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Donkey Boy's at work on the Herd Sand (circa. 1902).

John Simpson Kirkpatrick was born on the 6th July 1892 at Tyne Dock; a working class part of South Shields at the mouth of the River Tyne, England. His parents Robert Kirkpatrick (a Chief Mate) and Sarah Simpson had arrived at Tyne Dock from Scotland in the late 1880's. By 1900 four of his siblings had died from disease and his parents and  three surviving sisters, referred to him as Jack.  

He was educated at Barnes Road and Mortimer Road School’s and he also attended Sunday School at St. Mary’s (C of E), Tyne Dock.  All of his life he loved animals and during the school summer holidays he worked at the town’s fair on the donkey rides at Herd Sand.  

In 1905 his father Robert suffered a stroke which left him unable to work and Jack (aged 13) left school to work as a milkman on a horse and cart ‘milk float’. Times were hard and the family were now living at 14 Bertram Street, not far from Readhead’s Shipyard.  In October 1909 his father died and to provide for his mother and his younger sister, Jack (aged 17) went to  sea.  He  got  a  job  as  a  mess-man onboard the SS Heighington ‘taking coals’ to Genoa and returning home in December to spend Christmas with his family.  

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John Simpson Kirkpatrick, aged 21, Melbourne.

In February 1910 he joined the SS Yeddo, as a stoker, sailing for Australia. However, conditions onboard the Yeddo were so dreadful that on arrival in Newcastle, New South Wales, the 17 year old jumped ship along with half a dozen crew members.  After a number of poorly paid jobs on the mainland, Jack returned to sea for the next three years onboard the SS Kooringa, Tarcoola and the Yankalilla; sailing around the Australian coastline. He regularly wrote home to his mother and kid sister Annie, sending them money and expressing his admiration for the Australian way of life. However, by May of 1914 he was homesick and he informed his mother he was saving up for a trip back home to “Canny Auld Shields”.

In August 1914 the Yankalilla berthed at Fremantle, Western Australia and Jack was astounded to hear that Britain and Germany were at war. Undoubtedly, he saw this as a chance to get back home earlier than expected. Jack decided to join the Australian Army, thinking he would be sent to England to do his training and from there he could travel to South Shields to visit his family, before being posted to the Western Front.  Jack jumped ship and enlisted as Private John Simpson, a stretcher bearer in  the Australian Army Medical Corps.  However, after his section boarded the SS Medic bound for England, the entire convoy of Australian troops were diverted to Egypt because Turkey had joined the war on the German’s side and the British had a plan to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula, forcing the Turks out of the war.

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The Man with the Donkey at Gallipoli, May 1915.

On the 25th April 1915, the ANZAC’s (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were put ashore at Gallipoli and the Turkish forces on the plateau above inflicted heavy casualties on the landing troops, including Jack’s fellow stretcher bearers.  He took it upon himself to use an abandoned donkey to carry the wounded to the relative safety of the beach, where they were put into boats and evauated onto hospital ships. To feed his donkey he camped with an Indian artillery unit, who used mules to carry their guns and had ample supplies of 'animal fodder'. The Sikh medics of the Indian Medical Service, who witnessed his daily routine of transporting wounded men down Shrapnel Gully under sniper fire, gave him the name ”Bahadur”, which means the Bravest of the Brave.

On 19th May, Jack was making his way down Monash Valley with a casualty when he was fatally hit in the back by machine gun fire. He was only 22. Jack was buried at a place called Hell Spit, a clergyman officiated and the grave was marked with a simple wooden cross with only his name on it. After the armistice he was remembered with a headstone in the Beach Cemetery at Gallipoli. During his 23 days of donkey trips down to the beach at ANZAC Cove, he was said to have ferried hundreds of wounded soldiers to safety.  Jack was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross by his immediate Commanding Officer, Lt.-Colonel Alfred Sutton, but only received a ‘Mention in Despatches’ for his work during the first few days of the landing.
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A statue of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, 'The Man with the Donkey' in his home town of South Shields.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick is a national hero in Australia: his image has appeared on commemorative stamps, the official ANZAC medallion and five states have erected statues in honour of ‘The Man with the Donkey’. In his home town of South Shields he has been commemorated by means of a bronze satuette in the town's museum (1917), a 2.5m tall statue in Ocean Road (1988), a stage play entitled 'The Man and the Donkey' at the Customs House (2011) and a memorial plaque to commemorate the 100th aniversary of the brave men from South Tyneside who lost their lives during the Gallipoli Campaign (2015).

References:

The Man with the Donkey (Irving Benson).

Across the Bar - The Story of Simpson (Tom Curran)

John Simpson Kirkpatrick – The Untold Story of the Gallipoli Hero’s Early Life (Jim Mulholland)[1]

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