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The donkey vote: a VC for Simpson--the case against.

The story of the AIF abounds with myths. One of the most persistent of those myths is that connected with the purported recommendation for a Victoria Cross (VC) for Private John Simpson (Kirkpatrick) of the 3rd Field Ambulance, the so-called 'Man With the Donkey', and the supposed reason for its non-award. The story, one of the most persistent connected with the AIF, goes that Simpson was officially recommended for a VC by both his company commander and his unit commander; however, goes the story, due to inexperience on the part of the officers preparing the recommendation, Simpson was recommended 'under the wrong category' and thus he was 'only' mentioned in despatches, instead of awarded the VC that he had been recommended for.

Subsequently, there have been numerous campaigns mounted to award 'poor' Simpson the VC that he 'deserved' and was 'recommended for'. The campaigners have ranged from the highest in the land, including a Governor-General, a Prime Minister and numerous politicians, to the most ordinary people. What all of these campaigners hold in common, whatever their station in society, is that they are all grossly misinformed and indeed misled.

The 'Purple Cross' for 'Murphy'

A recent impetus for the posthumous award of the VC to Simpson was the award of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty's Purple Cross to Simpson's donkey in 1997. This more than slightly precious action has been a spur to campaigners as they feel that if Simpson's donkey has been 'recognised', then so should he. One major point about this overwhelmingly twee action on the part of the RSPCA is that a single award to, putatively, 'Murphy', Simpson's donkey, despite the disclaimers of the RSPCA, largely ignores the fact that Simpson is known to have employed at least four donkeys at Gallipoli. In addition, the 'posthumous award' of the Purple Cross, over 80 years after the event and to an entity whose fate is unknown, is little more than pointless. The RSPCA's action is, of course, the explanation for the somewhat sarcastic title of this paper. The problem for all of these campaigners, however, despite the 'recognition' of Simpson's donkey, is that the story outlined above, which, unfortunately, is the generally accepted one, just does not stand up to critical examination.


Before examining the VC campaigns, it is probably in place to examine the actual historical background to the situation. Although I will refer on several occasions to John Simpson Kirkpatrick by his full legal name, as he is generally referred to as 'Simpson', for the sake of clarity that is the name I will mainly use.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick was born in South Shields in the County of Durham in England on 6 July 1892. The son of a merchant seaman, he too took up the call of the sea and at the age of 17 became a merchant seaman. Employed as a fireman or stoker on small trading ships, he worked his way to Australia where, in 1910 he jumped ship, i.e. deserted. It has been suggested by at least one knowledgeable person that Simpson was in fact paid off in Australia, rather than deserted. This theory is based on the fact that articles of engagement were not necessarily for a UK to UK trip but might be for one particular leg of a voyage only, in Simpson's case, from the UK to Newcastle in Australia. The theory is not supported by the indisputable fact that Simpson enlisted into the AIF under an assumed name. Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, deliberate failure to complete articles constituted the crime of desertion. A seaman guilty of desertion forfeited all wages due to him, not only for the ship he had deserted from, but for any other ship on which he engaged for return to the United Kingdom if he had not already been subjected to the punishment prescribed by law. In addition to loss of wages, a merchant seaman guilty of desertion under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 was liable to arrest without warrant in any British possession and a period of penal servitude up to 3 months, with or without hard labour. (2) This definitely supports the theory that Simpson was in fact a deserter as, had he enlisted into the AIF under his legal name, he was liable to arrest and detention for desertion from the merchant marine. The theory that Simpson jumped ship is supported by the man's own words. In a letter to his mother, mailed from Australia and dated 30 May 1910, Simpson quite openly admitted that he had 'cleared out' after waiting until the portion of his pay owing for the voyage out (referred to in his letter as 'the half pay'), which was due on 12 May, was paid. With the money duly paid, Simpson and 13 other members of the ship's crew deserted. (3)

Simpson knocked about Australia for the next four years, working at various jobs. At the outbreak of the war he was in Western Australia and he enlisted in the AIF in Perth on 5 September 1914. His unit on enlistment is given as AAMC or Australian Army Medical Corps. Various theories have been advanced as to why a big, strong, strapping lad like Simpson was enlisted into the Medical Corps, rather than the Infantry. These range from the influence of a mate who was enlisting into the Medical Corps, all the way to being the best way to avoid the fighting. Personally, I believe the most likely explanation is that the fighting units being raised from Western Australia were full and Simpson was simply allocated to the Medical Corps as part of the normal enlistment process. Certainly his physique, physical strength and acquaintance with hard work would have suited him well to the role of stretcher-bearer, to which work he was allotted with 'C' Section of the 3rd Field Ambulance, the medical unit of the 3rd Infantry Brigade.

Simpson embarked at Fremantle with the rest of 'C' Section aboard the aptly named SS 'Medic' on 4 November 1914. Arriving in Egypt, Simpson worked and trained with his unit until it departed for Lemnos at the beginning of March 1915. He landed with elements of his unit as Gallipoli on the morning of 25 April 1915. Presumably he worked as a stretcher-bearer and first aid man on the day of the landing. The next day, 26 April 1915, all accounts agree, Simpson commandeered a stray donkey and began to use it to bring lightly wounded men down from Monash and Shrapnel Gullies to the dressing stations at the beach. He continued this self-appointed task until the day of his death on 19 May 1915, at the same time managing to sew the seeds of an enduring legend.

Simpson's service at Gallipoli, his supposed heroism and self-sacrifice, quickly became the stuff of legend and since that time the man himself has become totally immersed by the myth. This in itself is bad enough as, firstly, the real Simpson is now almost impossible to find, but Simpson's contribution to the campaign, actually minimal when viewed in the cold light of day, has served to overshadow the courage and sacrifice of all of the other men who served there, especially the other medical personnel. Even worse, however, is the fact that the wide acceptance of the myth has led to strident demands that Simpson be awarded first Britain's and now Australia's highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. As early as 1933 there were calls for a VC for Simpson, and these calls have continued unabated down through the years. It is almost certain, for instance, that readers will be aware of the efforts by Labor MP Jill Hall to secure this award for Simpson over the past few years. The aim of this paper is to examine the reasons why a VC not only cannot but should not be awarded to Simpson and to put the rarely heard case against this ridiculous concept.

The 'Case' For a VC

Leaving aside the enormous corpus of oral tradition, the case for a VC for Simpson revolves around a number of diary and journal entries and a written statement by Colonel John Monash, which is interpreted as a 'recommendation for a VC'.

In his diary, the CO of the 3rd Field Ambulance wrote, on 24 May 1915:
 I sent in a report about No. 202 Pte Simpson J., of C Section, shot
 on duty on May 19th 1915. He was a splendid fellow and went up the
 gullies day and night brining the wounded on donkeys. I hope he
 will be awarded the D.C.M. (4)

On 1 June 1915, Sutton wrote:
 A.D.M.S. is fighting about honours these has been a hitch and he
 says he has asked to be relieved if his recommendations are not
 accepted. Graham Butler is safe for the D.S.O. I am glad to say &
 I think we'll get a VC for poor Simpson. (5)

Another piece of evidence put forward by those who campaign for a VC for Simpson is contained in the personal recollections of Captain H.K. Fry, OC of the 3rd Field Ambulance's Bearer Company. Fry writes "Saw ADMS re Simpson & Goldsmith (Simpson for V.C.) Adams, Sharpies & Jeffries & Carrick to give evidence". (6) and later "Adams & Sharpies evidence [re Simpson] in morning. Afternoon Jeffries. Saw ADMS--soft futile words". (7)

Finally, the campaigners quote the so-called VC recommendation from Colonel John Monash, CO of 4th Infantry Brigade. In this oft-quoted passage, Monash wrote, on 20 May 1915:
 I desire to bring under special notice, for favour of transmission
 to the proper authority, the case of Private Simpson, stated to
 belong to C Section of the 3rd Field Ambulance. This man has been
 working in this valley since 26th April, in collecting wounded and
 carrying them to the dressing stations. He had a small donkey which
 he used, to carry all cases unable to walk.

 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 they 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.

 Simpson and his donkey were yesterday killed by a shrapnel shell,
 and enquiry then elicited that he belonged to none of the Army
 Medical units of this brigade; but he had become separated from his
 own unit, and had carried on his perilous work on his own
 initiative. (8)

In addition to these recorded statements, those who currently campaign for the posthumous award of a VC for Simpson point to the unsuccessful attempt in 1967 by the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, the Governor-General, Lord Casey, and the Chief of the General Staff,

Major General Brand, to have the VC awarded. This information is repeated, for example, by Curran. (9)

This is the 'evidence' on which the case for the posthumous award of a VC to Simpson is based.

The Case Against

The case against the award of a posthumous VC to Simpson is based on three aspects, namely; physical, historical and technical.

Physical. The main reason that campaigners for a VC for Simpson give as justification for the award is the stated 'fact' that Simpson 'saved over 300 lives' with his donkey. Curran for instance writes:

Simpson rescued somewhere in the region of three hundred casualties. (10)

The problem with this statement is that, firstly, it is physically impossible for Simpson to have brought down 'over 300 men' in the time that he was working and secondly, a clinical and unbiased examination of the facts will show that he did not in fact probably 'save' anybody.

First, let's take a look at the figure of '300 men saved'. The popular accepted belief is that Simpson toiled from dawn to dusk, tramping from the dressing stations at the beach up Shrapnel Gully and into Monash Gully, rescuing wounded men and bringing them back down to the beach. Let us examine the physics of that belief. Even today, for a fit person, well fed, unencumbered and not threatened by sudden death, the round trip from the beach to the top of Monash Gully and back again takes a minimum of three hours. That is a non-stop trip--up from the beach, turn around immediately at the summit, and walk back down again. Thus each trip to and from the beach would have taken Simpson a minimum of three hours, but this presupposes that no time at all was taken at each end, loading and unloading wounded men. But some time at least must have been taken at this task, at least five minutes at each end. Thus we now have a round trip time of three hours and ten minutes. To achieve his mythical goal of 300 casualties, Simpson would have needed to bring down 12-13 men per day. Presuming that no other time was taken, and presuming that Simpson started just after first light (a reasonable presumption, as it is known that he took breakfast normally at the water guard above the beach), with a round trip of three hours and ten minutes he would have needed to work from 0600 in the morning to 0600 the next morning, bringing down two men at a time for each trip and keep this up non-stop for the whole period from 26 April-19 May to reach the total.

We have no idea what 'half the night' constitutes. Did it mean Simpson worked until there was no more light? With the round trip time of three hours and ten minutes, this would have occurred on this filth trip of the day, which would have seen him arrive back at the beach sometime around 2200. Perhaps he worked on until the early hours of the morning, which would have meant the end of his sixth trip of the day, which would have ended at about 0200. This would give him four hours in which to take care of the donkey (or donkeys) get something to eat and, if lucky, catch a couple of hours of sleep. I personally find this hard to believe. Certainly, a physically fit person could keep up such a regime for a few days, but not for three consecutive weeks.

All accounts agree that Simpson began his self-appointed work on 26 April 1915, the day after the landing. He was killed on 19 May 1915, 24 days later. However, once again, all accounts agree that he was killed on 19 May 1915 at the very start of the day's work and thus that day can be discounted, bringing the time down to 23 days. Accepting that Simpson managed the Herculean task of working from 0600 each morning to 0200 the next morning, without rest for the entire 23 days, then the maximum number of men he could have helped down, presuming two per trip, was 276. However, while there are mentions of Simpson bringing down more than one man at a time, this apparently was not the norm, and every extant photograph of Simpson shows him with only one man on the donkey. It would appear that the norm for Simpson was actually one man at a time, which translates to a maximum of six casualties per day, or 138 men. However, this figure does not take into account the fact that Simpson would have stopped to eat (we know that he did eat), to rest, to chat with mates and of course answer the calls of nature. This would possibly have taken at least two hours out of his day. i.e. or the equivalent of basically a round trip. This in turn translates in to a subtraction of one man a day for every day from 26 April-18 May 1915, a total of 23, which, now gives a figure of 112. However, this figure still does not take into account other variables such as the increased time the trip would have taken after dark, possibly twice as long. Or the increase in time caused by physical exhaustion as both the day's work wore on and the privations of the campaign took their toll. Or delays in the journey caused by other traffic up and down the gullies. Although unable to prove it, I believe, and the figures quoted seem to support this, that the total number of men who Simpson gave a lift to on his donkey was at most 100, and probably less.

We now turn to the question of just who Simpson saved. The fact is that an examination of the evidence, based on cold, hard logic, shows that Simpson did not in fact 'save' anybody! In justifying this almost blasphemous statement, I would ask the reader to consider this question: who could Simpson have taken on his donkey?

This is not a trick question, but perhaps it would be better to consider who could Simpson not take on his donkey? The answer to this question is:

* Any man who was unconscious.

* Any man with a severe head or facial wound.

* Any man with a severe neck wound.

* Any man with a back wound.

* Any man with a chest wound.

* Any man with an abdominal wound.

* Any man with a pelvic wound, either anterior or posterior.

* Any man with a wound of upper leg, in particular major wounds of the thigh.

The reason for all of these exceptions is, of course, that these men could not sit on a donkey. Having eliminated all of these types of wounded men then, the question again is put, who could Simpson have taken on a donkey? The answer is:

* Any man with a minor head or facial wound.

* Any man with an arm or shoulder wound.

* Any man with wound to the lower leg or foot.

In other words, walking wounded. So in fact, the claim that Simpson 'saved' an unknown number of lives cannot be supported by a logical examination of the facts. Histrionic claims such as that quoted by Tom Curran in his book Across the Bar in which he quotes E.C. Buley as describing how Simpson would, with a 'lightning dash' dart into No-Man's-Land, take a 'wounded man on his back' and make for cover again just cannot be supported. (11) Curran's quoting of Buley's 1915 vintage outright jingoism with not a single word of critical analysis is an excellent example of the lack of proper scholarship in a book that is currently held up as one of the best accounts of Simpson and his life and death. The fact that Simpson was doing nothing more than giving a donkey ride to lightly wounded men was confirmed by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sutton, who, on 4 May 1915, wrote:
 Pte Simpson has shown initiation (sic) in using a donkey from the
 26th to carry slightly wounded cases. (12)

The phrase 'slightly wounded' reoccurs in the diary of Chaplain Gillison, who wrote:
 I do not remember if I have mentioned a young fellow, Pvte. John
 Simpson, who used to take slightly wounded men down to the beach
 on a donkey. (13)

In addition to these two contemporary diary entries, the fact that Simpson assisted lightly wounded men is confirmed by all of the extant photographs of Simpson with wounded on a donkey. In every photograph it is obvious that the man on the donkey is lightly wounded and generally does not appear to be in any great distress. We also have the personal recollection of one of the men that Simpson 'saved', Peter Chick (1012 P.C. Chick, 12th Battalion). In 1965, in the popular magazine Everybody's, Chick recounted his tale of the day he was given a ride by Simpson, under the title 'The day Simpson said to me: "Ride the Donkey Mate"'. Chick told the story of how he had been wounded in the foot three days after the landing and then recalled:

Simpson was on his way back up the gully from the hospital clearing station. He saw I was limping and said: 'Ride on the donkey, mate.'

But I told him I could manage--that there were others worse than me.

He insisted: 'Get on, it's not far to take you back', he said. (14)

Incredibly, Curran, 80 years after the event, decides that he knows better than one of the senior medical officers on the spot at Gallipoli in May 1915 and advises us that Sutton obviously did not know what he was talking about when he described the men Simpson was carrying on his donkey as slightly wounded. Curran refers to Sutton's reference to 'slightly wounded' as 'his unfortunate designation' and then goes on to tell us just how dangerous, indeed life-threatening all leg wounds were at Gallipoli. (15) Curran very generously excuses Sutton on the grounds that he was obviously tired and suffering from the strain of the campaign, that was beginning to take its toll. (16) Here we see the classic, almost quintessential Simpson champion, ignoring facts, dismissing them or twisting them to suit the pro-Simpson bias.

Historical. In considering the historical part of the equation, it is necessary to refer back to the various written statements used by the VC for Simpson campaigners to prove their claim that Simpson was 'officially recommended' for a VC.

First of all, we have the diary entries from Simpson's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sutton. Then we have the written statement of Simpson's company commander, Captain Fry. Third is the official mention of Simpson by Monash. Finally, we have the official representations of the then Prime Minister, the then Governor-General and the Chief of the General Staff in 1967, as reported by Curran and others.

Taking these in order, the diary entries by Colonel Sutton are just that, diary entries, no more, no less. No matter what the champions of Simpson's VC cause say about the matter, diary entries, no matter from whose diary, do not constitute a recommendation for the VC. Sutton's diary certainly makes it clear that he may have wished to have Simpson awarded a VC, but that seems to be as far as he went. There is certainly no record anywhere of an official, written recommendation for a VC for Simpson. Simpson's champions are either not aware of, or ignore the fact that the Australian War Memorial holds 70 unsuccessful recommendations for award of the VC for the First World War. In every case the recommendation was rejected and in all but one case a lesser award recommended and awarded. The point is that each of the recommendations specifically named the man for award of the VC. None of these recommendations is for Simpson, a fact that renders the oft heard argument of Simpson's champions that he was not awarded the VC due to an 'administrative error' totally spurious and unsupportable.

As for Fry's input, those who quote this as a VC recommendation neglect to add that the document the statements are drawn from is a personal narrative written by the by then Lieutenant Colonel Fry at the behest of Colonel Butler, the official medical historian. Butler had requested medical officers who had served at Gallipoli to write down their recollections and send them to him. Thus, Fry's statements were made from memory, in either late 1918 or early 1919, almost four years after the events. Again, as with Sutton's diary entries, these statements by Fry, written from memory years after the event do not in any way constitute an official recommendation for the VC.

Next, Monash's mention of Simpson's work. Simpson's champions always hold this up as the official recommendation for a VC and state that the only reason that Simpson did not get a VC was that Monash's recommendation was entered under the 'wrong category.' This is, to put it politely, total poppycock. An examination of the nine VCs awarded to Australians at Gallipoli show that in every case, except that of Jacka, the formal written recommendation contains the words 'recommendation for the award of the Victoria Cross'. (17) Nowhere in his written statement in reference to Simpson does Monash use the words 'Victoria Cross'. Monash's statement is in fact exactly what it was and is, a classic mention in despatches. From this we can see that Monash, while obviously aware of Simpson's activities, and possibly even in admiration of them, did not think them worthy of a VC.

A particularly interesting and significant portion of Monash's statement is the first sentence of the second paragraph. Note that Monash wrote that Simpson had the admiration 'of everyone at the upper end of the valley'. This implies that no one else at Gallipoli was aware of or in admiration of Simpson and gives something of a lie to the belief that Simpson was legend in his own time.
 If any further proof was needed of the fact that Simpson's
 recommendation was never for anything other than a mention in
 despatches, we only have to look at the letter from Acting
 Commander of 1st Australian Division (Brigadier General Walker)
 to GOC ANZAC dated 28 May 1915. (18) In this letter Walker

 In accordance with the instructions contained in your
 memorandum No. Ab.252, dated 18th instant, I have now the
 honour to bring to your notice the names of the officers,
 noncommissioned officers, and men, on the attached lists
 whose services are, for the reasons given, deserving of

 2. It was, I understand, the intention of Major-General Bridges
 to forward these as a supplement to his dispatch, dated 7th

Appended to this letter is a list of names, the names of members of the Army Medical Corps appearing on page 27. At this page are 17 names, comprising three officers, seven noncommissioned officers and seven privates, representing the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Field Ambulances and the 1st Casualty Clearing Station. The 15th name, almost at the bottom, is that of 202 Private Simpson, J. To the right of the list of names, under the column marked particulars, is the following entry:
 The late General Officer Commanding referred in his previous
 despatch to the conspicuous gallantry of the A.A.M.C. The names
 hereon were submitted by the A.D.M.S. who in the circumstances had
 great difficulty in choosing form the many men whose courage and
 devotion were exemplary.

This makes it quite clear that, first of all, Simpson was never recommended for a VC, his recommendation being for a mention in despatches. Secondly, the relative position of Simpson in the list of names makes it quite clear that the people in charge at the time and in the place, i.e. those most qualified to decide and recommend, did not consider his actions to be any more praise worthy or deserving of recognition than those of all of the other members of the Medical Corps who worked, suffered and died on the Gallipoli Peninsular.

There are two non-Medical Corps recommendations on the same page as that containing Simpson's recommendation, one for 1571 Lance Corporal F. Hart and one for 918 Private F. Godfrey, both of the 12th Battalion. Hart was cited for having 'Left trenches under heavy fire for ammunition and, although wounded, return(ing) with it.' For his part, Godfrey's citation states that he 'Captured a German officer and went out single-handed and shot five snipers.' Both men displayed cold blooded courage of the highest order, yet it is significant that the award both received was the same as that extended to Simpson, i.e. a mention in despatches (Godfrey would subsequently be awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for a separate action). This is further proof that Simpson was never recommended for a VC and that the MID he received was exactly what he was recommended for.

Finally, we need to consider the 1967 application to the British authorities made, we are told, by the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, the then Governor-General Lord Casey and the 'Chief of the General Staff', Major General Brand. As with the various statements held out to be official recommendations, the VC Simpson campaign regularly holds this unsuccessful attempt up as a precedent and urges the Australian government to once more go to bat for 'poor Simpson'. A major point put forward by the campaigners is that both Lord Casey and General Brand had served at Gallipoli and were thus eye-witnesses to Simpson's gallantry. There are two problems with this--first, although it is undeniable that Lord Casey had been at Gallipoli, as a staff officer, and would certainly have been aware of Simpson's activities, may even have seen him walking his donkey up or down Shrapnel Gully at some time, this does not necessarily make him an eye-witness to any actual act of gallantry on the part of Simpson. In addition, a statement put forward over 50 years after the events would have to be treated with a great deal of caution. The second problem is that while Charles Brand was a Gallipoli veteran and had indeed been Chief of the General Staff, his tenure as CGS had been from 1926-1928, not contemporaneous with the 1967 application as Simpson's champions believe! In addition, Simpson's champions are either unaware or deliberately ignore that fact that Brand, who retired from the Army in 1933, died in 1961, six years before he was supposed to have been involved in an application for the award of a VC for Simpson. (19) These facts, Casey's unreliability as a witness and Brand's impossibility of bearing witness, render the 1967 application totally valueless as any sort of precedent for contemporary government action. The fact that Curran blithely refers in his book to Brand's involvement in the 1967 application is yet another example of the very poor scholarship displayed in the book that for some reason is considered the best contemporary account of Simpson. (20)

The Technical Impediments

Finally, the technical impediments to the posthumous award of either a Victoria Cross (VC) or a Victoria Cross for Australia (AVC) to Simpson.

For the award of a VC, even ignoring the fact that Simpson was never recommended for the decoration, the fact that the British published the end of war list in 1919 and the then monarch, King George V, decreed that no more operational awards would be made for the recently concluded war make it impossible for a VC award to be even considered. This, of course, was the reason that the 1967 application was unsuccessful. In addition, the fact that Simpson has already been mention in despatches means that he could not be awarded a VC as this would constitute being decorated twice for the same action. This is contrary to a long standing tenet of both the British and Australian Honours and Awards systems. For a VC to be awarded (even if this were possible), Simpson's MID would first need to be cancelled. The British government has stated categorically that this would not be done. Again, Simpson's champions point to the case of John Jackson, the Australian VC recipient who was originally recommended for the DCM. When Jackson's DCM recommendation was upgraded to a VC recommendation, his original DCM recommendation was, unfortunately, not withdrawn due to an oversight. As a result, the DCM was gazetted two weeks after his VC was gazetted and for the rest of his life Jackson insisted on wearing both the VC and the DCM he said he was entitled to, despite the fact that his DCM was cancelled in The London Gazette on 20 July 1916. (21) The Simpson for VC campaign states that since Jackson's DCM has been cancelled, then cancelling Simpson's MID to clear the way for the award of a VC would be simplicity itself. This reasoning ignores the fact that the cancellation of Jackson's DCM was the result of that recommendation having been overtaken by a recommendation for a higher award. Jackson's DCM was not cancelled in order to pave the way for the award of a VC, it was cancelled as the DCM recommendation had been upgraded to a VC recommendation and he could not have two decorations for the same act of gallantry. In Simpson's case, since he never was recommended for a VC, but was recommended for and ultimately mention in despatches, before a VC could be awarded, even if this were possible, he would need to have his MID cancelled. As the MID was the correctly recommended and gazetted award, the British would never consent to this.

Going beyond the matter of the impossibility of the cancellation of Simpson's correctly gazetted MID, for a VC recommendation to have any sort of chance at all, the recommendation would need to be accompanied by several verifiable eye witness statements. At this remove of history, over 90 years after the event, obtaining such eye witness accounts would be impossible. Regardless of the claims of Simpson's supporters and champions, the written statements of Lieutenant Colonel Sutton and Captain Fry do not and cannot constitution recommendations or eye witness endorsements for the award of a VC.

Plan B for the Simpson for VC campaigners is for the award of an AVC to Simpson. As with the VC this is totally impossible, as well, of course, as being totally inappropriate. In the first place, the awarding of a decoration that was not even in existence until 76 years after the events it is meant to be awarded for is completely inappropriate. Beyond this, however, the current policy on the recommendation and award of the AVC is contained in Defence Instructions (General) Personnel 31-3 'Australian Gallantry and Distinguished Service Decorations' DI(G) PERS 31-8 states quite explicitly, at paragraph 22:
 Nominations for the Victoria Cross are to be supported by signed
 statements of at least three witnesses of the act for which the
 award is recommended. Wherever possible these statements should
 be on oath. (22)

As with witness statements for an award of the VC to Simpson, finding three eye witnesses to attest to Simpson's actions is, obviously, a total impossibility. Thus the award of a AVC to Simpson would be a technical impossibility, even if it were merited. Before concluding, there are several other technical points that Simpson's champions consistently get wrong. The first of these concerns precedents for a posthumous award of the VC and its impact on attempts to get a VC for Simpson. In the end note to his book, discussing the failed 1967 bid, Curran writes:
 Their request was denied. The British military leaders sent a very
 gracious reply saying that much as they would like to do this, "it
 would begin a precedent which would be impossible to implement."

 NB. This statement by the British War Office was incorrect. The
 precedent had already been set,

 In 1907, the Victoria Cross was awarded posthumously,
 (and most deservedly so) to the late Lieutenants Melvill and
 Coghill, for their gallant actions in attempting to save the
 Regiment's Colours, at Isandhlwana, South Africa, in 1879,
 during the Zulu Wars.

 The award was made 28 years after the event. (23)

Curran's argument, as with others, appears to be that the British were saying that awarding a posthumous VC to Simpson in 1967, 52 years after the event, would set a precedent for posthumous awards long after the event. Curran then counter-argues that the award of the VC to Coghill and Melvill in 1907, 28 years after their deaths in action in South Africa, already set the precedent. As with all others who make this argument, Curran totally misses the point. The decision to award posthumous VC's to Coghill and Melvill was a precedent for the making of posthumous awards not a precedent for making delayed posthumous awards. The point that Curran and others continually miss is that both Coghill and Melvill were recommended for the VC at the time of their action, The VC Statutes, however, did not permit posthumous awards at the time and the best that could be done for them was to publish their names in The London Gazette, with the notation that, had they lived, they would have been recommended to the Queen for the award of the VC. Once the precedent for posthumous awards had been set during the Boer War (1899-1902) the decision was made to award the VC's to Coghill and Melvill that they had been recommended for. Here is the crux of the matter--Coghill and Melvill were recommended for the VC, Simpson, as demonstrated in detail above, was not.

Another point missed by Curran, and others, and yet another example of the incredibly sloppy scholarship that is the hallmark of the VC for Simpson campaigners, is the fact that when putting forward the argument based on Coghill and Melvill's VC, those putting the argument always state that it was Coghill and Melvill who set the precedent, with the gap of 28 years between action and award. This is totally incorrect. The London Gazette of-15 January 1907, carried a total of six names of officers and men who were awarded the VC posthumously based on recommendations made at the time of actions that had cost them their lives in the years preceding 1907. These were, with the date of their gazette recommendation and the conflict involved:

* Private Edward Spence, 42nd Foot--27 May 1859 (Indian Mutiny)

* Ensign Everard Aloysius Lisle Phillips, 11th Bengal Native Infantry--21 Oct 1859 (Indian Mutiny)

* Lieutenant Nevill Josiah Aylmer Coghill, 24th Foot--2 May 1879 (Zulu War)

* Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill, 24th Foot--2 May 1879 (Zulu War)

* Trooper Frank William Baxter, Bulawayo Field Force--7 May 1897 (Matabele Rebellion)

* Lieutenant Hector Lachlan Stewart MacLean, Indian Staff Corps--9 Nov 1897 (Matabele Rebellion) (24)

So in fact the greatest length of time between a recommendation and a posthumous award was 48 years, not 28 as Curran and others state, and is still immaterial to Simpson's case in any event, since each of the six had been recommended, whereas Simpson had not.

The next technical detail that Simpson campaigners invariably get wrong is the belief that Simpson was not awarded a VC because of an order then in existence which stated that medical personnel were not to be recommended for the VC for rescuing wounded, as this was their job anyway. Curran mentions this at the very end of his book and notes that the first VC awarded at Gallipoli went to a British stretcher-bearer (Lance Corporal W.R. Parker, RMLI) of the Royal Naval Division on 1 May 1915. Curran seems to infer that if Parker, despite this putative order, could be awarded the VC for rescuing 'a number of wounded men from a trench' then it is manifestly unfair for Simpson, who 'rescued somewhere in the vicinity of three hundred casualties during ... his donkey-trips down Monash Valley', to be denied the award. (25)

Yet again, we see the efforts of the Simpson campaigners fall victim to poor scholarship. The order to the effect that the VC would only be awarded for acts of conspicuous gallantry which were materially conducive to the attainment of victory did exist. And the order did in fact state that:
 Cases of gallantry in life saving, of however fine a nature, will
 not be considered for the award of the VC.

However, the fact that Curran and others consistently miss is that this order was not published and promulgated until August 1916, well over a year after Simpson's death at Gallipoli in May 1915. While no original copy of the order can be located, it was re-published, apparently in identical form to the original, in AAMC orders for the 1st Australian Division on 30 August 1916 and the 2nd Australian Division on 29 August 1916. (26) In addition, the order was aimed not at medical personnel but at other troops, whose job it was in fact carry on the fight, rather than recover wounded. The order as published to the 1st and 2nd Divisions in fact expressly stated:
 In future the Victoria Cross or other immediate award will not be
 given for the rescue of wounded, excepting for those whose duty
 it is to care for such cases (emphasis mine). (27)

So, while the order existed, it did not exist at the time of Simpson's service at Gallipoli and, even if it had existed, it would not have precluded him from receiving a VC if he had been recommended for one.

The final technical point is connected with just what a VC can be awarded for. It is a common theme of the Simpson campaigners, amounting almost to a mantra, that one of the main reasons for Simpson missing out on a VC was that he was recommended in the 'wrong category'. A good example of this can be found in the Sunday Mail of 13 March 2005, under the heading 'Let's fix that clerical error.' The unknown author of this piece advised us that:
 As is now well-known, (Simpson) was denied the VC because his
 recommendation was for the wrong category of bravery.

Well-known? By whom? Doubtless the author based this piece on information gleaned from the writings and statements of Simpson campaigners. The basic argument of these people is that Simpson was recommended for gallantry, rather than for devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy and since the awarding authorities were unable to single out one individual action, the recommendation lapsed. This is absolute nonsense, for two reasons--first, the Statutes for the VC have never laid a restriction on the number of actions that can be recognised, either one or many. This was made abundantly clear in 1881 with the issue of a Royal Warrant that stated quite specifically:
 Our will and pleasure is that the qualification shall be
 "conspicuous bravery or devotion to the country in the
 presence of the enemy", and that Our Warrant of 29th
 January, 1856, shall be read and interpreted accordingly. (28)

So claims to the effect that Simpson's 'recommendation' failed due to the fact that he had performed numerous actions but could only be cited for one are so much nonsense. Similarly, the claims by the anonymous author of the Sunday Mail article that Simpson was denied a VC due to 'bureaucratic pecksniffery' are absolute rot. The fact is that Simpson was never recommended for a VC and thus there was no chance for the recommendation to be rejected. Had the recommendation actually been made and had it been viewed as weak or poorly written, it would have been returned for further work, with advice on how best to frame it in order to achieve its aim. The fact that this did not happen is not vindication of the Sunday Mail's sarcastic jibes aimed at the military mind, rather it is further proof that the recommendation was never made.


To conclude, for reasons beyond his own control, Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick has become an Australian 'icon', the ideal of the gallantry and self-sacrifice of the Digger. However, as Peter Cochrane has so rightly pointed out, all that the growth of the myth surrounding Simpson has done has been to serve to 'hide the man.' (29) The myth tells us that Simpson, seeing a need to get the wounded down to the beach as quickly as possible, acted on his own initiative and secured a stray donkey to assist him with his work of carrying out daring rescues of wounded men and bringing them back to medical assistance. His gallantry, for which he was recommended for a Victoria Cross that was ultimately to be denied him, was eventually to cost him his life.

That is the accepted version anyway.

Another version of the story, the one that I believe is closer to the truth, is that Simpson absented himself from unit, refused to report to said unit, and created for himself a job that was far easier and, despite all that has been said about the perils of his job, far safer than carrying wounded men down Monash and Shrapnel Gullies as part of a bearer team, and allowed him to be his own boss. The fact is that Simpson was a stretcher-bearer, not a donkey driver. All of the men he 'saved' were in fact lightly wounded men, walking wounded who could have quite easily have made it down Shrapnel Gully on their own. To my mind Simpson should have been lending his strength and presence where it was needed, in a stretcher-bearer team, not doing his own thing strolling up and down Shrapnel and Monash Gullies with a donkey. It is not a great leap of imagination to actually wonder how many men at Gallipoli died because a stretcher-bearer team was short a man due to Simpson's absence.

Much is made about how brave Simpson was to walk up and down Shrapnel and Monash Gully every day under Turkish fire. To read statements along these lines is to leave one with the impression that Simpson was the only person who did this. This is pure nonsense. The two gullies were major thoroughfares, as busy as Pitt Street at peak hour, and hundreds, even thousands of men, walked up and down them, under enemy fire, every day of the campaign. In this, Simpson was no braver than anyone else at Gallipoli.

The statement that Simpson was recommended for a VC but had it denied for various reasons is totally false, There is no record anywhere, notwithstanding written statements of Lieutenant Colonel Sutton and Captain Fry, that a recommendation was ever made. The so-called 'recommendation' of Colonel Monash, putatively for the award of the VC, is and always was a mention in despatches', the level of award that Simpson's commanders finally felt that he deserved.

No matter how hard they try, the Simpson for VC campaigners cannot change the facts to suit their agenda. Even if they could produce a written recommendation, it could not be acted on, either for the VC or the VCA. For the VC, Australia had its chance to upgrade Simpson's MID to a VC just after the end of the war when calls went out to the Dominion authorities for submissions for the end of war list. No submission was made in the case of Simpson and that door is now well and truly closed. As for the VCA, the regulations governing the award of that decoration are quite precise and unambiguous--without three eye-witness statements (impossible to obtain) there is no chance in the world that a AVC can be awarded, even if this were appropriate.

I will be totally honest here and say that I personally believe that Simpson's place in the Australian psyche is totally undeserved. He was no braver than any other man on the Gallipoli Peninsular. His actions appear to me to have been entirely self-motivated and possibly even self-interested. Let's face it, strolling up and down a gully beside a donkey, with the donkey carrying a lightly injured man on the return trip, would have been far easier than struggling down that gully at one end of a laden stretcher. Not only is the campaign to have a VC or AVC posthumously awarded to Simpson impossible and inappropriate, the award would be, in my opinion, wholly undeserved.

Graham Wilson (1)

(1) This paper will be further developed and feedback on the issues the paper raises is sought by the author. Any feedback from this or any Sabretache article can be directed to with the subject line marked "Attention author" and the email will be referred to the author.--Editor

(2) Merchant Shipping Act 1894, Sec.221(a).

(3) AWM3 DRL3424, letter from John Simpson Kirkpatrick to his mother, Mrs Sarah Kirkpatrick, date 30 May 1910.

(4) AWM PR 2DRL/1227, Original Diary of COL A. Sutton, C.B., C.M.G., A.A.M.C.

(5) Ibid.

(6) AWM 41 [2/7.15] 'Personal Narrative Lt. Col. H.K. Fry D.S.O.', entry for 3 June 1915.

(7) Ibid.

(8) AWM PR83/69, 10 of 17.

(9) Curran, Tom, 1994 Across the Bar The Story of '"Simpson". The Man with the Donkey. Australia and Tyneside's Great Military Hero, OGMIOS Publications, Brisbane, p. 369.

(10) Curran, p. 368.

(11) From Glorious Deeds of Australasians in the Great War, by E.C. Buley--quoted by Curran in Across the Bar, p.279.

(12) AWM PR 2DRL/1227.

(13) King, Jonathan, 2003 Gallipoli Diaries: The Anzacs' own story day by day, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW, p. 95.

(14 Everybody's, 12 May 1965, p.7.

(15) Curran, p.323.

(16) Ibid.

(17) ANZAC HQ Ab344 of 1 Sep 1915 (recommendation for Shout, Hamilton, Keysor, Symons, Tubb, Burton and Dunstan) and ANZAC HQ Ab3648 of 7 Sep 1915 (recommendation for Throssell).

(18) HQ 1st Australian Division 148/17 of 28 May 1915 (letter to GOC ANZAC).

(19) Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 7, pp. 390-391.

(20) Curran, p.369.

(21) Wigmore, Lionel and Harding, Bruce, 1986 They dared mightily (Second Edition, revised and condensed by Jeff Williams and Anthony Staunton), Australian War Memorial, Canberra, pp. 75-76.

(22) DI(G) PERS 31-3 'Australian Gallantry and Distinguished Service Decorations', paragraph 22.

(23) Curran, p. 369.

(24) The London Gazette, No. 27986, 15 January 1907, p.325.

(25) Curran, p.368.

(26) Butler, Colonel A.G., DSO, VD, BA, MB, ChB (Camb), 1943 The Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918 Volume III, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, pp. 1045-1047.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Royal Warrant.--Qualification required for the Decoration of the Victoria Cross, issued 23 April 1881.

(29) see Cochrane, Peter, 1992 Simpson and the donkey the making of a legend, Melbourne University Press, Burwood, Victoria.
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Title Annotation:does John Simpson Kirkpatrick deserve a Victoria Cross?
Author:Wilson, Graham
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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