Australia’s War Icon A Communist Who Bore No Arms

On a gentle grassy slope outside the Australian War Memorial in Canberra stands the statue of a man with a donkey carrying a wounded soldier.

Peter Corlett’s Simpson and his donkey, 1915 – brings a lump to the throat of many Australians.

“Not far now, Digger,” you feel like murmuring as you pass by the tableau. The donkey was usually known as 'Duffy' and his bronze nose has now been rubbed shiny by countless schoolchildren visiting the war memorial – a patina the artist intended and for which he hoped.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick (1892-1915), 'the man with the donkey', was born on 6 July 1892 at Shields in the UK. His job at Gallipoli with the AIF’s 3rd Field Ambulance, was to carry leg-wound casualties to the dressing station on the beach at Gallipoli after the Anzac Day landings.

Peter Corlett's Simpson and his donkey outside the Australian War Memorial.
Photo Credit: The Australian War Memorial

Day and night he worked cheerfully, according to the official Australian war correspondent Charles Bean, through "deadly sniping down the valley and the most furious shrapnel fire" -unconcernedly carrying the wounded from the head of Monash valley down Shrapnel gully to the beach.

A familiar sight to the Diggers crammed in on the beach at Anzac Cove, his name became a byword for courage. He was known as 'bravest of the brave' by his fellow ambulanceman – men who did not themselves lack courage.

His inspirational work and good fortune, however, were to be short lived.

On May 19 – less than a month after he landed at dawn on Anzac Day, and 104 years ago this weekend passed, he was shot through the heart while rescuing two wounded men in Monash Valley. He was buried on the beach at Hell Spit.

He was mentioned in orders of the day and in dispatches and though recommended, he received no bravery award.

It seems appropriate that Australia’s icon is not a typical warrior, but a trade union member who bore no arms, was probably a communist, who was also outstandingly undisciplined.

Simpson deserted the British Merchant Navy in Australia the first chance he got, changed his name to get back to England without being arrested, so he could join up at the outbreak of World War I.

Instead of England, he found himself at Gallipoli, where he gave of himself unstintingly for his mates.

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.”

It is a fitting epitaph for the man buried at Anzac Cove.


Lead Image: The Australian War Memorial building lit in the colour of poppy red for Canberra's Floriade, with Peter Corlett's "Simpson and his donkey, 1915", in the left foreground.
Photograph taken by Kerry Alchin

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