Simpson and his cuddy

Gallipoli, 25th April 1915. The newly arrived ANZAC troops are about to enter hell. From the moment they attempt a landing on the most inhospitable point of the coast, they are under relentless machine gun and rifle fire from Turkish gunners esconced on the cliffs above. Alan Moorehead, writing in his 1958 publication, “Gallipoli” commented: “…the Gaba Tepe region, where the Anzac troops were to land, was unmapped and almost wholly unknown. It is still the most savage part of the whole peninsula.” Landing to the north of their intended place, eventually over 20,000 men and their horses, mules and donkeys would take shelter in the place that has entered history as ANZAC Cove.

The ANZACs experienced casualties right from the start, many whilst attempting to row to the shore from their troop ships. The dead fell on the shore and in the rowboats; there are varying reports as to the scale of the casualties, but  in the first few hours of the first day alone, it seems that at least half of 1500 men from the first boats were dead or disabled.

The most unlikely and most revered hero of the whole ANZAC Gallipoli Campaign is the man, who, with his donkeys, saved the lives of dozens of soldiers during the first weeks of the campaign, before dying under machine gun fire on 19 May 1915. He was 22 years old. His name is still spoken with reverence in Australia;  the young man was John Simpson Kirkpatrick, better known as Jack Simpson, and he came from South Shields (Shields) in what is now Tyne and Wear, UK.

Simpson’s parents were Scottish and although his father came from Edinburgh, Simpson is a Border name and there is a village of Kirkpatrick Fleming in south west Scotland. It would make sense to me, given the strong cross-border links between Scotland and the north east of England, that Simpson’s parents might have had relatives or friends in the north east if they were Border people. Simpson, growing up in South Shields, was a resident of Tyneside; a Geordie.

Simpson and his first donkey, probably Duffy, with bandage halter (Australian War Memorials)

He was born in 1892 and, like many children of a large family at that time, his early years were impoverished by today’s standards. Birth rates were high, but so were mortality rates amongst working class people. Families found work where and how they could and one of Simpson’s jobs, according to his biographers, was leading the donkey rides on Shields sands. He’d probably have known them as “cuddies”, which is the word for a donkey that prevails in Northumberland, Durham, Tyneside and parts of Scotland.

So enduring is the legend that has grown around Simpson that it is hard sometimes to separate the facts; however, it seems that he had a genuine way with animals. One detail that will certainly ring true for modern day inhabitants of Tyneside is that his mother affectionately called him “Jackie-ma-lad”.

He joined the Merchant Navy and headed off to Australia; just another young man with his way to make in the world and desire to go to sea, as his father had done. At 17, The life of a stoker must have seemed like a dead end and he effectively deserted on arrival in Australia, to travel around the country, working at various jobs and dropping the Kirkpatrick from his name. He signed up to the army in 1914.

Many of Simpson’s biographers make reference to the fact that, tall strong lad that he was, he was an ideal stretcher-bearer.  That was his allotted task. “Stretcher bearer” suggests some degree of organisation and support but in fact conditions were so chaotic, and casualties so high, that the bearers often had to make a dash under fire to carry the wounded back over their shoulders. Shortly after Simpson’s arrival he found one of the donkeys that had arrived with the water bearers and, with a makeshift halter made from a bandage, took the animal to help him carry the wounded back.

He carried on performing this task, totally independent of any orders, with donkeys variously called Abdul, Murphy, Queen Elizabeth and Duffy, for twenty-four days before he was killed. Duffy is the donkey who has made it into legend as the donkey first found by Simpson. After Simpson’s death, the last of Simpson’s donkeys is said to have returned to the camp hospital on his own, carrying the last wounded soldier Simpson had put onto his back.

The bloke with the donk.

Simpson and his donkey had made it into legend and gained the admiration of the establishment whose rules he had refused to follow.  Australia’s greatest WWI General, then Colonel, John Monash, spoke warmly of him: “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.”

We get a vivid, and believable picture of the character of Jack in the the remembrances of his colleagues in the ambulance brigades, as quoted in Tom Curran’s book, “Not only a hero”:; “Andy described Jack as ‘a big man and very muscular, though aged only 22 and was selected at once as a stretcher bearer… he was too human to be a parade ground soldier, and strongly disliked discipline; though not lazy he shirked the drudgery of “forming fours”, and other irksome military tasks.’ Andy also said of Jack “that ‘he was very witty, and inclined to the lazy, very popular, liked a pot or two but did not drink to excess; careless of dress and was a handful to Sgt. Hookway, his Section Sergeant.'”

And from the same author I get a real sense of the quick flashes of exasperated irascibility and biting wit that were part of his character and in which I also recognise the character of my own Geordie and Border ancestors: “Jack was livid. ‘You stupid lookin’ sod!’, he yelled out – to Private Tom Yeomans – ‘the only chance the poor little bugger hez of gettin’ a bit of a rest and yee hev to ride him back half a mile up this hill.’ Jack could have knocked Yeomans off the donkey’s back, he was so angry (as Yeomans later recalled). ‘Sorry mate’, Yeomans said, ‘I didn’t realise.’ Jack’s anger disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, a summer storm. ‘That’s alreet mate’, he grinned, punching the soldier lightly on the shoulder, ‘Divint dee it again, eh!’

The Simpson Memorial at Shields, Tyneside

As with all legends, Jack Simpson’s story has been told, retold, deconstructed, reconstructed, denied; people question how many casualties he and his donkey could really have carried: the detail, the detail. He has been claimed by many, and by the Australians most of all, who know him as “the bloke with the donk”; “Simpson and his donkey”; “the man with the donkey.” His image has been put onto stamps and statues have been erected to him. He has been described as a humanitarian, a trade unionist and “a disaffected English deserter” who hated guns and who only wanted to return home when he signed up for the army in Perth, Australia.



Who are we to judge? We were not there; we did not witness it. Many historians have written of the utter confusion and mess of the Gallipoli Campaign. The only people with the right to comment, it could be argued, were the casualties saved by “the man with the donkey”. They are the people who experienced the work of this man and made his legend: they were the “diggers” of ANZAC cove and with their ghosts and their living relatives it should remain.

One of the many Australian memorials to the "Man with the donk".

Over the years there has been a fervent campaign to obtain a posthumous V.C. for Simpson. Many believe that the lack of a V.C. is a great wrong that should be redressed. In discussing this with my Australian husband, his views were clear; a V.C. would “mean the creation of an official myth. It should be left as it is, for those to whom it belongs.” And as a Geordie, knowing something of the background to Jack Simpson, the type of streets and houses he and his family would have lived in, even the donkeys on the beaches of Northumberland and Durham that were giving rides when I was a child, I agree with him.

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