Monday 12 November 2007

War vignette: Simpson, the donkey-man of Gallipoli

One story I like is that of the donkey man at Gallipoli, serving with the Australian forces.

Jack Simpson Kirkpatrick was born in 1892 at South Shields in the north east of England. He came from a large family, being one of eight children. As a child during his summer holidays he used to work as a donkey-lad on the sands of South Shields. He had a great affinity with animals, in particular donkeys. Later he deserted ship in Australia when he heard of the war with Germany.

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 was to become Australia’s most famous, and best-loved military hero.

In Perth on 23rd August 1914, Jack was accepted and chosen as a field ambulance stretcher bearer. This job was only given to strong men so it seems that his work as a stoker in the Merchant Marine had prepared him well for his exceptional place in history. He joined the 3rd Field Ambulance at Blackboy Hill camp, 35 km east of Perth, on the same day.

On the 25th April 1915 he, along with the rest of the Australian and New Zealand contingent, landed at the wrong beach on a piece of wild, impossible and savage terrain in Gallipoli, now known as Anzac Cove.

Attack and counter attack began.

During the morning hours of 26th April, along with his fellows, Jack was carrying casualties back to the beach over his shoulder – it was then that he saw the donkey and decided to make use of it to ferry wounded men down the shrapnel-flecked mountain.

From then on he became a part of the scene at Gallipoli walking along next to his donkey, singing and whistling and calmly chatting to his wounded passengers as he held onto them, careless of the extreme personal danger which he risked.

He seemed to lead a charmed life as bullets and shrapnel winged past him harmlessly. But at length, however, on 19th May 1915, he was finally hit by a machine gun bullet in his back which killed him. The donkey-man was dead.

In his amazing 24 days of rescue he was to save over 300 men, ferrying them down the notorious Monash and Shrapnel valleys. His prodigious, heroic feat was accomplished under constant and ferocious attack from artillery, field guns and sniper fire.

It was said of him by an officer: “Almost every digger knew about him. The question was often asked: ‘Has the bloke with the donkey stopped one yet?’. He was the most respected and admired of all the heroes at Anzac.”

Captain C. Longmore, in 1933, remembered how the soldiers “watched him spellbound from the trenches... it was one of the most inspiring sights of those early Gallipoli days”.

Colonel, later Field Marshal Sir 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 all personnel for his many fearless rescues of wounded men from areas subject to rifle and shrapnel fire”.

The Dying Digger

“Mate, hold me rifle, I think I’m hit.
I’ll rest meself just here a bit.
It’s just a scratch. I’ll soon be fine.
I’ll soon enough be back in line”.

“Not quite so fast, old chum, I’d say
You’ll have to sit it out today.
That shot’s torn half your leg away
I’m gettin’ you back to the Bay”.

“Where’s Simpson? Where’s that donkey bloke?
Here, drink this, mate – try not to choke.
He’ll get you down, old son, you’ll see.
He once did just the same for me”.

“Hang on there, boy, he’ll not be long
That mount of his is good and strong.
No smokes now, mate – yeah, I can tell
You’ve copped one in your chest as well”.

At length the donkey hove in sight
The burly Simpson on his right,
“Up you get, but take it slow,
And hang on tight - now up you go”.

From Palestine, a donkey led
Came once, but on its back instead
A woman, great with child, ‘tis said,
She, too, from mortal danger fled.

So led he then, the soldier's friend,
The bleeding boy, and there to tend
Him in the crowded Bay close by
The Dardanelles, lest he should die.

Death moaned and whined about his head
As down the rocky cliff he led,
Keeping him safely in the lea,
His sacred charge from danger free.

Crusaders who, this land, of old,
Knew well, this new-borne courage bold
Now see in spirit and rejoice
In song withal and warrior’s voice.

Through thorn and bush and sandy height
As shot and shell fell left and right
The humble donkey bore its load
Its master guiding without goad.

“Hey digger, where’s your home?” asks he,
To keep him from despondency,
“Outback”, the blonde-haired youth replies,
And turns his gaze to leaden skies.

This last he speaks before they reach
The sandy bottom on the beach:
“Long way from home”, the soldier breathes,
“Too far” the donkey-man agrees.

No loud hosannas greet them there,
Nor palm tree fronds strewn anywhere,
As greeted Him who also rode
The donkey’s back, a blessèd load.

For fronds, the whining shot they face,
And blasting shells the cries replace.
“You’re safe”, the donkey-man declares
But fate will catch them unawares.

Great Providence had yet decreed
Another way which they must heed,
The donkey-man must weep once more
As oft, so oft, he’d done before.

The dressing station on the shore
Was now close by, this Simpson saw,
But ‘twas too late to pass ahead -
Too late. The golden boy was dead.


Their name liveth for evermore...


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