Australian War Heroes

John Simpson Kirkpatrick

On 5th April, 2011 a black Labrador was awarded the Purple Cross by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Australia (RSPCA). Nine-year-old Sarbi was a Special Forces Explosive Detections dog and went missing following a battle with the Taliban. Thirteen months later she was found and later reunited with her handler.

The Purple Cross Society was established soon after the start of the Second World War with the intention of raising funds to supply gear and veterinary treatment of the Light Horse Brigade. The society was disbanded in 1971. The Victorian wing of the RSPCA preserves and displays the flag of the Society and the Purple Cross Award commemorates the Society and its work.

In 1997, the Purple Cross Award was given posthumously to Murphy, one of the donkeys used by John Simpson Kirkpatrick to ferry wounded soldiers from the battlefield of Gallipoli back to the field hospital. Duffy and Abdul were others who helped him in his work. The award was made in recognition of the part the gentle animals played and their courage and fortitude in the midst of gunshots and mayhem.

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John Simpson Kirkpatrick was born in South Shields, Durham, England. During his boyhood he led donkeys on the seaside. It was here his natural aptitude for handling the animals was developed. When he was eighteen, he went to Australia with the Merchant Navy but deserted his ship when he got there. He travelled round Australia, working on sugar plantations in Queensland, then carrying his swag to a cattle station in New South Wales. He worked as a coal miner in the Illawarra Range, joined a gold rush in Western Australia and worked as a fireman on coastal ships.

When he heard that war had been declared with Germany, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, dropping the Kirkpatrick from his name because of his desertion from the Merchant Navy.

In 1915 he was sent to Egypt, Lemnos then Gallipoli. Simpson served in the 3rd Field Ambulance, Australian Army Medical Corps. He landed at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli on 25 April. Simpson was appointed a stretcher-bearer and, when carrying a wounded man on his shoulders he spotted a little donkey and commandeered it to carry men back to the field hospital. Thus began his work as 'the man with the donkey'. The few photos in existence show bandaged men with their feet barely off the ground and the donkey with a red cross on the browband (or noseband) of the halter.

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Several of the donkeys he used were killed as they went back and forth up the valley under constant attack from artillery, field guns and sniper fire. Simpson camped with his donkey at the Indian Mountain Battery Mule Camp. The Indians called him 'Bahadur', the bravest of the brave. Simpson would whistle and sing as he made his way back and forth and earned the respect and admiration of all.

Not four weeks later, on 19 May, he was bringing two wounded men back to the trenches when he was hit by machine-gun fire and killed. His body was buried on the beach at Hell Spit.

His story captured the imagination of many and there have been various books written on his feats. Myths and mystery surround the facts in some cases. In 1965, Sir Irving Benson wrote 'The Man with the Donkey' and it includes most of the letters that Simpson wrote home to his adored mother and sister. There have been other books written about Simpson and his exploits.

Simpson's image appears on several of Australia's postage stamps.

The landing at Gallipoli on the 25th has been commemorated in Australia ever since as Anzac Day. Thousands turn out to pay tribute to servicemen and women who have fought and are fighting in World Wars I and II, Vietnam and the Middle East.