Inquiry finds flaws in legend of Simpson
War hero? ... a statue outside the War Memorial called Simpson and his Donkey. Photo: Chris Lane
An official inquiry has punctured the most popular legend of the Gallipoli campaign by declaring Simpson – the man with the donkey – was not exceptionally brave.
A Defence Department committee last week found there were no grounds to justify the demand of a long-running public campaign that John Simpson Kirkpatrick be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
But the committee went further to rule that the British-born private was no more gallant than scores of other stretcher-bearers who transported wounded soldiers in the first weeks after the Gallipoli landing in April 1915.
Symbol of ANZA spirit: John Simpson Kirkpatrick helping an unidentified soldier. Photo: John Aloysius O'Brien/Australin
"The tribunal found that Simpson's initiative and bravery were representative of all other stretcher-bearers of the 3rd Field Ambulance," the report said.
Simpson – who enlisted under his middle name to hide the fact that he was a deserter from the merchant navy – spent several weeks ferrying wounded soldiers on a stray donkey before he was killed on May 19.
His story captured the imagination of war correspondents and the Australian public, which came to regard his selfless bravery as exemplifying the Anzac spirit. His deeds have since been celebrated in a series of books, films and plays.
But a year-long inquiry by the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal heard detailed evidence it was impossible for Simpson to have rescued the more than 300 wounded soldiers whose lives he is widely credited with saving.
Instead, it was estimated he ferried fewer than half that number before his death, all of them lightly wounded and none with life-threatening injuries.
The tribunal was told that there was no evidence in military archives to support the popular belief that Simpson had repeatedly ventured into no-man's land under Turkish fire to rescue badly wounded soldiers.
One submission detailed how several witnesses whose vivid accounts of Simpson's bravery have reinforced the legend of the man with the donkey were not even at Gallipoli at the time.
The tribunal ruled Simpson's bravery had been "appropriately recognised" by a Mentioned-in-Dispatches award made to him and seven other members of the 3rd Field Ambulance in early May 1915. It concluded there were no grounds for him to receive a VC or any other gallantry medal.
Tribunal chairman Alan Rose told a news conference last week that Simpson was "a curiosity" who, having chosen a donkey as his method of transport, was "largely only able to bring lightly wounded men" down from the front lines to the beach at Anzac Cove.
"The judgment by his peers, by his commanders at the time, was that he had displayed considerable bravery but that it didn't reach the very high levels either for the award of a second or third-level award – a Distinguished Conduct Medal or a Military Medal – much less a Victoria Cross," he said.