John Simpson Kirkpatrick, commonly known simply as 'Simpson', is probably the most easily recognisable name from the Gallipoli campaign, fought during the First World War. Personifying the spirit of courage, improvisation and selflessness that the Anzac soldiers became renowned for, Simpson is arguably Australia's most famous war hero - and he didn't ever engage the enemy in combat.
John Simpson Kirkpatrick was born on the 6th of July 1892, in South Shield, England. At a young age, he worked long days tending for the donkeys at Murphy's Fair, seeming to have a certain affinity for the animals. At the age of 17, he joined the Merchant Navy, following in his father's footsteps, and sailing the world. By 1910, he'd found his way to Newcastle, Australia, where a portion of the crew, himself included, deserted. He found work in a variety of different areas, eventually ending up in Fremantle, Western Australia, where he deserted the costal ship he was working on at the time.
In 1914, a matter of three weeks after the outbreak of the First World War, Simpson enlisted in the Army. He dropped the Kirkpatrick from his name at this time, to avoid being recognised as a deserter from the Merchant Navy. In typical fashion, there was an ulterior motive to his actions, his hope that he'd manage to get a free ride home to England, where the bulk of Australia's forces were undergoing training. Unfortunately for Simpson, England was unable to cope with the numbers of soldiers needing to undergo training, and Simpson was sent to Egypt. The first step towards Simpson's service at Gallipoli had been taken.
A powerfully built man, Simpson was immediately given a job as a stretcher bearer. He landed at Anzac Cove on the 25th of April, 1915. The campaign had taken a bad turn right from the outset, with the troops landing in the wrong place. Everything had been planned around an assault resulting in a rapid push inland. The battle the Anzac's ended up fighting wasn't planned for at all. There was a shortage of stretcher bearer teams, with the number of men in each team reduced to two. Many of the donkeys that had been landed for carrying supplies were left to go free, as they were not needed in the battle that resulted. These donkeys became the backbone of the Simpson story.
Simpson was not a man of discipline, and it wasn't long before he was reported missing. Simpson hadn't deserted, rather was working alone, retrieving wounded soldiers, and returning them to medical stations for treatment. Realising that moving large men to safety alone was going to be tough, he found one of the donkeys that had been abandoned, and started to use it to transport soldiers who were unable to walk.
Simpson began making daily trips up Shrapnel Gully, which was the main supply route to the front line. His regular route took him through Monash Valley, and into the dangerous area surrounding Quinn's Post. In this area, the distance between opposing trenches was measured in tens of metres. Shrapnel Gully was an extremely hazardous area, as it was covered by enemy rifle and sniper fire constantly - Simpson would never stop making the trip up though. Warnings that the area ahead was dangerous would be met by Simpson's standard, simple reply - 'my troubles'.
When the enfilading fire down the valley was at its worst and orders were posted that the ambulance men must not go out, the Man and the Donkey continued placidly their work. At times they held trenches of hundreds of men spell-bound, just to see them at their work. E.C. Buley, 'Glorious Deed of Australia in the Great War'
Simpson's normal operating method was simple. He'd lead his donkey to an area just outside of the danger area, and leave it under cover. Then, he would move into the area alone, sometimes crawling on his stomach to get close to the injured, before making a dash to grab them, and move them back to safety. It's unknown exactly how many men Simpson saved in this fashion, but the number is believed to be in the hundreds. Once back at his donkey, he would place the injured man on its back, and lead them to a medical station for treatment, collecting water on the return journey. Simpson's superior officers turned a blind eye to his unconventional method of operation - how could they not, given the number of men he saved?
Simpson was renowned for having no fear, showing complete disregard for his own safety carrying out the job of rescuing the wounded. He managed to avoid death time after time, entering areas that any sane man would steer well clear of. However his luck eventually ran out on the morning of the 19th of May, 1915. On a trip back down through Shrapnel Gully, Simpson was warned by Signaller D.M. Benson that a machine gunner was covering the area. Simpson acknowledged the warning, but in his usual style continued on regardless. A matter of moments later, Simpson was shot, and killed instantly. The wounded soldier on the donkey's back was wounded again. The donkey, lacking direction, continued on its usual path, and the wounded man was delivered to the medical post, despite Simpson's death.
Simpson's death affected the troops in the trenches deeply. 'The man with the donk' was famous amongst them, and it was difficult for anyone to believe that he was gone. Simpson had spent a lot of time with the Indian troops at Gallipoli, as they had bought mules, so had the fodder that his donkey required. He earned a deep respect in them - they referred to him as 'Bahadur' - The Bravest of the Brave. On learning of his death, their grieving was intense, their grief greater than ever shown towards one of their own. Simpson was buried later that day, in an area known as 'Hell Spit', now known as Beach Cemetery.
Despite his incredible acts of bravery, Simpson was never awarded any form of decoration. He was recommended for award of the Victoria Cross by his superiors, however their recommendations lead to nothing. Simpson may have been denied the Victoria Cross on a technicality, and the wording of its criteria, which looks for individual acts of bravery. None of Simpson's individual acts were any more outstanding than the others - the entire time he was there, he showed incredible courage. No one act displayed the courage he showed more than the other - his deeds need to be viewed as a whole to appreciate them fully.
Simpson will always be revered as a true Australian hero, and will never be forgotten. The simple inscription on the commemoration stone which replaced the simple wooden cross marking his grave after the armistice, sums up Simpson's deeds elegantly.
He gave his life, That others may live.