If there is one person who personifies the Anzac legend at Gallipoli, that person is probably John Simpson Kirkpatrick, aka Simpson and his donkey. I learnt at school - and children probably still do today - the story of Simpson and his donkey. The story embodies mateship, sacrifice, service, ingenuity, courage and perseverance. The story has probably grown and been embellished and enhanced over time and there have been efforts made to award him a VC - but those questions are for another time.
Simpson - he enlisted as John Simpson, perhaps because he jumped ship when he came to Australia - was born in the UK, as many Anzacs were, in 1892, and died at just 22 years old at Gallipoli in 1915.He was a non-combatant, a stretcher bearer for the Third Australian Field Ambulance, and perhaps that is in part where his appeal lies.
Ion Idriess, in The Desert Column (TDC), wrote briefly about him and he also is mentioned, I believe, in Lurking Death (I don't have a copy of this book as yet!). This is what Idriess wrote in TDC (pp.15-16):
. . . The infantry are quite cut up - not over their terrible losses, but because of one man, Simpson Kirkpatrick I think his name is. He was known everywhere as "Murph. and his Donk." At the Landing he commandeered a donkey and ever since has been coming and going from the distant firing-line to the beach with wounded men. He worked day and night, plodding along unscathed under fire till all thought he must be protected by supernatural means. His colonel long ago told him to carry on all on his own; to do whatever he liked and go wherever he liked. He has been a little army of mercy all on his own. Yesterday morning, I think it was, he went up the valley and stopped by the Water Guard where he generally had breakfast. It wasn't ready so he went on, calling, "Never mind, give me a good dinner when I come back."
He never came back. Coming along the valley holding two wounded men to the donkey he was shot through the heart. Both wounded men were wounded again.
The question is: is this original to idriess, or added later, and does it matter? This is part of the bigger debate about the truthfulness of Idriess and how far poetic licence goes (see, for example, in the sister site, www.idriess.com.au the articles on Beersheba and My Mate Dick; and the article in this forum on The Opium Smugglers - how factual?).
First, the date of Idriess's entry. The last date before Idriess's description of Simpson is May 22nd (p.13), and following this date Idriess talks about "a sapping job last night." But then on p.15 he says "Last night we were sapping again," preceded by dots indicating a space of time, so that takes us to May 23rd. Then the entry about Simpson is also preceded by dots - indicating some time has elapsed or some diary entries not included. The next actual date is May 25th (p.18), but in the entry before that he mentions the armistice, which we know was May 24th. So it seems most likely that when Idriess was writing "Yesterday morning, I think it was," about Simpson's death,he was writing on the 23rd about what took place on the 22nd.
But in this fact Idriess was wrong. Simpson was killed on the 19th May (some even suggest the 18th May), the very day it seems that Idriess came ashore (p.7). Does the date matter? Well, it would have been better to get the right date, but Idriess was after all enduring the chaotic first few days of warfare. He obviously got the story of Simpson from others (in fact his source is "the infantry!"). But by the time he got the story, he, or those telling it may have got the date muddled. In fact, Idriess adds an"I think it was," to indicate some unsureness about the date.
Second, did Idriess add this entry later? The suggestion is that this wasn't in Idriess's original diary notes and was added later when Idriess edited his notes, because the legend of Simpson had grown so large and couldn't be ignored. It is suggested that this would have made good economic sense for the selling of such a book - and Idriess was not adverse to getting endorsements from Wilson, Cameron and General Chauvel himself to advance the book. As Simpson was representative of the Anzacs at Gallipoli and their efforts and sacrifice, it may have seemed good to at least make reference to him. General Chauvel (Eley, Ion Idriess, p.125) suggested deleting some material. Idriess, or even A and R (though I have no evidence of this!) may have thought to add this material, which the public no doubt expected.
The only way to prove this is to examine the original diary (now in the War Memorial Library, Canberra - Publisher's Note, p.ix). This is what Dr Roger Lee, the Australian Army Historian, writing in the magazine paperback, Gallipoli 100: Lest We Forget, 2016, p.138, states about this entry, "The original hand-written diary on which it was based does not have any reference to the man [Simpson]". I would expect Dr Lee to have proved this first hand, but he doesn't explicitly state that. But he does refer to Graham Wilson's book, Dust Donkeys and Delusions, 2012, in which, it seems, Wilson also noted the absence in the original and perhaps Peter Cochrane, in Simpson and the donkey: the making of a legend, 1992, had come to a similar conclusion.
It should be noted, too, that Idriess, especially in the latter part of his entry about Simpson missing breakfast, his last words and the two wounded men, follows quite closely the wording or CEW Bean in his The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Vol II, 1921. Did Idriess follow Bean, or Bean follow Idriess, or both followed another tradition? It is uncertain, but if the absence of the Simpson entry in the original is conclusive, more likely the former.
So there is evidence for a later, pre-publication, addition of the Simpson material by Idriess (but I haven't read either Wilson or Cochrane to determine whether they explicitly state that they had seen the original sans Simpson). So, what does it mean? The published entry in TDC indicates it was, in any case, second hand material used by Idriess, that is, hearsay. There is no doubt that Idriess would have heard about Simpson, if not immediately after his death, as in TDC, then in 1916, perhaps, as the legend grew, or in the years subsequent. To omit any reference to Simpson would have seemed a grave and inexplicable omission, perhaps. So Idriess has given Simpson his due, as the public expected. Why he didn't get the date quite right is a mystery. Maybe there was some confusion about the actual date even after the war. Myself, I don't think it detracts from Idriess's work. Chauvel himself in his Foreword notes, on the one hand, the accuracy of Idriess in TDC, but also his use of "vivid description", which perhaps references some poetic licence, such as including the part about Simpson as if he heard it there and then at Gallipoli.
There are a couple more points to be made about Simpson. One is the manner of his death. The War Memorial (and Bean) suggest machine gun fire. Someone else?!, shrapnel. Idriess says, in TDC, a "shot through the heart. " In Lurking Death, apparently, Idriess states that Simpson was another victim of the infamous Turkish sniper, Abdul the Terrible.
Finally, we may acknowledge that there is a certain myth about the man, Simpson, but despite that and despite people like Idriess perhaps "cashing-in" on that myth if you like, nonetheless behind that myth was a brave man, who, in just three weeks, cast a legacy that lives on. The simple entry by Idriess, in fact, captures more of the essence of the man Simpson and less of the myth and, I think, helps give a positive legacy.