working at the gold fields and working on coastal ships.
On the 25th of August, 1914, at the age of 22 years and 1 month, Simpson jumped ship from the “SS Yankalilla” in Fremantle, Western Australia, and enlisted in Perth just 3 weeks after the outbreak of World War 1.
Prior to joining up he dropped Kirkpatrick from his name and took on Simpson as his surname possible because a deserter from the Merchant Marines may not be accepted into the army.
Simpson, a big strong lad, was allotted to the Field Ambulance as a stretcher bearer.
Simpson had hoped that, by joining the army, he might get a free trip back home to England which was where the initial Australian force were destined to go for their basic training. They were diverted to Egypt when it was realised that England wasn’t prepared for this large colonial force.
Exactly 8 months after enlisting Simpson landed at ANZAC Cove, Gallipoli, as a stretcher bearer, with “C” section, 3rd Field Ambulance, 1st Australian Division, Australian Imperial Force.
The first 24 hours at ANZAC“C” section rowed ashore from the transport “Devanha”. Just before dawn, at about 5.00 a.m. on Sunday April the 25th 1915, they leapt from the boat and waded ashore.
Simpson was the second man in the water. The first and third men were killed. Casualties on the first day were appalling. Of the 1500 men in the first wave, 755 remained in active service at the end of the day. The remainder were killed or wounded. Those that did remain were badly affected by the shortage of food and particularly water in the sub-tropical sun.1
There was also a shortage of stretchers, medical equipment and supplies. Stretcher parties were reduced from 6 men to 2. They improvised as best they could and worked all day tending to the wounded and carrying them down to the Casualty Clearing Stations on the beach at ANZAC Cove.
A primitive collecting post was established using the cover of the overgrown vegetation beyond the beach. Capt. Douglas McWhae of ‘C’ Section wrote of the landings
“The Red-Cross flag was put up after a time. The three sections were going for all they were worth… they had iodine and field dressings; all splints were improvised using rifles and bushes. They were terrible wounds to deal with.”
By dawn on the second day the ANZAC’s were holding onto a 500 acre piece of ground. The Turks held the high ground and looked down into the ANZAC position at almost every angle. Stretcher parties were under constant rifle and artillery fire.
Simpson finds a donkeySeveral donkeys were landed and some had been abandoned and were grazing in the wild overgrown gullies. Simpson, having already carried two heavy men down from the front lines, responded to a call from a wounded man. He had by this time been reported missing, saw a donkey grazing nearby and decided to use the donkey to help carry him to the beach.
The donkey responded to the sure touch of the friendly man with the experience gained at Murphys Fair as a young man back in South Shields.
There was no saddle, stirrups or reins. Simpson made a head stall and lead from bandages and field dressings for this first trip. He lifted the wounded man onto the donkey and held onto him as he guided the donkey to the beach.
From this day on Simpson decided to act as an independent unit. He did not report back to ambulance headquarters for instructions and for the first 4 days was technically a deserter until his CO (Commanding Officer), seeing the value of his work, agreed to turn a blind eye and approved his actions.
Later he made a saddle from bags and blankets and used ropes for the head stall and lead. Some of his friends made a small bell from the nose cone of a shell.
The daily routineSimpson and his donkey would make their way up Shrapnel Gully, the main supply route to the front line, into Monash Valley and onto the deadly zone around Quinn’s Post where the opposing trenches were just 15 yards apart.
To the left of Quinn’s Post was Dead Man’s Ridge, held by the Turks. From here they were able to snipe right down Shrapnel Gully.
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, whilst 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”.
It is unclear whether he used one donkey or several though we do know that he used several names, “Murphy”, “Abdul”, his favourite “Duffy” and even “Queen Elizabeth”. He certainly only used one donkey at a time as the terrain was too restrictive to use more.
The need for fodder led him to the only source, which was at the foot of Shrapnel Gully, in the form of the 21st Kohat Indian Mountain Artillery Battery2. The Indians had brought mules to haul their artillery and had brought plenty of fodder. Simpson set up camp with them, slept and ate with them and was idolised by them. The Indians called him “Bahadur” which means “the bravest of the brave”. To the other troops he was known as “Scotty”, “Murphy”, “Simmie”, and generally “the man with the donk”.
General C. H. Brand3 described Simpson with his donkey as he was often seen.
Almost every digger knew about him. The question was often asked : “Has the bloke with the donk stopped one yet?” It seemed incredible that anyone could make that trip up and down Monash Valley without being hit. Simpson escaped death so many times the he was completely fatalistic. He seemed to have a charmed life.
Simpson the ManThe Australian Dictionary of Biography records Simpson as “a typical digger; independent, witty, warm-hearted, happy to be indolent at times and careless of dress.”
Army records describe Private Simpson J, number 202, of fair complexion, brown hair, blue eyes, 5 ft 8 in tall, 12 stone and of solid build.
His friend Andy Davidson described him as
“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” and “he was very witty, and inclined to the lazy, very popular, liked a pot or two but did not drink to excess, careless of dress and was a handful to Sgt. Hookway, his Section Sergeant.”
Simpson had a strong sense of humour, of devilment and a sheer exuberant enjoyment of life. He would quickly become popular with virtually anyone with whom he came in contact.
F. W. Dyke, a Gallipoli original, recalled a rare occasion when his donkey was being obstinate. A Padre was standing waiting to accompany Simpson, but with all his coaxing the donkey wouldn’t move. At last Simpson turned to the Padre and said,
“Padre, this old donkey has been tied up with some mules and has acquired some of their bad habits. Would you move along the beach a little way, as I’ll have to speak to him in Hindustani, and, Padre, I wouldn’t like you to think I was swearing at him.”
On another occasion he saw a figure moving in the bush and shouted, “Halt! there, who are ye?”“I’m a warrant officer of the 3rd Field Engineers” came the response.“Come out, then, and let’s have a look at ye” replied Simpson. He examined the suspect and said bluntly “I don’t like the looks of ye.”The warrant officer stared and said, “Don’t be foolish. I’ll report you. I’m making levels for the excavations for a new road here.”“Maybe, maybe, but ye’ll come down to the station with me all the same” Upon arrival there, the warrant officer was identified.Simpson commented, “Oh well, ” flicking the donkey as he spoke, “he’s dirty enough to be a Turk even if he ain’t one, isn’t he, Duffy?”