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Man who’s been eclipsed by myth

24 November 2012 3,604 views No Comment

I am a great fan of donkeys, which, as well as being stubborn and well hung, are clever animals with a much stronger sense of self-preservation than the horse.

This means it is extremely difficult to persuade donkeys to do something that they perceive places them at risk. The day after he landed at the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25, 1915, John Simpson Kirkpatrick, 22, an Englishman who had jumped ship in Newcastle, Australia, and who enrolled in the Australian Imperial Force as Private John Simpson, found the donkey that helped make them both famous – especially after Simpson was shot through the heart and died on May 19, 1915.

As a lad in the north of England, Kirkpatrick had worked with and was very fond of donkeys.

In this fascinating book, Graham Wilson is a man with a mission – to debunk what he regards as the historically untrue claims about Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli.

These include the claim that, in a few weeks of dealing with the injured, they saved the lives of 300 men. Wilson demonstrates, conclusively to this reader, that this was impossible.

While not as readable as Peter Cochrane’s 1992 ‘Simpson and the Donkey’, Wilson’s expose of what he calls ”the subject of a maudlin and mawkish legend” is well researched, even if, at times, it borders on the obsessional.

Wilson makes serious claims that up to 20 personal diary entries and official reports, which have previously been used to provide supposedly ”first-hand accounts” of Simpson’s work, cannot be true.

Sometimes this is because, Wilson claims, the writers were not at Gallipoli when Simpson was transporting the battle-weary wounded down toward the beach to be treated at the field hospitals.

Hence these ”observers” of Simpson’s heroism were either lying or deceiving themselves.

Yet even though Wilson admits ”there is ample evidence” that the work of Private John Simpson of the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance had been noted by his superiors ”as useful and worthy of some form of recognition”, I agree that the current push to have Simpson posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross may well be ill-advised. It is certainly true that ”the man with the donkey” was, as Wilson writes, ”far from the only brave, selfless and dedicated medical soldier” at Gallipoli.

Nor was he the only man to ”consistently risk his life in order to succour the wounded”. In this sense it seems true that, in many ways, the actual man has been overtaken by the myth and that, for reasons entirely beyond his control, he has become an Australian icon.

Wilson strongly believes that Simpson’s ”hallowed place in the Australian psyche” is totally undeserved. Yet after carefully reading and thinking about this well-illustrated and clearly indexed 400-page tract, I am left with the conclusion that Private Simpson and his devoted donkey still remain a potent and valid symbol of the selflessness and service performed by the men of our Ambulance Corps at Gallipoli.

Indeed, towards the book’s end the author admits it is ”no bad thing” that the legend of Simpson and his donkey serves ”to keep alive the memory of Australia’s military history”. It is just that, from Wilson’s oft-repeated perspective, the problem is that the Simpson myth ”is now almost universally accepted as ‘history’, which it is not”. Hence to Wilson, Private ”Jack” Simpson was merely another soldier.


Graham Wilson

Big Sky, 400pp, $34.99

Sydney Morning Herald, November 24, 2012, SPECTRUM p 35

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