Australia in WWI: Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick

Posted on May 19th, 2015

Just over forty five years ago (eek!), as a pupil at Coronation Primary School in Lae, Papua New Guinea, my wonderful teacher (Mr Tindal) was teaching the class about the opening day of the Gallipoli campaign. This was in preparation of my class taking part in the annual ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Parade through the town. To which we would be parading behind the band and men of the Australian Returned Servicemen’s League – an association of ex-soldiers who found themselves working in the Territory.

For a whole variety of reasons which is not the purpose of this blog today, the first-day disaster that was 25th April 1915, set the scene for a further 8 months of hell, during which the Australian troops (they came to be known as ‘Diggers’) forged themselves not only an amazing reputation as soldiers of the Empire, but also set the seal upon the idea of Australia as an independent country rather than a Dominion still part of the British Empire.


Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick – The ‘man with a donkey’

Like a sponge, my youthful (and, I have to admit, somewhat romantic) approach to history, soaked up the very specific story of one Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, now better known as the legendary ‘man with a donkey’.


Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick - The man with a donkey

Like so many of the first Australian troops he was actually an Englishman who had left Britain as a boy with the merchant marine and then jumped ship in New South Wales. When he enlisted on 25th August 1914 in Perth, it is thought that he was more motivated by free passage back to UK rather than any patriotic wish to serve his country! Well, he must have been far from impressed when his troop ship was then re-directed en-route to Egypt!

By hook or by crook however, serving with the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance as a stretcher bearer, he landed on Gallipoli on that fateful early morning and was very soon all too busy collecting and carrying the wounded back to the beaches.

As there were not enough stretchers (and these were neither easy to carry over the sharp terrain), he very quickly took to using a donkey which he had found wandering about. By the time he himself was killed, aged 22, on 19 May 1915, his work had passed into legend.

Whatever the nefarious, propagandist purposes to which his story was put to work from the moment of his death (he even turns up in the Mel Gibson film ‘Gallipoli’), his story sowed a very particular seed in my mind: a determination that one day, I would visit the battlefield upon which Simpson had given his life saving the lives of countless others.

I achieved that ambition just over two years ago, by which time I had also managed to visit both the Shrine in Melbourne and the Australian War Museum in Canberra, at both of which locations there are copies of the same statue, cast in his memory.

But whilst I am very well aware that not too many of my readers will be able to visit these sites, there is instead another statue on the Western Front, where yet another Australian soldier carried out the same heroic work under equally appalling conditions.


Sergeant Simon Fraser

In an attempt to draw German troops away from the less than successful opening manoeuvres of the Battle of the Somme, the Australian 5th Division (under the command of British Officer, Lt General Sir Richard Haking), were thrown into an assault on a German stronghold to the north, outside the village of Fromelles.

Whilst some of these troops were seasoned men of Gallipoli, the majority were as yet ‘un-blooded’. It is also true that fighting the Germans on the Western Front was very different to fighting the Turks in the Dardanelles. And, as you will not be surprised to learn, they were not quite as thoroughly well-equipped or supported by artillery as they might have been.

Consequently, although the Battle of Fromelles lasted barely 24 hours over 19/20th July 1916, it became responsible for the greatest loss of Australian soldiers’ lives before or since – 5,533 casualties in total, representing as much as 90% of some battalions strengths.


Dont forget me, Cobber - Fromelles

Mirroring the work of John Simpson only a year earlier, Sergeant Simon Fraser of the 57th Battalion, spent three days after the battle crawling over No Man’s Land in his effort to bring in his wounded comrades. After the battle Fraser commented that he believed that he might have brought in almost 250 men. But because most had to be transported on his back, he was not able to save them all. Indeed those who were still conscious, called out to him, “Don’t forget me, Cobber”, to which this haunting phrase is now the title of a memorial statue that stands in the Australian Memorial Park outside Fromelles.

Like his fellow countryman, Simon Fraser was killed on 12th May 1917 and buried where he fell in trenches at Bullecourt. Unfortunately, when the Exhumation Companies combed the battlefields at the end of the war, his grave could no longer be found and Sgt Fraser is now inscribed in memory on the panels of the Villers Bretonneux Australian National Memorial.

Neither of these men received any medals for their bravery and I suspect that each, individually, might have observed that they were just doing their job; indeed that “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”. Which, by spooky co-incidence, was a worldwide hit for both The Hollies and Neil Diamond during late 1969 into 1970, providing a memorable musical backdrop to my first learning about the Anzac Diggers.



Debbie Coupland

About the Author

Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.


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