Around Anzac Day the headmaster of my old school, Broadgreen Intermediate in Stoke, Nelson, would always relate the story of Simpson and his donkey. Australian Private John Simpson, real name John Simpson Kirkpatrick, landed at Gallipoli on the 25th April 1915. He soon ‘acquired’ a donkey, known variously as ‘Murphy’, ‘Abdul’ or ‘Duffy’. Simpson and Murphy then worked together, bringing in the wounded from the firing line.
The image of the humble private and his donkey bearing wounded soldiers to safety has a universal resonance, with Biblical overtones of donkeys and Good Samaritans. Simpson was killed on 19 May 1915, less than a month into the Gallipoli campaign. He became a folk hero in Australia, his story combining self-sacrifice, mateship, courage and compassion. He was held to represent all the finest qualities of the Anzacs, in particular the stretcher bearers. Simpson’s image is represented in a statue near the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, and another at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. His grave at the Beach Cemetery, Anzac Cove, has become a site of pilgrimage.
There is an ironic New Zealand connection to the John Simpson Kirkpatrick story. The most famous image of ‘Simpson’ is a painting by New Zealand soldier-artist Horace Millichamp Moore-Jones, entitled Private Simpson D.C.M. & his donkey at Anzac. Moore-Jones was at Gallipoli until November 1915, when he was evacuated wounded. He does not appear to have met Simpson. The artist painted at least two versions of his ‘Simpson’ painting, the first of them painted in Dunedin, in 1918. Moore-Jones based his ‘Simpson’ on a photo of a man with a donkey. The photo was in fact of New Zealand medic Richard ‘Dick’ Henderson. There had been a number of men and donkeys rescuing wounded soldiers at Gallipoli, although Simpson was the most well known. Moore-Jones, who died in 1922, appears to have been unaware of his error, which was only cleared up in 1950. There is a statue of Henderson in front of the National War Memorial in Wellington.
Despite my assumed familiarity with the Anzac story, I knew nothing of Simpson’s connection to South Shields, my partner Janis’ hometown in the North East of England. During a recent visit, I was surprised to come across a large statue of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey in the main thoroughfare of Ocean Road. I learned that John Simpson Kirkpatrick, the sum of all Anzac virtues, was in fact a Geordie. He was born in Tyne Dock, a tough working-class neighbourhood of South Shields. Young Jack, as he was known, is said to have always had a love of animals. He was particularly fond of the horse he drove in his childhood job on the milk rounds and the donkeys that people rode at the South Shields seaside.
In 1909 the 17-year-old Jack went to sea, leaving home a few days after his father died. He jumped ship at Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1910, having long desired to spend time in Australia. Jack worked as an itinerant miner, farm labourer and sailor around Australia and its coasts. Although he liked a drink and the occasional scrap, Jack always sent about a quarter of his pay home to his widowed mother in South Shields. By the time war came in 1914, Jack was thinking of a return trip to England – apparently a motivating factor in his enlistment in 1914. For reasons that remain mysterious, he enlisted under the name John Simpson.
Instead of a direct trip home, Jack ended up at Anzac Cove, where his exploits and early death brought him lasting fame. The figure of Simpson, the man with the donkey, was held up by pro-conscriptionists and recruiting sergeants as a great example of loyalty to king and empire, and support for comrades at the front. This image fed into the huge debate going on in Australia over the introduction of conscription. With casualties mounting and the Mother Country calling for more men, the New Zealand government had introduced conscription in 1916. In contrast to New Zealand’s direct approach, the Australian government held two referendums on conscription. In each of the referendums, held in 1916 and 1917, the majority of voters rejected its introduction.
The use of John Simpson Kirkpatrick as an image of Australian loyalty to empire had a deep irony. Not only was Jack a recent Geordie immigrant to Australia, he was also a staunch socialist. Having grown up working class in a depressed industrial area, Jack referred to England as ‘that louse bound country’ (quoted in Peter Cochrane, Simpson and the donkey: the making of a legend. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1992, p. 19). He wrote home to his mother, ‘what they want in England is a good revolution that will clear some of these Millionaires and lords and Dukes out of it’ (quoted in Simpson and the donkey, p. 18). Despite these views, Jack still ended up dying in the Great War after having rescued many of his comrades. Along with the memorial statue, there is another monument to him in South Shields: the old South Shields School for Mariners building, right by the statue, is now a pub and nightclub, named The Kirkpatrick in his memory. Jack, a canny South Shields lad who enjoyed a good ‘bit a crack’ (a good yarn), a ‘bloo aat’ (drinking session) and the occasional punch up, would surely have approved of such an honour.