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Animals of the Great War, Part 5: Simpson and His Donkey

2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In addition to humans, the war involved millions of animals - from horses to pigeons to slugs! In this special year, Laura Brown, writes a series of articles remembering animal helpers, heroes and victims of the war. Laura now works for the Bat Conservation Trust.

Nobody is sure about the name of the donkey who became famous at Gallipoli in the spring of 1915. Some sources give it as Murphy, some as Abdul and some as Duffy. Not a great deal is known about Private John Simpson either, except that he had come to Australia from England and changed his name from John Simpson Kirkpatrick. But the work these two performed has become one of the great legends of Australian history.

Simpson was working as a stretcher-bearer for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) when, the story goes, he found an abandoned donkey on the beach. He realised that he could transport wounded soldiers faster on a donkey’s back than on a shoulder-borne stretcher, and he pressed the animal into service.

Simpson already knew how to handle donkeys, having worked with them during childhood holidays. Over the next three weeks, according to legend, he and his companion saved the lives of over 300 soldiers. They often risked their lives by venturing into no man’s land. Neither Simpson nor the donkey panicked under fire, and Simpson was even said to have whistled and sung while doing his work. But on 19 May, Simpson was killed by machine-gun fire. The fate of his donkey is not recorded.

In Australia, Simpson’s tale became one of the best known stories of the war. The man and his donkey were celebrated in songs, paintings, films and sculptures. The pair have appeared on coins, banknotes and stamps. To this day, Australian schoolchildren learn about the heroic stretcher-bearer and the donkey that helped him rescue hundreds of men. But it has recently been revealed that much of what they learn is false.

In 2012, in response to calls for Simpson to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the Australian federal government set up an inquiry into his deeds. The inquiry found that most of Simpson’s legend had been concocted by journalists and politicians as wartime propaganda.

Simpson did indeed serve as a stretcher-bearer -- along with hundreds of others at Gallipoli. He did indeed have a donkey -- one of thousands of donkeys and mules who served in the war. And he did indeed help many wounded soldiers. But the truth of the legend ends there. As far as researchers could tell, Simpson had rescued only about 150 soldiers, not an incredible 300. He had never ventured into no man’s land (and was not required to). In common with other stretcher-bearers, he mainly picked up soldiers with relatively minor injuries whose lives were not in immediate danger. The head of the inquiry, Graham Wilson, said: ''I am not for a moment suggesting that Simpson was any less brave than his fellow stretcher bearers … [but] there is not a single shred of proof anywhere that Simpson was even a scrap braver than his fellow stretcher bearers.''

And, we might add, Simpson’s donkey was no more or less brave than his (or her) fellow donkeys. While donkeys and mules were not as widely used as horses during the war, they did have some advantages over their larger cousins. They were hardier -- according to one estimate, they got ill six times less often than horses did -- and less excitable under fire. They would also eat coarse plants and shrubs that horses could not stomach, making them useful in inhospitable terrain. Teams of mules were used instead of trucks whenever possible, since they required less maintenance and fuel!

Today, donkeys and mules are still used as beasts of burden in many parts of the world. Like Simpson’s donkey, they serve humans faithfully without their names ever being known.

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