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John “Jack” Simpson Kirkpatrick (6 July 1892 – 19 May 1915) was born at South Shields, in the north of England but later moved to Australia. He came from a large family being one of eight children. As a child during his summer holidays, he would work as a donkey-lad on the sands of South Shields. He had a great affinity with animals, particularly his love of donkeys.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

After deserting from the merchant navy and travelling around Australia, prior to the war, Simpson apparently enlisted as a means to return to England. In August 1914, he enlisted in the Australian Army, serving at Gallipoli. Fearing that a deserter might not be accepted into the Australian Army, he dropped Kirkpatrick from his name and enlisted simply as John Simpson. He didn’t know it then, but was later to become one Australia’s more famous and best loved military heroes.

Whilst living in Perth, he got news on 23 August 1913, that he was accepted and chosen as a ‘field ambulance stretcher bearer’. This job was only given to the strongest of men. That very day, he joined the 3rd Field Ambulance at Blackboy Hill Camp, 35km east of Perth. On the 25th April 1915, he along with the rest of the Anzac contingent landed at the wrong beach on a piece of wild impossible and savage terrain, now known as Anzac Cove.

Attack and counter attack began.

During these first days, Simpson had to rescue his casualties off the battle-field, sometimes in clear sight of the enemy.

During the early morning hours of April 26, along with fellow stretcher bearers, Jack carried the wounded back to the beach over his shoulder. Stretchers had become a scarce, either blown up in battle or left for dead on the battlefield after desertion. Some even got the wounded as far as the beach, but most weren’t returned, forcing the bearers to improvise.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

The majority of casualties were being flung over the shoulders of their comrades, however, when they had chest or abdomen injuries, it just wasn’t practical. In this instance, they made do with groundsheets. You can imagine their dilemma as the transportation of the wounded to the beach was in itself a nightmare, even when the stretchers were available.

The terrain had the medical corps slipping and sliding up and down steep hillsides, with their hands constantly cramping up from the insecure hold they had on the corners of oiled and soiled ground sheets.  Not to mention the heavy shrapnel fire continuously swooping above and around them.  A persistence to halt even for only a moment to catch a breath or readjust their grip, made the journey a long one.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

With a four man stretcher squad, light work was made of the journey, as each bearer would have their own end of the stretcher pole, and the weight was evenly balanced and quite effortless.  This enabled them to carry the wounded for considerable distances without becoming exhausted.  However with a two man stretcher squad, this was entirely a different matter.  With two, a single man at either end of the stretcher meant relying entirely on the strength of his arms, shoulders, stomach and back muscles.  They were lucky to go 100 metres at a time before they had to stop, rest and re-adjust their grip before continuing on.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

Fortunately the distances at ANZAC were comparatively short. But this was more than compensated for by the savage terrain and vegetation which the men had to fight their way through or around.

In the early hours of 26th April, Jack Simpson was having a usual day, similar to that of his mates, carrying casualties back to the beach on his shoulder, when all of a sudden, he was stopped dead in his tracks by a vision just beyond the horizon.  He’d been doing the same walk as did his mates, but paying little or no attention to it until that moment.

A number of donkeys had landed into the war zone along with their Greek drivers to carry Kerosene tins of water to the troops.  Some had become abandoned by their handlers and were seeking shelter and grazing on what little vegetation they could find.  Simpson was responding to a call “Stetcher Bearer” when he saw a Donkey he would later call ‘Duffy’, head down grazing next to a wounded man.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

Jack the professional “donkey whisperer” befriended the animal and then set upon using it as a vehicle to transport the wounded man.

Simpson didn’t have the essential equipment needed, but what he did have was a pocket full of field dressings.  Thinking to himself, Simpson decided these will just have to do, at least until he could get his hands on the necessary materials to fashion something more substantial and appropriate back at the beach.

With one portion of the bandage serving as a primitive ‘head-stall’ and another used as a ‘lead rope’, Simpson boosted the wounded soldier onto the donkeys back.  Without a saddle, stirrups or reins to hold onto, Simpson allowed the soldier to use his body for stability as he guided his  new recruit along.

Using his donkey and working all day and halfway into the night, the hour return trip would allow Simpson to make between twelve and fifteen trips a day. A two man stretcher team would be hard pressed to make six trips a day.

Simpson found and used at least five different donkeys, known as “Duffy No. 1”, “Duffy No. 2”, “Murphy”, “Queen Elizabeth” and “Abdul” at Gallipoli; some of the donkeys were killed and/or wounded in action.

From that moment on, it was a regular scene at Gallipoli to see Jack walking along side his donkeys, forever singing and whistling as he held on to his wounded passengers oblivious to the extreme danger that surrounded him.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

As bearer numbers depleted, the original order of four bearers per stretcher was altered to only two. The hard fighting throughout the day caused heavy casualties, until the bearers had inadequate means to do their work.

With the use of his donkey, Simpson only carried men wounded in the leg (and some head wounds); that is, men who could sit astride a donkey with assistance.

From the 26th of April Simpson ran his own mobile casualty service, refusing to go back to his own unit at the end of the day.  He knew there was work to be done out in those fields and he had the means to do it and get it done faster.  Simpson could rescue more wounded soldiers using his donkeys than as part of any stretcher team, even if it was outside of army regulations.  He knew eventually he would find himself in trouble with authorities, but when you are faced with war, some regulations just have to go on the back burner.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

On the 19th May, 1915, it all came to an end, as Simpson was hit by a machine gun bullet to his back whilst returning to camp with a wounded soldier.  The donkey continued on carrying the wounded soldier to safety. In the 24 days he single handedly was to rescue over 300 men, down the notorious Monash Valley.

His heroic feat was achieved under ferocious attack from artillery, field guns, and sniper fire. Private Simpson and his little beast earned the admiration of everyone who served around him. Together he and his donkey worked day and night, to save the lives of others, without thought for his own.

Soon after his death, Dick Henderson of the New Zealand Medical Corp took over one of Simpson’s donkeys “Murphy” and he continued to rescue the wounded soldiers from the battlefield.  He was later awarded the Military Medal for his bravery and service.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

Simpson’s story came to exemplify the tenacity and courage of all Anzacs at Gallipoli.

Colonel (later General) John Monash wrote: “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.

In 1977, a donkey joined the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, under the name “Jeremy Jeremiah Simpson, with the rank of “Private” and the regimental number MA 0090. In 1986, this particular donkey was permamanently adopted as the official mascot of the corps.

The Australian RSPCA, in May 1997 awarded its Purple Cross to the donkey ‘Murphy’ for performing outstanding acts of bravery towards humans.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

A memorial statue of Simpson and his donkey telling the legend that is, can be viewed at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

Miss Philomena Robertson of the Red Cross Society was the driving force which led to the erection of the sculpture. In raising funds for the sculpture, Miss Robertson described it as ‘a Mothers’ tribute’.

simpson’s donkey anzac heroes

He was survived by his mother and sister, residents of South Shields. Family approved burial at “Beach Cemetery” along with his fellow comrades. Beach Cemetery is a small Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery containing the remains of allied troops who died during the Battle of Gallipoli. It is located at Hell Spit, at the southern end of Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula.


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