John (Jack) Simpson Kirkpatrick has become part of the ANZAC legend of the First World War and arguably one of Australia’s most loved war heroes. His tale is one which captured the public imagination back in 1916 (immortalised in the silent film ‘Murphy of Anzac’) and continues to do so today, not just as a result of John’s background and brave actions, but because it is the story of a man and a beast working together as one, for you cannot mention John Simpson Kirkpatrick without mentioning his donkey.
John was born in in South Shields, and it was here on the North East coast of England that he first began working with donkeys, leading rides along the beach in that ever so quaint British fashion. In 1909 he joined the Merchant Navy but was to desert only a year later in Australia where, our unlikely war hero travelled widely working various jobs and developing a deep sense of social justice. When war broke out John was quick to sign up, enlisting in August 1914 in the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance, for the physically tough job of field ambulance stretcher bearer.
In the darkness of the early hours of 25thApril 1915, John landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula with the rest of Australian 1st Division, approximately 1 mile away from where they had planned to be. The mistake left the men faced with steep cliffs and ridges instead of the open beaches they had anticipated and the chaos that followed would lead to the 25thApril 1915 and the cove South of Ariburnu becoming forever associated with the ANZAC forces.
The men scrambled through the sandy soils, hauling and heaving themselves over the sheer overhangs by hook and by crook, desperately trying to move through the most inhospitable of landscapes inland. Casualties were high and two field hospitals were established on the beach, as morning broke John was carrying a wounded man over his shoulder back to one these field hospitals when he saw a donkey. John moved his wounded comrade onto the back of the donkey for pace and comfort, and led him down to the hospital. From then on, the sight of John and his donkey ferrying the wounded across the Gallipoli landscape captivated the men fighting on the peninsula and John and his ‘donk’ became famous among the diggers. Over the next 24 days John and his donkey (well actually he had 5 in total, as some were killed or wounded: ‘Duffy No. 1’, ‘Duffy No. 2’, ‘Murphy’, Queen Elizabeth’ and ‘Abdul’ to be precise) rescued some 300 men. He was known for his calm and upbeat dedication to his work, accounts of his nature have led to the (likely romanticised) image of John whistling or singing as he carefully lead his donkey with wounded man across the battlefield amongst a hail of bullets and shrapnel. It was on May 19th that John could no longer avoid these dangers, as he was fatally shot in the back. After his death then Colonel John Monash said:
“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.”
The story’s popularity among the general public is I think in part due to John’s equine chum.
The imagery in the story is powerful – a lone man undertaking an arduous journey, leading a donkey on whose back rests an infirm party who is relying on reaching their destination. Ring any bells? Donkeys are of course charged with rich, biblical symbolism.
From the tales of Balaam, Soloman, Jesus, Joseph and others the donkey is steeped with ideals of self-sacrifice, peace and redemption (as opposed to the horse, often signifying wealth, war and power). These ‘donkey themes’ (as I shall now call them!) such as self-sacrifice, redemption and virtue are commonly seen in epitpahs of the Great War, indeed they are themes that were drawn upon often by grieving relatives who had lost loved ones during the war. We often hear about the decline in Christianity during the war years, a point I would argue when looking at the way in which the war was memorialised. I believe the popularity of John Simpson Kirkpatrick’s story has as much to do with its biblical imagery, as the brave actions of the man himself. What’s more – there is something which captures the public imagination (particularly in more recent decades) about man working to achieve great things in partnership with an animal. One only has to look at the story of Jack Seely and Warrior to recognise the importance of the bond between man and beast and the strong emotional response this invokes in people. I’ve no doubt the legend of John Simpson Kirkpatrick will continue to live on in Australian culture as a symbol of heroism in the First World War of not just man, but of the humble ‘donk’.