Simpson and his donkey: the radical truth


Anzac Day has long been less about remembrance of the people slaughtered in wars for Australia’s capitalist class and their foreign friends and more about creating a culture of blind nationalism and militarism. Particularly since the beginning of the “war on terror” in 2001, the deification of the digger, militarism and nationalism have been ramped up by the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments.

The Australian military employs public relations companies and brand managers, just like fast-food companies, and is given free access to schools to sell children its dodgy “product”, which is based on lies and distortions of history. It presents a two-dimensional caricature of what capitalist politicians and their corporate masters think all workers should be: submissive flag-wavers who always put the interests of the Australian ruling class above their own. An outstanding example of this is the story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, which was turned into the nationalist icon “Simpson and his donkey”.

In 2005, the then education minister, Brendan Nelson, praised Kirkpatrick’s self-sacrifice and mateship, saying, “He represents everything at the heart of what it means to be Australian”. Nelson said his example should be taught in schools, particularly those with large numbers of Muslim immigrant children.

In his racist fervour, Nelson, like many others, ignored the real Kirkpatrick. John Kirkpatrick was from northern England, born to Scottish parents, and never identified as Australian. He deserted from the British merchant navy and was a radical trade unionist who wrote letters home about the need for revolution in England. He was in the Australian Imperial Forces that landed at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, where he began taking injured soldiers on donkeys to the beach for evacuation. When Kirkpatrick was fatally wounded on May 19, 1915, the legend departed from the truth.

Militant worker

Kirkpatrick was from the village of South Shields, at the mouth of the River Tyne. Seafaring, ship building and coal mining were its main industries. In 1904, when Kirkpatrick was 12, his father was badly injured at sea; he lay bedridden at home until his death in 1909. During this time Kirkpatrick drove a milk cart to help support the family.

Two days after his father’s funeral, Kirkpatrick left to become a seafarer on the SS Heighington, bound for the Mediterranean and North Africa. Upon his return, Kirkpatrick got a job as a stoker on the SS Yeddo, bound for South America and Australia. Conditions aboard were so bad that when the Yeddo arrived at Newcastle, NSW, Kirkpatrick and 13 other crewmen jumped ship – a serious offence in the merchant navy. He spent the next four years as an itinerant worker and ship’s stoker.

He was not the loyal servant of god, king and country the official histories portray. The real Kirkpatrick was a militant, class-conscious worker forged in the horrendous conditions of Edwardian England and Australia and influenced by the growing international workers movement. In 1912 Kirkpatrick wrote to his mother about workers’ struggles in the “old country”:

“I see that the railway men who get 24 bob a week have got a rise of 3½ percent. I suppose that they must have caught the owners when they were drunk and [in] a generous state of mind to have got such a hell of a rise. I suppose the railwaymen will be going about like Lords now that they have got a shilling a week rise but I suppose the Lords and Dukes will take it off them next year again as the expenses will be too big for them to keep up ... I often wonder when the working men of England will wake up and see things as other people see them. What they want in England is a good revolution and that will clear some of these Millionaires and Lords and Dukes out of it and then with a Labour Government they will almost be able to make their own conditions.” (At the time, the British Labour Party was only 12 years old and still the focus of the hopes and activity of many socialists and militant unionists.)


Kirkpatrick has also been associated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), formed in 1905 at a convention of 200 socialists, anarchists and radical trade unionists from all over the United States. They advocated one big industrial union rather than separate trade unions, rank and file organising (as opposed to empowering leaders who would bargain on behalf of workers) and direct action (including strikes and sabotage) against the capitalist class.

In 2007, Sydney Indymedia carried an interview with Alf Rankin, whose grandfather had known Kirkpatrick in Australia.They were seafaring people”, Rankin said. “So was my grandfather. They were seafaring people when they came out here too. Ships carpenters and various other jobs. They knew Kirkpatrick and he was always visiting their place. They believed in the same things. There was a lot of support at that time for ... the IWW. They were part of that. Seafarers used to carry the message to ports across the world.”

The IWW were strong opponents of the First World War, and Kirkpatrick shared this view. In 1914 Kirkpatrick had had enough of Australia and was saving up to return to England. “Well Mother”, he wrote on March 1, 1914, “I had a row with the chief of the Tarcoola and I finished up I was out of work for three weeks before I joined this one”, the Yankalilla. “It is four years since I left home. I am beginning to get tired of this country. I think it would be just as well sailing out of home for the money is getting bigger at home ...”

With the outbreak of war, Kirkpatrick saw a chance to get free passage back to England. In August, when the Yankalilla pulled into Fremantle, he jumped ship and enlisted in the army as a stretcher bearer, knowing that troops were receiving final training in England before being deployed in Europe. Rankin explained: “Kirkpatrick hated guns, didn’t want anything to do with them. He thought he would join up here and get a trip back to the UK and disappear as Simpson and start living as Kirkpatrick again. But the ship never got that far, it stopped in a place called Gallipoli.”


The British plan to invade Turkey to break the deadlock of European trench warfare diverted the Australian and New Zealand troops bound for England to the Gallipoli peninsula. Upon landing at Anzac Cove, Kirkpatrick left his unit, refusing to be part of a four-man stretcher team, and began ferrying slightly wounded soldiers (severely wounded had to be stretchered) from first aid stations to the beach for evacuation.

When a long-running campaign to award Kirkpatrick the Victoria Cross reignited in 2006, heritage consultant Graham Wilson wrote in a scathing commentary: “ ... Simpson (Kirkpatrick) absented himself from his 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”. Another fact the nationalist legend-makers omit is that Kirkpatrick preferred the company of Indian soldiers to that of his fellow Anzacs, choosing to camp at night with the 6th Indian Mountain Battery.

Kirkpatrick was not a slouch in his self-allotted task, and in the madness and slaughter he became a well-known figure. Around the time Kirkpatrick was killed, the reality of the war was filtering back to Australia, and enlistment in the army dropped dramatically. Propagandists latched onto the story of the man with the donkey, knowing absolutely nothing of Kirkpatrick, and invented the story of the devil-may-care, self-sacrificing, loyal subject of the Empire in an attempt to increase enlistment.

The invented “Simpson” was further fleshed out by Reverend Sir Irving Benson in his 1965 book The Man with the Donkey. Kirkpatrick’s politics were excluded (despite Benson’s possession of Kirkpatrick’s letters) to fit Benson’s anti-Communist crusade and efforts to drum up support for the Australian military commitment in Vietnam. It is Benson’s rewriting of Kirkpatrick’s life that the Gillard government will include, along with many other lies and distortions, in its national history curriculum, which will be imposed on all Australian schoolchildren from next year.

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